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ThomasF

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  1. Grames, et al.: my next post will focus on addressing why I think my approach is valuable for Objectivists, why I think identifying the ultimate metaphysical basis of commensurabilty is something philosophy needs to do, and related topics.
  2. [Note to readers: if you are not interested in the "meta-argument" tangent and want to read a post about universals, feel free to skip this one. It is long.] In order to clarify my "meta-argument" post, I will give the broad reasons behind the post, detail why I chose the particular wording I did, and then explain why I posted it here. As I indicated above, I am convinced that people's values affect their psycho-epistemologies. (Note that "affect" is a different word than "corrupt.") Nietzsche said it best: I won't right now comment directly on what I think Nietzsche means there, but hopefully its connection to the present topic is not obscure. When we believe in something, value something, this belief tends to put a bias into our evaluation of evidence. Evidence that appears to confirm our beliefs is vetted more tolerantly than evidence that appears to challenge them. (My belief is that this bias is just part of being human. Being biased like this is not, in itself, a symptom of immorality. Because the relationship between science and philosophy is so poorly understood, I hesitate to mention this, but science has been making interesting headway in studying cognitive biases. The phenomena that I am interested in here are coming to be well documented.) If bias is part of being human, then, in the final analysis, it is not whether or not we are biased, but how we deal with our biases that we should be measured by. That's a very cursory examination of the broad reasoning behind my post, but now I will move on to consider some of my specific diction. When When Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. says: He is missing the point of my "meta-argument" so wildly that he may have ended up inadvertently arguing for my side. Really there could hardly be a worse thing for a philosopher to say, in the present context, than that his philosophy is "biased" toward reality. (What I mean by "in the present context" is that this is a great, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek thing to say when talking about your philosophy's epistemology or its metaphysics, but when you are talking about the psycho-epistemology you think your philosophy cultivates in its adherents, you've made a grave error.) To see why this is a very bad thing to say, one only has to recognize that there is not a causal relationship between one's explicit philosophy (e.g., Objectivism) and one's psycho-epistemology. It is entirely possible to be an utter villain, a habitual evader, and a very knowledgeable Objectivist at the same time. (If this last assertion seems implausible to you, I refer you to Leonard Peikoff's 2004 DIM Hypothesis lectures. In one of the Q&A sessions, Dr. Peikoff makes this very point quite explicitly. I do not have the time to make a full and original argument for the point here.) Another point: it is very, very dangerous to say "My philosophy is so good that it's biased toward reality; since adopting it, I'm practically on auto-pilot toward the truth!" (I am hoping and assuming that Mr. Miovas did not mean anything like that.) I hope that it is obvious why this is dangerous. I will happily expand on this point if anyone should like. Now, it is possible that Mr. Miovas did not mean that Objectivism cultivates a psychological or psycho-epistemological bias toward reality in its adherents, and that he meant instead the method of Objectivism brings about in its adherents a methodological bias toward reality. That I would just plain agree with. I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand's method. I greatly admire the way Objectivism develops the primacy of existence in metaphysics into the priority of induction over deduction in reasoning. This may just be my favorite thing about Objectivism: I could go on and on about how powerful and useful it is. But that would be preaching to the proverbial choir. Not only do I admit that Objectivism has a real methodological advantage over other approaches to philosophy, but I am an enthusiastic trumpeter of this fact. But even if Mr. Miovas was indeed referring to this methodological advantage when he said that Objectivism is biased toward reality, our agreement does not take us very far. Mr. Miovas, as I read him, is not content to leave the "bias" towards reality in Objectivism's catalog of methodological virtues. What he seems to be saying is that this "bias" towards reality somehow inoculates him and other Objectivists against the bias in evaluating foreign and threatening arguments which was the subject of my "meta-argument" post. I reject this completely. The reason I reject this postulate of inoculation is that Objectivism involves a profound respect for ideas. This is not a weakness of Objectivism at all. On the contrary, it is another one of Objectivism's many great virtues. But this virtue has consequences that make it necessary for Objectivists to pay more explicit and consciously directed attention to their psycho-epistemological hygiene than other thinkers, not less, as Mr. Miovas seems to me to have implied. Let's say that Objectivism's powerful method makes knowledgeable Objectivists 10 times less likely to make a biased reading of an argument. If that's so, then I would argue that the passion for ideas that goes hand-in-hand with being an Objectivist makes Objectivists 10 times more