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.
We don’t know that electrons are indistinguishable. We only know that we do not distinguish between them.
We don’t know if all electrons have the same charge, or if the charge is on something like a bell curve with very steep slopes.
We do know that electrons are indistinguishable and we do know that electrons have the same charge.
My apologies for not understanding what the hell walto is talking about.
But I know a “dog” when I see it.
Most of the time.
Which gets me by.
In casual speech, physicists often seem to say that the elements of successful models are elements of reality. But they are acutely aware that their models are models.
I’ve heard Steven Weinberg remark that we don’t know whether the fundamental physical constants are in fact constant. And I doubt that many physicists disagree with him on that point.
Tom, Neil was using the royal we.
Mung, claims about discreteness and continuity are, unlike claims that an unobservable essence is the cause of observable essences, falsifiable.
LoL. Thank you.
Ok, you showed how approximation can be ambiguous but how about approximating the hight of a small dog. The question was can it be defined without ambiguity.
How about Michael Denton? He is neither republican or religious. Do you think the theory of evolution supports liberal ideology?
Then what are they defined by? I still don’t see a third category. Either they relate to a transcendent ‘kind’, or they refer to a set of particular objects. I’m not trying to be argumentative. I’m simply trying to understand your stance so that I can possibly better inform my own.
But isn’t that what always happens when we encounter something new? We make a guess as to what category to place it in and then we adjust our understanding as we collect more data. Occasionally, the category will be expanded or narrowed as the taxonomic techniques change.
Once we get to the measurements of physics (such as height), we can indeed talk about approximation. But that does not help explain how humans decide what is a dog.
Yes, exactly. Physical models are useful idealizations. And the entities they describe (including electrons) are ideal entities that are known to work well in our theorization and prediction.
The usual empiricist/atomist conception is that the essence is an approximation or abstraction from the particulars. But it’s the opposite, the core around which all particulars revolve with varying degrees of perfection. So instead of there being an infinite number of approximations of objects, there is an infinite number of particular objects derivable from the essence. Insofar as it’s possible to tell which particular individual is closer to the essence and which individual further away (e.g. a four-legged dog is more normal/natural than three-legged or five-legged), the concept of essence is a metaphysical given.
Roy, a third possibility is that some defining characteristic that is not an “essence” is chosen or comes to be associated with a term because of common usage. A fourth possibility is that causal chains of word usages trace back to initial “baptisms” that determine what such words mean–whether users have that particular item in mind (or it captures any “essence”) or not. And there are, of course, various hybrid views. You might want to look at Gareth Evans’ book.
I don’t see how that salvages the utility of ‘essences’. From the top-down, any object can be an approximation of any other object. But from the bottom-up, all objects would be derivable from all other objects. I’m unclear how that is coherent.
And I would disagree that the concept of essence is a metaphysical given. Perhaps in 4th-century BC Athens, it was a given, but it appears to me to be a very live issue in contemporary philosophy.
I will put that on my reading list. I appreciate the reference and the clarification as well. I was too dense to pick your drift out of the earlier comments, but now I see what you are getting at.
I won’t argue further with you on this particular aspect of the point because I feel it is irrelevant to the discussion. I’m sure that both of those options (and more complex hybrids of them) are very plausible and certainly have happened. But I think it is pedantic to remain neutral on the central topic of ‘essences’ while attacking the word(s) that I am using for the examples. I’m handcuffed by the English language and any word that I use will have its own linguistic story with all of the associated baggage. I would hope that those interested in exchanging ideas and educating someone like myself new to Metaphysics would be charitable enough to give me a bit of breathing room on semantic details.
They come in handy in evolutionary arguments against design.
My neutrality isn’t a function of being pedantic: it’s a result of simply not knowing. Most questions of fundamental philosophy are too hard for me–in spite of having studied a number of them for about 40 years now. Remember, these have daunted lots of smart people for thousands of years.
