The Road of Excess

A Version of Ontological Relativity

Posted in Empiricism, Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ontological Relativity by Free Thinker on October 18, 2010

In his 1956 article Quantifiers and Propositional Attitudes, the great philosopher of science Willard Van Orman Quine presents a puzzle, a thought experiment to address a seeming paradox about beliefs that plagues the philosophy of language. Imagine a man, Ralph, who is vaguely acquainted with another man, a man wearing a brown hat, and has observed him under somewhat suspicious circumstances on more than one occasion. Ralph is also familiar with a man (named Bernard J Ortcutt in the example) he has seen at the beach, and Ralph understands this man to be an upstanding member of the community. Ralph believes the man in the brown hat to be a spy, but is certain the man he has seen at the beach is not a spy; he positively believes Ortcutt is not a spy, rather than simply not believing him to be a spy due to a lack of consideration of such a possibility. Unbeknownst to Ralph, Ortcutt and the man in the brown hat are, in fact, one and the same. Put another way, Ralph would conclude that they were one and the same were he to see Ortcutt put on the brown hat, or if Ortcutt were wearing the brown hat and then removed it in front of Ralph.

Now, presumably Ralph is holding contradictory beliefs about the man Ortcutt. He believes the man in the brown hat is a spy and that the man he has seen at the beach is not a spy, but they are one and the same individual from the perspective of whoever posits the thought experiment (in this case Quine). De re, ‘Bernard J Ortcutt’ and ‘the man in the brown hat’ are coreferential expressions designating the same individual. So if Ralph believes the man in the brown hat is a spy, he must also believe, de re, that Bernard J Ortcutt is a spy, but he does not.

A possible solution to the problem may lie in a version of ontological relativity, a notion Quine explores at length using different and more technical language.  Possible formulation may run something like this: An object is the way it is in virtue of the way in which it presents itself to a subject, or, stated differently, an object is a particular qualitative presentation to a subject (full stop). In this way, an object can never be an affair separate from the perspective of the instrument (subject) that detects it, an integral approach to which it is easy to notice parallels in such features of physical theories as special relativity or quantum wave function collapse. To contend otherwise is, arguably, to step into the realm of unfounded metaphysical speculation about substances, a move that tempts many philosophers but is problematic for those who hold to the strictures of empiricism.

There are some interesting implications for the philosophical study of objects that arise out of this conception thereof. One is that the constancy of objects across multiple perspectives becomes more a matter of convenience or convention than one of fact. For multiple subjects to designate the varying qualitative representations they observe using the expression ‘the same object’, they must regard the differences that obtain across their perspectives as being trivial to the identity of the object. However, there seems to be no non-arbitrary standard for how much phenomenal deviation may be admitted before subjects regard the qualitative presentations they observe as separate entities. The distinction  between trivial and nontrivial deviation is drawn by convenience, convention, tradition, or other patterns that may be informed accidentally, culturally, functionally, individually, politically, religiously, or otherwise. Which differences we consider trivial and which we consider non-trivial may merely be a matter of prejudice; there is, in principle, no way to define how much deviation may be admitted an object before it becomes a wholly separate object, and if different subjects view the “same” object from different perspectives, there is no absolute standard we can apply to guarantee they are, in fact, observing the “same” thing.

The way to attack Quine’s problem stated above with this version of ontological relativity is to highlight the fact that, given Ralph’s perspective, the man in question is presented to Ralph in two ways that exhibit nontrivial deviation, one from the other. Since we are reluctant to posit some kind of underlying “substance” to the separate appearances (it seems downright superstitious to do so), we are sympathetic to the notion that Ralph is the observer of two separate objects (the man in the brown hat and Bernard J Ortcutt) that are distinguished by nontrivial deviation from Ralph’s perspective and trivial deviation (meaning a difference in presentation that does not elicit a disbelief in the identity of the two appearances) from the perspective of he who posits the thought experiment. If the version of ontological relativity stated above holds, then Ralph’s belief that the man in the brown hat is a spy and his belief that Ortcutt is not a spy are reconcilable because he is, in fact, holding beliefs about separate objects, not contradictory beliefs about the same object.

The presupposition of the question ‘Does Ralph believe Ortcutt is a spy?’ is a false one that presumes an unjustified substance metaphysic we are unwilling to commit to. Ralph believes Ortcutt is not a spy but that the man in the brown hat is a spy, and does so without contradiction because, from his perspective, his beliefs refer to non-identical objects. Furthermore, we have no non-arbitrary standard by which we may privilege a different perspective over Ralph’s; any privileging of perspective must be gone about by reference to pragmatic or other concerns.

