Ontology and the Metaphysical Foundations

Hi there HEthens I wanted to begin an ongoing discussion on the various paradigms of the nature of being and the corresponding connection of consciousness to the ultimate reality of the universe.

Essentially there are three main schools of thought that can explain our existence and the various judgments and properties we attribute through our existence and possibly independent of it. Ontology focuses on the nature of a person, what exactly constitutes a person and what conditions must be met in a universe in order for this person to exist in a way that concurs with the specific theory. There are countless variations on these schools and I shall try to give a brief examination of a few of them.

The basic model pertaining to this discussion is this:
Mental states and/or the soul Brain states Physical bodies

Materialism is the view epoused by modern, materialist science that all phenomenon in the world can be explained through physical objects and the actions of the physical world. As persons we are examined only through the environment of the physical world and thus the possibility of non-physical substances such as the soul and beings such as God that would transcend the limitations of the physical world, are denied. Every experience can be found to have a solely physical and hence observable explanation. Materialism seeks to remove mental states and the soul from the aforementioned model and sees brain states and the physical body as sufficient explanations of what a person is.

There are three main variations of materialism:
1. Reductionism: The idea that all mental states can be reduced down to brain states and hence explained by them

2. Functionalism: The idea that the brain functions like a computer with input/output and mental states can be explained in that fashion.

3. Eliminativism: The idea that mental states actually don’t exist and is just a way that we have deceived ourselves, and that science can eventually find an explanation through purely brain states as part of the physical body.

Yet if I were given unlimited resources, technology, and time and built a robot identical in every capacity to the human brain, since neuroscience has shown indications our brain functions like a computer with multiple input/output valves, I would still have difficulty considering it a person. Not in any moral nor legal sense but as considering it meeting all the requirements of a human being . A similar problem emerges when considering using nanotechnology or robotic appendages to replace human organs. If all the organs were eventually replaced by various technologies so that all organic matter was gone, that person would still be considered human, is there some kind of essence to human beings independent of physical matter?

One pertinent challenge to the materialist paradigm is the sensory perceptions brought on by out of body experiences, mystical experiences, and psychedelic drugs. Since experiences are brought on with the full vivacity as everyday life and some exceedingly so, it is difficult to reconcile inductive reasoning based on experience and objectivity in a subjective context that is still experiencing albeit in a different and unfamiliar (to many) realm. Additionally many who have gone through these experiences find there are similarities in their sensory perceptions that come to them independently of both their will and the influence be it cultural, socioeconomic, or religious within their ‘normal’ lives.

Dualism is the view built on the premise that there are Mental and Physical substances/properties and some types of dualism such as Cartesian dualism claim the second premise that those substances/properties enter into two-way causal interaction. Two-way causal interaction being the idea that my thoughts/soul facilitate me to some action and that inversely the conditions of the outside world cause a mental process or impact the soul. Dualism is found in the beliefs of the oldest indigenous tribes and larger scale societies through organized religion as well as countless philosophers. Essentially dualism believes the physical world does not offer a complete explanation of the universe and that a world independent of our physical exists, usually involving the soul and God. Though the thinkers differ on whether or not proof can be exacted of this whether through the physical world or not, many are of the notion that though this view is probable, it is beyond the faculty of human understanding and hence our knowledge.

A few variations of dualism:
1. Cartesian dualism: There are physical and mental substances/properties. Physical substances are extended and unthinking. Mental substances are unextended and thinking. These two substances enter into two-way causal interaction through a person.
This type of dualism is rife with problems that I will explain in a subsequent post or if someone else feels inclined, they may do so.

2. Parallelism: There are physical and mental substances/properties but they do not interact, instead they run parallel to one another. Every physical observation has a corresponding mental equivalent but there is no connection. It should be obvious this isn’t a sufficient explanation, in that basically it doesn’t make any sense, I would say its possible but not highly probable.

3. Occasionalism: The doctrine that all physical actions are necessitated by the intervention of God, so that all of life is full of tiny miracles. The obvious critique of this system would be to ask why would God create a system so inefficient that it would require constant maintenance?

4. The pre-established harmony: The doctrine established by the German philosopher Leibniz, that physical and non-physical substances are like two clocks set by God in perfect harmony. So that each clock reflects the others action but never interact with the other. This view is similar to parallelism and thus inherits its problem as insufficient explanation concerning the nature of persons and of the universe.

