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The Solution to the Problem of Universals

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Late in the week of April 16, 2000, I solved the problem of universals. I have delayed publication for a number of reasons. Before publishing, I wanted to develop the perfect formulations, to have ready answers to all probable objections, and to have acquired a detailed knowledge of the history of the problem. I have never quite been able to find the time. Until yesterday, I figured I would just keep waiting. But then I found myself searching for a fitting way to celebrate a recent victory. It came to me: why not publish? And so I am. I would still especially like to have had time to have developed that detailed knowledge of the history of the problem, but eight idle years is more than long enough. If I am right in my solution, then it is, after all, a matter of some urgency.

Readers of philosophy of a certain bent of mind may wonder why I have been so concerned with the history of the problem, especially if they find themselves agreeing with my solution. It has been my experience that the majority of those who concern themselves with philosophy and its problems are, in fact, concerned not with philosophy itself, but with its history. In the case of the problem of universals, for example, attempts at solutions apparently fallen into one of two mutually exclusive traditions: nominalism and realism. These traditions loom so large in the minds of, it seems, most philosophers, that they cannot conceive of a solution that does not belong to one or the other. But the history of philosophy is their cave, and nominalism and realism shadows on the wall. The real solution comes from outside. My interest in a deeper knowledge of the history of the problem of universals has its origins where philosophy and rescue spelunking meet.

Since I have not had time for a full survey of the history of the problem, I will make do with something more modest.Instead of placing my solution to the problem of universals in the full context of the history of Western philosophy, I will place it in the context of Objectivist philosophy. One reason this appeals to me is that, while I am not an Objectivist, if I can be said to belong to any tradition or school of philosophy, Objectivism is it.

Many Objectivists reading this will now wonder how I might propose to place my own original solution to the problem of universals within the context of Objectivism, given that Ayn Rand claimed to have solved the problem of universals herself.The answer lies in that the problem of universals, while a real philosophical problem, is also a historical artifact. I am not sure exactly how or why Ayn Rand misapprehended the nature of this historical artifact, but, to a significant degree, she did.

Certain critics of Objectivism have claimed that Ayn Rand totally misapprehended the problem of universals, and was therefore totally unjustified in her claim to have solved it. These critics are quite wrong on this point, but their criticisms have been very useful to me, because they have provided an avenue for placing Ayn Rand's solution to the problem of universals into the larger context of Western philosophy. By borrowing from these critics of Objectivism, I will be able to show that the critics are right on one point: Ayn Rand did not solve the historical problem of universals --- and wrong on another, far more important point. Borrowing from these critics will also allow me to compensate somewhat for my own limited knowledge of the history of the problem since Plato.

Ayn Rand's Unfinished Solution & The Real Problem

Ayn Rand frames the problem of universals as a question: "To what precisely do concepts refer in reality?" [Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd ed., p. 1] Her answer is that concepts refer to entities. The concept 'white,' for example, means and refers to all white entities (all white sheets of paper, all white shoes, all white chickens), past and present, as well as all white entities that will ever be. Ayn Rand was satisfied that, by showing how concepts are formed and what they refer to, she had solved the problem of universals.

Rand treated the problem of universals as a problem of epistemology, as is plain from the title of the book in which she gave her solution. But the problem of universals is not an epistemological problem at all; it is a problem of metaphysics. The crucial moment at which Rand leaves metaphysics behind comes in her discussion of commensurable characteristics and similarity.

The element of
similarity
is crucially involved in the formation of every concept; similarity, in this context, is the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree.

... All conceptual differentiations are made in terms of
commensurable characteristics
(i.e., characteristics possessing a common unit of measurement). ...

... When, in the process of concept-formation, man observes that shape is a commensurable characteristic of certain objects, he does not have to measure all the shapes involved
nor even to know how to measure them
; he merely has to observe the element of
similarity
.

Similarity is grasped
perceptually
; in observing it, man is not and does not have to be aware of the fact that it involves a matter of measurement. It is the task of philosophy and of science to identify that fact. [iOE2, pp. 13--14. Emphases are Rand's.]

Any solution to the problem of universals must not merely account for how we form concepts from diverse similar objects, as Rand does, but must account for the phenomenon of similarity-as-such, must account for commensurability-as-such. In other words, when, as Rand says, we grasp the similarity of two commensurable objects through sense-perception, what is it in reality that we are perceiving? If two white entities appear similar to us, and therefore commensurable, what is it in the white entities that makes them appear similar? What is whiteness itself? How is it that this whiteness is in two places at once? Do the two white entities literally have something in common, like conjoined twins might have a common breastplate, or does each white entity have its-own-whiteness, a radically unique and particular whiteness that we, ultimately arbitrarily, treat as if it were commensurable with other conventionally "white" entities' own radically unique and individual whitenesses?

If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness is real, that all white entities have something literally "in common," like conjoined twins have body parts in common, she is a realist. If she says that these characteristics-in-common do not depend on the existence of particulars (entities), then she is a Platonist or "transcendent realist." If she says that these characteristics-in-common do depend on the existence of particulars, she is an Aristotelian or "immanent realist" or "moderate realist." If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness does not exist, that it is an artifact of some or other kind of naming convention, she is a nominalist.

It is not clear whether Rand is a realist or a nominalist, because she never addresses the metaphysical problem of universals, which is both the historical problem of universals and the real problem of universals. My own tentative view is that Rand was some kind of realist, but I contend that there simply is no justification in the texts of Objectivism for a definitive answer either way.

(If this account of the problem of universals has not been perfectly clear for you, I recommend reading Michael Huemer's account. If you are an Objectivist, pay special attention to Huemer's comments on "dimension itself.")

The failing of Objectivism is that it takes the metaphysical commensurability of diverse and discrete entities as a given, and does not provide any validation of this position. Coming from the Objectivist tradition, I have come to prefer one phrasing of the problem of universals above all others. This phrasing integrates with the framework Rand built in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (IOE hereafter), but it clearly puts the question in the territory of metaphysics, where it belongs. It is to this question that we shall now turn:

What is the ultimate metaphysical basis for commensurability-as-such?

The Solution

I suppose I began my quest to solve the problem of universals in the third grade. The teacher was explaining fractions, I think, and was using a metaphor to communicate the idea of the common denominator. You could not add thirds and halves, he said, because they are not alike. Only like things can be added. Apples can be added to apples, oranges to oranges, but apples cannot be added to oranges. (Somehow, it was permissible to multiply unlike things.)

I found this metaphor consternating. It was obvious to me that you could too add apples and oranges, or apples and desk chairs, or apples and monkeys. My teacher's claims to the contrary seemed to me to be part of an elaborate and cruel practical joke. I eventually just learned whatever rote mathematical convention it was that the teacher wanted me to learn, and I forgot about my consternation.

When I began, many years later, to see the commensurability oversight Ayn Rand made in IOE, I also began to ask myself: what, if anything, do the referents of concepts have, most strictly speaking, in common? This turned out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

I began asking myself what members of various random unit groups had in common with each other: horses, men, tables, squares, groups of 24, trios, pairs, and so on. Eventually, it came to me that I should try to find the simplest possible units to deal with. Horses and tables were far too complex, even geometric objects like squares and triangles proved consternating.

My dive for simplicity finally hit bottom with ones. What do all entities that can be mentally grouped together for counting have in common? In other words, what do all referents of the concept "one" have in common? This is certainly a strange question to ask, since, at first glance, it's apples and oranges. That is, it seems obvious at first that the infinitely diverse entities that can be enumerated need not have anything in common at all. What could one rock have in common with one counterfactual imagination of what might have happened yesterday?

What indeed? I then asked myself: what is the common denominator if one is trying to add one rock and one counterfactual imagination of what might have happened yesterday? Apples and oranges can be added if they are considered as fruit, just as halves and thirds can be added together if they are considered as sixths. Rocks and counterfactual imaginations of what might have happened yesterday can be added if they are considered as existents.

(Anything can be added to anything else if both are considered as existents. Zero makes such a poor denominator, I suspect, because it is strictly impossible for any two entities to have nothing in common. It is impossible to have something-that-is-not in common with anything, and it is impossible that any two entities should not positively have something in common.)

So if rocks and counterfactual imaginations of what might have happened yesterday can be considered as existents, if they are all legitimately subsumed under the concept 'existent,' do all existents have something real in common? Yes and no. (This is where the historic nominalism-realism dichotomy begins to break down.) Every existent has existence in common. I do not mean that existence is an attribute common to all existing things; existence is not an attribute, characteristic, or property. I mean rather that every existent has the very same existence in common with every other existent, in the strictest sense possible: there is, and can be, only one existent; what we perceive as entities are, on the metaphysical perspective, themselves the attributes of this primary, singular entity, existence itself.

