Review of "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence M. Krauss

universe

Some five years ago, the consensus concerning this short and polemical book across several online literary venues was this: it's a good book of popular science and a bad book of philosophy.

This assessment is correct. This really is a pretty damn good of popular science. It succeeds brilliantly despite the heavy constraints that are imposed in any attempt to enable informing the current status of physical cosmology to the general public - as I shall explain in greater detail.

It also has barely nothing to contribute to the metaphysical issues behind concepts of nothingness. In that, the book is guilty of false advertisement - perhaps as part of an editor's ploy. It delivers neither the title nor the subtitle. What this book truly consists of is a dense expository history of over a century of physical cosmology in clear ordinary language.

The Intellectual Fraud Behind Popular Cosmology

The very motivation behind the literary industry of popular cosmology and theoretical physics is an unspoken socially acceptable intellectual fraud - albeit a relatively harmless one. It is an intellectual fraud in a way popular science books on many other scientific topics (such as evolutionary biology) are not. And that is because the type of knowledge that must be acquired to truly apprehend what is going on in theoretical physics and cosmology is knowledge of a tacit character that simply can not be acquired by reading books. This may even trick otherwise intelligent and educated persons into the false belief that they truly understand these advanced topics when in fact, they do not.

Let me assume that you, the reader, under reasonable standards, is a scientifically literate adult living in an urban and industrial society. Do you understand Natural Selection? More than likely you do. To put it in the bold words of philosopher Daniel Dennett, you can explain Natural Selection in a minute. Natural selection really is a simple idea - although one with tremendously complex consequences and, as an epistemic tradeoff, much prone to caricature.

But do you understand General Relativity? More than likely, you do not. And it doesn't matter how much Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking you've read and how many visually breathtaking documentaries filled with lively metaphors of basketballs deforming pillows you've seen and entertained in your imagination - and it doesn't really matter how wonderful you take your imagination to be. Not even ingenious uses of spandex will do.

To truly grasp General Relativity, one must master a myriad of mathematics and physics. This includes the much more accessible topic of Special Relativity. But it also includes the tools of tensor calculus and differential geometry (and just for this you'll generally require multivariable calculus and some solid understanding of linear algebra). Depth and differences in research traditions across physics will demand additional mathematics such as topology and analysis. This means that even if you are a person of above-average general intelligence, it will take years to master this content, in the form of undergraduate and most likely graduate-level courses in physics and mathematics.

Depending on the level of your intelligence (and moxie) this will probably mean that one can only develop the required geometrical and physical intuition to truly understand General Relativity through a mostly solitary mental journey of laborious homework, amidst pages of scribbled exercises and piles and piles of mistakes. It is much more cognitive demanding than grasping a simple algorithm such as Natural Selection. If you can do it, you'll be a part of a selected intellectual elite that has a special understanding of the cosmos.

If you lack this know how, you are not qualified to understand and much less to criticize General Relativity. It really is that simple. Tough luck for physics crackpots.

Think you understand String Theory? That is even more unlikely. For General Relativity just is one of the behemoths you need to master to understand these families of theories. The obsession of contemporary cosmology with n-dimensional manifolds starts with Kaluza-Klein Theory right after the development of General Relativity (for a popular historical overview, I recommend [1]). To understand String Theory, you need to be intimately acquainted with the formalisms of Lagrangian and Hamiltonian Classical Mechanics, the mysteries of Quantum Field Theory, some Group Theory and more.

And that's why popular cosmology is a fraud. Humans, in general, are superb storytellers but terrible mathematicians [2].

Succeeding in an Impossible Task

Given these hard facts, how should an intelligent and scientifically literate dilettante that is humble and intellectually honest behave? One can muster here a distinction between belief and acceptance ([3], Chapter 4). As a whole, the literature concerning this distinction states that while "belief" is an involuntary and irresistible act, "acceptance" is a willful deliberation or commitment. If the belief in counter-intuitive empirical statements is the consequence of deep understanding, i.e., the through and through acquisition of the tacit knowledge required to engage with the relevant alongside an honest evaluation of the evidence, then dilettantes with mere procedural knowledge of General Relativity cannot believe it. But they may accept it.

