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Time, Ontology & Platonic Reality vs Material Reality

  1. Jun 27, 2012 #1
    I’m not sure in what is the best way approach this topic in-order to stay within the forum guidelines but I hope I’ve done so. From the recent moderator actions, this topic it is too far removed from the philosophy of mathematics to be part of that thread. The basic question is whether existence is purely physical and precisely at the present (constrained by time) or whether we can expand the notion of existence to include such things as: ideas and possible future events.

    This relates to the mathematics thread, in that, math is not physical. It is an idea of our mind and hence cannot exist in the physical world. However, Plato took a different notion of existence and for instance considered the form of a triangle to be more real than the imperfect material representations of triangles. One analogy Plato used to support this view in, “The Republic", was the, “Allegory of the Cave”. In this analogy he compared our sense understanding of the world to shadows on the cave. These shadows let us know something of the object but hid the true form of the object. Plato said that if all we saw were the shadows on the wall then we may come to believe that they represent reality rather than the object which casts the shadows.

    Well generally our language is such that, for something to exist, it must be present and it must be observable (for if something existed in the past we say it no longer exists and if we can’t observe something we dismiss it as nonsense). However, Plato’s view of reality is not completely foreign to the field of physics.

    For instance some models of physics includes hidden variables such as dimensions we cannot see and particle physics considers an observed object to be a superposition of eignstates (or at a lower level a super position of Feynman Diagrams). Yet prior to measurement these states only define the probabilities of future measurements. That is: each state represents a possible future measurement and; no state is actually realized until we take a measurement. In other words, all possible measurements existed, a prior, to any actual realization.

    I am more inclined to take the Material view of reality yet this seems to a degree a Symantec choice, in that, I know thoughts and ideas exist in my mind, yet I can’t touch or see them. The best I can say is that it is epiphenomenal. Similarly with quantum mechanics, I dismiss it as merely a tool to make predictions, yet there are many people who believe that models of physics represent reality. Thus, the most I know on this topic is, my own ignorance.
    Last edited: Jun 27, 2012
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  3. Jun 27, 2012 #2

    Ken G

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    My take is that we are not handed existence, and then we try to figure out what it is, instead we create the notion of existence, and define it so as to get some use out of the idea. We don't know why we get use out of the idea, and this is hard to answer, but we know that we do. This also means that the meaning of the term needs to be rather flexible, and indeed is rather flexible, because we get different uses out of it in different contexts. So we needn't argue if the shadows are what exist, or if the objects that cast them is what exists, because it is only an analogy anyway. We aren't really talking about shadows, we need a specific context to discuss the meaning of the term "existence", and we should expect that the meaning can be tailored to obtain some advantage in that context.

    So I don't think any triangles "actually exist", neither the imperfect ones of our perception, nor the perfect ones of mathematics. The imperfect ones are not "shadows" of the perfect ones, they are just what they are, and it is our minds that see them as triangles-- they don't need a perfect triangle to exist in order for the imperfect ones to exist, I think the analogy is rather poor there (apologies to Plato). We connect the imperfect triangles to the concept of a perfect one because we choose to, it simplifies our thought processes, and helps us build things. So concepts are always just what we make of them, and I really can't see any driving reason to imagine that these concepts correspond to things that "actually exist", except insofar as imagining this quality makes certain types of language more convenient-- which is also the purpose of inventing the word "existence" in the first place.

    This is not to discredit the fundamental dichotomy of material vs. conceptual, in regard to existence. Rather, I would highlight that dichotomy, as a point of departure for a recognition of how involved we are in tailoring the meaning of our words to match the value we derive from the concepts they represent. When we find it useful to attach existence to material things, we do so, when we find it useful to attach existence to conceptual ideas, we do so again. We could choose a different word when we flex its meaning, but often we are simply too lazy to do so, our dictionaries are long enough already! But when we invent a word, like existence, we should not imagine that anything preceded that invention-- other than the need to invent it. The need appears when we consider material things, and it appears when we consider concepts, so placing those different contexts into opposition is just a device for understanding these full sets of needs. That's what existence is, a set of needs for the term, grouped by certain similarities that do not need to be identities. We must not make the mistake that just because we use one word, we are only talking about one thing.
  4. Jun 27, 2012 #3


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    Ah, but isn't the point that the concept of existence is being used to lock down a particular brand of syntax? Things that "exist" can then slot into a logic based on operations involving the definite, the local, the particular.