In case this is not clear: from the metaphysical perspective, there is only one entity, which is existence itself, therefore the problem of universals, which asks why discrete entities apparently have properties in common, is radically dependent upon a false premise. There are no metaphysically discrete entities.

Suppose the Big Bang theory is true. Suppose further that our universe is the only one that exists. At some point in the ultimate past, then, everything that existed existed as a single infinitesimal entity of "infinite" density and temperature. The attributes, properties, and characteristics of existence-as-such were just the attributes, properties, and characteristics of this single entity. At this point in natural history, the problem of universals vanishes. Since there was only one entity, it is impossible to frame for this era the questions of the problem of universals, which all depend upon there being more than one entity through which a property can make its mysterious repeat appearances.

Eventually, this single entity expanded, so the theory goes, blooming into our whole universe and everything in it. At what point, then, did one entity become two? At what point did it become reasonable for us to ask of our world: how can one property be present in two discrete entities?

Never.

Existence is a metaphysical plenum. There are no gaps, no voids, no rifts of non-being dividing one entity from the next. Yet metaphysical gaps, voids, and rifts are just what the problem of universals presupposes. The submerged premises of the problem assume that entities are metaphysically isolated, that this rock and that one have nothing in common except perhaps mysterious universal properties such as "rockness." In fact, this rock and that one have not merely their "rockness" in common, but everything in common. This rock and that rock are, on the metaphysical perspective, precisely the same thing: existence itself.

Camouflage ordinarily makes it more difficult for observers to differentiate an object from its immediate background. But entities qua existents are given to us disguised with an inverse sort of camouflage. From our everyday perspective, the entities we perceive are indeed distinct from their backgrounds, and from each other. This perspective becomes deceptive when we concern ourselves with certain questions of metaphysics.

Imagine a furnished room made of a single, continuous flow of injection-molded plastic. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the tables and chairs --- all of these are of a piece. To an observer standing in this room, it might not be immediately obvious that it had been constructed in this unusual and counterintuitive way. In this room, a table is both a table and the room itself.

This observer would be equally correct if he were to point to a chair and say, from the quotidian, anthropocentric perspective, "that is a chair," or if he were to point to the same chair and say, from the "room perspective," "that is the room." Existence is, in fact, very like this unusual room, and the metaphysical perspective is the "room perspective" unbounded by the limits of metaphor.

The anthropocentric perspective is so problematic when investigating questions of metaphysics because it is so persistent and resilient. Because of this persistence, it might occur to us, for example, to ask what all visible entities have in common, but we would tend to answer by looking outward to the entities. We should instead look ourselves in the eye. What do all visible, olfactible, palpable, audible, gustable, and intelligible entities have in common? Against the instincts of realists, what these all have in common is neither something in the entities themselves, nor even something "out there," in any usual way we would understand this. What all these infinitely diverse entities have in common is --- man.

Man is the measure of all things. Perceptual entities are abstractions from and measures of existence, measures measured out by our senses, and measured out from a metaphysical plenum. Attributes, characteristics, and properties are conceptual abstractions from these perceptually given measures, and as such are already abstractions from abstractions, double derivatives twice removed from the primeval, unitary entity.

Perception gives us discrete entities, and so it is natural that our attempts to understand the world begin with these. If we follow abstraction to its ultimate limits, however, these discrete entities given by perception dissolve, as existents, into existence. We find ourselves returning, through abstraction, to the level of pre-perceptual raw sensation. Every attribute, every property, every characteristic is of the primeval entity presented in its undifferentiated totality by sensation. Ultimate abstraction and no abstraction whatsoever turn out to be two sides of the same Moebius coin.

How are we then justified in treating the properties of one entity as commensurable with the properties of another? What is the ultimate metaphysical basis for commensurability-as-such? It is this: everything is perfectly commensurable with itself.

-----

Thomas Fuller

Updates and corrections to be posted here:

http://www.theagon.org/blog/?p=119

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If two white entities appear similar to us, and therefore commensurable, what is it in the white entities that makes them appear similar? What is whiteness itself? How is it that this whiteness is in two places at once? Do the two white entities literally have something in common, like conjoined twins might have a common breastplate, or does each white entity have its-own-whiteness, a radically unique and particular whiteness that we, ultimately arbitrarily, treat as if it were commensurable with other conventionally "white" entities' own radically unique and individual whitenesses?

If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness is real, that all white entities have something literally "in common," like conjoined twins have body parts in common, she is a realist. If she says that these characteristics-in-common do not depend on the existence of particulars (entities), then she is a Platonist or "transcendent realist." If she says that these characteristics-in-common do depend on the existence of particulars, she is an Aristotelian or "immanent realist" or "moderate realist." If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness does not exist, that it is an artifact of some or other kind of naming convention, she is a nominalist.

Physically, 'white' is photons travelling from an object, by emission or reflection, and interacting with the cones on our retinae, producing electrical responses of similar enough strength from the red, green, and blue cones to be perceived as 'white'.

If I say that 'white' exists because a concsciousness perceives a 'white' entity, meaning there must be:

1) an entity to be perceived as 'white' and

2) a consciousness to perceive the entity as 'white',

am I a realist or a nominalist (or neither)?

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First of all, i have to say im not that familiar with Objectivism or philosophy yet, so this is just my own opinions, and not any Objectivist standpoint.... Usually i dont try to partake in discussions when im not comfortable with my own knowledge of the subject, but i'll try and give some "common sense" answers here nevertheless. Others, who are more familiar with the subject, will probably give you a more detailed answer.....

I do understand your point, but it really does not "solve" the problem, or make the problem a false dichotomy. It doesnt answer anything, it just states, that there really is just one entity, existence. As you said:

what we perceive as entities are, on the metaphysical perspective, themselves the attributes of this primary, singular entity, existence itself.

So what are we going to call all the things within this one single "entity", existence, that have different characteristics from eachother, if we cant call them entities? In that single extremely dense "entity", that we now call the universe, after the big bang, there was different distunguishable "things". The fact, that it was all in the same place, does not mean it consisted of only "one thing". Just like a rock consists of different things, that are distinguishable, despite all of them making up a rock. After the big bang, these "things" were distributed differently around the universe, and therefore created many things that have less and more in common with eachother, despite the fact that they all originated from the same entity. If that single point only consisted of one "thing", it would never have "banged", and even though you want to call this single point a single entity in itself, it can also be divided into all the things it consisted of. And these things make up the universe, just like it made up that single point before the big bang. Then, it is easy to see that different things have a varying degree of all these different things, and the ones that have a lot in common can be called the same thing by us humans, and be clearly differentiated from things that have less in common with that thing, even though they all originated from that single point....

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Physically, 'white' is photons travelling from an object, by emission or reflection, and interacting with the cones on our retinae, producing electrical responses of similar enough strength from the red, green, and blue cones to be perceived as 'white'.
That is a common mistake. "White" is actually a mental state that is causally related to energy absorption and emission of EM radiation. One obvious case is that you can close your eyes in a dark room and visualize a white object, without there being any visible radiation in the room. Thus ontology is not the same as phylogeny.

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Rand treated the problem of universals as a problem of epistemology, as is plain from the title of the book in which she gave her solution. But the problem of universals is not an epistemological problem at all; it is a problem of metaphysics. The crucial moment at which Rand leaves metaphysics behind comes in her discussion of commensurable characteristics and similarity.

[...]

Any solution to the problem of universals must not merely account for how we form concepts from diverse similar objects, as Rand does, but must account for the phenomenon of similarity-as-such, must account for commensurability-as-such. In other words, when, as Rand says, we grasp the similarity of two commensurable objects through sense-perception, what is it in reality that we are perceiving? If two white entities appear similar to us, and therefore commensurable, what is it in the white entities that makes them appear similar? What is whiteness itself? How is it that this whiteness is in two places at once? Do the two white entities literally have something in common, like conjoined twins might have a common breastplate, or does each white entity have its-own-whiteness, a radically unique and particular whiteness that we, ultimately arbitrarily, treat as if it were commensurable with other conventionally "white" entities' own radically unique and individual whitenesses?

If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness is real, that all white entities have something literally "in common," like conjoined twins have body parts in common, she is a realist. If she says that these characteristics-in-common do not depend on the existence of particulars (entities), then she is a Platonist or "transcendent realist." If she says that these characteristics-in-common do depend on the existence of particulars, she is an Aristotelian or "immanent realist" or "moderate realist." If a philosopher finally answers that she believes whiteness does not exist, that it is an artifact of some or other kind of naming convention, she is a nominalist.

Your assumption that a solution to the problem of universals must explain "how whiteness can be two places at once" is already assuming a realist solution. I think you have taken the essays by Huemer and Ryan too uncritically. This is the exact line they take, and it is neither sensible nor faithful to the history of philosophy. If it's true that a philosopher must explain that point to not only solve but deal with the problem of how something can be two places at once, then by your own logic nominalists are not solving or even dealing with the problem of universals. A nominalist says that there is no such thing as a whiteness that is in two places at once. So he is not explaining how it can be in two such places. So by your logic, he's not even dealing with the problem. But that is obviously false.

