600 words. Further below,
Epistemology beats Ontology; Cartesian Dualism

A widespread error in metaphysics and ontology is to confuse method with reality. We have ways of knowing, or of seeking knowledge, which are the remit of epistemology. The principal epistemological method is analysis, which involves breaking any issue down into constitutent parts. Synthesis is recomposing those parts. It transpires, especially in extreme situations, that these approaches break down, which is to say that they (seem to) lead to contradictions. Historically, this quandary may be traced back to the question of whether the whole is the sum of the parts or more than the sum of the parts.

It is not enough to posit, or describe, or mirror, an “ultimate reality.” There would have to be a way of knowing it. But there is not. It is possible to know much about everyday reality, of course.

The issue of knowledge gets confused with that of certainty. The logical fallacy committed here is to suppose that because any individual matter may be doubted, or, at least, because it is possible to invent a doubt about it, it is (would be) possible to doubt everything. But it is not. This is because the logic of totalities, insofar as they is one, is different to the logic which works among individual elements, any of which is only part of any totality. The human mind cannot grasp (cope with) totalities.

One area where this can be seen clearly is that of cause and effect. Anything that happens has an indeterminate number of causes, in the sense or preceding events or conditions which may be said to have contributed to the event. We might isolate the causes as being what among the preceding totality was unusual. Matters are complicated again if we introspectively ponder why, in the past, we acted in a particular way, this involving a perspectival switch between subjective and objective. How far do we go in assuming responsibility, which usually involves either blaming ourselves, or blaming circumstances? Thinking in terms of cause and effect would seem to be built into human nature. (This insight goes back to Kant.)

There are areas of life which escape articulation in words. One example is music. A literary description of a Beethoven sonata, say, is something wholly different to listening to the sonata. Nor is reading the score the same as listening to or playing the sonata.

Another example is the nature of the Good. G E Moore claimed, I believe rightly, that this is indefinable, which means that it cannot be spelt out in words such as being equated with, for example, happiness or pleasure or religious observance. I would only add that Good may usefully be seen as part of a duality such as Good and Bad, or Good and Evil, a distinction made by Nietzsche. F H Bradley wrote of a Good Self and a Bad Self.

These are matters which we can intuit, but cannot put into words. They are ineffable. It is not possible to marshall concrete arguments for their truth. As an abstraction, Truth itself is one of those matters. This is not an impediment to a commitment to Truth. At most, one might qualify it as Human Truth.

Therefore, and having pondered these issues for decades, and read widely, the verdict I have come to is that there are severe limits on what can be known or, expressed differently, on what can be said with clarity. (This is the position of philosophers as different as Kant and Wittgenstein.)

May 2022

Epistemology beats Ontology

Free will slaughters the spectre of determinism

Values versus Facts

1400 words, written 2013, reviewed 2022

I. How values shape facts

At the level of everyday physical objects we make a distinction between knowledge and existence: whether we know something is there (or not, or is how it is) is quite a different matter as to whether it is in fact so. This is a natural, useful, unproblematic and necessary distinction. The following reflections are intended to demonstrate how this distinction sometimes breaks down when it is applied to other areas. Once we understand how the distinction ceases to apply, we are able to be unfazed by the controversy about free will. We shall also grasp how reality is always, to a degree, a matter of how we engage with reality, rather than seeing ourselves as passive observers.

Generally, we reflect about hidden reality and realities because we assume they will impinge on our lives in some way, and knowledge is believed to be a precondition of acting in our own best interests. One might say that, to this extent, we make a value judgement when we consider reality.

To communicate about reality in any precise way we are reliant on language; in the first place on the language of words and grammar, but also, for more sophisticated purposes, on the language of mathematics. In particular, we are reliant on that part of language which is used for descriptions.

(Early the last century, a lot of effort was expended by philosophers and logicians on how language might be descriptive, and slowly a great deal of progress was made. It is frustrating for those well versed in these subjects to observe other disciplines circuitously re-inventing the wheel.)

Let us take an everyday example of a descriptive exercise which is superbly manageable and transparent. Think of a map, for example, of a town.

