Can Platonic Forms Exist Without a Location?

I’ve still be reading but haven’t been commenting much on Only Sky Media because my login timed out and I couldn’t be bothered to try to figure it out again, especially on my work laptop where I might be more willing to make some minor comments during the day while things were compiling or installing.  Also, I’ve been really, really busy lately, including at work, and so haven’t really had the time to follow, well, pretty much anything right now.  But I came across this post by Jonathan MS Pearce claiming that “Platonism is vacuous” and even though he still owes me some considered responses to my criticisms of his nominalism, I thought I’d take it on.  I haven’t been making posts on his stuff because it hasn’t really been big enough for a full post on the topic, and while this post isn’t really big enough for that either on re-reading it there’s probably a bit too much for a mere comment, and if it’s a bit small all that means is that I’ll free up some time to do other things, so everyone wins!

Let me remind you, as he does, about what his conceptual nominalism actually is:

Much of my writing (both here at OnlySky and in my books) has espoused my position of conceptual nominalism—in short, the theory that all abstract ideas are concepts that do not exist independent of our minds. If all sentient life were to die out, then there would be no morality, no mathematics, no human rights. We construct these ideas after arguing among ourselves until we agree.

I, of course, reject this, and one of the reasons I do so is that if this is true, then if I imagined a possible world where there were no sentient beings — which was arguably the case before we gained sentience — then he’d have to say that mathematics doesn’t exist in that possible world, and yet if the only thing that was different between that world and this one was the existence of sentient beings then we’d have all the normal physical phenomena that we have now that we can easily describe with mathematics and so seem to act according to mathematical formulae in a world where there is no mathematics.  Since we can describe it that way, it seems like the concepts not only exist but apply in that world, which makes that last statement quite problematic.  So if nominalism entails that the concepts do not exist in such a world, then it seems like nominalism is just plain wrong, since they have to exist so that we can properly describe that world using them.

Of course, I’ve made a lot of other challenges to that view, but for now let me turn to the only alternative that Pearce considers:

On the other hand, those philosophers who are not nominalists of sorts are realists, and often espouse some kind of Platonic realism. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that abstract ideas such as universals exist outside of human minds, with no spatiotemporal dimension. He espoused some realm where the perfect or ideal form of all ideas existed. Our understanding of such is akin to seeing shadows of these perfect forms on a cave wall rather than seeing them first-hand in clear sunlight.

It always annoys me when he does this, because even if he doesn’t agree with me he should be well aware that I reject nominalism as he describes it but am not a realist either.  My view of conceptualism bridges the two positions, denying that abstract objects have to be real but also denying that they are just invented.  As I have commented in the past, what makes concepts right or wrong has to do with context, and when people disagree it’s not a matter of simple disagreement but often an issue where the two of them are not, in fact, talking about the same thing anymore.  Pearce may not agree with my position, and he may not even think it works as a real position, but the term itself has a long history in philosophy and so at a minimum if he’s going to dismiss it out of hand despite knowing about it — he’s read and talked about getting around to discussing it — then I at least would have liked him to show how my position is either incoherent or reduces to one of the other two.

At any rate, that’s not really here nor there, but it is important to note that Pearce seems to think that either all of our abstract concepts are completely invented and arrived at only through consensus, or there must be real objects out there in the world that define them and so we discover their properties that way.  I think that doing this is probably the only way he can make his nominalism seem plausible from a philosophical level.  I think he is at least for the most part a subjectivist about things like morality and human rights, which is what makes nominalism, which insists that that not only is but must be the case quite attractive.  However, this doesn’t work so well for things like mathematics.  But if the only alternative is that we have to have numbers floating around in the ether somewhere, that seems so ridiculous that he can accept the implication that there is no real right answer to whether “2+2=4” even though that seems odd in and of itself.  As I’ve already talked about, in some sense whether “2+2=4” is true depends on the context, but there still is a right answer, given the appropriate context to the question of whether “2+2=4”, and that follows from my conceptualism:  someone who gets that answer wrong either doesn’t understand the concept they are using, or else is talking about a different concept entirely, which avoids both oddities.

Anyway, part of my issue with Pearce’s nominalism is that it leads to statements like this:

Agreement in these matters usually ends up with dictionaries and encyclopedias being written to reflect the consensus understanding of words and ideas, theories and concepts. These are then manifested in laws that are enacted by lawmakers we vote into positions of power. They become meaningful when they are enforced by entities such as governments, police forces, and legal teams.