likely to react with wild passion rather than calm reason when confronted with a foreign and threatening argument. In other words, it's a wash, a net of zero. Objectivism just amplifies everything, raises the stakes; it does not inoculate against bias. In my experience (I arrived at this conclusion inductively), Objectivists tend to be acutely aware of their methodological virtues and advantages, and dangerously unaware of the heightened tendency to bias that their passion for ideas promotes (when debating foreign and threatening ideas). When I wrote: There was a reason why I called attention to my wording so very explicitly. I was saying "Hey, Objectivists! Pay especially close attention here, because I know this will be controversial! I think the passion that arises from your philosophy's commitment to ideas is a GREAT VIRTUE!" And when I wrote: I meant every word. Therefore, Nyronus, when you wrote: I cannot imagine what evidence from my post you thought justified the charge that I had challenged your ethical premises. When I said I would assume that all denizens of this forum are Objectivists of the first rank, my statement directly undercut and flatly contradicted any future attempts to read my argument precisely as you seem to have read it. I most emphatically was not questioning your ethical premises. By here saying that I questioned your ethical premises, you are coming very close to assuming what you are trying to prove. When you then wrote: Implications aside for the moment, this is not what I wrote. On the very direct contrary, what I wrote was very deliberately written with just the words that it was in an attempt to undercut the foundation of this very interpretation. My preemptive attack on this interpretation was two-pronged: First, I emphasized that there is nothing unethical about being made uneasy by foreign and threatening ideas, and that, on the contrary, Objectivists' defensiveness of Ayn Rand's ideas is a virtue to be admired. Second, I explicitly stated that I would be assuming that the denizens of this forum have such self-control that they have mastered any tendency toward bias that is contained in the virtue of taking ideas seriously. Since there was no basis in evidence for reading my post the way you did, what happened? You state clearly that you read my putative insult as an implication. This is tantamount to granting that there is no explicit basis in my post for your interpretation. Since I take it that you think that my post was inappropriate for the context, and that this is ultimately what justified your drawing the inferences that you did, then I would like to explain why I posted it, aware of the context as I was, and why I still find arguments that it was insulting unpersuasive. As I said at the beginning of this post, I planned to address the broad reasons behind my "meta-argument," then explain my diction, and then explain why I posted it in the first place, in the context of this thread. It is to this last task that I now turn. I am going to try and take a shortcut to showing my reasons for posting what I did in the in-medias-res way that I did. I think it is a fair bet that many, maybe most readers of this forum are familiar with Diana Hsieh's NoodleFood blog. Not too long ago, she posted there some insightful criticisms of online forums. She said of this forum: If that reads to you as an example of 'damning with faint praise,' you're reading it the same way I am. Mrs. Hsieh continued: To this I say: word. Mrs. Hsieh does not spend any space asking why online forums are so notoriously useless for productive discussion. I myself have spent quite a lot of time wondering about this, or rather, wondering about a larger issue of which this is an instance. In "The Anatomy of Compromise," Ayn Rand wrote: "In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins." I believe that this principle extends to the realm of psycho-epistemology. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who have different psycho-epistemologies, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins. I believe that online forums tend to be hostile environments for sustained, productive, reasoned discussion and debate because they are de facto collaborations between people who are serious about ideas and those who are "serious" about ideas only when it suits them. No matter if my "third rank" Objectivists are an infinitesimal minority here, if there are any here at all, they are determining the character of this forum. I have been online for a while, and in all of this time I have been paying very close attention to this issue. Absolutely all the evidence I have ever encountered points toward only one conclusion: a sort of Gresham's Law of debate is in operation throughout the Internet. Bad writers drive out good. The public forums teem with crypto-sophists (a very apt coinage on my part, I think), while serious discussion is driven out to private lists. Unlike many critics of public forums, I do not think the problems of the medium are inherent. This is a matter of sanction of the victim. Honest and serious thinkers and writers (writers like Nyronus) collaborate with the crypto-sophists because, I think, they simply cannot maintain a belief that people who seem to share such similar values and ideas are, in fact, crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs. The problem is greatly exacerbated by the parochial nature of online forums. ObjectivismOnline, for example, I take to be a place suited to ARI-friendly Objectivists. As long as all parties to a discussion here seem to agree on fundamentals, the crypto-sophists are unlikely to be noticed. Their telltales and shibboleths will be