With Regard to What Exists — Five Questions

By Mark English

Earlier this year, Gene Weingarten wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which he suggested that maybe words like ‘epistemological’ and ‘ontological’ are the literary equivalent of monosodium glutamate, in that their role is more to enhance the intellectual flavor of a piece of writing than to contribute any substantive or specific semantic content in and of themselves. [1] In fact, he confessed that he had been using these words (and their cognates) merely as intellectual flavor enhancers for the last twenty-five years. He used them interchangeably, and nobody had called him out on it.

Maybe they didn’t, but Weingarten pushes this point too far. The two words are meaningful and, although the meanings may be a bit fuzzy at the edges, they don’t really overlap in any very significant or troublesome way as far as I can see.

But Weingarten was also implicitly making a more serious – and I think plausible – point on a broader question: the legitimacy of metaphysical inquiry as a stand-alone discipline.

Here he finds fault with a traditional definition of ontology: “… The definition of ontology is even murkier [than that for epistemology]: ‘The philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations’. (Or, in other words, beeble beeble beeble.)”

Many philosophers would agree with Weingarten’s implicit claim that traditional philosophical approaches to metaphysics and ontology are not (or are no longer) viable. But being skeptical of traditional philosophical approaches to ontology and metaphysics certainly does not equate to seeing all ontological talk as nonsensical. In fact, questions about what exists are very natural and basic human questions.

Now there are three issues here that I would like to distinguish from one another: the question of whether ontology is or can be a viable academic discipline or subdiscipline; the nature of such a discipline; and particular ontological questions (which may or may not require the support and authority of an academic discipline to be satisfactorily addressed).

I am more concerned here with the third issue, but let me say a couple of things about the first two.

There is a long tradition of sophisticated thought on the ways that natural language can mislead us; in general (e.g. the tendency to hypostatize concepts), or in terms of the grammar or idioms of a specific language creating the sense of an implicit metaphysics that can easily be mistaken for something universal or necessary.

I wrote a piece some months ago defending Rudolf Carnap’s approach to ontological questions. [2] Basically, he said that what we claim to exist always exists (if it does) within the context of a certain framework, and it just doesn’t make sense to ask so-called “external” questions. Numbers, for example, exist quite uncontroversially within the framework of arithmetic, and it just doesn’t make sense to ask if they exist outside of this framework.

In my view, the best philosophical approaches to ontological questions are, like Carnap’s, pragmatic, deflationist and (where appropriate) engaged with scientific and/or other kinds of empirical or formal inquiry. Areas like psychology and linguistics, for example, have matured, developed and expanded to such a point that it is clearly self-limiting to ignore them in many general philosophical contexts – contexts which in previous times were the preserve of armchair thinkers and divines. (Actually, I think a strong case can be made that much philosophy of language in the mid- to late-20th century suffered by cutting itself off from the rapidly-developing disciplines of linguistics and psychology or drawing on them only to a minimal extent. Some philosophers did draw on linguistics, and a few contributed to the discipline, but such cross-fertilization has been rare.)
I want to look now at a few examples of ontological questions such as might be asked in ordinary, non-technical contexts. Though Carnap was concerned primarily with scientific discourse, I think the basic principles of his approach have universal applicability. It is certainly the case, at any rate, that the general framework or context within which a question (ontological or not) is asked is often a central consideration in figuring out what the question really means.

Five questions, then… Do souls exist? Or gods? Or ghosts? Or minds? Or moral obligations?

The first three are (or can be interpreted as) relatively straightforward questions and (arguably) are relatively straightforwardly answerable by reference to experience, observation, a basic education and/or scientific findings. The last two are more complicated.

What I want to focus on here is not so much answers as the nature of the questions, the way they relate to the contexts within which they are asked and the sorts of consideration (scientific, historical, commonsensical, etc.) that might be relevant to answering them satisfactorily.

The first three questions arise quite naturally in people’s minds, and their meaning is usually clear. For example, a frightened child might be reassured by his mother that “there are no such things as ghosts”. In this case, depending on the age and level of knowledge of the child, ‘ghosts’ might just refer to hostile, spooky things out there in the dark or specifically to immaterial manifestations of people who have died. Meanings are fluid and always context-sensitive, if not context-dependent.

Paradoxically it’s questions about the existence of ordinary things like chairs or tables or rocks or hands (which, by and large, only philosophers ask) that seem most problematic.

The usual problem here is that a natural language question is being asked out of context; or rather, is being asked in an artificial, philosophical context which is devoid of all the normal pragmatic and semantic markers which allow natural language to function in a natural and effective way. (Wittgenstein often warned about this sort of thing.) Does my hand exist? Does this chair I’m sitting on exist? These sorts of questions are very suspect. What is being asked is not entirely clear.

When, by contrast, I ask about ghosts, you know more or less what I’m asking. The question makes immediate sense. So let me try to answer it.

