A Dogmatic Framework: or, how a Debate Over the Semantics of Truth Rehabilitated Ontology

During the balmy days when it was socially acceptable to entertain logical positivism as a coherent philosophical position, it was commonly thought that questions of metaphysics were senseless, nonsense, or not even wrong. There are, of course, no shortage of problems with positivism and it’s safe to say that positivism is one of the very few philosophical theses that attained the distinction of being rejected because it was, in fact, actually wrong. However, granting all of that, it is no less the case that contemporary ontology has been shaped largely by a debate which took place on positivist grounds: the debate between Carnap and Quine on metaontology. The simple version of their respective positions might be boiled down to two ideas: for Carnap, metaphysical or ontological questions don’t really have an answer, while for Quine they do, and for Carnap, there are two kinds of truth, while for Quine ‘truth is truth’ and comes in only one variety. The outcome of this debate would have far-reaching consequences for metaphysics and ontology. Continue reading


Ontology: A Historiographical Sketch

Ontology is all the rage right now in philosophy (as much as anything in philosophy can be, anyway). New volumes on ontology and metaontology are popping up with increasing frequency, but there’s a bit of a lack of studies of ontology from a historiographical perspective, which is a shame, because it’s a fascinating thread to unravel (if anyone knows of any, please, point them out!).

Aristotle, in the ‘Metaphysics‘, said of metaphysics:

There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.

Continue reading

Incoherent Note on Universals, Particulars, and Existentials

The universal/particular distinction is fairly close to the universal/existential distinction. The latter constitutes a problem for empiricism – famously expressed by Russell’s problem of induction, where no existential statement can entail a universal statement.

The similarity comes when one realizes that universals are not given in experience (bracketing to the side for the moment the notion of the ‘given’). Universals do not follow from our experience of particulars in much the same way universal statements do not follow from existential statements.

To clarify what I take to be the similarity: just as no existential statement entails a universal statement, no universal follows from the experience of a particular.

But if all our experience is of particulars (we never experience a universal), how can we arrive at universal statements and universals? (I take a Gilson-ian view myself, where the intellect intuits or abstracts universals from the the experience of existing particulars).

The empiricists (Hume, for example) deny the existence of universals – which lands you with the problem of induction (as well as all the other sceptical problems which stem from the Humean tradition). All we have in experience or otherwise is particulars.Empiricism has the greatest problem with these issues, hence the focus on it.

 This seems to open up a host of age old issues: aside from whether or not universals exists, what kind of thing are they? Exactly what do we mean by existence? What exactly do we even mean by experience? Granting that universals aren’t given in experience, what exactly is given in experience?
I’m trying to get at something but can’t quite get there.

Notes On Fregean Existence

– Broadly, the Fregean/post-Fregean concept of existence is that existence is the instantiation (sp?) of a concept. No doubt there are some subtleties here and there but that’s the basic gist. For a horse to exist means that the concept of horse-ness is instantiated.

– Frege noted that there is an odd quality about terms like ‘existence’ – namely, that if existence is a universal predicate (i.e. a predicate which is true of everything) then non-existence is true of nothing.

– This seems to have the consequence that nothing can either exist or not-exist – which is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.

– The consequence of this is that the difference between existence/nonexistence is reduced form ontological to propositional. Surely, though, there are things that don’t exist and things that do, and the difference is more than how they both look when put into formal logic. Perhaps Frege’s logic isn’t equipped to deal with existence?

– It quickly becomes clear that this is a way of speaking about existence, rather than speaking about existence as such (David Bentley Hart points out as much in ‘The Experience of God). Existence is just assumed, rather than explained. And perhaps this is fine – but one certainly does feel that such a conception of existence is thin.

Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.



