In his review of the book “Why Does the World Exist” (“The Really Big Question”, TPM, October 2012), Massimo Pigliucci states that he was hoping the author Jim Holt had explored James Ladyman and Don Ross’s “suggestion that there is no ‘ultimate’ stuff of which the universe is made, that ‘at bottom’ it’s all about relations (don’t ask ‘Relations between what?’ because you’d be missing the point)”.

However, I think asking ‘Relations between what?’ is precisely the point, precisely the question, to pose to anyone who suggests or posits that at bottom it’s all about relations with regard to the makeup of the universe.  Why wouldn’t that be asked?  To assert that such a question is missing the point is an invalid attempt to cut off at the knees a challenge to the stance of ontic structural realism (OSR) for which Ladyman and Ross are advocates.

A key tenet of OSR is that objects do not really exist, only structures.  What the OSRists mean by structure is not exactly clear.  If OSRists do grant in some way the existence of objects, they give ontological primacy to the position or roles objects  occupy in a structure over the nature of objects themselves.  But again there are some forms of OSR that deny the existence of objects whatsoever.  There is only structure in this view.  What stands in to be structure, or what is being structured is unclear in the arguments of many hewing to OSR.  So the question of “relations between what” is clearly relevant and should be addressed by the OSRists.

For an excellent exploration of that question and others relating to OSR, I recommend “Do Objects Depend on Structure” by Johanna Wolf (British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, September 2012).  Wolf demonstrates how at most a weak form of OSR is plausible in quantum mechanics.  Weak meaning objects are required in the ontology however structure goes a long way toward defining the objects.

-Tanner Phillips  @philosophyofsci


Reduction is not possible without emergence and vice versa if you’re talking about the kind of reduction that David Nagel elaborates.  Nagel’s work is the touchstone of reduction theory.  Based upon his work, if you’re reducing  you’re moving from some level or domain B and realizing it in the operation of some other level, or domain A. Level B emerges on the basis of the operation of level A. Level B supervenes on level A. There are laws, entities or principles specific to each level. What is specific to level B emerges from A. Rosenberg and others claim that evolution involves some kind of level B supervenience where level B has no laws, entities or principles that are distinct from those of level A. That kind of supervenience doesn’t seem to exist in reality. We all should recognize that by their very nature reduction and emgergence are opposite sides of the same coin. You can not have one without the other.

-Tanner Phillips @philosophyofsci

Context, such as the community you live in, or the school you attend, or the family you’re a member of, in some ways defines you as a person and in some ways determines what you do as a person.

Every thing – object, structure, process, or event – is associated with one, or more contexts that define, frame, and determine it.  Context also sets the constraints and parameters for a things motion and development.  Since a thing may belong to multiple contexts it is defined, framed, determined, constrained and its parameters are set separately within each of those contexts.  A single thing may exist in a different way for each of its different contexts.  Further many things exist in contradictory ways even withing the same context.

Things have no meaning without being considered as a part, within, or seen from the perspective of one or another context.  Fortunately things don’t just exist in time in space, we always view and set them in one context or another. We shouldn’t place things arbitrarily in a context.  Things should be placed in one more context in a way that helps to achieve our ends for using the thing.  Those ends may be technical, physical scientific, social scientific, ethical or even aesthetic.

Context sets the terms and vocabulary used to refer to a thing and things tied together as a state of affairs.  Context sets what questions or issues are relevant when considering a thing or state of affairs.

A context has various dimensions and they all affect how we understand the history, motion, development and future of some particular thing.  Bertell Ollman in the book “Dance of the Dialectic” identifies 3 concepts to apply when performing abstraction.  Abstraction is a common, but all important analytical method of ignoring the details of a state of affairs to focus on its essential points.  The 3 concepts are 1) extension (what’s included in what’s being thought about), 2) level of generality (how abstract or detailed the analysis should be) and 3) vantage point (the angle from which the analysis is being carried out).  When Ollman mentions context it is secondary to abstraction, but I think he has reversed the proper order.

While I agree with Ollman that the 3 concepts should be applied to abstraction, I think that in the analysis of a thing, the concepts should first be applied to defining one or more contexts for the thing and then secondarily based upon that, we should apply the 3 concepts to how we abstract the thing.  After you decide why you are going to analyze something, you should first apply the 3 concepts to specify what context you will use in further analysis of the thing.  After these are done, proper abstraction that focuses on what is really essential to the initial interest and its actual context is possible.