You are epistemically warranted to accept the conclusions of high-caliber cosmologists and theoretical physicists. Their authority is a proxy for the reasons and evidence over which their claims are justified. Let them do the thinking.

Good Science

Given this pessimistic panorama, I was pleasantly surprised with the output of Krauss. His prose is at least as good as the best popular cosmology I've read, from Victor Stenger and Michio Kaku. Krauss joins the ranks of talented popularizers of science that are also first-rate scientists.

Krauss is truly talented in this overbearing task of condensing material comprising a full century of understanding of physics.

As someone who has devoured a fair share of popular cosmology and theoretical physics since teenage years, this book still managed to deliver novelty in both concept and presentation. It displays a never-ending succession of instances of how our common sensical intuitions are broken down when we confront the structure of empty space. For instance, Krauss is an avowed realist on the existence of virtual particles; they truly are there and are not merely heuristic computational devices (for a classic alternative interpretation, see [4]). Here's one of the bolder sections:

“[C]onsider the [nonzero energy] electric field emanating from a charged object. It is definitely real. You can feel the static electric force on your hair or watch a balloon stick to a wall. However, the quantum theory of electromagnetism suggests that the static field is due to the emission, by the charged particles involved in producing the field, of virtual photons that have essentially zero total energy. These virtual particles, because they have zero energy, can propagate across the universe without disappearing, and the field due to the superposition of many of them is so real it can be felt.”

I have never seen a more striking display of the contrast between the concreteness of the everyday experience of our Umwelt and what we way find at scales very far away from our notional world.

“Here is a snapshot of how things actually look. It is not a real photograph of course, but rather an artistic rendering of the mathematics governing the dynamics of quarks and the fields that bind them. The odd shapes and different shadings reflect the strength of the fields interacting with one another and with the quarks inside the proton as virtual particles spontaneously pop in and out of existence.”

In the book you only see a slice of an existing animation; I found the entire thing through the wonderful blog Back Reaction by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. This animation is known as the "Quantum Chromodynamics Lava Lamp", and it is the output of the research of theoretical physicist Derek B. Leinweber. Here it is:

This simulation displays the action density of the quark and gluon field fluctuations of "empty" space. It was featured in the lecture of the 2004 Nobel Prize of Physics.

“The proton is intermittently full of these virtual particles and, in fact, when we try to estimate how much they might contribute to the mass of the proton, we find that the quarks themselves provide very little of the total mass and that the fields created by these particles contribute most of the energy that goes into the proton’s rest energy and, hence, its rest mass. The same is true for the neutron, and since you are made of protons and neutrons, the same is true for you!”

Simply amazing - for the non-instrumentalist on virtual particles, at least.

Right on Philosophy

Of the many diatribes that Lawrence Krauss (and after him, other physicists such as Freeman Dyson) delivered against academic philosophy, one lesson is absolutely correct; most of what passes as "philosophy of science" is of little cognitive value.

One cannot do philosophy of science without understanding science. It is insane that there are philosophers of physics can't calculate a simple derivative. I've recently read Sir Anthony Kenny's History of Modern Philosophy and he makes the same exact point in his chapter delineating the development of physics from natural philosophy: "such a discipline [contemporary philosophy of physics] can only be pursued by those with more knowledge of the modern science of physics" ([5], p.180).

There are excellent philosophers of physics around who truly know what they are doing - researchers such as Bas Van Fraassen, Décio Krause, James Ladyman, Mario Bunge, Newton da Costa, Steven French and Otávio Bueno.

Philosophical folklore disguised as adamant historical tradition tells us that engraved at the door of Plato's Academy, it read "Let no one ignorant of geometry enter!". It's a good story, but it is probably false. Nevertheless, the spirit is absolutely right on; "Let no philosopher ignorant of science do philosophy of science!".

Bad Philosophy

I agree with the general sentiment; Krauss really adds nothing to the perennial problems of nothingness and ex nihilo existence as they have been formulated throughout most of the history of Western philosophy. For instance, he writes:

I suspect that, at the times of Plato and Aquinas, when they pondered why there was something rather than nothing, empty space with nothing in it was probably a good approximation of what they were thinking about.

I know very little about the metaphysics of Plato and Aquinas but I know enough to know their conceptions of "nothingness" are more abstract than empty space. Krauss' suspicion is false.

