On two of my philosophical earworms - part 1 (series: notes to myself)

Of all the philosophical problems crowding my mind, four are recurrent and pressing. They are like two roundabouts to which I return regularly, inevitably. If I let my mind wander, there I am, thinking about one of them. I hear them silently, like earworms that take turns, melodies stuck in my head. Let me tell you about two of them (the other two will have to wait for another note).

One is about the nature of reality. What comes first, things or relations? Not chronologically, of course, but in terms of ontological priority. We cannot help but perceive and conceptualise the world in terms of stuff. We are stuff. We are surrounded by stuff. We eat stuff and bump into stuff. Stuff does stuff, causally. Stuff is made of more stuff, it changes, moves, grows and shrinks, is gathered, modelled, built and broken. Stuff everywhere, every time. Anything else is what happens to stuff. Properties, transformations, relations. From Aristotle onwards, the problem of Being is the problem of stuff: substance, essence, thing-hood. Ontology is a topology of stuff as entities, existent or not existent, whose properties are preserved under continuous changes.

Yet stuff is what it is only because it has the properties that it does, the relations it entertains, the functions it exercises. Wittgenstein remarked that there is no artichoke left once you remove all leaves. Substance is made of relations, it seems, like roundabouts, which are very real places made by roads when they meet. Nodes do not precede links in a network or arches in a graph. Ontology is more like a graph theory working with graphs without isolated  vertices.

But if relata are what they are because of their relations, if Romeo and Juliet are defined by their love, how can relations be, without there being relevant bearers, without the right relata? What sense does it make to speak of love without Romeo and Juliet, as ontologically prior to them?

I suspect that a decent ontology should be relational, but I cannot see how it may be formulated properly without becoming too mystic, obscure, confusing, incoherent, or all of the above. When an ontology of relations meets an ontology of relata, the ontology of relations is a dead ontology, because the ontology of relata has a rifle called set theory (with all its great properties, see Lindstrom's theorem proving that first-order logic is the strongest logic with the compactness and Lowenheim-Skolem properties).

There are two additional difficulties. One is linguistic and conceptual. Our Indo-European languages (our mammalian brain?) do not help, for they like to speak of cars and their colours or speed, not of colours and speeds being implemented by cars. "The car is red" is how we think, at least in this corner of the world, at least linguistically.  We struggle to imagine a sentence like "Redness is 'car-ed' [as in 'thing-ed']". The other difficulty is logical. All our logic, from Aristotle to Frege, is substantialist. It starts from (classes of) entities and moves to properties (as unary relations), and relations (binary, ternary, ... n-ary). In particular, it quantifies on variables that stand for elements of a set. This set-theoretic approach is very powerful, but it makes it almost impossible to reason in terms of an ontology of relations. You get to relations in second-order logic, but that still fails to quantify on relations, for it is entirely grounded on first-order logic, which is set-theoretical. As Quine once said, "to be is to be the value of a bound variable", and this, I add, is the curse of Western metaphysics. (PS even category theory and graph theory presuppose entities or classes of entities).

And so, all I am left with is an intuition - that a better way of modelling (more on this below) reality is in terms of an ontology of relations, not of things - and a handful of metaphors: the love between Romeo and Juliet, some roundabouts, or the nodes of a network. 

This earworm keeps crawling until my mind tires of it and switches to the other problem.

This is about meaning. Yes, the big issue of the meaning of life. Can life have meaning that is entirely immanent, or does it always need some residual transcendence in order to work and not to be a mere illusion? Is our semantic capital dependent on more than history can provide? Is it really the case that either there is no God and hence no ultimate, permanent meaning, or there is such meaning but then God as well? Are theology and semantics just two sides of the same piece of paper, so that you cannot cut the recto without cutting the verso, and if you burn one, if God is dead, so is the other? It seems that the universe is too big and indifferent, too godless to provide any meaning but the one we secrete. The only semantic pearls available are ours, and they are formed whenever irritants become trapped in our minds. Semantics is the result of our reaction to living. But then, how can an immanent semantic capital, that is entirely secular, possible? Is it possible - truly, entirely, satisfactorily - to eliminate any residual religion, not for the sake of atheism (a religion about the non-existence of God), but for the sake of moral autonomy? To be able to say: we gave sense to our lives, even if God does not exist. It seems impossible. The same mind that, through consciousness, demands that its life has meaning is also incapable of restraining itself within its own historical limits and accepting a horizon of reflection that enables the construction of meaning without breaking into the religious. The mind would like to construct its own meaning without being bounded by a historical horizon - the casual, chancy nature of existence, the accidental nature of events, the contingent nature of anything human and historical  - that would make that construction possible. Ideally, there should be a way of developing a philosophy that can speak sensibly of secular transcendence, of the ability of the mind to transcend itself without falling into supernatural or religious beliefs. But this religion without god, this spirituality without spirit, this semantic capital without otherworldly grounds, seems impossible to theorise logically, reasonably, rationally. It seems to need at the same time a bounded, historical horizon for the construction of meaning, but a boundless, non-horizon for the understanding of life, the very life to which the historical horizon is supposed to give meaning. How can this double horizon - one forced to shrink around history and the other allowed to expand soundlessly, pushed by knowledge and understanding - be designed in a stable and robust way?

And as if all this were not yet knotted beyond measure, there is an additional difficulty concerning both problems. That I cannot, for the life of me, understand how anybody can possibly believe that we have some direct access to the nature of anything that is not formatted by some level of abstraction. In other words, I cannot understand how anybody can disagree with Kant's transcendental turn. We know what we construct, and the construction is very robust and reliable, but it does not tell us about the nature of the source. To put it more metaphorically, the world provides the data, but we generate the information from the data, and the information is not a copy or a mirror image of the source of the data. We have no direct epistemic access to the noumenon, we know only the phenomena. And so, from within an informational realist position (my translation of Kant), the question of Being, the ontological question, becomes a question about the most reasonable way of conceptualizing a system we can know only through our models. And the question of Meaning, the semantic question, becomes a question of what non-metaphysical and non-transcendent ground can there be, if any, to give sense to life, good and evil, and death itself.

At the end of the day, I feel less annoyed. At least I realise that both earworms are crawling on the same side of the epistemic divide. Neither is metaphysical (neither is asking about the nature of the Ding an sich, the world as a system), both are ontological, insofar as they ask about the nature of the model of the system. One wants to know whether a relational conceptualisation of the source of our epistemic models makes more sense than a substantialist one. The other wants to know whether history can be not only necessary but also sufficient to make life fully and satisfactorily meaningful. They both presuppose that we inescapably design the reality in which we live conceptually.

I know that the two earworms will keep eating my brain, but at least I have a name for each of them, Being and Meaning. And I can hear distinctly the questions they are asking: can ontology model reality without first-order logic? That is, more constructively, is there a logic of relations that could support a relational ontology? And, can semantics work fully and satisfactorily without theology? That is, more constructively, is an immanent semantics possible that could support a non-religious spirituality?

An ontology without first-order logic, and a semantics without theology ... it's not going to be easy.

One day, I hope to find the answers, but I fear I may run out of time.

PS "Notes to myself" is available as a book on Amazon: ow.ly/sGyh50KfRra

Picture: Marcus Aurelius, Yale University Museum.



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