Extension, level of generality and vantage point are always applied together, but they are 3 different dimensions in the process of both determining context and then how it will be abstracted.

~ Tanner Phillips @philosophyofsci

Whether and to what extent logic and mathematics are sciences is currently a hot topic of discussion in philosophy.  Much of this discussion has to do with the debate over whether or not science can provide methods and insights for studying and understanding all areas of human endeavor.  (As an often overlooked corollary this includes guiding change in those areas using scientific tools and methods.)  Those who deny that science can provide methods and insights in all areas raise logic and mathematics as exemplar areas in which science fails.

What makes logic and mathematics subject to the use of scientific methods is the fact that they are areas of human endeavor, or practice.  Science may be applied to these areas because they arise out of the material and contain material aspects.  The material is matter.  Matter is that which exists in time and space.  Matter can be reflected in thought, but exists outside of thought and in that sense matter exists objectively.  The word objectively is not being used here in the sense of something that can be understood outside of a context, but rather that regardless of the meaning an object of matter may have in a given context it does exist in time and space, it exist objectively.  Activity or endeavor is a material thing because it involves material objects and processes.  When you are carrying out an activity or endeavor you are activating or intervening on material objects.  Even thought is material in that it takes place in a material vessel, the brain, as the physical basis of the mind.  (The mind being a product of the brain in interaction with its environment and recursively with itself.)

Science studies objects, structures and processes in time and space.  Science attempts to verify the hypothesis generated from its studies in order to be able to label the results of that study as knowledge.  Often we can then use that knowledge to change the world.  Potentially all things in time and space are able to be analyzed, understood and changed via science.  “Potentially” because for instance as with string theory, if strings exist then our present tools do not allow us to see them.  Logic and mathematics as pursuits first arose out of the activity of humans changing the world that exists in time and space.  The material processes from which they arose and many of the processes we know they affect are not beyond the reach of our tools and thus we can apply science to and within logic and mathematics.

Many of the truths of mathematics are “a priori” (they exist prior to human practice, or experience).  This fact does not put mathematics outside of science.  Mathematics of the “a priori” more often than not is an abstract reflection of how matter interacts with itself.  And just as physical science studies the truth of particles that existed before humans, so science can be applied to mathematics that exist prior to humans insofar as the mathematics is an abstract reflection of the way the material interacts.  Given this nature of mathematics it should be no surprise that mathematicians who often use axioms based upon the material in a fundamental sense, find that discoveries once thought to have no material counterpart are later found to have a connection with some area of the sciences, technology or the social sciences.

Other truths in mathematics are deemed analytic (true by definition of the terms used) like 2 + 2 = 4.  In this case isn’t it material experience that has taught us what 2 things are and that adding 2 things makes 4 of them?  Still other mathematical truths are so because they are based upon systems of self-enclosed axioms.  However, where mathematics meets life outside of mathematics, and that is many, many places, the truth of its statements can and must be contextually verified in human practice.  Study of the material in human practice and verification of relevant hypothesis is the core of scientific method.

The same arguments made about mathematics apply to logic, whose axioms in many of it branches often begins with observations about the way things relate to one another in the material world of human practice outside of logic per se.

-Tanner Phillips, @philosophyofsci

Below are some of my thoughts on reductionism and emergentism in response to the column “Reality Is Flat. (Or Is It?)”  by Richard Polk in The Stone philosophy forum of August 16, 2012 in the New York Times.  Here’s the link to the column:

As Polk points out there are indeed philosophers and scientists who hold what some call “flat reductionist” views of ontology that adopt a simple, animal level view of human morality and social affairs.  And many flat reductionists are “radical nihilists”, which in essence is a sociopathic or psychopathic set of ideas.  Flat reductionists in general are unaware or wrongly deny that much of ethics arise from the operation and needs of society, such as class based morality. Some are also are blind to general human morality that transcends classes and that exist along both the physical and social dimensions.

However Polk seems to be unaware of David Nagel’s view of reductionism which most accept as the predominant view of reductionism today in the philosophy of science.  This view accepts the higher level level laws of “emergentism”, but also lays out how higher level affairs can be reduced to (spring from) the lower level phenomena of physics.

