Theism: A Simple Explanation for Children

Son:                 Daddy? Where do cats come from?

Father:            They come from other cats.

Son:                 But where do all cats come from?

Father:            Well, they come from the rest of the world. Things kept happening in the world, and then one day, with all those things happening, cats happened, too.

Son:                 Where do things come from? They had to come from somewhere, right?

Father:            Maybe they were always there. Maybe there have just always been things.

Son:                 But why are there always things?

Father:            Maybe it’s impossible for there to be nothing.

Son:                 So there has to be something.

Father:            Maybe.

Son:                 Do there have to be cats?

Father:            No.

Son:                 Why not?

Father:            Well, cats and other things like this chair and our house, and you and me, might never have happened.

Son:                 What about stars and the sun, and Mummy? Could they not happen?

Father:            Yes. Everything in the world might not have happened.

Son:                 But there always has to be something.

Father:            I suppose. That seems right. At least, I can’t think of what it would be like if there was nothing at all. The idea makes no sense. How could nothing be? How could nothing do nothingness?

Son:                 I don’t understand.

Father:            Well, imagine if there was just space, stretching out forever, with nothing in it. Can you imagine that?

Son:                 Yes.

Father:            Would that be nothing?

Son:                 I don’t know.

Father:            It wouldn’t! It would be space. And space is not nothing.

Son:                 But Daddy, what if cats and stuff like the chair, and people, and just everything had never happened. What if there wasn’t even space? Would there still be something?

Father:            If everything that might not have happened had never happened at all, then there would still have to be something. Even if there was nothing else, there would have to be a way for there to be something. And that way would be something.

Son:                 Why would there have to be a way for things to happen?

Father:            Well, if there wasn’t, then nothing could ever happen. But things do happen, so there has to be that way.

Son:                 And that way would be a thing that had to happen.

Father:            Yes.

Son:                 And it would be there no matter what else happened.

Father:            Yes. I suppose it would have to be.

Son:                 So it couldn’t be like other things, that might not happen.

Father:            No. It would have to be quite different.

Son:                 How?

Father:            Well, let me ask you this. If it always had to be there no matter what, could there be a time when it wasn’t?

Son:                 No. It has to be there.

Father:            So it didn’t come to be?

Son:                 No. It was already there.

Father:            So that makes it very different from other things, that might not have happened. It never started, and it can never end.

Son:                 Yeah. It’s a forever thing.

Father:            Do you think this forever thing that has to be there is really there?

Son:                 Yes. It has to be.

Father:            OK, let me ask you another question. Do things come from nothing, or do they always come from other things?

Son:                 They come from other things.

Father:            Are you sure? Why couldn’t they come from nothing?

Son:                 That’s silly, Daddy. That’s like saying that a man might have come from nowhere.

Father:            OK, I buy that. Things have to come from other things. Is that true of the forever thing? Did it come from something else?

Son:                 No. It was always there. It didn’t have to come from anything, because it was always there.

Father:            Alright: that’s another way that the forever thing is different from all other things. It didn’t come from anything else, and they all did.

Son:                 Right.

Father:            Where did they come from, when there was only the forever thing, and nothing else?

Son:                 I guess they had to come from the forever thing.

Father:            So the forever thing is sort of the place that all the other things come from.

Son:                 I guess. Yeah.

Father:            So say there was only one thing other than the forever thing, and it was a red thing. Where did it get the redness?

Son:                 From the forever thing.

Father:            Right! It had to. There was no other place to get it, right?

Son:                 Right.

Father:            Is the forever thing red?

Son:                 I don’t know. Maybe.

Father:            Well, what if a second thing came along and it was a green thing? The green came from the forever thing, too, right?

Son:                 Sure.

Father:            Does that mean that the forever thing is green and red, both? What about blue and yellow, and black?

Son:                 Hm. I guess the forever thing is all the colors at once, somehow.

Father:            Interesting. But it isn’t any one of them, is it?

Son:                 No. How can that be?

Father:            Well, think about space. It could hold anything, right?

Son:                 Yes. I see.

Father:            The forever thing is the way that things are able to be colored, just like it is the way that they are able to be in a place. It gives them color, even though it isn’t colored.

Son:                 What about shape? Does it give things their shape?

Father:            Sure, why should shape be different than color? The forever thing gives other things whatever they need in order to be themselves.

Son:                 Is the forever thing like Mummy?

Father:            Yes. No. Mummy had some of the things in her that were needed for there to be you, but not all of them. Some of them had to come from outside Mummy.

Son:                 Like food.

Father:            Uh … yeah. But the forever thing is not like Mummy, because it didn’t need anything from outside itself. It had everything in it that was needed for cats, and for you, and for Mummy too. And for space.

Son:                 The forever thing must be very big.

