My Ontology – Part 2: Mind-dependence

Open MindIn Part 1 I laid the foundations for my ontological framework and came to the conclusion that my position is currently best categorized as that of conceptualism. In this post I would like to dig into this deeper and examine some of the key issues surrounding the topic of mind-dependence and some of the arguments against the conceptualist view. What does it mean to say that a mind-dependent thing (hereafter referred to as a concept) exists? Some may initially balk at the prospect that concepts actually do exist in some sense, but I think our experience infers our acceptance of this proposition on a regular basis. I suggested in Part 1 that we often include concepts when we speak of things which exist. In addition, we routinely say that we “have an idea” and we can recognize the feeling of “getting it” when an explanation “sinks in”. We have a word “on the tip of our tongue” when we are aware of the concept but unable to express it. A placebo can change our well-being. It seems to me that these are all manifestations of concepts.

In the entry on Platonism, the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy states that “[conceptualism] has serious problems and not very many people endorse it.” Chris Swoyer suggests that conceptualism warrants renewed consideration and starts by noting that “Somewhere in the twentieth century… conceptualism fell off the map….it’s surprising it continues to receive even the perfunctory nod it often gets…”. As an alternative many either come to accept that these things I call concepts are actually mind-independent (realists) or that they don’t exist at all (nominalists). I hope that in this post I am able to make the case that conceptualism has been overlooked. Of course, it is also possible that somebody will come along and straighten me out and make me realize that I’m actually a nominalist or a realist; but we won’t know unless we try.

A naturalist account of concepts

As it currently stands, I find that the naturalist account of reality is more probably true than the Christian (or theistic) perspective I once held. This means that I should be able to reconcile naturalism with the ontology that I have proposed. The naturalist position unashamedly equates the mind with the brain, and so the existence of concepts must be defined within that context.

neuronsTo start this exploration, I want to re-iterate a perspective that I have offered before. In Part 1 of my epistemology, I proposed that logical reasoning can be explained as a process of mapping relations between experiences (and the labels assigned to those related portions of our experiences) and in the end I came to the conclusion that I am an empiricist. Similarly, in Part 1 of this series, I argued that experiences define our knowledge of objects and thus inform our ontology. Taken as a whole, this perspective appears to be highly compatible with our modern understanding of the brain. Allow me to try and briefly outline this congruence.

First, we are well aware that the brain is highly associative. We regularly employ mnemonic devices to improve our recall, and basic introspection reveals how our train of thought tends to follow along paths which relate concepts. Second, we know that the brain is a somewhat flexible configuration of what is very roughly estimated to be 100,000,000,000 neurons and 1,000,000,000,000,000 synaptic connections, where by “flexible” I mean that the connections can change. The neurons and synapses combine to form neural networks that, as far as we can tell, serve to encode sensation and train our response. Sense data, both external and internal interfaces with the brain and causes the relevant neural networks to update accordingly. Obviously all of this is a rather gross simplification and so, when coupled with the fact that my knowledge of neuroscience is both limited and informal, you would be wise to investigate these things further on your own. Regardless, all of this leads me to a rather simple definition of a mental concept: with each experience our brains are modified with a “shadow” of the sense data from that experience. These shadows are linked with each other (perhaps even shared in some way) when the sense data is phenomenally or temporally similar. Symbols associated with these experiences become linked into the networks, tying words into the mesh. The result is a massive network of neural relations that can be broken into symbolically identifiable segments, where each segment represents a discreet aspect of one or more experiences. This defines a concept. They can be linked to define new, more complex concepts, or dissected to define simpler concepts. The following TED talk (20 min) offers a glimpse into this amazing network.

So, to put it simply, concepts are patterns in the brain. These patterns are byproducts of our experiences and genetics, and persist with varying fidelity. As a result, they are unique to each individual. The sensory encoding process for humankind, however, is generally the same. The resulting patterns then share enough commonality, and relations to symbols, that we are able to agree on the external reality from which they were formed. We communicate this to each other primarily through the use of the word symbols linked to the concepts.

Now lets take this idea to its natural conclusion. If mind-dependent things are really just patterns in the brain, then what is this thing that we are calling a pattern? As I see it, there are two options under this framework: either patterns are themselves something independent of the mind and are a foundational part of all concepts, or patterns are themselves patterns. The first seems to be a theoretical leap based on nothing but the fact that we’ve hit the end of our rope. Alternatively, the second option puts us into an interminable self-referential loop (aka, recursion). While there is something disquieting about this, I am at a loss to explain why it is in any sense invalid. In fact, this may be the only kind of infinite that exists. As a software engineer, I myself have on rare occasion created these interminable self-referential loops. There are other reasons to prefer the self-referential option. For one, we intuitively identify a pattern as an abstract object. It only makes sense, then, that it would remain as such. Recursion also makes sense when you consider the neurophysiology outlined above. If concepts exist within a massive web of interconnectivity, then the potential for self-reference should come as no surprise. I have here breached a rather massive topic to which many are devoting entire lives, yet I shall leave it at that. It is only necessary at this time to define the foundational ontology of concepts for the purpose of further scrutiny.

Objective relations

Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse

The Stanford article on platonism suggests that one of the stronger objections to conceptualism can be summarized as follows: “…relational claims seem to be objective; e.g., the fact that Mount Everest is taller than Mont Blanc is a fact that holds independently of us; but conceptualism about universals entails that if we all died, it would no longer be true that Mount Everest bears the taller than relation to Mont Blanc, because that relation would no longer exist.”

I may have fried a few neurons thinking about this one. I was at first inclined to suggest that this was no different than my thought experiment in Part 1, where I proposed that the only reason the story of Paul Bunyan seems to survive the death of its lone storytellers is because the concept of the story remains in my mind. Similarly, I thought, the “taller than” relation (and similar relations) only appear to be objective because the concept remains in our mind when we consider the example. It then occurred to me, however, that there is a key difference to be taken into account. The “taller than” relation would seem to be clearly discoverable without having ever been transferred from another mind. In some sense, it appears that the relation is not completely mind-dependent.

So I started working from the ground up. I asked myself what it means when we say that something is “taller than”. I concluded that we are expressing a perceived difference in the amount of space the objects occupy in the vertical dimension. This space is a quantifiable, observable object. So the “taller than” relation actually has a referent – the space that is occupied by the taller object and is not occupied by the shorter object. I am venturing to propose that this holds for all objective relations. For example, “brighter than” refers to the photons emitted by the brighter object which are in excess of the photons emitted by the dimmer object. “Faster than” refers to the change in space-time covered by the faster object that isn’t covered by the slower object. The examples could go on and on. If you have a counter-example of an objective relation that has no referent in the physical world (i.e., space / time / matter / energy), please send it my way.

What does this mean? It means that objective relations are very much like concrete particulars and their corresponding universals. The particulars are differences which correspond to quantitatively identifiable aspects of the physical world that we experience. These experiences are then linked together in generalizations that we assign labels. The “taller than” relation is an effective and convenient shorthand for expressing differences in the amount of vertical space occupied by objects, just as calling something a table is an effective and convenient shorthand for referring to all our past experiences of similar objects. So it would seem that the ontology of objective relations should be viewed no differently. If all minds are extinguished then the universal concept of a table no longer exists, but the particular table objects remain. Likewise, the generalized concept of a “taller than” relation does in fact disappear when all minds are extinguished, but the particular instances of physical differences do not.

The problem of universals

If I have thus far explained myself well, it should already be obvious that I see universals as concepts in the mind. Even so, it would be careless for me to summarily dismiss it on that note. Conceptualism, some say, doesn’t address the problem of universals. To quote from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Conceptualism’s appeal to concept application must concern only correct concept application. As such, it is fair to ask, “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” To treat this fact as brute and inexplicable is to revert to problematic Predicate Nominalism. So it seems the Conceptualist must say that the concept red applies to a and b, but not c, because a and b share a common feature, a feature c lacks. Otherwise, the application of red is unconstrained by the individuals to which it applies. But simply noting that a and b resemble each other isn’t going to help, because that just is the fact we originally sought to explain, put differently. The Conceptualist might now say that a and b share a property. But if this isn’t to amount to a restatement of the original datum, it must now be interpreted as the claim that some entity is in both a and b. That, of course, turns our supposed Conceptualist strategy back into Realism. Critics say Conceptualism solves no problems on its own. In trying to ground our right to predicate the concept red of a and b, we are driven back to facts about a and b themselves and that leaves Conceptualism as an unstable position. It teeters back and forth between Realism, on the one hand, and Nominalism, on the other.