Traditionally speaking, the problem of universals is a problem of both metaphysics and epistemology. Read some Plato. Plato was probably the first philosopher to deal with this problem explicitly, and the question of how universals can be two places at once never occurs to him. He begins his inquiry by asking what all of the things we call just (or virtuous, or pious) have in common. The focus is on explaining our use of the term in question, and the knowledge that it appears to display. In the Republic, Plato says that if our language expresses knowledge, it must be of what is, rather than what is not. But what is is unchanging, and physical things change. Therefore our knowledge must be of something non-physical. Famously he concludes that there are Forms in another dimension in which physical particulars "participate."

The problem of universals is Plato's problem. Can we have knowledge that relates to many particulars, and if so how? And how can we use single terms to express knowledge about what appear to be many particulars? Anyone who answers that question is answering Plato's question. And if Plato wasn't dealing with the problem of universals, who was? Granted, there are contemporary philosophers who have created a special problem of how universal properties can be two places at once. But this is a special problem that assumes one particular solution to Plato's problem (in fact, it assumes Plato's solution). But that is a minor footnote to the wider problem.

Ayn Rand's solution to the problem does not fit into any of the major solutions to the problem of universals because it casts aside assumptions of each of them. Metaphysically, she thought all things were particulars. There are no entities in common among the many particular entities. (Yes, the universe is one in some sense, but that's irrelevant to the major problem.) But she was not a nominalist. Remember that the problem of universals is primarily a problem how reality can be known in a certain way. Nominalists (under the most generous interpretation) say everything is particular, and that therefore we can form no real general knowledge of the world. Read some Berkeley or Hume. They argue that we use particular words to refer to many particular things only because we acquire a habit of responding to many vaguely similar things. But this habit does not give rise to knowledge. If it did, we could have inductive knowledge--knowledge of generalizations--which Hume is famous for rejecting.

Ayn Rand's solution to the problem is unique because she explains how a similarity perceived between metaphysically distinct entities nonetheless serves as a foundation for real general knowledge of the world. And the key to her solution is that she did not simply talk about similarity. There's not much that needs to be explain about how similarity works. The fact that we perceive things as similar as we do can, as Hume surmised, be explained by our biology. For example, we see various colors as similar because we evolved under sunlight that prominently featured various wavelengths of EM radiation (unlike others, which are invisible to us). This is a point to be explained by science, not by philosophy. The task of the philosopher is to explain how, working with that perception of similarity (and our other faculties) we are able to create generalized knowledge of the world. A universal is not a single thing that is known, but a form in which we know many things: we know things universally. The task is to explain how it is possible.

As you know, Rand regarded the crux of her solution to be her theory of "measurement omission." This is a view about the process of abstraction. Similarity will get us only so far. It gets us as far being able to "group" together several particulars in our immediate perceptual field. But it doesn't let us think of them when we're gone, or think about the past generally, or think about the future. In short we need something to explain the possibility of inductive knowledge. Abstraction from similarity is what permits this. Rand's theory is that it is our ability to grasp quantitative relations that underlies our ability to abstract concepts away from the data of perception.

The details of her solution are too complex to go into here, and I'm not even necessarily insisting at this point that it was right. But it was a solution offered to a real problem, a problem addressed by many philosophers in history, not the trumped up problem described by Ryan et al.

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This is an interesting idea Thomas.

To begin, I will say that I have contemplated a similar metaphysical model before, but for different reasons. Mine mostly had to deal with the behavior of fluids and a re-interpreting of entropy, but that's besides the point.

I can see why you came to this conclusion, and how it works. I think though, while you might have grasped the right causes, the effects you describe are, what is the word I'm looking for? Extraneous. While your far end conclusions can be taken in certain contexts as true, in others, it becomes arbitrary.

To illustrate, I take a rock off of the ground, break it in two, and hurl each half in opposite directions across the universe. The rock halves fly across the universe, floating in total empty space. Are the rock halves still one rock? Are they two separate rocks? Are they the universe? What about a fleck of iron ore in one rock half? Is it iron ore? Is it a rock? Is it a rock halfway across the universe? It seems that, going by your logic, I can answer yes to any of these questions and not face a contradiction, all dependent on which arbitrary metaphysical viewpoint I take.

I think Ayn Rand's answer to the problem of universals did not "answer" it, but it did nullify it. It does not matter that each crow I see has a unique size or shade of black in its feathers, by omitting the measurements, I form an abstract universal crow based the similar form and color. I can then remove even that and add crow to the abstract "bird." I can break it down even farther and come up with "animal." With enough observation I can even take animal and break it down into "living" and from there into "matter" and "energy." Eventually I will hit the abstraction of "existence."

I think your metaphysics may be an attempt to do to reality what I just did with abstractions, breaking them down into a common denominator. I do think it is, somewhat erroneous though, as illustrated with my rock, to conclude that we are all really arbitrarily isolated sections of one of solid existence (as is implied with your plastic room example).

I think, ultimately, physics has long ago answer why, metaphysically, things can be the same. All of existence is made of the same basic particles governed by particular laws of motion. The moving particles combine in increasingly complex ways until you get the macroscopic complex entities and effects we observe with our senses. Why are existents the same/similar? Its all made out of the same basic material.

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noumenalself, thank you for your thoughtful reply.

Essentially, I believe you have misread me. Some of the blame for that is rightly mine, so let me try to address some points that were a bit unclear.

In earlier drafts of this solution, I started out by describing the problem as a problem of both metaphysics and epistemology, and by taking Ryan and Huemer to task for so tendentiously evading the problem's dual nature. I still believe this would have been a better and more complete way for me to have introduced the problem, but as I indicated in the introduction to this solution, I have published for personal reasons, not because I thought I had crafted a fully satisfying presentation.

When I say that the problem of universals is a problem of metaphysics, I am referring to the real problem that is contained in and somewhat obscured by the historical problem. For reasons that I will not go into here, I am convinced that the historical problem is essentially a question of metaphysics. This is not to deny that the question has always had an epistemological aspect. Rather, I believe that, even if one were to have a correct and complete solution to the epistemological aspect of the problem, the problem is still essentially unsolved, because the metaphysical question is primary; accounting for commensurability is the sine qua non of this question.

The passage I quoted from IOE is crucial. The question of metaphysical commensurability is the legitimate and real metaphysical problem of universals, and it is just this question that Ayn Rand passes by in that passage. Nominalism and realism, as traditions in philosophy, unfortunately just muddy the waters. I can understand why you would have interpreted my "assumption" that a solution to the problem of universals must explain "how whiteness can be in two places at once" the way you did. But my use of that phrase was only meant to point to the real problem, not as a proper statement of it. I contend, in other words, that when realists want to know "how whiteness can be in two places at once," what they are really asking (or should be asking) is: "What is the ultimate metaphysical basis of commensurability-as-such?" This is the correct way to phrase the question, and the right question to ask if we want to get at the real problem that is obscured by nominalist and realist diction.

If you answer this form of the question, you end up answering the realists' muddled version too.

When you say:

The fact that we perceive things as similar as we do can, as Hume surmised, be explained by our biology. For example, we see various colors as similar because we evolved under sunlight that prominently featured various wavelengths of EM radiation (unlike others, which are invisible to us). This is a point to be explained by science, not by philosophy.

You may be surprised to find that I agree with you. I agree with Rand that similarity is perceptually given, and I agree with you that science, not philosophy, will explain why we perceive certain objects as similar, or what causes us to perceive them as similar. Science cannot, however, answer for the phenomenon of commensurability-as-such.

Now there probably never would have been a question about commensurability-as-such if it hadn't been for Plato, and I like how you put it when you say "Granted, there are contemporary philosophers who have created a special problem of how universal properties can be two places at once. But this is a special problem that assumes one particular solution to Plato's problem (in fact, it assumes Plato's solution)." The problem is that entities have been assumed to be metaphysically discrete, which is false. Remove this false assumption, and it becomes impossible even to state the problem of universals in the Platonically biased one-property-in-two-places-at-once way of Ryan and Huemer.

Removing this false assumption also opens the path to solving the real problem, the problem of commensurability. My solution shows that the Platonically biased problem of universals was a pseudo-problem. The real problem, the problem of commensurability, can be seen then as almost trivial. Certainly it is not a problem that would ever occur from a natively Objectivist point of view. But, trivial as it seems in retrospect, or as invisible as it seems from the Objectivist perspective, it was nonetheless a real problem, obscured by a mountain of Platonic detritus.

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For reasons that I will not go into here, I am convinced that the historical problem is essentially a question of metaphysics.

