Ontological perfectionJanuary 23, 2011 — Deacon Duncan
Nick seems to have made himself scarce around these parts lately. It’s a shame. I was really looking forward to hearing some of his answers to the questions I raised. Maybe we can tempt him into coming back if we started discussing ontology and related topics, though, so let’s have a look.
Nick is quite right: your definition of “existence” will have a significant influence over whether goodness exists independently of our perception of it. So let’s ask the questions Nick alludes to. What do we mean when we say something exists, and what does this tell us about the reality and nature of things?
One quick caveat: this is a blog post, not a doctoral dissertation, so I’m going to give a rather cursory presentation in the interests of brevity. (Caveat two: that doesn’t mean this will be short, merely that it will be shorter.)
My approach to the question is going to be reality-based, as opposed to pure speculation, which may affect the answer in interesting ways. As usual, I’m going to base my reasoning on the principle that truth is consistent with itself. This is an observation, by the way, not just an assumption. Falsehood, by definition, is that which is inconsistent with the truth, so if we were to assume that truth is also inconsistent with itself, then there would no longer be any meaningful difference between truth and falsehood. Or, to look at it slightly differently, if you wish to refute my argument, you must show that my argument is inconsistent with the truth; once you’ve done that, though, so what? Your refutation rests on the assumption that failure to be consistent with the truth is a failure to be truth, and that’s a false assumption unless the truth is consistent with itself. Without that premise for your reasoning, you may find inconsistencies in my reasoning, but you have no way to tell whether it’s inconsistent because falsehood is inconsistent with truth, or because truth is inconsistent with truth. Reason and logic assume, by their existence, that truth is consistent with itself. My own reasoning, therefore, will be based on that premise.
Given that truth is consistent with itself, we can derive the following operational definition of existence.
A thing exists if it possesses characteristics and attributes that are consistent with the truth, and does not possess any characteristics or attributes that are inconsistent with the truth.
This is not an entirely flawless definition of existence, but it does have the advantage of putting real things in the category of “true things” and mistakes/delusions/deceptions/etc. in the category of “false things.” So it’s a fair foundation upon which to build a less naive definition.
Next, let’s consider what it means for truth to be consistent with itself. Obviously, the immediate meaning of “consistent” is that it does not contradict itself. But secondly, truth is also comprehensive—it includes all true things. If you took two distinct domains, each of which contained true things, neither domain would be the whole truth. Some things in “A” would be missing from “B,” and vice versa; the whole truth is the union of A and B. Neither A nor B is “the truth,” each is only a part of the truth, which is something greater than either by itself. And lastly, truth is coherent: no truth exists in isolation, but is interrelated with the rest of the truth in some way. (This is the property that makes reason and science possible, by the way—without it there would be no way to follow the connection from cause to effect, or from premise to conclusion, etc., because the connection wouldn’t be there.)
Some might dispute that last point about the coherence of truth. It might be possible, or at least conceivable, to propose some domain of truth that did exist in complete isolation from the truth domain that defines “reality.” If such a thing did exist, however, there would be two possibilities: either it must always and forever be entirely irrelevant to the truth of real existence, or it must be consistent with real-world truth at whatever points where the two do interact. As we’ve already discussed, however, truth is comprehensive, and if there were two separate domains that each contained mutually consistent truths, they would form parts of a larger, all-encompassing domain of truth, in which case the larger domain would be the real truth, and the “external” truth would not truly be isolated from the rest of the domain. That leaves only irrelevant truth as a possible exception to our definition of truth; and if any such truth existed, we could safely ignore it, since by definition it is irrelevant.
Thus, we can modify our definition slightly to say that truth is consistent (does not contradict itself), comprehensive (includes all true things relevant to the real world) and coherent (no truth, relevant to the real world, exists in isolation from the rest of real-world truth). For convenience, I will be assuming all three attributes of the truth whenever I refer to truth being consistent with itself.
Given this understanding of the characteristics of truth, what can we learn about reality? Earlier we defined a thing as being real (i.e. as “existing”) if it possessed characteristics that were consistent with the truth, and possessed no characteristics that were not consistent with the truth. Reality itself, then, means all things whose characteristics are consistent with the truth. Everything that is real is also true. But what about the converse? Can we also say that everything that is true is also real? The alternative would be for us to say that there exist some things that are true but that are not real, i.e. things that are true, but do not exist. We can eliminate that possibility, though, because in order for such things to be true, they must possess properties or characteristics or attributes that are consistent with the truth, and none that are inconsistent with the truth. That means they must also be real, according to our operational definition of existence. In order to meet the criteria for being true, they must also meet the criteria for being real, i.e. for existing. Reality, as a whole, coincides with truth, as a whole.
This is what I take as the ontological perfection. Reality itself, as it exists independently of our perceptions of it, is the ultimate standard of perfection, because it is the ultimate, infallible, and perfect manifestation of the truth. Whatever error or deception or myth exists, exists because our perceptions are imperfect, and our perceptions are imperfect because the real truth is consistent, comprehensive and coherent, far beyond the ability of our finite minds to entirely comprehend. The best we can hope for is to identify certain patterns and regularities within reality, and to be approximately correct about part of the infinite perfection of reality.
