In Defense of Modest Nominalism

I was asked if I have any thoughts about  Michael Egnor’s article “Why Aristotle and Aquinas?”.

I think that there some pretty serious confusions here, about the history of modern philosophy and also about the relation between science and metaphysics.

Firstly, Egnor writes as if systematic philosophy begins with Aristotle and ends with Aquinas. I disagree with both claims. There’s no reason to think that comprehensive metaphysics ends with Aquinas — at least, one would need a really good argument for why Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, or Whitehead don’t make the cut. (Let alone non-Western metaphysics such as Madhyamaka Buddhism, etc.)

Secondly, Egnor conflates hylomorphism and realism about universals. These are different issues, and they need to be teased apart.

Hylomorphism says that for something to be a thing is for it to be a structured stuff: there is a structure that a thing has and there’s the stuff of which its made. So there’s the structuring aspect, what unifies something as a thing and makes it the kind of thing that it is. and then there’s the stuff which is held together by the structure.

Realism about universals says that concepts are part of the furniture of the world: the world has its own conceptual structure, and then what we need to do is figure out what that structure is. Inquiry is ultimately about bringing our own conceptual structures into alignment with the underlying conceptual structure of the world.

What holds these two ideas together, and makes them seem so wedded to one another, is the idea of essentialism: the idea that things have essences, or structures or forms that make it the kind of thing that it is, and which are also reflected or expressed in the concept of that thing.

(As an aside, I regard essentialism as both false — there aren’t any such things as essences — and also as evil — the belief in essences has legitimized millennia of atrocities.)

Now, I am (probably) a kind of nominalist. I don’t think that the world has any underlying conceptual structure. I think that conceptual structures are part of how complex organisms navigate their environments. I don’t think that the causal relationships between phenomena have the same underlying structure as the inferential relationships between thoughts. Egnor seems to think that nominalism is the Root of All Evil, and that just seems utterly baffling to me.

I can agree with Egnor that it is a profound error of much of modern thought that mind is conceived of as being independent of the world, so that the relationship between them is then a problem to be solved. And we do find the canonical version of this problem presented in Descartes. But this situation — what Jay Rosenberg calls “the Myth of the Mind Apart” — is really quite separate from whatever one’s views are about the nature of concepts.

It may be a contingent truth of the history of philosophy that the rise of mechanistic physics and nominalism about concepts rendered Thomism untenable. I think the Egnor simplifies the history in unhelpful ways. But Egnor seems to think that Darwinism and nominalism are part of the Highway to Hell, and I think he’s completely mistaken about that.

 

 

195 thoughts on “In Defense of Modest Nominalism

  1. RoyLT,

    I hope that you don’t mind my butting in to your comment which was directed at KN, but I’m curious about the same topic. It appears to me that mathematical objects have no existence of their own and only serve as simplified placeholders for actual individual objects.

    Butting in is SOP here 🙂 Thanks for the post. Humans design things with mathematical principles or using mathematical models to test designs. In nature we see things that follow mathematical principles like the transcription translation mechanism or theoretically (according to super symmetry theory) code inside atoms that manage symmetry. The fibonacci pattern in nature is another example.

  2. RoyLT: This isn’t obvious to me.Our large experiential database of canine breeds gives us a general idea of what we name a ‘dog’.But how do we objectively delineate ‘dog’ as a kind?Do coyotes and jackals partake of the ‘dog’ kind?

    Me neither. I guess that’s the scientific bias that’s poisoned our minds.

    “Essences” and “kinds” and “forms,” oh my!

  3. colewd: Butting in is SOP here Thanks for the post.

    My pleasure. I’m hoping that KN will politely redirect me if I go too far down a rabbit-hole;-)

    colewd: Humans design things with mathematical principles or using mathematical models to test designs.

    Agreed. I would certainly not question the usefulness of mathematical relations. But I would suggest that they are only approximations of a particular aspect of an existing object and do not have any existence of their own.

  4. RoyLT: Our large experiential database of canine breeds gives us a general idea of what we name a ‘dog’.

    It doesn’t follow from that that “dog” has nothing but an extensional definition. If it did, no two people would mean the same thing by “dog,” and it would be impossible for a new “animal” to be a dog since there is no defining characteristic requiring that it be included in any particular set (thereby changing the meaning of the word on this theory). It makes no sense.