Father:            Yes. Bigger than anything; bigger than everything put together.

Son:                 Where is the forever thing?

Father:            That’s a good question. It couldn’t be in any of the places that might not have been, like our house. Not at first, anyway, because in the beginning there just wouldn’t have been any places like that. They wouldn’t have happened yet.

Son:                 Is the forever thing in a place?

Father:            I suppose that it isn’t. Maybe in some ways the forever thing is like a place, and all the other places are in it.

Son:                 So it is everywhere.

Father:            Yes, right. That’s a much simpler way of putting it.

Son:                 Does the forever thing know about me?

Father:            Let’s think about that. Does it know about anything?

Son:                 I don’t know.

Father:            You know about some things, though, right?

Son:                 Yeah.

Father:            Look at Belle. Does she know anything?

Son:                 Yes. She knows she is in your lap.

Father:            Is she asleep?

Son:                 Not yet. She’s still twitching the end of her tail.

Father:            She’ll be asleep soon, if Bo doesn’t come along and try to steal her place. Where do you think Belle gets her knowing?

Son:                 She gets it from the forever thing.

Father:            That seems reasonable.

Son:                 I bet the forever thing knows lots better than Belle.

Father:            Do you think he knows you, then?

Son:                 Yes. But better than I do.

Father:            I just noticed something. I called the forever thing “he,” as if he were a person.

Son:                 He must be a person. He knows stuff.

Father:            Is that what people do?

Son:                 Yeah. Unless they are totally stupid.

Father:            And he’s not stupid.

Son:                 No. He knows, like, everything.

Father:            So is the forever thing a person just like you?

Son:                 No. He knows everything, and I don’t. I’m sort of like him, though.

Father:            How are you like him?

Son:                 Because I am.

Father:            You are like him because you are like him?

Son:                 No, silly. I am real, and he is real.

Father:            I see. I think you are right.

Son:                 Does the forever thing have a name?

Father:            Well, not exactly. I mean, names are usually given to things by other things. Mummy and I gave you your name. But if the forever thing gives everything to all other things, how can any of them give him a name?

Son:                 So he doesn’t have a name?

Father:            It’s an interesting question. Lots of people have agreed that he has told us what to call him, so I suppose you could say that he named himself.

Son:                 What did he tell us to call him?

Father:            “I am.”


25 thoughts on “Theism: A Simple Explanation for Children

  1. Pingback: Theism: A Simple Explanation for Children | Reaction Times

  2. I’m lost halfway. To me it is very intuitive to think the universe has always existed, and just rearranged itself into ever changing phenomena. Leaving complicated scientific theorie like Big Bang aside for now (even then, an infinite iteration of bangs and crunches is not impossible), it is not intuitive to me one very special thing has to exist before all the other things. The “pagan” belief of everything being cyclical forever is very, very intuitive IMHO.

    But, I guess, the devil lies in what the word “thing” means. For you it may mean “essential form”, for me it simply means “phenomena”, “sense impressions”.

    I do grant you a point – even very modern people teach their children _as if essential forms existed_ because it is fairly impossible to teach them any other way and still expect them to become what is generally considered normal practical humans who can think before acting. I do not dare to tell children stuff like nothing is true because they will take it as no rules and no consequences and pretty much hurt themselves doing stupid stuff. Esoteric teachings better reserved for the esoteros.

    Still, the philosopher should grow up to an esoteric point where he sees the cat not as an essential form but a stage in an forever process, and a fairly arbitrarily defined stage at that…

    The quickest way to kill essentialism is to imagine a few thousand or billions of years recorded on a video and you watch it on fast forward mode. While you put on a coffee, frogs evolve to dinos. You blink, and what was a sees now a tree, in the next blink a man turned it into a cabinet, in the next blink, the cabinet is ruined and used in a bonfire, the ashes used to feed the soil where a new seed is planted… thinking things exist is very much slow-mo thinking: because practical life happens in that slow-mo. If you were timeless enough, everything would be a flux.

    • You can’t get a flux that isn’t a change of one sort or another; and you can’t change from A to B unless A and B are both definitely real, concrete beings. If they aren’t definitely real, with specific forms, then they don’t exist in order to participate in a flux, and there is no flux.

      You can say that they don’t exist, but then you’ll have to say that the flux doesn’t exist, either. It’s either essentialism or nothingness.

      For the purposes of the explanations offered to the Son in the post, it doesn’t matter whether or not the flux has gone on forever. This is why the Father says in the post that, “Maybe there have just always been things,” and leaves it at that. The question rather is, what brings the flux as a whole into being, and keeps it there, at any and every point in its course?

      • Let’s try another angle – does your nothingness need to be a void or can it be formless chaos? As formless chaos is nothing in the sense of not-a-thing. Lacking definite thingness. But it still matter, physically still existing, just not in an essential form.