Polk also fails to realize that there are aspects of ethics that do in fact derive from our physical being.  He apparently does not understand that much of our psychology and social affairs are in in fact due to the effect of material causes.  Both physical and social material impact our psychology and social affairs.  A society’s mode of production is one such decisive material force, or causal factor on human psychology and other social affairs.  Not that we are limited to the determinism of the mode of production, but it unquestionably has a powerful and in some cases decisive effect on human psychology and other social affairs.

-Tanner Phillips, @philosophyofsci

Recently, the philosophy book, “Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized” by Ladyman et al has been released.  From the product description: “Every Thing Must Go argues that the only kind of metaphysics that can contribute to objective knowledge is one based specifically on contemporary science as it really is, and not on philosophers’ a priori intuitions, common sense, or simplifications of science. In addition to showing how recent metaphysics has drifted away from connection with all other serious scholarly inquiry as a result of not heeding this restriction, they demonstrate how to build a metaphysics compatible with current fundamental physics (“ontic structural realism”), which, when combined with their metaphysics of the special sciences (“rainforest realism”), can be used to unify physics with the other sciences without reducing these sciences to physics in itself. Taking science metaphysically seriously, Ladyman and Ross argue, means that metaphysicians must abandon the picture of the world as composed of self-subsistent individual objects, and the paradigm of causation as the collision of such objects.”

In the Customer Review section for the book at Amazon, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci posted his own. The first chapter of the book is titled “In defense of scientism” and Pigliucci says that scientism that has an over reliance on science “pisses” him off.  This kind of scientism Pigliucci says stands for a form of reductionism that he dislikes and he notes that this bad scientism is espoused by among others Alex Rosenberg and Harris et al.  However Pigliucci make the point that in spite of the chapter’s name the book makes makes a good argument against this kind of scientism.  Also in the review, Pigliucci argues that “fundamental determinism” does not exist because there is no “fundamental causality”. He says that “cause” is only a conceptual tool used in the special sciences and has no basis in “fundamental physics”.  Following are my thoughts on Pigliucci’s review, which I also posted as comments to the  review on Amazon.

I’m with Dr. Pigliucci all the way in disagreeing with Alex Rosenberg’s and others ethical nihilism and their brand of mechanical reductionism.  To think as Rosenberg does that because humans arise from Darwinian adaptation driven by random mutation that therefore morality and ethics have no valid basis is a serious error.  It should be clear that the same biological forces that drive human social cooperation are what underlie and necessitate morality and ethics. Rosenberg promotes Daniel Dennett’s concept that the theory of evolution is in Dennett’s term the “universal solvent”.  In doing so Rosenberg focuses on the animal, dissolving and destructive side of evolution and ignores, or denigrates the emergent, higher level, and humanly moral and creative outcome of evolution.

While agreeing with him about bad scientism, I disgaree with Pigliucci’s claim that causality is purely conceptual and therefore not an objectively real phenomena. I note that the theory of relativity which describes the fundamental physics of the macro world undeniably rests upon objectively real causality in the thinking of most physicists. And from what I understand, Einstein thought likewise.  Quantum mechanics (QM) while certainly stochastic also has deterministic aspects. QM’s stochastic features reside inside a determinism and vice versa.  For example a photon may just appear and take possible stochastic paths, but it’s also possible that no photon takes flight from a certain location.  The determinism and causality in this instance is that fact that a path can only be taken if a photon appears and takes flight. And finally QM does have determinist “laws”.  A number of deterministic yet stochastic laws of QM have been discovered and elaborated.  This was done by such notable physicists as Max Planck, Erwin Schrodinger, Louis de Broglie, David Bohm, John Bell and Alain Aspect.

Science is mainly about methodology and the core of the methodology is to require contextual verification of knowledge in the act of practice in reality (knowledge verified materially).  Scientism concurs with this and posits science as the primary path to knowledge.  Accepting science as the primary path to knowledge is also naturalism.  Naturalism also sees philosophy as a science.  The arts – visual, graphical, dance, music, etc – appeal first to the aesthetic, or to emotions and can confer knowledge of outer and inner reality.  However for that knowledge to be accepted as truth it must in some way be verified materially and that means verified via the methods of science.  Many of the truths of mathematics are based upon systems of self-enclosed axioms.  Still, where mathematics meets life outside of mathematics, the truth of its statements must be contextually verified in practice. I.e. via the scientific method.  The same applies to logic, which often begins its study with observations about the way things relate to one another outside of logic.

~Tanner Phillips, @philosophyofsci