Dualists face the inverse problem that materialists face. Materialists run into trouble when an experience defies the bound of there world, dualists face a problem in defining the specifics of their world given the lack of third-person, objective evidence. Namely the problem that metaphysical knowledge of God and the Soul cannot likely be derived with absolute certainty by the senses nor any other human ability, obviously a lot of contention on that point. What exactly constitutes a soul and how, if it is able, does it interact with the physical world? The only way of knowing other than through out of body experiences, lucid dreams, and psychedelic experiences is through the finality of death which like the preceding experiences does not offer grounds for metaphysical certainty or through effective and clear communication of the experience, quite a vexing problem.

The third main school is that of Idealism, the idea that the physical world doesn’t exist and instead is a property/illusion created by the mind/soul. They are not denying this physical world exists but is dependent and linked to the mind. English philosopher and empiricist George Berkley was the first to formally argue and categorize this doctrine in the western philosophical tradition, postulating that only our finite minds and the infinite mind of God exist in reality. Yet idealism raises interesting questions like dualism about the nature of illusion and reality, if I was suddenly aware that all my sensory perceptions and the judgments I make about them were to an extent less real, would that change my experiences from that point on and value them less? If idealism is true, is the physical world completely an illusion with no factual basis independent of our minds or does it have a lower degree of reality than our minds? Going by an argument of concurrence, some of the conclusions reached through modern quantum physics and the religious traditions of Buddhism and Taoism seem to agree with idealism.

A few variations of idealism:

1. Subjective Idealism is Berkley’s conception of idealism, that matter is a collection of properties but any essence unifying the properties does not exist. This type of idealism depends on the individual’s mental capabilities bringing about the physical phenomenon. One argument given to this is the problem of other minds, also pertinent to dualism, asking why we would then all experience agreed upon perceptions if it is entirely subjective?

Thus there exist finite minds in individuals and the infinite mind of god.

2. Absolute idealism is a reaction to the above problem, by Hegel where he proposes that there is an absolute one mind that is then separated into physical bodies, so the problem of subjectivity is eliminated. This view strongly resonates with discussions on whether or not the universe itself has consciousness and is an evolving being.

Thus there exists the Infinite mind of god in physical individuals and the world.

3. Pluralistic idealism proposes that it is the minds of the individual who give the universe the ability to exist without need for a sole infinite mind, the distinguishing factor between pluralistic and subjective idealism is that pluralist idealism argues that individual minds work in concert rather than individually. Though the schools of pluralistic idealism differ on the possibility of God and what God would be. Pluralists also believe that matter does exist and is not merely a creation of the human mind, though matter depends on it to exist.

Thus there exists the finite minds of individuals that could allow for the existence of God.

With relation to idealism I would question how exactly the metaphysics that we are bound to, exist and exist as they do since all depend on the will of some mind in some form. How exactly would a mind or minds come to consensus on this particular existence?

I apologize for my long-winded explanation of each school but I wanted to lay the groundwork for a discussion of these various explanations of the nature of a person, which we can see quickly extends to examining the nature of reality. Which one strikes you as the most viable and likely explanation of our existence and why? Also be free to post your own metaphysical arguments and any others I have missed explaining the nature of a person and offer constructive criticism of the other ideas!

Also huge credit given to my philosophy teacher and his class for making me think and explore these issues in greater depth.

April 29, 2013 at 3:12 am
MarkII (71) (@mwinship13) 9 years, 5 months ago ago

From my own experiences I would agree with Absolute Idealism and say that the universe in a sense does have consciousness. We could call this consciousness God and the universe is here for us to evolve as part of the evolution of this consciousness to reach, essentially, Nirvana.

Anonymous (47) (@) 9 years, 5 months ago ago

@runnerbeneaththesky, Are you familiar with Thomistic Metaphysics and if so, how would you categorize it because I think out of all the ontological/metaphysical structures, its the most consistent and most conducive to human flourishing. Great post btw.

RunnerBeneaththeSky (44) (@runnerbeneaththesky) 9 years, 5 months ago ago

@mwinship13, Before I read of Hegel’s absolute idealism I also had begun to conceive of a similar idea, so I agree that absolute idealism is likely. Yet some criticisms of this system must be analyzed and refuted in order to preserve its credibility. Some pragmatists have leveled the criticism that this metaphysical system has no relation to any practical sense or our everyday lives. Most philosophers feel it necessary to distinguish between practical and metaphysical philosophy, yet in discussing the nature of a person and the conflict of determinism and free will it seems that the two overlap.

Does realizing a metaphysical system provide a noticeable change in my own moral and everyday behaviour and would I ever be conscious of such a change?