That’s actually not as inconceivable as it might sound, because we ourselves are a part of the reality we are trying to observe and understand—the same patterns and regularities that make reality/truth consistent with itself are woven throughout the perceptual and cognitive mechanisms of which our minds are constructed. There is a certain inherent resonance between what we are perceiving and the machinery we use to perceive it, due to the fact that both subject and object are aspects of the same self-consistent truth/reality. We have an affinity for perceiving certain aspects of the nature of reality simply because we share aspects of that nature with the reality we’re trying to perceive.
Obviously, this does not make us infallible. Our perceptions are approximations, a limited representation of an unlimited data pool. We do not and cannot perceive true ontological perfection; we can only extract, from our experiences, the regular, consistent patterns that are part of the one true ontological perfection. These limited perceptions, however, are not the whole truth. Truth is comprehensive and cohesive, but our understanding works by abstracting, by separating specific aspects of the truth from their interrelated parts.
This is a key point, and one that I think underlies the failure of some philosophers to correctly understand the nature of ontology. When we take some part of the truth, and isolate it so we can study it independently of its real-world context, we are doing two things: we are arbitrarily excluding relevant information in order to produce a single concept simple enough for our neurons to process with a reasonable expenditure of energy, and we are also creating a falsehood—an idea that is missing the coherence and comprehensiveness of genuine truth.
This is not entirely a bad thing. It’s a necessary trade-off. Strict fidelity to ontological accuracy would overwhelm our finite powers of computation and analysis; some sacrifice of truth is necessary in order to reduce the problem to something humanly solvable. It does highlight, however, the importance of remembering the difference between observing the characteristics of a thing, and observing the characteristics of human concepts about the thing.
Take “triangularity,” for example. Why do we have a concept of triangularity? The concept exists because one of the patterns we observe in reality is a regular ordering of points and lines we call “triangles.” But nothing in the real world is as simple as what we call “triangles”—whether it’s ink on paper or girders in a bridge, or slices of a pie, the shapes we call “triangular” are in reality much more complex than the simple definition mathematicians give to a three-sided geometric shape.
The thing we do, to make it easier to think about reality, is to eliminate many of the true interrelationships between things, so that we can focus more easily on one particular aspect of reality in isolation. The truth, however, is that real world triangles don’t exist in isolation; “triangularity” is characteristic of a human concept about the patterns we see in real-world truth. Perfect truth is consistent, comprehensive, and coherent; by isolating “triangularity” from its real-world context, we have created a degenerate “perfection” that resides in our perceptions rather than in the reality we are trying to perceive.
Consider, for example, that slice of pie I mentioned earlier. Is it really triangular? One of the sides is curved, yet the definition of a triangle, as specified by mathematicians, is that all three sides are straight lines. In real life, however, there is virtually nothing we would identify as “triangular” that meets the mathematical definition. There’s a disconnect there: real-world truth is coherent, but the mathematical concept explicitly isolates the “triangular” property from its context. The process of reducing it to computable form has changed it from being part of real-world truth to being something that, while simpler, is no longer entirely consistent with reality.
This is why it’s such a subtle yet devastating error to try and understand the world in terms of “essences” and ideals and so on: the process of mentally reducing something to a computably-simple principle necessarily isolates it from its real-world context and thus renders it no longer completely consistent with reality. It is a human concept about reality, inherently and inescapably over-simplified in order to allow finite thought about the topic; it is not itself real.
If we fail to carefully maintain that distinction, we run the risk of believing in a truth that’s distinct and different from what we see in the real world, a “higher and better truth” that coincidentally happens to be unconstrained by any need to conform to the real-world evidence. The process of isolating the “essence” of a thing from its real-world context is a process that necessarily isolates it from the sort of consistency-checking we need in order to falsify untrue statements. We can and must work with imperfect representations of the patterns we see in real-world truth, and we can even do so reasonably and reliably PROVIDED we remember that we are working with imperfect perceptions about the real world, and not with the consistent, comprehensive, and coherent perfection of ontological being. To confuse the two, and especially to buy into a world view that proposes a “higher truth” unconstrained by real-world evidence, is to leave ourselves vulnerable to a particularly pernicious and sophisticated form of gullibility.
Well, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface, but in keeping with my “non-a-dissertation” caveat, I’ll go ahead and stop here. There’s tons more I could say, and a significant amount that I should say, which is why I was waiting to see if Nick would perhaps narrow down the scope of his questioning somewhat rather than asking for my views on ontology in general. There’s just so much stuff there. On the other hand, perhaps that’s why Nick himself seems equally reluctant to offer us a quick summary of his views on the ontology that lies behind his views on morality. I will thank him for bringing up such an interesting topic, though. Perhaps this time he’ll respond, and we can discover even more together.