Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Review: Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser 2006

One would expect a book on this broad subject to leave some dangling issues. Dr. Feser’s sympathies clearly lay with Aristotelian dualism, even theism. He begins with a nuanced statement of Cartesian Substance Dualism. His aim is to explicate the logical strength of substance dualism, aware also of its primary weakness (the “interaction problem”) and then ask if the various alternatives to it, particularly those promulgated by materialist philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries, are coherent in their own right and if so, successfully defeat dualism’s logic.

As noted in the review (reproduced below with a link to the book on Amazon) Feser spends the bulk of the book on this latter task. He demonstrates that none of the suggested alternatives actually work. Some (eliminativism of two kinds and epiphenominalism) are incoherent, while others (functionalism, behaviorism, and many others) fail to capture the substance of subjective first person experience, in effect explaining it away. Most of these critiques focus on epistemological issues, but some also run into metaphysical issues, indeed the same “interaction problem” faced by Cartesian dualism (see also “From What Comes Mind” and “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”).

Having demolished the contenders, Feser asks if there is something else, a different sort of dualism that might work and yet not require or point to theism? His solution is Aristotelian Hylomorphic dualism. Alas, as noted in the review, here he fails but doesn’t seem to notice it. Either the form emerges from the facts of the assemblage that is the brain, or it is added intentionally from the outside. Hylomorphism either collapses into reductive (or supervenient) materialism, or it leads back to something that must stand in the place of, if not be, God. Feser leaves this matter dangling.

Other issues dangle. Feser cites many authors I’ve read, among them David Chalmers, but as I read Feser, he seems to misunderstand Chalmers’ “property dualism”, more or less equating it with epiphenomenalism,  the idea that our mental arena is merely an accidental by-product of brain function with absolutely no causal consequence. It is precisely the point of Chalmers’ property dualism that it does have causal consequence and so is not epiphenomenal but rather a radical emergence.

From the physics of brains alone emerges what amounts to a substance with novel properties, the upward property of subjective experience itself, and a downward causal power, subjective will, on that same physics. Chalmers, being bothered by the radical character of the emergent subjectivity, speculates on panpsychism or various types of monisms that might be embedded in physics and so support such an emergence (see above linked “Fantasy Physics…” essay for details). These various ideas for sources of the phenomenal in a hidden property of the physical are quasi-material in Feser’s taxonomy.

Another matter of interest to me is Feser’s characterization of substance dualism. His sketch is more nuanced than that usually given by his materialist peers but there are other possibilities that yet remain broadly Cartesian. For example, a property dualism supported by the presence of a spacetime field that is not physical but also not phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal).

The field need not be mind as such. It need have no phenomenal/proto-phenomenal properties of its own. Viewed from the material, mind is a radical emergence (upward) and has, as a result of its novel properties, also downward causal qualities. Its appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction with this everywhere present (and yes, mysterious) field and not equally mysterious undetectable properties embedded in physics. For a detailed explication of this model see my “From What Comes Mind?”

Of course an “interaction problem” comes immediately forward. This hypothetical field is, after all non-material. But this interaction issue is the same faced by property dualism generally along with panpsychism, and Russelian or dual-aspect monism. All of these theories propose proto-phenomenal properties embedded in micro physics or the universe as a whole, but none ever say how exactly to identify the proto-phenomenal, in what exactly its properties consist. Nor do they speculate on their origin, and how they interact with the physical we know; how exactly they perform their teleological function driving the physical towards [genuinely] phenomenal expression.

Feser notes that materialist philosophers always cite “Occam’s Razor” as reason for rejecting theism and so any sort of substance dualism. He should somewhere have noted Occam’s Razor is supposed to apply to two or more theories that equally explain all the data! Theism answers two of the questions left dangling by quasi-materialisms. It explains why it is we find the phenomenal, any phenomenal proto or otherwise, only in association with brains. It has also an origin story in theistic intentionality, the phenomenon we find at the core of the recognizably phenomenal, our phenomenal, itself!