From what I understand, this is correct, and it is also the *reason* why all historical attempts to answer the question of universals *failed*: they were placing consciousness (epistemology) above existence (metaphysics) and trying to derive reality from perception, instead of recognizing that reality comes first and perception is dependent upon it.

This is particularly obvious if you read any Descartes and watch how he winds up miring himself in the "Evil Genius" swamp.

Ayn Rand's solution to the problem of universals and her particular formulation of it are a direct result of her OTHER huge philosophical innovation: the primacy of existence. If you accept the primacy of existence then all concerns of how you demonstrate that physical objects "actually are" commensurate is swept away. The nature of commensuratism (I just made that word up) is an artifact of the way that human consciousness interacts with reality. Since consciousness is secondary, that commensurativeness (I made that up too) doesn't exist either "in objects" or "in the mind" . . . it is an effect of two things, objects and consciousness, interacting.

So, Ayn Rand did actually answer the historical problem, she just didn't explain it the same way prior philosophers did because she'd hacked off their "problem" at the root.

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From what I understand, this is correct, and it is also the *reason* why all historical attempts to answer the question of universals *failed*: they were placing consciousness (epistemology) above existence (metaphysics) and trying to derive reality from perception, instead of recognizing that reality comes first and perception is dependent upon it.

I am a little confused by this. I want to agree with what you've said; it seems to me to echo my own point of view, but here's what I don't understand: how do you get from agreeing that the historical problem of universals is essentially a question of metaphysics to the accusation that the philosophers who built that historical artifact were placing epistemology first? On its face, it would seem that their having put the problem as a problem of metaphysics is putting existence over consciousness, not vice versa as you say. (I think I can guess at how this apparent dissonance might have been resolved in your thinking, but I don't want to put words in your mouth.)

Ayn Rand's solution to the problem of universals and her particular formulation of it are a direct result of her OTHER huge philosophical innovation: the primacy of existence. If you accept the primacy of existence then all concerns of how you demonstrate that physical objects "actually are" commensurate is swept away. The nature of commensuratism (I just made that word up) is an artifact of the way that human consciousness interacts with reality. Since consciousness is secondary, that commensurativeness (I made that up too) doesn't exist either "in objects" or "in the mind" . . . it is an effect of two things, objects and consciousness, interacting.

I don't think I can agree with this. Merely accepting the primacy of existence does not, in itself, sweep away questions of inter-entity commensurability. Rand's position that the perceptual level of awareness is the given is quite correct, and because the perceptual level of awareness is the given, the commensurability question just has to come up at some point. Here we have entities, that seem to be primaries, but if they are primaries, then how do we justify our mode of thinking about the world (concepts)? Ayn Rand's answer in IOE answers this question from the perspective of validating concepts, but never gets to the metaphysical root of the problem, from which the question of concept formation picks up.

One of the things I would have liked to have done before publishing this would have been to put Rand's work in IOE into its full context, and I don't mean merely putting it in its historical context. Naturally, Objectivists think they know what that full context is already, without my help. That's a point of disagreement between us, until I do some persuading.

So, Ayn Rand did actually answer the historical problem, she just didn't explain it the same way prior philosophers did because she'd hacked off their "problem" at the root.

She hacked off the problem very close to the ground, I would say, but missed the root. Still, that was some fine hacking she did, unquestionably.

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I am a little confused by this. I want to agree with what you've said; it seems to me to echo my own point of view, but here's what I don't understand: how do you get from agreeing that the historical problem of universals is essentially a question of metaphysics to the accusation that the philosophers who built that historical artifact were placing epistemology first?

Ooh, good question, I was worrying that I wasn't as clear as I might have been. What I meant was that the historical question is considered a problem of metaphysics because the "metaphysics" that those historical philsophers were trying to deal with was actually the realm of epistemology . . . they were calling epistemology metaphysics, in other words, and smooging distinct areas together in a way that doesn't work. The idea of the Primacy of Existence fixes this problem, in part, because it makes a clear distinction between what IS metaphysics and what is properly epistemology.

In fully understanding this distinction, it becomes obvious why it's not necessary to demonstrate that entities are metaphysically commensurate in some way, only that they are perceptually commensurate in some way that is identifiable to humans. For first-level concepts, i.e. ones that are usually defined ostensively by pointing at things, this commensurateness is available to direct perception--you don't have to *think* about it. That's where the problem arises, I think, in that people usually have great difficulty defining the precise attributes of things that they're used to pointing to.

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Late in the week of April 16, 2000, I solved the problem of universals. I have delayed publication for a number of reasons. Before publishing, I wanted to develop the perfect formulations, to have ready answers to all probable objections, and to have acquired a detailed knowledge of the history of the problem. I have never quite been able to find the time.

Unfortunately, your lengthy paper is way off track. As others have pointed out, the problem of universals has to do with how man's mind is able to subsume particulars under one heading -- i.e. one concept. And Miss Rand did answer that question; it is by measurement omission.

As to what you were trying to do, that is to formulate some reason why things are similar, well that is not a problem of universals, and it is not the province of philosophy. Properly speaking, philosophy starts with the perceptually self-evident. In other words, you observe that this thing ---> A is black and so is this thing ----> 6. You don't need to know why they are similar because it is something you observe. The question of universals properly understood is how can the very same concept, "black", refer to both the A and the 6 in my example. When you get into what makes them black, that is a special science question and not a philosophical question. The answer in this case would be that this is the way they are drawn on your computer screen.

So, the issue is not, how is this rock similar to that rock, as in what is the chemical make-up and how did it all condense from a dust cloud billions of years ago.

Perception gives us reality, so perceiving that this --> A and this --> A are similar is enough to give you that fact that they are metaphysically connected somehow; but that is not the issue. In this case, they are metaphysically close to the same shape. So, the metaphysical connectedness is given in perception, and there is no need to give a long drawn out answer referring to the supposed Big Bang and that everything was one thing at one time.

In other words, when you see a dog here and another dog over there, they are obviously perceptually similar. Miss Rand didn't go into that because it is obvious in perception. In order to form the concept "dog" using measurement omission, it is totally unnecessary to check out their pedigree to find out that they had a similar ancestor somewhere in the past. Just as there is no need to check to see if they have a similar DNA. It just isn't necessary in order to perceive that they are similar in many, many, respects, and therefore can be united using measurement omission.

So, I'm sorry, but you didn't solve anything. In fact you obfuscated the whole question in a way similar to Plato, by asking for the metaphysical connectedness, which is given in perception.

Similarity does not need to be explained, it is given in perception.

Edited by Thomas M. Miovas Jr.

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Not all concepts involve perceptual similarity though. And perceptual similarity often isnt enough for two objects to be classed under the same concept. While I agree that the perceptual similarity of two black objects is given in perception, it doesnt make sense to say that the beautifulness of 2 beautiful objects is a 'perceptual similarity' in the same way (they may look nothing alike), nor can you really say that 2 'good' actions are perceptually similar in that they both look 'good'. Theres a lot more than perception going on in these cases, and our classification is often based more on functional/evaluative factors than on purely perceptual ones.

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Not all concepts involve perceptual similarity though.

That is a valid point, and I wasn't trying to convey that all concepts are directly based on the perceptually self-evident. Their conceptual roots come from the perceptually self-evident, but, for instance, "communism" and "capitalism" qua concepts are based on many, many similarities of the two distinct political systems, and many of those are not perceptually self-evident.

However, I was really trying to make the point that, at least on the perceptual level, first level concepts, the similarity is given in perception. And that the problem of universals was thrown off track by Plato, who was looking for the metaphysical real thing that made them similar -- i.e. they each partake in the respective Form. But the question is not how are they common metaphysically, but rather how can two or more particulars be subsumed under one concept.

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Unfortunately, your lengthy paper is way off track. As others have pointed out, the problem of universals has to do with how man's mind is able to subsume particulars under one heading -- i.e. one concept. And Miss Rand did answer that question; it is by measurement omission.

This is a bald assertion. You are merely stating that what Ayn Rand did in IOE solved the problem of universals, but you have omitted argument and evidence. Furthermore, you are smuggling in an argument from popularity ("others have pointed out"), as if a mere accumulation of bald assertions somehow transmutes into argument and evidence. I hope this was an uncharacteristic slip.

As to what you were trying to do, that is to formulate some reason why things are similar, well that is not a problem of universals, and it is not the province of philosophy. ... [Y]ou observe that this thing ---> A is black and so is this thing ----> 6. You don't need to know why they are similar because it is something you observe.

You are now compounding the error of bald assertion by begging the question. Whether or not philosophy needs to account for inter-entity commensurability is among the very questions that are in contention. Now, if I had disputed that similarity is perceptually given, you might have been justified in this tactic, but I have never disputed this. Perhaps you missed my reply to noumenalself, in which I said:

I agree with Rand that similarity is perceptually given, and I agree with you that science, not philosophy, will explain why we perceive certain objects as similar, or what causes us to perceive them as similar.