Ghosts – understood as once-embodied but bodiless or immaterial beings – don’t exist. Well, at least there is no good evidence for them, nor any good theoretical reason to entertain the possibility of their existence. Apparently more than 40% of Americans believe in ghosts, but these beliefs are fairly easily explained in terms of common and quite well-understood psychological phenomena.[3]

You could say similar things about gods, or at least the sorts of gods that populate various religions and mythologies. Pascal Boyer’s book Religion Explained [4] applies insights from cognitive science to anthropological data in very productive ways.

Of course, over time more sophisticated god-concepts developed: Platonists, Stoics, Jews and Christians  developed subtle and interesting forms of monotheism. In the Roman world there was the “unknown God” (deus incognito), a notion which was developed within various schools of Neoplatonism. In medieval and Reformation Christianity, there was much discussion of the “hidden God” (deus absconditus). And, of course, religious notions need to be distinguished from purely rational or philosophical notions (like “first cause”). Blaise Pascal was a sophisticated religious thinker who drew a firm dividing line between “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and what he scathingly referred to as “the God of the philosophers”.

So, obviously, if you are going to talk about the existence of gods or God, you need to be clear with regard to which particular concepts you are interested in.

Souls? Well, we are back to ghosts or spirits here. The soul is normally understood as the ghost during its embodied stage. Certainly words like ‘soulful’ have real meaning and remain useful, as do expressions such as ‘She is a good soul’, but the common religious idea of a distinct eternal soul residing in each living human body seems not to have a lot going for it.

Again, there are subtle variations: a more or less Pythagorean notion (via Plato) was incorporated into mainstream Christianity in competition, as it were, with a more earthy (and necessarily embodied) notion deriving from Hebraic and later, Judaic sources.

And so to the last two questions – about the existence of minds and moral obligations.

The term ‘mind’ is a meaningful one when used in ordinary expressions, but it’s not the sort of ‘thing’ one can study. We say that someone can’t make up her mind, doesn’t know her own mind, often changes it [interesting!], loses it, etc.; the meaning – about patterns of behavior – is clear. ‘Keep this in mind’ simply means ‘Remember this’. Things ‘come to mind’, ‘slip one’s mind’ and so on. There are also other interesting metaphorical extensions of the term: e.g. ‘at the back of my mind’ (as if the mind were some kind of closet). The question as to whether minds exist simply dissolves under this kind of analysis, it seems to me.

The question of the existence of moral obligations is both more substantive and more intractable. Obviously (most) people feel obligations to do or refrain from doing certain things. These feelings are uncontroversially real. Likewise people see others as having certain moral obligations. These feelings or beliefs are also uncontroversially real. Understood in terms of feelings and social rules and expectations, then, moral obligations are real. But whether there is anything more to them (as Kantians and religious believers would want to say) is a controversial question. People certainly take sides on it, based on their wider view of the world and what the world consists of – their private ontologies, in other words, which are inevitably based on a variety of assumptions and intuitions. Robert Wright, for example, in a discussion with Daniel Kaufman [5] asserted his commitment – clearly a deep and basic one – to moral realism. Such strong and private convictions make productive discussion of such topics very difficult.

Perhaps the best we can hope for from reflection and discussion is clarification, a perspicuous view of what people believe and why (and so of the various possibilities). Reflection and discussion may allow us to move forward by identifying certain views as inconsistent with what we know or as incoherent and/or as having arisen from what could be seen as a misuse of language caused by an inadequate understanding of the nature of natural language and how it works.

The deflationist and anti-metaphysical tradition of thought, pioneered by Nietzsche and exemplified, for example, by the logical positivists and the later Wittgenstein, advocates such an approach, being primarily concerned with identifying and dissolving the pseudo-problems (or confusions) thrown up by natural language.

But inevitably there will be questions with which neither the sciences nor this particular approach are equipped to deal, and they include the question of whether moral obligations have a ‘reality’ that goes beyond psychological, sociological and pragmatic considerations. Dealing with this and similar questions (relating, for example, to the status of social and political ideals and prescriptions) in a satisfactory way is extremely difficult for various reasons but mainly, I would say, because such questions are so often inextricably bound up with the individual’s self-image and general view of the world.

Certainly, given these complexities of perspective and judgment (especially when they are seen in conjunction with the exponential growth of scientific knowledge in relevant areas), any plausible systematic – or even rigorously scholarly – approach to such matters seems to be quite unattainable.


  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/gene-weingarten-admit-it-you-dont-know-what-epistemological-means-either/2016/05/10/060f2e8e-0afa-11e6-a6b6-2e6de3695b0e_story.html
  2. https://theelectricagora.com/2016/02/17/on-what-there-is-or-isnt/
  3. This article in The Atlantic covers the general topic in a sensible way, I think.
  4. Basic Books, 2001.
  5. https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/13/wright-on-spirituality-purpose-and-consciousness/


  1. labnut,

    What many people want from metaphysics per se and ontology specifically, is a level of certitude and insight into the essence of things that reality really resists. The problem with reality can be summed up in the simple, common, tautological expression ‘it is what it is,’

    There are a number of ways top deal with this, As a Buddhist, a Pragmatist, a traditional Nominalist, my own response to accept the reality’ we speak of as really a construction of mind that allows us to live with the ‘it is what it is,’ and simply abandon the quest for certainty, and find insight into this constructive process elsewhere – inwardly through meditation, outwardly through the arts.