Quasi-materialisms deny intention in the proto-phenomenal leaving the transition to intention in brains hooked (metaphysically) on nothing. None of this, not the postulation of a field or the proto-phenomenal explains how exactly interaction occurs. The problem with theism isn’t merely the interaction (about which at least “God knows the trick”) equally suffered by all the non-eliminative materialisms. The problem is the postulation of an intentional source of the field supporting intentionality as we experience it. Yes this is a big pill to swallow, but without it we can say nothing about how any of this works anyway. Rejecting the possibility of theism leaves behind more mysteries than it resolves.

Surely suggesting that there is an intentional (minded) source of intentional, subjective mind begs the question. Of course it does! It remains, however, a coherent, possibility! God can not only be conceived, his necessary qualities can be specified to considerable detail (see my “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”). It isn’t clear that the proto-phenomenal can be conceived, and even if we allow its conceivability there seems to be nothing that can be said at all about any  of its qualities.

I said at the end of the book review I would say something about free will. Feser does not mention it. Free will is related to intentionality. The ability to direct our attention purposefully is the core of the matter and some (Schopenhauer) would say it, is the essence of the conscious self! “Mental causation” or in Rescher’s terms initiation is, when not subconscious, agent-directed. We experience our agency as will (and this why the ‘free’ in ‘free will’ is redundant’ see “All Will is Free”). Will’s  relation to “philosophy of mind” should be obvious. We experience our volitional agency in mind, and like qualia and intention, the nature of volitional agency is mysterious, doubly so because it is a mystery on top of a mystery!

I have said much about free will and its associated agency elsewhere in the blog. On the negative side (the absurdity of denying it) see “Arguing with Automatons”, and “The Nonsensical Notion of Compatibilism”. On the positive side, “Why Free Will”, “Why Personality”, and “The Mistake in Theological Fatalism”.

The two best books on the subject are “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal” by Nicholas Rescher and E. J. Lowe’s “Personal Agency”. My own books, “Why this Universe” and “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” both address the subject.

 

Philosophy of Mind by Edward Feser (2006)

I picked up Feser’s “Philosophy of Mind”, a book in an introductory series, for the sake of little else to read at the time, but I’m glad I did. It is, perhaps the best basic-evaluation of this subject (one of my specialty areas) I have ever read. It doesn’t merely introduce and review the subject. It makes an argument, a point about the present philosophical state-of-the art on the nature of mind, and does it very well.

Feser begins by introducing the subject and settles on representative-realism (the external world is real more or less as we experience it, but what we experience as subjects is nevertheless a representation of it) as the fundamental datum which a philosophy of mind must account. He then moves to examine the various proposals put forth by modern philosophers, some with their roots back in classical Greek times. He begins with Cartesian (substance) Dualism, a rather more sophisticated treatment than is usually accorded by modern philosophy. He shows us that substance dualism rests on more solid logical foundations than is usually acknowledged even if it smacks of being unscientific thanks to its infamous “interaction problem”.

From that point Feser looks at what has been offered as alternatives to Dualism, various materialisms (eliminative, functionalism, behaviorism, pure epiphenomenalism, causalism, reduction and supervenience) and quasi-materialisms (panpsychism, Russelian-monism, property dualism). All of this treatment constitutes the bulk of the book and as he covers each solution there emerges the best taxonomy of philosophies-of-mind I have yet seen. The modern emphasis on qualia is explored thoroughly but he argues that intentionality, even given the representational realism with which he begins, is more important, more central to mind and consciousness, than qualia.

In doing all of this Feser drives home the point that none of the alternatives is without serious metaphysical or epistemological problems. All of the quasi-materialisms, in fact, come up against the same interaction problem as substance dualism, and the others are either incoherent (two sorts of eliminativism), or simply do not get at two core problems: why do we experience anything at all and why does the subject that appears throughout all experience seem so obviously causally potent?

In the last chapter Feser asks if there is anything else that does address the core issue without having to invoke what ultimately comes down to God? His answer is Aristotle’s “Hylomorphic Dualism” (also championed by Thomas Aquinas though his variation relies directly on God). To explain consciousness, to get at its core and resolve the ever-present interaction problem, Feser says all we have to do is reject the contemporary physicalist insistence that material and efficient causes (two of Aristotle’s four leaving out formal and final cause) exhaust causality in the universe. This would be, to say the least, a big pill for 21st Century science, and most of philosophy, to swallow.

