Sunday, April 13, 2008

Label and object

Recently, I've been realizing more and more the importance of differentiating between objects and our linguistic labels for them. In fact, there are many words that we use for things that have no corresponding physical reality.

The number 2, for instance. You can't point to it. You can't touch it. You can't see it. 2 is a word we use to describe a particular grouping, real or imagined, of other objects.

Infinity, also. You can't point to it, touch it, more memorize it. It's defined as something that doesn't end. But because of our inherently limited nature, we can't measure or see anything without end.

Random. Many things we think of as random are not in fact random, but determined by variables we don't know. Randomness, then, would be better understood as "Something I can't put into a pattern."

Imaginary numbers. Not really any more imaginary than real numbers. Again, just a label we use to stick in our formulas. There are no "square roots" in reality, much less any "negative numbers." These are linguistic labels we use to manipulate algebraic formulae.

An idea. We have ideas all the time, and speak of them as though they are real. But you can't touch or feel an idea.

Dimensions. You can't touch or see dimensions. They are just labels we use to describe the universe in which we live. And the big X,Y, and Z are not the only, nor even the best means of describing reality. Non-Euclidean geometries can also describe the universe equally effectively, if not more effectively. Dimensions are just language, not reality.

Seems like the most viscious philosophical arguments are usually over the definitions of these words without any physical correspondending reality.

And what's REALLY weird are the folks (like Pythagoras, Plato, Anselm, and Descartes) who treat these labels as though they are real -- or even, more real than reality. Pythagoros went as far as to worship numbers. Plato thought the form of "greenness" was more real than anything green on the Earth. Anselm thought that because God was defined as the being than which no greater can be conceived, that he must, therefore, exist in reality. And Descartes had his own ontological argument.

All these people made the same fundamental mistake -- treating a label as though it were real -- and in some cases, more real than reality itself.

The ambiguity between label and reality caused a lot of unnecessary struggles more me, particularly in the area of math. As I got higher in math, it seemed more and more like the teachers and books were treating things like probability and integrals like they were something real -- and I was trying to conceptualize them that way. But they're not. Probability is just a label we put on our degrees of ignorance. If we knew all the variables that went into determining the outcome, there wouldn't be any probability. The same problem with calculus. You can't point to or touch an "integral." It's a mathematical game we play to bridge ourselves from physical reality to physical reality quickly and conveniently.

My math and stats teachers, I think, didn't get that. They insisted on treating math as though it were something real -- as though it had some corresponding REALITY to it -- which, of course, it does not. They were just making the same mistake Pythagorus did.

It also caused me to struggle with philosophical discussions about "essence." Philosophers spoke (and speak) of "essence" as though it has some reality it it. But "essence" is really just a definition we put on what we see.

I come to realize that all this means is that I'm thoroughly nominalist and existentialist in my philosophy without knowing it. But now by knowing it, I'm much better able to understand what they meant with all that "essence" stuff.

I wonder what it is about people that makes some of them want to treat labels like reality.


Matt Ackerman said...

I think you are being unfair. I'm not going to argue about the definition of reality, because I agree that symantics is an empty persuit, but I think it is perfectly acceptable to treat numbers as real after a fasion. When I bounce a check, it is not because of some imaginary etheral consideration of algebra, but because numbers are to some extent real, and I really have spent a larger number of dollars than I possess. Mathmatics is a causitive factor in the world, since to cause a real event, the causitive factor must also be real, it follows that it is acurate to claim numbers are real, after a fassion. The paterns that numbers describe exist, and numbers help us understand why certain paterns cause other paterns, etc.

ungtss said...

I'd really like to continue this discussion with you, because you obviously look at this through a very different lens than I do, and I'd like to learn more about your way of thinking.

Now I won't argue that numbers don't "exist" after a fashion -- but I think it's important to determine what that fashion is. When you say they exist "after a fashion," what exactly do you mean?

First my definition of "existence." I'm saying that something exists if and only if it has some material and/or energy-based presence in the real world.

Thus, your money exists.

However, the NUMBER assigned to your balance does not exist in the same sense that your money itself exists. The number is just a way to describe your money. Thus I can say I have 5 dollars, 500 cents, 1 piece of paper with lincoln on it, 500,000,000-some molecules of paper and ink, 1/10 ounce of money, etc.

The number is only a means of linguistically describing the money -- and it exists only as a descriptor, and with reference to the measurement, and with respect to the real object to which it refers.

However, I'm open to a different way of understanding "existence" -- what exactly do you mean?

Matt Ackerman said...

I guess my problem with restricting the term real or exists to entities which exist physically (anything which possesses energy) is that it leads to some strange implications. For instance, causes are not real. Since a cause and effect relationship is a logical structure, and not a physical object, we cannot say that cause and effect exist. For that matter, logical structures are not real, so the truth is not real, concepts like "concepts are not real" are not real. For that matter, language and words don't exist. While I'm speaking there might be vibrations in the air, but the words that those vibrations represent do not possess energy, they are just patterns. I don't think you are being silly in insisting that numbers don't exist in the same fashion as physical entities, but I think it is entirely proper to say that the patterns that numbers discribe are fundamental entities that exist in their own right.

In short, I think patterns are the causes of events, and it is more proper to say a pattern caused an event than a physical entity in many causes. Because the pattern is a more important explanation of what is going on the the pieces of mater which create the pattern, I think the patter is more real than the mater that creates it.

Of course, as you can tell by now, I do think numbers are more real than reality, so I am happily committing the error that you are cautioning against.

Alas and alack I wont provide much philosophical justification for these views, but by my convoluted reasoning I have arrived at a conclusion very similar to Decarte's. We are fundamentally minds, and as I posted else where, it is my belief that minds are fundamentally mathematical algorithms. We interact with the world through a mathematical vale. What we directly perceive when we see a dollar isn't anything physical about the dollar, but rather the information in our mind that represent the dollar. This is why we are capable of having dreams and hallucination. So, the only thing that I can know exist is the information in my mind representing the dollar. So, to make a long story short, as long as that information is there, the dollar is there, and when it isn't, the dollar isn't. Interestingly, this argument seems to abstract to fundamental reality, in that it is not meaningful to assert that fundamental particles with the same information, or state, can be different. In other words, destroying a fundamental particle at one point in space and create a particle that must be in the same state as the first at a different location is exactly the same as teleporting a single particle. It is really just the math that matters, everything else is philosophy. Just my opinion.y

ungtss said...

Fascinating. Maybe I just missed the books that have already described the distinction between our respective modes of thought. I'm extremely curious as to what you think causes you to think that way.

For my part, I think that the concepts you listed are real insofar as they are terms, categories, and descriptors.
The reason I view pattern as derivative and matter as fundamental is that our conceptual patterns are necessarily formed and corrected by the our interaction with the physical world. Thus we learn about the patterns in stellar motions by observing stellar objects. And our patterns are inevitably incomplete insofar as they fail to describe reality with total accuracy.

I suppose it is theoretically possible that the universe is fundamentally conceptual in nature. However, our only means of describing and understanding that pattern is through the study of physical phenomenon reflecting it.

I see great danger in starting with our concepts as fundamental, because then we neglect to refine them in light of reality.

I'm also curious -- do you think a concept-centered worldview is consistent with atheism? How can concept exist without mind to conceptualize it?