I’m not sure why people think they need to take positions on stuff like this. I mean there are so many books and papers on it by brilliant writers that I haven’t read–and so much that I HAVE read that I haven’t fully grasped.. Why should I know whether there are natural kinds? OTOH, If you want to be anti-essentialist, I have no objection. I just note that there’s a lot neither of us knows about the subject.
Sites like this are full of half-baked opinions on every conceivable subject (but believe me, I’ve got plenty of those of my own too).
Egnor’s frequent references to Aquinas seem to be motivated by his deep belief in the eternal soul, which he often writes about and seem to have life experiences to prove its existence,
such as experiences of people with near death experiences, or eyewitness testimonials of hospital employees witnessing “the soul leaving the human body” of a patient at death, etc…
It’s seems that Egnor, just like the great majority of believers, including myself, has a very hard time accepting that life ends at death…However, as a scientist he should follow the argument wherever it leads, rather than try to support preconceived ideas…After all, that’s exactly what he expects materialists to do also…
Since Thomas Aquinas’ beliefs had been influenced by Aristotelianism, and by the same token the beliefs of the Catholic Church, it is almost inconceivable that the belief in the immortality of soul has remained until today, though the views of the eternal punishment in hell, purgatory and limbo seem to be gradually fading from the doctrines of Christendom…
Of course life ends at death!!!
It depends on how one views death…If one views consciousness as quantum information that survives death of the human body, then there exists a possibility that quantum consciousness doesn’t end at death… (I have my doubts about this possibility as constituting a state of awareness)
Human body can be alive without being conscious… Does this state of human body constitute living without being conscious or being aware?
Preaching to the choir:-)
@Alan Fox and I had a discussion of this sort on another thread about the ‘Problem of Evil’. While I don’t flatter myself that I have any new insight into these topics, I enjoy mixing ideas with people of differing beliefs and experience. It is impossible to read everything on every topic. I like to get reading references (nod to you) and to pick up the relevant terms to focus my research from others on this site who have already studied the topics.
I think that people have the right to take or to not take a position on the topics.
My opinions are fully baked. And I don’t mean that in the pot-smoking sense.
Burnt to a crisp?
And fragile as a taco shell.
Of course they have the RIGHT! I just question the prudence. (And marvel a little at the arrogance.)
But what with keiths missing we’re losing our standard for judging.
Theoretically, yes. In practice, you know a dog whenever you see it, be it whatever color or shape never seen before.
Of course you would, but it’s not a matter of agreement or disagreement. It’s a matter of having the working concepts to analyze reality. Those who don’t have them have no say over those who have them.
How do you decide who has them? By being one who has them?
This is a worldview you believe in?
Those who have them can state them. Those who don’t have them, they say things like “we don’t know” meaning no human can know better and it’s foolishness to even try.
As I said, there’s an incredible amount of arrogance to be found on this site. I guess, though, that it’s kind of encouraging to see that even people whose “arguments” are refuted almost daily can bounce back up and pontificate another day.
Against the necessity of an unknown intelligent something doing something somehow to be more precise.
The existence of ‘essences’ would seem to be stronger claim than ‘working concepts’. The idea of ‘dog’ as a general grouping of like objects is not controversial. However, the idea of my neighbor’s German Shepherd being an instantiation of a pre-existing essence has a bit more philosophical baggage.
Don’t be too hard on Rumraket-English is not his first language.
In general, yes. But that is because the list of particular objects which I would nominally group under ‘dog’ is similar enough to your list for everyday usage. However, what are the odds that my list of particular objects lines up exactly with yours and every other person’s? I’m betting that the odds are very low. And when members of our respective sets differ, who is right? Do you include dingos, coyotes, jackals, and wolves in your list of members of ‘dog’? The decision seems entirely arbitrary to me.
A question for you. Do you think it is arrogant or imprudent to vote in government elections without having a thorough knowledge of Macroeconomics, Geopolitics, and Constitutional Law?