Further while Hylomorphic dualism might deal nicely with the epistemological issues Feser everywhere touches, it does no better than the quasi-materialisms concerning the metaphysical. Either the form of the human mind springs entirely from the arrangement and dynamics of physical particles, in which case we are back to reductive or supervenient materialism, or it does not. But if it does not, where does it come from? That physics cannot detect any teleology in the physical universe does not mean it isn’t there. It does mean that it has to come from somewhere other than physics and be prior to individual human minds. We are on the way back to God.

There is also a notable absence. Feser never mentions free will. A discussion might be beyond Feser’s scope in this book, but I’m surprised he did not at least note its obvious relation to intentionality. I will cover this and other implications in a blog commentary.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.

——————

Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam

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A philosopher needs both breath and depth in the discipline. There are a certain range of issues in which I have a primary interest reflected in all of the essays on this blog. But a philosopher cannot rely only on the writings of others in their field. To understand the implications of even narrow issues, one must read both opposing voices and something of other issues that may be but peripherally related. For me this is one of those books.

Is self-knowledge of the substantial variety on which Cassam focuses important to me as a person? Yes to some extent it is, and in fact the author covers that “to some extent” very well in his last chapter. Is self-knowledge important to me as a philosopher? Is it important to my specific interests? In my case crucially yes, but it is not a sort of self-knowledge, a knowledge of beliefs and why I have them (I do know what I believe and why I believe), wants, emotions, and character traits addressed in this book.

What I need better to understand is the quality of my evidence and whether it is evidence for what I believe. My primary interests often impinge on philosophy of mind (not our belief that other people or animals have minds, but rather what mind is, what makes mind happen in brains, and how this relates to physics, biology, etc) and much of what I believe is derived from a phenomenal examination of my own mind. I want to know if what I discover in that examination is genuinely evidence for what I believe.

This is a question that Dr. Cassam misses. I make no criticism of his work here. It is clear from his exposition that the metaphysics of mind is not his subject. Who or what is this entity that believes, wants, feels, and has character traits? None of what Cassam writes here hinges on any particular metaphysical view of this entity. Yet surely an answer to this question is about one’s self? It is about what one believes constitutes the self. My interest is in what I might learn of the self as compared to knowledge about myself. While not addressing that question, this book provides a helpful context. Thanks to  my reading, I am better positioned to describe that entity and what I can (perhaps) infer of it in the context of self-knowledge more broadly conceived.

Self-Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam (2014)

As with many other philosophy texts I’ve reviewed over the years this one is both professional and well written. There is almost a formula for doing good philosophy in the analytic tradition. Begin by clearly stating the nature of the problem you are going to address. Briefly review the history of the issue; make distinctions, show that the problem is more than trivial. Here the subject is something of a narrow subset of philosophy of mind, epistemology, phenomenology, and even psychology. It is the nature of what, how, and why we know, or fail to know, about ourselves as this pertains to our beliefs, emotions, desires, characters and more. Cassam sketches distinctions between the trivial and the substantial in self knowledge, and also the occasional (what I’m thinking, believing, feeling, wanting, right now) versus the standing (what do I believe, fear, want, and so on over time).

Next address the various theories about the subject in the literature and show why they are inadequate, if not entirely then at least partly. This review often, and in this case does, take up much of the book. Third make a positive argument for your own theory, in this case what Cassam calls “inferentialism”; describe it carefully and show how it addresses the inadequacies of the other dominant theories in the subject area. Then address specific objections to your theory advanced by others and show why they do not have the force their authors believe they do.

Cassam does all of this masterfully and manages not to be dry in the doing of it. He ends with two chapters on related matters, one being self-ignorance itself distinguished into variations and brought under his theory, and lastly a chapter on a meta-issue, why these inferences, why self-knowledge is or might be important.

