ON THE DEFINITION OF MATERIAL THINGS - TONY THOMAS - ATHENAEUM LIBRARY OF PHILOSOPHY

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ON THE DEFINITION OF MATERIAL THINGS


Tony Thomas





ON THE DEFINITION OF MATERIAL THINGS



TONY THOMAS

Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and political diatribes to the newspapers. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics. His politics are left wing anarchism, but his activities are restricted to the pen rather than the sword. Tony is actually a well known poet, writer, mathematician and logician of some stature, though he modestly complains that on the contrary, he is not only obscure - but unknown, and should probably be described as such. On this website his prose pieces and poems attract an increasing number of regular readers - so I reckon he is wrong for once - enjoy. ( Editor.)




ON THE DEFINITION OF MATERIAL THINGS Tony Thomas


It is clear from the definition of the word 'thing' that the word is not restricted to material things (definition 2) but applies to events as well (definition 3). Therefore its use in philosophical discussion requires some clarification. The relevant categories are: material things, events and the referents of any nouns not included in the first two categories. The three terms can be denoted by 'material things', 'events' and 'other things'.

General existential statements can be made in respect of each category as follows:

Material things exist Events exist (happen or occur) Other things exist, happen or occur

Examples of particular existential statements within these categories might be:

The Moon exists The last transit of Venus occurred on June 8 2004 Einstein invented the Theory of Relativity

It is clear from these examples that the word 'exist' has a different meaning as applied to each category.

The first statement is rather general and depends for its truth on empirical observation and agreement between the relevant observers that the subject is he same for each observer. If an astronomer declares that the Earth has two moons, a visible one and an invisible one, he would be required to provide evidence of the material existence of the second moon. The existence of this second moon would have to be confirmed by any independent observer who was capable of the special observations required to reveal the hidden moon.

The second case differs from the first in that the transit is restricted to observers on the Earth's surface, and does not apply to observers on the Moon. The transit is a peculiar kind of event in that it does not involve the transformation of a thing of type (1) but rather the relative position of three objects: the Earth, the Sun and Venus. This is not essentially different from the shuffling of a pack of cards, where the pack remains the same 'thing' but has a different arrangement after the shuffling has been done. This example reveals the arbitrary nature of some kinds of things that have independent parts that are themselves things of type (1).

The third example has for its subject a deceased person and for its object an idea. Acceptance of the sentence as meaningful (which it is) requires the critic to accept both the previous existence of the person Einstein (a type (1) thing now mostly dissipated into its atomic parts) and of the type (3) thing called The Theory of Relativity. This theory, like any other, does not exist as either a type (1) or a type (2) object but as a possible brain state in the bodies of sufficiently educated humans. The existence of this brain state is a type (2) existence.

In the first case, the existence of the Moon depends on the brain states of the observers, in a similar way to the dependence of The Theory of Relativity on a different kind of brain state. Observations of the moon do involve the senses, whereas understanding The Theory of relativity does not require such an interaction. However both involve events in the form of neural transformations.

The assertion, "the Moon exists" can be made without the brain states associated with observing the Moon, but depends for its truth on the 'existence' (type (3) meaning of exist) of such observations, either by the speaker or by other reliable observers. The statement can be true when there are no extant brain states corresponding to a Moon observation. This kind of fossilised truth is called knowledge.

What has been argued is that statements that material bodies exist depend for their truth on observations, and that these observations involve ephemeral brain states and longer term brain states (memories and knowledge). To say that so-and-so exists is merely to say that certain commonly occurring brain states suggest that there is a permanent cause of the sensation associated with the object concerned. What is actually being asserted is the 'existence' or recurrence of the brain states rather than the supposed cause of the states.

Under category (3) one must include such important phenomena as hunger, thirst, desire, pain, fear, joy, anger and many other "ills that flesh is heir to". The statement, "pain exists" can be inferred from the statement, "I am in pain". The existence referred to is the experience of the pain. This is analogous to saying, "I see the Moon" meaning "I am experiencing a visual sensation that I recognise as the Moon". The elision from experiencing the sensation to asserting the existence of what is supposed to be the cause of the sensation underpins what is meant by a type (1) existential assertion. The moon exists neither more nor less that the pain of toothache, because the supposed existence of a cause of a sensation cannot be proved beyond doubt.

In the case of the toothache, a simple experiment is possible. Pressing on the tooth increases the pain and demonstrates a definite connection between a physical thing (the tooth) and the action of touching the tooth with a finger. However, the connection between tooth and finger remains indirect since the sensation in the finger is just as subjective as the pain in the tooth. Similarly, any images in the mirror of the tooth being probed are equally subjective, being mediated through the sense of sight.

From the above analysis, it is clear that all three meanings of 'exist' are necessary for comprehensively describing human experience of 'the world'. The assertion that only type (3) existence has ontological significance ignores the close relationship between the three kinds of existence statements. All the statements of existence depend of subjective mediation

The word 'exist' has been defined above in three different senses so it will now be misleading to declare simply that x exists or does not exist without specifying the domain of x. The three chosen domains are (1) material things including persons, (2) events and (3) the referents of any nouns not included under (1) and (2).