However... I do know a thing or two about my Greek intellectual great-great grandfathers, Leucippus and Democritus. Under their framework, Krauss' suspicion is spot on. For the early atomists, "Nothingness" (or Nonbeing) was identified with "The Void"; the ontological correspondent to "The Full" of Eleatic philosophy were the atoms. So here we have at least one veritable philosophical tradition that shares this conception of nothingness ([6], Chapter 6).

Something from Nothing?

But what would a reasonable addition to this philosophical problem look like? I hold that the epistemic space of solutions to philosophical problems falls into four cases; there are problems solvable through empirical methods, problems solvable through a priori methods (and if strong forms of empiricism are correct, this category gets subsumed by the later), there are pseudo-problems and there might be unsolvable mysteries and antinomies. Concerning this issue, my unrelenting scientism acquires a logical positivist flavor. It is my opinion that most problems stemming from issues of nothingness are pseudo-problems; they superficially look like answerable questions that mandate unique non-arbitrary answers but they are not. One of my favorite papers that explicitly follow this line of reasoning is Stephen Maitzen's "Stop Asking Why There's Anything" [7]. I submit that Maitzen's remarks may be generalized to surrounding questions involving things and non-things.

[1] M. Kaku, Hyperspace: a scientific odyssey through parallel universes, time warps, and the tenth dimension, OUP Oxford, 1995.
[Bibtex]
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[2] A. Rosenberg, The atheist's guide to reality: enjoying life without illusions, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
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[3] N. C. A. da Costa and S. French, Science and partial truth: a unitary approach to models and scientific reasoning, Oxford, 2003.
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[4] M. Bunge, "Virtual processes and virtual particles: real or fictitious?," International journal of theoretical physics, vol. 3, iss. 6, pp. 507-508, 1970.
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[5] A. Kenny, The rise of modern philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2006.
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[6] C. C. W. Taylor, From the beginning to plato: routledge history of philosophy volume 1, Routledge, 2003.
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[7] S. Maitzen, "Stop asking why there's anything," Erkenntnis, vol. 77, iss. 1, pp. 51-63, 2012.
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Metaethics Confronts the World Knot (Part I)

valyriansteel

Violent imagery from fantasy fiction included in order to turn this barren subject into something more compelling

The World Knot and its Place in Philosophy

The World Knot. A cursory Google search reveals that this imposing phrase was designed and marshaled by Arthur Schopenhauer to refer to the mind-body problem. Except that it wasn't. It's another minor contemporary philosophical myth, one of those false etymological origin stories we unconsciously reproduce again and again by inertia as if they were acknowledged truth. Notwithstanding, as my witty and sharp-minded professor Mário Guerreiro used to paraphrase, se non è vero, è ben trovato (from Italian; something like "even if it is not true, it is a good story"). The phrase 'World Knot' does a fairly good job at suggesting imagery of the muddled state of affairs that is the relationship between the mental and the non-mental.

The World Knot needs to be unsnarled if we are to make progress in many perennial questions. In this mysterious juncture we strive to find explananda, relata and other significative connections required to bring light to central problems in philosophy.

This World Knot is something we are constantly revisiting. And this is absolutely true concerning moral agents such as ourselves conducting foundational work on ethics. This is where Metaethics meets Philosophy of Mind.

In my previous entry on the subject, I've made a number of bold claims. I will reiterate a couple of them:

  • Contemporary analytic metaethics is ontologically committed to two types of existents - subjective and objective existents
  • Subjective existents are in some sense metaphysically "inferior", they exist only in virtue of there being prior objective existents
  • Subjective existents do a poor job at grounding normativity. If any ethical subjectivism is true, this is supposed to be very bad news
  • But what in the Seven Hells objectivity and subjectivity really are? What do they consist in, how do they differ?

    I will not present an exhaustive exposition of this severely tangled issue. I will, however, expose a number of auxiliary these of varying degrees of conceptual depth which, conjointly, I'll use in the attempt to grasp this distinction more clearly.

    Representation, Mind and Ontological Dependence

    Empiricist metaethicist Jesse Prinz has, in my view, presented the most painstakingly clear and detailed discussion [1] of the meaning of 'objectivity' in the field of metaethics and how it relates to minds in the Chapter 4 of his The Emotional Construction of Morals.

