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thoughts on ontology

This thread I started on real_philosophy called Matter over Mind summarizes my two best arguments for materialism (the idea that reality is fundamentally rooted in matter and energy rather than rooted in the mind). Some of the comments someone made got me thinking about internal and external worlds (inside your head versus out there in the "real world") which inspired me to have some new insights on how to properly define the word "exists" (probably the key philosophical issue I've been actively pursuing this past year, although usually with more focus on mathematics):

(From my private "scratch" idea-journal:)

I had an insight about internal versus external worlds and ontology. I've got a new definition now for the word "exists" and I like saying it this way--for some reason I think it adds a bit to my understanding of what's going on when we say "exists". Instead of thinking of it in terms of a single world, maybe it should be defined in terms of a connection between internal and external worlds. We do not live directly in the external world, we live in our internal world, and this is the world we are conscious of... our world of concepts. To say something exists, we must name it. But you cannot name objects in the external world (and it may not even divide cleanly into objects!). On the other hand, the internal world isn't real at all, (it's like the virtual image inside of a dirty mirror) so it makes no sense to talk about those things existing in the first place. The solution? To say something "exists" is to say that there is something in the external world which corresponds to the thing you are naming in the internal world. Exists is a statement about a connection between the two worlds, not a statement about one or the other by itself. To claim existence is to claim a structural isomorphism between your concept and some (unseen) thing in reality. Hence, if you imagine a unicorn, that concept sits in your internal world. But it does not exist specifically because it does not stand in 1-1 relation with anything in the external world.

The only other question is how can we ever make such bold claims if we can't even ever see the outer world? I am very convinced that we are justified in making such claims, but it's a bit difficult to explain why. There's a whole model of reality you have to assume in order to feel confident in making such ontological claims. But I think that model is justified. The model consists of many axioms, the first of which is that there is an external world. Another is that our internal world is generated for the most part from this external world (with various distortions which we need to watch out for, but which are systematic and can to some extent be studied, analyzed, and minimized). And lastly, that even after taking into consideration all these unknown distortions and noise factors, our internal world stands in reasonablely good approximation (at least structurally, which is what is relevant) to the external world. All of these axioms I find natural to adopt for various reasons. Mostly, because if any of them are modified you get nonesense results that just don't fit with experience. There doesn't seem to be any other way to explain the consistancy of the patterns we witness every day.

Oh yeah, and on an unrelated note... there was another successfully off the chain party at Adrienne & moonaysl's place last night. We estimated over 150 people were there throughout the night; I knew, or at least recognized, about a third of them, I'd say... which was a lot. Santa Cruz is such a small town, it's really starting to be difficult to go anywhere now where I don't run into people I know.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 14th, 2004 07:31 pm (UTC)
Materialism, eh? I'll get into this a bit more later, but I'm actually a bit of a wildcard when it comes to this topic: while Cartesian dualism is dumb, more modern formulations (Chalmers' naturalistic dualism, for example), are much harder to shoot down, and could lead to verifiable predictions, to boot.
Aug. 14th, 2004 09:25 pm (UTC)
I agree with Chalmers that there is a "hard problem" of consciousness to be dealt with. But I do suspect that it can be dealt with, without resorting to idealism or dualism.

I'm not a hard-nosed closed-minded materialist, but I do see it as the most likely scenario. And as some people in the thread have pointed out, my arguments for it aren't at all air-tight. But I think they could be strengthened if I worked on them. They're motivation enough for me to hold it as a tentative opinion.

Oh, and I don't know anything about his naturalistic dualism... but I'm interested, so if you have any suggested reading that could expose me to it that would be good.
Aug. 15th, 2004 04:48 pm (UTC)
I'm not a hard-nosed closed-minded materialist.

I am such a beast, or at least I'm with Dennett in believing that 'zombies' (putative beings that behave indistinguishably from humans but lack consciousness) are obviously impossible, and the debates that still go on about them are an embarrassment to philosophy. If that makes me closed minded, then so be it.

I don't believe in pixies either :-)

You should read Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" if you haven't already.
Aug. 16th, 2004 12:08 pm (UTC)
hmm, I've heard of that. Got too much on my reading list now, though.
Aug. 15th, 2004 09:43 pm (UTC)
comment lite
Thanks for posting! I'm enjoying delving into the thread.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


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