    But how do we objectively delineate ‘dog’ as a kind?

    Likely, we don’t (certainly I can’t), but that doesn’t mean that what “dog” means is a set of particulars. There are more than two theories of meaning in the world.

  5. walto: If it did, no two people would mean the same thing by “dog,”

    How can two people mean the exact same thing by dog unless the defining set of characteristics is made so vague as to be meaningless? I suspect that whenever someone uses the term dog, they are referring to a large library of canine breeds that they are familiar with.

    walto: Likely, we don’t (certainly I can’t), but that doesn’t mean that what “dog” means is a set of particulars.

    To me either the term ‘dog’ represents a continuum of objects arbitrarily delineated, or the term refers to a universal. What other categories would you suggest?

  6. RoyLT: How can two people mean the exact same thing by dog unless the defining set of characteristics is made so vague as to be meaningless?

    I don’t see how this question even makes sense. How can people mean the exact same thing unless they are relying on something so vague as to be meaningless.

    To me, the term ‘dog’ represents a continuum of objects arbitrarily delineated.

    Isn’t that what you really meant?

  7. Mung: Isn’t that what you really meant?

    No what I really meant was:

    RoyLT: To me either the term ‘dog’ represents a continuum of objects arbitrarily delineated, or the term refers to a universal.

  8. walto: It doesn’t follow from that that “dog” has nothing but an extensional definition.If it did, no two people would mean the same thing by “dog…”

    You might want to check with the American Kennel Club and the Institute of Canine Biology on that.

  9. Pedant: You might want to check with the American Kennel Club and the Institute of Canine Biology on that.

    I’ll get right on that! But, uh, what am I checking with them about?

  10. RoyLT: How can two people mean the exact same thing by dog unless the defining set of characteristics is made so vague as to be meaningless?I suspect that whenever someone uses the term dog, they are referring to a large library of canine breeds that they are familiar with.

    I think this suggestion you make is plausible:

    I suspect that whenever someone uses the term dog, they are referring to a large library of canine breeds that they are familiar with.

    But when you say “referring” there, the same question arises as to what is involved in this sort of “reference.” And, again, it’s likely not an extensional definition. If it were, every time a dog is born or dies the meaning of each term for some breed would have to change. That does not seem plausible to me. Perhaps, as Neil said, following Wittgenstein, when looking for a “meaning” one generally has to look no farther than the use. I’m hesitant to take a position here myself–except to say that the meaning of a general term does not seem to be identical to the elements of any set of particulars.

  11. walto: And, again, it’s likely not an extensional definition. If it were, every time a dog is born or dies the meaning of each term for some breed would have to change.

    Sorry, but that one went a bit over my head. I’m confused about how the question of the meaning of ‘reference’ is pivotal. Is there a better word that could be substituted?

    To make sure that I didn’t get too far off in the weeds, my opinion is that there is no objective existence of ‘dogness’. When someone communicates the idea of a ‘dog’ to another (by language, text, a stick figure drawing, mimicking a barking sound, etc.) they are referring to an arbitrarily defined set of individual objects. Luckily, the majority of the individual members share similarities and so communication is not typically hindered. Most people will agree on a large portion of the members of the set. But if we were to try to explain ‘dog’ as a kind to someone with no experience of canine mammals, the individual members of the set would be arbitrarily selected. We might include coyotes, jackals, and dingoes. We might not. We might include foxes, or we might not.

  12. Pedant: “Essences” and “kinds” and “forms,” oh my!

    I actually see the appeal of ‘kinds’. And I think that having general categories is very useful for rapid communication of ideas.

    However, I just can’t see any way to objectively determine how those kinds can be delineated. While there may be widespread agreement on the criteria for categorizing something like dog breeds or chemical elements, those categories all seem to me to be agreed upon solely by convention rather than by essential objective differences.

  13. walto: I’m hesitant to take a position here myself–except to say that the meaning of a general term does not seem to be identical to the elements of any set of particulars.

