Fields of Sense – Introduction

This will be our reading for April 7.  You can find the details at our page.

1. Gabriel begins by making a distinction between ontology and metaphysics, two fields which are often taken as synonymous.  For Gabriel, the term “ontology” ought to be reserved for accounts of what it means to be, while “metaphysics” ought to name discussions about issues like the fundamental nature of reality or the split between appearance and reality.  

2. When combined with metaphysics, ontology goes beyond asking what it means for something to exist, and reality ends up being treated as a unified domain under the name “world.”  In this conflation of ontology and metaphysics, ontology, the investigation into being, is treated as secondary to metaphysics, the investigation of substance.

3. A lot of metaphysics depends on the idea that there is a fundamental distinction between the way things are, and how our presence distorts things and gives rise to illusions.  While a lot of work has gone into breakingdown the mind/world distinction, a great deal of contemporary thinking continues to be a materialist twist on Presocratic metaphysics; “the fundamental nature of reality” is a constantly recurring phrase.  Bertrand Russell set the tone when he said that reality was “everything you would have to mention in a complete description of the world.” The arguments and logical sophistication have greatly improved, but the world picture is largely the same; it is always something like atoms in the void structured by various kinds of projections.

4. Many recent debates are premised on the idea that fundamental reality is described by physics, and so all we need to do is subtract the human perspective in order to unmask reality.  The search for reality on our side of the illusion also helps explain debates about mereological composition, which concerns whether or not reality consists of compositions of chunks of matter.  

5. This book wants to break the association between metaphysics and ontology, and to get rid of the idea that there is a unified totality of what there is.  Gabriel defines ontology this way: “Ontology is the systematic investigation into the meaning of ‘existence’, or rather the investigation of existence itself aided by insight into the meaning of ‘existence’” (5).  There are problems with the concept of ‘being’, and this definition does not resolve all of them.

6. The term “being” is full of ambiguity, like its different uses in existential and identity statements, and the problem of the copula is. Moreover, the distinction between “being” and “existence” is generally associated with ‘possibility’ and ‘actuality’, which is supposed to account for how God can create new objects.

7. By dividing ontology from metaphysics, Gabriel is trying to get away from those associations.  He wants to drop the concept of being because it was designed to account for things like the possible, the impossible, the future, and other necessary theological categories.

8. He accepts Kant’s statement that being is said in manifold ways, but that ‘being’ in the existential, identity, and copula senses do not make up a category of being, let alone a genus.  ‘Bank’ in ‘river bank’ and ‘Bank of America’ are not different manifestations of the same thing.

9. He defines metaphysics as a combination of two things: an account of appearance versus reality, and a theory of the world in its totality.  Metaphysics can see the totality as a maximally spatio-temporally extended thing, like with Spinoza, or as the totality of facts. He is also including ideas that say totality is a projection (Kant) a horizon (Husserl) or a presupposition (Habermas) as metaphysical.  In other words, metaphysics comes from the desire to uncover reality as it is in itself.

10. Metaphysical theories all agree there is a unified totality. One currently standard way to refer to this unified totality is by way of unrestricted quantification.  Appearances are generated by contextually defined quantification: “For instance, if one identifies the range of unrestricted (metaphysical) quantifiers with the objects in the domain of the universe and the latter with whatever is studied by microphysics, fridges and beer will turn out to be appearances” (7).

11. So fridges and beer are not really real, but it makes sense to speak of them in a restricted way.  ‘Fridge’ might be shorthand for a description of a region of space-time; but the fridge is a sum of particles.  To say “there are fridges” is a lot like the colloquial “Is there any beer?” which is not asking if beer exists, but if there is beer in the fridge. Unrestricted quantification is supposed to be metaphysical by asking whether its kind exists – ‘does beer exist?’ The unrestricted is fundamental reality.

12. This book defends meta-metaphysical nihilism, “the view that metaphysics literally talks about nothing, that there is no object or domain it refers to” (7).  Another term for this is the “no world view.” He does not mean to say we cannot make a meaningful distinction between a reality and mere appearances. Different people will hear “the world does not exist” differently.  Some might hear a denial that nature exists. Others will hear a denial of a unified domain of facts. Others will hear a denial of an absolutely unrestricted universal quantifier.

13. That last one is a bit complicated.  It is not that there is no unrestricted quantification full stop, but that if there is unrestricted quantification, it does not lead to an increase in knowledge in either metaphysics or ontology.  Existence is not relevantly tied to quantification at all.

14. This book is a realist ontology.  To explain its originality, take this example.  Picture us standing in front of a volcano, Mt. Ana.  Old realism would say there really is a volcano in this space-time region, regardless of how we relate to this fact.  So this means there is at least one story of how this volcano is individuated, a story that does not involve our senses. Typical anti-realism would say we have a hand in individuating the volcano.

