Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Reality and Non-Existence of Natural Laws, Habits, and Patterns

I wish to give a brief argument against nominalism.  Though I have not to time to verify its formal correctness, I do intend to give a fairly formal argument and not the layers of hints and explanations that I have previously given.

What this post also offers, in addition, is a rebuttal to the common response from nominalists that only the concept is universal and that nothing in nature is.  But that presumes that the human is not natural; if the concept is universal, then nature is universal.  

If natural laws (habits/patterns/etc.) exist and are real only in and through through their instances, then there is not such thing as a universal or general law.  Why?  “Law” implies generality or at least habit (natural tendency towards a probable pattern).  Yet if a supposed law exists only as particular, then there is no law, universality, or generality.  There is no pattern in nature at all.  If one insists that there is at least a pattern in the mind, i.e., a concept, then one is mistaken.  Why?  Because that concept does not refer to anything in particular—not even the particular instance of which it is claimed.  How so?  Because if the natural pattern or law is not universal, then it can neither be duplicated in nature or in the mind.   Hence, claiming that the universal is in the mind and never in the world solves no problems unless one makes the mistake of thinking that the mind is not in nature.  That is the “Cartesian shadow.”  If one wishes to call the the law or concept an approximate pattern, one could argue in that way as Hume does, but then like Hume then one must give up metaphysics entirely as he did.  Consign it to the flames!  If one refuses to give up metaphysics, one might use transcendental or abductive methods to argue for metaphysics, but then that proponent openly admits that any use of the method cannot be said to be based on any truth or reality outside of whatever happens to occur to humans—and certainly cannot be justified independently.  Any such justification would invoke extra-human criteria that requires some hook into nature that neither concepts nor mere being in the world can provide if one accept the position described.

This is called “nominalism.”  It should be obvious why I reject it.  Its modern variant is the child of Descartes and raised to maturity by Kant.  If the universal is merely  a human affair, then Kant might be the end of philosophy.  The inwardness of subjectivity that sprung from Kant does not entirely solve this problem as long as it does not reconnect to nature and cease to treat human nature as non-natural.  Solving this problem through a reconnection with nature, and not a mystic one, is precisely what American philosophy provides.  It is not the only philosophy to do so.

In short, the solution that I accept is to affirm that natural laws, habits, or patterns must be real in some way apart from mere particular existence.  This is called “scholastic realism.”  Mere “realism” does not affirm this, but instead is often defined in opposition to idealism; I will not enter into that discussion here.

I expect that my opponent might proclaim, again, that patterns emerge out of nature and cannot be understood to be independent from that particular materiality.  Then I say, again, you are talking non-sense and confusedly if we accept your position, because you cannot refer to any patterns at all as the terms have not meaning.  But if your position is true, then explain why nature is so terribly regular whether humans are there or not?  And how can be know these laws?  I am not saying, by the way, the the laws are “eternal.”  They are temporal and still subject to contingency, which is why the term “cosmic habit” might be appropriate.  Different cosmic epochs may have different laws and fundamental cosmic constants, and this view makes the Big Bang and other extreme occurences easier to explain.  Finally, this whole view, when expanded, encompasses evolutionary metaphysics.  Nature evolves, where biological evolution is a special case of a cosmic phenomenon.


  1. Well said, Jason. It's a tight argument.

    Whitehead would certainly agree that what physicists call "laws" are really habits, but the forms of definiteness exhibited by these habits only act in actual occasions; they don't reach into actuality in order to shape it from some abstract mind-space. Part of the difficulty here (for Michael) is that Whitehead refuses to conceive of potency/possibility as reducible to some characteristic of actuality itself. Potentiality is not to be found in the physical world of objective matter of fact. If there is only actuality, not only is there complete determinacy, there is no time to speak of, and so no movement or change at all. Everything has already happened... Whitehead starts his metaphysics with the reality of his own present experience as a contrast between past physical actuality and future psychical potentiality. The forms/patterns realized in the past are conceptually prehended in the present, just as the forms/patterns of the future are conceptually prehended via participation in the mind of God, who Whitehead says kickstarts the initial aim of each actual occasion in the process of concrescence. Our conceptual prehension of future potentialities represent our participation in an actual God's envisagement of the full set of eternal objects, though graded according to the immediate relevance of our finite situation. In ordinary experience (i.e., when we aren't on a few hundred micrograms of LSD), most of what is possible, most of the set of eternal objects, is negatively prehended (i.e., ignored, pushed into vague unconsciousness).