    It was George Santayana who argued that this ‘essence’ of ‘reality’ we want from metaphysics is in fact a longing for the deepest, richest experiences we can have with the reality, which thus forms the ‘ideal’ that philosophers have been writing about since Plato. It is no surprise then that much of his own writing studied intersections between philosophy and art, and included tolerable, if not exceptional, verse:

    “The muffled syllables that Nature speaks
    Fill us with deeper longing for her word;
    She hides a meaning that the spirit seeks,
    She makes a sweeter music than is heard.”
    – From: “Premonition”

  2. Right. Thanks. All those thousands upon thousands of students I talked to over two decades were lying.

    So the CDC is lying – right?

    Do the math.

    If 33% of your students are claiming to have been prescribed medication for ADHD then either the CDC is lying, they are lying or the vast majority of them are being illegally. Take your pick.

    1. Or we take studies as studies and not messages from God. I evaluate studies and surveys against a whole array of different forms of evidence and background knowledge.

      Look, you’ve given your reasons for why you don’t think there’s a problem. We’ve given our reasons for why we think there is one. How many times are we going to go around?

  3. You win the internet argument and the virtual trophy. And I still know what I know. I’ve been living and teaching here for a while. You know, a few decades give or take.

    Yeah and the psychologists and doctors and other experts on childhood education and behaviour that I regularly consult have been practicing actual medicine for quite a few decades and have actual medical qualifications.

    And I can do maths. You claim that 33% of your students are medicated for ADHD when the national average is about 9% at most and a large number of them won’t even make it to University.

    I swear, I could sell you Coney Island if there was a journal article I could find that would say it was in your best interest

    Some of the best, most experienced, doctors and psychologists and other experts in child behaviour in Australia and a body of evidence in peer reviewed journals.

    And you are buying Coney Island on the say so of a clinician writing for Esquire and some student stories that completely contradict the official stats.

  4. Look, you’ve given your reasons for why you don’t think there’s a problem. We’ve given our reasons for why we think there is one. How many times are we going to go around?

    See, you can’t even understand what I am to you, although I seem to have been quite clear.

    I said that there may be an overdiagnosis problem. There may well be. But that did not mean that it was not a valid condition that responds to treatment.

    1. I never denied it was a valid condition. I said it was overdiagnosed and overmedicated.

      To the extent that this disorder exists, I am inclined to think it much more a matter of socialization than brain science. Lower grade education here has swung so far towards a girls-friendly modality that the pre school and kindergarten boys are going nuts. I noticed it when my daughter was in pre-school and even told my wife at the time, “Thank God we don’t have a boy, now.”

  5. Something of a contradiction between: “I never denied it was a valid condition” and “To the extent that this disorder exists, …”.

    It exists no matter how much you want to deny it and, no, the evidence is that it has nothing to do with socialisation.

    I have boys. They are doing fine. Their classmates are doing fine. But again, maybe it is different in the USA.

    1. Robin, I am losing my patience. I don’t deny the condition exists. I believe it is overdiagnosed and overmedicated.

      As for the causes, you have more faith in the current psychiatry than I do. And I am talking about the USA, not Australia. And in my particular case, the Lower Midwest.

      I really think we should stop now.

  6. Mark,

    “Not sure what to make of this. Culture and ‘minds’ go together. Do we have to separate and rank them?”

    Absolutely, culture and minds do go together but I think that separating them potentially could clarify some of our intractable societal problems. In my mind, (I have been mulling over this issue for quite a while) they are ontologically related but separable:

    Mind is the folk psychological term for self-aware human consciousness. It seems to be a physical function that is shared in approximately equal measure by all humans, of all cultures.

    Culture is a community system into which one is usually born. It may be relatively simple, e.g. hunter-gatherers like traditional Kalahari Bushmen, or an overwhelmingly complex system with numerous subcultures adopting seemingly incompatible agendas. Relationships, goals, rewards and punishments form the framework of the system which runs on the energies and forces generated by human activity. We are, therefore, the ‘elementary particles’ of a larger system, except we are not so elementary. Furthermore, no single person understands all the components of the system.

    It would seem to be impossible to improve the system without understanding its components and their relationships. A better understanding will improve the quality of our individual participation. That is where I come from, I think.

  7. Mark,
    your personal ontology seems to be as rich as mine is spare.

    That is because belief does not demand proof. I cannot prove that my flight to Johannesburg will arrive safely but I believe I will arrive safely because the weight of evidence favours this belief, though it does not prove it. And so it goes for almost all our beliefs. We accept them because the weight of the evidence, on balance, tends to favour them.

    But we have to be careful that our biases do not lead us to demand higher standards of evidence than are reasonable so that we can discount unwelcome beliefs.

    At least we are united in our respect for science.

    That should be obvious. A creator God(if he existed) would necessarily be responsible for the laws of nature. Studying science would therefore be a study of how God implemented his will. I once playfully suggested to Coel that one could therefore conclude that science was a branch of theology. He spluttered and fumed for a long time after that 🙂

    Could it not be the case that matter/energy/information behaves in certain ways which reflect an underlying (quantum) computational process or processes (the mathematics built in – and discrete rather than continuous)?

