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.

REFERENCES

  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/

87 comments

  1. “The soul is normally understood as the ghost during its embodied stage.”

    I don’t agree. We can see a recognisable “soul” concept in ancient writings, including the Jewish traditions, that predates any concept of it continuing after death. And even in the Christian and Islamic traditions, the idea is not that the “soul” continues, rather that it is recreated in a new body.

    In Phaedo they debate whether the soul is durable enough to continue, or simply becomes indistinct and oblivious after death.

    So the idea of a soul is distinct from the idea of a soul that continues after death.

    What else could “soul” mean but this that we experience – the emotions, the thinking, the sensations etc? The soul, then, is the one thing I am most sure that exists.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. minds only exist as figures of speech (shorthands if you will) as do moral obligations (and other speech-acts and the like), everyday usages aside better I think for research purposes to avoid reification and other bewitchments by grammar, will be interesting to see if as neuroscience works its way into popular realms (including courts and such) if both begin to fall out of fashion.

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  3. Robin and Dan

    On the ‘soul’: I was indeed giving (when I said “normally understood”) a particular mainstream Christian view which is really Christian-Platonic and which can be seen to be influenced strongly by Pythagorean traditions. But I acknowledged that there are other views, and specifically mentioned the (very different) Hebraic or Jewish view in the essay.

    Traditional Christian views vary a lot – some are strongly ‘Pythagorean’, some more in line with Hebraic sources.

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  4. dmf

    “..will be interesting to see if as neuroscience works its way into popular realms (including courts and such) if both [‘minds’ and ‘moral obligations’] begin to fall out of fashion.”

    I think the latter are already fading fast in the minds of many. Like, kids are not lazy or inattentive, they have some kind of medical issue. But this trend in particular is based not so much on real science as on an unfortunate view of morality – and it is having unfortunate unintended consequences. If morality is seen in social terms (rather than religious or pseudo-religious terms) I don’t think a problem arises here.

    *Some* kids do have real and serious psychological problems of course which need to be dealt with as medical conditions. But, again, you can ask to what extent even they should be ‘absolved’ from the normal social obligations.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mark,

    In my mind your (dismissive?) treatment of mind seems puzzling.

    My mind is the most salient aspect of my person. That is my experience and is my description of it in ordinary language. Mind is the subjective reality of my personal self. I ‘think’ therefore I am.

    That everyone has a mind is a universal common sense assumption (ontology) , although what the mind is, is still very controversial (epistemology). Isn’t this the central neuroscientific question of the day?

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    1. Afraid I agree with Mark. There is a large literature on this. I’ve posted this video about 30,000 times, but it really does give the best account as to why speaking of the mind as a “thing” like the brain is a mistake. The best part is P.M.S. Hacker’s presentation which starts about halfway into the video. (Starts at about 1:01:00.

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  6. 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.

    That was exactly my impression.

    Do souls exist? Or gods? Or ghosts? Or minds? Or moral obligations?

    1. God.
    Yes. Using the balance of probability approach of the civil courts, there are more reasons for believing in God than there are reasons for disbelief. I don’t demand proof for the overwhelming majority of my beliefs so there is no reason why I should demand proof for God’s existence. Try asking an atheist to prove that God does not exist!

    2. Souls.
    Yes, but not in the traditional sense. First, one can view the mind as the electrical, or information state of the brain. An omniscient God will know the exact state of the brain at all times and this state is preserved in God’s memory when the body dies. The state preserved in God’s memory is the soul. This state may be re-instantiated in the brain of a new body(resurrection or reincarnation) or it may live on in God’s mind(heaven?). Thus the soul is identical to the mind and is immortal because it is preserved in God’s memory. It is not a separate ‘thing’ but is instead an information state.

    3. Ghosts.
    No. See what I said about souls.

    4. Minds.
    Yes. The mind is the aggregate state of my consciousness and my sense of self. “The question as to whether minds exist simply dissolves under this kind of analysis“. Happily my consciousness and sense of self does not dissolve under any kind of analysis. You would need a bath of concentrated sulphuric acid to achieve that effect.

    5. Moral obligations.
    Yes. This is dependent on my belief that God exists. Biological, mechanical, electrical or any kind of machine are in principle incapable of moral feelings. God’s consciousness permeates space and ignites consciousness in brains. Human consciousness is limited to the sensory perceptions of the human body but has inherited from God’s consciousness a capacity for the true, the good and the beautiful. This capacity is limited by the constraints of the brain in which the consciousness resides.

    Perhaps the best we can hope for from reflection and discussion is clarification

    Agreed. Clarification of differing points of view is a valuable thing. In my case it can be seen that talk of souls, ghosts, minds and moral realism depends completely on my starting point, that I believe in God’s existence. All else follows from that.

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  7. “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.”