    At the risk of being unfair and too coarse-grained, I'll single out and discuss the two relevant ontic senses of 'objectivity' mentioned by Prinz; objectivity as mind-independence and objectivity as unrepresentedness, i.e., the property of not being represented.

    Tradition from Franz Brentano tells us that the 'mental' is the intentional. The intentional is the representational, that which is about something. But is the converse true, i.e., is the intentional the mental as well, is this a case of co-extension? That doesn't seem plausible at all. As an example, if any realist theory of computational implementation holds true (as I also claim), the domain of the 'intentional' is going to be very wide. It can get much worse; if certain varieties of pancomputationalism were to be true (I hold that this is extremely unlikely but this has been seriously considered by top-notch researchers such as the late theoretical physicist John Wheeler and the theoretical computer scientist Gregory Chaitin) then the entirety of empirical reality would consist of representation and that would mean automatic panpsychism.

    Given this cautionary tale, let's ditch objectivity as the "unrepresented" and venture further on what it means for something to be "mind-independent".

    'Mind-dependence' (and independence) is an asymmetrical relation of ontological dependence. But what counts as a mind and what does it mean to say that something is ontologically dependent to a mind?

    Letting go the Brentanian saying, attempts to individuate the "mental" are still very hard. Are image schemata 'mental' enough? What about implicit memory? Or, for Seven Heaven's sake, the control system for blood glucose? Also, perhaps it is the case that not the entire scope of mentality is apt for metaethics so we may only need to be concerned with a narrow portion of "the mental".

    Let's tentatively single out only psychological states that may have at least a proxy influence by the role they may play in moral judgement. That sounds fair enough. Resorting to intentional systems theory [2], a fauna comprised by beliefs, desires, intentions, urges, feelings and similar patterns specified by folk psychology emerges and seem apt enough. Enough for what counts as a mental state and a mind; a mind, an intentional system, a real pattern tractable exclusively through the adoption of the intentional stance. We will deem whatever entity whose epistemic access requires the intentional stance a "mental" thing.

    So, we now have our catalogue of mental things. How do subjective things relate to mental things? What is the relation involved?

    There are many possibilities. Prinz goes for a weaker kind of ontological dependence, supervenience over human psychology. One can also lean forward something stronger, like Michael Huemer [3] and go for an ontological relation of constitution. In this sense, moral posits (moral actions, facts, etc) in some way include intentional states, then they are subjective.

    I think the situation is not clear enough for us to devise a more fine-grained depiction of which is the relevant sense of ontological dependence so we'll have to go along with a sketchy coalition comprised by both our reflected and unexamined intuitions and traditions and steadily revise the details as we march forward.

    I'm interested at how this sketchy exposition matches some existing conceptions of the objectivity-subjectivity distinction. To start this series, I'll resort to a famous framework devised by philosopher John Searle.

    Brute and Institutional Facts

    This section is comprised by my personal exegesis of Searle's opus The Construction Of Social Reality [4]. I shall not go into exhaustive depth but hopefully I've gotten all the relevant details right.

    The kind of existents (posits) Searle is mostly interested in are facts. Facts for Searle are understood in a very customary way; facts are the truthmakers of true statements.

    Brute facts are a type of objective existent and institutional facts are a type of subjective existent. Brute facts are facts that do not depend on human institutions for their existence and institutional facts are those that do.

    Lets get more specific on what this means.

    Searle's taxonomy is actually much more intricate and multi-layered. At the base level, there are mental and non-mental (what he dubiously calls "brute physical") facts. The priority of brute facts over institutional facts is not only ontological but logical.

    Searle is famous for rejecting the Bentramian maxim as a criteria of individuation for "the mental". But since the mental phenomena he deploys for the grounding of institutional facts are generally beliefs and certain kinds of utterances this won't be a problem for our discussion for they fit our established repertoire of what counts as a mental entity.

    From the primacy of the ontological ladder upward, institutional facts are first mental and then intentional, collective, functional, agentive and status-conferring.