Absolute idealism in a way seems to deny linear thinking by arguing that all of its existence must be examined in the whole, with God being replaced by the concept of the Absolute. Though if absolute idealism is akin to Nirvana as you’ve suggested it doesn’t strike me as likely that this state could ever be rationally or logically explained. So I guess the main question is whether this metaphysical system is likely real as well as good for the conduct of humanity or if it is the most convenient system for us to build. How exactly can these doubts about absolute idealism be overcome? The idea of addressing the universe as a whole seems to invalidate our ability to go into specifics that would allow for a more linear chain of thought. So I’m not stating that it is wrong but that it may be impossible to defend to its critics.

@bearacleitus, Unfortunately I’m not familiar with Thomistic metaphysics, how would you say that it is the most consistent and conducive to human progress? Also thank you!

Bryan Hellard (307)M (@xyver) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@runnerbeneaththesky, I believe in a sort of Dualism. I see it like a computer, hardware and software. We have our physical body, but that isn’t what makes us us. We need the something extra to really get us going. Yet, we can replace our hardware, as long as we transfer the software correctly.

As for “God”, there’s no way we can ever know, so I haven’t taken too strong a stance on it. But, I do like the idea that there is some sort of greater power. I definitely do not believe that there is a man in the sky that cares about our every action though.

If you’ve ever read the story “The Egg”, or “Conversations with God”, it could be like that. We are just a small part of something much bigger, something that we will one day expereience. Maybe its death that is the transition, or perhaps this is it. What we have now is the greatest thing we will ever have, and death is the absolute end.

RunnerBeneaththeSky (44) (@runnerbeneaththesky) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@xyver, Yet if we are constituted of software and hardware, how do we explain how the two interact since there must be some kind of two-way causal interaction between the two?

Is there any case to be made that the hardware actually does exist and aren’t simply properties of the software? Out of body experiences and examples such as the double slit experiment could be used to convincingly argue for idealism just as much as dualism. Descartes’ argument that the body can be doubted but the mind cannot provides no reassurance for the existence of the body and points towards idealism in my opinion.

Bryan Hellard (307)M (@xyver) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@runnerbeneaththesky, This is a cop-out answer, but clearly it is possible, since it is happening right now. As of now we can’t explain it, perhaps in the future we will be able to, but realistically, does it make a difference? Do we need to explain it, beyond the sake of knowing for the sake of knowing?

Idealism could be the way things are, but you ask “if I was suddenly aware that all my sensory perceptions and the judgments I make about them were to an extent less real, would that change my experiences from that point on and value them less?”, and I think no.

Even if we don’t exist, and we really are “brains in a jar”, or some other aspect of incoporeal being that has an illusionary physical body, it doesn’t matter. We still THINK that we’re right here, right now, experiencing light bounce of your screen and enter your eyes, feeling your fingers on the keyboard.

Reality is what we think it is.

Obfuscate (126) (@HowardHolmes) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

I’m rooting for some sort of idealism. It seems to be the best way to make sense of the world. However, it also seems that the scientific approach taking us down the materialistic path is the only real horse in the race. Materialism has all the evidence on its side. However, at the end of the day, they might end up finding it was idealism all along. We are, afterall, the same substance from the viewpoint of the basic raw material. This basic substance seems no to be so much a bunch of things, but rather a thing all tangled up and interconnected. If we understand consciousness correctly the rock, tree and human all share some of it, so why not this whole intangled thing which is the universe?

RunnerBeneaththeSky (44) (@runnerbeneaththesky) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@HowardHolmes, To the contrary materialism doesn’t have eveything on it’s side, for instance materialism can’t make sense of out of body experiences, mystical experiences, and experiences induced by psychedelic drugs. These all sound like far-fetched examples yet they all point to the fact that materialist science treats consciousness as an anomaly. Science based off the inductive reasoning of physical processes can thus be criticized in three ways that spring to my mind, either find a non-physical process, criticize the value of inductive reasoning, or the relation between the two.

The exact opposite conclusion that I have reached at this stage is for either subjective or absolute idealism, though absolute idealism can’t really stand up under a purely corporeal examination since it is argued there is no tangible evidence. Yet that doesn’t seem to undermine absolute idealism it seems to question instead how our minds choose to examine particular processes. Still if materialism is agreed to be eliminated as a plausible explanation that doesn’t automatically make absolute idealism or dualism to be the only alternatives.