    Why can’t numbers exist outside of the framework of arithmetic? Why can’t one continue exploring the conceptual space of a seemingly closed topic? Isn’t this what thinking outside the box (framework) challenges one to consider? To discover a hidden key that unlocks new knowledge? Isn’t that what philosophers want (Versus coining new words to further refine another iteration of old ideas)?

    What is the source of the framework? Social construction? What is the origin of number? Internal to man or external to man? Did man create number? Did man discover preexisting number? Did preexisting number reveal itself to man? I make no knowledge claim. In claiming ignorance, I am free to question, observe and perhaps see something I had not previously considered.

    What is the nature of number?

    What is the relationship of number to us? To souls and ghosts and gods and morals? To lions and tigers and bears (Oh My!). To the human drama of the eaters and the eaten projecting their inward thoughts outward into another as transmitter and receiver and asking what and why and receiving no satisfying answers other than heuristic critiques of abstractions (modern philosophy).

    What is the nature of One? Why does one find oneself in One world, when there are infinite worlds (just keep counting new ones that come into being – come into being? Hey, that sounds like ontology!)

    IF Matter can act as both a wave and a particle depending on whether or not it is being observed (Wave-Duality Theory) …

    … Isn’t it possible Matter and therefore Number is aware?

    http://highexistence.com/this-will-mindfuck-you-the-double-slit-experiment/

    If science, materialists, etc. reject non-material reality, then Number is Material, NOT an abstraction.

    Therefore why is it not possible (falsifiable) that numbers are alive and aware?

    Pythagorean’s believed that numbers were the underlying substance of reality:

    http://classicalwisdom.com/cult-of-pythagoras/

    If there is no such thing as no-thing (non-material), then it is possible we and numbers and the interdependence between the Two are composed of pre-existent energy.

    Big Bang’s implication is Pre-Existence of Energy/Material required to explode. The should-be-obvious flaw of the Big Bang is the assumption of One Preexisting Material. This borders on mystical worship of the number One.

    Imagine an infinite universe with only One thing in it. Singularity assumed when plurality is everywhere to be seen.

    Thank you for your post and the comment forum to rant a little. You were the catalyst.

    🙂

    PS: Got any sevens? Go fish,

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  8. Dan-K, just posting a link without a synopsis showing the link’s relevance is bad form. Yes, I know you claim it supports your point of view, but why? And how? I am really unlikely to delve into a long video without powerful inducement. Comments should be more complete in themselves, containing your argument and not a cursory wave at someone else’s argument.

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  9. That’s a pity because you contribute so much that is really valuable. Your reasoned point of view is what is interesting to me.

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  10. can’t seem to figure out how to directly respond to comments but to the point that
    “What else could “soul” mean but this that we experience – the emotions, the thinking, the sensations etc? The soul, then, is the one thing I am most sure that exists”
    this is not what was meant by those earlier folks (pre-christian) some of whom for example clearly separated pneuma and psyche, and still the answer to the question of whether or not they exist is no, as for functions of body parts/systems like feeling, seeing, blood-pressure, body-temperature, etc these can be measured but still shouldn’t be reified into things themselves.

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  11. ME, may be more useful to think of how we treat people who may have caused some harm when they say stroke-out or have a heart-attack while driving or the like and than look at the trends towards special/medicalized drug courts and or trauma/ptsd/tbi courts for veterans and the lines around bodily malfunctions and moral-response-abilities is already pretty blurry and likely only to get worse, as for the record of courts around issues of good science, best practices, yikes!
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/real-csi/

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  12. dmf,
    underlying the common language usage of the term ‘mind,’ is a substantial and difficult to uproot sense of self. Unlike labnut my sense of self repeatedly dissolves under analysis, and I think for the better. (Consciousness is a different matter and mor difficult to address.) But in any event, I think people will continue to use such terms as ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ as long as they have a strong sense of self.

    As for moral obligation, the sense of this will never go away, it can only be clarified. Neuroscience hasn’t anything to say about it, it is purely a social/personal issue.

    Mark,
    I agree with much of the article. However the difficulties with ontology will continue. It was Heidegger who pointed out the problem (in European languages): the copula not only makes a claim on the truth of what is spoken, but does so on the basis of reassuring us that the ‘what’ has being. (‘This is a tree’ not only asserts that it is true to classify the entity as a tree, but also necessarily that such entities as trees exist, and do so in a particular manner such that we can identify any individual instance.) For Heidegger, this not only misleads us, but does so in a way that limits our ‘authentic’ encounter with entities just as they are – including ourselves. I don’t buy that anymore; what I find more interesting is that, after decades of trying to a develop a philosophical language with which to address the issue, Heidegger admitted that only poetry could do this.

    Another Wittgenstein story: Invited to a meeting of the Vienna Circle, he drifted off to a corner of the room, and pulled out a well-worn copy of Wordsworth, spending the rest of the evening reading from it.