    Institutional facts are "collective" in their dependence of collective intentionality, that is, a special kind of co-occurrence of the intentional states of at least two intentional agents generally coordinated by particular speech acts. They require agreements or endorsements, be they tacit or straightforward, between at least two intentional agents. In Searle's terminology, the collective is also the social.

    Institutional facts are also "functional" in that they involve the collective assignment of a function to a certain entity.

    And they are "agentive" because the functions attributed are intended, that is, they require a willful deliberation by intentional agents. Agentive functions are therefore contrasted with what many philosophers call "natural" functions - such as the the job carried out by the blood glucose control system which, if working properly, will chemically "warn" the central nervous system once blood glucose levels are about to compromise the organism's homeostasis. In this, Searle draws a crisp line between the "natural" and the "artificial" or "man-made". I find this contention to be extremely problematic but shall not utter here my reasons of why I believe this is false.

    The last property that defines institutional facts, that of being "status-conferring", requires a bit more explanation. Head with me with the following example:

    ice

    It is a fact that Ice, the Valyrian steel greatsword of Lord Eddard Stark, has the function to behead deserters from the Night's Watch (or any other human being, for the matter).

    For Searle, it is clear that this fact is an agentive fact for Ice is an artifact, a sword that was forged, that was deliberately created by blacksmiths in Ancient Valyria. But this fact is not a brute fact - although it is related to brute facts in special ways.

    The function that confers the ability to decapitate is contingent upon a relation between the properties of the blade (such as the microscopic molecular regularity of the edge) with the properties of the necks of human renegades from Castle Black (such as the hardness of the spinous process of human skeletons). In that, Searle claims that the assignment of this function is ultimately due to brute facts, which in his framework is another way of saying the that the function itself is extrinsic to any mental state.

    Contrast this with the related fact that Ice, a heirloom of House Stark, is a cerimonial tool employed by the Warden Of The North in particular classes of capital punishment. This attribution for Searle is a status-conferring function for there is, allegedly, no intrinsic connection between this particular object and the particular capital punishment rites of the North. For what we know, the traditions could have been very different and other weapons (or no weapon at all) could have been fixed by agreement and used for that judicial purpose. To sum it, status-conferring functions are said to be arbitrary in a way causal-conferring functions are not.

    Searle explicitly acknowledges that the relation of ontological dependence involved is one of constitution.

    Institutional facts, being a subclass of intentional facts, are constituted by intentional states. And being collective, i.e., social facts, they are constituted by agreements among rational beings.

    A common way by which institutional facts may come into being is through utterances such as declarations.

    Let's try some more examples to see how this works. According to this framework, it is a brute fact that the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel is made of is 26. This means that, if it were the case that all Westerosi, Essossi, Giants, the Others or any other sentient being of the Known World in the A Song Of Ice And Fire saga had vanished, the atomic number of the main element of the alloy out of which Vallyrian steel of would still be 26. Or so the story goes (the story of John Searle, not necessarily of George R. R. Martin's).

    Brute facts are therefore facts that can be obtained irrespective of the existence of any intentional systems - minds.

    It is, however, an institutional fact that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. If it were the case that all those that implicitly or explicitly uphold this tradition had vanished - be them hardcore followers of the Seven or simply mere observers of this chronological custom - then it would not be true that Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven. For the truthmaker of the sentence 'Maiden's Day is a holiday in the calendar of the Faith of the Seven' is itself constituted by the recognition and endorsement of Maiden's Day. And that's what makes it subjectively real.

    If all traces of the agreements that make the fact of Maiden's Day obtainable had vanished from all minds, Maiden's Day would cease to exist. If future Westerosi archaeologists, historians or cultural anthropologists were to discover an inscription documenting this custom, Maiden's Day could have its metaphysical status reverted back from non-existence into existence. Or so the framework predicts.

    Claims on entities with the standing of Searlean brute facts would be denied by many gangs of philosophers that are willful enemies of objectivity stronger ontic senses; American Pragmatists, Post Modernists and Social Constructionists for example could claim that this alleged "brute fact" that Iron has an atomic number of 26 is not really non-institutional - for surely the mathematical and chemical framework that allows us to make such statement has a traceable recorded origin in the history of science, from the Western adoption of hindu-arabic numeral systems we use to represent natural numbers to the Mendeleevian grid that replaced previously endorsed taxonomies of the elements.

