Bits and Pieces — Truth and Ontology

by Daniel A. Kaufman

‘Truth’ and ‘is true’

The most popular view on truth is some variation on the correspondence theory, according to which saying that a statement is true is saying that it “corresponds” to “reality” or “the facts” or “states of affairs” or some such thing.  The trouble with this to my mind is at least threefold:  (i) As per Donald Davidson’s observation, it’s not at all clear that saying “ ‘S’ is true to the facts” tells us anything more than simply saying “ ‘S’ is true” (p. 16); (ii) The notions of “reality,” “the facts,” etc., at play seem either obvious and uninteresting or else hopelessly vague and obscure; (iii) Worst of all, even if one sets (ii) aside, I don’t see how one could give an account of any of these things – “reality,” “the facts,” etc. – without either explicitly or tacitly employing the concept of truth, which makes the correspondence theory circular.

For quite some time, it’s seemed to me that going too deeply into the concept of truth is a mistake, which is why I’ve found deflationary accounts of the expression ‘is true’ appealing.  To say that ‘snow is white’ is true is simply to say that snow is white.  (As you might expect, there are umpteen versions of this account, each with its own peculiarities.)  As Kant maintained that ‘exists’ is not a predicate – and that consequently, existence is not a property – so the deflationist thinks that ‘is true’ is not a predicate and truth is not a property.

Some want to make hay of the fact that ‘truth’ can appear as a subject in sentences, as in “The truth is important” or that we can say things like “something he said must be true” and that such uses demonstrate that there must be something more to the words ‘truth’ and ‘true’ than deflationary accounts give credit for.  I must admit to having always found such objections petty and irritating, not to mention insensible to the even broader, myriad uses of these terms and their variations:

“What he said is nothing more than a truism,” meaning trivial and uninteresting.

“She remained true to me, through good times and bad,” meaning faithful, in both the broad and narrow senses.

“His arrow flew straight and true,” meaning “without deviation.”

(Slang) “That shit is the motherfucking truth,” meaning “the best.”

“This is my grandmother’s tried and true method of getting rid of red wine stains,” meaning “effective.”

If anything, the diversity of such uses would seem to suggest that there is no single account of ‘truth’ and ‘true’ to be had; that like a multi-bit tool, the words can be used for a number of purposes, in a number of contexts and that at best we can describe what some of these uses are, as the deflationist does with ‘is true’.

Ontology and Physicalism

When we talk about ontology, we are talking about what exists.  In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical.  But it seems quite obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

Before anyone gets too excited, I’m not thinking about gods, angels, demons, ghosts or anything like that.  I don’t think there are any.  Nor am I thinking of mathematical objects like numbers, sets, geometrical figures and the like, though I don’t think I believe that those exist either, at least not strictly speaking.

But the State of Missouri certainly exists.  As does the United States.  I am a resident of the first and a citizen of the second, which means that residents and citizens also exist.  The money in my bank account definitely exists (thank goodness), and if it ceased to exist, I’d be in serious trouble.  The laws requiring that the tags on one’s cars be up to date certainly exist, which is why, several years ago, I got a ticket for having expired tags.  You get my drift.  All these things exists.  Obviously.  Straightforwardly.  And yes, strictly speaking.  Yet none of them is physical on any plausible interpretation.  The constitution of the United States exists, and if you burned every extant manuscript of it, it still would exist.  The same is true for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Some have thought that these things can be given a type/token treatment.  As this strategy goes, any instantiation of my money will have to be physical – in paper, metals, electrical signals, etc. – and this might lead you to say (as it has made people like Jerry Fodor say) that you are, with respect to everything, at least a “token” physicalist.  This still leaves types unaccounted for, but one might deal with them like one deals with mathematical objects and say they don’t exist strictly speaking.  Still, I don’t see any of this is going to help you with residents or citizens or civil and criminal laws.  It’s not at all clear that the ink markings in a book in some law library are “instantiations” of laws, in the way that a piece of paper is an instantiation of $5 or a performance is a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and even as I write this, I am beginning to wonder if the latter really makes sense in all of its applications.  After all, if I burn a $5 bill, I’ve lost $5, not an instantiation or token of $5.

What we are talking about is social and cultural reality and the ontological status of the things that belong to it.  Since Anscombe, it has been somewhat common to distinguish “brute” facts – which might have existed independently of any human intentional activity – from “institutional” ones – which only exist because of human intentional activity.  Terry Diffey uses this distinction to make the case that artworks are institutional facts in “The Republic of Art,” and John Searle employs it in his book,  The Construction of Social Reality, where he maintains that institutional facts arise, when certain brute facts are assigned various “status functions,” by way of “collective intentionality.”  Searle, however, is not particularly interested in the question of the ontological status of the things that comprise social reality, indeed, he thinks it’s all physical, all the way down:

I see the human ability to create money, property, government, and marriage as an extension of more basic biological phenomena such as the ability of human beings to engage in cooperative behavior, and their innate capacity for linguistic symbolism. My concern, in short, is with institutional reality, which is a special case of social reality. It is a matter of status functions, it is about the deontic powers accruing to status functions, and it is utterly naturalistic.  (p. 300)

Searle’s chief concept – he refers to it as a “mnemonic” – is X counts as Y in C, the idea being that an institutional fact is a brute fact that comes to be counted by people as being and doing something, which could not have occurred solely as a result of the physical features that make up the brute fact.  This is all very well, and it certainly is Searle’s prerogative not to be interested in social ontology, but it seems quite clear to me that (a) there is nothing wrong with the ontological questions – What is a citizen?  What is money?   What are laws? and (b) that one cannot slide smoothly from talk about facts to talk about things and that “X counts as Y in C” is not going to make sense of all of the different kinds of social facts we have been examining.  It’s not me, the biological organism that is a resident of Missouri or a citizen of the United States, but me the person, and my personhood is not a brute fact as Searle has defined it, and with respect to something like a law or currency, the idea that these things are physical objects upon which certain statuses or roles have been imposed just seems obviously wrong.

