On What There Is (or Isn’t)

By Mark English

Trying to write something recently on the nature of logic, I got sidetracked by some ontological issues.

Given that logic is about what follows from what and ontology is about what there is, it may not be immediately obvious that the topics are interconnected. They are (to a point). But the two subjects are rather unequal because, whereas logic is a universally accepted (if widely disliked) discipline, not everyone agrees that ontology needs to exist as a discipline (or subdiscipline) at all.

Why not, someone might very well ask, just let (in certain contexts) ordinary observation and common sense or (in other contexts) the sciences answer questions about what exists? Well, you can – and I think you should. But you also need to look at the linguistic and logical side of things. Certain approaches to the logic of language may even help to deal effectively with some awkward questions – like those concerning the existence of numbers and other abstract objects.

There are also wider issues involved here. What things (or sorts of things) one believes to exist will be inextricably bound up with one’s fundamental outlook on the world. Religious (or anti-religious) convictions or intuitions often play a motivating role in this sort of debate, and I think it is useful to acknowledge this fact. Those who believe in some sort of spiritual or moral reality or spiritual being or beings will clearly be inclined to argue for a less restricted ontology than, say, physicalists would.

The forms change and religion is always a difficult concept to pin down, but various, currently popular strands of anti-naturalism and mysterianism do seem to bear strong similarities to certain kinds of religious conviction. And, though the same could be said of purely secular beliefs if they are strong enough (political convictions, say, or a commitment to materialism), clearly anti-naturalistic or anti-physicalistic views share more common ground with actual religions than views based on a physicalist approach.

As it happens, many of the leading analytic philosophers of the last half-century or so have been or are committed Christians or religious Jews; others also, though not necessarily associated with institutional religion or even with theism, seem to exhibit broadly religious, or at least mysterian, tendencies. I am thinking of the likes of Thomas Nagel and Colin McGinn here.

Thomas Hofweber (who wrote the entry on Logic and Ontology for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) seems to be in the latter camp. I don’t know whether he has any religious commitments but at the very least he would appear to be a mysterian in the style of Colin McGinn. In a short talk he gave at UNC-Chapel Hill (1) he developed the old, essentially evolutionary, argument (popularized by McGinn, amongst others) about the limitations of our brains entailing radical limitations on our understanding such that there may be (are?) areas of reality which we cannot conceive of even to the extent of understanding that we can’t understand them. You know the drill: dogs can’t understand – or even realize that they can’t understand – the sorts of things we learn in school and much else besides. And as dogs are to us, so we would be to more neurologically complex or more ‘highly evolved’ creatures.

Let me just say a few words about this well-worn line of argument. The main problem with it is that it underestimates the significance of the cultural and linguistic dimensions of human understanding. As I see it, having access to a general purpose natural language separates us in a quite dramatic way from non-linguistic animals, giving our brains tools which extend their power exponentially. So comparisons with bees or dogs or cats don’t really work.

Hofweber uses the word “ineffable” which is often associated with mystical visions. Even mystics, however, manage partially to describe their experiences. Though he uses an analogical argument to explain why we do not bump into evidence of ineffable things (by comparing our world to a closed algebraic structure), Hofweber doesn’t speak explicitly about the obvious power of similes and metaphors whereby advanced or strange or unfamiliar ideas can be introduced.

Much new science is created by hunches based on a different way of looking at a particular phenomenon, essentially the application of a new metaphor. As the science develops, the metaphor is no longer useful (except perhaps for educational purposes) and can be discarded. (Cf. Carnap’s views, touched on below.)

The thing is, language is remarkably flexible and, arguably at any rate, ineffability is never absolute. Even when similes and parables fail, there is always the via negativa.(2) Hofweber’s imagined superior beings would have the ability to learn our language (and our science) and so could explain to us, at least in general or metaphorical or negative terms, whatever it was that they knew and understood and we didn’t.