camouflaged against the background of (apparently) shared values, ideas, and approaches. The crypto-sophists only really become exposed, and potentially visible when there is a debate taking place. The more fundamental the debate, the more contentious the issue, the more the crypto-sophists are going to stand out. Enter the non-Objectivist critic of Ayn Rand's metaphysics. I know, before I begin, that this forum's culture (like all public forums everywhere) is dominated (on Ayn Rand's "collaboration" principle) by crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs. (Keep in mind: this does not mean that the crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs are in the numerical majority. As I said: if even one in every hundred participants here is of this sort, the whole forum's culture has to have been compromised by this.) I also know that talented, intellectually honest, and psycho-epistemologically healthy writers are here too. What I don't know is which members are which. My writing on the problem of universals, and on other subjects, has been badly misread in this thread. Bad misreadings, in fact, have predominated. As I see it, there are two principal reasons this has happened. First, and foremost, this has happened because philosophy is hard. Not getting a strange new idea on the first reading is, in my view, the norm, even for the VERY BEST readers of philosophy. I once wrote this on my blog, which I think bears repeating here and now: Let me emphasise: when I say that the inherent difficulty of philosophy is, in my judgment, the principal reason why I have been repeatedly misread I am not f#@&ing kidding. I really, I mean REALLY, yes REALLY REALLY mean it. Got it? I don't mean that my amazing brilliance is just too dazzling for you mere mortals to apprehend. You dig? I mean exactly what I wrote. I don't mean that if you dunces could just stop mindlessly worshipping Ayn Rand you'd clue in. Savvy? I mean exactly, I mean ex-goddamn-actly what I say. Clear? Phew! That said, the second principal reason I have been repeatedly misread is that the culture of this forum has been hijacked by crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs. Again, to inoculate against possible misreading: Let me emphasise: when I say that the culture of this forum has been hijacked by crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs I am not f#@&ing kidding. I really, I mean REALLY, yes REALLY REALLY mean it. Got it? I don't mean that you, Nyronus, or you Mr. Miovas, or any of the rest of you, or all of you in aggregate are crypto-sophists or clueless poseurs. You dig? I mean exactly what I wrote. I don't mean that you are, any of you, helpless, hapless lemmings who follow crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs off a cliff. Savvy? I mean exactly, I mean ex-goddamn-actly what I say. Clear? What I am saying is far more subtle. Oh, one more thing. When I say that I have been badly and repeatedly misread, I mean just that. I do NOT mean "If you could read, you clueless n00bs, you would agree with me." I mean: you have not read me correctly, and do not yet even understand what I am saying, which is obviously prerequisite for you to agree or disagree with it. Being good at spotting trends, I noticed early on that the Gresham's Law of forums was playing an important second fiddle to the principal violin of the general difficulty of reading philosophy as a factor contributing to misreadings. So I posted my "meta-argument" post, knowing full well the context of this thread and proceeding anyway, for at least these three reasons: First, I wanted to bring the culture of this forum out of the subtext and into the open. This, on the principle that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Second, I wanted to put the crypto-sophists and clueless poseurs on notice, saying, in effect: "I know your telltales and shibboleths. I can see you coming before you've rolled out of bed in the morning. I will call you out if it seems appropriate, and when I do, I will proceed to just manhandle you with reasoned argument. Since you are who you are, you will of course learn nothing from this, but others watching the proceedings will." Third, I wanted to address lurkers of various types. I will leave unsaid what types. I note for now that much of what I write here is written as much for lurkers or third parties as it is for active participants. Well, that's about all I want to say on these topics for now. Hopefully this has been interesting or valuable. In summary and conclusion: reading is an art and a discipline; the principle of the primacy of existence should guide the interpretation of posts in public online forums, but, as a rule, doesn't.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.' 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.
  5. I am going to try to combine two replies into one, since I think the issues overlap. When Thomas M. Miovas, Jr. says: And when Nyronus says: 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: 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: 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. 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: 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.) 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.
  8. 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.) 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. 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.
  9. 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: 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.
  10. 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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