My own view, to the extent that I have one – it really is only partially formed at this point – is that the brute/institutional distinction might be of some use, but only if we drop the identification of brute facts with physical ones.  Anscombe did not – for her, what is “brute” is simply defined in relation to that which is not – i.e. “he has potatoes” is brute, relative to “he supplied me with potatoes” – (p.3) so on her view a social fact may itself be brute relative to another social fact.  Indeed, I think this is the case not just with social facts but with social things, and with Wittgenstein, I would say that much of the things we have been talking about are “social all the way down,” and I mean that ontologically.  People may want to object to this as being mysterian or involving some “queer metaphysics,” but those who do are simply conflating the Manifest and Scientific images.  In the Manifest Image, things like persons and points of view – and thus, intentionality – are ontologically basic, and social reality only exists within it.  The Manifest Image is neither reducible to the Scientific Image, nor eliminable in favor of it, and I would argue that with respect to our ordinary, lived lives, it is primary.

So yes, all sorts of things exist, strictly speaking, that are not physical, but rather social and cultural, and this doesn’t involve any Platonic or Cartesian entities, but only the most common, ordinary things in the world – i.e. persons and their intentionality and agency.

58 Comments »

  1. Commenting on “truth”.

    First, I agree that the correspondence theory seems circular, though many people disagree.

    For quite some time, it’s seemed to me that going too deeply into the concept of truth is a mistake, which is why I’ve found deflationary accounts of the expression ‘is true’ appealing.

    In ordinary life, we use “true” in many different ways. And it mostly works out. In that sense, we don’t need to question it. But sometimes “true” is used in a more restricted, such as when doing logic or mathematics. And I am inclined to think that some sort of analysis is appropriate for those more restricted uses of “true”.

    Many people seem to take “true” as completely human independent. Roughly speaking, that leaves truth as an immaterial substance that permeates the universe. I sometimes describe that as “the theistic view of truth”. But I suppose that should really be “the monotheistic view of truth”, for if there are many gods there is no reason why they should all agree about what is true. For myself, I am inclined to see truth as a human invention, a pragmatic invention that is needed for language to work.

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  2. Commenting on ontology and physicalism.

    I am not a physicalist. I agree with your reasoning on why physicalism is false, except that I won’t say that physicalism is false, nor will I say that physicalism is true. I’ll only say that I am not a physicalist. For me, it is very unclear what “physicalism” is supposed to mean, and that’s why I won’t say that it is true or false.

    Since Anscombe, it has been somewhat common to distinguish “brute” facts – which might have existed independently of any human intentional activity – from “institutional” ones – which only exist because of human intentional activity.

    There are no brute facts. There are only institutional facts. What people describe as “brute facts” are really just institutional facts where the relevant institutions are so deeply entrenched in our culture that we do not question them.

    I’m inclined to think that philosophy would be better off without ontology. Mathematicians manage quite well without worrying about the ontology of mathematical objects. And I suspect that philosophers could manage just as well.

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  3. Either Truth is a focal point of a coordination game or it is beyond our ken. Correspondence theories were exploded before I was born.

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  4. St. Augustine was aware of the following Pelagian ‘Judas’ argument which you, with the timidity of psychoses, phrase thus- ‘my personhood is not a brute fact as Searle has defined it’.
    Of course it is. Searle can only derive an ‘ought’ from an is by a type of modal collapse. He just wasn’t a particularly bright guy and, fatally, was on the wrong side of the C.P Snow barzakh between the two cultures- one which says you are crazy and declasse and the other which says you can still do Philosophy coz ur crazy and declasse.

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  5. “… it seems quite clear to me that … there is nothing wrong with the ontological questions – What is a citizen? What is money? What are laws?”

    You can call these ontological questions if you like, but, as normally asked, they would not call for philosophically-oriented answers, but rather (I would have thought) the sorts of answers that experts in the relevant fields might give.

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  6. I think I’d be wanting to say that if you had a good answer to the ordinary question, you wouldn’t need to go any further. You would understand the concept. If you wanted then to talk about the ontological status of these concepts, okay. But I don’t really see these particular concepts as having any particular mystery attached to them which needs to be further explained.

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    • Well, the essay is about ontology and specifically about why I think physicalism can’t be true. If you aren’t interested in ontology, then that’s your prerogative, but the piece is about ontology.

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  7. Perhaps I should just let things be, but I always thought it might be easier to start by talking about error. We may not know the truth, but we can often pick out shortcomings of propositions or proofs – undecidability might fit in here somewhere too. That I have made an error is often a brute fact, in the sense it that it goes beyond intentionality out into the world to come back and kick me up the bum.