    Dan,
    ” Your account of the soul is very Christian-centric and not necessarily representative of other traditions.”
    Reflecting on a wholly separate topic recently (the politics of India), it occurred to me that much of the back-and-forth between atheists and believers in the West would make no dent to Hinduism. The Hindu conception of god is not only multiple but multi-layered, and tends to absorb all arguments against it. It is notable that after 500 years of quite difficult and subtle debate, the Hindus effectively disenfranchised the Buddhists in India. The Buddha was adopted as just another divine avatar and the Buddhist principle of anatman – that there is no individual soul – was enveloped as yet another expression of the divine’s ability to fill every niche of existence or belief.

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  13. “whether ontology is…a viable academic discipline”: the five questions are so broad as to cover most of everything, so I’ll limit myself to a side issue. If I use Google Scholar, most of the uses of the term “ontology” now come from information science ie formal ontology: “Ontology development 101: A guide to creating your first ontology” or “The Suggested Upper Merged Ontology” of the “Standard Upper Ontology Working Group, an IEEE-sanctioned working group of collaborators from the fields of engineering, philosophy, and information science” (which comes in perdurantist and endurantist flavours). The usage here is not as intellectual flavour enhancer, but seriously dealing with all the old philosophical problems in real world applications. That is, if the electricity retail market takes these things seriously, then what was external has become internal.

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  14. Liam

    “In my mind your (dismissive?) treatment of mind seems puzzling.”

    Those ‘mind’ metaphors again. ‘In my mind’, ‘to my mind’, ‘give [someone] a piece of my mind’, ‘in my mind’s eye’…

    “My mind is the most salient aspect of my person… Mind is the subjective reality of my personal self.”

    I’m not saying you can’t see it this way: but I usually prefer to think in terms of sentience, thoughts and emotions, sense of self, awareness and so on. ‘Mind’ is a useful general term but it can sometimes lead people to think that it is a ‘thing’ of some kind.

    “That everyone has a mind is a universal common sense assumption (ontology), although what the mind is, is still very controversial…”

    I agree with the first part of the sentence, but the second part seems to assume that there is this (mysterious) thing called the mind, the nature of which is yet to be scientifically determined…

    “Isn’t this the central neuroscientific question of the day?”

    Not as I see it. I guess you are thinking about the mechanisms and processes underlying conscious awareness or self-consciousness, and research into these matters.

    Just for the record, the phenomenon of matter-becoming-sentient strikes me as quite amazing (and this amazingness is not something that science is likely to explain or explain away).

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hi Mark,

    Like, kids are not lazy or inattentive, they have some kind of medical issue. But this trend in particular is based not so much on real science as on an unfortunate view of morality – and it is having unfortunate unintended consequences.

    I think it is a rather more unfortunate view of morality that people just want to criticise kids for being lazy and inattentive rather than wanting to help them. I am a graduate of this approach and I am here to tell you it doesn’t work. Oh sure they did some things to try to help, they shouted at me or hit me in the hope that this would do some good. But I guess they just weren’t shouting or hitting hard enough because it didn’t do any good.

    I can read in the diaries that I kept as a kid and see my anguish, my bewilderment and frustration that, for example, I hadn’t done any homework or read any of the class texts in over three months. Asking myself what I could do.

    Today they would give me Ritalin and it would probably have been no big deal. As it is I live with the consequences of having thrown my schooling away, and then picked it up again in adulthood.

    You just have to see a kid who is struggling at school, where the teachers have given up and told you he will never be any better than he is and you had better not even try to have him sit the NAPLAN, to very soon after being top of the class and being in the top decile in NAPLAN..

    It may not be a “serious” condition, but a condition it is and kids deserve a shot at a future..

    Liked by 1 person

  16. “Numbers, for example, exist quite uncontroversially within the framework of arithmetic” WHAT????????????! They do NOT! Bertrand Russell spent about 10 years or so writing a proof of mathematical reliability. Once published another mathematician Kurt Godel pointed out that it was actually deeply flawed. This gave poor BR a nervous breakdown because he appreciated that KG was absolutely right! – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMeAtQfuk8g

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  17. Labnut (and others)

    “..the soul is identical to the mind.”

    Soul/mind as information state: this is one way of looking at it. But my approach was more semantic and descriptive. There is much flexibility in the use of these words within a language. I emphasized in the essay that meaning derives from context.

    And there is rarely an exact match language to language. Think of the French âme (soul), esprit (mind, spirit). ‘Ghost’ is related to the German Geist of course, but there is said to be no real German (or Afrikaans?) equivalent of the English ‘mind’.

    There was a lot of controversy about the way his English translators rendered Wittgenstein’s ‘Seele’ and what he meant by it exactly (usually translated as soul).

