How Should I Be A Sceptic -- particular problems with generaleism

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

What is a 'generality'?

The answer to this question can be horribly complicated; but I think the basic answer (upon which all other more advanced answers must be based) is that a generality is a description: it is about something, as distinct from being something. It is like a reflection in our minds of a pattern of what has happened, or can happen, or will happen. The pattern does not exist as a particular entity; it is about entities.

[Footnote: Or, to be more specific, the pattern of 'aboutness' does not itself need to be the entity being described by the 'aboutness'. Obviously, there will be a few exceptions, such as when we think about thinking: yet the principle must still hold. Not everything I say with my tongue is 'about' my tongue, or about tongues; but I could also say something about tongues with my tongue. This would not obliterate the distinction between a description and an existent entity.]

This can be hard to understand, but try thinking of it this way: the word 'pink' is an adjective, a word that describes a property (hypothetical or actual) of the behavior of particular objects. 'Pink' is not a photon; 'pink' is not even (in the rigorous sense) a photon vibrating at a certain frequency. It is our way of describing that photon's vibratory state--its behavior or characteristic. Given such-and-such preconditions (which need not necessarily ever come to pass) any photon may be accurately described as 'pink'. 'Pink' implies that these conditions have (whether by hypothesis or in actuality) been met: that the photon has conformed to such-and-such a pattern.

Perhaps you may understand the 'abstractness' of such events if you consider that I can represent the event to you in an imaginary manner by asking you to think of a pink turtle, without a real pink turtle (per se) already existing or popping into existence. It is a placeholder; it describes what will happen given certain preconditions.

The 'laws of Nature' are a special sort of generality that describes what particles of energy or matter shall do in certain circumstances. The principles of 'double-entry accounting' are another commonly used set of generalities. [Footnote: We call these regular behaviors 'laws' as a convenient shorthand metaphor, because the particles seem to 'obey'. Such an expression does not necessarily indicate the existence of, or even a belief in, a Chief Executive.]

The practical definitions of 'general' and 'real' repel and self-attest one another. The 'general', is the pattern a given 'real' thing may correspond to. The 'real', is that which falls into (and/or creates) 'general' patterns: you could say the 'real' is that which can be described. I do not mean that everything which can be described is necessarily real, or even potentially real. I only mean, that in order to discuss 'real' entities, we must use 'abstract' descriptions: the descriptions are not the thing itself.

The descriptions do not equal what actually happens; they communicate or record what actually happens. The two categories--'happening' and 'description of happening'--are distinctive, and we recognize one by in effect denying it is the other.

Maybe I can help make this clearer by borrowing an old example from Lewis. The 'laws' of accounting do not themselves accomplish anything; they describe what will happen if you put money into the system. You can do 'accounting' until doomsday without generating a cent; in fact, if you are learning to be a professional accountant, your instructors will require you to work hypothetical accounting exercises to ensure you know what you are doing before someone entrusts 'real' money to you.

Similarly, the 'laws of aerodynamics' are abstract; you can do calculations all day and nothing especially 'aerodynamic' will happen. But they describe what real airplanes will do in given situations; and before anyone entrusts you with the real thing, they will require you to be familiar with the generalities.

This is how I find the interaction between the 'real' and the 'abstract' playing out in the world around me; and it doesn't take much effort for me to derive some principles from this.

When I turn to questions about God, and I am told by a generaleist (for whatever reason he may give) that God must be an abstract entity or a generality, then to me this is the same as saying that God does not really exist. God (under this plan) is the way something real would behave if it could be induced (or if it could induce itself) to do so. God would only be a potentiality, and not an actual. Perhaps this is true, but then let us stop talking of God really existing, and admit atheism. However, I don't think we are quite in that strait just yet.

Nature (after we have bothered to 'pick at it' for a while) seems pretty clearly to be a set of 'real' things going through 'events' according to 'generalities'; all of which we may perhaps discover. (Or, if we cannot discover a particular fact, we should be able to discover why we cannot do so and thus learn something else true and useful about the entity in question.) I think virtually any atheist today will agree with me on this; so would a pantheist of a certain sort (what I call positive pantheism). Either of these people would claim, and understand, that the thing from which everything else derives, is the most real, concrete, and (in its own way) minutely articulated thing in existence.

Actually, I think the most rigorous of either type of philosopher (positive pantheist or atheist, insofar as either of them accepts philosophical naturalism) would say that strictly speaking there is no 'thing' upon which 'everything else' is based; but that the whole reality must be considered as itself, with all evident entities equally interdependent upon every other entity. The system is what it is, and there is an end to it. But they would agree the system is real and 'concrete' (as opposed to being an 'abstraction') and if we considered the system as a whole it would, of course, have ultimate complexity.