    As to facts, it seems hard to me to talk about this concept without having some workable notion of truth (“true truth-bearers”, “truthmakers”, those things that truly exist and should be included in my ontology) that we can agree on.

    PS whenever I see “snow is white” I have an urge to try and enumerate all the assumptions that must be accepted by me to agree this is true.

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  8. It may be true that ‘S is true to the facts’ does not generally say more than ‘S is true’. But equally, ‘S is true’ doesn’t normally say more than ‘S’ itself is saying. That is, I would regard as normal, any discourse where honesty and truthfulness may be justifiably ascribed to all participants.

    I know of course that this does not always obtain, and though I would still call it normal; that in some arenas it may be rare indeed,. And in particular I find that a fair few people, including, regrettably, the President of the United States, though they may be honest for all I know, in the sense of believing what they’re saying, at the time of saying it, seem literally incapable of truthfulness. And to express that thought I find that I do require the correspondence account of truth.

    I’d call it an account, or a tool, and not a theory, since theories are the kinds of things that may or may not be true; that is, a notion of truth must be always presupposed on any theorizing endeavor; whereas tools are the kinds of things that may or may not be useful, depending on the job at hand.

    So we may, apropos Searle, regard the speech act of saying that, or asking whether, something is true, as an invitation to step outside the frame of the current discourse, to ascertain whether a) a state of affairs obtain, that ‘S’ may or may not be true about; or b) whether a certain party has any awareness whatsoever of independent states of affairs, i.e. is capable of truthfulness; or c) whether a certain subject even admits of independent states of affairs.

    It is in this sense that Bertrand Russel claimed that mathematics is “that subject where we never know what we are talking about, nor whether anything we say is true”. Mathematics may not necessarily ‘be’ that subject, but it is nevertheless a popular account of the field, that Russel evidently subscribed to, that it is not about anything other than itself, and that therefore no correspondence truth may obtain. We are then left with the other popular, and complementary, account of truth as coherence, in mathematics rendered as the consistency requirement.

    In a somewhat similar vein I may be inventing an etology of unicorns. Since no state of affairs obtain that corresponds to anything in this account, there is no correspondence truth of the matter. But if I were to use that contrivance in a fantasy novel, then there would for the reader be in-universe states of affairs that one can say things about, that may, or may not be true. Yet as anything I would say on the matter would be true by author fiat, as long as simply coherent, I am strictly excluded from that particular discourse.

    But if I was to regard myself as the author of reality, I would be engaged in a category error, that may or may not be pathological. In particular, if I thereby render myself incapable of truthfulness, then I must regard it as pathological. And to do that I think I need the correspondence account of truth.

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  9. What is correspondence? This is the basic weasel word. Is it “like?” as in “resembles” or “looks like?” Correspondence is an imaginary relation that helps us to understand how our beliefs and perceptions fit into our general understanding. One-to-one correspondence is a relation we construct in our minds, often used in mathematics. Truth is a relationship between our beliefs or our perceptions and our understanding. Think of reality as a pizza with everything on it. Understandings are big pieces that we always share. . Perceptions are smaller slices, and beliefs are still smaller slices.
    Correspondence cannot be a physical relationship, it is internal to the mind. Institutional facts are physical because they exist by virtue of collective agreement. If enough people do not recognize a piece of paper as money it ceases to be money. That social recognition is a physical process that includes neural activity in people’s brains as well as social actions. Something can only exist as money if it is so used, ie., physically transferred by hand or electronically.

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  10. I had a jar of money once when I went to sleep and the money no longer existed when I woke in the morning, although the jar and its contents hadn’t changed.

    I am not sure that you could say something strictly exists if a clock ticking past midnight can cause it to cease to exist.

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  11. Dan-K,
    In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical. But it seems quite obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

    Sean Carroll, in his blog, uses as his by-line, this famous statement from Democritus

    in truth there are only atoms and the void

    This eminent theoretical physicist certainly believes in physicalism, as Democritus did. But for Democritus this was merely an inspired guess, whereas Carroll has very good reasons for his belief, and you would be hard pressed to deny his contention.

    Why do I say this?

    The Big Bang has fundamentally changed the way we understand the world, more than is commonly realised. At the Big Bang a vast field of energy spontaneously condensed as matter, causing the rapid expansion of space. At this moment there was only space and elementary particles. These elementary particles clumped, condensed and re-arranged themselves in strict accordance with the laws of nature, arriving eventually at us, all still in strict accordance with the laws of nature. From that moment, 14.7 billion years ago, nothing new was created, it was merely re-arranged, in ever growing complexity. From that moments, 14.7 billion years ago, all that existed was physical. If that was true then (and we know it was), and nothing new has been created, then surely only the physical exists today?

    If you wished to deny this you would need to show that something new could be created, that was not physical, and in accordance with the laws of nature.

    No-one has come even close to showing this. All we see are endless promissory notes.

    All right then, you could argue in reply that the laws of nature are not physical and there are no limitations on the possible outcomes of the laws of nature. If there are non-physical laws of nature then we can imagine the possibility that these non-physical laws of nature can have non-physical outcomes as David Chalmers does, in his examination of the hard problem of consciousness.

