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Are There Any Definites in Philosophy?

  1. Nov 17, 2009 #1
    Topic says all I'm asking.

    Are there are any definites in philosophy?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 17, 2009 #2

    If by 'definites' you mean limits/boundaries then - No. Philosophy isn't quite an empirical discipline, though good philosophy borrows knowledge from all fields of science(not just physics). Philosophy attempts to transcend the limits of science and questions everything - from useful assumptions to the validity of human logic itself.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2009
  4. Nov 17, 2009 #3
    Yes: "There are no definites" is a definite.

    Oh wait... *head asplode*

    Sure there are definites. By "definites" I'm assuming you mean things that are necessarily true. Here's one for you:

    Define "2" as the addition of "1" and "1." 1+1=2. Necessary truth.

    Here's another:

    Define "bachelor" as meaning "an unmarried man." All unmarried men are bachelors. Necessary truth.

    The examples above are tautologies - meaning they are simple and self-evident definitional truths. If I left out the "define" portions of these statements, they would no longer be necessarily true because the meanings of the words used would be ambiguous. However, definitional truths don't necessarily correspond to anything in reality. There is nothing that says it is even possible for sure for my version of a bachelor to exist in reality. This is an issue with our ability to know what the truth about the world is. Also, one of the problems with language is that at some level someone has to arbitrarily define something, or else all words will be circular references to other meaningless words. The fact that I arbitrarily made up definitions above is no different than how it must be done at some level to have any language.

    There is another class of propositions that might also be considered definite in that you actually do have complete and unquestionable knowledge of their truth. These are subjective propositions. Descartes would tell you that "I exist" follows necessarily from "I think." How does he know he thinks? He's thinking about whether or not he thinks. Simply doubting his existence is proof of his existence.

    It is definite for me right now that I believe I am typing words on an online forum about philosophy. I definitely think my hands are a bit chilly and I should have worn longer sleeves. Etc. Descartes, playing the extreme skeptic, would tell you that the contents of your own perception are definite.
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2009
  5. Nov 17, 2009 #4


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    Definite truths would be what philosophy attempts to achieve. What philosophising has pretty much found is instead limits to development (the development of definite truths being an example).

    But by then "taking the limit", definite truths can be created, at least internal to those limits.

    So develop some axiom by generalisation (and always, dichotomisation) and that creates a limit. Internal to that space, all then can seem definitely true - as in maths and other formal models.
  6. Nov 17, 2009 #5


    Definite: There is at least this definite (possibly more).
  7. Nov 17, 2009 #6
    Define definite.
  8. Nov 18, 2009 #7


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    Definite mean crisp, the antithesis of indeterminate or vague. :wink:

    But as I say, it is better to treat these kinds of things as limits, as goals that are approached, rather than as things that actually "exist".

    So, for example, infinity is still best thought of as a limit to a process, an open operation, rather than as something that definitely exists. Though taking the limit is then a useful step in modelling reality. As long as we realise that this degree of definiteness is imagined rather than something that can be actual.
  9. Nov 18, 2009 #8
    Which would make it vague. :)
  10. Nov 18, 2009 #9


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    Yes, and also at the same time asymptotically crisp.

    An analogy would grey. We can head towards pure white or pure black, but never reach these limits. So as white or black as we could make things, they will still remain "a shade of grey".
  11. Nov 18, 2009 #10
    That seems like an awfuly arbitrary and artificial definiteness, when the simpler answer is just: No.

    But then, I never really liked Calculus. Always seemed like cheating.
  12. Nov 18, 2009 #11


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    It is a more complex approach, not so simple, but it could hardly be called arbitrary and artificial.

    Get back to the guts of logic, the law of the excluded middle. Things become definite when they become binary - a simple yes or a simple no. But excluding the middle is itself a process.

    The switch in thinking is from taking binary opposites as states which exist to limits that may be approached. The value of dealing in limits rather than existent states is that it rescues you from the usual paradoxes of duality (and monadicity too of course).

    In this particular case, we seem caught by a liar's paradox if we want to make self-referential statements about whether philosophy is capable of definite truths.

    If it definitely isn't (your simple no) then that becomes a definite truth that contradicts your answer.

    But then when take the opposite position (a simple yes) then we have to supply some convincing examples. And even with 1=1, or other axiomatic statements, we can argue they are subjective - being open to doubt and related to particular human purposes.

