CouldntCareMore wrote: ↑Sun Aug 15, 2021 12:05 pm
Some writing... feedback welcome (ignore typos, not yet edited!) :
If contemporary physics throws curveballs for materialism, what about philosophy? Can reasoning alone throw any light on our topic? We enter the territory of metaphysics, a field within philosophy that asks about the nature of things. The two main questions metaphysics asks are, ‘What is there?’ and ‘What is it like’? Metaphysics has had a rough time in philosophy over the last century for several reasons, not least the assumption, by some materialist philosophers, that these questions are either answered by science or remain unanswerable. The astute reader will nevertheless realise that such stances are already metaphysical. To assume all reality is either unknowable or can only be apprised by science is to beg the very question we’re asking. There is no getting away from the questions, other than to blithely assume our existing answers which barely deserves the status of ‘philosophy’.
When we ask, ‘what is there and what’s it like?’, we are asking about ‘objects’ and ‘properties’. We’re asking what a thing (object) is and what qualities (properties) it has.
A big question in metaphysics is whether things are just individual items with individual properties that somehow just happen to resemble other things with similar properties, or whether individual things share in what are called ‘universal’ properties in which they participate.
Let me illustrate. Suppose I have a dog called ‘Heraclitus’. My dog has a set of qualities or properties. These could be listed: mammalian-ness, four-leggedness, brownness, furriness, height, length, breadth, etc. Arguably everything about my dog is describable meaning there are qualities, or properties, that compose what my dog is and what it’s like such that were I to subtract each and every property one by one, I would have nothing left. Is there anything about my dog which is not a property?
This throws up a problem. If an object were just a collection of properties, then how could that particular thing continue to exist if any of them were to change? How many properties can I remove from my dog, and he still remain my same dog?
Let us imagine we have a futuristic machine that can remove properties without my dog feeling any pain. I press a ‘fur button 1’ and one of his hairs are removed. Is he still my dog? Most of us would answer ‘yes’. I press the ‘fur’ button repeatedly until all his fur is removed. Is he still a dog? Is he still my dog? Most of us would still say ‘yes’. I press the ‘legs’ button and one of his legs are removed. Is he still a dog? Is he still my dog? How much longer can I keep going and still have my dog? If ‘my dog’ is simply a collection of properties, how can he remain the same dog if any of them change?
The reader may, at this point, be tempted to say that he remains my dog until he reaches some point of unrecognizability. It may be that we can keep his basic vital organs functioning but he’s stripped back to unrecognizability and still alive. The reader may still feel he is my dog so I’ll press the point in another way.
Suppose now, instead, I buy a futuristic transplant machine. Let us suppose I have also cloned an identical twin dog called ‘Plato’. If I press the ‘fur’ button my machine now switches Heraclitus’ fur with Plato’s. Is Heraclitus still my dog? Most of us would say ‘yes’. Now I switch one of their legs. Now another. Now their tails. Then their eyes. Then their ears…and so on. I reach the point where the only thing not switched is Heraclitus’ and Plato’s snout. Is Heraclitus still my dog? Is he still Heraclitus? We finally switch the snouts. Where is Heraclitus? Which dog is he? If we say he is Heraclitus, on what basis are going to make that claim? All his parts are now in Plato and Plato’s in him. Is Plato now Heraclitus and Heraclitus Plato? If so, how would this be any different from my simply swapping their positions from the get-go and renaming each dog with the others’ name? If we think Heraclitus ceased being Heraclitus at some point of my parts-transplanting, at what point did he cease being himself? You may say, when 50% of his parts were swapped. But why not at 49.999% or 50.999%? If not at 49.999% why not 48.999% or 47.999% and so on. Why not at 0.001%? The problem is that if we say something is just its properties, we have no way of distinguishing an identical object with the exact same properties. There is no longer any way to say that this particular dog is not that particular dog. All we have are shared set of universal properties: so much of thisness or thatness.
We have just run into the ancient debates around identity, change, universals, and particulars.
In the 4th century BCE, there arose disagreement between Plato’s and Aristotle’s ways of understanding reality. For Plato, the reason similar things are similar is that they participate in shared forms or universals. All circular objects share in the abstract form of ‘circularity’ which exists in its own right, whether or not there are any actual physical circular objects. There is a realm of abstract objects or ‘Forms’ that inform the world. For Aristotle, there are forms of sorts, but they have no independent existence except for their physical instantiation in the material world. Aristotle would say there are no qualities or properties except that they exist in particular objects, Plato that particular objects have no properties except that they participate in the realm of universal forms. This is a theme we touched on earlier, the issue of ‘the one and the many’; Platonists will be emphasising the uniting, universal feature that runs through many particular examples (e.g. the one form of ‘circularity’ running through many instances of particular circular objects), whereas Aristotle is focussing more on the multiplicity of particular instances that happen to share similarity.
Both views have their problems. Aristotle’s view tends to struggle to account for the apparent similarity of shared properties and why this should occur whereas Plato’s seems to need a set of universals that become endless. Afterall, how do universal qualities that exist in an independent realm inform particular objects? How does the objects get filled out with the forms? Surely, then we have to have not only the independent form in its realm but a version of infiltrating the physical realm each time it appears? In which case we don’t merely have the ideal form of, say, circularity, but multiple forms of circularity active in each ‘copy’ in the physical world. Worse still, we now not only have the Form but also a conception of the particular joined with the form and a likeness between them which leads to a new form—their likeness. Then you have a conception of the conception of the likeness between them leading to yet another form…and so on. This problem is a bit of a side-track which interested readers can pursue by looking up the ‘third man argument’, but it’s enough to see that Plato’s forms generate their own problems.
Aristotle’s particular objects seem—like my dog Heraclitus—to be just a bundle of abstract qualities but Plato’s abstract qualities seem only to exist in concrete objects. If we gathered every particular circular object in existence, would we lose circularity? Arguably not, but then where does it exist? Is it an idea that exists in a different (divine?) realm? Maybe. Does it exist only in our minds? Possibly. In which case, however, is circularity just a fiction?
This last possibility is the idea of nominalism—which we will get to shortly, but it is worth noting that in large part the philosophical problems we are seeing here come about by dividing reality into two somewhat separate categories—universals properties and particulars. Dividing reality in two (or more) tends to create conceptual difficulties because reality is probably a unity—albeit with variation and variety within it.
Possible solutions may exist either in blurring the two categories into one or in dispensing with one of the categories. Could it be that there are only forms or qualities? In which case we need to deny particular objects. Could it be there are only particular objects? In which case we need to deny shared forms. Another option may be to suggest the whole scheme is flawed—perhaps there are neither particulars or universals but these are only how things appear.