Me N00bing at Metaphysics of Logic & Ontology

Now, this is a complex topic that I have even less business talking about than even other topics I often bring up online – given that I’m just a first year student in philosophy, which I became after building up an interest in it – but I will press on as requested by these 2 raging, militant atheists (is that a redundant description? πŸ˜‰ ) on Twitter.

Anyway, so my [certainly unoriginal] thoughts on the matter begin as follows. What is being, what does it mean to say that something exists? This is the central question of ontology, and I personally get the feeling that the epistemic hurdles to solidly answering this question are insurmountable. Anyways, perhaps we can at least have a provisional, useful definition to employ here? Well, for a while now I’ve been fascinated with a particular view known as bundle theory. Basically, bundle theory would say that there’s no underlying substance or object to which properties inhere. I suppose you could somewhat analogize it to how a nominalist views sets: sets are essentially all of the members of the set. So, when I refer to a “set”, what I’m really doing is referring to each of the members of the set. Long story short, there’s no ontological overhead, I guess you could so. Similarly, bundle theorists regard “objects” as a mere collection or bundle (hence the name) of properties, and they would argue for this in the following sort of way. Apples, for example, are nothing more than a term we give to a a collection of properties that we sense which meet general criteria that we’ve been culturally influenced to call an apple out of convenience. Now, what sorts of properties constitute an apple? Well, they’ll be red, or green (or whatever), take up about as much space as a baseball or softball, have a sweet or sour taste, etc. So what happens if we start removing these properties? Well, the apple looses its color, size, taste and such, until we’ve excised all of it’s properties. Now, try to conceive of this property-less object; can you? What are you conceiving of? Well, the bundle theorists says you aren’t conceiving of anything! When we conceive of something, we imagine some fuzzy collection of properties, so once yo eliminate those properties, you’re left with nothing by which you could apprehend this object. and bundle theorists take this inconceivability of a property-less object as a good reason to reject substance theory, in addition to the fact that it seems to match our experience that to… experience the world is to have a perceptual model of our sensations. Perhaps I could even give an update to Descartes’ cogito with this in mind:

P1) There are thoughts. (incorrigible proposition)
P2) if there is a process, it requires that there be a bundle of properties (an “object”) in order to exist. (assumption that I have; can give rudimentary argument for is needed)
P3) Thinking is a process.
P4) I refer to this process as “I”.
C) Therefore, I exist.

Not entirely sure about the argument, but I’m just having fun here; criticize it as you see fit. πŸ™‚

So, I’m not sure if the above was necessary for this post (or a good defense of bundle theory), but I’ll press on. When talking about things which exist, what sorts of things, if anything, is necessarily the case? Well, I would tend to go classical here an take the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction as being a necessary, er, facet of reality. But why do I think that? Well for starters, let’s take the law of identity: A = A (A is A). Taken as ontologically necessary, this could be translated to something like “properties A is property A”, or “A is itself”. It seems that we cannot, in any sense of speaking about reality itself, go against this. For example, isn’t it the case that the iPad I’m typing this post from is itself? If I try to affirm otherwise (“The iPad I’m typing this from is not itself”) I contradict myself and utter an incoherent statement that reflects no conceivable state of affairs, because I’m using a term one way and then immediately saying that does not refer to what I just said it did.

Perhaps it could be argued that I’m merely failing to appreciate a potential linguistic-psychological limitation (especially considering I personally am not sold on the idea of conceivability as a means of definitively judging the possibility of things), and you know what, I’m not sure at have a convincing rebuttal to that criticism. But it just seems to vitiate my most fundamental intuitions about the world that I can’t help but reject, pretty much out of hand, opposing these 2 principles or laws as ontologically necessary. #BadPhilosopher

Anyway, that concludes my 2nd post. Ontology and the Metaphysics of logic aren’t exactly my fortΓ©, so this is sort of where I’m at currently. Be sure to leave me some interesting criticism, particularly if you take the view that these two principles are arguably NOT necessary. Thanks for reading! πŸ™‚


One thought on “Me N00bing at Metaphysics of Logic & Ontology

  1. Hi there,

    Nice post — good to see you on wordpress! I have a couple of (fairly loose) thoughts on this. First I’ll say a few things about bundle theory, then about the necessity of the LNC / law of identity, then a quick word about the relation between them, as I see it.