I suspect that this objection is levied against a form of conceptualism in which concepts are not formed through experience. Allow me to try using the proposed framework to answer the key question of this objection: “What makes it the case that the concept red is rightly applied to both a and b, but not of some third individual, c?” Answer: There is a frequency range in the electromagnetic spectrum for which objects a and b emit or reflect light and object c does not. The sensory input from electromagnetic waves in that range is associated with neural structures that collectively form the concept of redness, and we call this concept “red” because those structures have further associations with the word “red”. The sensory input from object c does not create the same associations and so the concept of “red” is not applied to it. At the risk of sounding pompous, it seems to me that the discussion ends there. Have I missed something?

“Red”, as a universal, can be easily associated with particulars, namely the electromagnetic waves in a certain frequency range. When the universal in question is the type which is a categorization of particulars (e.g., red, table, chair, etc…), the application of conceptualism is clear – the universal is the concept that links our experiences of the particulars together. There are other types of universals, however, which assign properties to objects and that have no obvious referent. We might say that something is hot, flat, smooth or loud. How do these types of universal properties fit into the conceptualist framework? The answer lies in the discussion of relations above. The similarity between relations and these types of property universals becomes clear upon consideration of what these properties are really saying. When we say that something is hot or cold, flat or steep, smooth or sharp, or loud or quiet, we are in fact expression a relation to the norm, or a relation to other spatially or temporally nearby objects. If we’re standing in a walk-in freezer then we might say that an object at 10° C is warm, but we might say that the same object is cold if we are in a stifling equatorial jungle. A knife is sharp because most objects don’t have edges that cut, but a knife can be dull if it doesn’t cut like it used to. These are all relations and, as previously discussed, that means that they all have particular referents in the physical world from which the experiences combine to form concepts.

Qualia

Mary the color scientist Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.Frank Jackson, Epiphenomenal Qualia (1982)

The “knowledge of” entails a completely different kind of pattern in the brain than does the “experience of”. Setting aside the likelihood that color concepts do not consist of the exact same pattern in each person, the knowledge that Mary possesses is only present in the form of the patterns of the information she has acquired through her research. According to the story, the pattern which results from the stimulus of the wavelengths themselves was never realized. So, yes, she does “learn” something new. Now, we could perhaps propose that Mary not only knows how to translate sensory experience into neurophysiology but also has the incredible ability to manipulate her own neurology accordingly. In this case, I would propose that the problem has gone away. Mary has induced the experience of color independent of the actual visual reception of color. She would now have the patterns of color experience encoded in her brain and will thus have created the qualia in the same way that actually seeing it would have.

Who cares?

Door to...

Good question. As I noted at the outset, it wasn’t long ago that I would have considered these musings to be pointless and absurd. What I’ve come to find, however, is that this all actually plays a significant role in the God debate. Why? Because if some type of realism is true, and it can be said that even some small subset of abstract objects or universals exist on their own, then we have accepted the independent existence of the immaterial. This in itself is not necessarily troublesome for the naturalist position. After all, science is in the business of discovering new aspects of “nature” that were previously mysterious. There does seem to be a difference this time, though. If these things exist, and we know about them, then the implication is that we have accessed them in some non-empirical way. This accessibility elevates the mind to a privileged position which gives it access to things in a way that isn’t found anywhere else in nature. Furthermore, the current reckoning of the naturalist position would infer that this special access came about as the result of blind evolutionary forces acting on material that didn’t yet have any interface with these things. Is that just a coincidence?

To the theist, this is the gateway to further interrogation into the immaterial realm (God, soul, spirit, free will, etc…). To the naturalist, this is a crack in the door that was supposed to have been closed. While it may not serve as evidence for God, it would suggest that there is more to reality than the naturalist is typically willing to grant. There’s no telling what all lies behind that door. Of course, this potential conflict is no reason to avoid the questions and shun sensible answers. We should pursue truth wherever it may lead.

With that in mind, you may have noticed that I have skirted some of the big questions. I am ending this two part series having merely outlined my perspective on what is means to say that something exists while showing how, within the conceptualist paradigm, there does not appear to be any problem reconciling the existence of mind-dependent objects with a naturalistic account of reality. By aligning myself with conceptualism I have inferred that abstract objects exist only by virtue of their mind-dependence, but I have avoided asking whether or not some things (morality, mathematics and, of course, God) are truly mind-independent. That said, I believe that this framework presents a coherent mechanism by which we may suggest that they are mind-dependent. Even so, those will have to be addressed another time; perhaps after much more contemplation. I do not yet feel comfortable with any one position on these, among others, and this should not be a surprise. We have been debating these things for centuries. In the end, I will openly concede that a deep dive into those topics, or a persuasive refutation of my reasoning here, could potentially turn this entire framework on its head. And that is where you come in. Please, dear reader, tell me why I’m wrong.

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30 thoughts on “My Ontology – Part 2: Mind-dependence

  1. I think you have laid out a solid ontology here. I’ve never been much opinionated about ontology, but it’s really fascinating. One thing you did not talk much about is materialism. Some philosophers would ask you, is a thought material? Also, consciousness and intentionality are frequently raised in this discussion. I think the reason I’m less opinionated here is because I closely align with naturalist thinking about the brain and mind, and also holding that something is immaterial does not automatically mean it exists independent of the mind. Suppose that immaterial existences were brain-dependent, what does that say about the existence of God? There is certainly no agreed upon answer to this, it will be a subjective construction. Anyhow, I think maybe the more interesting ontologic question is, what kinds of things exist outside the mind? Can immaterial things exist outside the mind?

    • Hi Brandon,
      How do you define a thought? In many cases it appears to be a group of concepts organized to imply specific interrelations, or in some cases it may be a conceptualization of yet unrealized perceptions. In any case it appears to be deeply related to concepts. Regarding consciousness as a whole, it would seem that my definition of concepts puts me squarely in the materialist camp. It would be a bit odd to suggest that concepts are biological but consciousness and intention are not.

      Your middle sentences puzzle me a bit. If you closely align with naturalist views on the brain and mind, what do you mean that you allow things to be both immaterial and mind-dependent? Are you suggesting that the immaterial could in some sense arise from the brain? What reasons might we have to suppose that this occurs?

      Your last question is the big one. While I didn’t answer that question directly, there are some implications that the conceptualist framework puts in motion. First, if mind-dependent objects can be fully realized in our neurology, and universals, relations and qualia can be accounted for within this framework, then much of the traditional mind-body problem goes away until we introduce some other immaterial objects. That seems like an added complication that should only be advanced if there is good reason to do so. Second, the massive potential for interconnection between concepts yields a breeding ground of invention. This means that seemingly novel or spontaneous concepts should be scrutinized to see whether it makes sense that they might have been birthed as an amalgam of other concepts, rather than as something that was introduced from some mind-independent source. I think mathematics has the greatest chance of fitting into the category of “immaterial and mind-independent” but I still have much to learn before I feel like I can argue for or against that proposition.

      • Hey Travis,
        I think your definitions of “thought” are good. I mean as odd as it sounds I’m mostly materialist too. Calling something immaterial does not make sense to me. Still I’m sympathetic to philosophers who want to call the consciousness (or thoughts or intentionality) immaterial. There is the “hard problem of consciousness” which suggests that something weird is going on: When neuroscience advances to its maximum and we peel back all the layers, we will have mechanisms but where am I (the subject). I don’t think science can tell us what the subject is, although some people disagree. Regardless of the limits of science, I’m not sure we have reason to say its immaterial.

