Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Substances and Properties

The intuitive view of the world is that there are substances and properties. Every property, e.g., redness, must be a property of a substance. The redness inheres in the substance of the red apple.

This simple observation leads us to enumerate properties and substances. Since assertions cannot be flightless, we might suppose that assertions are made of a different substance than are birds. We are also led to consider whether bare substances can exist, i.e., whether it makes sense to consider substances absent of any properties.

Needless to say, the whole subject soon gets rather complicated. There are many philosophers who doubt that bare substances make any sense at all. They ask whether an apple substance is an apple at all if it has no properties of an apple. For if it is not, there may be no substances at all. Apples may be just bundles of the properties that define them.

As a study of the way language and intuition work, this is all harmless fun. However, the ship of substance theory runs aground when it makes the leap from what we experience in our study of substances and properties to metaphysical claims about kinds of substances. For example, we know that there are properties that inhere in minds that do not inhere in rocks or in thermodynamic heat. Hence, the metaphysician is tempted to say that minds are made of metaphysically different stuff from rocks and heat.

One argument the metaphysician may employ for making this distinction is that rocks and heat are both detected with our five senses, while propositions are detected only mentally. In other words, it is suggested that we should cleave substances into different categories according to the kinds of experience of their properties.

The problem with this claim is that, a priori, "the five senses" are an arbitrary conglomeration. They are not a unified whole, but are a collection of independent senses. Why should our sense of touch be grouped with our sense of vision?

The best explanation for this grouping is history of correlation. We are accustomed to thinking that the donut we feel in the palm of our hand is not something other than the donut we see sitting in the palm of our hand. The correlation of these senses is strong, and prior to any philosophical consideration. The five senses are sewn into an integrated model by our brains when we are young, and that's why we group them so naturally. But we don't have rigorous philosophical grounds for making this grouping. In principle, the donut we feel in our hand may be something different from the donut we see with our eyes.

Of course, no one doubts that the two (or five) donuts are one and the same thing, or that a donut has properties of taste, shape, weight, smell and color. Yet, donuts are not elementary sensations. There is no donut sense independent of our five standard senses (sorry, Homer!). Donuts are correlations of all of their properties.

Hence, we are not justified in establishing metaphysical classes of substance on grounds of method of experience of their properties unless we're willing to create new classes for sight, hearing, taste, touch and the like. And since we generally regard it as sensible to think of donuts as things of a single substance, we can't consistently choose to create separate substances for each kind of property experience.

This means that mental objects such as logical contradictions, feelings, moral dilemmas and propositions should not be regarded as being made out of different stuff just because the properties of these mental objects do not directly involve the five senses. Nor, for that matter, is it reasonable to consider all mental objects to be of the same substance.

The clincher is the fact that mental sensations are strongly correlated with physical ones. This is seen in brain scans (e.g., fMRI) and in studies of patients with brain injuries. Today, almost every kind of mental sensation has been correlated with physical functions in the brain. If we are to resist reducing mind function to brain function, we should also resist reducing water to H2O.

As I said, it's not that we cannot analyze language and intuition in terms of categories, it's just that we are not justified in claiming that things cleave into metaphysical categories of being based on these intuitions.


Holopupenko said...