Absolute idealism, the idea of God, or synthetic a priori conditions are systems, entities, or forces, respectively, that seek to explain that something came from nothing, to explain that something exists for a specific reason. I have no doubt through meditation, astral projection, and lucid dreaming people have reached towards the one thing that has been broken down and classified into different ideas or objects, that is transcendental of those ideas/objects. Yet to realize an idea or object that encompasses all others would require you to literally become that idea, something made more likely if idealism is true. In this way it may be possible for people through their subjective first person experiences to experience what many say lies beyond the faculty of the human mind. It would logically make sense that to try and explain that same mystical experience would be impossible since you would be trying to clarify an objective truth to another subjective view. Thus ‘esoteric’ mystical experiences seem far-fetched but they very well could be possible, the difficulty lies in the communication and establishing of an objective truth.

Which then raises further questions, if there is some absolute objective truth pertaining to ontology and our existence will an argument of concurrence work in determining that truth? If that is the only truth, could you reach it by methodologies based on experience, reason, mathematics, and any other branchs of our understanding or would it be confined to only a few or to one?

, I suppose that depends on your view of whether the search for knowledge is virtue of whether that knowledge must have a practical purpose. Following our dichotomy if materialism is seen as fallible, then we must determine how real are our thoughts?

Obfuscate (126) (@HowardHolmes) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

I am on your side in wishing that out of body experiences, mystical experiences, and experiences induced by psychedelic drugs are not explainable by materialism. This is just a wish. There is this nagging fear in the back of my mind that materialism has explained, or at least will inevitably explain these phenomena. What would be the result? I am back to being banal and ordinary? I am no longer more important than I am. OUR horse (idealism) which depends upon this weak objection is viewing materialism lap us and exclaiming that there is still two laps to go and still time for us to catch up. When you claim that these are far fetched examples you are admitting they are far fetched examples and lamenting the sad fact that this is all we have. Seeing a problem in the only good idea out there, again, is like criticizing the color of the horse that just lapped you, again.

Materialism has too much going for it to be dismissed because there are still unanswered questions. It seems to me that materialism is converging on an answer (in quantum mechanics, for example) that reconciles with the experience of a one objective truth and wholeness and oneness. That mystics reach some reality seems clear enough, but I don’t think we have ruled out the possibility that this reality can be materialistic in the best sense of the word. If the void can produce material, can it not also be consciousness, or be consciousness? The eternally real and only cannot be conscious because conscious can only be of something. (?)

RunnerBeneaththeSky (44) (@runnerbeneaththesky) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@HowardHolmes, Well I think materialism can be discounted because it postulates that the world can be explained by purely physical measures. Near-death experiences are an experience that defies materialism and is a wide-spread phenomenon. These experiences defy materialism because a range of survivors have recounted extremely similar experiences regardless of their social or cultural backgrounds. I suppose these examples don’t seem that far-fetched in the sense that we will all one day experience a near-death experience or death itself.

Materialist science does a brilliant job of explaining the properties of objects, of classifying our objective knowledge of the physical world. Yet Materialist science through mainstream psychology and neuroscience would have me believe that their is always a solely physical explanation for my thoughts, my subjective knowledge. However that doesn’t preclude or disprove a non-physical explanation of my thoughts. If thoughts have a purely physical cause and effect then science should be able to make sense of the problem of other minds but it cannot. For example if I eat a banana, a scientist could measure my brain and see the corresponding chemical change that would be almost identical to any other person also eating a banana. Perhaps I found this to be the most exquisitely tasting banana of my life, would the chemical change reflect that experience, would it reflect my past conscious or unconscious association with other times were I ate a banana? I do not believe so, I can’t see any conceivable way that all of my thoughts, memories, and judgments could all be held in only the physical space of the brain. I don’t think the scientist could inductively reason from his data the full bounds of my experience no matter how precise and complex his equipment or methods.

I just wanted to clarify my critique was on the materialist paradigm of science not the methodology of science itself.

Obfuscate (126) (@HowardHolmes) 9 years, 4 months ago ago

@runnerbeneaththesky, Like you said, everyone will be near death at least once. That people have all sorts of claims for all sorts of experiencing is banal. Give me something that proves something or even indicates something. If you wish to identify with X, knock yourself out.

Science would not have you believe (identify with) anything. Science is just trying to find answers. If they find some, you will know it.. In the meantime, you have no answers to these questions either. We can enjoy placing bets on the race, but to anyone that is looking, materialism is currently in the lead by two laps with one lap to go. Unless you can get a better horse or put some more spark under your horse, make sure you are getting very, very good odds.

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