        Artificial intelligence research might help, but I’m very skeptical of machines achieving consciousness because I think consciousness is probably an emergent phenomenon that may be beyond scientific method. Even if it’s an emergent phenomenon, it is not necessarily a “ghost in a machine” (a la Steven Pinker) or an otherwise immaterial substance. I mean how could immaterial things interact with material things other than magic? Or, there are some exotic physical laws that we are unaware of.

        what do you mean that you allow things to be both immaterial and mind-dependent?

        I was just speaking on behalf of philosophers who might hold such a view. I mean I sympathize with their line of thinking since I’m only a waffling materialist, after all we can’t weigh or measure a thought. I guess I keep coming back to the fact that even if we don’t know what some phenomenon is, we can’t just call it immaterial. Or, here I’m going to waffle even more: what about something like a photon? A photon has zero mass, yet it interacts with the world. If your definition of material requires mass, then the photon is immaterial. So, maybe materialism ought to be defined by the ability to interact with the physical world. The problem is, how could we rule in or out some exotic substance that interacts with the physical world but has zero mass and zero charge which cannot be detected by particle smashers? That sounds like dark matter, but I mean what else could there be? Maybe something that actually has significant interactions with the brain, but is “immaterial” by most definitions?

        I’m thinking out loud here, but hopeful it’s obvious that I’m a little sympathetic to almost all of these ontologies and especially the naturalist ones.

        Your last question is the big one. . .

        Yeah, your thoughts on it were interesting, and I have to say I’m pretty much on board with everything you said. Mathematics does have the greatest chance of existing “out there”. Some philosophers posit that math and the laws of logic are true in all possible worlds, independent of materials and arrangements. Then again, some very intelligent software engineers (I noticed you are a software engineer too 🙂 ) like Stephen Wolfram who would say there are many “maths” and that humans invented it. Whatever the case, it’s above my pay grade!

    • Well Brandon, thank you for helping me improve my understanding of relativity. My initial response to your comment about photons was “yeah, but they have energy”, but then I realized that E=mc2 would translate to zero energy. So after a little reading I came to learn (or rediscover) that the full version of the equation is E2=m02c4+p2c2
      where m0 is the rest mass of the particle (zero for photons, which never rest). I can’t believe I never ran across that before (or that I forgot it). Perhaps that second option isn’t so unbelievable.

      Regardless, I agree that the question of how we define “material” can get quite murky. There does, however, seem to be another consistent criteria under the domain of “regularity” and theories of an immaterial component of consciousness seem to go off the map in that respect.

  2. Travis,

    I’ve found that Brandon and I actually surprisingly agree more often than I first thought when we met, even though he is a theist and I am not. He said: “I’ve never been much opinionated about ontology, but it’s really fascinating”, and that’s exactly what I would say, which is similar to what I was writing on your previous post. I also relate quite a bit to his waffling about consciousness. I lean heavily toward materialism or at least have a very hard time thinking dualism makes any sense, but in the same regard consciousness seems to be a phenomenon that is not physical in itself yet looks to be very much tied to physical things. I’m just not sure about it, perhaps only because not enough has been discovered about it yet.

    I’m afraid I have more questions than statements in this post – I admit to getting a little lost in the middle.

    I’m wondering how you would categorize scientific laws, like say gravity or other physical laws. They seem to exist in some sense that objects seem to act in a consistent and reliable way according to those laws (at least in our observable realm), but the laws themselves are not physical.

    And I guess you sort of mentioned the laws of logic in your reference to math. What about something like the law of non-contradiction? Does that exist independently of minds?

    Your last section of your post is most intriguing to me. First, I have read several atheist phlosophers who are moral realists, and realists in the sense that they believe some basic moral laws truly exist independently of minds as brute facts. Erik Wielenberg, Shelley Kagan, Michael Martin, Stephen Law, Louis Antony, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong are all atheists who seem to fall in the “brute fact” camp (or at least close). First question related to that is: do you think this could still fall within the “naturalist” worldview?

    Now, as far as moral realism goes, I haven’t found a reliable way to decide what camp I’m in. I’d love and prefer “pure” moral realism to be true, but I actually lean more toward what I like to call “practical moral realism”, which may actually be conceptualism (Massimo Pigliucci and Richard Carrier’s moral realism seem best described like this). But either way, whether or not moral laws actually exist immaterially doesn’t at all give me the feeling of a crack in any door that was supposed to be closed. That may be because I’m not read enough on philosophy, but this statement you wrote: “it would suggest that there is more to reality than the naturalist is typically willing to grant. There’s no telling what all lies behind that door” seems a bit too slippery slope to me, and I personally don’t think slippery slope thinking is a good way to build a worldview.

    I think the idea that laws of logic, math, physics, morals, etc. exist is a far cry from believing that minds exist apart from any physical “brain-like” substance. Any minds that I have interacted with have all been connected to and dependent on a physical brain – something that is extremely complex. To think that minds like that exist immaterially seems like a big jump from believing that basic laws of the universe exist. That’s at least the way it looks to me, and I’d love to hear your input.

    • Howie,
      Great questions. I definitely haven’t solidified my opinion on many ontological questions but I feel like this exercise gave me a starting point. I have considered some of the questions you raise but my thoughts didn’t make it into the post, mostly because they are unsettled and I need to explore them further. Even so, here are my current leanings:

      Regarding consciousness, I’m inclined to think that our difficulty with the physicalist reduction lies in our sense of self and the inescapability of our subjective experience. We want to be able to understand it from the outside, just like we do everything else, but that is impossible. I do not see, however, why this eliminates a physical cause and I think that the self-referential paradigm that I mentioned here fits with that observation.

      I suspect that the ontology of scientific laws is no different than the ontology of mathematics. They are effectively one in the same in that they are both, in a sense, generalized descriptions of reality. The mathematical toolset has been abstracted into use beyond our empirical observations but the core foundations appear to be based on the empirical. That said, I have also seen some interesting arguments for the independence of mathematics. I’m a fellow waffler on this one and expect to be digging deeper in the future. And this question has strong ties with logic as well.

      Speaking of logic, I hope this next paragraph is comprehensible. It gets messy really fast. I think the position I outlined in my epistemology of logic is still my preferred stance. It corresponds nicely with the conceptualism I offered here. Ontologically, the “laws of logic” would be concepts that are generalizations of relations that we experience in the world. But if we keep going down this rabbit hole it degrades into a discussion of truth. For example, what is the logical truth value of the proposition “This statement is neither true nor false”? These kinds of paradoxes drive us to Gödel’s Incompleteness Thereom and, as I understand it, two options – either truth transcends our formal systems or it doesn’t exist (in an absolute sense). I’m leaning toward the latter but this is pretty much the same as asking about mathematical realism, so I’m waffling again. Clear as mud?

      If you haven’t picked up on it yet, this whole self-reference incompleteness theorem business is a pretty big deal and sits at the base of just about everything. I’m only just now starting to explore that space.

      Now on to morality. I think that it is a very tenuous position to couple naturalism with moral realism (in the mind-independent sense), primarily because I don’t see how purely physical evolution could have coupled that kind of morality into our consciousness. Not only that, but morality appears to be linked with our emotions, so it would have had to interact with their development as well. It makes a lot more sense for the causality to run in the opposite direction.

      I think I understand your concerns about the slippery slope but I should perhaps be more clear that I don’t intend it to be a reason to avoid the conclusions. We certainly shouldn’t avoid the most sensible conclusion to a question simply because it conflicts with our current perspective. Rather, we should update our perspective to integrate everything the best we can. You are correct that something like mathematical realism doesn’t instantly lead us to accepting the existence of transcendent minds, but it does cause us to ask new questions like “Why should I think there’s something special about the brain that gives it privileged access to these things?” and “Why did evolution lead to the ability to access these things?” Even if this road doesn’t lead one to theism it does elevate the mind to a special place, and I think that truly is a bit of a “slippery slope” away from the traditional naturalist worldview. Again, this isn’t something to fear or avoid. Just an observation about the significance of the topic.