    First, being quantum(discrete rather than continuous) has no effect on my argument. Quantum processes are still described by mathematical laws of nature. When you say ‘the mathematics built in‘ you raise a deeper point which divides the philosophy of science – are the laws of nature descriptive or prescriptive? Are the laws of nature only inherent in the particles and fields, or do they have an existence independent of the particles and fields? Science is unable to answer this question and philosophers choose the answer that suits their metaphysics. But one thing is a given. Working physicists talk and behave as though the laws of nature have an independent existence that exactly prescribes the behaviour of particles and fields. Their language is saturated with law-like references and assumptions. That is because the laws of nature look and behave exactly as though they were independent and prescriptive.

    To extend my personal ontology a little further. I happen to believe that the laws of nature are the properties of God and therefore the study of science is the study of God(now where is Coel 🙂 ). To the question – where is God, I answer he is everywhere that laws of nature are in evidence. To the question – why is God invisible, I reply that he can be seen wherever the laws of nature can be seen in operation; we just don’t recognise what we are seeing. To the question – how do I experience God, I answer that whenever you experience the operations of the laws of nature you are experiencing God. Because the laws of nature are properties of God we can be sure they are absolute, eternal and everywhere valid, without exception. Because the laws of nature are properties of God we can be sure they are rational and intelligible. We see their rationality and intelligibility in their mathematical expression.

    Naturally what I say is anathema to any good, self-respecting atheist but we should at least study each other’s points of view, so that we can have informed disagreements 🙂

  8. Liam,
    Furthermore, no single person understands all the components of the system.

    I used to marvel at this fact when I walked through the manufacturing halls of a large auto manufacturer where I worked. Not one person there understood the entirety of what we did. But when we put together all the people with their own small understanding, something quite magical happened; a living organism was created, far greater than ourselves, that achieved a much larger purpose. Wherever I looked, people did their work, incompletely, badly or not at all. But still cars rolled off the assembly lines. This living organism was self healing, adaptive and purposive.

    We take this for granted, but when you wander through the manufacturing halls, as I did, and ask how this could possibly work, there is no answer in sight. Then you are tempted to believe in magic! It looks like magic because we have created an invisible, shared fiction that we call culture. It works for only as long as we believe in it. It is as fragile as our capacity for belief. It is a fiction that has the appearance of reality because enough of us believe in it.

  9. Hi Mark, I agree with basically all of this and so have little to add.

    I would argue that “mind” is a sort of “thing” just not (as you and Dan and Hacker argue) a kind of “thing” like the “body” or “brain” is a “thing”. To me mind comprises a “set” of capacities and experiences. So the “thing” is a “set”, not an isolated object that can be discovered. I would differ with Hacker that the mind does have a location in a basic sense. His analogy was to something like horsepower coming from engine, you can’t point to the horsepower. Yes, but you can point to the engine as the locality where the horsepower is contained or emerges from. The horsepower (in a specified system) is that —> engine’s horsepower and not another’s. Likewise, a mind is the product and so located (in that sense) within a brain.

  10. Labnut

    “Because the laws of nature are properties of God we can be sure they are absolute, eternal and everywhere valid, without exception.”

    Apart from the question of whether you can separate its laws from nature itself, there is the question of whether these laws are properties of (some) God. *If* they were the properties of a changeless God, then they would be as you say.

    “Because the laws of nature are properties of God we can be sure they are rational and intelligible. We see their rationality and intelligibility in their mathematical expression.”

    Well, we already know that they are rational and intelligible (to a certain point at least) because of the way our science has unfolded.


    You said that we “have to be careful that our biases do not lead us to demand higher standards of evidence than are reasonable so that we can discount unwelcome beliefs.”

    You seem to be assuming a degree of bias in people who reject religion and that religious beliefs would be “unwelcome” to them. We all have our biases, but I certainly don’t think this characterization fits my case.

    I look at the natural world much as Darwin did (especially after the death of his daughter). All that pain and suffering seems to be built into the system. I do not see the hand of a benevolent God here. Sure (as you’ve argued before) we humans are a part of nature and we are capable of marvellous things. But what we love most (human attachments) we are fated to lose – and sickness or some other violence or old age is going to get us all in the end. Stories of an evolving God and moral progress are all very well but I am more focused on the personal side of things.

    It’s *possible* I suppose that after death we somehow wake up to a new life, etc.. But personal immortality (or reincarnation) is not only difficult to conceptualize, it just seems *extremely* unlikely. There was a time when I was reading a lot about supposed messages from the dead or memories of previous lives. It’s evidence of *this* kind that would convince me – and I didn’t find any.

    And if religion can’t offer this (not necessarily hard evidence but at least good reasons to believe in personal immortality) but only an earthly kind of solidarity, say, or some nice talk about the Good, or becoming one with the universe or something like that, then I’m neither impressed by or attracted to it. From my perspective, that ‘soul’ question does matter. (I know that I am one with the universe: I don’t need ‘religion’ to tell me this.)