That similarity is perceptually given does not absolve philosophy of the need to validate the assumption of commensurability upon which concept formation depends. The fact that the assumption is sound does not mean that it does not need to be validated. On the contrary, the fact that it is a sound assumption makes its validation all the more urgent. Understand?

The reason we cannot be content with the perceptually given (note that I am providing argument and evidence in support of my position) is that we are given, by perception, discrete entities. Since our knowledge of the world starts with entities that seem discrete, it is all too easy for some of us to be hornswoggled into thinking that entities' commensurability is either mysterious (realism) or based on arbitrary convention (nominalism). The whole point of my argument is that commensurability is not mysterious. By validating in metaphysics the assumption of commensurability that is implied in our sense-perceptive faculty, I have furthered the project of validating reason, the importance of which I do not need to explain to an audience of Objectivists.

Once we understand and have validated that commensurability is neither mysterious nor arbitrary, we can move on to validating concepts. Ayn Rand did the latter, and I'm very glad about it. But doing that does not solve the problem of universals, for the reason stated above.

(Objectivists, I should note, are not likely to be hornswoggled into thinking that the given similarity of perceptual entities is mysterious or arbitrary, but because this immunity comes at the cost of ignoring the real problem of universals, it is a strength in the same way that being born without the ability to feel pain is a strength.)

So, I'm sorry, but you didn't solve anything. In fact you obfuscated the whole question in a way similar to Plato, by asking for the metaphysical connectedness, which is given in perception.

Similarity does not need to be explained, it is given in perception.

Repeating that "similarity does not need to be explained" first, does not amount to argument and evidence, and second, is false. If you are still unclear about the reasons why this is false, please reread my posts a few times before having another go. (And: your demonstrations with letters and numbers only underline your misapprehension of the matter at hand, so I will leave them only this parenthetical dismissal.)

Also, keep in mind that obfuscation and subtlety are concepts with different referents.

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That similarity is perceptually given does not absolve philosophy of the need to validate the assumption of commensurability upon which concept formation depends. The fact that the assumption is sound does not mean that it does not need to be validated. On the contrary, the fact that it is a sound assumption makes its validation all the more urgent. Understand?

The reason we cannot be content with the perceptually given (note that I am providing argument and evidence in support of my position) is that we are given, by perception, discrete entities.

Again, you are making the same mistake that Plato made. Discrete entities do indeed exist, and there is no need to try to figure out why we perceive two or more dogs; because there really are more than one dog.

You are trying to smuggle in the idea that we do not perceive reality the way it really is. That reality is really one entity, and somehow it is our sensory apparatus that makes it into discrete entities, like several dogs. Reality, and the nature of reality is given in perception. There really are entities, it's not just something that occurs because we have perceptual capabilities.

And the perceptually self-evident requires no validation, for we observe reality the way it is via perception; which means that commensurability is not something one needs to question or to validate. This and this are commensurate, and that is obvious in perception; it is given. One does not need to know either HTML or the science of color vision in order to perceive that these are commensurate.

Commensurability is not the issue when it comes to concept formation, in the sense that you are trying to make it an issue. The issue is how can one concept, i.e. blue, be applied to both this and this, which are discrete. They actually are discrete. It is not as if the first this is somehow the same entity as the other this in real reality. They are distinct, and not the same this.

In some cases, one has to ask if this and this are really commensurate once one gets past the perceptually self-evident. That is, are, say, the electron and the proton commensurate qua particle -- do they differ only insofar as measurements are concerned? But one doesn't have to ask that for the perceptually self-evident. Commensurability is metaphysical in the sense that the items being integrated are real and they do differ by only a measurement; but just because they differ by only a measurement does not make them really one thing.

This and this are discrete; but the concept "magenta" covers them both.

Edited by Thomas M. Miovas Jr.

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I agree with Rand that similarity is perceptually given, and I agree with you that science, not philosophy, will explain why we perceive certain objects as similar, or what causes us to perceive them as similar.

So, if science explains why things are similar... and you agree that it is outside the realm of philosophy... why did you bother coming up with a long drawn out philosophical reason that things are similar? Just curious?

I think the whole problem of universals is a non-problem based on an assumption that there is a problem with things having identical or similar traits to begin with. You assume that there needs to be a grand underlying reason for things to be both discrete and similar. It seems like your making a mountain out of nothing. The reason things can be discrete and yet identical is because, using the same materials, you can easily replicate form. There is nothing mystical about it. Everything is constructed out of the same materials, ergo, it is beyond possible for things to have identical traits.

As much as you say you have solved the problem outside of realism and nominalism, but, your solution, going by what you say, is nominalistic. You defined nominalism as seeing commensurability as "based on arbitrary convention." You say you don't do this, but your ultimate conclusion is that everything is the same, and it is only our arbitrary perception that produces discrete entities, as implied by your metaphor of the plastic room. If we took another perspective, we would realize that everything is everything, and that is why traits repeat!

Since you didn't respond last time, I'll shall bring up again my example of the rock;

To illustrate, I take a rock off of the ground, break it in two, and hurl each half in opposite directions across the universe. The rock halves fly across the universe, floating in total empty space. Are the rock halves still one rock? Are they two separate rocks? Are they the universe? What about a fleck of iron ore in one rock half? Is it iron ore? Is it a rock? Is it a rock halfway across the universe? It seems that, going by your logic, I can answer yes to any of these questions and not face a contradiction, all dependent on which arbitrary metaphysical viewpoint I take.

Now, granted, if I am misunderstanding you, please tell me. If I am reading to much into the plastic room example, tell me and make your viewpoint clearer.

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I don't see why Huemer merits all of this effort to refute.

Postulating that the commensurability of objects is itself a metaphysical entity called a universal is the fallacy of reification. Similarity is a relationship between two objects of observation and an observer, but a relationship is not itself an entity.

As Nyronus explained, things can be similar because they are all made of the same kinds stuff. What is really remarkable is that people are similar enough that we notice similarity in the same kinds of things.

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Let me take a moment to make a meta-argument before I dive back in to addressing the comments in this thread.

I am working under the assumption that Ayn Rand is a hero to most of the participants here. Ayn Rand herself called the problem of universals “philosophy’s central issue.” Those who profoundly admire Ayn Rand do so, in large part, because of her achievements in philosophy. By any measure, then, Ayn Rand’s solution to the problem of universals is an important value to Objectivists.

Now, suppose I am right, and that Ayn Rand either did not solve the problem of universals, or only solved it partially. Ayn Rand’s philosophy then has an error of omission, at the least, down near its very roots in metaphysics.

From the perspective of hero-worshipping Objectivists, it could hardly matter whether this error is a minor error of omission or something more significant; the prospect that Objectivism could have a flaw at a point so fundamental in the hierarchy of philosophy should be disturbing.

I say “should be” disturbing, and this is a characteristically careful choice of words on my part. I hope Objectivists are disturbed at this prospect, because being disturbed would evince a healthy commitment to their own values, and a healthy response of profound unease when these values appear to be (and “appear to be” is another careful choice of words) threatened.

Still supposing, purely for the sake of demonstration, that I am right about universals, let me propose then that there are three ranks of Objectivists, ranked by how they might respond to such a threat.

Objectivists of the third and lowest rank are not at all disturbed when they confront my arguments. They are blithely unconcerned with any threats to Objectivism because they have not only decided that Objectivism is true, but they have permanently closed themselves off to reason and evidence to the contrary. Having arrived at the truth, their satisfaction is so complete, they have no further use for the faculty that propelled them to it.

Objectivists of the second rank have not maimed their reason in any way; they remain fully capable of reading, understanding, absorbing, and, as necessary, refuting foreign views or integrating them into their own. Faced with a possible challenge to the integrity of the Objectivist metaphysics, however, these Objectivists quail, all unconsciously, and switch, psycho-epistemologically, from lovers of wisdom (philosophers) to Defenders of the Faith. Objectivists of this rank, against their better judgment, end up asking themselves ‘What arguments will defend Objectivism?’ rather than asking themselves ‘What arguments are true?’ For them, outing “flaws” in my argument (whether they are real or imagined) is more important than evaluating it.

Objectivists of the first rank, like those of the second, have fully intact faculties. When these thinkers are confronted with a challenge to their values, they follow the sentiment attributed to Aristotle, who is said to have said of his mentor, “I love Plato, but I love the truth even more.” Thus, even though they face a powerful temptation to read foreign arguments first and foremost for their conformity to Objectivism, and only after this for the truth, they resist it. What I find important is that, because of how deeply they value Objectivism, even those Objectivists who resist the urge to read foreign and threatening arguments with a bias still feel the urge. The only question is how this urge is dealt with. Thinkers of the first rank deal with it harshly. This is what separates the proverbial men from the boys.

