I have for a long time now been very dissatisfied with the metaphysical categories bequeathed to us from Aristotle via a multitude of commentators and philosophers ranging from Boethius to Ockham to Locke to Hume to Kant. It seems to me that they are based on a prescientific notion of what sorts of things exist. In particular, the notion of substance strikes me as questionable: it is based rather explicitly on the distinction between the clay a potter uses and the properties of a particular piece of pottery. By starting with a human-centric activity, Aristotle inverted the way things are: thinking that because humans impute - in this case social and cultural - properties to some objects by forming them, this must be true of all things. There is no reason now to think that the universe is somehow dependent upon human categories.
Moreover, the substance doctrine, which reappears in Locke as primary qualities, in medieval philosophy as first intention, in Kant as the noumenal, and in modern philosophy as categoricals, is devised to oppose the atomist doctrines that competed for attention through Democritus and Epicurus at the time Aristotle was writing. The failure, then, of atomism is due more to the lack of empirical evidence than the failure of the metaphysics it implied. And of course we know a lot more about the physical world now than then. So, why hang on to "substance"?
Epicurean atomism held that the properties of objects were the sum of the properties of the constituents (the atoms). This constitutive metaphysics was rejected not only by Aristotle but by Christian, Jewish and Islamic philosophers right through to the modern era. One of the first things Darwin was accused of was being Epicurean. Oddly, however, when the Catholic Church revived Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy in the 1870s, their first target was not Darwin, but Daltonian (that is, atomistic) chemistry. And that makes sense when you realise that the doctrine of transsubstantiation in the Mass (that the outward form, or species of the bread and wine remain the same while the substance is changed into the substance of Jesus's body and blood, which is at best a confusion of Aristotle's metaphysics) relies on the notion of substance that chemistry basically removes the need for.
Of course, the notion was (forgive me) substantially revised to be consistent with the new chemistry and physics, but in doing so the concept became as vague and confused as it can be. And philosophy has been trying to deal with that ever since.
The basic reason for substance talk is that there needs to be something to bear the properties. That is, the reason why those properties are part of that thing and not some other thing with the same properties is that they exist on a different substance. On the atomistic account, the properties are those of the constituents working together. There is no need for substance because the atoms are the individuating objects. Likewise there are no need for external universals either - one atom is the same as another (on the classical view).
Of course, we have changed our understanding of atoms a fair bit since Democritus: Dalton pointed out that atoms come in different kinds; Bohr that atoms are not indivisible, and that there are further particles that give them their properties, and so on. But there's a problem, which I heard in a rich and complex talk yesterday by PhD student metaphysician Sharon Ford: underneath these are fields, not particles, and fields seem to be the wrong kind of thing to bear properties. Sharon has a solution that I won't even try to repeat here, suffice it to say she applies Minkowskian worldline models to generate persistent objects and extended objects from gauge bosons. That's about all I understood.
My point is that we need to start a new metaphysical set of categories based on (what else?) the best of our current science, not repeat the categories based on the prescientific musings of those who thought knowledge resided in definitions of words. As support, I quote from Leibniz in the New Essay on Human Understanding (1996 p319) (Philolethes is Locke, Theophilus is Leibniz):
PHIL. §25. Languages were established before sciences, and things were put into species [logical categories - JSW] by ignorant and illiterate people [cf. Locke's Essay Bk III, chap. 6, §25].
THEO. This is true, but the people who study a subject-matter correct popular notions. Assayers have found precise methods for identifying and separating metals, botanists have marvelously extended our knowledge of plants, and experiments have been made on insects that have given us new routes into the knowledge of animals. However, we are still far short of halfway along our journey.
Dare I say that we are now much more than halfway? The sciences we have now play with the fundamental properties of the universe. We are on the verge of recreating the forces that generated the material world. Surely that is a better basis for metaphysics than sitting in an armchair and reflecting on the experience of an Oxford Don or an ancient Greek. Down with substance, I say, and everything that depends upon it!
If you abandon substance, then it seems that you are ultimately headed towards some brand of idealism, mathematical or otherwise. If it cannot be thought of, then it cannot be known or understood. Thought underlies everything.
(BTW, there are certain substances that I refuse to disavow.)
My point is that we need to start a new metaphysical set of categories ...
Metaphysics? Uh-oh. You-know-who will soon be activating his army of giant robot squid to eliminate such nonsense in a decidedly material way.
Where, then, can we locate this elusive revolution of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science? I believe that Alexandre Koyre, who, in the 1950s and 1960s, disputed Crombie's focus on experimental science as the revolutionary agent, has put his finger on the right place. The underlying source of revolutionary novelty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he argued was metaphysical and cosmological rather than methodological.