        Can creation ex nihilo be stretched to creation ex chaos? If for the Aristotelean things consist of matter and form, and God as Pure Actuality makes the form, the pure matter in a chaotic, formless way can be thought as pre-existing…

        That would make realism basically God’s own nominalism, and would make “in the beginning there was the Word” more understandable: words don’t magically make matter, but they can be used to turn parts of a formless chaos into things by naming them. So the only difference between the theist essentialist and the skeptical nominalist would be whether man or God names things… it is fairly obvious that names (essences, forms, concepts etc.) are categories, and it is also fairly obvious categories can be made for pragmatic purposes, so the only way I could imagine a consistent theism/essentialism is God assigning categories to parts of the chaos, creation as a process of naming, and objectivity defined as God’s own subjective viewpoint… I am not saying I would agree with that (too circular, essentialism true because theism is true, theism true because essentialism is true) but that would be at least something I would understand.

        Because yes, that is the intuitively obvious view to me: the world consists of formless chaos, there is inherently something but not a some-thing, not things-in-themselves, rather parts of formless chaos are viewed as things by humans naming, categorizing those parts of practical purposes. God doing the same thing before we did, and calling that creation, would be at the very least a thinkable concept for me.

        I am a bit excited now – are we on the brink of a bit of a breakthrough in our everlasting discussion, at least in the sense of understanding the source of the disagreement better?

      • These are reasonable next steps, Shenpen, and they have often been taken. But I’m afraid they soon end in an impassable wall. A thing that has no form at all is clearly not any particular thing. But this means that it just isn’t a thing, period full stop. It is nothing. It is not even a void, let alone matter, which has the form of stuff that can take on other forms: the capacity to take on forms must be a property of a concrete thing, or else there is nothing that has that capacity. So as Aristotle pointed out, his prime matter – the mere capacity to take on forms – is not concretely achievable. It cannot come to pass. It is nothing more than an intellectual abstraction, a placeholder useful in our ratiocination the same way that zero is useful, achieved in thought when we delete all properties from our concept of a thing, leaving behind … nothing.

        That would make realism basically God’s own nominalism, and would make “in the beginning there was the Word” more understandable: words don’t magically make matter, but they can be used to turn parts of a formless chaos into things by naming them.

        … the only way I could imagine a consistent theism/essentialism is God assigning categories to parts of the chaos, creation as a process of naming, and objectivity defined as God’s own subjective viewpoint

        By the argument from truth, realism entails the existence of the God who alone can fully know it. God’s names for things are their true names: their essences. So, yes, we may think of realism for creatures as nominalism for God, bearing in mind that God’s names are not adventitious or pragmatic, as ours sometimes are, and nor a fortiori are they whimsical, but rather are they eternally and necessarily true. Their necessity is expressed in the Law of Noncontradiction: a thing must be only itself, and cannot be something different as well. God’s nomological act – his Word, or Law – is an aspect of his essential nature: he could not implement the concrete falsification of the Law of Noncontradiction, either in his own mind or in the creation, without ceasing to be who he is and turning into something other than God – which, given the necessity of his nature, is an impossibility.

        … the world consists of formless chaos, there is inherently something but not a some-thing, not things-in-themselves, rather parts of formless chaos are viewed as things by humans naming, categorizing those parts of practical purposes. God doing the same thing before we did, and calling that creation, would be at the very least a thinkable concept for me.

        You can’t obtain a part of a formless chaos. In a truly formless chaos, there would be nothing to distinguish one bit of it from another, nothing to name. Naming and chaos are fundamentally incongruous.

        There is no getting around it: it’s either real essentialism, or nothing at all. There are no alternatives; the choice is digital. Putting it more concretely: either there is something, or not. That’s all. And, “There is nothing” is self-refuting. So it is false.

      • Dear Kristor,

        I get your point, but I am afraid we are not getting anywhere. The problem is that ultimately, for me, language, thoughts, statements are all just crutches to get to the real juice of experiences themselves, and for you they are very much important. For you it is a big deal if a statement is self-refuting. For me not, I just use it as a prediction tool, if it can predict only 99% of experiences not 100% (for example cannot predict itself) that is still not a bad tool.

        I know it must be kind of frustrating to you to conduct a logical debate with someone who ultimately does not value logic much, but what can I do? It is just as frustrating to me that you are so attached to words and thoughts instead of the real stuff i.e. experiences. I don’t know how to understand each other better.