    How can we seriously doubt 1=1? I would construct the argument along the lines that the notion of "1" is really 1 specified to an infinity of decimal places. So 1.00... and not 1.00...1 or 0.999.... Now to know you were actually dealing with a true 1, you would have to have actually pinned it down with this infinite accuracy.

    Of course, people will then just protest that 1 is 1 by definition not process. But that is subjective - it is what a human wants to believe rather than what a human has actually measured.

    Anyway, everything can be doubted, even the fact we are cartesian doubters (though the reasonableness of extreme doubting of course is questionable). So the simple answer yes is either incorrect, or not so simply answered.

    The way out of this familiar bind is to instead say, well, definiteness and doubt (crispness and vagueness) are the limits of this process of knowing we call philosophy. We can go asymptotically far in both these directions, but we remain subjectively within the framework of what we create intellectually. We are bounded to either side by what seems definitely true - and also what seems to be the reasonable limits of doubt.

    The further benefit here is that you are dealing with both extremes simultaneously. The one theory deals with the definite~doubtful. Different directions become the one broken symmetry.
  13. Nov 18, 2009 #12
    That's just a linguistic paradox. Definite is an abstract notion, and you can't apply that to the concrete without some kind of paradox ensuing. (Just like you can't 'observe' nothing, or an infinitely long line). 1+1=2 makes sense, and is useful, in the absract, but try applying that to concrete things and you run into the problem that you can't really have 2 identical things. Even assuming they are exactly equal to each other, they are still distinct. We ignore this paradox most of the time, but it is still there.

    So what you're really saying in a concrete context... If I have one thing that I find arbitrarily similar to another thing, that I also currently have, then I have two similar things.

    There is nothing definite about that, its all contingent. As long as I stay in the abstract, binaries and numbers are fine, but when we talk about what exists... we're no longer talking about abstractions, and paradoxes intrude.

    Binaries are useful, and so are limits and such but only as definitions and vague descriptions. So, when I say no definites exist in philosophy... I'm either speaking abstractly... in which case I have to fully and exhaustively define philosophy, or I'm speaking concretely, in which case I'm saying that, its my best judgement that the abstract notion of 'definite' doesn't describe anything useful in discipline of philosophy... unlike say, matter or energy. Matter and energy still involve pardoxes, just not ones that are important to their meaning... in most contexts. (Einstein's equation about matter and energy really redefined both concepts in fairly fundamental ways.)

    But what you are describing are two different processes. Abstractly, 1 is a precise definition, concretely its a vague tool for measurement. So both are true.
    I'd say denial is different from honest doubt. Descarte assumed honesty as part of his rationalism.
  14. Nov 19, 2009 #13


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    Of course there are these two levels. And the discussion was about what you call the abstract level - what can "objectively" be known as definite through logical argument. The concrete level would be that of the pragmatic models we then spin - but based on a level of confidence that we have indeed extracted some measure of definite truth.

    So they are separate levels, and also operationally connected.

    Furthermore, the point you then obscure is that I was making claims about what could be achieved at the abstract level. I was saying instead of simple binary divisions as a result of seeking to exclude the middle, we could make more interesting logical separations.

    So you are not actually mounting arguments against this central point, just introducing separate issues that can be easily conceeded.
  15. Nov 19, 2009 #14
    If it is purely abstract, then it is entirely definitional. Some definitions are more precise than others.

    1.0000 is no more accurate than 1, accuracy requires some comparison. If you are describing binary code, then the integer 1, is appropriate, and 1.0000 is not only 'not more accurate' but actually meaningless.

    Similarly, -1 is a perfectly acceptable number, unless you are describing something in Kelvin, at which point its not that -1 is less accurate than -1.00000, its that it doesn't fall within the definition of the number system. On the abstract level, Kelvin represents an arbitrary number system. Its only when you relate it to something concrete, an actual temperature, that it can gain anything like an 'objective' value.

    So we aren't talking about objective facts, only tautologies.
    You can create all the definitions you want, but there is nothing objective about them, that is, unless they related directly to something that is concrete, which ends up being vague.

    And limits are entirely abstract, as they represent something that doesn't exist.
    Absolute zero is a definition.
    0.000000001 Kelvin is something that could be measured.
    Infinity cannot be measured. It can only be defined and represented mathematically.