    Strangely the only religious ceremony which really worked for me was not focused on the Pythagorean or Platonic side of Christianity. It was the Ash Wednesday service in the school chapel in my early high school years. All these young boys having the palm ash smudged on their foreheads and these words said to each of them in turn: “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.”

  11. Liam

    “Mind is the folk psychological term for self-aware human consciousness. It seems to be a physical function that is shared in approximately equal measure by all humans, of all cultures.”

    Can it be both folk-psychological and a ‘physical function’?

    “Culture is a community system into which one is usually born.”

    Again, I have qualms about separating ‘mind’ from culture. Culture is not just a given, it is a consequence of previous human interactions – and some cultural system is a necessary matrix for any individual ‘mind’ to develop. No culture, no mind.

    Your brief description of a complex social framework based on relationships, goals, rewards and punishments etc. and which runs “on the energies and forces generated by human activity” sounds plausible, but what are these “energies and forces” exactly?

  12. dbholmes

    I’m glad you’re in general agreement.

    “To me mind comprises a “set” of capacities and experiences. So the “thing” is a “set”, not an isolated object that can be discovered.”

    Yes okay. I could see a possible definition being based on a set of capacities and/or experiences. But what ties the various elements together?

    On the location question, I would prefer to see the concept of mind as vague and various and so not located anywhere in particular. We don’t ask where our hopes or expectations are, for example, we just have them.

    That said, I sometimes think and speak in terms of the brain and brain processes, for example in dealing with problems like anxiety in myself or others. And the location of the brain is not really an issue, is it? 🙂

  13. Mark, you raise some interesting points that need careful thought. Before I do that I want to reassure you on one point:

    We all have our biases, but I certainly don’t think this characterization fits my case.

    No, I would never accuse you of bias. You are a careful, clear and sincere thinker. Nevertheless we are all the products of our milieu, reflecting, without intending it, the biases of our environment. I like contrarians because they consciously reject these biases. They are uncomfortable people to have around because they are often argumentative, unduly tenacious and abrasive. I love their questioning spirit and aptitude for seeing things in a new light. I love the way they jolt me into a new mindframe, stimulating me to learn more. But eventually I weary of their dogged, never-say-die tenaciousness. I thought that DM was a great asset on the other blog even though we had many vehement disagreements and he was certainly tenacious to the bitter end.

    Knowing when to let go is an art. For example, should I reply to your last comment? Was it enough to just state my position? Has the conversation become stale and attention is wandering off to other places? I have no desire to ‘win’ the argument or persuade you of the merits of my position. I do want to advance the case that my position is rational and evidence based(as far as that can be possible).

    But, I enjoyed your essay and the stimulating conversation. That, in itself, is a good end.

  14. Robin,
    I can really relate to your story on the other blog of how you worked on the wrong server. That has happened to me with embarrassing consequences. It is quite relevant to Mark’s essay because it illustrates so well that appearances are not reality and that our perceptions of reality are tenuous and fleeting.

    This is why I liked EJ’s comment:

    “I also wanted to hint that much of what people look for from traditional ontology (other than the scientists and mathematicians) might actually best be discovered in poetry, or perhaps a poetically influenced attitude towards experience.”

    The idea is that in poetry we perceive more deeply, more intimately and with greater sensitivity. The world is not particles and fields; it is an invisible and intangible world of thoughts and feelings. Particles and fields are beside the point; what is more real and more important is how we think and feel. Poetry is a powerful window into this world, that no laboratory, microscope or particle accelerator can enter. I am working through Heidegger – What Are Poets For? and he says it far better than I ever could.

    I have recently discovered Pablo Nuera.

    Because it is our duty
    to obey winter,
    to let the wind grow
    within you as well,
    until the snow falls,
    until this day and every day are one,
    the wind and the past,
    the cold falls,
    finally we are alone,
    and finally we will be silent.

    Pablo Nuera, Returning

    Someone will ask later, sometimes
    searching for a name, his own or someone else’s
    why I neglected his sadness or his love
    or his reason or his delirium or his hardships:
    and he’ll be right: it was my duty to name you,
    you, someone far away and someone close by,
    to name someone for his heroic scar,
    to name a woman for her petal,
    the arrogant one for his fierce innocence,
    the forgotten one for his famous obscurity.
    But I didn’t have enough time or ink for everyone.

    Pablo Nuera, For all to Know.

    How else could one express such desolate sadness and guilt?

  15. EJ,
    What many people want from metaphysics per se and ontology specifically, is a level of certitude and insight into the essence of things that reality really resists. The problem with reality can be summed up in the simple, common, tautological expression ‘it is what it is,’

    I wonder? I see it very differently and to make my thoughts clearer I will lead off with a little story that is enacted every day in my kitchen. Every day I prepare food for my two dogs and put it down on the kitchen floor next to the cupboards. They tuck in eagerly and as they do their bowls shuffle away until they are under the cupboards. They gaze helplessly at me and appeal to me until I retrieve their bowls. This happens every day. What is remarkable is that I can foretell the outcome but my intelligent dogs can’t.