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  18. Yes Godel was a mathematical Platonist. I guess having shown that you can’t just build a mathematical system the way you want, that any axiomatisation will necessarily be a certain way, he must have figured they had an existence independent to us.

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  19. Mark,
    Soul/mind …. But my approach was more semantic and descriptive.

    Yes, but remember the question – Does the soul exist?
    That question can be answered from a theist or a non-theist perspective. Your commitment to a non-theist approach necessarily limits you to a semantic-descriptive cultural answer to the question. You also say:

    the common religious idea of a distinct eternal soul residing in each living human body seems not to have a lot going for it.”

    This is a common atheist attitude. My reply was meant to show that your curt dismissal is unwarranted, that one can easily construct a rational and modern concept of the soul, fully compatible with today’s scientific knowledge.

    The singularity/mind uploading debate is a remarkable confirmation of the religious idea of the soul but dressed up in technological language. Their key idea is that the mind is indeed an information state, that this information state can be captured, loaded into a supercomputer and the mind resumes its life in the supercomputer, with the benefit of immortality and freedom from illness, suffering or death. Their idea assumes that consciousness can be replicated in a machine, which I strongly doubt. But their ideas sound remarkably like the idea of heaven, of an immortal soul living on in God’s mind. After all God’s mind must be the supremely ultimate supercomputer.

    I think that the singularity/mind uploading idea is just a dream, impossible of realisation but it is interesting for the way that scientists can embrace concepts so close to the religious concept of the soul. Importantly, it demonstrates that the religious concept of the soul is no more farfetched than the ideas of the Singularity Institute, with the difference that the Singularity Institute will never have access to a computer as powerful as God’s mind 🙂

    a more earthy (and necessarily embodied) notion deriving from Hebraic and later, Judaic sources.

    This is a very interesting remark that in some ways resembles the Catholic point of view. Part of the Nicene Creed says that we ‘believe in the resurrection of the body‘, in other words the soul is embodied. We believe that we are building the Kingdom of God here on earth(very, very slowly, as it turns out).

    Where I depart from mainstream Catholic thought is that I believe in a modified form of metempsychosis(see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10234d.htm and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metempsychosis). The soul(the information state of the mind sans memories) is re-instantiated in a new brain after the death of the previous brain. Over a period of many thousands of generations it is exposed to every possible circumstance, being tested, modifying and adapting along the way. The mind or the soul goes through a long evolutionary process of improvement as it moves through many generations of embodiment. And so both the body and the soul(mind) are subject to evolution. One can also think of the soul as the informational analogue of physical DNA. In parallel to this, each succeeding generation is contributing to building an improved world. Ultimately, in millions of generations, this improved world, inhabited by embodied souls that have gone through a long refining process, will be what we now think of as heaven.

    Why do I depart so radically from mainstream Catholic thought? Because I think that God is the author of the laws of nature. Therefore the laws of nature, as we uncover them, inform us how God works to implement his will and so they should shape the way we interpret our faith. Evolution therefore gives us important clues to what happens to the soul. This also has the great merit of being the complete answer to the evidentiary problem of evil.

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  20. wtquinn

    I’d have to say I’m more interested in Peano than the Pythagoreans. I’d like to know more about the foundations of arithmetic and the philosophy of mathematics generally. A lot of that late-19th and early-20th century work on formal systems flowed into programming /coding etc..

    You certainly see algorithmic activity in Nature (Fibonacci sequences and so on). The very fact that you can’t understand basic physical processes without some maths is significant. There is a strong link between maths/computing and the physical world, but I see it more in terms of process than in terms of mathematical objects just kind of lying about, but who knows? Number you can see in terms of processes (iteration, successor function, etc.). Not too sure about how geometry fits in. Pi seems to pop up in the most unexpected places.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Mark,
    The very fact that you can’t understand basic physical processes without some maths is significant.

    I would put it rather more strongly than that. Basic physical processes are described entirely, with great precision, by mathematics. There is no other way to comprehend them. That is an extraordinary fact that defies explanation. It is a fact that cries out for explanation. These mathematical laws of nature hold everywhere, all the time, without exception. Why should that be? Where did they come from? This is the most profound mystery in science.

    For example see Sean Carroll’s list of the seven most significant equations in physics (http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2016/08/15/you-should-love-or-at-least-respect-the-schrodinger-equation/)

    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.
    5.
    6.
    7.

    In order: Newton’s Second Law of motion, the Euler-Lagrange equation, Maxwell’s equations in terms of differential forms, Boltzmann’s definition of entropy, the metric for Minkowski spacetime (special relativity), Einstein’s equation for spacetime curvature (general relativity), and the Schrödinger equation of quantum mechanics. They represent a series of extraordinary insights in the development of physics, from the 1600’s to the present day.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Mark and Labnut, you are sell-in me the sizzle (without the “g”). I’m a listen-in (without the “g”). Don’t hold back man, please. Play me the blues. Riff on tragedy. Riff on sorrow. I’m searching for the formula for tears. Cause I know it’s gots to be math bro. One must solve for “x”, where “x” = me, you, other. I’m willing to stay after class to learn it. I’ll even pound the chalk laden blackboard erasers. I think I know the tune, but I’m causally suffering from anamnesis, even though crime and rehabilitation is a linguistic white privilege social construct based on in-group preferences. I is goofing around a tad here, but there’s a residue of truth in humor (attempted). Or the main ingredient?