    So yes, semantics seems slippery. Are shadows or ideal triangles the kinds of things that really exist? In some sense - when seen by the light of some semantic context - they can seem to. And if we can establish that connection, then we can suddenly, with apparently legitimacy, steam on with our particular brand of logico-causal syntax. We can shove shadows and triangles into our arguments as "actual things" and do the kinds of operations that such an ontological assumption allows.

    So you are drawing attention to the nature of the game. It can be describe as material~conceptual, which stresses the separateness of the modeller and the modelled, epistemology and ontology. Or to instead stress the connectedness, the interaction, you could talk about it in terms of the particular~general.

    To model the world, we have to create some mental organisation. We have to invent/discover some epistemic system of semantics and syntax. The way this happens is that we abstract away the material particulars to establish the conceptually general. Some of these abstract objects - conceptual classes like shadow or triangle - are still themselves quite semantic. They are still quite material and particular. But if you keep abstracting, you eventually arrive at the most purely general concepts we can imagine - such as "existence". And at that limiting stage, the possibility of syntax arises. Utterly general objects suggest for themselves truths about "reality". A notion like existence, for example, axiomatically underpins an operation like the law of the excluded middle (either A or B).

    So minds have the job of detaching themselves from reality for the evolutionary purpose of being able to control reality. The tools of thought get invented and are justified by their pragmatic utility (rather than ontic truth). That is the game - or at least it is if you believe in evolutionary development as your embedding semantic frame of reference!

    And the trick being played is an abstracting away of the material, the particular, to arrive at the conceptual, the general....as now the syntactical grounds for recreating a view of reality as seen from the "point of view" of an intentional and purposeful being. The creation of autonomy.

    So yes, it is all fictions and judicious lies on one level. And all very meaningful and in fact the basis of mindfulness on another. It is tempting to dismiss our mental constructions as just accidental or contingent (we could have made any old choices about how to imagine reality). But the counter-argument is that we made the perhaps only choices that could produce a definite mindfulness. We escaped from a material embeddeness into conceptual freedom - so as to then be able to look back at that material context from a "point of view".

    We have abstracta like "existence" that stand right at the point where semantics becomes syntax. It is the most general class, and we must then make semantic judgements about what fits that class - such as triangles, shadows, unicorns, cats. And once we accept them into that class, then we feel that we know how to manipulate them using the accepted rules of well-formed statements.

    That is the game. The question being asked is how arbitrary is that game vs how necessary is that game?

    You are probably siding with the "highly arbitrary". I am siding with the "surprisingly necessary" on the basis that the game seems now quite general to nature if you take a semiotic view, as has emerged today in theoretical biology and a lesser extent, theoretical neuroscience.

    Genes, neurons, words, numbers - life and mind uses languages to organise. And syntax arises from semantics so as to take control over semantics.

    It seems arbitrary because a syntactical language is free to produce any well-formed statement. At that level, there is no restriction - you can invent nonsense sentences, genes could produce nonsense proteins.

    But then there is that purposeful interaction with material reality that puts an evolutionary constraint back on everything. So viewed from a holistic standpoint - one that sees the interaction of languages and worlds - a sense of necessary organisation comes back into the picture. All the mental representing becomes actually about something concrete (even if we agree that ultimately we are neither seeing the objective "thing in itself", nor glimpsing some countering realm of Platonic rationality).
  5. Jun 28, 2012 #4

