Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Essentialism and reductionism

Mike D over at The Aunicornist has, once again, devoted a couple of posts to refuting the metaphysics of Thomism. Since I am myself a Thomist I felt the need to deal with such arguments and assertions. I will, for now, be dealing with this post of Mikes. So, let’s dig in.
Mike states the following:

[W]e all agree that if tomorrow all humans were wiped off the face of the Earth,cats (for example) would still be cats—that is, they would retain the amalgam of physical properties that our brains categorizeas simply “cats”, even there [sic] wouldn’t be anyone around to say, “Hey, that’s a cat!” But does it follow, then, that cats have a property of identity that makes them cats?

Here Mike demonstrates his poor understanding of Thomism by conflating identity with essence. What Mike is talking about here is essence which is just that whereby something is what it is. To grasp a thing’s essence is to grasp all the properties that are essential to that thing remaining that very thing. Or, to take Mike’s example, the essence of a cat is comprised of whatever properties a cat must have for it to remain a cat. Yet, Mike here uses the terms “the property of identity.” But, identity is not the same thing as essence. It is an essence that makes something what it is and not identity. Identity is more broad and more tautological. The property of identity simply means that something is identical to itself and is not identical to what it isn’t. A corollary of this is that all of a thing’s properties are contained in its identity. Yet this is not the same with regards to a thing’s essence.
Let’s use an example to illuminate the distinction between identity and essence. Take two chairs. Each particular chair is identical to itself and is not identical to the other chair even if they both look  exactly the same. Yet, these chairs do share the same essence in that they both provide a seat—here providing a seat is the essence of being a chair. So, two objects can share an essence without being identical. This is because identity takes all of a thing’s properties into account whereas essence only takes essential properties into account. It is essential that a chair provide a seat, but it is not essential for a chair to have four legs. Yet, when contemplating a chair’s identity it is crucial to include the property of how many legs it has—for a chair with four legs is obviously not identical to a chair with three.

All this is important because Mike, in the quote above, is again conflating identity with essence, which wouldn’t have happened if Mike adequately understood the position he’s attempting to refute. So, while none of this, so far, undermines Mike’s arguments, it does demonstrate that Mike does not understand his opponent’s positions the way he thinks he does.

Mike then illustrates his (already confused) argument with an example of a mountain:

Mountains are formed, if I remember grade school geology correctly, when massive tectonic plates press against each other, forcing the earth to slowly rise over eons. I wonder how the Thomist might think about this, then—at what point does the earth have the property of identity of a mountain, versus just being a really big hill or a giant pile of rocks?

Again, Mike should be talking about essence here, and not identity. For a mountain, or hill, at any stage in its formation will still always be identical to itself. And thus, the “property of identity” will always be present. What Mike means to argue here is that if we watched the earth slowly rising over eons then at what point could we say that the earth exhibits the essence of a mountain, as opposed to a hill? The point of this example is to demonstrate that determining the essence of something is not always so clear cut, and that such an endeavor can run into ambiguities and vagueness.

Yet, this argument doesn’t really make the case that Mike thinks it does. First, a Thomist would not claim that determining a thing’s essence is always an easy endeavor. It is in some cases very difficult to determine what the essence of something is, or how such an essence differs from the essence of another. But nothing about this difficulty demonstrates that there are no such things as essences. The real problem then deals with epistemology, and not ontology. Encountering difficulty in determining a thing’s essence is an epistemic problem, while proclaiming that things do not have an essence is an ontological problem, and Mike is conflating the two.  In order for Mike’s example to have any force he would need to demonstrate that difficulty in determining a thing’s essence entails that essences are therefore nonexistent. But Mike has not done this.

Second, Mike’s argument actually makes the case for Thomistic essentialism, and not against. By picking a vague case of determining essence, Mike is implicitly conceding that there are cases that are not vague. In fact, most cases are not vague. One could easily identify the essence of the brain, the heart, water, human rationality etc. The fact is that we can find an abundance of easily identifiable essences all around us. So why should we call essentialism into question because of a few exceptional cases that run into obscurity, instead of affirming essentialism due to the abundance of its applicability? There is no reason. The fact is that we wouldn’t even be able to recognize vague instances of identifying essence if we didn’t already have clear and precise examples.
Mike then articulates one of his central arguments:

Thomists take things like identity, essence, nature, 'prime matter' and potentiality to be literally real properties of the external world, independently of human minds. But at every turn, we can see that we have no reason whatsoever to think that any of these 'metaphysical' properties are anything more than conceptual constructs. There's no reason for us to think that the concept of "cat" is anything more than a useful categorization of our brains for a particular arrangement of matter; we have no reason to think that there exists any such a thing as the identity, essence, or nature of a cat independently of our minds.
Mike is making the argument that our metaphysical concepts are mind-dependent, and that they are simply constructs of our brain that help us order and identify the world we experience. There is no essence of a cat independently of our minds. The essence of a cat is simply something that our brains have constructed in order to arrange the matter that makes up a cat.
While this viewpoint might seem parsimonious, it is rife with problems. First, the world is exactly the way we would expect if there were in fact actual essences and identities of things. One example of this is unity. Let’s illustrate. If I consider all four of my dogs—my Chihuahua, Dachshund, Beagle and Blue Heeler—I can see that all of them share the same essence of “dogness” even though they are not identical. And in that sense they share in a unity between them. They are all individual particulars yet they are in fact related to one another. They are related to one another in a way that they are not related to a cup, a tree, or a lamp. But if Mike is correct, and dogs share no “essence” and we simply construct such things in our brain, then why is it the case that we attribute a shared essence to all these dogs? The only way one can answer this is to say that these dogs, in mind-independent reality, exhibit similar characteristics and have similar properties that allow us to group them into these related “kinds”. But then this simply makes the case for the Thomist! For this is what the Thomist has been arguing all along. For dogs can only be grouped into a specific kind because they have certain dispositions and properties that make them dogs, as opposed to, say, frogs. And it is these dispositions and properties that constitute an essence. So, the fact that the world contains a multitude of particulars yet many of these particulars are unified only makes sense on essentialism.