      • Travis,

        This stuff really does fascinate me and I’ve got a lot more learning to do in epistemology/ontology. Right now I’d say that I’m not so sure I’m a naturalist (although I do lean in that direction), because I wouldn’t be surprised if there really is stuff “hidden behind that door.” 😉 How much is behind there, if anything, is beyond me.

        I’m really glad you took the time to write this up so others like myself could learn from it. Usually I get so bogged down in terminology when I read stuff from philosophers, so after everything you’ve written here I may actually be able to hit those books with better understanding. Thanks!

    • I’m glad you find this so accessible. Hopefully that means that it enables dialog with a wider audience. I’m convinced that truth is best discovered through an exploration of as many perspectives as possible and I appreciate your contribution. On that note, I think I will update the last section on this post to clarify the “slippery slope”.

  3. I’m glad I read this blog as well as the comments.

    I do not have a full ontology of concepts thought out either. And instead I tend to look at whether a concept has some sort of link to reality outside of our minds. Is math really true? Yes if it hooks into reality. As we learn more and more about quantum mechanics it may be that we find this line is even more blurred than we thought.
    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20600-quantum-magic-trick-shows-reality-is-what-you-make-it/

    In the end I am not sure what to make of it. I do half expect at some point for a big discovery to set this straight and defend our common understanding of a mind independent reality.

    But in the meantime I think there is quite a bit of uncertainty.

    As for the importance of empiricism to the naturalist, it would seems we developed 5 senses that help us survive and reproduce. But there is no reason to think these senses reveal all or even most of reality. Why would we think all of the potential aspects of reality would impact our survival and reproduction?

    Of course if you start out with the assumption that only those things that reflect light, (see) create sound waves, (hear) exert force (feel) etc exist then sure. But from my perspective that seems an entirely open question.

    In fact I think on feature of reality that does not do these things is the moral feature of reality.

    • Joe,
      In your response to my comment on your recent post you answered my challenge of providing an example of an objective relation without a physical referent as follows:

      Someone tells me they committed a crime. But then they deny it and I have not recorded it etc. Under the first definition we would say it is not objectively true that the person told me that. Their telling me they committed the crime would not be a part of objective reality. Yes I can testify as to what I heard but I can not make you hear exactly what I heard coming from the persons mouth. If you say that it is not objective reality then much of what we believe about history would not be objective reality – even if it were true.

      As I noted when I responded on your post, I think you’re inferring epistemology where I am trying to discuss ontology. In your example, there is an objective reality that we can refer to – the sound waves that moved from the criminal’s mouth to your ear. It is theoretically accessible to anybody even if it was only accessible to you at the moment in time.

      Then here you say:

      it would seems we developed 5 senses that help us survive and reproduce. But there is no reason to think these senses reveal all or even most of reality. Why would we think all of the potential aspects of reality would impact our survival and reproduction?

      I agree, but this is also where I think that pragmatism and a bit of Bayesian reasoning comes in. Perhaps there are non-empirical aspects of reality but pragmatically, they may as well not exist. Similarly, Occam’s razor has a Bayesian foundation which allows us to assert that the theory with fewer entities (while still fitting the data) actually is more probable. Furthermore, when we looks back at history it appears that all claims of non-empirical knowledge have proven far less consistent and reliable than claims of empirically grounded knowledge. So, yes, it seems possible that there are non-empirical aspects of reality but I don’t yet see why I should think these actually exist, or why I should care.

      • Travis thanks for the responses. I greatly enjoy discussing these topics with you and although I do not always have time to post right away that does not mean I am not tossing the ideas around in my head during the time I am absent. Of course, we both have thought about these ideas generally before but I think it is worthwhile if we both spend time and try to understand the particulars of each other’s position.

        “I agree, but this is also where I think that pragmatism and a bit of Bayesian reasoning comes in. Perhaps there are non-empirical aspects of reality but pragmatically, they may as well not exist.”

        I definitely disagree here. If morality is non-empirical that does not mean it may as well not exist. Nor is it pragmatic to assume things don’t exist just because they do not have an effect on our 5 senses. Pragmatism weighs the effects of actions (to the extent belief is volitional we can call it an action or at least linked to actions) along with the probabilities.

        As far as Bayesian reasoning when it comes to these philosophical questions I think it has almost no utility. I have seen William Lane Craig and Carrier both trot this out. The only thing I took away was garbage in garbage out.

        “Similarly, Occam’s razor has a Bayesian foundation which allows us to assert that the theory with fewer entities (while still fitting the data) actually is more probable.”

        If you are saying what I think you are saying then I think this is view of occam’s razor is just an appeal to ignorance fallacy.

        Consider this claim. “There is nothing outside the observable universe.” It would certainly be less entities and would still fit the data, but by definition we wouldn’t expect to see anything beyond the observable universe even if there was something there.

        “Furthermore, when we look back at history it appears that all claims of non-empirical knowledge have proven far less consistent and reliable than claims of empirically grounded knowledge. “

        That killing people for no reason is wrong is a belief that has been fairly consistently held as far as I know.
        I gave an example where a sole witness heard someone confess to a crime. Is that considered empirically grounded knowledge? It seems it would be empirically grounded for the two people who actually heard it. But perhaps not for anyone else. If you say it is empirically grounded for others (who hear testimony) then I think you will find such empirically grounded claims have not proven all that consistent. If you say it is only empirical for the two people who actually heard it, then I think you will find we have precious little empirically grounded information.

        “So, yes, it seems possible that there are non-empirical aspects of reality but I don’t yet see why I should think these actually exist, or why I should care.”

        IMO that is all we should care about. What should I do? That is the most important question and should be the ultimate focus of our inquiries. If you say as a pragmatic matter we should not care whether moral reality exists (i.e., there is really something we should do) then I would ask you two things:
        1) How can you possibly assign probabilities to the existence of something that is non- empirical?
        And
        2) how are you weighing consequences in case you are wrong?

      • Joe,
        I think we may not be on the same page with regard to the definition of ’empirical’. I’m using it to mean everything that is potentially observable (or reasonably inferred from observation) – not just what is actually observed. So a non-empirical entity (NEE) is from my naturalistic perspective completely unknowable. This, in turn, means that it can’t inform our beliefs and thus affect our actions. If I was a dualist (as I think you are?) then I can see why that wouldn’t be relevant because then I would accept that the NEE could be known through non-empirical interaction with our mindsoulspirit. But something is going to have to happen to convince me that dualism is a better framework than naturalism before that would come into play.

        I think we can probably agree that morality is not isolated from the empirical world – there are empirically observable correlates and byproducts. It isn’t clear to me why I should then infer back from that to something that is non-empirical. This speaks to your question “How can you possibly assign probabilities to the existence of something that is non-empirical?” My answer: In isolation, where I have zero additional information, it’s a 50/50 proposition. But it doesn’t need to be considered in isolation:

        • Per my definition above, the ability to even question the existence of this non-empirical entity (NEE) would entail that the NEE is something which people just know without ever having observed and without it being an empirically sourced biological predisposition (like how a newborn “knows” how to suckle as a result of evolutionary history or, perhaps, like morality). This is where Bayes and Occam’s Razor come in – if the NEE does nothing to improve the fit between the data and my model of reality then I am decreasing the probability of my model being correct if I include it because I am adding non-functional information to my model. So even if I can only assign it a 50/50 probability in isolation, it has a net negative effect on my model of reality as a whole.
        • Then there’s also the need to account for priors and the relative frequency with which entities are empirical. If person A starts with belief in a few NEEs then some tiny fraction of their ontology consists of NEEs, so in the absence of all other data, the prior probability for the new NEE is very small and would need to be overcome by the data. Even if person B starts with zero NEEs in their ontology, we can assign a prior by granting that the proposed NEE will be accepted, so that the prior is 1/(# entities in updated ontology). So unless you’re an idealist, you’re starting with a pretty small prior and it all comes down to the data.