    Ken G

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    I wouldn't want to choose sides at all, because I think the arbitrariness and the necessity interact in a fundamentally important way. If our notions of existence were completely necessary, I could write a book on it by submitting a ream of blank paper and an ink cartridge, and just say, "the resulting book is completely necessary." Or, if I held that discourse on existence were nothing but a syntactic exercise, my book could be pages and pages of multiplication tables, carefully laid out with total syntactic accuracy, for all the difference it would make. But I wouldn't by either one of those books, so I must hold that discourse about existence is a marriage of syntax and semantics, and it is a small step to recognizing that so is the entire notion of existence.mmThere is no resolution at either end of the spectrum, the extremes are vacuous.
    Those discoveries are important in detail, but no matter how they had come out, it is inevitable that they must have involved an interplay between necessary and arbitrary, between semantics and syntax. If it were all necessary, then the scientific process would not be.
    Exactly, and this is very important. The whole arrangement works because that is possible. And also because that is not the only thing that is possible, it is also possible for proteins to form that have some purpose, that meet some need. I don't think we need to favor one extreme or the other, we need to see how the two are juxtaposed in a way that gives us deeper understanding of the entire structure. I don't think you are disagreeing, we are simply stressing different things-- you are stressing the necessary aspects, while I'm stressing the balance. It is our nature to look for the necessary and orderly, but we need to remind ourselves not to overlook the arbitrary and the random.
    I would agree, though I might choose somewhat different terms (I would avoid the reference to "something concrete", because I don't think anything is concrete-- concreteness is itself a useful lie.)
  6. Jun 28, 2012 #5
    What do you mean by a "material" view? Isn't it possible that matter may be found to contain yet undiscovered properties (by a future physics) which may allow us to consider mental stuff (e.g. ideas, thoughts, consciousness) as "physical"? After all, our concepts of "physical" seem to change as science (and particularly physics) evolves.
  7. Jun 28, 2012 #6

    Let's see - we know from physics that the underlying machinery of the world appears completely inaccessible at this point. We also learn that there doesn't exist a classical representation of matter, that the concept of time isn't as unambiguos, directional and obvious in physics, that space is actualy spacetime and isn't quite as it appears at first sight to the senses. We also learn that there's emergence at every scale and the mental picture we call reality is a co-production of a brain and an emergent mind.

    Where in this terrible mess do you see a glimpse of hope of finding out anything that resembles truth? There's deep trouble for each and every ontology that has been invented to date.
  8. Jun 28, 2012 #7


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    OK, in this analogy I would suggest that what you might actually write down would be something like E=MC^2, of F=MA. So neither a blank page on which anything could be written, nor a packed attempt to detail every particular, but just the purest syntactic sentences. The degree to which these statements were necessary truths would support the idea that there was something Platonic going on.

    Consider the laws of physics. Are they arbitrary or necessary? In terms of pure modelling - our freedom to form any construction within the rules of a syntax - we could invent any laws to describe reality. Yet when this freedom is actually constrained by the process of measurement, by the interaction between syntax and semantics, only certain laws seem to talk the truth.

    You could step back and say that this is only so for that one particular game - that particular underlying syntax which supports sentences of the style of E=MC^2. Perhaps other descriptional logics exist - indeed an arbitrary infinity of them? Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is only this kind of syntax. That becomes the next open question for this line of epistemological inquiry.

    And this is what is being explored especially in the discipline of semiotics. Does life and mind reduce to some Platonic syntactic operation?

    Life and mind are traditionally considered to be highly arbitrary and particular features of reality. That was the great discovery of Darwin. We were not God's special creation but just some random and insignificant event in an uncaring Universe. There was no Platonic template which demanded our existence.

    But biology is now being seen in a new light by many. Life is an example of dissipative structure serving the second law of thermodynamics. Thou shalt entropify. And all that accelerates entropification is good. :wink:

    So here is a general law with logical inevitability. Gradients get dissipated. And structures that can increase the rate of entropification will be favoured. When seen this way, if life were possible (as structure that locally accelerates entropification), then it cannot not exist. It has Platonic, or "Platonic", necessity.

    And if the syntactical route is the only way that life could step back from the material flow so as to accelerate the flow, then that too would have "Platonic" necessity. The syntax~semantics dichotomy would not be an accident of nature but a historical inevitability.

    As I say, it seems that reality - ourselves included as modelling minds - is much more necessary, far less contingent, than the conventional view.

    That does not mean the arbitrary, the contingent, is excluded from reality (the immediate monadic presumption). Instead, the greater the degree of necessity, the greater the need for a complementary arbitrariness in the total system.

    You can see this in Darwinism, for example. Blind chance is a necessary part of how it works. The degree of chance is even tuned towards a gaussian distribution.

    Or in our modelling. Again, an essential element is the freedom to make any hypothesis. To take a chance.

    Or looking again at physics, the modelling does break into its dynamical laws and its arbitrary-appearing constants.

    Your book analogy is a good one as it stresses the separateness of semantics and syntax. We see the world in itself as a system without a manual. It is constrained by laws which seem to have some Platonic existence - they are concrete facts yet the mystery is where they are written.

