Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Are Unseen Things Real?

On Facebook, my friends and I are carrying on a discussion about nominalism and realism, spurred on by my post The Spirit of Antichrist.  Tom Leith seems to believe that nominalists are right, that only specific and particular things exist and that words that speak of abstractions such as "form" and "essence" are perhaps useful words, but are words that do not correspond to reality.  At any rate, that's what I think Tom believes, for he puts this forth as a rebuttal to my realist philosophy ...

Kevin, I'll give you a line from Moby Dick (ch 32) and then I'm not going to carry on with this on Facebook -- it is just too big a topic. ...

"To be short, then, a whale is A SPOUTING FISH WITH A HORIZONTAL TAIL. There you have him."

To which I reply ...

Tom, SPOUTING describes a general activity that we can recognize specific instances of; FISH is as general a term as "whale"; HORIZONTAL and TAIL are both abstractions, terms that describe a category rather than pointing to a specific thing. Language cannot be used in a nominalist sense. If these abstractions aren't "real", if they don't correspond to reality, if the form recognized by the word FISH is just a convention and not a real thing, then we're fooling ourselves by saying anything. 

Beyond that, I assert that nominalism eventually leads to the atomization of experience - nothing is general, everything is specific.  You can't even comment on time or space beyond your current specific impression of them.  Indeed, nominalism, if consistent, must deny that even the property of "being" is real.  Individual things may exist, but in nominalism they cannot be said to share in the same quality of "being", a quality that explains them, a quality that sane people know is a real (though unseen) thing, independent of them.  You can't even say the word IT in nominalism, for the word IT implies an object that exists.  And no object can be said to share the qualities of any other object (including existence), for such qualities are abstractions and are not "real" (in nominalist thinking).  Such qualities are simply conventions that we observe by our own quirkish way of looking at the world, and do not necessarily correspond to reality.

But if there is no spirit, there can be no incarnation; if there is no form, there can be no in-form-ation; if there is no intangible reality, there can be no tangible reality.  There can only be things you touch or see before you from moment to moment, blunt impressions not unlike blunt trauma.

It takes a leap of faith to recognize the most basic abstraction that all things share - existence.  Once we see that we all depend on that and that existence is real, we see God and we see our way out of this madhouse where nothing connects to anything - or to more nothing.

"Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing" -T.S. Eliot, Introduction to Dante's Inferno


Anonymous said...

Would it be too pert to note that he's not even correct in the nominalist sense? That is, a whale is a mammal, not a fish.

Tom Leith said...

> Tom Leith seems to believe that
> nominalists are right

Seems Brother Kevin? I know not seems.

You are looking for fights in all the wrong places.

And Ms. Anonymous here makes my point, albeit ignorantly. You missed it entirely.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Well, then, what is your point?

Tom Leith said...

The point is that the argument of the idealists cannot be so easily dismissed as you suppose, or that the argument of the realists can be accepted so easily.

Is a whale a mammal or a fish? Depends on where you lay the intellectual scalpel and, if it depends on where you cut, then how can you think "fishiness", "whaleitude" and "mammal-nature" are things that exists on their own, whether or not there is any instance of "fish" or "whale" or "mammal"? Melville thinks a thing can be both a fish and a whale. Ms. Anonymous thinks not -- she's lain her intellectual scalpel somewhere else (he said, generously). But which is it? What's the link among language, mental categories, and reality?

You're accusing people of being of being willfully dense or worse, and not acknowledging that the nature of existence is not described very well, and that many philosophers beginning in the 12th century have noticed the problem and called it a problem.

Will you do the reading for Paul's reading group on this topic?


Kevin O'Brien said...

Brother Tom, I would love to read and discuss this with you and Paul. I have about 2,000 pages of stuff that I must read and study for Theater of the Word first - in preparation for playing Tolkien and Orestes Brownson. If we can wait a few months, I'll be more free to read what I want.

Now, then.

Your argument here is similar to your argument in the Statutory Rape debate, which seemed to be (forgive me, I know like Hamlet you "know not seems") - which seemed to be, "Since the line must be drawn somewhat arbitrarily, the whole concept must be arbitrary." In other words, since one sixteen year old may be much more mature than another, what right do we have to say sex with a 16-year-old is statutory rape?

In a similar way, to say that there are problems with our system of taxonomy, and that we sometimes struggle to classify a thing a mammal or a fish is not to say that such formal distinctions do not exist. On the contrary, a struggle to define indicates the validity of definition.

Is taxonomy to a certain extent arbitrary and is it an imperfect human system? Of course. Does it follow, therefore, that there are no real distinctions in form that taxonomy seeks to recognize? Of course not.

This whole debate seems to be (seems to be) about whether or not immaterial things are real.

Form is a great example. We see form all around us. We can't touch it, we can't pick it up and weigh it, but we see it and we see its effects.

Ideas and forms are quite real. Does it follow from this the Platonic notion that the form creates the matter? Not at all. We don't know how the two are related, but we see the reality of them both - one we can touch and the other we cannot, but we see the reality of them both.

Tom Leith said...

Oh my.

Nick D said...

Oh my is right.