        Which leads us to ask what kind of data would serve as evidence for an NEE? Well, empirical data would seem to point toward an empirical entity unless that data defied the properties of empirical entities. Your example of “killing people for no reason is wrong” looks like a decent candidate – it is a widespread belief that probably isn’t best explained as having been derived from direct observation (though the relative ease with which children can be trained up by extremists to become ruthless killers may be data against that claim). Even so, the possibility of “empirically sourced biological predisposition” is still on the table and I don’t see how the data supports the claim of an NEE to the extent that it overcomes the reasons given above.

        Hopefully, as a whole, that helps explain my perspective and the relevance of Bayesian reasoning and Occam’s Razor. Now, to your other points:

        Consider this claim. “There is nothing outside the observable universe.” It would certainly be less entities and would still fit the data, but by definition we wouldn’t expect to see anything beyond the observable universe even if there was something there.

        I would suggest that this is not the best fit for the data. The relativistic conception of light cone boundaries and the Big Bang both infer the existence of something beyond the observable universe as an extrapolation from our observations. It’s possible that there isn’t anything beyond our light cone, but that would entail a deeply anthropocentric view that doesn’t appear to fit the data.

        I said:

        it seems possible that there are non-empirical aspects of reality but I don’t yet see why I should think these actually exist, or why I should care.

        to which you responded:

        IMO that is all we should care about. What should I do? That is the most important question and should be the ultimate focus of our inquiries.

        This seems to imply that you are assuming that the answer to the question is non-empirical. Is it impossible to answer “What should I do?” in a world in which morality is not globally objective, or even objective yet empirically grounded?

        how are you weighing consequences in case you are wrong?

        I would suggest that when two options are epistemically indistinguishable then the consequences of one view over the other are inert – otherwise they wouldn’t be indistinguishable. As far as I can tell, anti-realist morality and realist morality are epistemically indistinguishable. So if one values truth in addition to (or as part of) moral compliance or virtue, then that person should1 adopt the ontology that seems to more accurately correspond with reality. That assessment would inherently rely on factors which are not directly related to the epistemology of the entity in question, which was the point of the discussion in the top half of this comment.
        1 Note that ‘should’ stands in reference to the person’s values.

      • FYI, I edited the comment to change “biological predisposition” to “empirically sourced biological predisposition”. I understand that, at least with regard to morality, one could hold the position that it is a biological predisposition but that it was guided to align with a non-empirical reality.

      • Hi Travis I don’t have time to read everything now except the first paragraph. But I definitely will.
        But just quickly (and perhaps getting to the crux of it) yes we do have different understandings of empiricism, naturalism and dualism. Although there may arguably be relations between them, they are best understood independent of each other. (at least until a good argument comes linking one or more of the concepts)

        Joe’s Rough Idea of each:

        Empiricism: All knowledge ultimately comes from our 5 senses.

        Natualism: there is nothing supernatural. No Gods no ghosts spirits etc.

        Dualism: We are not just our body. There is something other than our physicial body that makes us up. (this one I am bit shaky on)

        People can be all of these or their opposites and mix and match as they would like. Someone could be a non-naturalist and still be an empiricist. Someone could be a naturalist and reject empiricism. And each of the above may or may not subscribe to dualism.

        “I think we may not be on the same page with regard to the definition of ’empirical’. I’m using it to mean everything that is potentially observable (or reasonably inferred from observation) – not just what is actually observed. So a non-empirical entity (NEE) is from my naturalistic perspective completely unknowable.”

        Ok based on my understanding of the terms it would it would be more like this:
        Something would be empirical if was either observed directly or reasonably infered someone actually observed.

        So If
        1)no one ever observed X and
        2)no one could observe things that would lead one to conclude X exists then

        Believing x exists would be a non-empirical belief and an empiricist would think such beliefs are never justified/warranted.

        Rationalists on the other hand (although there are more than 2 hands in this thinking) think we can know things like axioms without any observation. Both can be naturalists.

        Anyway here is a quick link to the stanford encyclopedia.

        http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rationalism-empiricism/

      • Joe,
        I also wrote an epistemology post that is more relevant to the debate between empiricism and rationalism and may be a better context for that side of the discussion, if you wish to pursue it. From my perspective, I think that the definitions you provide here are sufficiently close enough to my understanding so that further clarification isn’t necessary for those terms.

      • Thanks for the response Travis. I am glad you agree with the rough definitions I gave. The definition of “empirical” is especially important, as I think the other concepts only loosely tie in.

        “Which leads us to ask what kind of data would serve as evidence for an NEE? Well, empirical data would seem to point toward an empirical entity unless that data defied the properties of empirical entities. Your example of “killing people for no reason is wrong” looks like a decent candidate – it is a widespread belief that probably isn’t best explained as having been derived from direct observation (though the relative ease with which children can be trained up by extremists to become ruthless killers may be data against that claim).”

        At the end when you say this is data against “that claim”, what claim are you referring to? Are you saying it is data against the claim

        1) that we tend to universally believe killing people for no reason is wrong?

        Or do you mean it is data against the claim that

        2) That our belief that it is wrong to kill people for no reason, probably is not best explained as having been derived by direct observation.

        If you mean it goes against the first claim ok. But I would point out that even extremists think they are killing people for a reason. But overall I will agree that there are likely people who don’t think it is wrong to kill people for no reason. I just think it seems a belief that is held more consistently than many empirical beliefs.

        Now if you mean that this data goes against the second claim then it is unclear to me how that argument works. (Let’s set aside the issue of extremists thinking they are killing for a reason) Are the extremists parents directly showing the children in the wrongness (or lack of wrongness) in killing for no reason? Sure I agree that what we hear others say about morality effects our belief about what is moral. But the question is whether that moral testimony ever goes back to something someone actually saw heard tasted smelled or touched. Its pretty clear to me that it hasn’t. It seems clear to me that “moral wrongness” unlike “redness” or “sourness” does not interact in the world in a way that provides any byproducts we can sense.

        You gave 3 examples of child abuse in your earlier post that you linked. In one a mother left her daughter alone in a closet in squalid conditions and apparently allowed very little interaction. I am sure all of your readers agreed what she did was morally wrong (unless they are error theorists when it comes to morality). Yet the mom thought she was doing the best she could and thought it would be better if the girl stayed with her. It wasn’t the case that mom was blind and therefore did not see the cockroaches. She could smell so it wasn’t that she couldn’t smell the feces. There is no reason to think any of her 5 senses weren’t working.

        Now there are of course many ways to go from there. You can be a relativist and say well if the mom (or a certain group of people) thought it was ok then it was in fact moral. Because to them that is what morality is. Sometimes I think you are on the fence with this view.

        But you make a different sort of argument. You say:

        “Even so, the possibility of “empirically sourced biological predisposition” is still on the table and I don’t see how the data supports the claim of an NEE to the extent that it overcomes the reasons given above.”

        Ok so many of the arguments you gave are arguments against NEEs generally but the only argument I think you gave that morality could be:
        1) not subjective and
        2) empirically based

        Was that of a child that learns how to suckle. You say:
        “it being an empirically sourced biological predisposition (like how a newborn “knows” how to suckle as a result of evolutionary history or, perhaps, like morality).”

        The first problem I have this analogy is that we are talking about two different types of knowledge. “Knowledge-how” to suckle as opposed to “knowledge-that” something is wrong. The latter is often called propositional knowledge. I think saying we learn a form of propositional knowledge just like we learn how to suckle, is really adding more confusion than clarity. It seems to me that with any empirical knowledge we should be able to say which sense organ is involved. Even with particles that we can’t see directly we see effects of the particles. So we can say it is our eyes that inform us. That just does not happen with wrongness.

        The second problem is that if moral views are empirically sourced biological predispositions (like perhaps a lions predisposition to kill off the young of another female lion so it can then breed with her) then why would we think those predispositions actually track moral truth? If you plug morally relevant biological predispositions of all life from viruses through mammals into a Bayes theorem, then what do you think the likelihood those dispositions track our moral views? And let’s start with our view that human life is more valuable than most other animal and plant and other life. It seems very few other forms of life have developed this same biological predisposition. But if this view naturally flowed from just empirical truths about what we see hear and touch then it wouldn’t we expect other animals which can see hear and touch things to hold this predisposition?

