Topics are arranged alphabetically in the INDEX.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Story of Ontology

“The real question is why is there “being”? The existence of existence is amazing, awesome.”
Gerald Schroeder

Alice C. Linsley

In our study of epistemology, we encountered philosophers who recognized the importance of the imagination:  Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, even Berkeley. Imagination plays a key role in this story of ontology.

Imagine that you are a spider weaving a web. As a master web-weaver how much thought is directed toward the creation of the web? Is this "ready-at hand" labor, as Heidegger suggests? What role does consciousness play in your actions?

Do you perceive of the web as the entire universe? Probably not, since you fabricated the web in such as way that it extends through air/space, and you are aware that you didn't fabricate the air/space.

Your construction of the web is a matter of daily coping. It is essential to trap other beings: flies, gnats, etc. This means that you are conscious of other beings in your universe.  The web is the spider's way to acquire nourishment to sustain its life, but does it recognize the web as a bounded ontological context?

There is the reality that the web will be broken and must be repaired or rebuilt. Is the spider's web-weaving existence pitiful? Does the spider wonder about the futility of his daily existence?

Of course, spiders do not reason as humans, but this illustrates how humans think about our existence. We fabricate from what we have and we think we are creators. Why is that? We recognize the existence of other entities in our world, especially those upon which we depend. We understand that things break in our world and sometimes the very web of our existence crashes. We grasp intellectually that there are other universes, but we do not know them because they are beyond our bounded context, our consciousness. Often our routines of daily existence cause us to wonder if all this effort is worth it.

The philosophical study of theories of existence and being is called "ontology" and it is probably my favorite area of philosophical study. The term "ontology" is derived from two Greek words: onto (being) and logia (written or spoken discourse).

In this unit, we will look at the nature of being, becoming, and existence (even extinction). In other words, we will explore the web, the air, the relationship of the web and the air, and the relationship of the web in air to the larger universe called "reality." Because the whole story of reality is an impossible tale for humans in our bounded ontological context, we will have to narrow our exploration. We will not wander far from metaphysics. We will not discuss ontology related to aesthetics or to ethics, though ontology determines and informs views of beauty, goodness, fairness, etc.

I hope to tell the story of ontology by staying with concrete particulars like air, fire, water and earth. Let us consider an illustration that employs fire.

When you build a fire, do you believe you have created the element of fire or do you recognize that you have merely started a process? When you contain the fire so that it will not spread, do you also contain the products of the process you started, the smoke and chemical reactions? You are safe while the fire is contained in a small space, but at the same time, you are not safe if the smoke and fumes are contained in the same small space. Apparently, the value or benefit of something being contained (bounded) is relative.

If these illustrations that speak of air and fire remind you of the pre-Socratic debates about primal substance, your thinking is headed in the right direction! Why did Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes not agree as to the substance that makes existence possible? Because each had to interpret their experiences, and no two humans can have exactly the same interpretation. The art and science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. Maybe ontology is simply hermeneutics, or maybe hermeneutics is ontology.

That is what Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) thought. He developed this in his book Ontology--The Hermeneutics of Facticity (1988). The book is a compilation of the lectures he delivered at the University of Freiburg during the summer of 1923. In these lectures, Heidegger reviewed and critically appropriated the hermeneutic tradition, beginning with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and including the thought of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Dilthey (1833-1911). He attempted to reformulate the question of being on the basis of facticity and the everyday world (phenomena/phenomenology).

Heidegger explored the structures of human consciousness, the categories of experience of being, what he called "Dasein." He is one of the philosophers whose work we will investigate in this unit on ontology. Another is Jacques Derrida, an Arabic-speaking, North African Jew who explored the relationship between ontology and theology, calling this "ontotheology," a term he picked up from Immanuel Kant. Derrida's deconstruction employs interpretative principles that have the effect of restoring a more ancient Afro-Asiatic approach to meaning (binary oppositions). He identifies the importance of context and presence, and initiates a deeply ontological conversation. A fundamental assertion of deconstruction is that "there is no outside-text" (il n'y a pas de hors-texte). This oft-quoted phrase from Derrida's Grammatology means simply (or complexly) there is nothing outside of context.