    What’s going on? Like all mammals, they have no concept of the future, cannot foresee outcomes and cannot plan for them. We alone in the animal kingdom have this capacity. We can imagine things that are not but may be. This capacity has turned evolution on its head and made us the most successful species by far(evolution is not predictive, but only reactive). Instead of desiring “…insight into the essence of things that reality really resists“, what we really desire is to know what the future reality will be. We worry and concern ourselves, not about reality so much as about a fictional reality that may yet come to be. Does my neighbour intend to kill me so that he can seize my daughter? Will I get mugged again on my next trail run? Will the rains come in time to rescue my crops? Will I get laid tonight, and so on. We live every moment balanced on the brink of an uncertain future. This is our existential anxiety, to be consumed by a vertiginous fear of the future.

    We do not need to know what really exists, instead we need to know what may come into existence. Being able to imagine the future, we plan for it and prepare for it. To do this we use two tools, causation and history. By understanding causation we can predict the future and make the future happen. The past provides the foundation from which we use causation to predict the future course of events.

    This is a deeply ingrained habit of mind. We study the past and the present for clues to the future. We study causation for clues to the mechanism that links the past or present to the future.

    I suggest then, that outside the circle of esoteric philosophers, our real concern is not about some ‘essence of things‘(whatever that means) but is a deep concern about the essence of what might be. We are not satisfied with ‘it is what it is‘, instead we desire what it can be.

    But when you talk about the future you cannot deal in certitude but only in likely outcomes. This is why we are all natural probabilists who settle for probable outcomes, never requiring proof or certitude. Of course we do all in our power to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome, from throwing the bones, reading entrails, cooking the books, using rohypnol, murdering your rival and even by the application of diligence, persistence and hard work.

  16. Hi Mark,

    “But what ties the various elements together?”

    Me (and you). Minds are what individuals take as the collection of their own capacities and experiences. It might actually be easier to reduce it to simply “experiences” since “capacities” are only understood from experience, but when judging what we can do next or what others can do it is more clear to speak of capacities.

    “I would prefer to see the concept of mind as vague and various and so not located anywhere in particular. We don’t ask where our hopes or expectations are, for example, we just have them.”

    I agree with this, except in the sense that when pressed it is true (like horsepower comes from that–> engine) that properties of the mind all reside within/emanate from one organ within one person’s skull. Not to be gruesome but with the right brain procedure all one’s sense of hope and expectation can be ended. And most people generally understand that when a person is “brain dead” there is no possibility of “mind alive” drifting somewhere else (unless we talk about writing/recordings left behind and ideas transferred to others).

    “And the location of the brain is not really an issue, is it?”

    In my day job I make mini-brains from patient tissue, so I can say maybe one day… 🙂

  17. Hi labnut, you certainly have a well organized personal philosophy. Some parts I agree with, but the parts that I don’t are at least intriguing.

    Regarding god, you suggested to “Try asking an atheist to prove that God does not exist!” But an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything. The point is that there is no evidence for any particular god or god(s). And the default position is atheism (of the agnostic persuasion).

    The deist must provide evidence that there are such things as god(s) and theists further evidence that specific god(s) exist.

    I can accept the fact that you believe a certain god exists based on some set of evidence, but it is not clear how that evidence could reach “… the balance of probability approach of the civil courts”… at least to a degree it would outweigh the same evidence brought by any other theist.

    I guess it would make mores sense to me if deists/theists did not claim that they know gods exist (by probability or whatever), but that they find the hypothesis useful for certain aspects of life/living which lack any solid explanation. Sort of a reverse of the LaPlacian argument.

  18. Mark,

    “Again, I have qualms about separating ‘mind’ from culture. Culture is not just a given, it is a consequence of previous human interactions – and some cultural system is a necessary matrix for any individual ‘mind’ to develop. No culture, no mind.”

    The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the separation of mind from culture is important but I will have to think about it even more and then try to put pen to paper in a more structured way.

    Culture is suffused with myriads of fantasmagorical ideas for which there is no more justification other than some persuasive person had promoted it, or a group of gullible people thought it was worth preserving. I find it interesting to sift through all these artifacts of our culture, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. My mind I have some control over and I can regular what I do. Culture changes with the wind.

  19. DBholmes,
    you certainly have a well organized personal philosophy

    thank you.

    ..but the parts that I don’t are at least intriguing.

    That’s the important thing, to stimulate ideas, not to agree with them but be open to possibility. As I argued above, the world is in the continual process of becoming; it is in the process of realising possibility. At every moment we are falling into our future. My dogs are blind to the future and deaf to the past and thus their being is trapped in the present moment. We, by contrast, can listen to the voices of the past and see visions of the future. This has great practical import and makes us the supreme species on the planet. This also expands our consciousness, opening us to greater happiness but also greater pain and greater anxiety. Our daily concern is which of the future possibilities we will fall into. We listen to the voices of the past and look to causation for guidance so that we may navigate the possible futures.

    Dan-K’s essay, ‘Prescription, Reason and Force‘ is all about how we fall into the future. In that post I argued that we are bound in a social web of mutual expectations. The strands of that web are defined by ‘shoulds’. The expectations of those around us endeavour to impel us into their desired futures.