Gilson on Existence and Essence

‘Why, Saint Thomas asks, do we say that Qui est is the most proper name among all those that can given to God? And his answer is because it signifies “to be”: ipsum esse. But what is it to be? In answering this most difficult of all metaphysical questions, we must carefully distinguish between two words which are both different and yet intimately related: ens, or “being”, and esse, or “to be”. To the question: What is being? the correct answer is: Being is that which is, or exists. If, for instance, we ask this same question with regard to God, the correct answer would be: The being of God is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance. But essse, or “to be”, is something else and  much harder to grasp because it lies more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality. The word “being”, as a noun, designates some substance; the word “to be” – or esse – is a verb, because it designates an act. To understand this is also to reach, beyond the level of essence, the deeper level of existence. For it is quite true to say that all which is a substance must of necessity also both have an essence and an existence. In point of fact, such is the natural order followed by our rational knowledge: we first concieve certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we affirm their existence by means of a judgment. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge: what first comes into it as a certain act of existing which, because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense, “to be” is the primitive and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists. In Saint Thomas’ own words: dictur esse ipse actus essentiae – “to be” is the very act whereby an essence is.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 63-64)

Physics, Metaphysics, Physics

I’ll be the first to say that a lot of physics and a lot of metaphysics goes right over my head. Whoosh. Modern analytic philosophy, which is what most folks mean when they say metaphysics, is about as comprehensible to me as advanced mathematics (I’m terrible at math). A lot of modern physics, at least the mathematical parts (which is a lot) is the same – whoosh.

However, I do try and keep up at least somewhat with the latest developments of the broader ideas and underpinnings of metaphysics and physics – especially physics, which is way more metaphysical than a lot of folks think it is. Philosophy of physics and the broad metaphysical ideas behind and under modern cosmology are just as important, and in my mind way more interesting, anyway.

I say all this to pick a fight with something Tim Maudlin says in his great book, ‘The Metaphysics within Physics,’ :

‘Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world.’ (p. 104)

Now, it should be fairly obvious the issues here: the definition of ontology. Ontology is not the study of what exists, ontology is the study of being, or existence (you can be real anal and dispute whether or not those two words mean the same thing. I’m not going to). Being as such, not this or that particular thing that has being – or existence as such, not this or that thing that happens to exist. Being qua being. This is a pretty significant thing to get wrong.

A more concrete example: metaphysics studies how it is that change is possible (Parmenides, Heraclitus, Aristotle) and not this or that example of change (a chemical reaction, for example). What Maudlin does is to shift metaphysics from being the study of the absolute fundamentals of reality to a slightly more abstract form of empirical science, which analyzes various empirical theories. That isn’t metaphysics, that is just normal thinking.

In a nutshell, Maudlin’s scheme is that we derive metaphysics from physics, and further, ontology from physics. Our notions of existence comes from physics. Earlier in the same volume:

‘First: metaphysics, i.e. ontology, is the most generic account of what exists, and since our knowledge of what exists in the physical world rests on empirical evidence, metaphysics must be informed by empirical science.’ (p. 78)

I’m tempted to say that simply knowing what exists gives us no knowledge past bare sensory knowledge of particulars, which doesn’t really lead to knowledge of any kind, which is what Maudlin is setting out to do by analyzing various theories. But why restrict our knowledge of what exists to the physical, as Maudlin implicitly does? Twice above he says that whatever exists in the physical world is supported by empirical, or physical evidence. But that’s only trivially true – obviously, if something exists in the physical world, it will have physical evidence. But it doesn’t follow from that that the only notions of existence, or what exists comes from the physical world.

This seems to be a tangled way of thinking, which has its origin in Maudlin’s confusion of what metaphysics is. Now, as I said above, this isn’t my game. Analytic philosophy ain’t my thing, so it’s possible I’m quite wrong in my analysis. But what I see, in another nuthsell, is (a) a confusion of terms (ontology as the study of what exists), which leads to (b) the idea that our only knowledge of what exists is physical. To make ontology the study of what exists is to make metaphysics and ontology, as stated above, a slightly more abstract brand of empirical science.