As we came to recognize in our study of epistemology, there are limits to what humans can know. There are perplexing questions that philosophers have never resolved. These include the mind-body problem: how can that which is not extended act on the material world?; and the problem of induction: when is the evidence sufficient? We hit the same roadblock when we explore the central questions of ontology: What really is?; What constitutes being? Plato's Forms was an approach that sought a way around the roadblock. For Plato, the objects perceived as existing have a nature that is beyond what is perceived by the senses. Things are not what they seem to be because they are reflections of the true Forms.

And that takes us to our next illustration. This one uses the element of water and comes from Plato's Republic (X. 602c). The "oar in the water" illustration demonstrates how circumstances (contexts) can affect the individual's perception. Consider an oar half submerged in water. Beneath the water's surface the oar appears to be bent. It appears to have a different trajectory. Many have found this illustration trite. J.L Austin's comment reflects the modern attitude: "Does anyone suppose that if something is straight, then it jolly well has to look straight at all times and in all circumstances?" (Sense and Sensibilia, pages 21 and 29) However, Plato's illustration is less about sensibility than it is about his "two worlds" metaphysics. It is used to make his point that, since we can have only knowledge of Forms, we cannot have any false beliefs about Forms. What is below the surface, though refracted, is yet the very real projection of what is above the surface.

Austin appears to be unfamiliar with the Nilotic background of Plato's belief in universals. Indeed, this binary perception of reality was already ancient in Plato's time. Austin attempts to dismiss this, writing, “Ideally, I suppose, a discussion of this sort ought to begin with the very earliest texts; but in this case that course is ruled out by their no longer being extant. The doctrines we shall be discussing—unlike, for example, doctrines about 'universals'—were already quite ancient in Plato's time.”(Sense and Sensibilia, page 2) (Italics mine for emphasis.)

We do keep coming back to this binary feature. In telling the story of ontology, we cannot escape it. Our human anatomical structure, with bilaterialism, makes greater range of movement possible. Our bicameral brain/mind makes greater complexity of thought possible. Daily we are faced with the binary pattern of universal sets: male-female; night-day, and most significantly, life-death.

The mind makes distinctions along binary lines. We tend to think axiomatically: good-bad, normal-strange; one-many; now-not yet, etc. The mind recognizes that something can be and yet not be: the Biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God. Something can exist (actuality) while not yet existing. The kingdom is here now and yet still to come (potentiality), if we take Biblical eschatology seriously.

Aristotle's understanding of the elements now comes into play. He wrote, "The elements ... cannot be eternal. It is a matter of observation that fire, water, and every simple body undergo a process of analysis [i.e., destruction]. (On the Heavens 304b23). Fire can be destroyed by water. Water can be evaporated by wind/air. Vacuums exist, so air cannot be said to be everywhere at all times. And then there is earth, our final illustration.

The Greek comic poet and "wise man" Epicharmus (540-450 BC) was known to both Plato and Aristotle. He expressed a widely held ontological idea: "Life is compounded and broken up, and again goes whence it came; earth indeed to earth, and the spirit to upper regions." Many regarded the elements as deities. In this view, the gods are the winds, the water, the earth, the sun, the fire, the stars. To which Epicharmus quips: "But I think that the only gods useful to us are gold and silver."

Ben Sira (the author of Ecclesiasticus) writes, "How can dust and ashes be proud? Even in life the human body decays." (Ben Sira 10:9) He calls man "dust and ashes" and asserts that all things that are of the earth return to the earth. "Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes." The connection seemed obvious to those who came upon sites where humans had been buried long before and all that remained was an outline of ash and dust. This sight necessarily confronts us with the reality or unconcealment (aletheia) of our death as non-existence, what Heidegger termed "negation."

Negation means to deny, and Heidegger is concerned with a specific form of denial: the denial of one's non-existence, the refusal to face the reality of one's death. How we live and die tests the authenticity of our being. Awareness of my mortality changes how I live. For Heidegger, the proper response to being as a human is reflection on existence as a way to tug the veil that covers essence. We must do this to own our being as individuals living in the everyday world. We must look at the dust of the earth and say to ourselves, "That's what I am and to dust shall I return." Yet, as soon as we say those words, we know we have spoken a half-truth. The human is more than dust. We find ourselves turning from our well considered philosophical pretenses to language that has a God concept as its first order predicate. This has happened in the thought of many philosophers as they aged and approached death: Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Derrida are examples. By avoiding the use of the word God and by replacing it with a god concept, they have unveiled a presence that has always been there. The presence serves as a function whereby existence is explored as second order extension. This "turning" (as Heidegger called it) appears to be a sign of authentication of individual being.

Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Imagination is what providence uses to take men captive in actuality, in existence, in order to get them far enough out, or within, or down into existence. And when imagination has helped them get as far out as they should be - then actuality genuinely begins.” (The Two Ages)

Friday, December 26, 2014

Philosophy: The Most Impractical Practical Tool

One of the many small surprises of the recession has been a significant growth in the number of philosophy majors, according the the Philadelphia Inquirer. It has slightly exceeded the growth of enrollments in the last ten years; many other humanities and social science fields have just kept up. At the University of California at Berkeley, despite or because of the state's economic turmoil, the number of majors has increased by 74 percent in the last decade.

What makes philosophy different? It can seem self-absorbed; philosophers themselves joke about Arthur Koestler's definition: "the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose." But it also is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.

Read it all here.

This defense of philosophy as practical is ironic considering that Aristotle said the exact opposite and conditioned the supreme value of philosophy precisely on its non-practicality. That said, the philosophy classroom is the single space in American public education where anything, absolutely anything can be discussed. In the present environment of bureaucratic intrusion, students are glad to find such a space.

Where else do students get to discuss this?

Related reading: St. Paul's Application of Greek Philosophy; INDEX of Topics at Philosophers' Corner

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Student Graphics Illustrate Fallacies

Anna Price – Chronological Snobbery
(Copy Reads): The mindset that sees an idea, way of thinking, culture, art, or science of an earlier time as inferior, based solely on the assumption that whatever is newer is better. For example: "It is really hard for me to enjoy Medieval art – after all, these are people who didn't even have indoor plumbing."

This is an excellent project! See more examples of the students' posters here.

Related reading: Fallacies; Logic on the Lighter Side; Why Logic Should Be Taught in Schools

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Theories of Knowledge - Part 4

"The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper."-- Eden Phillpotts

"In truth, truth inhabits fiction as the master of the house."--Jacques Derrida

"The world is governed more by appearances than realities, so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it."--Daniel Webster

"Hell is truth seen too late."--Thomas Hobbes

Hume and Kant
Alice C. Linsley

David Hume categorized all objects of human reason into two groups: Relation of Ideas and Matters of Fact. This is often referred to as "Hume's fork" and can be further investigated in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section IV, Part 1. Here we read: "All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic... discoverable by the mere operation of thought... Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing."

The truth claims that Descartes posed when he introduced the evil deceiver argument are in Hume's second category - "relations of ideas" and Descartes further developed the argument that all real knowledge consists of relations of ideas, including knowledge of the material world. Descartes thought that the material world can be explained by physical laws of causation and that one day physics would be established as an a priori science along with geometry and algebra. Hume, on the other hand, sought to demonstrate that science is not a priori. Instead, Hume argued that there is never certainty concerning causes and effects by using reason alone. Science requires experimentation and observation, and there is always the possibility that the next experiment might not provide the same results or conform to the hypothesis as did earlier experiments.

This radical doubt poses a problem for scientists. It means that the scientific method cannot be said to ascertain beyond doubt. This is Hume's problem of induction. Inductive methods predict or infer and are essential in scientific reasoning. One cannot assume that something is immutable and necessary because it has always or usually been reliable in the past. Though 20 experiments produce the same results, we have no certainty that the results will be the same after experiments 21, or 32 or 45. Though the sun has risen daily since the founding of our solar system, we have no certainty that it will always do so.

In 1953, Richard Rudner published “The Scientist qua Scientist Makes Value Judgments,” in which he argued that since no hypothesis is ever completely verified, in accepting a hypothesis the scientist must make the decision that the evidence is sufficiently strong to warrant the acceptance of the hypothesis. The problem of induction which David Hume framed so precisely is really a problem of decision about which action to take, not proof of the fallibility of science in general. For Hume this is where the element of the human imagination comes in to play. In Hume's view the most ordinary interactions and common observations of bare facts involve active imagination. They do not represent passive perceptions of the world. His critique of metaphysics involves a criticism of what he sees as lack of imagination or blind imagination. In his view, the errors of philosophy arose from the fact that imagination determined human thought more than people recognize.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was aroused from his "dogmatic slumbers" by David Hume. Kant thought that Hume went too far in his skepticism about the capability of the inductive method of science. He saw greater agreement among scientists than among philosophers and thought that, unlike metaphysics, the motions of material objects are governed by laws. Everything that happens is determined by antecedent happenings or prior conditions. But this caused a problem for Kant's anthropology. If everything is predetermined in the universe, how is it that humans have free will?