    How would we add new elements to our libraries? If we’re presented with a new element, one we’ve never seen before and is therefore not in any of our libraries, we wouldn’t be able to recognize it at all

  14. Mung: To me, the term ‘dog’ represents a continuum of objects arbitrarily delineated.

    Isn’t that what you really meant?

    RoyLT: No.

    RoyLT: my opinion is that there is no objective existence of ‘dogness’. When someone communicates the idea of a ‘dog’ to another (by language, text, a stick figure drawing, mimicking a barking sound, etc.) they are referring to an arbitrarily defined set of individual objects.

    So I got it right the first time and now we’re all clear on what the term means to you in spite of your earlier denial.

  15. walto: I’ll get right on that! But, uh, what am I checking with them about?

    Their intensional and extensional definitions of “dog.”

  16. Mung: To me, the term ‘dog’ represents a continuum of objects arbitrarily delineated.

    RoyLT: my opinion is that there is no objective existence of ‘dogness’.

    First of all, you are comparing a genuine quote from me (the second) to a partial quote from me which you doctored (the first) and extracted without context.

    I can conceive of only two conditions, either that kinds exist independently, or that they are groups of individual objects arbitrarily delineated. I am of the opinion that the former condition cannot be supported objectively, therefore I favor the second. Can you provide support for the existence of kinds, do you have a third scenario in mind, or are you content to prove that I hold opinions?

  17. It looks like someone here took the keiths course on how to quote-mine yourself!

  18. RoyLT,

    Agreed. I would certainly not question the usefulness of mathematical relations. But I would suggest that they are only approximations of a particular aspect of an existing object and do not have any existence of their own.

    Why can’t an approximation of an object have its own existence. It exists as an idea it can also exist as a mathematical model. It can be stored as electrical bits and those bits can build an object through 3D printing. Maybe Plato’s idea of forms was ahead of its time.

  19. colewd: Why can’t an approximation of an object have its own existence.

    Interesting. That approaches it from an angle I wasn’t necessarily thinking of. My concern with that is that there can be a nearly infinite number of approximations of any single object of widely varying accuracy. That seems rather unparsimonious.

  20. RoyLT: My concern with that is that there can be a nearly infinite number of approximations of any single object of widely varying accuracy. That seems rather unparsimonious.

    Parsimony has nothing to do with it. And what does it even mean to speak of “widely varying accuracy”? Widely varying with respect to what? Accurate (or not) with respect to what?

    You write as if you believe in essences. 🙂

  21. RoyLT,

    Interesting. That approaches it from an angle I wasn’t necessarily thinking of. My concern with that is that there can be a nearly infinite number of approximations of any single object of widely varying accuracy. That seems rather unparsimonious.

    Good point. There is one approximation that ends up being the final blueprint from which the object is built. I would argue that the end approximation has its own existence and maybe what Plato was referring to as a form.

  22. colewd: Why can’t an approximation of an object have its own existence.

    This presupposes that we have a clear unambiguous idea of what we mean by “approximation”.

  23. dazz: How would we add new elements to our libraries? If we’re presented with a new element, one we’ve never seen before and is therefore not in any of our libraries, we wouldn’t be able to recognize it at all

    Right. I think Roy takes me to be saying more than I want to claim (and who ever knows what the hell pedant is talking about). My point was not that there are natural kinds–so that some (not ALL) terms cut the world by its pre-existing ‘joints.’ (Although that Putnam/Kripke position isn’t entirely implausible to me.) I was just making what I take to be the pretty obvious point that the meaning of a general term is not a set of particulars.

    Sets are (extensionally) defined by their members. General terms in natural languages don’t seem to work like that. If ‘human being’ were to actually mean featherless biped (which it doesn’t), it wouldn’t follow from that that featherless bipeds constitute a natural kind. The term could provide artificial (unsciency) criteria without it being the case that it is extensionally defined by the set of its members. It clearly isn’t.

    So it’s important to keep those issues separate. Putnam makes water– which he takes to be H20 in every possible world, phenomenally indistinguishable from twater–some other substance that is tasteless, colorless, wet, nourishing, etc. On his view, they are essentially different substances, in spite of their many similarities. It’s a well-argued and fairly popular view–but I haven’t defended it.