    Buddhism is primarily concerned with the present(Stoicism also to some extent). It endeavours to preserve the present from the ravages of the future and to mute the voices of regret that speak to us from the past. Christianity, by contrast, is about the future. It is a religion of becoming. It is about becoming a better person and enabling a better future. It is about building the Kingdom of God on earth, though we are making rather slow progress on that front 🙂 And because it is a future orientated religion we desire the immortality of the soul so that we may continue to be part of that future. My personal take on that is we become part of the more distant future through metempsychosis. But that makes me a maverick Catholic, an intellectual terrorist in the staid world of mainstream Catholicism 🙂

  20. Liam

    “The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the separation of mind from culture is important but I will have to think about it even more and then try to put pen to paper in a more structured way.”

    So long as you don’t go the way of Descartes! 🙂

    I will be doing a bit more thinking (and writing) on this general topic also. I was just now looking back at the exchange (in which you were involved) in the thread attached to my previous EA essay, ‘Wittgenstein’s Antics’ on the centrality or otherwise of language for thought; may try to develop some of those ideas.

    We clearly agree on *some* important points at least.

  21. DBHolmes,
    In my day job I make mini-brains from patient tissue, so I can say maybe one day

    That is such an interesting statement. David Chalmers believes that the problem of consciousness is so intractable that it cannot be solved with present approaches(Consciousness and its Place in Nature – http://consc.net/papers/nature.pdf). He believes that consciousness is part of nature, in the form of a law of nature and we need to discover that law so that we can understand consciousness. This is a restricted form of panpsychism which I also subscribe to. Just as I believe that the laws of nature are properties of God I also believe that God’s consciousness pervades the universe as a field. Where this field intersects living brain tissue of the right type and with sufficient neuronal connections, it ignites consciousness. God then shares the consciousness of all conscious beings and thus shares all their experiences, emotions, intuitions and thoughts. The creature’s own sense of consciousness is restricted to the periphery of its sensory apparatus. Our own consciousness is bounded by our capacity for sensation and thus we do not share God’s consciousness. You can think of it as a one way mirror. God can see into us but we see only our reflection.

    This is what gives the Universe purpose. Its purpose is to produce life so that through life God might experience creation. It is through conscious beings that God experiences his creation. This extends our notion of God from being tri-potent(all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good) to quadri-potent where God is additionally all-experiencing.

    This belief has a remarkable consequence for how we see each other. When I look into the eyes of another person, God is looking back at me through that person’s eyes. If I strike that person, God feels my blow. If I am cruel to a person, God experiences my cruelty. Conversely, if I treat that person with love, kindness, sympathy or understanding, God experiences my love, kindness, sympathy or understanding. Now when I ask the question, where is God, the answer is that he is looking back at me through the eyes of the other person.

    In this way the remote, indifferent God of panpsychism becomes the personal, caring God of Christianity. God cares because he intimately experiences both our love and our cruelty. Thus he desires that we extend love, alleviate suffering and end cruelty, because he experiences it. The famous prayer of St. Teresa of Avila expresses this thought in another way:

    Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

    For Christ you can substitute the word ‘Good’ and still have the same sense(though with awkward phrasing) without subscribing to Christian beliefs. You may also think of god as being an abbreviation for good.

  22. Hi Labnut, again that is an interesting take. I personally don’t ascribe to panpsychism, although I do believe that there are varying states or levels of consciousness available to more than just humans (but not “everything” like inert objects such as rocks and atoms).

    When one watches cells (and this includes bacteria as well as isolated human cells) moving about, interacting with their environment and each other it is hard not to get the impression of some arguable level of “awareness” and “intent”… yeah nothing on our level, but something. And when I see networking among neurons, including firing patterns (you can image this), I wonder if some level of “communication” is occurring. Cell culture really gives me the impression sometimes of running a very tiny zoo.

    Your description of a God consciousness behind (and then seeing through) everything is similar to some other spiritual/religious theories I’ve heard. Though in that case it is usually not God but ourselves with the capability of acting in the way you describe.

    It’s certainly something I can’t rule out, though I do not believe it.

    “You may also think of god as being an abbreviation for good.”

    Actually, for a long time I’ve considered good as another form (or extension) of God. However. not in the positive way you meant. That is to say (apologies if this gets a little negative) when people lacked an explanation for events in the world they invented “God” to seem like they actually had an explanation. Likewise, when people lacked an explanation why someone else should do what they want them to do they invented “good” to seem like they actually had an explanation. Both are filler terms that require unpacking, which usually becomes more problematic as they are unpacked (the latter gets to what is discussed in Dan’s recent essay).

    Anyway, this is not to say such concepts can’t be useful or positive. I actually liked the quote you gave, though I would personally swap Christ (or good) for something more specific… like justice, honesty, etc.

  23. dbholmes,
    Regarding god, you suggested to “Try asking an atheist to prove that God does not exist!” But an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything. … And the default position is atheism (of the agnostic persuasion).