    But you deny that there are(upper case) Laws of Nature and maintain instead that these are instead only (lower case) laws of nature, that are merely descriptive of the properties of particles and fields. If that is the case then the universe is indeed only physical from beginning to end, since the properties of the particles are fixed, and physicalism must therefore be inevitably true. Therefore any appearance of non-physicalism is merely a mirage created by our inability(for the time being) to explain the manifestation in terms of the strict operation of the laws of nature.

    Brian Greene, in his book, Hidden Reality, makes this argument persuasively, and try as I will, I cannot fault his argument. Appealing to Wittgenstein is no answer 🙂

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    • Labnut, I did exactly as you asked. Social reality exists and is not credibly understood as being physical, in any relevant sense of the word. It’s hardly as if I just “appealed to Wittgenstein.”

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  12. Dan-K.
    Social reality exists and is not credibly understood as being physical

    According to the Big Bang theory of existence nothing but the physical can exist. Social reality has the ‘appearance‘ of contradicting this.Which should I trust? An ‘appearance‘ or the very well established theory of the Big Bang?

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  13. The only way out of your dilemma is to abandon your belief in descriptive laws of nature and instead adopt a belief in non-physical prescriptive Laws of Nature.

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  14. Dan-K,
    I don’t think there is any dilemma in saying that my money exists. Or the traffic laws.

    My money is on your compatriot, Noah Hariri, when he says it is all a fiction.

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  15. Dan-K
    Try and refuse to pay a bill, because it’s a fiction and see what happens.

    Fictions have compelling power because we subscribe to them. We do so because behaving as if fictions were real makes them a compelling belief and this is greatly to society’s benefit.

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  16. Dan

    “Social reality exists and is not credibly understood as being physical, in any relevant sense of the word.”

    But no reasonable person calling him/herself a physicalist doesn’t accept the force (or reality) of social reality.

    “I don’t think there is any dilemma in saying that my money exists. Or the traffic laws… Try and refuse to pay a bill, because it’s a fiction and see what happens.”

    But, again, who actually denies that these things have meaning and force?

    Labnut replied: “Fictions have compelling power because we subscribe to them. We do so because behaving as if fictions were real makes them a compelling belief and this is greatly to society’s benefit.”

    Dan: “Sherlock Holmes is a fiction. Your debts are not.”

    The word “fiction” can be used in different ways. Labnut and Noah Hariri are using it more broadly. *In a sense* things like nation states and corporations and money are fictions. But this is just a (slightly provocative) way of saying that they only work if a certain number of people believe the “story”. They are products of specifically human kinds of interaction (requiring intelligence, language, etc.).

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  17. Hi Dan:

    In addition to the three criticisms of the correspondence theory you give, there is another point that I think gets neglected. The concept of truth plays a role in argument as well as in description. All the key ideas in argument — cogency, validity, probability, support, reason, objection, relevance — are interdefined with the concept of truth. So any account of truth that is constructed simply in terms of correspondence with states of affairs must be incomplete. We need a further account of the role of truth in argument. “X is a reason for Y” makes sense only if we think of the truth of X (if it is true) as making the truth of Y more probable. This is not a matter of the supposed correspondence between “Y” and Y or of any other sort of correspondence. “Truth” is much more elusive than that.

    Alan

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  18. Hi labnut

    “This eminent theoretical physicist certainly believes in physicalism, as Democritus did.”

    Sean Carroll selectively quoted Democritus, here is the whole quote as introduced by Schrödinger:

    Galenus has preserved us a fragment (Diels, fr. 125), in which Democritus introduces the intellect having an argument with the senses about what is ‘real’. The former says:‘ Ostensibly there is colour, ostensibly sweetness, ostensibly bitterness, actually only atoms and the void’, to which the senses retort: ‘Poor intellect, do you hope to defeat us while from us you borrow your evidence? Your victory is your defeat.’

    That paints a somewhat different picture of his views.

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  19. Hi labnut:

    Let’s agree for the sake of the argument that the universe is merely a grand collection of elementary particles. It’s just fermions and bosons and nothing else. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_particle). Everything else in our ontology is merely a mirage, a fiction, a manner of speaking, a cultural construct.

    That view would rule out not just cultural artefacts but also most of science. Chemistry (the periodic table) would be just a cultural construct. Do you want to say that? I don’t think you do.

    But if chemical constructs are real then why not cultural constructs? The Eiffel Tower, for example? It has both physico-chemical and cultural properties. Either both sets of properties are real or neither are real. Your version of physicalism seems to entail the latter, since the Eiffel Tower is on that view just yet another mini-collection of fermions and bosons in a swirling universe of fermions and bosons.

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  20. Alan,
    Do you want to say that? I don’t think you do.

    Yes, of course I do want to say that.The very name is a cultural construct, not to say all the names of the elements.

    Mark English has ‘got‘ it.

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  21. Hi Robin,
    That paints a somewhat different picture of his views.

    The you have missed my point, which is to point out what a modern young theoretical physicist thinks. And he is only one of a great many like minded thinkers. Brian Greene is a rather good example.

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  22. Hi Alan,
    Everything else in our ontology is merely a mirage, a fiction, a manner of speaking, a cultural construct.