    So to relate this to the nominalism v. realism discussion, its not so much the proper names of forms that are important, but that the propositional feelings we form regarding already actualized or yet to be actualized possibilities are real, i.e., they refer to activities of the universe itself and are not just ideas (or worse, consensually coordinated neural twitches) in our heads.

  2. Just to clarify, from the point of view of a process metaphysician, mind and matter, or physis and psyche, are still valid and irreplaceable terms. But instead of construing them as separable substances, they are temporalized. It is rather like the Spinozian/Schellingian distinction between natura naturans and natura naturata: matter is nature natured, mind is nature naturing. Or you could say matter is what has already happened, while mind is the echo of what yet could be.

  3. I presume the commenter to be Adam or Matt? Someone else? Welcome!

    I should note that when I write “potency” or “potentiality” in my work, I explicitly called it a triad of 1) capability, 2) activity/existence, and 3) realization unto actuality or telos (derivative of Aristotelian entelechy). Hence, 1) implies the possibility, 2) implies the actuality, and 3) implies the manner of becoming. These are all “cumulative,” and this is an instance of Peircean triadic thinking. There is not a one-to-one correspondence of my Peirce-Deweyan view to Whitehead, and I thank you for thinking with me in Whiteheadian language, as I am not sufficiently adept at the later’s to do so.

    It reminds me of when I was in graduate school in fumbling over Kant’s language. Until you’ve mastered it, it’s all the easy to misuse the vocabulary. Even then, it’s too easy to wield the vocabulary and only belief that you understanding it. I am certain I would commit that same mistake now if I ventured deep into Whiteheadian parlance.

    Yes, the nominalism/ (scholastic) realism discussion has only a passing connection to issues of “proper names” (Frege, Russell, etc.).

    Yes to your second comment. “Temporalized” is a key word. Mind is an event, and it is shaped by its originating and then sustaining conditions. Thus, I would say, that intentionality does not originate in mind, but in the world. The world has intentions or “purposes,” if you will. I know I hurt Kant’s feeling saying that….

    I really like the natura naturans/naturata distinction and find 19th century idealism extremely helpful in thinking through the less obvious subtleties of this position.

  4. This is good, I'll link it on my blog because I want in on the conversation. BUT, I am strapped for time (what else is new). I was planning a pensive post for this weekend but Jason, this is indeed tight. Well done my friend, well done.

    Leon / after nature

  5. Leon,

    It's not about "beheading nominalism" so much as arguing against any view, whether called "materialist," "physicalist," etc. that proclaims nominalism--whether they are aware of what they have done or not--and then claims to do metaphysics, to escape anthropocentrism, etc. Nominalism is respectable insomuch as it is a viable hypothesis, but against scholastic realism in comes up short when considering the abductive criteria by which we decide among hypotheses. I think all metaphysics is abductive, but that implies something really different for a scholastic realist vs. a nominalist.

    I would not even bring up the issue so often, accept that I constantly see positions like my own assailed by interlocutors who do not realize their own internal contradictions. The solution is not necessarily to accept my position, but to work out those contradictions. That said, I expect the same to be done for me.

  6. Jason,
    I have less patience than you when it comes to internal consistencies and contradictoring oneself on a regular basis. I have maintained time and time again that a coherent abductive or speculative metaphysics which claims to be realist in orientation cannot be, and I repeat: cannot be, what it says that it is if it endorses a nominalism (and immanentism) gone so wild so as not to admit the reality of law, universals, etc. which are not merely in the mind nor reduced always to a particular which is not mind independent. This is the worst kind of correlationism that there can be, "the new correlationism" as I like to call it (although I am not the one who coined the term).

    Leon / after nature

  7. I have patience because I know that no one has a perfect system, and that we should all be able to grow. I only press a point when it becomes a point of contention as this one has.

    I dislike the word "correlationism" because it appears to be used as a buzzword for "what I don't like." That said, it appears that any sort of Cartesian dualism is going to produce a "correlationism." Card-carrying idealists and other exotic zoo animals like myself might escape it.....


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