These people would therefore be in agreement with me, that the abstract neither can nor does produce the real; at least, I think if they considered the base-bottom of their beliefs they should agree with me: the atheist (naturalistic or otherwise), the supernaturalistic theist, and a certain variety of pantheist (i.e. a certain variety of naturalistic theist) stand together on this. [Footnote: even so, it is very easy for people who agree the abstract does not produce the real, to slide by accident into proposing that abstractions are producing realities.]

But some generaleists also would agree with me (and the atheist and the positive pantheist), in principle, that the abstract cannot be the foundation or producer of the concrete. Therefore, those generaleists would conclude there can be nothing real or 'concrete'--everything, including us, must be abstract as opposed to real. [Footnote: I have in mind the basic principles of some types of 'illusionary' pantheisms, but any generaleist might try this tactic.]

This position has the neat advantage of being as unassailable as its adherent wishes: in the last resort he can always deny that his opponent really exists!

But I have a similar problem with this as I had with some earlier positions: if it was true, the adherent could not have discovered it because he himself does not really exist, either.

This is one of those places where a self-reflexive test really hits home. The extreme generaleist might reply that of course 'he' does not exist; 'he' is under an illusion that 'he' exists, and in fact 'he' should escape from this illusion.

I am certainly strongly in favor of escaping from illusion as a practical goal (including as an ethical obligation), but I think this only puts the problem back another stage: the belief of this generaleist that he must be an illusion, must itself (under this extreme position) also be an illusion. To me, this says pretty clearly that a mistake has been made somewhere!

And, to where are we supposed to be 'escaping'? Is it not also a generality, a pattern without content? Then the escape is to nowhere: meaning either annihilation or that the escape does not in fact happen.

Again, some generaleists would agree with this as well. No matter, they would say: we deserve to be annihilated! Even if I granted this, these same people will also tell me that morality is relative and all things are equally good and evil (and equally illusory); so it would be useless to say that I 'deserve' annihilation. I am quite certain, in any case, that I cannot profit by annihilation; in what sense can 'I' be said to be profiting if 'I' cease to exist? 'I' must still exist for it to be 'better for me'; but the extreme generaleist will deny this existence as well.

Some of them would say I am to be absorbed into the Absolute (and that I may call this 'God' if I wish). But the Absolute must then be actual; for if it is a phantasmal generality, then what exists for me to be absorbed into?

And the whole notion avoids the question of how it is even possible to recognize the concept of an 'illusion', without some frame of reference to compare it to an 'actual'.

In the end, the generaleist's position, no matter what philosophical flavor he takes or how far he goes, leads to massive internal contradictions; and I have already rendered my opinions about that.

No doubt, there are many intricate edifices built on this type of foundation. But if the foundation requires constant underpropping from contradictions (or 'worse', underproppings from theism--or 'worst', if the foundations are ultimately as illusory as everything else!) then I think I am safe in concluding that whatever reality is, it must not be like that.

At the very worst, short of a flat 'faith-not-reason' assertion to the contrary (let my allies note that heresy strikes again from this quarter), all appearances tell me that actual things exist. Therefore, I might as well stay with the gameplan and try to figure out particular characteristics about an actual reality, including foundational reality (or realities). A generaleist may assert that I should free myself from such an illusion; but then he proceeds to undercut any methods by which I could do so, other than by sheer denial. It seems to me that a person in sheer denial of the possibility of reality (including his own reality) is a person building (or already in) a hell; and this will be especially true if reality meanwhile keeps whacking him on the head.

And--what if reality never stops doing this?

So, I think the best plan is for me to continue with an attempt to discover particular things about basic reality: the Final Fact (or Independent Fact, or Interdependent Fact perhaps--either way you may call it an 'IF') that is the, or a, bedrock of our existence. I will either assume that particular facts are discoverable about It; or... well, there is no 'or', because (as I argued several chapters ago) everyone presumes that something distinctive can be discovered about It--or else they say nothing to the purpose and cut themselves off not only from an effective ability to convince (and help?) other people, but also from their own conscious attributes.

This leads me to the option 'b' group whom I noted several pages back: the people who would agree, "Yes, whatever the IF is (and many of us agree we can call it God), it has an infinite number of particular characteristics--but this means everything anyone can say about It must be true, so there isn't really much point for you to continue!"

This 'b' position is also linked topically to the question of infinite regression: in other words, "Hey, what is this IF thingy? Why does there have to be a 'Final' Fact? You're talking about the 'infinite', aren't you? Doesn't infinity keep on going without reaching a finality?"

These are important questions to discuss. So, on to the next chapter!

[Next time: an introduction to independence]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, Jonah and U2’s Pride in the Name of Love

How Should I Be A Sceptic -- belief and reason

Kierkegaard's Knights of Faith and the Account of Abraham

Bayes Theorem And Probability of God: No Dice!

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

The Meaning of the Manger

If Christianity were true, would you become a Christian?

The Origin of Life and the Fallacy of Composition