  24. walto: My point was not that there are natural kinds–so that some (not ALL) terms cut the world by its pre-existing ‘joints.’

    I think that I would argue that there aren’t any natural “joints” by which to separate objects, or at least I don’t understand how those would be identified. Different criteria for similarity will produce different groupings of like objects.

  25. RoyLT, do you believe that we cannot tell an electron from “not an electron”?

  26. RoyLT: I think that I would argue that there aren’t any natural “joints” by which to separate objects, or at least I don’t understand how those would be identified. Different criteria for similarity will produce different groupings of like objects.

    Yes, I get that–and you’re not alone; lots of people agree with you about it. Again, I have neither endorsed nor criticized your position on that matter, or that of those who disagree with you about it. What I did was criticize your claim that general terms are defined by the particulars they refer to.

  27. walto: What I did was criticize your claim that general terms are defined by the particulars they refer to.

    Can you clarify what your criticism is? I’m not sure what I’m missing?

  28. Mung: RoyLT, do you believe that we cannot tell an electron from “not an electron”?

    With the caveat that they are not ‘objects’ but probabilistic wave functions, yes. An electron beam is obviously different from a proton beam, etc.

    ETA, missed your ‘not’. I believe we can tell the difference between ‘electron’ and ‘not electron’.

  29. Neil Rickert,

    This presupposes that we have a clear unambiguous idea of what we mean by “approximation”.

    You don’t think that it is possible to define approximation in an unambiguous way?

  30. colewd: You don’t think that it is possible to define approximation in an unambiguous way?

    I believe we can define an ‘approximation’ well enough for practical purposes, but it may be hard to do so unambiguously. A clay sphere can be used as an approximation of a tiny ball bearing or the Sun and anything else roughly spheroid. Does it exist solely as a chunk of clay, or does it partake of the ‘form’ which it is used to represent?

  31. RoyLT,

    I believe we can define an ‘approximation’ well enough for practical purposes, but it may be hard to do so unambiguously. A clay sphere can be used as an approximation of a tiny ball bearing or the Sun and anything else roughly spheroid. Does it exist solely as a chunk of clay, or does it partake of the ‘form’ which it is used to represent?

    I am reluctant to delve to far here because of my first grade philosophical level 🙂

    Just logically it seems that the clay exists in two states, as the fundamental matter that we agree ‘exists’ and as a form that can represent other forms per Plato. If you try to eliminate the second part of its ‘existence’ then I think you are discounting what is being observed in nature. Plato was trying to explain the universality of forms observed in nature like a sphere. Is there another explanation?

  32. colewd: I am reluctant to delve to far here because of my first grade philosophical level

    No worries. I’m in well over my head as well. I have lots of homework to do tonight;-) Just between @Mung’s Wikipedia link to identical particles, @Walto’s mention of Putnam/Kripke, and ‘hylomorphism’ which popped up on another thread, I’ve got plenty to absorb over the weekend.

    colewd: If you try to eliminate the second part of its ‘existence’ then I think you are discounting what is being observed in nature.

    As I try to explore the concept of the second part of the existence, I don’t see it making sense. The sphere of clay can be used to represent a nearly infinite number of objects. But it will represent some better than others. I think that giving it a second type of existence contingent on that which it approximates doesn’t work since it can be said to approximate everything and anything as long as there is no criterion of accuracy.

    colewd: Is there another explanation?

    I just think that particular objects exist. Any title we apply to them is purely nominal. Anything that varies in characteristics will be different from the exemplar of a ‘form’ that we designate. And as I said earlier in the thread, in order to capture more than one particular object in a ‘kind’ we must start loosening criteria.

  33. RoyLT,

    I just think that particular objects exist. Any title we apply to them is purely nominal. Anything that varies in characteristics will be different from the exemplar of a ‘form’ that we designate. And as I said earlier in the thread, in order to capture more than one particular object in a ‘kind’ we must start loosening criteria.

    Yet any ‘existence’ at all depends on an observer and that observer making sense of what he is observing.