These sorts of questions are interesting, but I am wary of them. Certainly, I don’t see how one could ever get to a definitive conclusion on this particular topic, given our present state of knowledge.

Bold assumptions must be made in many areas of life, and I would say that this just happens to be one of them. You may take a fully-fledged religious view of the world, a quasi-religious or mysterian view, or a more empirically and scientifically-oriented view (or variations or combinations of the above).

But, broadly speaking, I would say that a naturalistic and empirical view of the world doesn’t leave a lot of space for disciplines based on armchair reflections – like theology, metaphysics and ontology. The logical positivists locked on to this idea almost a century ago and pursued and promoted it energetically.

Too energetically perhaps – there was an inevitable backlash. But I think they had some things basically right. Traditional metaphysics (by which I mean any metaphysics not closely tied to a particular science) may not be meaningless, but it is at the very least problematic.

The arguments which Rudolf Carnap (a prominent logical empiricist) articulated in the 1950s, distinguishing between ‘internal’ (to a particular framework) and ‘external’ questions, are quite compelling, I think. Carnap’s basic point was that ontological questions – like, ‘Do numbers exist?’ – are either trivial (within a framework which uses numbers) or problematic (‘external’ to such a framework).(3) This very pragmatic approach by which frameworks and extensions to frameworks are adopted according to their usefulness for general or more specific purposes involves the application of Carnap’s famous ‘principle of tolerance’.

“Let us,” Carnap wrote, “grant to those who work in any special field of investigation the freedom to use any form of expression which seems useful to them; the work in the field will sooner or later lead to the elimination of those forms which have no useful function. Let us be cautious in making assertions and critical in examining them, but tolerant in permitting linguistic forms.” (4) His approach combines an appreciation of the power and flexibility of language with an understanding of the dynamic, pragmatic – and ultimately provisional – nature of linguistic forms.

Carnap was, of course, drawing on a long tradition of thought, going back at least to the nominalists of the 14th century. And a number of 19th-century thinkers had already articulated in a modern and secular context the idea that language generates its own ontology.

For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche (whose academic training was in philology) observed that every natural language comes with an implicit metaphysics built into its grammar. It was this basic idea (and variations thereof) which lay behind the attempts of many early-to-mid 20th-century thinkers – including Carnap and his associates – to demystify and deflate theological and metaphysical modes of thinking and articulate a more empirically-based and ontologically constrained view of the world.

Alternative approaches are possible, of course. But this particular tradition at least has the virtue – unlike some competing paradigms – of being responsive to empirical realities and attuned to the complex and subtle ramifications of the interplay between language and thought.


 

NOTES

  1. https://youtu.be/pAWsMxpbQcU
  2. The via negativa can be understood in different ways. Hofweber’s use of the word ‘ineffable’ makes me suspect that he is consciously embracing it, but embracing it in a particular form (whereby a negative understanding is interpreted as not being an understanding at all).
  3. Carnap also used the words ‘futile’ and ‘useless’ to refer to attempts to answer general ontological questions.
  4. From ‘Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology’, first published in 1950 and reprinted in the Supplement to Meaning and Necessity: A Study in Semantics and Modal Logic, enlarged edition (University of Chicago Press, 1956).

Categories: Essay

30 Comments »

  1. Nice essay, Mark, though I will have some remarks soon. Just wanted to say, Thomas Hofweber and I were in graduate school together at the CUNY Graduate Center. One of the sweetest guys in the world and a very good philosopher.

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  2. Of course you have to be careful calling Carnap’s view Naturalistic. He quite explicitly states that he does not accept the reality of the physical world, that is, to him, just as much metaphysics as Theology.

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  3. Mark,

    I quite liked the first half of this article, but it lost me when it took its turn towards encomium for Carnap.

    Please don’t take this as criticism of the essay; let me explain that my response to Carnap is similar to that of some Analytics to Heidegger. These sometimes remark that Heidegger’ text reads as though saying something deep and meaningful, when he’s only saying something trivial (if not inane). I feel much the same about Carnap – he writes as though he’s revealing something profound about language, when in fact he’s just teasing at minor details with limited interest in certain specialized fields.