Objects are particular appearances/presentations that occur to subjects, and persist in virtue of the tolerance subjects hold for deviation from similar previous appearances. They are identical for multiple subjects only inasmuch as those subjects agree on a standard for distinguishing trivial and nontrivial deviation from similar appearances as presented themselves in the past and from the appearance they perceive in the present. You and I, each looking at a chair from a different angle, agree that it is the same chair as a referential convenience, despite the fact that it presents itself to us in different ways. We regard the difference between the appearances that occur to us as trivial in order to more conveniently communicate and get along in the world, but we may as well regard the appearances as nontrivial without a problem in principle.

Speculation on Being, Becoming, Fate, and Striving

Posted in Metaphysics, Organic Philosophy by Free Thinker on February 27, 2010

“This is our purpose: To make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us; to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves; to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.”

~ Oswald Spengler

When we step outside pure analytic philosophy and examine not only our own experience, but that of all other living organisms in our experience, certain facts come to mind.  The following constitute a little bit of speculation, linguistic arrangements organized in such a way that a glimpse of the ineffable may be had, with some effort.  I am not aiming at Truth, but rather wisdom.

  • We possess no being, yet we strive for it. There are many interpretations of Nietzsche’s assertion that life is Will to Power, as that perspectivist philosopher might have expected. One such interpretation may be that living things — perhaps best analyzed as biological complexes of drives, urges, and wills — are not “beings” per se but rather becomings, striving continuously, dynamically toward Being.  Life struggles against all that would contain it in a desperate, and ultimately fatal, attempt at permanent impression ever outward from itself.  Degeneracy, a physiological weakness, comes about when the striving toward Being takes the form of attempting to reach Being by means of destroying the self, that an immaterial and permanent “Being” might be attained — denial of the world into which life is thrown.
  • “A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist,” wrote Nietzsche in a passage published in The Will to Power after his death. Nihilism is a result of physiological degeneracy, judging the actual world of Becoming as inferior to, or a shadowy reflection of, a sublime, non-spatiotemporal Realm of Forms, Ideas, Being. Thus Platonism, and Christianity, point toward nihilism in their rejection of Becoming, of the Flux that is necessitated by a general “absence of essence”.
  • If we are to accept as a premise that there are no such things as “essential qualities”, we may take one of two routes, as far as I can see.  The first option is that nothing — in the sense of “no [particular] thing” — exists in the sense of having Being, full stop. The second option is that all ephemeral things are essentially identical in that they share the one and only essential quality, that of Being.
  • Democritus, the atomist, was the Laughing Philosopher because he understood that we humans are lumps of matter that cannot admit they are matter.  Heraclitus, the flux theorist, may well have been the Weeping Philosopher because he understood we are Becomings constantly seeking after an individuated Being that cannot be realized, insisting against all evidence that we are the same that we were a second before, tragically fated to fail at attaining our ultimate task: Permanence.
  • We humans seem to be the only living species the members of which understand they will perish.  We know that the Being we — as living things — seek after is elusive, that the task before us is utterly impossible, Sisyphean.  Yet we continue to strive toward it, either toward a sense of Being or toward a cessation of the Becoming we experience, by means of creativity, procreation, or religion in the first instance, or suicide in the second.  Both routes ultimately take us to the same place, nothingness.  What this suggests is that we can never change our ultimate destination, but we can change the ways of Becoming by which we reach it.

Nothing particularly profound has come out of this discussion, but it is interesting to see what one does with the thoughts floating around in one’s mind.  Heraclitus and Nietzsche, two of my favorite philosophers, have put all the ideas here better, but one has to start from somewhere.

Before we can make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us, as Spengler tasks, we must make as much sense as possible of this life that has been bestowed upon us.  With tools we know will fail us at the crucial point — nouns, verbs, words that refer at once to everything one can refer to, but also nothing, since they are not strictly connected with reality or, more accurately, experience — we set upon the parallel to the fatal task of striving toward Being: We try, desperately and with perfect knowledge of the impossibility of the project, to describe how it is that a continuity of experience can possibly obtain in a world of Becoming, or if such continuity is merely a “spook in the mind” (with thanks to Stirner). Is there any way out of skepticism, solipsism, nihilism?


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