Aristotelian and Platonic metaphysics shared a long and complicated relationship, including a certain amount of skirmishing, but in the late Middle Ages Aristotle's teleological metaphysics of nature, matter, form substance, actuality and potentiality, the four qualities, and the four causes prevailed without serious challenge. A rival metaphysics, Epicurean atomism, became know...
...Employed and developed in the seventeenth century by Galileo in Italy, Rene Descartes and Pierre Gassendi in France, Robert Boyle and Issac Newton in England, and many others, by the end of the century the "mechanical philosophy" (as it has come to be called) had become dominant. The organic universe of medieval metaphysics and cosmology had been routed by the lifeless machinery of the atomists.
David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd. Revised Ed., University of Chicago Press 2007. Paperback pp.364-365
This was the last thing I read before turning in last night, your blog was the first thing I read this morning. Strange! (The ellipsis is just a description of how atomism became know in Europe.)
"We are on the verge of recreating the forces that generated the material world."? John, please explain how close we are to recreating the forces that generated the material world.
The grasp of mathematical models and empirical evidence is entirely different from the attempt to grasp the concept of self within that larger, alien model. Sorry, it's not going to resolve itself cleanly and it would be more than a little disappointing if it did.
Oddly, however, when the Catholic Church revived Thomistic Aristotelian philosophy in the 1870s, their first target was not Darwin, but Daltonian (that is, atomistic) chemistry. And that makes sense when you realise that the doctrine of transsubstantiation in the Mass (that the outward form, or species of the bread and wine remain the same while the substance is changed into the substance of Jesus's body and blood, which is at best a confusion of Aristotle's metaphysics) relies on the notion of substance that chemistry basically removes the need for.
Indeed. And, from my reading of Gilson's 'From Aristotle to Darwin...' so far, it seems like Gilson is attacking evolutionary biologists (circa 1971) for the threat they pose to Aristotelian teleology.
Man, you philosophers are weird; sometimes you just overthink things way too much.
How about junking the whole concept and dealing with reality? Chemistry and physics (and microscopes and x-rays, etc) have removed the mysteriousness of the components of matter and objects composed of them. We know (or at least know that we could know, if we studied it) why things have the properties they have. (And if we find that we don't know something, more physics and chemistry is the route to understanding it, not pondering our navels).
Just 'cause Aristotle thought it was important to think about doesn't mean you have to think about it too. :)
Faraday dismissed the notion of substance, didn't he (although I guess his alternative would be those fields Ford didn't like)? And if dispositional realists such as Mumford are correct, substances will at best be emergent, won't they? And structural realism is as far removed from idealism as any position could be (contrary to what jeff above seems to suggest). Could I perhaps recommend Ladyman and Ross' provocative "Every thing must go"? They certainly skirt some problematic issues, but they do provide the reader with a lot of interesting food for thought. It might be a little tangential to those specific substance/property debates (the kind Crane and Armstrong etc have been obsessed with), but it provides a nice start for anyone desiring to explore essentially naturalistic metaphysics free from the adverse influence of Locke (personally I am very happy to see some of the good points made by the logical positivists being brought back in from the cold as well - although coming from the phil of language myself, my views on metaphysics are probably met with some suspicion)
(as a footnote: ... and maybe we philosophers should try to distance ourselves a little from all that history of philosophy stuff? In my opinion, reading Locke or Aristotle is no more relevant to doing philosophy than reading Ptolemy is to doing astronomy - i.e. not entirely irrelevant, but pretty far down on my list)
1) I'm not sure it's fair to lay "substance" at Aristotle's door. He was merely taking the contemporary ontological given of matter and commenting that "stuff" cannot be separated from form. He may have been shown wrong in this in the last century, when particle physics suggested that at the deepest level, form is all there is, constructed of nothing. If we want to clean the slate of any "substance," we're going to have to get rid of physicalism too.
Alternate descriptions of reality were developing in Asia at the time of the Metaphysics, such as the organicism of Taoist and Confucianist China, (where the world is not "made" like pottery, but grows naturally out of itself), and the Hindu notion of the cosmic drama (maya).
Since Western science has been intermingled with atomism and/or Aristotleanism for the last several centuries it's hard to see how we might trace back to these alternatives, but ideas like Whitehead's process philosophy may show a way in.
2)You write My point is that we need to start a new metaphysical set of categories based on (what else?) the best of our current science, not repeat the categories based on the prescientific musings of those who thought knowledge resided in definitions of words.