    Yes, exactly. The simple test is to imagine what would happen if an especially virulent virus wiped out the memory and capacity to read of the human species. The cultural construct would have disappeared. The rest of the universe would look the same. The same laws of nature would continue to operate. The disappearance of the cultural construct would not change the universe even one iota for the simple reason it is not real.

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  23. I’m sorry Labnut, but the “especially virulent virus” is something real, and it has destroyed something real. If you like Hariri’s posthumanism, then you would have to agree that the evolution of our civilisation may well in fact alter the future evolution of the universe at the macro level.

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  24. Labnut:

    So, correct me if I have misunderstood. You’re an anti-realist about everything except fermions and bosons. On your view what we today call the hydrogen atom has no reality; it is just a convenient human fiction. If human discourse were wiped out, the hydrogen atom would be wiped out, along with our discourse about hydrogen. Only fermions and bosons would survive. Really? I can’t see how to reconcile this with the fact (or what I had assumed as fact) that hydrogen has been around since shortly after the Big Bang.

    Secondly, your “reality test” would eliminate all human cultural constructs, but that’s because it would eliminate all human social practices, and it is those practices that are the reality that human cultural constructs conceptualise. That includes the practices of science. So it’s not an appropriate way of testing.

    You recommend Carroll, Greene and Hariri. I recommend Patricia Hanna and Bernard Harrison, “Word and world: Practice and the foundations of language”. (Try Google.) A long and brilliant essay on the conceptual dimension of these questions.

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  25. Alan,
    You’re an anti-realist about everything except fermions and bosons.
    I am afraid you have misread me. See below.

    On your view what we today call the hydrogen atom has no reality

    No, not true of my (fictional 🙂 ) beliefs. There are many arrangements of elementary particles and these arrangements have structure and new properties. What does not exist are the labels we attach to them and nor do our theories about them exist.

    There are three simple tests for reality. 1) It cannot come into being from nothing. 2) It cannot be destroyed. It can change form or structure or it can change into energy or back. 3) It is subject to entropy. To this we can add the observation that reality does not exhibit agency.

    Our entire world of thought fails these three tests and therefore is a fiction.

    Thanks for the reference. I will consult it. That might not be soon because my long trail runs consume a lot of my time.

    Your argument amounts to the claim ‘here is the world of thought, it is evidently real and exists because we all think it’. It is a claim that lacks any kind of explanation or causal development. Implicit in everyone’s argument is the brute-force claim that it must have somehow happened. Dan-K, I suspect, would say that the brute-force claim is enough for him and we should accept it as a ‘given’.

    That is not good enough for me because it stands in stark contradiction to everything that science has told us. Science cannot accommodate or explain your claimed reality. If we trace the machine-like development of the universe since the Big Bang there is simply no way that science allows the creation of a new, non-material reality, not even in principle. It is not even on the distant perceptual horizons of scientific thought.

    I am not being mischievous. I am, in the first place, expressing my genuine perplexity at a profound contradiction, and, in the second place, my amazement that thinkers so readily accept this contradiction with little thought about its implications.

    There are three approaches to this:

    1) The New Mysterians. Colin McGinn – “consciousness is “a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel”
    2) A new law of nature. David Chalmers believes consciousness can only be explained by uncovering an entirely new law of nature. In other words consciousness is in some way a property of the Universe. I suspect Nagle veers towards this point of view.
    3) The conscious machine. It is the wishful belief that machines can somehow develop consciousness. But everything points against this.

    The majority of people cling to the belief in the conscious machine. It is a belief that lacks any kind of grounding. It is a brute-force statement that the world must be like this. As such it is nothing but a metaphysical commitment. It needs to be recognised as such and then we need to explore why so many have this urgent need to make this particular metaphysical commitment.

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  26. Alan,
    As for what I really believe, I believe that the world of thought is real. It is not a fiction. It is not an illusion and we really do possess a circumscribed free will, My questioning was intended drain the marsh of complacency.

    Of the three possible approaches I reject the conscious machine because it stands in contradiction to everything that science tells us. I reject mysteries “that human intelligence will never unravel“. And so I adopt the David Chalmers view that consciousness is somehow embedded in the Universe in the form of an, as yet undiscovered, law of nature. Our knowledge of the laws of nature are still fragmentary and we know there is a great deal to still be discovered. What is left is the hard part as we have already picked the low hanging fruit. And so progress will be increasingly slow. As we progress it will become harder and this will lend credence to the New Mysterians belief that “consciousness is “a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel“. But difficulty is not the same thing as impossibility.

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  27. Labnut,

    “According to the Big Bang theory of existence nothing but the physical can exist. Social reality has the ‘appearance‘ of contradicting this.Which should I trust? An ‘appearance‘ or the very well established theory of the Big Bang?”

    Is this a denial of free will?

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  28. Is this a denial of free will?

    On the face of it, yes. On-one has ever discovered an escape clause in the inexorable force of the laws of nature.

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  29. Dan-K,
    I loved your essay on free will. You spoke with such force and conviction that for a moment I was tempted to believe you. And moreover anyone who quotes Chesterton has a most refined mind who deserves to be believed.

    But reality intervened.

    Now, beyond half-wits, there also are genuinely crazy people, who will want to say, “so much the worse for actions and reasons and agency then” and suggest that motor movements and their mechanical (and other hard-scientific) causes are all there “really” is.