Kant concludes that the human has free will to choose to fulfill his duty at any given moment and the universal moral law concerns performance of duty, regarding humanity as an end in itself rather than as something to be used to achieve selfish ends.

Much of what Kant wrote is an attempt to defend the Christian understanding of God and the value of reason against Hume’s skepticism. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant agrees with Hume that there is no absolute ground to assume the existence of God. However, against Hume, he adds that the idea of God is intrinsically connected to happiness and morality as the “ideal of the supreme good.” In his later treatment on Logic (1800), Kant argues that the idea of God is proved only through the moral law and only with “the intent so as to act as if there be a God.” 

Kant claimed that virtuous living results from practical reason. Schopenhauer discredited Kant’s moral system mainly because it is based on individual duty. He believed that the individual’s sense of duty cannot be the grounds for every moral decision or action. Instead he emphasized that a study of the great world religions suggests a universal moral code which he expressed in these words: “Don't do to another what you don't want done to you.” Schopenhauer claimed that virtuous conduct has nothing to do with reason and may even be opposed to it, as with Machiavelli’s rational expediency. In the face of a bloody civil war in Italy (1502-03) that involved mass killing, street assassinations, and widespread anarchy, Machiavelli wrote:

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel. Nevertheless he ought to take care not to misuse this clemency. Cesare Borgia was considered cruel; notwithstanding, his cruelty reconciled the Romagna, unified it, and restored it to peace and loyalty. And if this be rightly considered, he will be seen to have been much more merciful than the Florentine people, who, to avoid a reputation for cruelty, permitted Pistoia to be destroyed. Therefore a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies; for these are wont to injure the whole people, whilst those executions which originate with a prince offend the individual only.

It is possible to argue with Machiavelli that reason might lead to actions that in most contexts are regarded as immoral.

Kant's synthetic a priori knowledge

One of Kant's contributions is in the area of logic. He recognized a class of propositions termed "synthetic a priori." Such propositions are distinct from a posteriori judgments based on observation and experimentation. These judgments, being of an empirical nature, are largely descriptive; that is they define rather than inform. In this class of propositions we find propositions such as "a bachelor is an unmarried man" or "swans are waterfowl."  A synthetic judgment, informs, not merely defines. Typically, synthetic judgments are associated with a posteriori knowledge (knowing the particulars) and analytic judgments are associated with a priori knowledge (knowing the universals). An example of a synthetic a posteriori judgment is “all swans are white.” This is synthetic because whiteness is not a necessary part of the concept of swan.  The statement is also an example of an a posteriori proposition because the only way to find out if all swans are white is from observation and experience.

Kant argues that mathematics and the laws of physics contain synthetic a priori knowledge. For example, “7 + 5 = 12” is a priori because it is a necessary and universal truth we know independent of experience, and it is synthetic because the concept of “12” is not contained in the concept of “7 + 5.” Kant argues that the same is true for the laws of physics such as “for every action there is an equal an opposite reaction.” Because such laws apply universally, they must be a priori knowledge, since a posteriori knowledge only tells us about particular experiences. The fact that we are capable of synthetic a priori knowledge suggests that pure reason is capable of knowing metaphysical truths.

Kant suggests something very like Hume's understanding of the mind. Much of what we consider to be reality is shaped by perception. Kant agrees with Hume that the mind does not passively receive information provided by the senses. Rather, it actively shapes and makes sense of that information. If all the events in our experience seem to take place in a temporal progression, that is our minds arrangement of sensory experience. If we perceive that some events appear to cause other events, that is because our mind's cause-effect arrangement of events. According to Kant, the mind is constrained to perceive or experience sensations in time and space and according the laws of causation. He argues that time and space are intuitions of our faculty to sense things, and physical laws such as gravity and inertia are intuitions of our faculty to understand things.

Related reading:  Theories of Knowledge - Part 1; Theories of Knowledge - Part 2; Theories of Knowledge - Part 3; Why David Hume Was Wrong: Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?