The problem is that he’s relying for some sense of “meaning” on them being enforced.  I think he means that they have pragmatic importance when enforced, but the issue is that the meaning of the concept and that enforcement can obviously come apart.  It could obviously be the case that everyone, even the government, agrees that something is moral and yet they enact laws to try to enforce people acting immorally.  If this is the case, what does it mean for that moral concept?  Is it still defined as per the agreement?  It would seem that by his own view it would have to be.  But then in what sense does it make the concept meaningful if it is enforced?  Concepts that go against the agreed on concept would be just as meaningful if they happened to be enforced.  Pearce, I think, wants to make the case that unless humans agree to enforce moral concepts effectively people won’t act in the world as if those are the moral concepts, but again we can easily see that people can insist that a law is immoral precisely because it tries to enforce acting in a manner opposed to what morality really is.  In all of these cases, we need some kind of right definition or idea for these concepts, and if nominalism is going to say anything interesting this is precisely what it is going to deny.  So this idea seems incorrect, and it’s also dangerous since it can justify blindly going along with laws and social conventions because there is no way to say that those things are immoral, because what is moral and immoral is just defined by those things.

But Pearce wants to try to show that realism, and in particular Platonism, is vacuous, as per the title.  He says that he came to this with the aid of an E-mail exchange with Richard Carrier, which might explain where it goes wrong, because it’s a very Richard Carrier argument:  something that sounds profound, but when you give it more than a shallow examination you can see the underlying assumptions that it relies on that aren’t safe ones and are clearly not ones people who hold the view being criticized would accept.

Here is Pearce’s basic argument:

There are two horns to a dilemma: either Platonism asserts nothing (such that there is no distinction between it being true or false) or it asserts something. Yet if it asserts something, it asserts that abstracts exist and that they have some sort of effect, but that they simultaneously “never exist” and “exist nowhere” (given they have no spatiotemporal dimension).

This appears to be somewhat incoherent.

Except for Platonism, it isn’t, because the Forms — those abstracts — are not material and are not physical.  Thus, they exist, but not as material objects.  Thus, talking about them existing or not existing in time or existing or not existing in space is making a meaningless statement.  Yes, this implies that Platonists think that non-material things exist and can interact with material things in some way, but they come to that as the conclusion as opposed to a starting presumption.  One of the main Platonic arguments is that we can all grasp the concept of a perfect triangle, and yet we can’t get this empirically or from the material world, because no perfect triangles exist in the world.  While it’s been a while since I studied this, from what I recall this is why Plato argues that our souls — which are also not material — must exist in a Platonic realm where they have access to these Forms, so that they can come to know then before they are attached to a physical body.  So we need to have an immaterial soul to be able to connect to the immaterial Forms so that we can come to know the perfect Forms of objects so that we can do classification in this world.  That they are immaterial is the conclusion, not the starting point.

So for this argument to make any sense and be any kind of problem for Platonists, we have to adopt a very strict materialism where only material objects exist and there is no way for any kind of immaterial object to interact with material objects.  Platonists, as I’ve outlined above, clearly reject that and have proposed loose mechanisms for how immaterial objects exist and how they interact with material objects.  Even I, the conceptualist, will not accept that immaterial objects simply cannot exist of, if they did, couldn’t interact with material objects.  If it turns out that the best way to explain abstracts is to appeal to these sorts of immaterial objects, then a materialist presumption is not going to be sufficient to dissuade us from adopting it.

The job of the Platonist is to explain how abstracts have those effects (how they make the world different from a world where Platonism is false). They must also explain how such entities can have effects at particular times and places, without those entities ever existing in any of those times and places.

Claiming Platonism can be true without answering any of this amounts to saying Platonism asserts nothing and is devoid of meaningful content.

But Platonists answered these questions from the very start (as I outlined above), as do pretty much all realists about concepts.  I’m a bit surprised that Pearce, at least, didn’t look to see how Plato addressed these sorts of things (even though it doesn’t surprise me at all that Carrier wouldn’t know that).  You can’t refute Platonism that easily, and one shouldn’t expect to given how long it’s been a position in philosophy.  If these simple questions went unanswered, philosophers really would have noticed by now and noted it or tried to answer them.  It’s only if one has a strong materialist position that this can seem like a reasonable attack, because it can be seen as being at least an empirical impossibility and so something they can’t answer.  But again anyone who holds that position would reject that strong a materialism, so it simply doesn’t work to oppose Platonists.

The problem here is perhaps an epistemological one whereby if we cannot know the Platonic reality—even if it does somehow exist—or if we cannot sense it in any way, then it might as well not exist. It carries no pragmatic utility.

Platonists propose it as the only plausible way to explain how we can have any real knowledge of any abstracts at all, and this sort of knowledge is incredibly important to our intellectual lives.  And, as noted, they proposed a mechanism for us coming to know it.  And all realists propose mechanisms for that as well.  This is simply not a problem for any realism that anyone has considered worth talking about, let alone Plato’s view.

So the argument depends on an assumption that the position(s) he is attacking will not accept, and on unanswered questions that the positions tried to answer.  Thus, it misses on pretty much all levels, even putting aside that there’s another option out there that Pearce doesn’t consider.  It certainly seems that it’s not the Platonist view that’s vacuous.

2 Responses to “Can Platonic Forms Exist Without a Location?”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    I probably owe you 143 responses but I appear to be working 28 hours a day. Apologies…

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