    What are you arguing? That it is
    1) A matter of fact?
    No, there are no facts of the matter that say “an atheist doesn’t have to prove anything“.
    2) An analytical argument?
    No, you cannot marshal an analytical argument of the form premises, facts, reasoning and conclusion to prove your assertion. It is unprovable.
    3) A useful convention?
    Yes, it is a useful convention and it is interesting to ask why this should be and when is it applicable.

    There are two kinds of arguments, affirmative where I try to justify an assertion, and rebuttal where I try to weaken/disprove someone else’s assertion. If I make an assertion, I ordinarily need, as a matter of social convention, to produce affirmative arguments for my assertion. If I fail to produce an affirmative argument it is likely I will be ignored or fail to persuade. My doubting listeners will attack my assertion by using rebuttal arguments.

    Affirmative arguments carry higher costs in the form of in-depth research, careful reasoning and presentation. These are real costs in time and materials. Rebuttal arguments have a lower cost since they need only point to the weaknesses in the affirmative argument, such as poorly marshalled or inadequate facts, or errors in reasoning.

    And this is why we ordinarily demand that the asserter carry the burden of making affirmative arguments. If he wishes to persuade he should be prepared to carry the costs of persuasion. He should not impose those costs on the listener by demanding that he make the affirmative arguments. We see this most clearly in law where the costs are very real and large. It is a matter of equity and commitment. The more committed I am the greater burden of costs I am prepared to bear. The asserter is normally the one who is committed.

    But, though rebuttal arguments have a lower cost and are easier to mount, they have a shortcoming. A rebuttal argument only weakens the affirmative argument or shows that it fails to make its point. A rebuttal argument does not prove the counter-assertion.

    Turning now to the God question. If I wish to persuade you that God does exist, I should bear the costs of preparing affirmative arguments and I should not impose those costs on you. You need only make arguments in rebuttal, which have a lower cost. When you do this you have not shown that God does not exist. All you have done is shown that my arguments are inadequate. If you wish to go further than that and assert that God does not exist, you must 1) produce affirmative arguments, and thus 2) be prepared to carry the costs of making affirmative arguments.

    And this is where atheists fall short with their reasoning. They demand that theists produce affirmative arguments, which they do(in great detail). Atheists/agnostics then make rebuttal arguments, which is fair enough if they simply claim that the theist point is unproven or not persuasive. But many don’t stop there, as we see in books by people like Dawkins. They go further by making the claim that there is no God. By doing that they have entered the realm of making assertions. But when you make an assertion, you are making a claim on my assent and you now assume the burden making affirmative arguments. But, if you look through Dawkins’ book you see he only makes arguments in rebuttal(with one exception). In general, if you look at atheist arguments one sees that they are only rebuttal arguments. For this reason the atheist position is fundamentally weak. And if you look more closely, it is very difficult to produce an affirmative argument that there is no God, which is why people like Dawkins confine themselves to rebuttal arguments; but then they should confine themselves to more limited claims.

    We need to clarify what kind of claim we are making:

    1) God does not exist.
    No one has ever produced a plausible affirmative argument to that effect.
    2) It is unproven that God exists.
    I agree.
    3) It is proven that God exists.
    I disagree. I maintain that this cannot be proved.
    4) It is more likely than not that God exists.
    This is my position.
    5) It is more likely than not that God does not exist.
    I presume that is your position.

    (4) and (5) are the fruitful areas for debate. The way in which that debate could be conducted is
    0) decide what weight of evidence would command your assent.
    1) prepare a best case theist hypothesis
    2) prepare a best case atheist hypothesis.
    3) prepare affirmative arguments for the theist and atheist hypotheses.
    4) prepare rebuttal arguments in reply to each of the affirmative arguments.
    5) ask if any of the rebuttal arguments negate the affirmative claims. If so strike them out. Retain them if they are merely weakened.
    6) weigh the remaining affirmative claims against each other and ask which hypothesis is more likely to be true.
    7) test this conclusion against the weight of evidence that would command your assent.
    8) ask how this conclusion will affect your behaviour and decide if you are prepared to bear the costs of changed behaviour. Do the benefits(if any) outweigh the costs?

    And this is how I converted from atheism to theism. Your mileage may vary.

  24. Hi Labnut, it is important to note that the last thing I say in the quote you provide is “atheism (of the agnostic persuasion).” So on your list of claims I am basically agreeing with you (#2) that it is unproven God exists. That is still “atheism” in that one lacks faith and so are not a theist.

    I’d agree that many atheists make a mistake in trying to push that lack of knowledge about God into a default state of knowledge (god does not exist). But really the only default knowledge one has is about oneself (“I don’t know”). That was all I was talking about.

    Personally, I feel like #5 is probably right, and often the more specific people get about their religion (facts about the world required by it) I certainly get the feeling it is highly likely that THEIR God does not exist. Still, I have never felt confident enough to say it isn’t possible, especially when we get to less involved belief systems like deism or spiritualism.

    So believe 2, feel 5, but can’t argue 5 as a general thing only against a specific set of beliefs.

    I appreciate the breakdown. That does make your position more understandable (and reasonable).

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