Isn't the project of building new metaphysical categories from contemporary scientific observation a little bass-ackwards? It is only through existing world pictures that we make sense of hypotheses and data. And where does knowledge reside if not in words (defined generally enough to include mathematical and other symbols)?
And structural realism is as far removed from idealism as any position could be (contrary to what jeff above seems to suggest).
I probably didn't explain my position well enough. It all depends on the definition of "substance". In science we assume that there is something real out there, and that our bodies and minds emerge from it, rather than the other way around. It is something "substantial". But if there is nothing tangible or real or "substantial" outside of our own thoughts, then it seems that idealism is all that remains. That real "substance" may not be atoms or waves or whatever - it may be "something" as yet unknown, but it must still be something that has a real existence independent of our thoughts, otherwise there is only idealism. Why shouldn't this thing be called a "substance"?
As a disclaimer, I have read about structural realism and didn't really understand it (and just did again, and still didn't really understand it), so I'll defer...
Interesting post. The worries you express about the category of substance are sensible and I think the Lockean worries that is we-know-not-what are still powerful. However, one could move in either of two directions. First, one could argue that token objects are simply "bundles of properties"; they do nott inhere in any object. However, it does seem possible that there could be two distinct objects with the same properties minus what we philosophers call "haecceities". Second, one could dismiss the notion of metaphysics per se. It is unclear to me how we are to avoid ontological commitments in general so this is not terribly appealing. Finally, one could move towards a process-event approach as a opposed to substance-accident one. The obvious examples of such an approach include A. N. Whitehead and more recently Wesley Salmon.
Divalent @7: If you reread my post, you'll find that is exactly what I said too...
Chris @9: I think that wherever the notion of substance arose, whether Aristotle or prior or in the latins, say, Cicero, it is a malign notion. We should start with our best knowledge (i.e., physics) without that baggage because that baggage has only the generation of more problems to recommend it to philosophers and precious little to everyone else.
I also think, but don't argue here, that universals, qualities and properties themselves are worth ditching, but I'm not metaphysician enough to attempt it on my own. As to objects, things, and other property bearers, I am ambivalent about them. Entities are OK, I think so long as they are derived out of science.
OP: "My point is that we need to start a new metaphysical set of categories based on (what else?) the best of our current science, not repeat the categories based on the prescientific musings of those who thought knowledge resided in definitions of words."
Well, my point was basically: why bother with a new set of "metaphysical categories?" Why can't, for example, water be water? What's philosophy got to do with it?
This is why I think Mary Midgley is such a valuable philosopher. Much of her work is devoted to the examination of how scientific knowledge cannot help but rely, at least in part, on "baggage." (Of course many other good philosophers and writers have examined this too, but she's an uncommonly clear and focused writer.)
All of our science originates in questions. How could these questions not be at least partly shaped by what we already believe at the time of asking? Indeed, if we had no preconceived notions, how could we even formulate questions in the first place? The need for metaphysics is to provide the givens that science can manipulate to enhance our understanding.
Divalent asks "why can't water be water"? Of course it can if you merely want all knowledge to be truism and tautology. Both science and philosophy talk about what water "is" (is it the quintessential liquid state, the nourishment and lubricant of all life, the chemical bond of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom? All that and more.) But they can't start from scratch. We can only ask questions in terms that are already meaningful to us.
My reading of Hume is that he thought the idea of substance was generated by the imagination and not something metaphysical.
But I believe none will assert, that substance is either a colour, or sound, or a taste. The idea, of substance must therefore be derived from an impression of reflection, if it really exist. But the impressions of reflection resolve themselves into our passions and emotions: none of which can possibly represent a substance. We have therefore no idea of substance, distinct from that of a collection of particular qualities, nor have we any other meaning when we either talk or reason concerning it.
The idea of a substance as well as that of a mode, is nothing but a collection of Simple ideas, that are united by the imagination, and have a particular name assigned them, by which we are able to recall (Treatise of Human Nature, Section VI.)
But then I don't claim to understand philosophers. They seem to say this, but mean that.....
You know, it's so long since I actually sat down and read Hume, that I probably got the idea from him twenty years ago and it has been percolating in my hindbrain ever since. But Hume's Simple Ideas seem to play a similar role in his metaphysics (how could an idea not be metaphysical?).
Thony, I ordered a copy of that book...
how could an idea not be metaphysical?
Could it be neurological? Saying that I have an idea doesn't commit me to a substance ontology, or does it?