    So if you are talking 'definite', you are talking about something that is abstract and arbitrary. That doesn't mean its useless, but its not objective in any way.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2009
  16. Nov 19, 2009 #15


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    Good example. So which is more "precise" here? The idea of absolute zero as a limit to what can be achieved or as something that is actually reached? QM indeterminancy (ie: vagueness) tells us the former - the limit.

    And now if we want to create an abstract model that captures this truth about the world, turns into the generality of a mathematical apparatus?

    You are reacting out of misunderstanding as seems usual. I take either a limits approach or an absolutest approach as both potentially valid models. The world does not have to be actually either (it could really be something else again, for sake of argument). But the limits approach does seem more "truthful" when it comes to dealing with the modelling of systems, vagueness, boundaries, development, QM...the kinds of things I happen to be interested in modelling.

    Crude models can get some of the truth, more sophisticated ones would get more of it. But we would still be making choices justified by our modelling purposes.
  17. Nov 19, 2009 #16


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    And strangely this is a point I have made repeatedly in past posts. The limits of dichotomies are precisely what cannot exist I've said. They are the boundaries that systems cannot reach in their asymptotic development.

    So returning to grey => black~white as a simple metaphor. Pure black and pure white would be the boundary states that grey could approach but not actually become. Because - quite logically - if grey turned into black, then black would exist and could no longer be considered a limit to greyness. And this would be an abstract definitional truth in your terms - arising out of a concrete experience of the world perhaps, but now being stated as an axiom of a logic.
  18. Nov 19, 2009 #17
    And thus are not objective. They are arbitrary and completely dependent on the assumptions one chooses to make.
    I have no problem with that. Black simply has no objective value. I could just as easily make blue and yellow limits. Circle and square don't have objective value either. Nor does pi. These are the logical extension of 'definitions', axioms or assumptions. That makes them imaginary constructs, completely subjective. Their precision is based on the fact they are limited by their definition. Objects in the world are not so limited, they can be, arguably, objective, but are by necessity vague, because no description (as opposed to definition) does them justice. So either you have something precise, but imaginary and constructed, or something 'objective', but vague.
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2009
  19. Nov 20, 2009 #18
    I think philosophy can have many truths but inorder to find them you need a great foundation to build the truths upon. I see my efforts with philosophy as having been a building down process so I can build it up again once I found the bottom. The main thing I try to keep in mind is that one wrong can take two or more rights to correct. So it is very important to not make mistakes as best possible and only after im sure im not making mistakes do I dare start to correct the ones already made.
  20. Nov 20, 2009 #19


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    How can things be arbitrary if they are completely dependent on their axioms? Perhaps you mean that the axioms are a choice? Which would mean the axioms are ultimately subjective, for sure, but I would hope not arbitrary as well. Usually we would expect reasons for the choices we make. Can you explain your continual use of the word arbitrary in this discussion?
  21. Nov 20, 2009 #20
    And where do those reasons come from? We choose axioms that we feel correspond to whatever it is we wish to talk about. But that choice is based on a subjective assessment of our vague descriptive world.

    When you are dealing with 'pure abstraction', where you start(with what axioms) is completely arbitrary. You can certainly maintain logic within such a system, but that systems internal logic says nothing about whether is describes anything that actually exists. So the purely abstract is not objective in any sense. It is just tautology.

    We do however choose specific 'axioms', and therefore systems, that we feel correspond to concrete reality. But our concrete reality is entirely descriptive, and therefore incomplete and/or vague. So the correspondence, while it may be useful, tells us nothing definitive about the world. Axioms don't define the world, we create (useful)axioms that we feel correspond to our subjective descriptions of the world.

    There is no precise demarckation in concrete reality, we can only be precise in the abstract. Our experience with the world, is both vague and wholely subjective.

    So you can't claim anything definite in philosophy, because, if its purely abstract, then its arbitrary, and if you claim a foundation in the concrete, then you move from definition to description. The latter is entirely vague.

    This is essentially why logical positivism failed. Combining the rational and empirical has limits... :)
  22. Nov 21, 2009 #21


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    Your argument is all over the shop. The fact that choices are subjective does not make them arbitrary in any usual sense of the word. We make choices and test them against the world, chucking out any ideas that are ineffective (like belief in magic, psi, etc). We also generalise to reduce the variety in the ideas we use. It is all very systematic, even if ultimately subjective. I really have no idea what you are trying to argue here.