Out of courtesy, benevolence, and prudence I shall be assuming that the denizens of this forum are all Objectivists of the first rank, until or unless the evidence becomes preponderant to the contrary. What I will not assume, since I believe it would be foolish, is that the potential threat to the integrity of Objectivism’s theory of universals is not affecting my readers’ readings of my solution.

I ask that participants in this debate ask themselves: Is my reading finally motivated by a desire to defend Objectivism, or by a desire to know the truth? Be assured that I continually ask myself whether I am motivated by a desire to defend my own view or to know the truth.

Quid pro quo.

Now, a note on my priorities when responding to posts in this thread. My top priority is always to reply to those who I think are “getting it.” My second priority is to reply to those who I think are not getting it, but not getting in an interesting way. My next priority is to address challenges that are most likely to turn a quick profit for me. (For example, a challenge that misses an elementary point is relatively easy to address, and so the small effort to address it will look like a good investment.) My last priority is to address posts that strike me as soliloquies, hopelessly confused, or made in bad faith.

If I have not replied to your post, do not take this as evidence, on its own, that I think you are writing hopelessly confused soliloquies in bad faith. I hope to reply to everyone who has been interested enough in this topic to participate here.

Edited by ThomasF

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You forgot the fourth tier in your careful, sociological examination of Objectivists: the pseudo-Objectivist who claims to be able to make psychological assessments of other people, and proceeds to shout 'Mystic!' to all people who point out the errors in any theories he expounds.

Of course, I shan't assume you are of this rank. No, no. No one like you could be of this rank. Not after I have gone into the effort of showing how self-evidently stupid this is. No, you have to accept that you must also be of that great, first rank, because of course, being of that first rank means everyone takes your ideas seriously simply because you said them, does not immediately throw away any knowledge they have, just because some impudent little prick decided to start claiming that he has an idea, and he'll be damned if anyone's going to dare suggest to him that he look at the facts first!

You're on the level of that asshole theist who came in here a while back and started claiming that no one here had enough integrity or honesty to take his ideas about God's existence seriously.

Edited by Tenure

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Let me take a moment to make a meta-argument before I dive back in to addressing the comments in this thread.

I am working under the assumption that Ayn Rand is a hero to most of the participants here. Ayn Rand herself ...

I ask that participants in this debate ask themselves: Is my reading finally motivated by a desire to defend Objectivism, or by a desire to know the truth? Be assured that I continually ask myself whether I am motivated by a desire to defend my own view or to know the truth.

Quid pro quo.

I call the argument from intimidation. If we were only honest enough (read, moral), we would understand your solution. All of us who have even the slightest qualm are really rock-headed Randroids who can't see the light because we refuse to think outside of our O-shaped box. Boo-hoo!

I find this subtle attack against my intellectual integrity to be insulting in the highest. I have stated, quiet clearly, why I think you are wrong, and it has nothing, nothing, to do with Ayn Rand being right. Your wrong because you seek to answer a non-problem based on a Humian assumption that there needs to be a grand metaphysical, boarder-line mystic, necessity behind natural occurrences. Similarity is caused in distinct entities because of identical structures in make-up. You need go no further! Why does it appear in structures? Because structures have similar function. Why in nature? Because evolution capitalizes on the replication of useful forms. Why in the geography? Because rocks are subjected to large and similar meteorological and geological events. Why in space? because the laws of physics function in such a way that planets and things form under certain conditions. In the end, commensurability is a derivative of cause and effect. When you apply a similar or identical cause to similar or identical materials, you get similar or identical effects. In the end, the problem of universals can be explained away by the law of identity. You are right in saying Ayn Rand did not solve the problem of universals, she didn't have to, because once you grasp cause and effect, the metaphysics of universals goes away. I don't know how to explain it any better than that.

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I am going to try to combine two replies into one, since I think the issues overlap.

When Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. says:

You are trying to smuggle in the idea that we do not perceive reality the way it really is. That reality is really one entity, and somehow it is our sensory apparatus that makes it into discrete entities, like several dogs. Reality, and the nature of reality is given in perception. There really are entities, it's not just something that occurs because we have perceptual capabilities.

And when Nyronus says:

[Y]our ultimate conclusion is that everything is the same, and it is only our arbitrary perception that produces discrete entities, as implied by your metaphor of the plastic room. If we took another perspective, we would realize that everything is everything, and that is why traits repeat!

They are misreading my argument in similar ways.

Something cannot be A and Non-A at the same time and in the same respect, as we all agree. I wrote in my solution:

Imagine a furnished room made of a single, continuous flow of injection-molded plastic. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the tables and chairs --- all of these are of a piece. To an observer standing in this room, it might not be immediately obvious that it had been constructed in this unusual and counterintuitive way. In this room, a table is both a table and the room itself.

This observer would be equally correct if he were to point to a chair and say, from the quotidian, anthropocentric perspective, "that is a chair," or if he were to point to the same chair and say, from the "room perspective," "that is the room." Existence is, in fact, very like this unusual room, and the metaphysical perspective is the "room perspective" unbounded by the limits of metaphor.

Note the emphasis I have added on "equally correct." I am saying that entities are discrete and are not discrete at the same time. But I am not saying that they are discrete and not discrete in the same respect. Whether entities are discrete is a matter of perspective. I have named the two perspectives the "anthropocentric perspective" (entities are discrete, as given in perception), and the "metaphysical perspective" (entities are measures measured out from a metaphysical plenum).

I am also, most emphatically, not saying that one perspective is superior to the other. I am not denying, as Mr. Miovas thought, that there really are entities. I am not asserting, as Nyronus thought, that perception is "arbitrary," and this assertion is not, as he thought, implied in any way by my metaphor of the plastic room. I am not saying that the metaphysical perspective reveals the truth about reality and that it is a corrective to the deceptions inherent in sense-perception. Sense-perception is not deceptive. (When I wrote that my plastic-room observer would be equally correct to interpret the room and its contents from either perspective, I meant what I wrote. I try to mean what I say and to say what I mean, and I succeed, n.b., far more often than not.)

What can be deceptive is certain approaches to thinking about entities. You can look at my solution this way, if it is helpful: I am arguing that the historical (metaphysical) problem of universals arises from the confused intermingling, in the thinking of non-Objectivist philosophers, of the metaphysical and the anthropocentric perspectives. Prior to my solution, those thinking about universals as a problem of metaphysics rather than a problem of epistemology were helplessly confused because they kept switching from one perspective to the other without knowing that they were doing so. They did not know they were doing so because the "metaphysical perspective" and the "anthropocentric perspective" had never been conceptualized and identified. When someone asks "What is whiteness itself?" he is asking a question that is rooted in the metaphysical perspective, i.e., that is rooted in a level of abstraction so removed from perception that, if one were to maintain this perspective consistently, entities would disappear, would be abstracted (qua existents) into existence.

But, unaware of the distinction between the two perspectives as they have been, nominalists and realists have expected the answer to "What is whiteness itself?" to be framed in terms native to the anthropocentric perspective. They ask the question from one perspective; they want the answer from another. Because they want to conflate two different aspects of entities, which cannot work, they end up catapulted into either mysticism (realism) or subjectivism (nominalism).

Now, as I have suggested before, the way that Objectivism looks at the problem of universals, as a problem of epistemology, avoids the confusion and conflation and collapse into mysticism or subjectivism that so irresistibly attracts non-Objectivist philosophers. But, on a metaphor of software engineering, this is not a feature of Objectivism, it is a bug. It is a bug because the validation of reason requires that the perceptually given be put in conceptual terms. (This is why Ayn Rand conceptualized self-evident axioms like "Existence exists.")

(Answering the question "What is the ultimate metaphysical basis of commensurability-as-such?" goes even further than putting the perceptually given in conceptual terms. It puts what is given by sensation in conceptual terms. Compare this passage from IOE, p.6:

(It may be supposed that the concept "existent" is implicit even on the level of sensations—if and to the extent that a consciousness is able to discriminate on that level. A sensation is a sensation of something, as distinguished from the nothing of the preceding and succeeding moments. A sensation does not tell man what exists, but only that it exists.)

Sensation implies the metaphysical perspective, since perceptual entities do not appear at this level. The unbroken plenum of existence is presented to consciousness in any sensation. As I said above: "Ultimate abstraction and no abstraction whatsoever turn out to be two sides of the same Moebius coin.")

"Similarity is perceptually given" is an overture or preface, a good start, a beginning, but not a complete solution. It fails to put the perceptually given in conceptual terms because it simply mirrors perception without integrating what perception tells us into the broader context of our knowledge of existence at the most abstract level. It fails to integrate existents into existence. It fails to recognize that entities are measures measured out from a plenum, from the one entity, from existence itself. It fails to recognize that it is because all entities are (perceptual, not conceptual) abstractions from existence that we have no reason to be mystified at their commensurability, that there is not only no basis for this in the perceptually given, but there is no basis at any level of abstraction.