        My best guess is while I know you are not a Platonist I guess you are the kind of person who at least understands where a Platonist comes from. By Platonist I mean someone who thinks ideas and logic are more real and more reliable than experiences, the felt, seen world. I can hardly even imagine such a thing, I mean, our life is something that happens out there, in the world of sense experience and not in our head, and everything in our head is just a tool to make that real life in the phenomenal world better… really I am at a loss to express it better, because any way I would express it would be a logical contradiction, but how else can I express that logical contradictions simply don’t matter much because they are in the map not the terrain?

        Maybe I should look into the history of Greek Philosophy better to understand where it comes from. Epicurus etc. was all about experiences and very relatable. And it changes somewhere around Plato, the Socratics, they came up with this really preposterous idea that logic is real, that it is not just how your brain copes with the world, but for example a logical contradiction makes an idea even more untrue than if it failed to deliver the expected experience. This is absolutely incredible to me, I have no idea how could anyone ever think like that. I cannot even blame it on the lack of trying psychedelics (no offense, but most too-rigidly-logical people today are so because they never had a mind-opening “trip” where experience is stripped from interpretation), for they almost certainly had that too, during the Dionysos ceremonies… Despite that these people somehow decided to think like mathemathicians, and this determined the whole of Western Civ and still influences people like you a lot – and I cannot for the life of me figure out how it is a good idea. I should somehow try to learn this, I think it is pretty much impossible to discuss these matters fruitfully otherwise.

        What can I recommend you to learn to understand why people think like I do? Well, you can start here:

  3. Children’s tales, folktales and fairytales are wonderful method to transmit significant religious and spiritual ideas. They’re cute, short and can be easily treasured for generations into the future.

    • Rather they point to an important philosophical distinction. The way children are taught is essentially pragmatic – we don’t want them to do stupid things, hurt themselves, or drop out of school and become a bum, so their upbringing – if parents and teachers sense their responsibility – is fairly essentialist: we teach them the world consists of distinct things, recognizing these things how they are is an important distinction between truth and falsehood, people should strive to truth, are allowed to make mistakes but not allowed to lie, and so on. This is practical Thus any kind of more advanced, impractical philosophy that denies this should be better not be taught to children but kept esoteric.

      This creates three kinds of people. The religious conservative, who thinks this kind of practical essentialism is actually true and esoteric, impractical philosophies of the nothing-is-true kind are not on morally evil but factually wrong. The liberal, who takes this kind of esoteric philosophy, and brings it into practice, teaches it to children, to childish adults, implements it in laws and so on. And the skeptical conservative (myself) who thinks this essentialism is not ultimately true but very useful and in practice we should behave as if it was true, because it works, and as children are not capable of these finer distinctions they should be taught as if this was true, and laws of society should reflect it and most adults should believe it, but within an inner esoteric circle of wise adults it should be admitted that actually nothing is true, because the world does not consist of distinct things, they are man-made for practical purposes.

      Thus the religious conservative likes children’s tales (Chesterton, Belloc, Tolkien, Lewis…), the skeptical conservative considers them useful falsehoods, and I guess liberals make their own kind of fairy tales where it is merely about some people being mean for the sake of being mean and some other people are nice because they are nice.

      • The problem I have with this is: if something really works it must be in some sense true. Things have to be certain way and not the other and we can know it through reason. When, for example, we discover some “laws” of nature and build a technical device upon this knowledge which works the way we want it to work then we had to discover some truth about reality. This kind of reasoning led me away from “reality is a concept” kind of thinking typical for some followers of Buddha.

        Therefore, I don’t really believe in any esoteric or impractical knowledge as opposed to exoteric and practical one. Not even Buddha taught any special knowledge. His truth was for anybody to see and it wasn’t because of his hiding something away that most people don’t see it. Knowing about God is the most practical thing I know and it is pretty much at the plain sight for everybody. It is a fairy tail that is simply true. One just goes and submits or not.

        I think you want to have it both ways. So you are trying to come up with a synthesis that contains everything you like. However, I don’t think such “third ways” are going to work but I appreciate your effort.

    • I am suggesting that they are the map, not the terrain. In other words, the concept of “truth” requires to somehow manage to make information (words, thoughts etc.) and perceived, lived empirical reality refer to each other, relate to each other. But how do you relate information and things or experiences to each other? The gap between the word “cat” and the actual experience of a live cat is enormous. How to have them have anything to do with each other? There are only two ways.

      One is the Christian & Aristotelean way, that information is an intrinsic part of reality as such. Therefore reality itself can be logical as logic is a relationship between pieces of information.