    I agree with you that we lose criteria but discussion of commonality is part of how we make sense of the world. i.e. Atoms are common to all matter.

  34. colewd: Yet any ‘existence’ at all depends on an observer and that observer making sense of what he is observing.

    I consider myself somewhat of an empiricist and even I wouldn’t claim that the existence of an entity depends on it being observed and comprehended.

    I don’t believe the contents of my apartment go out of existence when I’m not home, or turn my back on them.

  35. Rumraket,

    I don’t believe the contents of my apartment go out of existence when I’m not home, or turn my back on them.

    You make a good point, however their ‘existence’ is based on our brain processing observation through our senses. As such I think it is fair game for our brain to try to make sense of the observation. Otherwise science is impossible.

  36. The business of existence requiring an observer would imply that nothing existed prior to sentient life.

  37. colewd: You don’t think that it is possible to define approximation in an unambiguous way?

    Not in a way that does what you want.

    I can define “approximation” in ways that allow a cat to be better approximation of a small dog, than is a great dane.

  38. Neil Rickert: I agree with that.

    You’re not a physicist. Aren’t you just a lowly mathematician? Can you imagine treating mathematics like you treat the rest of reality?

  39. Neil Rickert: RoyLT: I think that I would argue that there aren’t any natural “joints” …

    I agree with that.

    It made sense to me when I wrote it, but @Mung’s question about electrons (and hence other subatomic particles) raises a really interesting point. How to handle a ‘kind’ if all of the members of the set are indistinguishable. I suspect that it doesn’t work well as a kind since there is no way to tell if there are many identical electrons or just a single electron that we keep seeing over and over.

    But that does look an awful lot like a natural ‘joint’ between various subatomic particles. I’m still trying to work through how that shakes out. What are your thoughts?

  40. RoyLT: …there is no way to tell if there are many identical electrons or just a single electron that we keep seeing over and over.

    🙂

    Obviously, the latter is the more parsimonious of the two.

  41. RoyLT: Can you clarify what your criticism is?I’m not sure what I’m missing?

    I’ve given it three or four times already, and dazz has repeated it as well. You should go back and reread those posts.

  42. KantianNaturalist,

    ID proponents always begin with secular remainders of their religious beliefs, and then work to create the illusion that their beliefs are not religious, but instead are conclusions obtained by reason and/or science. They rarely reveal their motives. I won’t criticize you for taking what Egnor says at face value, and addressing the incoherence of it. But I will emphasize that he is an overt activist in a sociopolitical movement, and that detaching his remarks from the known agenda of that movement is a radical simplification.

    With apologies for not following through, I’m going to toss out a few points.

    1. There’s an elephantine essence in the room, intelligence.

    2. In science, vitalism tends to come with essentialism. Many people, myself included, have observed that ID reeks of vitalism. ID begins by exploiting our intuition that we have the capabilities we do because we literally have intelligence, an unobservable essence. This is closely analogous to saying that living things live because they have life.

    3. ID regards intelligence as a cause. ID proponents commonly express their approval of Aristotle/Aquinas, who regarded intelligence as active, but neglect to mention their rejection of Plato/Augustine, who regarded intelligence as passive. (There are stronger religio-philosophical commitments in ID than the “big tent” sociopolitical movement cares to admit.)

    4. There’s another elephantine essence in the room, design. ID began with Dawkins’s notion of the essence of things that appear designed to us, “statistically improbable in a direction specified not with hindsight” [quoting from memory], and tried to turn it into something objectively measurable — some kind or another of information. The ID notion that the appearance of design is in reality a “reliable marker of intelligent design” [quoting Dembski from memory] is still with us, even if Dembski is not. Douglas Axe pushed the notion of a “Universal Design Intuition” in his book Undeniable.

  43. Tom English: ID proponents always begin with secular remainders of their religious beliefs

    If I can prove this first premise is wrong, then is everything after that also wrong?

  44. phoodoo: If I can prove this first premise is wrong, then is everything after that also wrong?

    Berlinski is proof only that there are people in this world who will do anything to advance the Republican cause, provided that the price is right. Relative to what I see him contributing to the ID movement, he is very well paid.

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