Huemer and Ryan are only two not-particularly significant representatives of a much larger trend in approaching the problem of universals. No philosopher who has been swept up in this trend will be persuaded by IOE because it does not address the question he is really asking. It does not solve the problem of universals that he knows. If we are serious about defending reason, then we need to build the right defenses, defenses matched to the enemy's forces. This is what I have done.

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If we were only honest enough (read, moral), we would understand your solution. All of us who have even the slightest qualm are really rock-headed Randroids who can't see the light because we refuse to think outside of our O-shaped box. Boo-hoo!

Nonsense. Words mean things. What I said does not mean this. Now, if you had said that this is how what I said makes you feel, then I could hardly argue with you. You are the expert authority on your own feelings.

I'll tell you how your words make me feel: they make me feel like paraphrasing Carley Simon: 'You're so vain, you probably think that post was about you.'

I don't fault you, Nyronus, for interpreting what I wrote as you did; I'll chalk it up to honest error due to inexperience in dealing with me. I mean, if it had been my long habit to visit this board, and if I had hundreds of posts under my belt, I would have a reputation of sorts here. From that reputation, you could then infer whether a post like my "meta-argument" post above meant what it said, or whether it was a veiled insult. The fact of the matter is that I have no reputation at all on this board, and therefore you have no basis beyond what I wrote, beyond the words themselves, to make a judgment about their meaning. Since all you had to go on was the words, you were in error in going beyond them, making inferences about my character based on insufficient evidence, and then concluding from these inferences that I did not mean what I said, but rather something else, something insulting.

One could argue that the three-tiered categorization of Objectivists that I made is inherently insulting, but the soundness of that argument would ultimately rest on the facts of reality. Two key claims I made in that post are (1) that people's values affect their psycho-epistemologies and (2) that some self-proclaimed Objectivists are so affected by their values that their psycho-epistemologies degrade precipitously when confronted with foreign and threatening arguments.

Point (1) is one that I am very interested in, and will be writing about at length at some point in the future. For now, I will say only that I have given the matter significant thought for many years, and I am convinced that it is true.

Point (2) depends upon point (1), but is obviously narrower. I will not make a full case for it here, but Tenure has, almost like a plant in the audience, provided some powerful prima facie evidence that I am right about it.

Like you, Tenure came to a conclusion about my supposed ulterior motives based on objectively insufficient evidence. The similarities end there. Even though you felt insulted, you did not stoop to insulting me in return. Tenure, in contrast, calls me (as far as I can tell; the vitriol of his post strains it to the point of near-incoherence) "pseudo-Objectivist," "impudent little prick," and "on the level of [an] asshole theist."

Oh, but the differences don't end there. You spent five sentences addressing my alleged insult, but then immediately turned the bulk of your attention to making another attempt at addressing my arguments. So, even though you believed I had insulted you, you were still so interested in ideas that you continued to try to persuade me with rational argument. You, Nyronus, put your principles into practice. Because I do the same, I follow this evidence of your character to my conclusion that your interpretation of my post was an honest error. Tenure's reply, unlike yours, is devoid of argument or evidence, except if you take it as evidence that I am right and some people just cannot handle debate over important matters. It's too scary for them.

Is the evidence against Tenure conclusive? No. But in my context of knowledge, with only that one post to judge him by, the preponderance of evidence suggests that he would have to strain to make the third rank. Or, as Shakespeare might have erected for retort: 'The advanced member doth protest too much, methinks.'

You are right in saying Ayn Rand did not solve the problem of universals, she didn't have to, because once you grasp cause and effect, the metaphysics of universals goes away. I don't know how to explain it any better than that.

I am gratified that you have recognized that I am right that Ayn Rand did not solve the problem of universals, and I sincerely thank you for your efforts in explaining your position and contrasting it with mine. But you have confused two distinct areas of inquiry. One is: what, in the physical realm, causes similarity? This is a question for science. The other is: what, in the metaphysical realm, explains the existence of similarity-as-such? This is a question for philosophy. As I have said before, entities turn out to be similar to each other, fundamentally, because there is only one existence, of which all entities are part. As I have also said before, Objectivists have trouble seeing the need for this answer because they never think of entities as metaphysical islands floating in a void. But, historically, philosophers have thought of entities this way, and the natures of sensation, perception, and conception create what I think might rightly be called a "pseudo-illusion" that entities are metaphysical islands floating in a void. This pseudo-illusion needed debunking. I debunked it.

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Nonsense. Words mean things. What I said does not mean this. Now, if you had said that this is how what I said makes you feel, then I could hardly argue with you. You are the expert authority on your own feelings.

I'll tell you how your words make me feel: they make me feel like paraphrasing Carley Simon: 'You're so vain, you probably think that post was about you.'

I don't fault you, Nyronus, for interpreting what I wrote as you did; I'll chalk it up to honest error due to inexperience in dealing with me. I mean, if it had been my long habit to visit this board, and if I had hundreds of posts under my belt, I would have a reputation of sorts here. From that reputation, you could then infer whether a post like my "meta-argument" post above meant what it said, or whether it was a veiled insult. The fact of the matter is that I have no reputation at all on this board, and therefore you have no basis beyond what I wrote, beyond the words themselves, to make a judgment about their meaning. Since all you had to go on was the words, you were in error in going beyond them, making inferences about my character based on insufficient evidence, and then concluding from these inferences that I did not mean what I said, but rather something else, something insulting.

One could argue that the three-tiered categorization of Objectivists that I made is inherently insulting, but the soundness of that argument would ultimately rest on the facts of reality. Two key claims I made in that post are (1) that people's values affect their psycho-epistemologies and (2) that some self-proclaimed Objectivists are so affected by their values that their psycho-epistemologies degrade precipitously when confronted with foreign and threatening arguments.

Point (1) is one that I am very interested in, and will be writing about at length at some point in the future. For now, I will say only that I have given the matter significant thought for many years, and I am convinced that it is true.

Point (2) depends upon point (1), but is obviously narrower. I will not make a full case for it here, but Tenure has, almost like a plant in the audience, provided some powerful prima facie evidence that I am right about it.

Like you, Tenure came to a conclusion about my supposed ulterior motives based on objectively insufficient evidence. The similarities end there. Even though you felt insulted, you did not stoop to insulting me in return. Tenure, in contrast, calls me (as far as I can tell; the vitriol of his post strains it to the point of near-incoherence) "pseudo-Objectivist," "impudent little prick," and "on the level of [an] asshole theist."

Oh, but the differences don't end there. You spent five sentences addressing my alleged insult, but then immediately turned the bulk of your attention to making another attempt at addressing my arguments. So, even though you believed I had insulted you, you were still so interested in ideas that you continued to try to persuade me with rational argument. You, Nyronus, put your principles into practice. Because I do the same, I follow this evidence of your character to my conclusion that your interpretation of my post was an honest error. Tenure's reply, unlike yours, is devoid of argument or evidence, except if you take it as evidence that I am right and some people just cannot handle debate over important matters. It's too scary for them.

I think I may take that last paragraph as a compliment.

You see, whatever your intent was, to both me and Tenure, it appeared as an insult. There is more than one reason why. To begin, you picked a really, really, bad spot to propose your idea. You don't debate someone on one thing, and then turn around and question his ethical premises. For, example, let's say that, oh, a socialist and an Austrian school economist are debating tariffs. Both men are reasonably honest, and are, for the most part, acting logically on the knowledge that they know. They go back and forth for a bit, then, suddenly, the socialist raps his fist onto the table, sits up, announces;

"I have a theory."

"What is that?"

"Its something about the nature of capitalists. I have this idea that maybe there is a problem with capitalists in that their drive for self-satisfaction may end up being seized by their id and that their self-interest could, could mind you, override their rational faculties and render them unthinking!"

Now, no matter how honest this man's statement is, and as inoffensive as he meant it, or how honestly he believes it, the fact of the matter is that everyone watching this debate is going to hear "Capitalists (can be) irrational!" This idea undercurrents his opponent's authority, and, even if our dear misguided socialist did not mean to, will no doubt offend the economist because he has just been called, by implication, irrational by default.

This is what you have done. You have, in the middle of a debate with Objectivists, made a statement that implies that Objectivists, by their very nature, are (or have a strong possibility to be) mentally handicapped by their belief systems. The only reason I could see you doing that, at that exact moment, is that you were making an argument from intimidation. That you were attacking Objectivism at its root in order to undercut the arguments made against you. That was the only logical reason I could see for saying such an offensive thing at that point.