      Another is the modern way, often called operationalism, although it can be tracked back to ancient times, to mystics (as it is the essence of the mystical, esoteric experience, be that gain from meditation, drugs or spontaneously): the gap between words and reality is huge. Reality is way, way beyond words, it is an undescribable Thusness. Information is useful only so far that it can be used to predict experiences. It is just a mental model of the world. So there as huge gap between the world of phenomena, and the world of information, which is pretty much the private life of the mind. The mind is a prediction machine, words, thoughts its cogs, and they don’t need to be true in an essential sense they can still work. Also, this explains it better than I do:

      • Shenpen, how does, in your view, Korzybski’s work undermine Aristotelianism? After quick reading of the linked article it seems to me it simply doesn’t. It rather seems to be engaged with the way how our brain operates and how it processes information. Whatever they may have found out about our brains doesn’t tell us anything about the existence of universals. Our very ability to create representations (more or less succesfully) rather confirms their existence. Also in order to describe his findings Korzybski must refer to universals otherwise he would undermine his own theory.

        The techniques of general semantics are similar to certain zen exercises. The “indexing” reminds me of one of the zen anecdotes (Where are the geese? They have flown away. No, they are still here.). They might improve our abilities but I don’t see how they are supposed to undermine platonist/aristotelian view. Notice the Anne in the example of indexing is always there, at first as a simple “variable”, later (with training) as an “array” of different experiences.

        I think you overestimate the gap between information and experience. A mental model or map must conform to the real world otherwise it’s useless. It must show distinct features of the world in such a way as we can recognize them; i.e., abstract the same thing from map and from reality which obviously means it is in both, the world and the map. It also means information is part of our experience. There is no raw experience or pure empirical experience to which we “add” information. It’s there from beginning.

        The Thusness you refer to is something else, I think. Now I admit I am on thin ice here because I did not have a profound experience of Thusness or Nature of Being or Satori or whatever you call it. To me it’s direct experience of the quality of being. It is what it is to *be* (or *be something*) rather than perceiving, thinking about or feeling it from outside perspective. This quality is the same for all reality including you and me but I don’t think it is all there is about reality.

      • The gap between the word “cat” and the actual experience of a live cat is enormous. How to have them have anything to do with each other? There are only two ways.

        One is the Christian & Aristotelean way, that information is an intrinsic part of reality as such. Therefore reality itself can be logical as logic is a relationship between pieces of information.

        If the territory isn’t rational, then there’s no way to model it. A model is a system of propositions that operate upon each other functionally to generate predictions – i.e., it is rational. You can’t achieve a rational map of an irrational territory: the rational map would be of a different sort of territory – a rational territory – than the irrational territory you were using it to navigate, and it would fail to make any reliable predictions of your experiences in the territory you were actually traversing.

        So, either the territory is rational, or there are no maps in the first place. I.e., no minds. This is one reason why nominalists often end up being forced by their own logic to repudiate the actuality of the mind that is repudiating the actuality of the mind.

        Operationalism can work only if information is an intrinsic part of reality: if reality is inherently rational, and thus intelligible. It is therefore implicitly realist, and essentialist.

        There is no conflict at all between rationality and the “thusness” of which you speak. Reality is indeed far beyond words. It does not follow that reality is less rational, and less intelligible than our thoughts (which after all, are themselves integral aspects of that same reality). On the contrary: it is far more likely that reality is much *more* rational than we can comprehend. Indeed, the intense feeling of thusness is probably a feeling of the sublime and unfathomable orderliness and rationality of reality as she most basically is. This is how the mystic can look at a pebble and see in it infinite depths. The pebble is *perfectly* rational; i.e., infinitely rational.

        This at least is what all the Christian mystics have said. We don’t come back down from the mountain to say that theology is wrong. We come back down to say that theology is right, but that it can cover only the swathe of territory that stretches partway up the first pitch to the summit.

  4. Dear Kristor and RT,

    On the contrary: it is far more likely that reality is much *more* rational than we can comprehend. Indeed, the intense feeling of thusness is probably a feeling of the sublime and unfathomable orderliness and rationality of reality as she most basically is. This is how the mystic can look at a pebble and see in it infinite depths. The pebble is *perfectly* rational; i.e., infinitely rational.

    There is no raw experience or pure empirical experience to which we “add” information. It’s there from beginning.

    Then I think we should really work out the concept of rationality as such. Usually a thing is rational if it conforms well to the way the human mind likes to reason.

    If for example you are a visual thinker (I am very much, I find it very hard to translate to these words right here the concepts I _see_ mentally), I find no issue in accepting that reality and visual thinking conform well to each other, and in this sense reality is rational, that reality conforms well to this aspect of our thinking.

    No, my issue is with the relationship between reality and language or math i.e. information.

    Part of my job is developing software, and with high level languages today it is not a very technical job, or not always or that subset of it I know, rather it is surprisingly like applied philosophy, i.e. we are focusing on not as much on how to make computers work well but on how to express a real life problem in a precise way. Example: For example when I heard philosophers debate whether existence is a real property, I thought it is not even a difficult question for a programmer, I can just say baldness Y/N is simply an instance property of the KingOfFrance class, currently this class has on instance, if one is made, then we can set the property, what is even the problem with it? My point is this field became very much like applied philosophy. (To be fair, it is applied math, and math can be argued to be more a philosophy than science.)