I suspect that each of us has to take positions on topics where we are uninformed to various degrees each day. Would you agree or disagree with that assertion?
Agree. Sometimes we need to. Other times we’re just….well….
Whatever it is, it is that by virtue of its essence. Try to deny its essence (i.e. deny that it’s such-and-such) and you might just as well deny its existence, because the two are inseparable. If you have trouble with the concept “essence”, try “nature”. Works just as well.
Sometimes we need to speak up, even though we are ignorant? That makes us arrogant, doesn’t it?
We call it “virtue signaling.”
But that is a bald assertion. I am in no way trying to deny that there a group of particular objects which we would both identify as ‘dog’. However, it appears to me to be purely a linguistic convention.
Is a Malamute Husky of the same essence as a Chihuahua?
Guess that depends what people mean by “essence”. I imagine one could use DNA profiling as a way of deciding what is a dog (species) and what examples fit in the category, though the ability to breed and produce viable offspring has generally been a satisfactory guide.
Categorisation is a human construct, but seems quite useful, notwithstanding.
I agree and several others have made that point on this thread. The nominal category does not need to be derived from some essence to be useful in terms of communication.
Species is one way. But occasionally, different species within the same Genus can viably mate. Canis Lupus and Canis Latrans are one such example in the Canines. But wherever we choose to draw the distinction seems largely arbitrary, unless we draw at the individual.
Wow, I genuinely owe you an apology, Walto. I was just re-reading some of these posts and I have no idea how I misread the context of your earlier statements so badly. While I disagree with you on some of the details, there isn’t any excuse for how thick-headed I was on a few of these responses. I admire your patience:-)
Indeed. I apologise for having just enough time, earlier, to read, but not acknowledge, points others have made. I think Dazz was the first to point it out.
Well, as I said, it all depends what people mean by “essence”. Perhaps others find some utility in “essence”. And, indeed, communication is the “essence” for me. If a word is useful in communication, let’s keep it!
Pretty sure C. lupus and C. familiaris will hybridise where niches overlap.
Arbitrary but still useful. Just a question of scale when mapping the territory. 🙂
This may be a little off-topic but it may be of interest to the thread author. Was recently directed to look at a book by Iain McGilchrist which I’m now in the middle of reading and noticed McGilchrist is a fan of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.
Actually it was walto, but I missed that too
This is where my confusion lies. It does appear to me to be a purely extensional definition (if I’m using the term correctly). I don’t see how an intensional definition for ‘dog’ would be specified broadly enough to capture all dog breeds.
That was specifically why I mentioned Malamutes in an earlier post. They would appear to be recent hybrids. And that is the main reason that I think the term ‘dog’ (and any other such title) can not be intensional. Whether you delineate at a breed level or at a species level, the boundary is dynamic and arbitrary.
While that is a bit of an exaggeration, I’m pretty sure that it is exactly what happens. Acceptable conformations of breed characteristics (at least as far as the AKC goes) are changed quite frequently. New individuals falling well inside the accepted range of specific characteristics will have no effect on the meaning of that breed’s description. However, when an individual in a specific breed falls outside of the normal range on a given characteristic, either it has to be designated as a new breed or the breed’s description has to be expanded.
Likewise at the species level. When C. lupus and C. familiaris hybridize, is the hybrid a ‘dog’ or a ‘wolf’? What about when that hybrid mates with one or the other? Eventually it leads to a continuum which can only be demarcated arbitrarily.
My apologies if I’m totally off the rails here, but I’m having difficulty in seeing how any designations of this type can be intensional.
That seems to me sort of irrelevant to the point that, if “dog” is defined as the set of all dogs, any change in the set must involve a change in the concept
It also seems completely useless, even circular. It’s like trying to define “odd number” as “any member of the set of all odd numbers”.
I think that odd/even is a poor analogy since it is binary and discreet. If you can come up with a different analogy, I’m all ears. ‘Dog’ has seemed to work so far. How would you personally define ‘dog’ intensionally?