    Surprisingly, I staunchly side with Searle when it comes to these kinds of arguments. I hold that they are a product of a confusion between the representational systems which are employed to stand in or represent the information expressed by a given entity or system in the world with the information itself. Searle is absolutely right on this; we cannot mistake the institutions and conventions (such as the english language, the hindu-arabic numeral system, the edifice of atomic theory, etc) required to state a given fact with the fact itself. The fact that we call iron 'iron' and we use '26' to represent the quantity 26 is irrelevant.

    Final Transitory Observations

    I have attempted to be as charitable as possible in my expositions. Now I shall finish this entry not with clamorous resolution but, again, with enigmatic conundrum; I personally believe very little of what has been stated.

    More centrally, the seemingly common-sensical Searlean framework is explicitly guilty at a viewpoint I hold to be seriously mistaken; that we may devise an empirically responsible theory of ontology under which different existing entities receive "higher" or "lower" ontological statuses. I hold that it is false to assert that reality comes in degrees or hierarchical ranks.

    Why should we care? Well, tradition says that, if we are to care about anything, we should care about our moral values. Moral values are said to be inescapable, to unavoidably bind our predicament, to frame our human condition as deeply as anything could. Infuse this sermon with as many dramatic additions as you'd like. The main problem is that there exists a very strong case in moral philosophy which states that in order for all of this to work, our values need to be grounded in a foundation of extraordinary character, something at least as metaphysically safe and fancy as Searle's arid and impersonal "brute facts" but most probably something even more demanding. But, at glance, it seems wildly absurd to suggest that human morality can receive any such treatment.

    Many of these turmoils are a consequence of our conceptions of the ontic senses of objectivity and subjectivity and, again, on the classical subject/object distinction itself.

    Something has to be made concerning this deep-seated contention that objective entities are in some relevant sense extramental entities. Stay tuned.

    [1] J. J. Prinz, The emotional construction of morals, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    [Bibtex]
    @book{Prinz2007a,
    abstract = {Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defense of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behavior and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values},
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    [2] D. Dennett, "Intentional Systems Theory," in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, {. {M}c{L}aughlin, {. {B}eckermann, and {. {W}alter, Eds., {OUP} {O}xford, 2011.
    [Bibtex]
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    booktitle = {{T}he {O}xford {H}andbook of {P}hilosophy of {M}ind},
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    [3] Unknown bibtex entry with key [Huemer2005a]
    [Bibtex]
    [4] J. R. Searle, The construction of social reality, Simon and Schuster, 1995.
    [Bibtex]
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    The Logic of Existence and the Objective-Subjective Distinction in Metaethics

    aurochs

    Contemporary metaethics is a very technical zoo of categories and terminology that is used inconsistently from author to author. Here I'll digress on some aspects of the use of the interrelated terms 'existence', 'reality' and 'objectivity' for some posterior discussions I intend to make.

    Nihilism and Existence

    'Nihilism' names a family of loosely-related theses from XIX century european moral philosophy. Still, as it is commonly used in contemporary anglophone philosophy, the term 'nihilism' carries much less conceptual baggage. I shall address this "thicker" sense of 'nihilism' in the future but here I'll be solely preoccupied with the "thinner" sense.

    Nihilism simpliciter is an ontological stance forming a schema that demands a class of variables out of a given domain of discourse. It is the denial of the objective existence of a certain class of entities from a certain domain of discourse. A nihilist on x is someone that stands by the claim that x does not objectively exist.

    For instance, in analytic metaphysics, a mereological nihilist is someone that contends that there are no aggregates of proper parts in a particular sense - only proper parts have objective existence.

    A causation nihilist would be someone that claims that causes and effects lack objective grounding. We can imagine in political philosophy a defender of individual nihilism, one that claims that objectively-existing individual agents have no place in political theory and that we presumably may only populate our political ontology with groups or classes of political agents.

    In this very philosophical tradition, a rough rule of thumb would be that outside of axiological fields, 'nihilism' is a descriptor term can be used interchangeably with 'eliminativism' and 'anti-realism'. But definitely not so in metaethics; as I'll claim, contemporary metaethical discussion is committed to not just the existence of two kinds of things but to two kinds of existents, two ways under which universals and particulars can be real. Confusingly enough, a moral nihilist is not necessarily a moral anti-realist - hopefully I'll be able to eradicate this terminological confusion.