    🙂

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  23. ejwinner

    “… what I find more interesting is that, after decades of trying to a develop a philosophical language with which to address the issue, Heidegger admitted that only poetry could do this.”

    That point about the copula distorting thinking goes back before Heidegger. Louis Rougier (born same year as Heidegger) also talked about it. Nietzsche? Would need to check. Admittedly, Heidegger put his own spin on it – as he did with just about everything.

    Also, Heidegger was indeed focused on poetry but didn’t his focus shift somewhat from literature to language in his last years?

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  24. davidlduffy

    Sounds promising. You mentioned this (i.e. newish, applied approaches to ontology) before and I said I’d look into it but I haven’t got around to it yet.

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  25. Robin

    I was not recommending unenlightened or reactionary responses (like shouting and beating!). My point was more along the lines that we need to keep in place a widely-shared set of social and moral expectations, etc. even as our views of morality change (due to a better understanding of the brain and how it works).

    You obviously had a bad time. (I note that you kept a diary: I suspect this would have been very helpful in a number of respects.)

    My perspective is coloured by some ongoing experiences I am having dealing with someone who has direct responsibility for someone who is on Ritalin and the whole thing seems like it’s a complete disaster. Neither the child in question nor a certain associated adult is deemed responsible for anything they do and the adult has been exploiting this situation shamelessly; I think the child might be headed in the same direction.

    This is an interpretation. It may be wrong. But this experience has influenced my view of these issues.

    It’s always a matter of judgment and every case is different. But there has been a lot of concern about these sorts of questions, and rightly so in my opinion.

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  26. Mark,
    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.

    If we had never developed the physical sciences that would seem a natural conclusion. The revelation, that the laws of nature revealed by the physical sciences can only be expressed in mathematics, radically alters that conclusion. The laws of nature precede us and exist independent of us but they are inherently mathematical. There is simply no other way to express them and any sentient being(at our level of development), anywhere in the universe, at any time, would inevitably derive the same(or very similar) equations. From this we must conclude they are independent of us and have a real existence.

    The answer is contained in your sentence:
    what we claim to exist always exists (if it does) within the context of a certain framework

    The framework in this case is the Universe. The laws of nature, and therefore the mathematics that express them, are as real as our Universe. Is there a greater reality, a greater framework? You and I have well known differences of opinion about this but I will settle for the reality of the Universe and mathematics being as real as the Universe.

    A much more interesting question is the reality of information, or ideas. Once created, is information persistent and therefore permanent, independent of our framework? Can an idea, once created, be destroyed or cease to exist? Can one extend your list by arguing for information realism?

    Quite some time ago I was called upon to support a program that I had written 12 years before. It was a plotter driver and controller program. I was astonished that my program was still being used and that the plotters were still operational after so many years. With consternation I searched for the source code and by great luck found it. But now I had to understand what I had done in a large and complex program written 12 years earlier. Slowly the memories came back to me, I solved the problem and restored the program’s operation(phew!).

    What if I had never found the source code nor remembered how the program operated? Would those ideas have ceased to exist? The plotters had operated until the day before, under the control of my ideas so seemingly my ideas had existed until then. What if the plotters were junked? Would my ideas now cease?

    The death of an idea seems impossible to contemplate. How could it die?

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  27. Paul Brocklehurst

    [Quoting me] “Numbers, for example, exist quite uncontroversially within the framework of arithmetic” WHAT????????????! They do NOT!

    When I saw this, I couldn’t help thinking of a piece I did a few weeks ago (Wittgenstein’s Antics) about a certain tendency in philosophical and general discussion involving various antics and gestures and *dramatic expressions of disbelief* which are all designed to put one’s interlocutor on the back foot. This is a text-based version of a stunned expression of disbelief.

    On the substantive issue you raise, others have mentioned that Gödel was a mathematical Platonist, so he thought numbers and other mathematical objects exist in Carnap’s ‘external’ sense as well as in a more uncontroversial ‘internal’ sense.

    Moreover, Gödel’s famous theorems addressed the question of the completeness and consistency of formal arithmetic and not – directly at any rate – the question of the ‘existence’ of numbers.