One immediately envisages it showing the main and minor roads, possibly with names, and major monuments or geographical features such as rivers or hills. But a moment’s reflection tells us that one could draw very different maps, for example of the sewage system, the momentary distribution of people, or the density of the cat and mouse population. It is a matter of what we are interested in.

What we are interested in is a matter of what we place value on (at a particular time, or with a certain purpose in mind, this purpose itself being a matter of what else we place value on). Hence we find values impinging on what seemed to be a purely descriptive exercise.

It might be thought that we could overcome this value bias by producing a map that was more detailed, so as to depict everything, including the cats and the sewage system, plus the bus routes and the cycle lanes. Obviously, though, there is no end to what we could include, and as soon as we choose to exclude something, we will have made a value judgement about its significance. (If we were to exclude nothing, the map would be the town, in its entirety, and would hence be a copy of the town, rather than a map or even a model.)

Thus any shared engagement about reality, even at a very mundane level, involves facts and values commingling.

We tend to think of our values as something we have control over, whereas of reality as something we have very little control over. But many of our values are embedded in who we are. If we were ants, we would value things differently.

The point is that we can only bite off (i.e. ingest and digest) a small part of reality; and that knowledge always involves exploration, i.e. seeking to know (i.e. know more precisely). It is almost erotic.

Hence the idea that science or mankind could, in principle, obtain an overview of reality is quite misplaced. We are less godlike than some imagine.

We have, rather, glimpses of reality. This is meanwhile a commonplace, not only in mystic poetry, but superbly in physics, where Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle states that, at a certain level, we can know one thing or another, but never both. This insight applies equally well to the very human world of our social interactions. Once we demand to know, here & now and with penetrating precision, what a significant other thinks of us, we destroy the relationship because our enquiry destroys what was to be known; the other will have changed their estimate of us, whether or not they had a precise estimate to begin with.

II. The whole is more than the sum of its parts

A driving principle of the scientific revolution has been the method of breaking problems down into their constituent parts, and then tackling each on its own. This approach has been breathtakingly successful. Some stubborn problems remain. It is assumed that these, too, can be similarly overcome, eventually. Why?

The assumption of those who do not ask why is that the whole cannot be more than the sum of its parts. These are people who hold that one should never think outside the box.

Some problems, surely, can only be tackled by taking the broader view. This said, the temptation then is to start thinking, in an undisciplined manner, in totalities. And therefore in abstractions.

III. Indeterminacy and freedom

Once knowledge is understood profoundly as being never a virtual reproduction of reality, but as an ad hoc partial mapping thereof, any disquiet about freedom of will is soon dispelled. Maybe, at some unfathomable level of reality, the future is indeed laid out and fixed irrevocably, as if in the mind of God, should this idea make sense, rather than the appearance of sense. The disquiet some people feel when it is suggested that they may not have free will can be addressed differently.

It is certainly the case that our subjective estimate of our freedom is often mistaken. We have more trouble than we’d like to think in liberating ourselves from (the adverse aspects of) our upbringing. Society may accord us, de facto, less room for manoeuvre than we imagine. The choices we face are less ample than envisaged. One never jumps entirely over one’s shadow. But these reflections concern the greater scheme of things, not the minutiae.

At the micro-level we hear unsettling reports from neuroscientists of how a decision we imagine ourselves to take freely can be detected microseconds before it is made. These reports are taken from highly contrived scenarios, but they give pause for thought nonetheless. Until, at least, we appreciate that the ability of an external observer to predict when we will press a button (this is the kind of scenario that has been reported) is an instance of a fragment of knowledge that is isolated from wider knowledge, for example, knowledge about our plans for the coming hours or years. There is also the consideration that the homogenous (unrelenting) march of time may not apply at these levels, just as it fails to apply quite as we would have imagined at inter-galactic magnitudes.

Anyway, need we be so disturbed at the results of these experiments? Are they not trivial? The ability to predict with near certainty an event a second away is not in the same category as an imagined ability to predict reliably significant decisions hours or years away.

The thinking behind the neuroscience here is reductionist. By indicating that, over a mInute (i.e. a tiny) time span, the sequence of cause and effect is reversed (the neurons seem to fire before the decision is made, rather than coming after the decision they are assumed to cause), an extrapolation is made that this will apply also on a grander scale too. This would mean that day-to-day human existence was the sum of its composite seconds, or milliseconds, and nothing more. The discomfort comes from the notion that an external observer, enabled by high-tech machines to map our brains, could predict our every move and even, by intervening, manipulate us. But the mapping is always necessarily incomplete, for the reasons explained above.