        With respect to using Bayes theorem and Occam’s razor I think they are more distinct from each other than your treatment of them suggests. I think your first bulleted point is in line with Occam’s razor and not really Bayes theorem. Your second is dealing with Bayes theorem and not Occam’s razor.

        On the second point you say: “Then there’s also the need to account for priors and the relative frequency with which entities are empirical.” If you believe any NEEs are unknowable, then how could you even begin to plug in the frequency of NEEs versus empirical entities? If you think the frequency NEEs is inscrutable (which I think is the only option for an empiricist) then how can you come up with any sort of data to use in Bayes theorem?

        I don’t think I just “assume” that questions of what is right and wrong are not empirical. I think I give pretty extensive arguments on that issue here for example:
        https://trueandreasonable.co/2014/02/24/a-problem-with-the-reliability-of-moral-beliefs/

        “I would suggest that when two options are epistemically indistinguishable then the consequences of one view over the other are inert – otherwise they wouldn’t be indistinguishable.”

        It depends what you mean by epistemically. If you include a pragmatic encroachment view of epistemology, then you may be able to agree. But then you are agreeing we can be justified in believing something for reasons beyond the evidence of their being true.

        “As far as I can tell, anti-realist morality and realist morality are epistemically indistinguishable. So…” I am not sure what you mean here. Do you mean you cannot tell which one holds true by any empirical inquiry? Then I would agree. That is because even if real morality is true it’s truth is not demonstrable by our 5 senses. Any perceptions could equally happen in a world where real morality does not exist.

        However, a moral anti-realist and moral realist views are clearly distinguishable and have different consequences for how we should behave. For example, if one believes that there is a real morality one would be inclined to try to make their beliefs align with that reality. If one does not think any moral reality exists, then there would be no need to aligns one’s view with this non-existent moral reality. It would make no sense. If one believes in a moral realism, then there can be real moral progress. I could probably go on with differences but I will just leave that one.

      • Joe,
        There’s a lot here and not everything is obviously related, so I’m just going to offer focused answers to the specific questions you call out, then let me know if you want further detail on any of them:

        [the relative ease with which children can be trained up by extremists to become ruthless killers may be data against that claim] … At the end when you say this is data against “that claim”, what claim are you referring to?

        #2 – That our belief that it is wrong to kill people for no reason, probably is not best explained as having been derived by direct observation.

        Now if you mean that this data goes against the second claim then it is unclear to me how that argument works.

        I need to first grant your point that “even extremists think they are killing people for a reason” and thus clarify the proposed universal moral intuition as something like “it is wrong to kill people unless you have a very good reason”. Then, the examples of children raised in a killing culture would seem to serve as evidence that this intuition is at the very least strongly influenced by the empirical experiences of the child. Presumably this would work in the other direction as well.

        The first problem I have this analogy is that we are talking about two different types of knowledge

        Sure, but the intent of the analogy was only to give an example of a predisposition which can be empirically grounded without requiring direct observation by the organism.

        The second problem is that if moral views are empirically sourced biological predispositions (like perhaps a lions predisposition to kill off the young of another female lion so it can then breed with her) then why would we think those predispositions actually track moral truth? …

        This is only problematic under the assumption of moral realism. I not working from that assumption.

        With respect to using Bayes theorem and Occam’s razor I think they are more distinct from each other than your treatment of them suggests.

        I disagree. See Solomonoff’s theory of inductive inference.

        If you believe any NEEs are unknowable, then how could you even begin to plug in the frequency of NEEs versus empirical entities?

        See my original response. If somebody believes in NEEs then their prior is (# NEEs) / (# total entities believed to exist). If somebody doesn’t believe in any NEEs, then their prior can be conservatively set to 1 / (# total entities believed to exist).

        [As far as I can tell, anti-realist morality and realist morality are epistemically indistinguishable. So…] I am not sure what you mean here. Do you mean you cannot tell which one holds true by any empirical inquiry?

        I mean that I do not see how we can determine a moral ontology as a consequence of our moral epistemology because in all cases we can only trace back to intuition as the root of moral judgement, and this does not clearly point toward either realism or anti-realism.

        If one does not think any moral reality exists, then there would be no need to aligns one’s view with this non-existent moral reality. It would make no sense.

        So it only makes sense for an artist to create art if they are aesthetic realists?

      • Joe:
        “If you believe any NEEs are unknowable, then how could you even begin to plug in the frequency of NEEs versus empirical entities?”
        Travis:
        “See my original response. If somebody believes in NEEs then their prior is (# NEEs) / (# total entities believed to exist). If somebody doesn’t believe in any NEEs, then their prior can be conservatively set to 1 / (# total entities believed to exist).”

        Total number of entities believed to exist? What actual numbers are we to use? How would you go about it? That is what I mean. And then when we talk about numbers of NEEs that is even more arbitrary. The number of NEEs seems inscrutable to me.

        Joe:
        “The second problem is that if moral views are empirically sourced biological predispositions (like perhaps a lions predisposition to kill off the young of another female lion so it can then breed with her) then why would we think those predispositions actually track moral truth? …”
        Travis:
        “This is only problematic under the assumption of moral realism. I not working from that assumption.”

        I agree with the first part.
        At times you seemed to suggest moral realism could be defended under your empirical epistimology. I think we would agree, that holding onto moral realism is problematic if we adopt your view of empiricism. IMO Moral Anti-relaism has its own problems. But I do agree that moral anti-realism does fit well with your empirical view.

        Joe:
        “If one does not think any moral reality exists, then there would be no need to aligns one’s view with this non-existent moral reality. It would make no sense.”

        Travis:
        “So it only makes sense for an artist to create art if they are aesthetic realists?”

        If they think there was any real progress in art then yes. If people in prior ages all thought their art was better than current art it would make no sense to say our art is better (i.e., we made progress) unless there was some objective reality to compare what good art is. If you want to say “progress” just means what you (or some current group) like(s) more that is fine. But I don’t think that is what people mean when they talk about “moral progress.” Do you? (Maybe they do when they refer to artistic progress, but then that would just show a flaw in your analogy.)

      • Joe,
        Sorry for the delay. I was out of town.

        Total number of entities believed to exist? What actual numbers are we to use? How would you go about it? That is what I mean. And then when we talk about numbers of NEEs that is even more arbitrary. The number of NEEs seems inscrutable to me.

        There’s a big difference between inscrutable and inexact. I think that your comment here just reinforces the point – that the ratio of NEEs to all entities is very small, even if the number is inexact, thus giving a lower prior probability to a new NEE.

        At times you seemed to suggest moral realism could be defended under your empirical epistimology.

        That was before you had convinced me that a proper definition of “moral realism” includes absolute objectivity. I think we’re in agreement here – a purely empirical epistemology is problematic for moral realism (and vice versa) but is consistent with moral anti-realism.

        If you want to say “progress” just means what you (or some current group) like(s) more that is fine. But I don’t think that is what people mean when they talk about “moral progress.” Do you?

        No, but I also suspect that most people are naive moral realists and haven’t given this a ton of thought. Even so, there seems to be a middle ground that’s been ignored, which is to say that progress is relative to a combination of an inherent nature and logical consistency rather than being relative to some platonic form. This middle ground is ultimately subjective but has the appearance of being objective in that people share in the inherent nature and operate according to the same logical principles. Progress occurs when people discover a moral perspective that is more consistent and/or in better alignment with that nature.

      • Travis
        Maybe inscrutable is not exactly the word. I think we can understand what we mean by NEEs. But I think saying the number of NEEs is inscrutable is definitely more to the truth than saying estimates of NEEs is merely inexact.

        How do you go about counting the number of NEEs? Without offering even anything like a method of how this is done it seems the number is inscrutable. Saying it is low is just taking the key question and asserting it is the way you believe it to be.