    I am not sure which one I am, a half-wit, or a genuinely crazy person. But then I remembered Kant’s famous words:
    This is a wretched subterfuge with which some persons still let themselves be put off, and so think they have solved, with a petty word jugglery

    This opens the door to the possibility I am neither.

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  30. The thing about a debt is that it can begin to exist when two people agree that it exists and cease to exist when they agree that it doesn’t exist. You couldn’t say that of a hydrogen atom. That seems to be a different kind of “exists”.

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    • Well, yeah, social reality is very different from physical reality. But it’s not any less real or “existing.”

      Philosophers have found no profit in trying to get out of the problem by defining ‘exists’ in different ways.

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  31. Hi labnut:

    You say:

    “There are three simple tests for reality. 1) It cannot come into being from nothing. 2) It cannot be destroyed. It can change form or structure or it can change into energy or back. 3) It is subject to entropy. To this we can add the observation that reality does not exhibit agency.”

    That’s four tests, surely. Four heavy-duty metaphysical tests. I guess you mean that a thing is real only if it meets all four tests. That would rather narrow the field. Whether we need tests like these seems doubtful to me, but I’ll respond on your terms.

    Intuitively I’m not happy with (1) and (4).

    If we accept (1) and we accept the Big Bang, then nothing in our universe is real, assuming (as I would but others may not) that the BB was a something-out-of-nothing event. If God exists, as you may suppose, then that assumption would perhaps fail, though theists usually contend that God created things ex nihilo.

    As for (4), agency, as I see it anything that has power has agency, meaning the capacity to cause change in other things. I follow Harre and Madden’s “Causal Powers” on that. I take it that agency need not be free agency, in the indeterminist contra-causal sense of free. Maybe your idea of agency is free or contra-causal agency.

    But put that aside. Let’s return to the Eiffel Tower. It seems to pass your four tests (assuming by agency you mean free agency). I assumed you would wish to exclude it from your ontology. But if you allow real existence to the Eiffel Tower where do you stop? Every physico-cultural entity gets allowed in. Even human persons, who are (I take it) physico-cultural beings.

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  32. I find Hanna and Harrison’s idea of a “nomothetic object” helpful. Their paradigm case is a chess-King.

    “[T]he King in chess is a nomothetic object. When, that is, in specifying a move in chess in some such words as “King takes Bishop’s Pawn,” we refer to the King, what we are referring to is plainly an entity constituted by the rules of chess, whose essence, whose being, as it were, is determined simply by certain provisions of those rules; as that it is the piece that occupies a certain square at the outset of the game, which disposes of certain powers of displacement from square to square of the board, and that, finally, is the piece whose immobilisation by one of the players constitutes victory in the game. Granted, the King in most actual games of chess is represented by a piece of boxwood or ivory carved in a certain characteristic way. But it is not the material of which it is made, nor the characteristic shape into which it is carved, which makes it a chess-King. Chess-Kings can be carved or moulded out of many materials, and in many styles. What makes a physical object a chess-King is its place in a practice: a practice that is in part a linguistic practice. What makes it a chess-King is that it is one of a set of objects made to serve as chess-pieces, and hence carved in ways that make it possible to distinguish pieces endowed by the rules of chess with conventional properties of one sort or another: different powers of displacement from square to square, for instance.

    It is in the nature of names for nomothetic objects that it will not be possible to explain the meaning of such a name by correlating it with any constituent or aspect of the natural world. For nomothetic objects are not natural. They are, precisely, creatures not of physis, but of nomos. They have no existence in nature because they have no existence prior to the institution of the systems of convention that call them into being. It follows that the intuition that writers such as Evans see as central to Russell’s Principle, that thought stands in a “more direct” relation to an object when the entity in question is an object of sensory acquaintance, fails for nomothetic objects. It is possible, as Wittgenstein suggests at Investigations I.31, that someone might have learned the rules of chess without ever having been shown an actual piece. But though such a person may not know, yet, what a chess-King looks like, it seems evident that he or she nevertheless already knows, prior to being shown a sample piece, what a chess-King is. For what a chess-King is, is a function of the rules of chess, and ex hypothesi the learner already knows those. Sensory acquaintance with a chess piece of that type merely supplies the learner with a piece of collateral information about the King, namely, that it is represented in a certain way according to a certain (standard) representational convention. But representational conventions governing the appearance of chess-pieces – and there are others, early Mediaeval, Asian, or African, for instance – are clearly external, or at best supplementary, to the rules of chess themselves; and it is the latter that define the concept of the King: define, that is, what one means by the expression “chess-King.” In this case, then, knowledge of some rules, some conventions, gets thought as close to its object as it can be got. There is no “more direct” relationship in which it could be placed, and certainly none mediated by sensory acquaintance.”

    “Word and world”, page 96-97.

    I think this works as an account for physico-cultural objects. The objects are real and physical but we approach them from their cultural aspect because it is that aspect we wish to deal with. But if we are concerned with possible overloading of a plane, for instance, we approach them from the physical side.

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  33. Well, yeah, social reality is very different from physical reality. But it’s not any less real or “existing.”

    Philosophers have found no profit in trying to get out of the problem by defining ‘exists’ in different ways.