    One of the issues here is whether philosophy should *only* concern itself with the language of the sciences. It is one thing to dismiss (admittedly frequently esoteric) “disciplines based on armchair reflections – like theology, metaphysics and ontology.” It is another thing to insist that philosophers should turn away entirely from the common interests shared by most people in a given society – politics and social responsibility, cultural traditions, our arts and higher aspirations, how we define ourselves either collectively or individually. It can be argued that people don’t *need* philosophers in order to pursue questions concerning these interests; but it would be a niggardly arrogance to deny people who think that philosophy can help them in such pursuits.

    Until it devolved (perhaps dissolved) into mushy post-modernism, the Phenomenological tradition tended *not* to be suspicious of the natural or ‘hard’ sciences. (On the contrary, for instance, in his lectures in the ’20s, Heidegger speaks admiringly of the advances being made in physics at the time.) Rather, the early Phenomenologists tended to leave the sciences alone to develop their own specialized languages. They were more concerned with developing frameworks of understanding through which a deeper understanding of common human experience could be developed, and thus were always more interested in the social sciences and the humanities.

    In their own way, the logical positivists still wanted philosophy to continue to be the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ in an era when science could no longer use any royalty. No wonder that recurrently we find inheritors of that tradition, discovering how little interest scientists have in what they do, wonder whether there should be any philosophy at all.

    Finally, I reject the notion that the logical positivists were any kind of empiricists – for them, knowledge could not be knowledge until it could be expressed in a rigorously clarified language – this implies a reality reducible to discrete units of information. That’s clearly a neo-Platonic idealism (the clearest instance of this to be found in Russell’s ‘Logical Atomism’ ). Does that mean the logical positivist project was somehow incongruent with the empirical sciences? Not necessarily; but it does suggest that the project was fundamentally more a construction of a metaphysics than its purveyors could admit.

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  4. Hi Mark,

    An understated and provocative article:

    “I would say that a naturalistic and empirical view of the world doesn’t leave a lot of space for disciplines based on armchair reflections – like theology, metaphysics and ontology.”

    The ‘revolution’ in science and technology has presented the armchair disciplines with an existential choice: deal with the fundamental implications and venture beyond the armchair; or find a way to discredit the philosophical import of the scientific findings, thus allowing one to ignore them. The first option is extremely difficult, making the second one quite attractive.

    Ontology may have already left the armchair. This might explain why it gets scant attention in some philosophical quarters. There is currently much activity searching for a complete ontology in the areas of information science, artificial intelligence and mind simulation. All systems consist of relations between structures. Knowing all that is in a system would be a critical factor in fully understanding how it works.

    Of course, armchair reflection will always continue to be important, just not in isolation from what is happening in the ‘real’ world.

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  5. Liam Ubert,

    ” It is another thing to insist that philosophers should turn away entirely from the common interests shared by most people in a given society – politics and social responsibility, cultural traditions, our arts and higher aspirations, how we define ourselves either collectively or individually. It can be argued that people don’t *need* philosophers in order to pursue questions concerning these interests; but it would be a niggardly arrogance to deny people who think that philosophy can help them in such pursuits.”

    Science is not, and can never be, the answer to all our questions, I’m sorry.

    Mark,

    BTW the final remark in my previous comment was a bit too strong, too assertoric. (I hope it is understood I meant ‘new Platonism,’ and not the school of Plotinus!) But I have pretty strong feelings in this matter…

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  6. ejwinner

    “[Carnap] writes as though he’s revealing something profound about language, when in fact he’s just teasing at minor details with limited interest in certain specialized fields.”

    I think you are being a bit unfair to Carnap here. He doesn’t come across to me as pompous or self-important at all. On the other hand, I am not meaning to give some kind of blanket endorsement to his ideas. I cited one particular notion of his which I find useful; but, apart from that, my focus is on a broader, largely anti-metaphysical tradition of thought which embraces and draws insights from modern science as well as linguistics and logic which a very diverse range of thinkers (including Carnap) participated in.