Hume talks about perceptions being divided into impressions and ideas. He doesn't try to explain how they physically got into the brain (leaving that for natural philosopher, science) so I guess he's saying that there are 2 unexplained categories of perception that have some existence......
Metaphysical ≠ "substance". Ideas are objects of some kind. What kind of objects is what the metaphysics is about. For my money, ideas are historical particulars, but there's a long story behind that...
For my money, ideas are historical particulars, but there's a long story behind that...
And with that you've bamboozled me. I'm assuming you mean that (Humean) ideas, are just an artifact of history that doesn't have much use?
My role in life is to bamboozle people with things I think are obvious...
Ideas, whether "simple" or "complex" exist solely as semantic relations between individuals in language communities. They are originated at some time, evolve over time in response to various conditions and influences, and eventually will become extinct or atavistic. They have no ontology other than this, in my view. This means that every idea has a history, and only a history.
You've edited #18. It makes more sense now. I agree with #20 (as I understand it). What confuses me is in #16 But Hume's Simple Ideas seem to play a similar role in his metaphysics This seems to suggest that simple ideas for Hume act like substances....
John, from your statement about the ontology of ideas, I would assume then that you feel that the "explanatory gap" in Chalmers "hard problem" of consciousness is non-existent(?) Not to criticize (yet), just to clarify.
How we see the world depends on how we are able to interpret what we can perceive of the world. We have limitations, and must accept those limitations when we are talking about reality.
For a skin mite reality is a vast, endless plain of pores, hairs, and keratinized tissue. At the level of the atom reality is made of forces and fields. Forces and fields we see as solid objects, because that is how we evolved to see them. Where we are concerned, those energies we call chairs, laptops, and cats are best treated as physical objects. Because, for us, they are.
We exist at one level of reality and so have the tools best suited for dealing with reality at our level. Without those tools we'd be in a world of hurt. Mundane reality is not a lie simply because reality at a lower level is fundamentally different, it is simply a matter of how we can interpret what we know.
Jeff @21: Absolutely I think there is no Hard Problem! There are no qualia, nor qualitative properties. I think of it like this (I make no claims to originality here):
If I ask "What does the room look like for your perspective?" I can in principle answer that by drawing the room. If I have a sufficiently elaborate computer model of the room, I can answer that for any perspective one adopts, under any lighting. So visually, at least, it seems the "what it is to be like" is easily accounted for. Now suppose I had some way to do this for any sensory modality. If I were a great foley artist I could recreate your perspective in sound. Now the mere lack of techniques for doing this for all other sensory experiences is no general reason for thinking there are "raw feels" or something other than having a sensory perspective. Basically, experience is just a first person perspective on the world.
In short, I fail to see, and I suppose this is due to a failure of my imagination, why the Hard Problem is, in fact, so very Hard. At best it is merely hard. [For the non-cognoscenti, Chambers capitalises difficult explanatory projects when he thinks there is no possible way to reduce them to something scientific or extensional).
John, you've completely lost me. Sure you can reduce the computer to analyzable components, but how do know if the computer "experiences" anything? How do mechanical processes give rise to subjective experience and "ideas" resembling your own (and can you ever know if they can? Behaviour is not experience). Due to the closed nature of consciousness, I can't see how you can ever really know (future borg implants maybe, if there's a common neural code?). Your first person experience is yours alone. A sample size of one. Nothing else can be experienced.
Which gives rise to what I think is an even more baffling question: why is reality being experienced from your perspective in the first place, and not someone or somethings elses? (the why-am-I-me question). If everything is physical, then what's the physical explanation for that fact? I wrote a rambling piece on that topic a while ago:
(BTW, I wrote Chalmers about that question, and he said it was "very worrying", and "can drive one crazy when looking in the mirror". Of course that should in no way be taken as an endorsement for what i wrote. He also gave me some references, chief among them Nagel. None of them were very useful)
You are you because you areyou. Your awareness does not reside in your body, it arises from it. Asking "why am I me?" is really no different from asking "why is this orange not that orange?". It is what it is.
It's a question I've spent absurd amounts of time grappling with. That's my best answer so far.
Thony, I ordered a copy of that book...
Posted by: John S. Wilkins |
I hope my quote has not misled you? The few lines I quoted is virtually all that Lindberg has to say directly on the subject of your posting and this paragraph come almost at the end of his book, which is a superb one volume history of European science from its inception up to 1450. However Lindberg, being a medievalist, 1) deals very extensively with the imbedding during the High Middle Ages of Aristotelianism (which as Edward Grant points out is not the same as Aristotle's philosophy!) as the foundation of European science. If this aspect is of any use to you then Grant's own book "The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages", CUP, 1996 also deals very thoroughly with this aspect of the story.