    But that’s the point, it sounds like the only difference between you and a physicalist is the preference about using the word “exist” in a certain way.

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  34. Labnut,

    I could almost go along with you if you used the word ‘abstraction’ rather than ‘fiction’. Do you consider them synonymous?

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  35. Alan,
    If we accept (1) and we accept the Big Bang, then nothing in our universe is real, assuming (as I would but others may not) that the BB was a something-out-of-nothing event.

    Remember that we know nothing about what precedes the Big Bang. From Wikipedia:

    All of this cosmic evolution after the inflationary epoch can be rigorously described and modeled by the ΛCDM model of cosmology, which uses the independent frameworks of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s General Relativity. There is no well-supported model describing the action prior to 10(−)15 seconds or so. Apparently a new unified theory of quantum gravitation is needed to break this barrier. Understanding this earliest of eras in the history of the universe is currently one of the greatest unsolved problems in physics.

    Was it a something-out-of-nothing-event? Or was there a pre-existing field of energy? There certainly must have been pre-existing laws of nature that described how this event would unfold. Therefore we can already say it was not something out of nothing.

    What we do know for sure is that nobody can create something out of nothing now, and that there is no evidence that something has been created out of nothing since that primordial event. We are still stuck with the elementary particles that were created 13.8 billion years ago. Nothing has been added or subtracted.

    I am afraid my rule #1 stands unchallenged.

    #4 was not a test or rule, but an observation.

    Let me re-state my tests for reality. Within our Universe, what is real
    1) Cannot come into being from nothing.
    2) Cannot be destroyed.
    3) Is subject to entropy.

    But if you allow real existence to the Eiffel Tower where do you stop?

    The things you ‘see’ in our Universe today are merely particles that have been re-arranged over the course of 13.8 billion years and are subject to the inexorable forces of entropy.

    Let me repeat myself – We are still stuck with the elementary particles that were created 13.8 billion years ago. Nothing has been added or subtracted. So where does the world of thought come from? We are utterly unable to create thought from particles! Not even in principle. If anything, appeal to principle seems to show it cannot be done.

    Of course I believe the world of thought exists and is a reality. But what I am trying to say is that it is a radically different kind of reality. We have two different kinds of reality, coexisting, the one overlaying the other, but subject to different rules. One is a physical reality and the other is a cognitive reality. We don’t know what those rules are because science cannot(for the time being) observe them. We do know that they are not subject to entropy. And we also know they can be freely and endlessly created. This is what makes cognitive reality so radically different to physical reality. We also know that free agency seems to be an inherent part of this cognitive reality, something which physical reality does not possess.

    I don’t like the term contra-casual because that is not what happens. A better term is co-casual. In other words, we have two sets of causes, one described by the laws of nature, but co-existing alongside the casual powers of thought, with the two interacting weakly.

    To summarise. I think there are two kinds of reality, 1) a physical reality described by the Laws of Nature, and 2) a cognitive reality, that co-exists with physical reality but is seemingly subject to wholly different Laws of Nature that have not yet been described.

    Today’s impasse in the understanding of consciousness is the result of conflating these two different kinds of reality and seeing them only through the lens of physical reality.

    If you disagree I invite you to create thought by suitably re-arranging particles. Good luck with that.

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  36. Let me use an analogy to explain what I mean by co-causal. When I drive a motorcar I can direct it it in certain limited ways. I am a co-cause, operating alongside the other causes. The motorcar is a vehicle, an embodiment, which enables me to exercise my co-casual powers. In the same way, life is the vehicle or embodiment which enables cognitive reality to exercise its co-causal powers.

    The intense debate about the yawning gap between the brain and the mind is a perfect example of two things:
    1) the difference between physical reality and cognitive reality;
    2) the impasses created by conflating two wholly different kinds of reality.

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  37. Nope. Not even close.

    Care to enlarge on your cryptic comment. I feel like an errant student wilting under the professorial stare.

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    • Don’t know what to say about it really. I don’t think the laws regarding registration for your car are any less real than rocks and I don’t think that saying they exist means anything different than saying rocks exist.

      None of that is changed by the fact that laws and rocks are different.

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  38. Don’t know what to say about it really. I don’t think the laws regarding registration for your car are any less real than rocks

    Then I regret to inform you that you have not been reading all my comments.

    I have already conceded the reality of the world of thought. But what I am claiming, though, it is a very different kind of reality that cannot be equated with the reality of physical objects. I only denied the reality of thought in the first place as a means of drawing attention to its very different nature. But I think my methodology was clear to you.

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  39. Hi labnut:

    I do think you have sown some confusion here. You started out by saying that everything that exists is made up of elementary physical particles. Then you say that there is also a non-physical cognitive reality made up of we-know-not-what. There are, you now say, two kinds of reality. This contradicts your first claim.

    Recall your first “test” of what is real:

    “The simple test is to imagine what would happen if an especially virulent virus wiped out the memory and capacity to read of the human species. The cultural construct would have disappeared. The rest of the universe would look the same. The same laws of nature would continue to operate. The disappearance of the cultural construct would not change the universe even one iota for the simple reason it is not real.”

    But the “disappearance of the cultural construct” would amount to wiping our your second kind of reality. The universe would be greatly changed.

    I really can’t tell whether you want to be a monistic physicalist or a mind-body dualist.