    To get back to the OP, we can see that there are a number of very general dichotomies that seem definite in philosophy.

    Like stasis~flux. If things aren't changing, then they must be still. If they are not still, they must be changing. This seems definite by mutual exclusion, the law of the excluded middle. What other choices are there but either that things are still or moving - except that the situation is vague?

    Or discrete~continuous. If things are discrete, they can't be continuous and vice versa. What other possibilities are there? So these two complementary states seem like philosophical definites. The only further possibility is that the state of things is vague.

    So this is how philosophy has always arrived at its definite possibilities, its either/ors. Now the next step then is to consider the mechanics of the dichotomy itself. What do we really understand it to mean? Do these fundamental asymmetries actually exist in nature (are things ever completely still, or completely changing?). Or in nature, do things only tend towards these polarities as limits. Taking relativity and QM into account, we know what a physicist might think.

    These are the kinds of questions you ought to be addressing yourself to rather than rambling on about the arbitrariness of our modelling choices.
  23. Nov 21, 2009 #22

    QFT - fields and 'particles'.

    Fields are more mathematical but the 'space' where said 'particles'(probabilities) are mapped out is also mathematical. Generally speaking, as you are aware, common-sense examples rarely work outside the classical domain. Discrete vs Continuous is such an example that is deeply ingrained in our intuition. I am sure the general consensus in the community is that our intuition on this topic is wrong and QFT is right(even without having a theory of QG).
  24. Nov 21, 2009 #23
    I recommend an introductory course in philosophy, which will detail the difference between an abstract rational argument, and an empirical investigation. The difference is pretty central to any understanding of modern.... or even ancient philosophy.
    Glad I never said that then. Maybe you need reading glasses.
    The making choices would be the arbitrary part, the testing them against the world would be the subjective part.... but I repeat myself....
    Clearly, but that doesn't mean I'm all over any shops, its just means you don't understand.
    The fact you can construct dichotomies is not the least bit impressive. In fact, you could construct an endless number of dichotomies, ranging from cat and notcat to dog and notdog. Its a straight forward matter of identity... of definition. The fact that not-cat covers a helluvalot more territory doesn't change the fact its just true by definition. And cat/not cat is quite useful.... if you are a cat owner.

    You should look up the difference between rational and empirical.... or maybe not.
  25. Nov 21, 2009 #24


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    This is indeed the kind of physical example which I am saying should inspire a different approach to logic. Why do we insist on being atomists in logic and maths when reality appears to have a different basis? It is not about point particles that exist but potentials that are dichotomous.
  26. Nov 21, 2009 #25


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    This is not the way dichotomies work. They need to be asymmetries. They need to be so unlike that they appear orthogonal, to have nothing of the other as part of their own identity.

    Cat and non-cat is not a strong division as many things in the non-cat camp could still have cat-like qualities, such as fur, life, dissipation. We are talking here about philosophical definites (oh, you forgot).

    So discrete~continuous is such a dichotomy. There are a bunch more. I would argue that local~global and vague~crisp are the most universal, all encompassing, dichotomies so far imagined by humans. And they go together as a system - development~existence.

    So this is way beyond an "endless number". We are generalising to discover the irreducible basis of modelling.

    In category theory, they've boiled it down to object~morphism. Or sometimes, structure~morphism. I feel this is making the mistake of compounding the ideas of existence and development. Although this could be really that I am interested in logic - causal process - and maths collapses everything further to functional mappings.

    Anyway, JoeDawg, a dichotomy reduction project is going on right under your nose. And you cannot open a book on ancient philosophy, east or west, without also finding it to be the basis of original wisdom.

    So you find the dichotomy rational~empirical to be non-arbitrary? You see how you have to employ them even without realising it. Philosophy is about us fishes discovering the water in which we swim.

    And if you want a non-introductory level story on this, something more up to date, then again I recommend you read Rosen's modelling relations work. It explains how rationalism and empiricism go together as formal models and informal measurements.

    If you prefer some other approach to epistemology, please cite a reference. Show us you do read books and papers yourself.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2009
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