    Existence and the Objective-Subjective Distinction

    The previous use of 'objectivity' here demands extensive clarification. This term comprises a mess of cluster concepts that conflate epistemological and ontological claims but I'll accept the burden of presenting an informative exposition while at the same time attempting being charitable to this complicated field.

    Let's talk a bit about existence itself, what may strike us as the most fundamental notion in metaphysics. What seems to be the default thesis in Western philosophy concerning the formal nature of existence is that existence is of a different logical type than a property (and presumably, this is also reflected ontologically). This was famously championed, for instance, by Immanuel Kant in his critique of the ontological arguments for the existence of God. Standing by of our contemporary conceptual apparatuses, we could say that our sense of 'existence' in natural language is exhaustively picked up by the concept of existential quantification in mathematical logic. I.e., it would be a mistake to represent existence by a predicate.

    If we are to say that an aurochs exist, this is formally captured by the sentence:

    \exists x, Ax

    I'll stand by something bold; I think current metaethical discussion is implicitly committed to the alternative, more controversial view of existence as a property. I am very sympathetic towards this viewpoint of existence but I'll not utter my reasons for that here.

    Metaethics constantly divides reality in two different kinds of stuff; there is an objective and a subjective realm. It is my impression that the in this field, the most natural way to understand the nihilist schema I've exposed is considering 'objectivity' to be a certain higher-order property of an entity.

    If an aurochs exists, an aurochs instantiates the property 'existence', as in the sentence:

    \exists x, Ex \& Ax

    Formally, 'existence' itself is represented as a predicate that ranges over a given variable and 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are higher-order predicates that range over the predicate 'existence'.

    In this view, there are two different modes under which something that is real may be realized. For the sake of clarity in this already complicated discussion, let us use 'reality' or 'realness' to name this property and use 'existence' in a more abstract sense that is supposed to be captured by the use of existential quantification in predicate logic.

    Objective reality (or existence, if you will) is a type of reality that is contrasted with subjective reality. To put it simply, it is the thesis that are two distinct ways in which some thing can be real, either objectively or subjectively.

    'Objectivity' and 'subjectivity' are n-order predicates for the (n-1)-order predicate 'reality', that I am representing by the predicate 'E'.

    It looks like this; take 'objectivity' to be a property represented by the 2nd-order predicate '\mathcal{O}'. To say that aurochs are an objective item of reality in second order logic is to write:

    \exists \mathcal{O}[\exists x, \mathcal{O}Ex \& Ax]

    In a Fregean view of existence, for instance, that would make 'objectivity' and 'subjectivity' third-order predicates - more than enough to certainly make many logicians twist their stomachs, I'm sure. An for good reason; the implicit higher-order model theory to deal with the higher-order structures of higher-order logic can be theoretically are very tricky.

    Entities that have objective reality are often assumed to have a more special ontological status in comparison to that which only exists subjectively. Something that is subjectively real is often assumed to do a poor job at existing, as a second-class metaphysical citizen.

    A common claim that we see reiterated in various ways is that it is indispensable in ethics for at least certain forms of normativity to have objective grounding. Normative force that does not have objective standing is either not good enough (it is suboptimal) or not good at all (it adds nothing).

    The crown of objective reality is endorsed as an ideal and if it is the case that our most cherished values are plebeians incapable of being crowned, there is a line of thought that argues that this would be the worst kind of tragedy, to the point of despair. This is a theme present in both modern and contemporary continental european and contemporary anglophone philosophy which will be the subject of another entry that is still work in progress.

    Moral Nihilism, Moral Subjectivism and Moral Anti-Realism

    It's time to make things transparently clear for the uses of 'nihilism', 'subjectivism' and 'anti-realism' in moral philosophy and why it is wrong to conflate them.

    Let us expand a bit the definition for moral nihilism; a moral nihilist is someone that holds that there are no objectively real moral posits. No objective moral properties such as 'cruelty', no objective moral particulars such as The Form of the Good. According to a traditional framework, if there are no objectively moral properties to be exemplified, there are no objective moral facts and no objective moral truths either.