        As far as I know we have no possible way to measure the number of NEEs. If we can’t even sense NEEs (and by definition, we can’t) then it seems difficult to count them. Any number you, or I, put in will be completely made up. That’s the problem with trying to use Bayes theorem to solve philosophical problems. People tend to just put in whatever they want on the key questioned points and then say “see Bayes theorem proves/supports my position.”

        Even if there were way more NEES than there was empirical entities we still likely would not be able to detect them. This is because it is hard to see how NEEs could have any effect on our fitness. Therefore, evolution ability to sense NEEs even if they were everywhere?

        “No, but I also suspect that most people are naive moral realists and haven’t given this a ton of thought. Even so, there seems to be a middle ground that’s been ignored, which is to say that progress is relative to a combination of an inherent nature and logical consistency rather than being relative to some platonic form.”

        I would say one does not need to believe in platonic forms in order to be an objective moral realist. And when you say progress is relative to an “inherent nature” – I think that is (or at least can be) objective moral realism. It depends what you mean by that. But on the whole the notion that there is morality inherent in nature sounds close to the objective moral realism. How is it we empirically sense what this morality inherent in nature requires. By empirically sense I of course mean one of the 5 senses as opposed to just having emotional feelings. (which I assume you mean as well)

        I am really putting you to task here because although I think lots of people would like to adopt an empirical epistemology I think it leaves out way to many of our core beliefs. Sure it is nice for the person trying to defend atheism. But if we want to take that view into other areas like morality that view becomes much less comfortable.

        I suspect that even people who have given the question allot of thought are still moral realists, even if they deny it on a certain intellectual level. Their beliefs (by “belief” I take quines definition – a disposition to act a certain way when certain circumstances arise) really are that there is a real objective morality. Accordingly, I think they are living with logical contradictions in their beliefs.

      • Joe,

        How do you go about counting the number of NEEs? Without offering even anything like a method of how this is done it seems the number is inscrutable. Saying it is low is just taking the key question and asserting it is the way you believe it to be.

        OK. Here’s a methodology. Take every word in the dictionary and assign it either as either empirically grounded or non-empirically grounded. Total the results and use that as your prior.

        As far as I know we have no possible way to measure the number of NEEs. If we can’t even sense NEEs (and by definition, we can’t) then it seems difficult to count them. … Even if there were way more NEES than there was empirical entities we still likely would not be able to detect them.

        Yes, we don’t know what we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best with what we do know. See previous discussions.

        I would say one does not need to believe in platonic forms in order to be an objective moral realist.

        Agreed. I’m just alluding to an epistemic similarity.

        And when you say progress is relative to an “inherent nature” – I think that is (or at least can be) objective moral realism. It depends what you mean by that.

        I meant “human nature” – a biological predisposition in our species.

        Their beliefs (by “belief” I take quines definition – a disposition to act a certain way when certain circumstances arise) really are that there is a real objective morality. Accordingly, I think they are living with logical contradictions in their beliefs.

        If we operate under the definition of belief as “a disposition to act a certain way when certain circumstances arise” then I have a hard time seeing a difference between a realist who values personal and social compliance to their intuitions regarding that objective morality and an anti-realist who values personal compliance to their moral intuitions and social agreement on some portion of those intuitions. If evolutionary pressures favor agreement on those intuitions then this may result in an inherent disposition toward shared intuitions and the corresponding desires to act accordingly and hold others equally accountable. Responding to those intuitions and desires isn’t logically inconsistent. It’s just accepting reality for what you perceive it to be and operating within that framework.

      • Hi Travis

        Setting aside issues of what verbs and how certain other words would relate to, as well as the question of how many entities each word would relate to, etc., let me try to explain the main problem.

        Imagine that there were a people who lived for thousands and thousands of years and never saw or heard of aquatic life. They developed their own language etc. But they never had any sense experience relating to any aquatic creatures.

        Now if we were to take their dictionary and ask of every entry whether that entry related to an aquatic creature versus a land creature we would of course find that the number of words relating to aquatic creatures is low compared to land creatures. But we would of course expect that because I defined this group as a group that never had any experiences with aquatic creatures.

        You see that is my point. You are talking about trying to count the number of things we by definition can not sense. Guesses based on the entries in our dictionaries are nothing more than a wild guess.

        It’s difficult to see how we can find any sensible relation between the number of ees and the possible number of nees. I mean we might as well assert the number of nees is related to the number of cub fans. In both cases it is just an assertion with no reasoning behind it. That is why it is best understood as inscrutable.

        As for the differences between moral realists and moral anti-realists I can only speak for myself. I see the difference as huge. If things are not really right or wrong but instead just certain things we can agree on then that is very different view of the world. Maybe some people would value that the same but I would not. For me reality is important. If I did not believe things were really right or wrong, would I still teach my kids things are really right and wrong? Would I tell them getting agreement is all that matters – or the thing to value? This view is so different from what I believe it’s sort of like asking me what if I grew up in a strict muslim household. What beliefs would I have? I really can’t say.

        Also I am not so sure we can just count on evolution to all come up with the same values/intuitions. From the perspective of a moral realist the last century demonstrated how things can go horribly wrong on many different levels.

      • Joe,
        We really aren’t connecting on the question of how we might judge the prior probability of a non-empirical entity. I’ll give it one more shot but I feel a bit like we’re going in circles.

        You see that is my point. You are talking about trying to count the number of things we by definition can not sense. Guesses based on the entries in our dictionaries are nothing more than a wild guess.

        This doesn’t matter. We can only start with what we know. Everything becomes inscrutable if we allow unknowns to invalidate our reasoning. We don’t reject the probabilities established through past experience on the mere possibility of something unknown. That which is known (or more accurately, that which is believed to be known) is the only domain of knowledge relevant to the discussion. If the actual state of affairs is different, then that is irrelevant because we don’t know any better. So we do the best we can with what we have. Furthermore, per the previous discussion, the unnecessary multiplication of entities (with all else being equal) is adding complexity, which increases the total information content of the world, such that probability of the more complex world is lower than the probability of the simpler world. That’s Occam’s Razor from a Bayesian perspective.

        For me reality is important

        I think you’re misstating the anti-realist condition. A moral anti-realist can fully accept the existence of morality and the influence of our value judgments. The difference is only in the question of objectivity. Perhaps it really is just a personal difference in perspective, but I don’t understand the sentiment that everything falls apart if morality isn’t objective. In the past you’ve related anti-realist morality to “pretending”, but I don’t see it that way at all. There is something very real at work regardless of whether you think it is objective or not. Nor is moral discourse or teaching stifled. Moral propositions can still be logically inconsistent or run counter to our intuitions and we can still point that out and attempt to shape the world toward a moral disposition with the fewest inconsistencies and incongruencies. I hope that realists are applying the same scrutiny to their moral framework and, if so, I don’t see how the end result is any different in practice since both parties are relying on the same subjective intuitions in the process. From our inescapably subjective perspectives, the world looks the same either way.

        Also I am not so sure we can just count on evolution to all come up with the same values/intuitions. From the perspective of a moral realist the last century demonstrated how things can go horribly wrong on many different levels.

        I am not counting on evolution to give us all identically immutable intuitions. Environmental influences and biological diversity certainly play a role, and I think that element is far more consistent with the morality we observe throughout time and space than a view in which our moral intuitions have been designed to align with a fixed reality.

      • “We don’t reject the probabilities established through past experience on the mere possibility of something unknown. “

        I agree with that. The question is whether anything based on past experience can inform us about something that is by definition entirely outside our experience. I sense you are getting exasperated but I really don’t see how this can sensibly be done without just bald assertion. I am not sure if you meant the dictionary method to be serious. But I really wonder how you think this would work.

        We need information that we think is relevant to the probability of NEEs existing before we can start claiming bayes theorem gives us probabilities.

        You seem to be saying there are allot of things inside our experience therefore there must not be much of anything outside our experience. (look in the dictionary at all the things relating to ees) If there were fewer things inside our experience would you increase the likliehood of NEEs?

        I agree there is a relation between birds and weeds such that if something is a bird then it is not a weed. But that does not mean if there are allot of birds there must be fewer weeds or vice versa. This seems to be your reasoning with EEs and NEEs. We have allot of EEs therefore there must be few NEES.