Note on Being

What does it mean to grasp being? Being isn’t a ‘sensible quality’ (to use the technical jargon), so the five senses are out. If it’s not material, is it a concept, like triangularity? I think we’re getting closer, but I’m not sure. Suppose we say that being is ‘existence made manifest’. Being is when the existence of something is ‘revealed’ to us, when reality reveals itself, so to speak. When we know something, we grasp its being as it is revealed to us – our intellect grasps being as we come into a dynamic relation with the object of our knowledge. It is by virtue of dynamic relation that existence is made manifest to our intellect – or, to use my shorthand, our intellect grasps being. The intellect does not comprehend being in an exhaustive way, but it does grasp it nonetheless in a non-exhaustive way.

Some More Metaphysical Musings

‘Existence precedes essence.’ This is the classic existentialist declaration – but I was recently thinking whether or not it makes sense to abstract existence from essence (not in relation to existentialism – that was merely the first thing I thought of on this topic) in this or in any other way. My first thought is that it doesn’t make much sense – how can the essence of something be separated from the thing itself? If we abstract and separate the essence of a thing from its existence, how do we have knowledge of the thing? I suppose another more roundabout way of asking the question is this: what is the primary object of our intellect (or intellectual activity), the thing itself or its essence?

Here I’ll quote from Thomas Torrance’s Reality and Scientific Theology:

‘All our knowledge in this or that science is not simply knowledge of a special field of experience, of a particular set of existents, or of some complex of relations, but in all such cases knowledge of things or events that partake of being. Hence every concept we have of things carries with it an epistemic relation to the being of beings. That is why, as Duns Scotus used to claim, the primary natural object of the human intellect is not the so-called essence or quiddity of a thing abstracted from its actual existence, but being (ens est primum obiectum intellectus nostril). Nor is it even this or that being, but being as such (primum obietucm intellectus nostril natural est ens in quantum ens). In particular beings being presents to us aspects of itself for our knowledge and as such makes itself accessible to us in such a way that it admits of signification, intention, description, and so on, in its objective reality independent of us.’ (p. 136)

There’s a lot going on there, but the reference to John Duns Scotus especially intrigued me, so I broke out my A Short History of Medieval Philosophy, by Julius R. Weinberg:

‘We must now raise the question of essence and existence. Scotus recognizes a distinction between the being of essence and the being of existence. But he is insistent on the following: that to be is not something added to essence, and that to be does not really differ from essence. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, we cannot maintain that the being of existence has differentiating characteristics which are different from the differentiating characteristics of essence…Furthermore, if existence were something added to essence, the existing individual would be an accidental unity, i.e., not a genuine individual but an accidental composite of several things. Yet we know that an individual is an essential unity. For these reasons, essence and existence are not really distinct things. They are, however, formally distinct. This means that in a single individual, the nature of the individual differs from its existence even though it is logically impossible for the nature and the existence to be separated even by divine power. Also the difference between nature (or essence) and existence in the individual is there before any activity of a mind which discovers and contemplates the difference. In other words, the formal distinction is in the thing prior to any operation of the human (or any other) intellect.’ (p. 217-218)

Basically, Scotus is saying that existence and essence aren’t distinct things – they’re simply formally distinct, objectively apart from any operation of any mind, in the individual. If they were distinct things, then the individual wouldn’t be a genuine individual – genuine individuals exist, therefore, existence and essence are not distinct, very very roughly speaking. The individual, then, partakes of being – or rather, perhaps we can say that being itself, objective being as such, is manifested in the individual and we come to know of being in its particular manifestations. This seems to me to be a rough but accurate summary of the two above quoted passages.

Among other things, there are some subtle points about realism being made – namely, that being as such exists independently of any perceptual activity by any intellect – in the above cases, we come to have knowledge of being as such by coming into relation with individuals, or to be more technical, particular beings.