    The reason I brought this up is that applied philosophers i.e. programmers are generally on my side on this, because we struggle basically daily how reality just does not lend itself to be expressed with precise words and as such is, on a linguistic or mathemathical level, irrational. Joel Spolsky has an excellent term that explains have of this experience: “all abstractions leak”. This means in order to apply logic, we need to abstract, to categorize. If a program relies on a statement like “all swans are white” being true, it always turns out that well this should be understood only as most but not all of their body being white, and white understood as within 3% or 5% or whatever arbitrarily decided number of the 255/255/255 RGB code, so an agreed-upon “white-ish enough color” and so on and we are guaranteed to hit a problem sooner or later where the abstraction does not do the job.

    To put it differently, I wish you were right because my job would be so much easier, because then every real-life situation could basically have the perfect information to describe it, the perfect algorithm to define it, and I just needed to get closer and closer. In reality, it is very much a wild goose chase with all abstractions turning out to be leaking.

    How to put it more formally? Rationality through language or math requires categorization. Categories, or names (also, essences) are nouns, what we can do with them are verbs etc. and then we get descriptive statements, then we can apply formal logic to them etc. do we agree in this part? Information is made by extracting, abstracting away from reality. However, the issue is that this rationality/reason/logic stuff depends on categories. And it is the categorization _itself_ that leaks, that no two damn things in this world are exactly like the other, so in order to put them into a category we ignore their differences and THIS is what comes back to bite the poor programmer (applied philosopher) in the backside. Rationality, at least the linguistic/math type, relies on the categories, categories rely on sameness, and sameness doesn’t exist, just differences we choose to ignore.

    This is the core reason I am a skeptic. This is the core reason why programmers are usually skeptics. That no two pebbles are really alike. So when we even name them pebbles, when we give a common name to two different objects, we already made a conscious or unconscious decision to ignore their differences. Any statement about them can only be true if and only if it is certain that the ignored differences can’t influence it. Any logic and reasoning built upon the statements also rests on it. This is, really, the issue. This why programmers tend to think like Eric S. Raymond or Eliezer Yudkowsky (, with a skeptical empiricism, as we keep hitting our heads into very real walls every time we don’t.

    • Thanks, Shenpen, for this admirably clear statement of your epistemological predicament. I shall try to respond in a way that is helpful to you.

      I think the root of your difficulties is captured in your statement that:

      Usually a thing is rational if it conforms well to the way the human mind likes to reason.

      This it seems to me gets the thing backward. I should say rather that a mind is rational if its reasoning conforms well to the things it is considering. Put in terms of the analogy with a map, a map is good if it conforms to the territory it intends to cover. If the territory itself is irrational, then no map is possible in the first place. A map that is any good at all abstracts and symbolically represents from the territory features that do really exist in it. If the features aren’t really there, then the map has not abstracted them, but rather invented them. In that case, and with respect to nonexistent features it picks out, the map is fanciful; noisy.

      The map cannot of course abstract and specify all the features of the territory. A map that did so would not be a map in the first place, but a double of the territory implemented in a different medium. It would be useless as a map; computationally, it would be just as cumbersome as the territory. Maps and models are, and must be, simplifications. That’s why abstractions all leak. To reproach maps because as such they cannot account for all the details of the territory is inapposite.

      Abstractions do all leak. But that doesn’t mean they are not abstractions; it doesn’t mean they are just stuff we make up for the sake of convenience. If models were constituted just and only of stuff we make up for the sake of convenience, *they wouldn’t work* (indeed, they’d probably halt due to logical errors): they wouldn’t succeed at making predictions; so much so that their predictions would be, not just wrong, but not even wrong. Their output would be nothing but noise. The only way to build a model that works even a little bit, qua model, is to abstract from reality features that are really present in it. The swan is not perfectly white, to be sure; but if it is not white enough for the adjective “white” to work at all for us – i.e., if it isn’t in fact a white swan to begin with – then we wouldn’t try to fit that adjective to it in the first place. We wouldn’t then even try to figure out how to design an exact definition of whiteness that we could use in practice to tell how white a swan is (or render one realistically on screen).

      I find no issue in accepting that reality and visual thinking conform well to each other, and in this sense reality is rational, that reality conforms well to this aspect of our thinking.

      No, my issue is with the relationship between reality and language or math i.e. information.

      I think you are treating “information” too narrowly. The objects that you manipulate intellectually when performing visual reasoning are information, too. When you visualize a white swan, there is no white swan in your skull! There is a model or map or representation of a white swan, composed of perhaps only very few of the real swan’s features, which your visual cortex has abstracted from the unutterable richness of the visual field. This of course is all covered by Korzybski. But again, as RT has pointed out, the fact that you are working with an abstraction of only a few of the features really present in the world does not mean that those features are not really present in the world.

