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.
- 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).
- Carnap also used the words ‘futile’ and ‘useless’ to refer to attempts to answer general ontological questions.
- 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).