    And didn’t he and his associates see philosophy as ancilla scientiae? – as handmaid, not queen.* I think what you say about philosophy as queen of the sciences (again suggesting something like arrogance on the part of Carnap and friends) is misleading. Carnap envisaged young people trained in physics as well as logic, etc. moving things forward: this does not appear to me to be an arrogant view.

    “One of the issues here is whether philosophy should *only* concern itself with the language of the sciences.”

    This is a broader question which I did not directly address (except to question traditional metaphysics). Certainly thinkers like Carnap and Quine had the focus you describe.

    “… It is another thing to insist that philosophers should turn away entirely from the common interests shared by most people in a given society – politics and social responsibility, cultural traditions, our arts and higher aspirations, how we define ourselves either collectively or individually. It can be argued that people don’t *need* philosophers in order to pursue questions concerning these interests; but it would be a niggardly arrogance to deny people who think that philosophy can help them in such pursuits.”

    Isn’t the problem here that people use the term ‘philosophy’ in quite different ways to refer to quite different kinds of activity? I’m all for intellectual and robust debate about the kinds of things you mention, and I’m not too fussed about how it’s labelled. Well it does matter, actually…

    Academic philosophy is in the midst of an identity crisis. We could talk about it here but, strangely enough, nobody with philosophical training (apart from you and DK and Robin) seems to want to engage. I suggested in a comment a couple of weeks ago that administrative changes seem often to be putting philosophy in with religious studies (which makes sense insofar as philosophy has traditionally been closely aligned with theology). But such a trend (if it is a trend) would tend to push those interested primarily in the philosophy of science or mathematics towards departments dedicated to the sciences (or logic/mathematics or the history and philosophy of science).

    We are in the midst of significant changes and I for one am interested in trying to discern how they will unfold.

    On the issue of phenomenology, I have some interest in it but was very disappointed with Husserl. Heidegger interests me more, though I remain wary of him.

    * As I understand it, theology was traditionally seen as the queen of the sciences, and philosophy as the handmaid of theology.

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  7. Robin.

    “[Carnap] quite explicitly states that he does not accept the reality of the physical world, that is, to him, just as much metaphysics as Theology.”

    Well the piece is not about Carnap so much as about a tradition of thought which Carnap represented and which I think can plausibly be called naturalistic.

    I think you need to distinguish between mundane, commonsense questions and scientific ones (as Carnap did). So the question of the reality of the physical world is really two questions. In ordinary contexts, of course, we all accept its reality. But Carnap was largely focussed on science and the logic of science, and he was – quite rightly – sensitive to the the important ontological problems which quantum theory, for example, raises about the nature of physical reality (i.e. the reality or realities with which the physical sciences concern themselves).

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  8. Hi EJ,

    The Logical Positivists were radical empiricists, in its original sense. Today empiricism is used as a synonym for Materialism, but it actually means using the senses as the source of information. The LP’s used Mach’s dictum that the thing in itself is a spurious concept and that it made no sense to talk about the source of our sensations, as their starting point.

    Carnap suggested both logical positivism and logical empiricism as describing the position of the Vienna Circle.

    Ayers went so far as to identify Berkeley as a fellow traveller.

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  9. Mark, DanK, Robin,

    Well, I basically made clear that I was writing from a particular perspective. Indeed, this article reminded me how volatile my feelings concerning Carnap and the LP tradition really are, although I only have a rough memory now of the experiential origins of these feelings. On the technical issues of my complaint I’m willing to be corrected. I’m still of a mind that philosophy went down increasingly narrow paths (and not only in America!) that have left it (however defined) in its current crisis of identity. I think all the streams originating in the 18th/19th centuries would be now healthier, had they been in better communications with each other – and I think they could be more integrated with their surrounding communities as a result.