    Hawking might joke they are written in the mind of God, but it is striking that physicists actually have no good answer here. They don't have a standard model of reality in which the laws are a natural part of what is being described. Again, this is a foundational issue that dissipative structure theory and Peircean semiotics want to say something about.

    But our standard model of reality does make this sharp division between semantics and syntax so the laws, and other essential facts, can be written down in a book - kept separate from the world they describe/control. There is an inevitability about this epistemic divide, this epistemic cut, that seems Platonic. And when reality is view through this lens, it also appears to have an ontic inevitability in that there is little choice over the truths - the laws - that result.

    It may be the case that we have to encode the world in a certain way (semantics~syntax) and there may be only certain outcome of this process of encoding (a minimal family of setences). To the extent which this is so, we would have the feeling that reality is Platonically formed. Although not actually Platonic in the dualistic sense of a relationship between the material and the conceptual that is anyway mysterious. We can model the modelling (and the modeller) by stepping back to an encompassing systems-level view.
  9. Jun 28, 2012 #8
    Just to add to this post, it appears that many physicists believe that unification of general relativity with QM will involve the breakdown of spacetime as argued here:

    Is Science Without Spacetime Possible?

    A dilemma for the emergence of spacetime in canonical quantum gravity

    So while many want to treat the mental as epiphenomenon because it can't be absorbed within our somewhat questionable every-day notions of "matter" (e.g. spatio-temporality, etc.) "matter" seems to becoming more and more "dematerialized", in some sense, as physics progresses. Having said that, I still have doubts that any mathematical ontology (a necessity in physics) can ever really give a satisfactory explanation of qualia.
  10. Jun 28, 2012 #9


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    The irony is that this is not questioning the concept of materiality at all, it is just trying to reduce the mental - qualia - to being yet another material property. How is that going to explain anything?

    If you could reduce mind to a general material process, well that would be a little different....
  11. Jun 28, 2012 #10
    I'm kind sympathetic to this quote by Edward Feser discussing this topic (and as posted in the other thread):
    And here I'm not arguing for reductionism since new understandings/discoveries/changes can be made both at the macro and micro-domain, I think.
  12. Jun 30, 2012 #11

    Ken G

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    Yes, I agree completely-- "material" (or words like "concrete" or "physical") are provisional, context-based, and goal-oriented. They are as flexible as words are supposed to be, and they exist as words because they work for us. Little more can or should be said on the matter, in my view. Certainly we cannot say there is any such thing that is actually any of those things, nor is there any necessity for there to be anything that is actually any of those things. The necessity is that the concept have value to us, and it does, and that is the only light in which we can understand the concept. The hope for something more is unfounded, it's not just a vain hope, it's also pointless.
  13. Jun 30, 2012 #12


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    I would argue modelling theory does say something rather more constraining. Our concepts are only of value if they are talking about the measurable. That is the concepts describe some quality that can then be quantified.

    So the concept of "material" is useful in our reality modelling because it creates an intuitive image of "stuff" or substance - something we can imagine measuring. And the concept is sharpened also in systematic fashion by being seen to stand in opposition to what it is not.

    So the value of a concept is not arbitrary when it comes to modelling relations. It is defined by its distinctness and its measurability, as well as by some notion of utility. And the notion of utility usually boils down to an ability to predict, an ability to control. So the purpose of modelling does not seem arbitrary either. The constraint of prediction means the model has to parallel the world in some strict fashion. The constraint of control means the model has to be a basis for acting causally on that world.

    Getting back to the hope of reducing consciousness - qualia indeed! the raw quality of experience - to a material property, we can see how misguided this is. The concept of materiality was founded on extensional properties - things that are easily measurable in terms of the concept such as length, shape, location and duration. To then relax this definition so it incorporates its obverse - intensional qualities as subjective consciousness is supposed to be - is to collapse the whole structure of explanation. It is a return to undifferentiated mysticism and as far from a scientific approach as it gets. You end up with a concept so muddied that it is unmeasurable and inherently useless.
  14. Jul 1, 2012 #13