        We have 5 empirical senses (call them 1-5). Let’s say that there are 50 other senses (6-56) that we don’t have. Now we wonder if there are entities that trigger only one or more of the senses 6-56 but never 1-5. These would be NEEs because they are not sensed by our 5 senses. How many entities are there? Well we have no way to know. Because there is no reason to think there is a relationship between the number of entities that trigger one of our 5 senses and the number of entities that trigger one or more of 6-56.

        Until a relationhip between the data we have the probability of what we are looking for is established you might as well say “there are 42 billion birds therefore the probability of there being any weeds is low.”

        “That which is known (or more accurately, that which is believed to be known) is the only domain of knowledge relevant to the discussion. If the actual state of affairs is different, then that is irrelevant because we don’t know any better. So we do the best we can with what we have. “

        Yes but the best we can does not mean we just assert relationships exist when we have absolutely no reason to think one exists.

        BTW: when you say “know” something I think you mean have good reason to believe it. Because we might reasonably believe something even though we don’t claim to “know” it. I think things can be relevant if we have reason to believe them even if we don’t know them.

        “Furthermore, per the previous discussion, the unnecessary multiplication of entities (with all else being equal) is adding complexity, which increases the total information content of the world, such that probability of the more complex world is lower than the probability of the simpler world. That’s Occam’s Razor from a Bayesian perspective.”

        You need to plug in numbers to use Bayes Thereom. How you get those numbers will be a key question for anyone who listens to your argument. Without some sort of outline how to get those numbers I am not sure how Bayes theorem works here.

        I am not saying we should assert unnecessary entities. But I am saying to believe in a real objective morality we have to believe in NEEs. How necessary it is to preserve objective real morality is debatable. We likely fall on different sides of that debate.

        I do respect your position on metaethics, and can see that you have given it considerable thought. I feel much more akin to you in the sense that we are both people who try to think this through, rather than feel distanced by the fact we may draw different conclusions. I can say I feel that way with all the philosophically inclined people who care to banter about meta-ethics.

        “I think you’re misstating the anti-realist condition. A moral anti-realist can fully accept the existence of morality and the influence of our value judgments. The difference is only in the question of objectivity. Perhaps it really is just a personal difference in perspective, but I don’t understand the sentiment that everything falls apart if morality isn’t objective.”

        By rejecting objectivity, we end up saying if the relevant person or group thought like Hitler then that is what is moral. IMO it all falls apart. Heck I think it starts to have some cracks if we adopt divine command theory of morality. If morality is defined as what a certain hairless ape or relevant group of hairless apes believes then it’s really in bad shape. But that is a different discussion. I think at this point I am glad that you at least concede your epistemic view would be problematic for someone who believes in objective moral reality.

      • Joe,
        OK, maybe this clarifies things. The person looking to establish the probability of a new NEE may or may not already believe in the existence of other NEEs for whatever reason. We’re not trying to establish the actual frequency of NEEs in reality – we’re trying to understand how our existing “knowledge” (or more accurately, beliefs) should inform a new belief. That’s why we have no choice but to ignore all the unknowns. We’re only using the beliefs we already have to establish a prior, regardless of whether those beliefs accurately reflect reality. That person, if they use their prior beliefs to inform their new belief, is doing the best they can. My original proposition is that the vast majority of people believe in far more empirically grounded entities than non-empirical entities. This means that when the people for whom this is true are assessing whether something is empirically grounded, their prior should favor that it is empirical. If other evidence, whatever that may be, leads them to believe that the entity is non-empirical then that may override the prior. Is that any clearer?

        By rejecting objectivity, we end up saying if the relevant person or group thought like Hitler then that is what is moral. IMO it all falls apart. … If morality is defined as what a certain hairless ape or relevant group of hairless apes believes then it’s really in bad shape.

        I think that’s another misrepresentation of an anti-realist account. A moral proposition isn’t necessarily true for the individual simply by virtue it corresponding to an intellectual belief. It also needs to pass the scrutiny of consideration for logical consistency and alignment with a moral sense or feeling. People can have false beliefs which informs a moral judgement, and even feel like their doing something wrong even though they intellectually think that they’re doing something good, perhaps as a consequence of putting their trust in an external moral authority. But maybe that’s all a topic for another day. It’s a bit out of place here.

      • Hi Travis

        I took some time because I wanted some time between rereading what you wrote. I’m not sure I understand.
        Travis: “…We’re not trying to establish the actual frequency of NEEs in reality….”
        I thought you were trying to guesstimate the probability of NEEs in reality. I am not sure if you are drawing a distinction between frequency and probability.
        Travis: “– we’re trying to understand how our existing “knowledge” (or more accurately, beliefs) should inform a new belief. That’s why we have no choice but to ignore all the unknowns. We’re only using the beliefs we already have to establish a prior, regardless of whether those beliefs accurately reflect reality. That person, if they use their prior beliefs to inform their new belief, is doing the best they can. My original proposition is that the vast majority of people believe in far more empirically grounded entities than non-empirical entities. This means that when the people for whom this is true are assessing whether something is empirically grounded, their prior should favor that it is empirical. If other evidence, whatever that may be, leads them to believe that the entity is non-empirical then that may override the prior. Is that any clearer?”

        If you are merely saying that for any belief we have without knowing anything about the belief other than it is a belief we have then it is likely relating to an EE then that is fine. I will concede for the sake of argument that most of our beliefs relate to an EE.

        Joe:
        “By rejecting objectivity, we end up saying if the relevant person or group thought like Hitler then that is what is moral. IMO it all falls apart. … If morality is defined as what a certain hairless ape or relevant group of hairless apes believes then it’s really in bad shape.”
        Travis:
        “I think that’s another misrepresentation of an anti-realist account. A moral proposition isn’t necessarily true for the individual simply by virtue it corresponding to an intellectual belief. It also needs to pass the scrutiny of consideration for logical consistency and alignment with a moral sense or feeling. People can have false beliefs which informs a moral judgement, and even feel like their doing something wrong even though they intellectually think that they’re doing something good, perhaps as a consequence of putting their trust in an external moral authority. But maybe that’s all a topic for another day. It’s a bit out of place here.”

        Ok I do not think the issue I raise is a misrepresentation of an anti-relaist relativism account. It is actually a classic argument against anti-realism. You can factor in “moral feelings” or “moral sense” as well as intellectual beliefs, but it doesn’t really help matters IMO.

        As for this being out of place I would disagree. The fact that your epistemic world view creates huge problems for most people’s very basic beliefs about morality is a very good reason to reject that world view. So your post naturally leads to this debate and it is not at all out of place.

        Now I will agree that this is a huge topic of its own. And it is in that sense perhaps out of place to go through all the different pros and cons of moral relativism. So I do not mind if you just want to note this as a potential downside to your empirical view and move on.

      • Joe,
        I think maybe we actually connected on the probability question!

        If you are merely saying that for any belief we have without knowing anything about the belief other than it is a belief we have then it is likely relating to an EE then that is fine. I will concede for the sake of argument that most of our beliefs relate to an EE.

        Yes. That’s all I was saying. With all else being equal, our prior is strongly biased toward entities being empirical.

        Ok I do not think the issue I raise is a misrepresentation of an anti-relaist relativism account. It is actually a classic argument against anti-realism. You can factor in “moral feelings” or “moral sense” as well as intellectual beliefs, but it doesn’t really help matters IMO.

        The considerations I mention don’t get us to a universally objective standard against which everybody can be held accountable, but they also aren’t allowing the whimsical morality that anti-realism is often characterized as being. It’s the “do whatever you want at the moment” caricature that I’m opposing, and that’s the sense I got from your statements.

        My ‘out of place’ comment was largely directed toward wanting to put a detailed discussion of moral ontology into a more focused context where there’s a background in place to explain my perspective. I have a draft post that is a good candidate. If I bump up that priority maybe I can publish sometime soon and we can continue there.

What do you think?

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