The reason I became upset is not really that I was vain (although I can be vain), it was because I pride myself as begin a truth-seeker first and an Objectivist second. I am an Objectivist because I am a truth-seeker, and it is what I have found to be true. I make a point to study the particulars of Objectivism and attack viciously any point I disagree with until I can either see the reason and accept Rand's logic, or synthesize my point that I find to be true. It is a private goal of mine to rebuild Objectivist from the ground up to make sure it is in fact the truth. Your statement, by implication, is that, as an Objectivist I may not be able to "handle" the truth. It attacks the very foundations of what I believe and what I seek to achieve. That is why I grew upset, and that is why, furthermore, I went out of my way to emphatically demonstrate that my qualm of you was not one of you attacking Rand, but of you very possibly being wrong.

Even now it is hard not to feel insulted by you. You speak down me and whoever else you address. Just look at this; "Tenure's reply, unlike yours, is devoid of argument or evidence, except if you take it as evidence that I am right and some people just cannot handle debate over important matters. It's too scary for them." (Emphasis mine).

What it sounds like your saying is that people who disagree with you are close-minded and incapable of handling the truth. Your language sounds condescending, and, as active-minded as you claim to be, it is beyond unfair to call Tenure a small-minded fool because of one reaction he had to a demonstrably offensive post. Even in your apology/explanation you still talk down, stating that anyone who drew a conclusion like mine was not acting on evidence (once again, was not thinking), and it is only on some other evidence that you "assume" that my error was "honest." The others you take as "evidence" that you are "right" and that Objectivists can't handle ideas outside the box. This is still offensive language and do not be surprised when people take offense to it, and just because someone becomes offended, it does not mean that they are small-minded or ignorant.

I will agree with you that some Objectivists can be hostile to other schools of thought (although there is ample good reason), and that there are some people out there who call themselves Objectivists and are both small minded and stupid (but I have a feeling the latter overrides the former, not visa-versa), but to state that you feel that Objectivism "may" cripple a man's ability to think, which is, ultimately what you were saying, in the middle of a debate with an Objectivist, is a very poorly planned out idea in the first place and I am surprised that you take shock in people getting upset with it.

Now, for a final point, before I go to bed...

One is: what, in the physical realm, causes similarity? This is a question for science. The other is: what, in the metaphysical realm, explains the existence of similarity-as-such? This is a question for philosophy.

Physics is the study of the concretes of existence. Metaphysics is the study of the abstract nature of existence. If you can find an answer to a problem the realm of concretes, why create an abstract independent of it? Its like three men are trying to solve a math problem, one sees the error and solves the problem. Two of them have walked away, and the third remains. A half hour later, the third comes rushing back claiming to have fixed the problem, and while he has reached an identical answer, but he has completely rewritten the problem (and mayhaps math itself) to do it. Physics, via atomic-theory explains how traits can repeat. Metaphysics, via cause and effect, explains why traits repeat. I could take your ideas to be a poetic metaphor of the same argument I make (We are all pieces of the universe, i.e. made of the same stuff, ergo, the same things are bound to happen), but your insistence that I missed a point somewhere makes me think not. While you have come up with an elaborate and unique solution, your problem was that there never was a problem. I solve the problem of universals by realizing that similarity and uniqueness is natural and that universals are in my head. There is no problem of universals at all. If you want to convince me that your solution is correct, you will first have to convince me that there is a problem worth solving. Until then...

Nyronus~

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Before I begin discussing your reply, I'd like to further point out that your stance did come across as insulting. In other words, you came up with what you thought was a solution, some of us countered your assertions, and then you basically sad that we were not sophisticated enough to understand it. I don't think you have come up with a solution, because you are making the same mistake you ascribe to earlier philosophers. You are looking for a solution to the problem of universals by trying to say something about reality, when, in fact, the problem of universals is about man thinking about reality, but not in the way your solution purports to resolve. And I am not saying that because I am a Randroid, but because your solution is totally wrong and doesn't match the facts of reality.

I will grant you that Objectivism considers reality to be one and that it is a full plenum. However, trying to say that perception splinters reality into entities is also wrong. Entities really do exist, and we perceive them. It is not as if reality is one big glob of something, but our perceptual abilities splinters it out into individual entities. That perspective, as you call it, is denying that we perceive reality the way it really is.

What can be deceptive is certain approaches to thinking about entities. You can look at my solution this way, if it is helpful: I am arguing that the historical (metaphysical) problem of universals arises from the confused intermingling, in the thinking of non-Objectivist philosophers, of the metaphysical and the anthropocentric perspectives. Prior to my solution, those thinking about universals as a problem of metaphysics rather than a problem of epistemology were helplessly confused because they kept switching from one perspective to the other without knowing that they were doing so. They did not know they were doing so because the "metaphysical perspective" and the "anthropocentric perspective" had never been conceptualized and identified. When someone asks "What is whiteness itself?" he is asking a question that is rooted in the metaphysical perspective, i.e., that is rooted in a level of abstraction so removed from perception that, if one were to maintain this perspective consistently, entities would disappear, would be abstracted (qua existents) into existence.

No, that is entirely the wrong approach. There is no "whiteness itself" no "dogness itself" no "maness itself." That corruption of thinking came from Plato and Kant, and they were wrong. There are only things that are white, dogs, and men. Your "metaphysical perspective" versus the "anthropocentric perspective" is wrong at the roots. Metaphysically, there are entities, and we perceive them. Conceptually, we can integrate them together via measurement omission; that is we can form the concept "white" the concept "dog" and the concept "man" because they do, in fact, have commensurate measurements. And we can form the concept "existence" doing the same thing; by abstracting out all the measurements we are left with one fundamental fact, that it exists. However, this does not mean that we have discovered existence itself (the one blob if you will) versus what we perceive (discrete entities).

While your solution is incorrect because your approach is wrong, I did see a science show that basically said the same thing that you are saying. They were wondering why the universe was the same everywhere we look -- i.e. that hydrogen was, say, 13 billion light years to the left of us and 13 billion light years to the right of us. In other words, like you, they were questioning the consistency of existence and were looking for a solution. How can it be that hydrogen was way over there, here, and way over there? And their solution was similar to yours: everything was once compacted together pre-Big Bang, and after the Big Bang it got spread out into our current universe. In other words, the Big Bang created all of that hydrogen, and when it spread out, it all acted the same, creating stars and galaxies as we know them today; and it is the same everywhere because it was all once one thing.

But, philosophically, that is an unnecessary solution. Even if the Big Bang did occur, one doesn't have to take it into account in formulating the conception of existence as being one. The Ancient Greeks thought of existence as being one, and they didn't have a clue about the supposed Big Bang. One comes to the conclusion that existence is one by realizing that what exists exists, and to exist is to be something, and by realizing that this is a unifying principle of that which exists. This is an abstraction based on observation; the observation that a dog is a dog, that a man is a man, that a rock is a rock, that a glass is a glass, and then integrating these observations into one concept: Existence. To translate this into what Ayn Rand said: To be is to be something.

In that sense, your so called solution is nothing new. But the mistake you are making is in considering it to be a solution to the problem of universals. The problem of universals is about how man can consider this dog and that dog as one thing conceptually -- the concept "dog" -- and not about the idea that all of reality is really one thing. Yes, all dogs are in fact similar, that is why we can integrate them together into one concept. But trying to explain that fact -- i.e. their similarity -- does not give one a solution to the problem of universals. It is a given fact that they are similar. All one has to do is to observe them to find that out. The problem of universals has to do with not the fact of similarity -- which is just the way reality is, i.e. it is consistent -- but has to do with how man is able to mentally put this dog and that dog and that other one into one concept, one mental unit.

In other words, it is a fundamental fact of reality that reality is consistent, and one discovers this by observation. There is no "metaphysical perspective" versus an "anthropocentric perspective". There is only reality and man's grasp of it, which begins with perception.

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I think I may take that last paragraph as a compliment.

Absolutely and unequivocally. It was meant that way.

This last post of yours is so good that it has moved me. In the spirit of value-for-value, I am going to address some of the very interesting themes you've touched on.

When I wrote the putatively insulting post, I was not concerned over the possibility that some members on this board might take it that way. What I was concerned about was that bringing up the contentious methodological points I did might derail this thread. Despite these concerns, I posted it as you found it. Your careful writing has convinced me that it will be worthwhile to explain why I wrote what I wrote, and why I posted it despite my derailment reservations.

For the moment, I'll just say that one reason I was worried about derailment is that I find some of the themes that inspired my "meta-argument" post to be tremendously interesting. So interesting, in fact, that I would take much more pleasure, in the short run, in writing about them than I will find in defending my ideas on universals. It's going to be a bit of a test of my self-discipline to stay the course and do my part to take this universals topic as far as I can. (I don't have the time right now to give attention to two threads.)

My compliments again, Nyronus. You have elevated the discourse here. Hopefully you and others will find my reasons for posting the putatively insulting thread worth reading and considering.

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