It is now clear the word 'exist' depends for its meaning on the classes of things to which it applies. What is lacking is an explanation of what links together the three kinds of things. Esher's etching* 'Three Worlds' provides a graphic analogy for the three classes. The lowest world is represented by the fish, seen beneath the water of the lake. The second level is the surface of the water on that float fallen leaves. The third level is the reflection of the trees from which the leaves have fallen. The following interpretation of the etching is an invention to illustrate the meaning of the three kinds of existence under discussion. # See below

The water beneath the surface represents category (3) and includes all those experiences that are often called subjective, such as pain, hunger, thirst, anger or fear. The surface of the water with its sharp depiction of the leaves represents all sensory experiences such as sights; sounds and tactility that represent what are called real things. This stands for category (1). The reflections in the water represent category (2) or the events that constitute the real world ie the leaves must have come from somewhere, so we assume they came from the trees we see reflected in the water. This 'reflected world' is the realist assumption that there is such a thing as the real world underlying our sensory experiences.

The point of the analogy is that although the leaves are most clear and convincing, they are mediated through the senses. We cannot ignore the lower world, because this is the realm of pain and pleasure and all those type (3) things that cannot be assigned to the domain of the senses. The 'real' world is depicted as a reflection, reminding us that it is no more than a mental construct based on ubiquitous sensory experience.

The key idea is that we do not experience 'the world' as a whole but only a patchwork of sensation. The world idea, therefore, is exactly that, an idea. What links the three categories of things together is the fact that they are experienced. Furthermore, in the absence of experience there can be nothing at all. 'Either experience (consciousness) exists or nothing exists' is the first axiom of ontology.

The question then arises, to which category does 'experience' belong? The trite answer is that it belongs with the fish in category (3) but the better analogy is the water that the fish swims in. Awareness or consciousness is sui generis in that it refers to the basis of all types of experience, so a fourth category is required. The second axiom of ontology, therefore, is 'consciousness exists'.

Axiom 1 Either consciousness exists or nothing exists

Axiom 2 Consciousness exists

Theorem 1 Something exists

At this point, but not before, it is appropriate to enquire about the division of consciousness into the three kinds of 'things' as defined above. To say that any of these things exist rests on the basis of experiencing these things. Reports of things by other things are of secondary import, since such reports are not primary data unmediated by the hypothesis that there are things in the phenomenal field that are capable of such reports.

The materialist hypothesis can now be introduced by asking, "do the things of type (1) exist independently of consciousness, and if so what is the evidence for this? Historically, this is an important question because the answer affects the distinction between magic, religion and science. However, what is of primary concern here is to examine how the meaning of the word 'exist' is being used.

So far, the meaning of 'exist' has been restricted to the three categories of things as they are experienced. The term does not extend into the hypothetical realm of 'reality'. Since the three categories clearly belong in the domain of consciousness, an extension of the meaning of 'exist' is now required to signify that they belong to some extra conscious domain. This will be denoted by the term 'extra conscious existence' or ECE.

When we experience a tree (say) we can say, "the tree exists", without qualifying which kind of existence is intended. Since the tree belongs to type (1) we know that the tree behaves like other members of this class. In particular, it seems to have a kind of existence called material. This is not true of all members of the class since not all gases are detectable by the senses.

Assigning the category ECE to the tree adds nothing to the experience of tree but does require the assigning of that category to most if not all of the members of category (1) things. Once this has been done, the existence of a material reality is accomplished. This amounts to saying, "all category (1) things are category ECE things". It only remains to say "only category (1) things are ECE things", to render both category (1) or the ECE category redundant. Once this has been accepted, it is soon forgotten that category (1) things are just a subclass of conscious experiences that have now been reified by the category ECE.

In summary, a materialist is one who believes that the ECE category confers independent existence on the class of experiences denoted by category (1). Furthermore, since categories (2) and (3) do not belong to the ECE class, they are deemed not to exist. So, to say that category (2) and category (3) things do not exist is to say no more than that they have not been labelled as belonging to the ECE category. This is meaningful insofar as it distinguishes correctly between the categories of experience and valuable if the ECE category has the special status materialists attribute to it. However, the creation of a hypothetical domain of material things does not of itself prove that there is in fact any such separate domain.

Thing n.
1 an object that one need not, cannot, or does not wish to give a specific name to. (things) personal belongings or clothing.
2 an inanimate material object, especially as distinct from a living sentient being. a living creature or plant. a person or animal in terms of one's feelings of pity, approval, etc.: you lucky thing!
3 an action, activity, concept, or thought. (things) unspecified circumstances or matters.
4 (the thing) informal what is needed or required. what is socially acceptable or fashionable.
5 (one's thing) informal one's special interest or concern.
- PHRASES be on to a good thing informal be in a situation that is pleasant, profitable, or easy. be hearing (or seeing) things imagine that one can hear (or see) something that is not in fact there. a close (or near) thing a narrow avoidance of something unpleasant. do one's own thing informal follow one's own inclinations regardless of others. have a thing about informal have a preoccupation or obsession with. there is only one thing for it there is only one possible course of action. (now) there's a thing informal used as an expression of surprise.
- ORIGIN OE (also in the senses 'meeting' and 'matter, concern'), of Gmc origin.