      Pragmatism does not refute real essentialism, but presupposes it.

      So then, supposing that the features we abstract from reality are in fact really there to be abstracted in the first place (so that we are not hallucinating everything), and remembering that all our abstractions are information, would it make sense to think of those features as present in the objects of our experience as, likewise, information? The objects of experience do all have definite forms (this is only to say that they are something or other in particular, are just themselves and not something other). This is what we mean when we say that they have features. Now, a feature is nothing other than an accomplished fact – just look at the word: “feat”+ ure; “facture,” as in “manufacture,” is the same word. A fact is just a concrete instantiation of a form. It is a thing into which that form has been integrated: a thing that has been informed by that form. Instantiation, then, or becoming, is a process of information: of integration of forms into a new thing.

      This is what RT is getting at when he writes:

      There is no raw experience or pure empirical experience to which we “add” information. It’s there from beginning.

      I.e., raw experience is modulation of information already really present in our sensorium. When the retina modulates frequencies and intensities of light into trains of nervous signals, it is not adding to the information present in the ambient light, but subtracting from it. A sensor can’t be fitted to respond to a certain sort of inputs without ipso facto being a filter. A rod for example does not respond to color of light at all, but only to intensity.

      This subtraction – or summation, differentiation, or integration, as the case may be (any function can be understood as a filter that selects one way of interpreting its inputs from among all the possible interpretations) – recurs with each new processing step as the information originally harvested from the photonic flux makes its way up the neural hierarchy of the visual cortex. Each processing step maps the territory of the previous step. Each successive map is an increase in representational leverage over that of its input territory: each is an output index of a larger input dataset. With each increase of representational leverage comes an increase in computational economy. It’s a fantastically complex procedure.

      The coding project of rendering a realistic white swan must replicate that whole abstractive work of the visual cortex, and reverse engineer it. To arrive at an algorithm that a machine can implement and throw at retinae, it must work its way back down an immensely deep stack of iterated maps until it arrives at the basis thereof: the trains of neural impulses leaving the retina. It must translate all those steps into a stack of languages that have a different machine language at the base. But it must do this with machinery that is thousands of orders of magnitude less powerful than that of our visual cortex. Hardly surprising, then, that it is so hard to find rules that can work on such vastly simpler equipment!

      No more is it surprising then either that the terms we use in logic and math – which are perched far higher on the abstractive hierarchy of the mind’s stack of maps than even the top layer of the visual cortex – are difficult to trace back down the hierarchy. Nor should it surprise us that our higher order abstractions should break down a bit under careful scrutiny, for reality is complex, and thinking must be simple. Maps, like sensors, must eo ipso be filters.

      But, again, thinking is simple not because it is not really about reality, nor because thinking is rational while reality is not, but because maps must by nature approximate. If they don’t approximate at all – as, if reality were irrational and unintelligible (i.e., just unmappable to begin with) they absolutely could not – then they are not maps, but fantasies. A good map is more proximal to salient features of its territory than a bad one. But no map can be quite adequate even to the features it is intended to map, and still furnish us the computational economy we want from a map.

      In the limit this epistemological inadequacy of maps goes back to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (so does Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which comes into play at the retinal modulation of the photonic flux and in the molecular transactions of the nervous system). No consistent logical language is adequate to demonstrate all the truths that it is capable of expressing. But this inadequacy nowise entails that those truths are not true. If truth is not true, then no language can say anything.

      It’s real essentialism in the end, Shenpen, or it’s nothing at all. You can say that it’s all nothing, but you can’t carry nothing into practice. In saying that what works must be in some sense true, RT was echoing William James, who insisted that if an idea can’t possibly work, it can’t possibly be true. For more on that, you might want to check out my post Kwagunt: Creek and Canyon.

      • Fascinating stuff. Btw. thanks for pointing out the connection to William James and pragmatism. I did not know that though I read your Kwagunt post some time ago. I just referred to what I think is a common sense (or as we say “what peasant’s reason tells us”) and it turned out to be the basic idea of pragmatism.

        good philosophy = common sense refined?

  5. I don’t know whether existence is a property. But whatever it is, people, places, things, and their properties depend on it. Despite what Professors Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking believe about nothing, the word “nothing” means “not anything,” and they’ve redefined that word to make it signify something.

    Shenpen, I believe there is absolute sameness because each person, each place, and each thing is identical with itself. That’s easy to see, too, because whatever something, the letter “X.” for example, may stand for, “X is not X” is still a self-contradiction, even when that sentence only expresses a generality. In fact, it still expresses one, even when the “X” doesn’t denote anything. Self-identity is an essential property, too, because anything will stop existing when it forfeits even one of its essential properties.