    As to my emotional responses here – well, please chalk that off as a problem I have to deal with.

    BTW, Mark, I have no problems with the basic thesis of your article.

    Liam Ubert,

    I didn’t mean to sound dismissive, by just pasting an earlier remark of mine in reply to your comment. I just didn’t want this to become another debate over whether we should have philosophy at all, given the amount of knowledge acquired through the sciences. People have all sorts of reasons for wanting to engage philosophy – some misguided, but some understandable. And I don’t think anybody here would be interested in airy ‘philosophies’ divorced from some reality knowable through the sciences.

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  10. * As I understand it, theology was traditionally seen as the queen of the sciences, and philosophy as the handmaid of theology.

    And mathematics has been described as queen and handmaiden of science.

    Speaking of armchairs, Stephen Hawking does alright, doesn’t he? Mathematicians normally need paper or blackboards like musicians need instruments; I think this makes Hawking rather like Beethoven.

    Other sciences are prone to physics envy; philosophy is prone to math envy. In epistemology (and perhaps social epistemology esp.; though I’m not certain of that) at least, it has become very fashionable to write papers with lots of equations, and even to do computer simulations.

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  11. Hal Morris

    “… Daniel Dennett, may be the first great philosopher-psychologist since William James …”

    Interesting that you compare Dennett to William James. Both wrote serious work for a general audience, and both were interested in philosophical questions relating to how we think and behave. A crucial difference, however, is that in James’s time psychology had yet to fully establish itself as a separate discipline so all psychologists were, in a sense, philosopher-psychologists. Dennett, by contrast, is one of a kind.

    He has played an important role in popularizing philosophy and also in trying to bring it back into closer contact with science, but his academic itinerary has been very unusual. (He was, for example, informally tutored over the years by a string of leading scientific researchers.)

    As Robin Herbert has pointed out, he is not really a scientist or academic psychologist in the modern sense. And, significantly, he is not in the philosophical mainstream either, partly because of his broad and eclectic scientific orientation, but also on account of his tendency to create his own vocabularies and frameworks for addressing philosophical questions.

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  12. I suppose he overrates himself by writing a book titled “Consciousness Explained”, and if others think he’s done it, they’re overrating him also, but in my judgement, FWIW, in forums broadly like this, I think he has roughly (and this can only be very roughly) the number of detractors he deserves.

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  13. Mark,

    I would venture a scientistic guess (a bit of a contradiction) as to why human beings have such radically divergent, apparently irreconcilable opinions about everything.

    The bases for the guess are as follows:
    a) we synthesize our ‘ineffable’ experience of consciousness from meager data inputs, meager when compared to the totality of physical information. ‘Reality’ is greatly over-detemined, composed mostly from ‘fictions’ created by us.
    b) Diversity, it now turns out, is a basic biological driving force. Our genetic, epigenetic biological and social systems promote fundamental differences amongst humans, and
    c) individuals are completely unequipped to sample our cultural milieu directly. We learn mostly by processing abstractions and reports from others, i.e. it is mostly a social process. As we get older we also acquire a valuable fund of direct personal experience.

    The ideal of an independent rational agent is unfortunately a never attained ideal. Everyone appears irrational in some way in the eyes of the other because each of us has an unique operating system*. Each therefore has a different hierarchy of meaning, values and emotions, all largely unquestioned. This leads us to proceed from different and unique axiomatic bases. Radically different formulations regarding reality are inevitable depending on the implicit assumptions and perspectives of the thinker. Each of us has a different ‘ontology’ – we are put together differently, sometimes of radically different things.

    *There will therefore always be an element of mystery, room for speculation and wonder. Could this be the ultimate field of philosophy?

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  14. Mark,
    well done, your essay touches on important matters. But, inevitably, I disagree on some matters. You seem to be arguing against anosognosia, saying that our mind, via the power of language, is extensible enough to comprehend all future concepts. Certainly I think our language is but can our minds always grasp what is presented by language? I will argue that it cannot, by way of examples.