    And Russell didn’t need Gödel to shake him up. He had quite a few shocks and jolts to his confidence along the way, long before Gödel appeared. But he certainly did take Gödel’s result seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. At journalist level resolution it would be captious to question Weingarten’s blithe mixing up of the terms and it may be that he is not so wrong as he thinks he is. If you consider ontology as the study of being as such or what exists and epistemology as the study of knowledge as such or what we know and how we know it then it could be argued that what exists is what we have ‘empirical acquaintance’ with. That would bring out the congruence between ontology and epistemology. His error, if such it was, is sublated in a higher synthesis.

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  29. Mark,

    There is little doubt that Wittgenstein, Hacker et al have had interesting insights about their view of reality. Thus we are reminded to be very careful about the interpretation of ‘things’ in our universe. It seems clear to me that they may not have taken their own warnings seriously enough. They are certainly not immune to the confusions and misconceptions that they delight in finding in others.

    If mind is not a thing, then what is it? A clue to the reason for why we find the idea of mind as a personal thing so difficult is found in this statement from you:

    “Just for the record, the phenomenon of matter-becoming-sentient strikes me as quite amazing (and this amazingness is not something that science is likely to explain or explain away).”

    The idea that dead matter can first become living and then so complicated as to also have the ability to form mental representations composed of color, line, sounds, smells and other sensations, is so strange that most reject the possibility outright. The fact that pure matter has the ability to talk and write about itself is anathema.

    In 2017 the idea is much less preposterous. I personally think the evidence is highly in favor of it. This has been, perhaps, our ultimate confusion and misconception, one that the Wittgensteinians are exquisitely vulnerable to. They seem to proceed from the assumption that culture is primary and fundamental and that we feed in a mindless way at its trough. This may be their greatest misconception. Culture is a virtual reality but mind and consciousness are really real, therefore more fundamental. To put it another way, there is no such thing as culture except to the extent that our minds identify it and reify it. Again: minds are primary, culture is secondary.

    I agree that ‘mind’ is a general term to describe our self-aware consciousness, but I think it is entirely legitimate and quite useful. Terms such as sentience, thoughts, emotions, self, and many others probably just describe aspects of mind. Certainly, some neuroscientists are highly focused on these questions. Damasio’s popular book on consciousness, “Self Comes to Mind”, comes to mind. I definitely agree that no one has come up with a plausible description of the relationships between person, mind, brain and matter. The problem has been that the systems of the human organism are so complex that we are as yet unable to define what there is, let alone what it is. This problem is especially acute in research on the nervous system. For example, neurons are the major building blocks of the CNS and we know little of how they work. Some of the most complex structural systems ever encountered are found within neurons, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface. A visit to Jon Lieff’s blog, Searching for the Mind, will give an inkling of what I am talking about. (http://jonlieffmd.com)

    So, mind might be referring to a base thing in the minds of some, or to the Holy Ghost in the minds of others. Some minds see God, others have seen ghosts. Some see a world of moralizing fools, ready to be exploited and taken advantage of. I think mind is a thing without peer, a thing of subtlety, capable of everything than we can possibly imagine, and more – a universe contemplating itself. It can also be a very dangerous instrument that we do not understand very well.

    I believe the mind, as a physical system, is real but is put together by numerous subsystems that are still too hidden and too complex for us to understand. The contents of the mind are apparently real too, but at this time we can not even imagine how that works. There is no reason to think that the keys to a fuller understanding will not ever be found, but In the mean time, we must carry on. There is also little reason to believe that purely language based introspection and self-analysis will provide the missing clues.

    I predict that we will come to realize that each mind is put together differently, physically and functionally, so behavior will always be unpredictable; hence difference must be respected. We will also learn how to correlate animal minds and human minds and so will learn tremendously about the structure of our own, in general. At the present we still have no ability to assess, measure or compare the contents of other minds, animal or human.

    So, as I suggest above, questions about God, ghosts, reality, culture and morality will be easier to answer once we have a clearer understanding of mind.

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  30. Hi Mark,

    Obviously I have no idea of those particular circumstances but it sounds like the person involved is simply exploiting the circumstances. I know of no psychologist who would say that a child on Ritalin is not responsible for his or her actions, that would seem to imply that the Ritalin was not helping. They would say that a child who has untreated ADHD is not entirely responsible for his or her actions, but the whole point of the Ritalin (or similar drugs) is to help them take control and thus responsibility.

    Like

    1. Robin, if you don’t think that children are wildly overmedicated — at least in the US — and these conditions wildly overdiagnosed than we have a fundamental disagreement. In my experience teaching literally thousands upon thousands of students, over decades, my impression is that they are and catastrophically so. This is especially true in rural areas, where psychiatrists are almost non-existent and these conditions and drugs are being diagnosed and prescribed by General Practitioners.

      Like

  31. Mark,
    By the 1950s, Heidegger’s philosophic-scholarly work was done, and he writes his texts from that point on really as a public intellectual.