At the end of his book Lindberg briefly discusses the Duhem thesis that modern science begins in the High Middle Ages and not in the 17th century, a viewpoint also defended by Grant (see above) and by A. C. Crombie in his "Grosseteste and Experimental Science 1100 - 1700", OUP, 1953 reprint 1962. The paragraph I quote is the conclusion to his discussion on which he does not really elaborate.
On the subject of Epicureanism in the Early Modern Period I can recommend "Atoms, peuma, and tranquillity: Epicurean and Stoic Themes in European Thought", Ed. Margaret J. Osler, CUP, 1991.
On the other hand having said all that I would heartily recommend Lindberg's book to all who pass through here and don't already know it. It is a wonderful read and something every historian of science should have on his bookshelf and should recommend as an introduction to all who wish to learn more about the subject.
1) Calling Lindberg "a" medievalist is like calling Einstein "a" physicist ;)
...and yes it really is me posting from the depths of Southern Germany and not a piddling troll posting from the high north!
Re. Ideas as semantic relations between individuals: please also include _within_ individuals. Your point re. history remains, of course.
"This means that every idea has a history, and only a history."
This sounds like an absolute idea to me.
I think Kant pretty much destroyed any meaning that was in substance. Sure, Hume presaged Kant's demolition, but he left a number of issues hanging.
Nietzsche followed Kant (though he wouldn't admit it) by complaining about anyone hanging on to substance and the rest of metaphysics, even after god had died (and seriously, while some intellectuals may believe in god, such an entity has had no non-circular intellectual function for a long time).
I believe that substance is little more than an ancient relic by now, at least in anybody who takes science and/or philosophy seriously. Well, ok, there might be a few followers of Kripke in analytic philosophy that still believe in substance, but I use "believe" advisedly, since I can't understand anyone defending "substance" in any manner except analogously with religious belief.
Thony, I've read Grant, whom I enjoyed very much, and some pieces by Crombie in different compilations. I got one of Lindberg's books from Amazon--and your post has inspired me to put it at the top of my list (I'm pretty sure it's the one you mentioned).
Incidentally, have you read Toby Huff's book, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West? Also a very good book.....
Incidentally, have you read Toby Huff's book, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West? Also a very good book.....
Posted by: John Farrell | June 3, 2008 1:31 PM
It's laying on my bedside table at the moment, I'm on page 32...
Day time reading is "Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science", 3 Vols., Ed. Roshdi Rashed in collaboration with Regis Morelon, Routledge 1996 also an excellent read.
I seem to be going through a heavy Middle Age(s) phase at the moment :(
Atomistic metaphysics (at least, the ancient kind that you claim was correct but couldn't be empirically verified) doesn't abandon the concept of substance. Atoms just are the only substances. At least, that's true in the reductionist versions of ancient atomism. But at least some versions (e.g., what we find in Lucretius) probably weren't reductive. So whatever the truth of your bizarre, substanceless ontology, it isn't anything that has precedent in the ancient atomists. You have a Ph.D. in philosophy? Was it mail-order?
You have a Ph.D. in philosophy? Was it mail-order?
So how's acting been going since 'Who's the boss?' wasn't renewed?
Sorry, couldn't help myself. But you did resort to kindergarten level ad-homs. So perhaps turnabout is fair play.
John W. - "My point is that we need to start a new metaphysical set of categories based on (what else?) the best of our current science, not repeat the categories based on the prescientific musings..."
Was just catching up on earlier posts. Your comment above was exactly what I was thinking when I read your comments about mountains in your "What is a species?" blog. I don't see much difference between "phenomenal salience" and sentimental attachment to terms that science might have to brush aside if they don't pull their weight.
Phenomenal objects at the very least call for some explanation at a given moment in the debate. If we pull the metaphysical ladder up after ourselves later, that doesn't remove the one-time significance of those objects. I had the privilege of walking through the Ediacaran type locale with a geologist who knew it intimately, and where I saw only mouuntains (of the weak and pitiful Australian kind) he saw the edge of the Cambrian and pre-Cambrian river systems and so on. I came away with a deep respect for the observational powers of experts.
Species, as a natural concept, began with expert observers (John Ray and Caspar Bauhin) and have been retained by generations of expert observers. I am less inclined to put that down to sentimentality because of it. They may be illusions, or they may be phenomena that no matter how explained remain salient, time will tell. But they are not, prima facie, mere constructs of either sentiment or tradition.
I total agree with James Goetz that "Every idea has a history".
Anyway a very nice blog.
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