    1. I have a mentally handicapped sister. She speaks normally and understands well ordinary conversation. But she cannot write an essay or even a letter to friends. She is a happy, pleasant person but displays considerable cunning when pursuing her needs. She can follow simple stories and even movies though often misses important parts of the plots. But here’s the thing. She will never, ever understand this essay, even with the most intensive coaching. Nor will any metaphor ever convey the essence of what you are saying. She is largely unaware of her limitations. She suffers from anosognosia. She is profoundly unaware of what she does not understand. I am glad, because at least she is happy. It is we, the family who have the agony and despair.

    2. I am routinely confronted by instances of where some issue is plain to me and where others simply do not ‘get’ it. OK, you can turn this around and say, Labnut, that is an insufferable conceit. Have you not considered the possibility that they are right and you get it all wrong? But that makes no difference because you will thereby be admitting my point, instead it is I who is anosognosic and not the others.

    My two examples illustrate that, despite the great power of language, there are matters that some people will never comprehend(and here I include myself). If that is true, we can argue by extension that it must be possible there are matters that even our brightest minds cannot comprehend. If you don’t want to admit that possibility you will need to postulate a very special ability denied to the rest of us.

    This is a disturbing possibility because humankind’s great intellectual enterprise is based on two foundational assumptions:
    1. all matters are discoverable;
    2. all matters are comprehensible.

    But is this true? It is a convenient and strongly motivating assumption that we need in order to continue our intellectual enterprise. But it is still an assumption. This assumption has gained its power from the considerable success of our intellect.

    If it is not true then sooner or later we will meet some boundaries. The existence of these boundaries will result in a science that looks a little bit weird and inconsistent. And as we try to navigate around these boundaries we will create more complexity instead of less complexity.

    Some people will say that this is exactly the picture that science gives us today.

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  15. I liked the essay Mark,

    I fall on the side of trying to avoid overly strong ontological or metaphysical commitments. I like this passage from Zhuangzi:

    “Joy and anger, sorrow and happiness, plans and regrets, transformations and stagnations, unguarded abandonment and deliberate posturing—music flowing out of hollows, mushrooms of billowing steam! Day and night they alternate before us, but no one knows whence they sprout. That is enough! That is enough! Is it from all of this, presented ceaselessly day and night, that we come to exist? Without that there would be no me, to be sure, but then again without me there would be nothing selected out from it all. This is certainly something close to hand, and yet we do not know what makes it so. If there is some controller behind it all, it is peculiarly devoid of any manifest sign. Its ability to flow and to stop makes its presence plausible, but even then it shows no definite form. That would make it a reality with no definite form. The hundred bones, the nine openings, the six internal organs are all present here as my body. Which one is most dear to me? Do you delight in all equally, or do you have some favorite among them? Or are they all mere servants and concubines?

    Are these servants and concubines unable to govern each other? Or do they take turns as master and servant? If there exists a genuine ruler among them, then whether we could find out the facts about him or not would neither add to nor subtract from that genuineness.”

    Zhuangzi; Ziporyn, Brook (2009-03-15). Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (pp. 10-11). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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  16. Seth Leon: ‘Reality’ is greatly over-detemined

    Well, overdetermined perhaps in that the vast preponderance of possible inputs are ignored, and underdetermined in that we make a lot more out of what we do take in than is strictly warranted.

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  17. Liam

    I can’t deal adequately with your suggestions in a single comment, but here are few thoughts.

    You wrote:

    “The ideal of an independent rational agent is unfortunately a never attained ideal. Everyone appears irrational in some way in the eyes of the other because each of us has an unique operating system… There will therefore always be an element of mystery, room for speculation and wonder. Could this be the ultimate field of philosophy?”

    I would want to distinguish (as Nietzsche did, I think*) between the interpretive side of things and scientific knowledge.