    I brought him into this, first to notice that at this point, historically, recognition that language oft misleads us into metaphysics is well- understood on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, it seems to me that those most earnestly searching for some metaphysical-ontological wholeness now are some scientists and mathematicians.

    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.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Hi Dan,

    Over diagnosis of a particular condition does not entail that the correct diagnosis of that condition represents a particular moral view, let alone an unfortunate one. Antibiotics, for example, are wildly over prescribed almost everywhere, that does not imply that the prescription of antibiotics represents an unfortunate moral view per se.

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  33. EJ,
    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.

    That is a very interesting thought and my mind is running riot considering the implications.
    Could you perhaps expand on the idea?

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  34. No, overdiagnosis does not represent an unfortunate moral point of view, it represents plain old fashioned incompetence. But the blithering incompetence of US doctors (if you are correct) is no reason to question the legitimacy of the diagnosis.

    Incidentally – in what way has unwarranted medication of your students caused them tremendous harm? Have you reported this to any authorities?

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    1. Reported to authorities? What on earth are you talking about?

      I have students who can barely remember high school, because they were on so many meds. I have students who spent years in fogs. Or in quasi-zombie like states. I have one student who was prescribed bipolar medication, even though he isn’t bipolar.

      What authorities would you like me to go to? Sure, I’ll go to some podunk town in MO, ring the doorbell of the local sheriff, and tell him: “You know, 6 years ago, the local GP misdiagnosed so-and-so, and prescribed him all sorts of medicines he didn’t need.”

      Be serious.

      Like

    2. And yes, it does represent an unfortunate moral point of view. That rather than engage in parenting and teaching of children, which often is difficult, stressful, patience-testing, we’ll just medicate them instead.

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  35. Dan-K,
    The overdiagnosis and unwarranted medication of my students has caused them tremendous harm, which most definitely represents an “unfortunate” moral point of view.

    Agreed, but it is more than that.

    First, there is a quite startling increase in the incidence of severe depression, especially among the young. This trend seem to be evident in other personality disorders but that might be because families of personality disorders overlap a great deal. Something is happening and it is not clear what. Overdiagnosis and increased societal awareness have magnified the problem but nevertheless there is a real problem.

    Second, the response of the medical profession has been exploitative to a degree that leaves me with bitter feelings of anger and disgust. The iniquitous concept of the billable hour that so poisoned the legal profession has invaded the medical profession(though they don’t call it a billable hour). The result is that they seek out a quick fix so that they can maintain a conveyer belt of patients, magnifying their billable hours. The pharmaceutical industry encourage this mentality by over promising chemical cures since it magnifies their profits.

    Patients are also infected by this zeitgeist of quick fixes which the doctors promote.

    Third, the wealth aspirations of the medical profession have grown out of all proportion to that of other professional classes and this has driven their exploitative behaviour. They operate now more as a profit seeking business than as a caring profession. Thus, when they see you, they naturally seek out a form of treatment that maximises their profit margins. Medical insurance inadvertently contributes to this. The medical professions see the insurance companies as a gigantic pot of gold that they seek to plunder. Classic business behaviour which makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath.

    The time has passed when doctors paused and took the time to consider their patients holistically, understanding them, guiding and advising them on all aspect of a healthy life. Now it is – quick, give him a box of pills and call in the next patient. [end of off-topic rant]

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  36. Although rates of ADHD diagnosis have increased, I think this more reflects previous underdiagnosis – not many participants in our prevalence study had a prior doctor diagnosis
    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0047404
    We demonstrated persistence of symptoms into adulthood in around half, with associated effects on functioning. As to possible overprescription of stimulants, there are quite large differences in usage in the different Australian states (by psychiatrists/pediatricians). It is not clear to me (I am not a clinician) what the right proportion is.

    Like

    1. Disagree — and so do many clinicians. Given the rates, its very unlikely. Something like a third of my students have been given some sort of pscyhotropic medication. Don’t tell me a third of kids have ADHD. BS.

      Like

  37. Since I had referenced Damasio’s book I thought I should read it, rather than just relying on a review. The original is very interesting indeed; e.g. the range of perspectives on the self amongst neuroscientists is quite wide, even some who believe that it is not time yet to take the existence of self in to consideration. These latter investigators, Damasio points out, are in the tradition of a David Hume, who “… pulverized the self to the point of doing away with it. The following passages illustrate Hume’s views: “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception and never can observe anything but the perception.” And further on: “I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perceptual flux and movement.”” Images of rabitty moments and rabitty movements immediately sprang to mind.

    Damasio finds himself more in agreement with William James who “… was moved to issue a memorable rebuke and affirm the existence of the self, emphasizing the odd mixture of “unity and diversity” within it and calling attention to the “core of sameness” running through the ingredients of the self.”