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  40. Alan,
    I do think you have sown some confusion here.

    Then you didn’t understand my rhetorical ploy(probably my fault). Dan-K said

    In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical.

    I devised simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means. I then proceeded to use these tests to deny cognitive reality. My intention was to show that cognitive reality was an entirely different kind of reality. If we accept only physical reality then cognitive reality, by those tests, cannot exist. It must be an illusion or a fiction.

    But, simple introspection and shared experience tells us that cognitive reality does exist and Dan-K made this point rather well. Therefore we are talking about two kinds of co-existing reality, physical and cognitive. I therefore agree with Dan-K, when he says

    But it seems quite obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

    He doesn’t say what it means for physicalism to be false. He quite reasonably believes in cognitive reality, but where does it come from? Probably he thinks that cognitive reality is in some way derivative of, or emergent from physical reality. The problem with that is there is no plausible mechanism to describe how that could happen. I instead argue that there is a second, co-existing cognitive reality that overlays physical reality. Of course you can throw my criticism back at me and say there is also no plausible mechanism to describe this. That is quite true and so the argument is at an impasse.

    But the point is not to win the argument but instead to be open to other avenues of thinking about a deep problem.

    I really can’t tell whether you want to be a monistic physicalist or a mind-body dualist.

    No, I am not a monistic physicalist. I really do think that is a completely unsupportable position. But I don’t like the term mind-body dualist. It is redolent of too many unwanted associations. It implies that the mind is a separate, independent entity, which I do not believe.

    Let me use an electrical analogy to give an idea of how things might work. Electric potential is necessary for electrical circuits to work. Electric potential(at the battery or the power station) has an existence independent of electrical circuits. However the electrical circuits shape the way electrical potential is transformed, through the flow of electric current, to perform useful functions. Without the electrical circuits electric potential remains just that, a certain kind of potential.

    In the same way one could argue that cognitive potential exists independently and becomes transformed by its intersection with brain tissue, igniting consciousness and all that follows from that. Just as electrical circuits need some kind of interface with the external world, through sensors, so too does our cognition, through our bodies sensory system.

    So the dualism I am describing is not a mind-body dualism but a cognitive potential – physical world dualism. This is the same kind of dualism we observe in electronics where we have electric potential – physical circuit dualism.

    At this point you might ask what’s the difference? Aren’t we really talking about the same thing? No, because electrons cannot exhibit any choice in the way they flow through electrical circuits. Their behaviour is wholly determined by the electrical circuits. Cognitive potential, on the other hand, can stimulate behaviour which is partially independent of its brain circuits. Its behaviour is under-determined by the brain circuits. It is this mysterious potential for independent agency which must lead us to conclude that cognitive potential is something wholly different and standing apart from the physical world, since it is not possible solely in the physical world. That is because the physical world is driven by the strict determinism of the laws of nature.

    Finally you might ask me where the place is for the soul in all of this. After all I am a Catholic and therefore I should believe in the existence of a soul. I do. I see the soul as being the information state of the brain, preserved in the memory of God. It is immortal because God’s memory is immortal.

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  41. Labnut:

    You say you believe in a soul but not in a non-physical mind and thus you are not a dualist. The soul is “the information state of the brain”. God’s memory is the repository (the Cloud?) of these information states. This is a “cognitive potential — physical world dualism”. Cognitive reality overlays physical reality. There are, you think, two kinds of co-existing reality.

    My objection was that you had contradicted yourself when you defined “reality” in such a way as to exclude this “cognitive reality”. You say you proposed three “simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means”. Not so. What you said is: “There are three simple tests for reality.” That’s a different animal altogether. Either your tests apply to “reality”, in which case they should apply to God and the soul as much as to the physical world, or they apply only to physical stuff, in which case they are not tests of “reality”. Take your pick.

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  42. Alan,
    You say you believe in a soul but not in a non-physical mind and thus you are not a dualist

    This is what I said
    I don’t like the term mind-body dualist. It is redolent of too many unwanted associations.

    I believe in a kind of dualism but the conventional phrase ‘mind-body dualism‘ does not convey what I mean. Think of a program running in a CPU. That is the kind of dualism I mean. They are two separate, distinctly different kinds of things but the one needs the other for its full function.

    God’s memory is the repository (the Cloud?) of these information states.

    the Cloud ‘ is not a useful metaphor at all. It has a well understood meaning in the IT world which confuses the issue, so better not to use the term. The word ‘repository’ also brings in unhelpful meanings.

    My objection was that you had contradicted yourself when you defined “reality” in such a way as to exclude this “cognitive reality”. You say you proposed three “simple, intuitively obvious tests, grounded in science, for what ‘physical’ means”. Not so. What you said is: “There are three simple tests for reality.”

    You were intended to read that phrase in the context of talking about physicalism. That was certainly what I intended. So let me add another pesky little adjective to clear up the confusion:

    There are three simple tests for [physical] reality.

    Either your tests apply to “reality”, in which case they should apply to God and the soul as much as to the physical world, or they apply only to physical stuff, in which case they are not tests of “reality”. Take your pick.

    I have taken my pick(physical reality), see my remark above. My tests apply to physical reality. That was my intended meaning from the outset and I think that is clear when all my comments are read as a whole.

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