    I also have some doubts here about your suggestions for a basis for philosophy. Talking about the nature and limits of science is certainly philosophical but mystery and speculation are very broad notions which apply in a whole range of contexts (including scientific ones).**

    In a similar way, I tend to see wonder or awe as an attitude which occurs in multiple contexts and I wouldn’t want to tie it specifically to philosophy (though historically there are associations).

    “… Each therefore has a different hierarchy of meaning, values and emotions, all largely unquestioned. This leads us to proceed from different and unique axiomatic bases. Radically different formulations regarding reality are inevitable depending on the implicit assumptions and perspectives of the thinker. Each of us has a different ‘ontology’…”

    To the extent that communication – and specifically linguistic communication – works, it entails (I would say) a shared ontology of sorts. But, as you say, values and emotions and implicit assumptions vary dramatically between individuals, as do understandings of the denotations and connotations of specific words. And so, yes, in this sense each of us does have a unique ontology.

    Something I’ve only slowly come to appreciate is just how often linguistic communication fails in the sense that what we in fact communicate is not what we think we are communicating.

    * He comes to mind because your approach looks like a form of perspectivism.

    ** Are you perhaps seeing philosophy as (in part) proto- or early-stage science? This is plausible insofar as much past philosophy was proto-science.

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  18. Labnut

    Thanks for the compliment and for the challenge to my argument against Hofweber.

    Your harrowing personal example certainly does seem germane. It made me think also of normally-intelligent people who have blindspots or areas (like mathematics, say) where they just can’t cope intellectually.

    In respect of your sister I wonder whether her linguistic capacities are in fact fully developed. Perhaps her brain cannot cope with all aspects of ordinary language (abstract nouns, for example, or certain standard but relatively complex syntactic structures?).

    As I see it, on the one hand you have the raw potential and limitations of a biological organ and, on the other, the scope and limitations of a language or similar (e.g. a mathematical framework). Not only do you need to take both into account, you also have to understand how they interact, how the latter is an extension and enhancement of the former.

    I don’t think you can see something as being knowable (or unknowable) without a framework of knowing which will (in sophisticated creatures) include a language of some kind. This raises questions about advanced languages. There may well be advanced general-purpose languages which human brains cannot learn or use or even envisage. But couldn’t they potentially be described to some extent in the languages we know?

    I’ll think on this some more. I did say in the essay that I doubted that definitive answers are possible.

    It may be that all I want to insist on in the end is that anything we could ask a question about could potentially be answered (in some way).

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  19. Seth Leon

    Thanks. I know very little about Chinese philosophy, but I am certainly impressed by and respectful of certain (skeptical) strands of thought such as the one represented by the book you quote from.

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  20. Mark:

    Okay, a few things, finally. I apologize for the delay, but I have been traveling, in NY, helping out my mother, while my father is away on business.

    1. Quine, who, of course is the most famous — and probably most important — ontologist in the last century, had no physicalistic presuppositions when approaching the question of ontological commitment. To be is to be quantified over in a true theory, and if what a theory needs in order for its sentences to “work” is abstract objects, then there are abstract objects. In that sense, he was o programmatic naturalist.

    2. I don’t know if I like the characterization of Carnap’s view that legitimate ontological talk is “trivial.” Asides from important details with which Quine disagreed, Carnap’s view of “internal ontological questions” is not much different from Quine’s.

    3. It seems to me that it is important for us to clearly separate ontological from more broadly metaphysical questions. I prefer to keep ontological questions quite narrow and within the Quinean framework. How we *characterize* what there is, however, is a broader question, with many possible avenues of answer.

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  21. Dan

    “I don’t know if I like the characterization of Carnap’s view that legitimate ontological talk is “trivial.” ”

    Carnap himself uses the word ‘trivial’ in the way I am using it in my presentation of his views. For example, he writes in the paper I cited:

    “A question like: “Are there (really) space-time points?” is ambiguous. It may be meant as an internal question; then the affirmative answer is, of course, analytic and trivial…”

    Hofweber uses even stronger language in characterizing Carnap’s view in his SEP article in Logic and Ontology ([internal ontological questions are] “completely trivial”). Carnap uses “rather trivial” or (as in the quote above) just “trivial”.