    I think this goes to illustrating the point that minds are qualitatively different, even to the level of self-described subjective experience. It should thus be expected that such different minds ‘see’ the self and the world differently. The fundamental error and misconception is to characterize such differences as anything other than differences that are not clearly understood. We should not compound our errors and misconceptions by more of the same.

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  38. DK, the problems of over prescribing (to little or no therapeutic effect) are wide and deep tangles of science/politics/economics/advertising/etc and certainly can be tragic with children, psychiatry is still the wild west as our neurosciences are generally pretty primitive and we are by and large medicating/diagnosing symptoms not causes. With the kids (and than eventually adults) there is often a more basic problem which is that we are con-fusing developmental disorders with neurological illnesses/diseases in part because we don’t generally acknowledge that response-abilities like tolerating frustration, focusing on unpleasant tasks, attending to the interests/feelings of others and all are social skills have to be learned and are not givens.
    So we go from diagnosing attention/behavioral/emotional disorders to categories like defiant disorders to personality disorders as one ages, but it’s the same underlying developmental failures at work.
    http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/08/22/doctor-patient-relationship

    Liked by 1 person

  39. ombhurbhuva

    “… [I]t may be that [Weingarten] is not so wrong as he thinks he is. If you consider ontology as the study of being as such or what exists and epistemology as the study of knowledge as such or what we know and how we know it then it could be argued that what exists is what we have ‘empirical acquaintance’ with. That would bring out the congruence between ontology and epistemology. His error, if such it was, is sublated in a higher synthesis.”

    Weingarten may or may not agree with you (I think he wants to insist that he was fudging it and so is everybody else and forget the higher synthesis). If he saw your comment, however, I suspect that he might not only be grudgingly impressed with that notion of sublation, but even itching to use it at the earliest opportunity.

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  40. 7% – 9% of kids (up to 17) in your area are receiving medication for ADHD, according to the CDC. ADHD kids have a much lower rate of finishing high school than the average. In the 18-30 range 7.8% of people have an ADHD, you are unlikely to see most of these if you have a high school completion requirement for your course.

    So, no, 33% of your kids don’t have an ADHD diagnosis and if 33% of your kids are receiving medication for ADHD then the vast majority of them are getting it illegally.

    http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html

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  41. Hi dmf,

    Do you have any actual evidence for any of these claims? I have, as I have pointed out, consulted the very best psychologists and doctors in Australia, who use the actual clinical evidence and who really do have the best interests of me and my children at heart.

    In opposition to this I see an article from Esquire and a book about bedside practice. OK, my doctors probably don’t say a little medical prayer at the start of each day but I really don’t think that is relevant.

    Like

    1. I know. Your dad can beat up my dad. My students weren’t misdiagnosed. They weren’t treated for things they didn’t have. A ridiculous 20% of boys and more than 30% of young people aren’t being diagnosed with a brain disease.

      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.

      Oh, and the Esquire article you deride is based on the work of a real clinician. And he’s hardly the only one alarmed by this alleged sudden epidemic of brain disease in a wealthy, first-world country.

      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.

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  42. Labnut

    Regarding metempsychosis etc., your personal ontology seems to be as rich as mine is spare. At least we are united in our respect for science.

    “The laws of nature, and therefore the mathematics that express them, are as real as our Universe.”

    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)? After all, there is nothing to say that the continuous mathematics typically used in physics provides more than an *approximation* to what is actually going on. (The map is not the territory and all that.)

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  43. Liam

    “Culture is a virtual reality but mind and consciousness are really real, therefore more fundamental. To put it another way, there is no such thing as culture except to the extent that our minds identify it and reify it. Again: minds are primary, culture is secondary.”

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

    You emphasize neuronal complexity. But isn’t it enough to point to the *least* complex sentient thing drifting to the warmer part of the pond? Isn’t *this* (i.e. physical stuff with the beginnings of a ‘point of view’) where the mystery lies if it lies anywhere? (Using the word ‘mind’ for this would be a bit forced, I think, but I’m not too hung up on terminology. You could see it as ‘incipient mind’ I suppose.)

    Focusing on basic sentience also has the advantage of allowing you to ignore the complexities and confusions of human culture.

    “There is … little reason to believe that purely language based introspection and self-analysis will provide the missing clues.”

    Agreed.

    “I predict that we will come to realize that each mind is put together differently, physically and functionally, so behavior will always be unpredictable…”

    Okay.

    “… We will also learn how to correlate animal minds and human minds and so will learn tremendously about the structure of our own, in general.”

    Yes. But I’m still not altogether clear where you are coming from. You mention Damasio some of whose writings I have read and liked. I’ve had a quick look at Jon Liess but would need more time to make an assessment. One thing that worries me is that he seems to have some kind of association with a group which includes Rupert Sheldrake. I made a negative judgment about Sheldrake (his scientific credibility) some time ago. In general I don’t think research into the ‘paranormal’ has produced robust (positive) results.

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