Is Inferentialism convincing? Well yes, given how much Cassam emphasizes its broad but not always universal applicability. His claim is that Inferentialism covers much of the ground because it can be conscious or unconscious (sometimes this last is better understood as “interpretation”) and would often, but not always, be the dominant means by which we come to know things about ourselves. In short there are a lot of distinctions to be made about what self-knowledge is, and Inferrentialism happens to address all of them (including self-ignorance) to a greater or lesser extent, but is never, or almost never, absent entirely from the process of coming to know things about ourselves. Objections to the idea are unable to gain purchase because Cassam fully accepts that other theories have explanatory power here and there about this or that sort of self-knowledge, but points out that none of these, even if they happen to be operational in specific cases, preclude an inferential component to the path to self-knowledge. It is about as neat and tidy a package as I have seen.

“Self-Knowledge for Humans” would make a superb introduction to the style of Western Analytic Philosophy. In addition it well illuminates the issue and makes a substantial contribution to our grasp of what a solution looks like.

Book Review: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

I haven’t much additional commentary to add here except perhaps to expand a little on my comparison between Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s Fear. Wolff’s published much earlier covers a shorter time, about 200 days compared to Woodward’s 760+. As mentioned in my review, Wolff focuses on the ring of people immediately surrounding Trump (of course he brings in the next outer band) while Woodward expands his focus to that next outer band while the characters in the inner most group (other than Bannon) receive somewhat less scrutiny. This approach makes perfect sense given the expanded time frame of Woodward’s book.

Woodward is more sympathetic to all concerned (even Trump) than Wolff. Wolff’s picture is one of conflicting and shifting groups running around like chickens with severed heads while doing their best to increase their political influence and personal wealth. Woodward reveals the same self-interested politics in the inner circle while many of those in the wider circle, and even a few in the inner one, are trying sincerely to keep Trump from destroying the nation at every impetuous turn. Sincerity here has a mixed result as many of these people have incompatible political views concerning what constitutes a rational course in the first place. Both books paint a terrifying picture. Wolff’s is more terrifying, but Woodward’s is more frustrating because he highlights many opportunities (never taken) to bring parties together.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward 2018

My first observation is that this book is not as long as it seems. The first 63% (my Kindle tells me that) is the body of the book followed by a long chapter of acknowledgements, a detailed listing, chapter by chapter, of sources with lots of online links (including many of Trump’s infamous tweets), and a long index. Trump assumed the presidency on Jan 20, 2016. The last date mentioned in the book is March 21 2018 so about 760 days into the present (Sept. 2018) administration.

One cannot help but compare Woodward to Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” (also reviewed). Wolff’s focus is the shifting cabals immediately surrounding the president in his first (roughly 200) days. Woodward hits all the same characters and follows them as well but more through the lens of national and international incidents and issues occurring at the time, some precipitated by Trump himself. The characters are painted almost sympathetically, even Trump, relatively speaking. The unifying issue throughout is how the staff, principal cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress struggled to prevent the ever impetuous Trump from wrecking the economy or starting world war III, while a few were eager to egg him on in support of his most destructive instincts. The influence goes both ways. Trump appears to have supported DACA recipients specifically (though he never liked any of the rest of U.S. immigration policy) but was turned away from even DACA support by congressional hard liners.

There are lots of missing pieces. I suppose it would be impossible to include everything. Sean Spicer is mentioned, as is the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci but there is no word about their departure. Of course many characters do come and go. Like Wolff, Woodward focuses early on Bannon, but he hardly touches (of course they are present in the story) Jarad and Ivanka. Like Wolff, Woodward paints a picture of a man whose comprehension of the world’s complexity rises to the level of an elementary school graduate, a man mercurial and impulsive with uneven check on his actions by the adults in the room, often because they themselves are conflicted over every issue.

Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham seems to be credited with the observation that “Journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history'”. That rough draft is unfolding before us in books like Wolff’s and this one from Bob Woodward. I expect there will be a few more before this presidential term is over. Historians of the future (if there is a future) will not lack for sources. If like me you are a news junkie, this book will be an enjoyable, if frightening and possibly frustrating (so many opportunities lost) ride.