    All of your points relate to Quine in some way. But I was specifically focussing on Carnap, not Quine.

    I am not altogether clear at the moment about the extent of their differences or of the precise implications for the matter at hand of Quine’s rejection of the analytic/synthetic distinction, for example. Carnap refers to his (minimal) disagreements with Quine in a footnote to the article. I will try to follow up on this and on the physicalism and naturalism questions you raise.

    I can see that you (and Hofweber also) want to defend a substantive role for ontology and metaphysics. And most philosophers are probably on your side. But I am putting a different view, and noting that some philosophers would be on my side. Hofweber agrees that Carnap saw ontology, understood as “the study of what there is”, as being misguided.

    This is how he characterizes the Carnapian view:

    “Ontology, the philosophical discipline that tries to answer hard questions about what there really is is based on a mistake. The questions it tries to answer are meaningless questions, and this enterprise should be abandoned. The words ‘Are there numbers?’ thus can be used in two ways: as an internal question, in which case the answer is trivially ‘yes’, but this has nothing to do with metaphysics or ontology, or as an external question, which is the one the philosophers are trying to ask, but which is meaningless.”

    I am inclined to agree with this general position though I shy away from the word ‘meaningless’. I prefer Carnap’s ‘pseudo-question’ or, better, just to say (as Carnap also did) that such questions are problematic.

    I know this is not a cut-and-dried issue and, as I say, I intend to follow up on Quine’s views, for example.

    (And Wittgenstein’s.)

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  22. Mark,

    I appreciate your observations! I agree with the fundamental validity of ‘perspectivism’: each human has aspects that are utterly unique. This seems obvious who one follows all the physical, biological and cultural data (‘information’) that determines each and every organism. However, this is only part of the story.

    I also partially agree with Daniel Kolak when he says “I am you”. There are certain aspects that are common to practically all humans, the unfortunate exceptions being those with obvious defects.

    Perhaps I am prejudiced in favor of ‘scientific realism’, but there definitely is validity to the claims of the ‘idealists’. It seems that one can or should be maximally eclectic. Pragmatism makes a lot of sense. There are even good reason for an ethical or theological stance. When one attempts to follow all the data there always seems to come a point where uncertainty opens the door to multiple universes.

    The one implication of perspectivism, or postmodernism, or posthumanism is that there never has been anyone in history that has had it ‘all together’. All supposedly all-inclusive transcendental visions have been nothing other than perspectives, i.e. incomplete. Fundamentalists of all stripes, take note.

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  23. Whatever the language Carnap uses, I think he is incorrect *if* he really means to say that ontological commitments are trivial. To commit to an ontology is to commit to a theory — often scientific — and this hardly is trivial. To say that there are neutrinos or quarks is not trivial.

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  24. Dan

    “Whatever the language Carnap uses, I think he is incorrect *if* he really means to say that ontological commitments are trivial. To commit to an ontology is to commit to a theory — often scientific — and this hardly is trivial.”

    I agree, though I would prefer to put it the other way around: To commit to a theory is to commit to an ontology.

    And I think that what Carnap was trying to express by using the word ‘trivial’ in the way he did is similar to what I am trying to express here by putting the word ‘is’ in italics.

    “To say that there are neutrinos or quarks is not trivial.”

    Of course not. But given modern particle physics you already have them! So any further claim is kind of redundant (I won’t say ‘trivial’!) if it is ‘internal’ to the framework, and problematic if it purports to be somehow ‘external’.

    I guess I tend to see Carnap as working within a broad (philosophical or meta) framework which you could characterize in more or less Kantian terms: there are our perspectives (and their associated frameworks) on the one hand; and then there is that problematic notion of things in themselves which keeps coming up in various guises but which we need to be very wary of.

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