    No two objects are exactly alike. After my favorite Venus Flytrap, named “Droopy” divided “his” clones were, and still are, genetically indistinguishable from him. But he’s not identical with any of them. If I snipped a leaf off him and another one off one his clones, a DNA test probably would still convince the lab technician that both leaves belonged to the same plant.

    Differences between very similar things tell you partly why I’m a Thomistic essentialist. St. Thomas teaches us that knowledge begins with experience. Say that I’ve never seen or heard of a Venus Flytrap. While I wander through a flytrap habitat in North or South Carolina, I see VFT after VFT until I I form what St. Thomas calls an “intelligible species,” a fully general idea that applies to all Venus Flytraps, including the merely possible ones that never will exist. Once I’ve discovered the VFT”s intelligible species, that fully general idea about all Venus Flytraps and only Venus Flytraps, I can identify any Venus Flytrap.

    By the way, I think in words, not in pictures. An to me, language and logic and language probably are as important as they are to Kristor.

    • Yes, I have bad visual imagination so I am also prone to think in words. Perhaps people with this faculty developed tend to overestimate empiricism as E. Feser seems to suggest.

  6. RT, I can hardly count the times when Mom drove me to unfamiliar places by her usually indirect routes, expecting me remember landmarks. Maybe that’s because she’s a thoroughly visual thinker like Shenpen. Sometimes I have to remind her that I would need street names, exit numbers, and written directions, including the ones for return trips, since I don’t think visually. With the lousy depth perception I’ve had, the world should be glad I don’t drive anymore.

    Since Unix is my favorite operating system, I’m used to typing concise commands on a command-line instead of clicking, dragging, dropping opening dialogue boxes, and pulling down menus. So graphic user interfaces usually are much more visual than I’d like them to be. They slow me down, too. Unix is great for us lazy programmers because a four-character command can tell the computer to delete everything from the hard disk, including Unix. Once you delete stuff that way, there’s no way to un-delete it. It’s GONE.

    • As a boy I had talent for graphic arts. Or at least my teacher told me. I loved drawing especially and did a lot of it. But I couldn’t draw without the object being in front of me i.e. just using my visual memory. I couldn’t make a clear mental picture of the thing.

      On the other hand I rarely get lost in the forrest or in the city. However, I depend on doing “mental geometry” of the landscape and my movement rather than on memorizing landmarks.

  7. Thanks everybody for the suggestion and examples that visual thinkers may tend to lean towards empiricism (and atheism) and verbal thinkers towards essentialism (and theism). This is it least something I can have a chance to empirically so I feel like back on familiar ground after an adventure into the fascinating but fearsome unknown.

    Kristor, thank you again, I still cannot decide if you are right, but I can clearly see you are presenting your sides case masterfully. I think the issue can ever be decided, the solution will probably lie in just this, in the gap between the visual, auditory etc. information about the world and its verbal interpretation. I wonder to what extent can be one take ideas like that of the essence or even that of truth back down from the verbal level to the visual level? It is unusual to use these terms for them, essence is IMHO more of a verbal category (name) while truth can be both (in the sense that a visual illusion or trick is untrue), both mapping visual-truth to verbal-truth takes empiricism (predictionalism).

    Perhaps one aspect I would argue with is that if you accept that the source of verbal information is abstracting away visual information, then it also means all your logical deductions from verbal information can be mapped back down to visual information and tested empirically, and then you are an empiricist. Doesn’t your whole worldview require some amount of verbal information having its own existence without being able to map it back down to the visual? I am pretty sure “Pure Actuality actualizing all potentials” cannot be mapped down.

    • Ideas, essences are abstractions. They are result of abstracting away as you suggest and Kristor provides the fascinating account of. Notice, they are particular features rather than visual informations that are abstracted away.

      I think ideas/essences are neither verbal nor visual. You don’t see them with your mind eye or hear them with your mind ear, rather you understand them, grasp them with your intellect. Their meaning can be *expressed* verbally and/or visually. Bill does the former, you do the latter. Take a map as example — it’s visual and abstraction at the same time. You must understand the meaning of symbols on the map i.e. you know they relate to the same *idea* that you find in the real landscape. One and the same idea (of river, for example) is on the map and in reality.

      We need senses to provide „food“ for our reason and his abstracting ability. In that sense we are empiricists. But the essences are on their own. You can’t test them empirically because empirical testing presupposes them. For example the ideas of size or unit or empirical testing itself are pretty abstract ideas — you don’t find them anywhere in material reality. The same way Pure Act is presupposed in order to explain why things exist (are reduced from potential to act) in the first place. Or something like that.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.