    Firstly, I think the argument from the inconceivability of bare particulars raises a substantial worry for substance theorists. Like you I am dubious of the strength of conceivability arguments, so I wouldn’t want to take it as anything like conclusive, but I do think it points to a question which, if it can’t be answered, should count heavily against substance theory.

    That said, I also think there are some good objections to bundle theory. It’s tempting to complain that bundle theory doesn’t tell us what properties are, or what ‘property’ could mean without a bearer, but I don’t think this objection amounts to much in itself — substance theory doesn’t tell us what substances *or* properties are, so in this respect bundle theory is the more parsimonious. The more pressing question for bundle theory, in my view, is why properties should be ‘bundled’ at all. So typically we might say something like “that apple is green, and round, and sour”. This sort of subject-predicate construction is a very familiar and, I’d suggest, successful way of describing reality. Substance theory makes sense of the conjunction of the predicates by simply positing a bearer of the properties they refer to. But since the bundle theorist denies there is any such bearer, they are left with a problem of how to account for this kind of conjunction. The fact that the world appears to us articulated into discrete objects seems to provide some prima facie evidence for substance theory. Put as an argument it might run like this:

    1. Subject-predicate grammar is an intrinsically successful way of describing reality.
    2. This success is best explained if the world is as this grammar suggests – subjects refer to substances/objects and predicates refer to properties.
    3. So substance theory is probably true.

    You could dispute 1 by arguing that subject-predicate grammar is actually not intrinsically successful at all and that the apparent indispensability of it to everyday talk is really just a matter of historical contingency, and that the same descriptive work could be done by a grammar which doesn’t suggest objects at all. There’s a very interesting paper by John O’Leary Hawthorne and Andrew Cortens called Towards Ontological Nihilism which does precisely this — they try to show that a descriptively rich language can be built without object-laden grammar (they take as paradigm cases of ‘ontologically innocent’ sentences things like “it is raining”, which allegedly don’t involve a subject at all). So they translate things like “that’s a green apple” to “it’s appling greenly there”).

    So anyway that’s how I see the field of play: if bundle theorists can deal with the problem of property binding better than substance theorists can deal with bare particulars, then perhaps they’ll be in business.

    Now for the law of identity (LI): for all x, x is x. I wouldn’t want to dispute the necessity of this — I sure as hell can’t make any sense of how this could be false. However, I do think that this necessity can be interpreted two different ways. One is that LI is a necessary truth, the other is that ‘self-sameness’ is a property that no entity couldn’t have. The first treats necessity as something linguistic or propositional (de dicto), the second as something metaphysical, or concerning real properties of things (de re). I think LI is a necessary truth in the de dicto sense, but I’m not convinced that it tells us anything metaphysical. A truth can, of course, be necessary without this having anything much to do with reality — “all bachelors are unmarried” is a necessary truth, but this is just to say something about what the various terms mean. Similarly the necessity of LI could be explained if we were to take it as expressing a kind of semantic constraint on attributions of identity.

    Admittedly there’s something a bit unsatisfying about this — there’s an infinity of necessary truths that we could just invent by defining things and then proving things about them, but they won’t have the same intuitive grip on us as propositions like the LNC and the LI, or provide as many philosophical puzzles. These laws don’t have the air of triviality that “all bachelors are unmarried” does, and I suspect this is where the tendency to ‘absolutise’ them — to take them as de re and metaphysical — comes from. But perhaps there’s more going on here. “All bachelors are unmarried” seems trivial because the meaning of ‘bachelor’ is pretty much stipulated, whereas in the case of laws of logic the semantic constraints they express (if that’s what they do) could be things buried down in the guts of language and thought. Non-contradiction in particular seems to be closely related to communication — in order to understand what someone is saying (that is, to grasp the content of what they’re saying) I have to assume that what they are saying is coherent. Perhaps, then, what’s expressed in the LNC is a condition of the possibility of communication. That’s obviously very sketchy and half-formed, but this is the general direction I lean in these days.

    How this all ties in with bundle/substance theory is hard to say, and will depend heavily on the details, though it does seem to me that bundle theory is in tension with any view that takes logical laws to be metaphysical and absolute. For example, taking the LNC as metaphysical is to say that there can be no entity which both has and lacks some property. I’m not sure how that could be interpreted on bundle theory — better off sticking with the de dicto version of the LNC, methinks: there is no true proposition of the form “p and ~p”.


    Liked by 1 person

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