    Take x to be the relevant posit or posits of the domain of discourse in question. 'Anti-realism' is the stance with the greatest scope. It claims that it is not the case that x have any kind of reality whatsoever.

    'Subjectivism' on x is therefore inconsistent with 'anti-realism' on x for subjectivists on x hold that x are subjectively real. When the late moral nihilist J.L. Mackie [1] writes:

    ...no doubt if moral values are not objective they are in some very broad sense subjective...

    ...he is endorsing the subjective reality of moral values.

    Philosopher Jesse Prinz [2] has the same position; he denies objectivity to moral values without being a moral anti-realist.

    Inconclusive Thoughts And Some Personal Remarks

    I have said very little about the alleged metaphysical difference between that which is objectively real from that which is subjectively real. That is an extensive topic that will be the subject of my next entry.

    I must add that I am extremely unsatisfied with this traditional framework, which reeks of bad neo-scholasticism. And the centerpiece is the perennial distinction between subject and object itself. I believe that not only this distinction is deeply misleading and unnecessarily ensnarls important philosophical problems but that it is incompatible with a scientifically responsible view of the world. I have no fully-fledged alternative framework to replace it but I believe many hints on how it could be done have been advanced by contemporary researchers.

    A framework with some of the viewpoints expressed here is found for instance in the third version of the Real Pattern Theory of Ontology [3]. There, we have no second-class (or third-class, etc) metaphysical citizens. There are no degrees of reality; either something exists or it doesn't. Finer distinctions relating the 'ontological dependence' of certain Real Patterns towards certain intentional systems are always local in character, relating to etiology, history or pragmatical considerations. A band of ruminating aurochs in the cold plains of The North are just as real as the market value of Valyrian Steel in Westerosi society.

    The objective-subjective distinction is not going away in philosophy anytime soon. But I long for a future in an academic setting were the distinction and all the misleading baggage it carries will be seen, as Bertrand Russell once put it, as a 'relic of a bygone age'.

    Personal Acknowledgement

    I am grateful for my friend and brilliant logician Dante Cardoso Pinto de Almeida for personal discussions I've had in the process of writing this entry.

    References

    [1] J. L. Mackie, Ethics: inventing right and wrong, Penguin, 1977.
    [Bibtex]
    @book{Mackie1977a,
    abstract = {John Mackie's stimulating book is a complete and clear treatise on moral theory. His writings on normative ethics-the moral principles he recommends-offer a fresh approach on a much neglected subject, and the work as a whole is undoubtedly a major contribution to modern {philosophy.The} author deals first with the status of ethics, arguing that there are not objective values, that morality cannot be discovered but must be made. He examines next the content of ethics, seeing morality as a functional device, basically the same at all times but changing significantly in response to changes in the human condition. He sketches a practical moral system, criticizing but also borrowing from both utilitarian and absolutist views. Thirdly, the frontiers of ethics, areas of contact with psychology, metaphysics, theology, law and politcs, are {explored.Throughout}, his aim is to discuss a wide range of questions that are both philosophical and practical, working within a distinctive version of subjectivism-an "error" theory of the apparent objectivity of values. John Mackie has drawn on the contributions of such classic thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant and Sidgwick, and on more recent discussions, to produce a thought-provoking account that will inspire both the general reader and the student of philosophy.},
    author = {Mackie, J. L.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591438},
    number = {1},
    pages = {134--137},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Penguin},
    title = {Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong},
    year = {1977}
    }
    [2] J. J. Prinz, The emotional construction of morals, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    [Bibtex]
    @book{Prinz2007a,
    abstract = {Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defense of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behavior and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values},
    author = {Prinz, Jesse J.},
    citeulike-article-id = {13591439},
    posted-at = {2015-04-24 19:10:16},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {The Emotional Construction of Morals},
    year = {2007}
    }
    [3] J. Ladyman and D. Ross, Every thing must go: metaphysics naturalized, Oxford University Press, 2007.
    [Bibtex]
    @book{Ladyman2007a,
    author = {Ladyman, James and Ross, Don},
    citeulike-article-id = {12534918},
    posted-at = {2013-07-30 07:13:13},
    priority = {2},
    publisher = {Oxford University Press},
    title = {Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized},
    year = {2007}
    }