We can be manipulated, but by the means and at the levels we are fairly familiar with, and we know how to resist such manipulation. Similarly, it is sometimes possible for others to predict, in general terms, how we will behave, and we do not perceive this as being a threat to our freedom of will.

Reply to HS on Cartesian Dualism

It is true that Descartes set philosophy on a wrong track. Dualistic thinking has limits generally, but not all of it can be attributed to Decartes, so it is not all Cartesian.

The wrong track I see is somewhat different, and is epistemological rather than metaphysical. In an incipiently sceptical age, D. sought certain knowledge by doubting / re-examining everything: famously/notoriously “I am thinking, therefore I do at least exist”.

But it is not possible to doubt everything, i.e. to doubt the generality rather than something specific. Only a few things at a time can be illusions. You would find out that they were by comparing them with the mass of experience and identifying differences. But when you do this, you determine (usually) that there are no differences and so they are not illusory. In such cases we are not dreaming.

As Nietzsche said, you cannot rebuild the entire ship all at the same time while at sea.

Each of the dualities that people like to cling to breaks down at some point. Take for instance the value/fact distinction. This breaks down because the “facts” of any particular matter have to be selected, there being an infinity of “facts”. Selecting those facts is an evaluative process. So you have firmly shut the front door to keep those pesky value judgements out, only to find that they have crept back in through the back kitchen window (Mary Midgely).

So there are many dualities which are useful, but only up to a point. Like a dodgy handrail on the stairs on a ship in a storm, useful to steady yourself by, but not robust enough to take your entire weight.
Compare the one-legged man with the millipede. Who has the better footing in the world?
D. tries to re-build the entire world on a tiny and questionable foundation, producing all the stability of an inverted pyramid.
Generally this debate, which ended only with Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951), is the spectre of scepticism. (Notes on Wittgenstein elsewhere on this website)
W. proposes that we regard concepts as tools from a toolbox. Hammers make poor screwdrivers.
The other great philosopher in the Anglo tradition of the mid-20th century is Karl Popper (both from Vienna! both with Jewish ancestors tho not heritage, both became British citizens!)
A.J.Ayer travelled to Vienna in the 1920s and became imbued there with the search for scientific truth. All scientific statements must be verifiable. But people pointed out that even some intelligent assertions which are down to earth, rather than speculative such as the existence of God, cannot be verified. How do you verify that there are no black swans?
Popper ingeniously turned this approach on its head with the idea that a scientific statement is one which, in principle, is Falsifiable. The non-existence of black swans is then a provisional statement, a hypothesis, which would be disproven by finding a black swan.
Progress in knowledge is often a matter of such a simple inversion. Like making zero a number.
Btw, all year there has been a dispute in France about using double-blind randomised experiments / studies / surveys as the gold standard for scientific and medical truth. Also about peer review as a benchmark (“Lancetgate!”).
“Scienticism” would seem simply to be bad science, imagining that all human questions are susceptible of being treated by the scientific approach.
Behind it is the metaphysical (!) idea that we can mirror everything, i.e. that we can depict or model everything in words and figures
Chaos theory (now renamed Complexity) recognised that there is a limit to the precision that is possible, so figures are not everything. Not even computer modelling is everything! Chaos theory pointed out that very small differences can have enormous (exponential) outcomes, like a butterfly in China “causing” hurricanes in America.

So some mischief-makers start speculating that a relatively small increase in CO2 might have a runaway effect on global temperatures.

On Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology: He died young, was a contemporary & friend of Sartre). Phenomenology was a 20th century movement first in Germany (Husserl) then in France. I have never been attracted to it. Possibly because of the language. Verbosity? Verbal grandstanding? Often, it turns out that the core of what is being said has been obscured by the invention of a novel language. Eventually, the core is exposed as patently false, or else as trivially true.

Phenomenology places great emphasis on subjectivity. But there are limits to subjectivity, which is the target of Wittgenstein's private language argument.