    Ken G

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    Yes, I can agree to that. And I think when we write those equations, we have throughout the course of the history of physics tended to make the mistake of thinking in a Platonic way about them. It's not a bad mistake, it's a kind of helpful mistake, it's the way physicists invoke ontology-- we pretend to believe it's real. It's a convenience, a professional courtesy. But we must take care not to take the pretense so far that we actually do believe it is real, because it never is real, it always turns out to be a map that was missing something important.
    A good question to pose-- I only point out that we have no particular reason to favor an answer in the affirmative, unless we are inclined by our own process to do so. Platonism is not itself a Platonic truth, that's the irony.
    Entropy is an excellent example of this core irony. Platonically, the universe is always in just one state, so zero entropy is the only Platonic entropy. Yet the second law of thermodynamics is all about entropy, and that's one of the Platonic pillars of thermodynamics! Entropy is how we keep track of how much we don't know and don't care to know, yet the inexorable rules of probability state that what we don't want to know about will always expand while we track what we do want to know. It's the ultimate Platonic bugbear, now packaged as itself a Platonic law! What a perfect example of the collision of the necessary with the arbitrary-- it is necessary that physicists choose to relegate to the arbitrary the vast majority of what is real, so they can do physics on the rest. Some even hold that entropic concerns are the deepest underpinning of physics, and I tend to agree, which is why I see the deepest underpinning of physics as being the encounter with the physicist. The game generates the truth, even though the truth is that it is all a game, so neither has any value or meaning on its own.
    Yet I'd say the conventional view tends to be that it is all necessary-- the language of the "laws" of physics is the conventional view. I don't think that balance is restored by pointing out the necessity, I think it's restored by pointing out the arbitrariness. We are following an epistemology in hopes that it will lead us to ontology, but it all comes from us, in our interactions with nature, so we never shake our own arbitrariness in the grand scheme. And it should be so-- only the arbitrary can glimpse the necessary, and vice versa. The necessary glimpsing the necessary, or the arbitrary glimpsing the arbitrary, are both recipes for complete boredom.
    Yes, I think we are thinking along similar lines.
    And I think it behooves us to do so, I'm sympathetic to that view. I just think it is yet another model, no matter how insightful. We are a system trying to know a system, and all we can know is ourselves, yet we cannot know ourselves. The physicist, emboldened by recent successes, might forget this, yet don't we all imagine we know ourselves extremely well, whereas more often it seems we have barely made our own acquaintance?
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2012
  15. Jul 13, 2012 #14
    Does anybody wonder if our now or our perception or our reality or our awareness can be considerd as the entanglement of the same photon created and destroyed on an ongoing basis within the observed universe, and so the observer, at that discreet and specific moment in time determined by the light speed of our universe.
  16. Jul 14, 2012 #15
    I always thought organization (life) could be considered as a "somehow" innate anti-entropic "tendency" or a negative entropy idea somehow representing "the limits/dynamics
    of improbable configurations/organizations over time" but I don't have an objective "measure" of what "entropy decrease" would look like. Perhaps when these "improbable configurations" first construct successful 'models' of (some aspect) of reality (starting with non-conscious biological self-replication) and ending with models of "the universe" and self-consciousness, do we have an anti-entropic "law". As the tendency in natural selection is merely to "continue in animate organized existence, -indefinitely, while adapting to the environment" so in conscious realization of "indefinite biological maintenance of order" we have given birth to immortality. We construct immortal models of "pure" consciousness....abstractness, not models of immortal material configurations underlying theoretic "models" of consciousness. Somewhere we will run out of "models of reality" representing the pure qualia of the conscious state....an indirect entrance into the Platonic states of "necessity driven" phenomenal ideas.
  17. Jul 17, 2012 #16
    Is it correct to interpret your understanding of platonic reality as a consideration of a possible infusion of the past into material reality, which is of course, the present?

    This is possibly not the correct avenue for your thoughts and you may follow a more rewarding path if your thoughts embraced the following concept, which would be generally rejected by the scientific community

    At every point in space, be it open or bounded, the SAME photon passes THROUGH our universe and underpins the reality of our universe

    The same photon also passes WITHIN our universe as a unit of information of the past and rests unobserved , and so outside of reality, but collectively providing an archive of cause and effect phenomena peculiar to our universe back to the beginning of time, but which can be accessed by an observer, WHO IS ALWAYS IN THE PRESENT, to create time TO THE OBSERVER as the positional change of the observed photon is recognised
    In our, and all universes, the observers involvement with cause is always in the observers past and the observers ongoing awareness of the determination and development of effect is always in the observers present.
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