     Tell me, why is it that a penny can be made of copper and have a copper color, but “copperness” cannot be “pennied”? If, as you assert, there are no existents apart from what can be observed by the senses, and as such (as you again assert) that all existents are of the same kind of stuff (which is an equivocation of the kind of thing all existents are), then surely there should be no problem with interchanging “copperness” for “penniness.” They are, after all and according to you, the same kind of thing… aren’t they?
     You note that “mental sensations are strongly correlated with physical ones.” Surely you don’t promote the fallacy that correlation implies causation, i.e., that the physically-observable signals as displayed on a CRT screen are or cause the mental state… do you? Surely you don’t make the simply-minded equivocation that the mind is the brain?
     To be fair, you indicate you do have a difficulty with this… just as reducing water to H2O would be incorrect. Fair enough. Yet, you state this and assume it without justifying it. So, despite the fact that you’ve stated questions of “why?” are meaningless, you nonetheless must justify your assertions and claims. So, why do you claim one cannot make such reductions? IF (again, as you assert) all existents are of one kind (material) then surely such reductions are quite justifiable. Yet on the other hand, you have a difficulty because you (correctly) sense the water (not to mention the universal idea “water”) is not simply the same kind of thing as simply a certain combination of two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms. (Hint: maybe there’s some merit in the ontological First Principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, eh?) If you believe such reductions cannot be justified, the onus is on you to provide that justification.
     And, related to what was just raised, since, as a rough estimate, humans are composed of 10^28 atoms, do you imply (per this post) that humans areatoms (and their associated physical interactions)? If so, why?
     The statue of David standing at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence is composed materially of marble. Given your stated position in this post, what justifies you (or anyone) referring to the statue not as a statute but as simply a several ton block of marble? Better, why don’t you describe it as a several-ton block of protons, neutrons, and electrons? Better yet, why stop there? How to you describe the shape or form of the block of marble if you cannot (per your own limitations) define “shape” or “form” other than materially? Further, how do you describe, using only material categories, what caused this particular block of marble to come into existence? Finally, how do you describe (let alone explain) why (oh, there’s that pesky question again that won’t go away) this particular block of marble is there in the first place? If Michelangelo conceived and imagined the statue of David in his mind, then how (again, using your material-only categories) do you explain the idea of David as a goal to be transformed into marble? Does that imply a teleological component?
     Doesn’t it seem rather strange that if you a priori limit all descriptive categories to material beings and physical phenomena that you can claim to justify no metaphysical categories, when metaphysics studies beingness as such rather than simply properties and substances? Are you sure you understand what metaphysics is about before trying to trash it? Isn’t this a little like trying to trash astronomy because all you permit yourself is the tool of a microscope? Aren’t you doing metaphysics when you trash metaphysics… or do you claim that armed with the tools and methodologies of the modern empirical sciences alone you are able to justify your approach?
     I leave you with a repeat of the comment at the Thinking Christian ( which you appear to have chosen to ignore:
     You say: “It is chemistry and evolution that determine gastronomic taste. The same is true for morality.”
     Pure, unadulterated, unsupported equivocation: the kind of beingness of the biochemistry of gastronomic processes and morality are equivocated. The silliness of such an assertion defies the human capacity to reason, and exposes a deep ignorance of philosophical categories. (Please don’t make the repeated mistake of claiming that I’m claiming you make a univocal assertion. I’m not. What I do claim is you equivocate.) PROVE IT! Show us all that moral constructs or categories are the SAME KIND of being (as opposed to the univocal SAME being) as a biochemical gastronomic process. What test of modern empirical science will you employ to measure or observe a moral construct in the same kind of way you measure or observe a gastronomic process?

Doctor Logic said...

We're just not connecting again.

Correlation is what scientific reductionism is all about. Water does indeed reduce to the dynamics of H2O. A sufficiently detailed analysis of these molecules predicts the behavior of macroscopic water bodies.

Likewise, the microscopic, neurological details of brain function predict mental function, and we can cause mind functions by manipulating brains with chemistry and electricity.

As you say, correlation does not always imply causation, but if it never implied causation, then we would have no reason to believe in causation whatsoever. Hume rightly doubted the strength of the link from correlation to causation, but we couldn't get anywhere without assuming some regularity.

Your discussion of categories doesn't make sense to me because it's either obvious or completely wrong.

Let's take the statue of David as an example. The statue is marble, and it is quarks and leptons, and it is a carving, and it is a representation of a historical figure, etc. It fits all of these patterns of perception.

Although the statue is quarks and leptons, it is the particular arrangement and history of its quarks and leptons that give it its identity. For example, it is (among other things) the history of the interactions between the quarks and leptons in this statue and the quarks and leptons in Michelangelo that make it historically notable. It is the similarity between the arrangement of particles in the statue and the arrangement of particles in male humanoids that make it representational. Etc.

You see that none of this eliminates distinctness of phenomena, right? Phenomena of mind (e.g., ideas, propositions, goals) are distinct from brains, and Hydrogen and Oxygen are distinct from water molecules and water falls. If they weren't distinct, we wouldn't need separate names for them.

If I were to say that the mind is the brain (I don't usually put it that way), I would mean that the physics of the brain predicts mental state. Again, this doesn't mean that neural networks and love are indistinct things. They are as distinct as a rounded marble boulder at your house and a squarish marble boulder at my house.

I am discussing the significance of arbitrary classifications of things according to particular properties (e.g., spatial extent), and I'm saying that the significance of these things is limited to verifiable/falsifiable claims about relevant experiences of those properties. If there's no local test of your claim, then the claim is neither true nor false, but simply nonsensical.

You seem to be talking about something else (greedy reductionism maybe?).