Second, Mike seems to forget that our concepts are always derived from reality itself. He is so smitten with Model-Dependent Realism and Embodied Realism that he seems to think that our brains literally make this stuff  (like essences) up. (A common example he uses is the way our brain “creates” color. But this is false. Our brains don’t create color. They simply perceive the raw materials of sense datum in a certain way so as to “see’ color. But everything that causes us to see color (e.g. wavelengths and photons ) already exists in the world. So color does exist, it simply exists virtually instead of formally. All this is to say that we perceive color because color exists virtually in reality, and is not a simple construct of our brain. ) But if our concepts are abstracted from reality then this simply isn’t the case. To use an example, I can tell the difference between an apple and an orange. Why? Is it simply because my brain arranges the matter into two different categories? Or is it because there is a real difference between the properties and dispositions of an apple and an orange and my mind is abstracting those differences? Obviously it must be the latter. But if this is true, then there must be something about an apple that makes it different than an orange. And we know this to be true because my understanding of the essence of an orange is different from the essence of an apple. But these essences weren’t simply constructed by my brain, rather they are rooted in the properties of the objects themselves in mind-independent reality.

Mike then states the following:
[W]e can reject the Thomistic metaphysical gobbledygook on the principle of parsimony — the notion that cats have a distinct, non-physical property of 'catness' (their 'essence'), for example, is completely superfluous to our understanding and description of what a cat is. We can have a fully accurate, useful description of the animal simply by recognizing it as an amalgam of physical properties which our brains categorize in a particular way, and nothing more. There is no need to postulate any extra non-physical or 'metaphysical' properties to understand what a cat is, why it behaves as it does, or what it evolved from. Since the assumption of the existence of such things is not essential to our description or understanding of cats, we can discard it. We don't even have to demonstrate its falsity — i.e., somehow 'disprove' the existence of those metaphysical properties — we can simply discard them as superfluous and thus meaningless.
A few responses here. First, nobody has argued that postulating things like essences and identities are pragmatic. So why would Mike be looking for pragmatism here? Why? Because Mike has an empiricist presupposition, and anything that is not scientifically observable, predictable, and measurable is, to him, not pragmatic and therefore “superfluous.” But in order for Mike’s position to be vindicated, he would need to demonstrate that science is the only path to knowledge. But Mike knows that this is self-undermining. So why, then, should we believe that metaphysical concepts like essence and identity can be thrown out simply because science has no use of them? The answer is that there is no reason.

 Moreover, let it not be forgotten that science is only interested in the quantitative aspects of the world and not the qualitative. Yet, metaphysical concepts like identity and essence are not quantitative, and therefore the fact that they might not be pragmatic in scientific investigation is completely irrelevant, since science isn’t looking for them to begin with!
Second, Mike’s argument above implicitly affirms reductionism. That is, Mike believes that any entity or object is nothing more than an amalgam of its physical parts and components. But reductionism runs into problems. For example, if water is nothing but hydrogen and oxygen composed together, then water should not have any dispositions and properties different from its constituents. But surely water does have properties that differ from hydrogen and oxygen. So then water cannot be nothing more than its physical parts. At this point one might say that we should expect water to have different properties than its parts alone, because water isn’t simply hydrogen and oxygen, but hydrogen and oxygen bonded together. So of course hydrogen and oxygen bonded together will behave different than hydrogen and oxygen by themselves. But this is exactly the anti-reductionist’s point. If water behaves differently than its constituents, then there is something about water as a substance in itself that amounts to more than its parts. Thus stated, if a substance has properties that its physical parts do not have by themselves, then there is something over and above these parts alone that make up the dispositions of said substance, and therefore a substance cannot be said to be nothing but an amalgam of its parts.

Hence we see that Mike D has failed to make his case. First, he has shown that he doesn’t even correctly comprehend the position he is arguing against. He constantly rebukes those who recommend Scholastic literature to him, yet he’s shown that his research into this very area is minimal and is lacking. So why not at least buy a book that gives a formal defense of such a position? That would be my recommendation. Second, he has tried to demonstrate why metaphysical concepts like essence and identity are meaningless and superfluous, yet his arguments are rife with problems. Third, he’s attempted to affirm metaphysical theories like reductionism which, when considered, only lead back to the very metaphysical concepts he was attempting to overthrow. I maintain, then, that nowhere have we seen good reason to overthrow Scholastic metaphysics, let alone metaphysics themselves.



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