15. One argument for anti-realism about volcanos is to jump from an anti-realism about mountains and valleys.  When we divide a region up into mountains and valleys, we do it from a particular perspective: creatures standing on Earth.  But if Martians came, who walk on their left hands and can defy gravity, they might have a different spatial perspective that leads them to see the mountain as a valley, etc.  This is supposed to establish that ‘mountain’ and ‘valley’ are relative.

16. If realism is tied to maximal mind-independence, then we can use arguments like this to undermine many categories, and in the extreme case, come to a radical constructivism, or maybe hylomorphism. Gabriel takes anti-realism to have a point, but there is a realist interpretation of mountains and governments that do not turn them into a matter of convention.  A complete understanding of the existence of mountains and love does not have to mention any convention according to which we agree that the word “object” applies to them.

17. There are many reasons why old realism fails.  Another important one: it rules out the reality of the mind, since it says that what is real is accessible to the third-person perspective.  But the mind is of course mind-dependent. Subjectivity exists, and it harbours illusions that also exist and that we should study for the sake of self-knowledge.

18. The fact that we can describe situations in different ways, depending on what we take to be real, needs to be accounted for, and old metaphysical realism has a hard time allowing for the fact that theory-laden things do exist.

19. Gabriel’s realism claims that any perspective on the mountain is as real and “out there” as the mountain itself.  That it looks like a mountain to humans a valley to Martians are relational facts involving the mountain itself, and not just humans or Martians.  In short, his realism claims that we do not need to reduce the world to the mind-independent.

20. To simplify, we could say that old metaphysical realism is only interested in a world without spectators, while constructivism is only interested in the spectators, either by phenomenologically bracketing or outright denying the world without spectators.  This new ontological realism is a middle ground; it recognizes perspectives and constructions as world-involving relations. But remember, that is a simplification; the no-world view means there is no world on one side and mind on the other.

21. He will defend both an ontological and an epistemological pluralism.  He is neither a metaphysical nihilist or a skeptic. The claim that there is no unified object which could be called “human knowledge” is not to say no one knows anything.  He will argue that forms of knowledge cannot be unified via a relation to the world, where different kinds of knowledge would correspond to different parts of reality. Epistemological pluralism is a liberal stance which allows for a plurality of forms which are not unified by a privileged discursive practice.

22. He will replace some traditional vocabulary with his own.  For example, “perspectives” will be replaced with “senses”.  He takes the relevant idea of sense from his reading of Frege.  In that reading, “senses are objective modes of presentation associated with objects, no matter what kind of object is in question.  Second, and more contentiously, senses are properties of objects and not ways of looking at them” (12).

23. In his reading of Frege, the theory of sense is ontological and is part of a reconstruction of the meaning of existence.  It is only derivatively epistemological or knowledge-gathering. He says Frege argues “that there are no objects on this side of their manifold modes of presentation given that are for him, first, to exist is to fall under a concept and, second, concepts are individuated by their senses.  Concepts are just more objects” (12).

24. Importantly, this means there is no categorical difference between concepts and objects, so he avoids the old assumption that there is a realm of objects that only fall under concepts, like unicorns.

25. The difference between objects and concepts, or rather objects and senses, is functional, not substantive: senses are objects too, depending on the function they fulfill.   Objects are individuated by descriptions that objectively hold good of them, regardless of whether anyone is apprehending them. Senses are part of reality, and that is why reality can appear to us without being distorted.  That a star looks like a tiny speck tells us something about how things really are; it is not just how things seem to us.

26. Instead of domains of objects, he will talk about fields of sense, where a field lays out structures for an object to appear, independent of our criteria of identity.  Because field-structures function independently of our criteria for identifying them, he will call this an ontological realism.

27. He is calling it ontological realism because it derives from an analysis of the concept of existence.  He will also defend a form of epistemological realism in line with ontological realism. Even if there is a mediating structure between us and the world – transcendental, neural, whatever – an account of that structure also needs to explain our access to the structure itself.  The interface is part of how things really are, even in the case of a global hallucination.

28. The whole point of a skeptical idea like hallucination is to “offer an alternative explanation to the one we prefer, an explanation we cannot rule out simply insisting on our prior explanation or its superiority in terms of an inference to the best explanation” (13).  The best explanation is one true to the facts; and if we are in a Cartesian hallucination, then the best account of the facts will reference that hallucination. But that is not reason for a skeptical retreat; instead, it is evidence for an overall trust in our epistemic capacities.  Basically, hallucination hypotheses do not get beyond pointing out epistemic fallibility; they do not establish that there might be epistemic intermediaries “all the way up” so we could never make sense of “unproblematic openness.”

29. Chapters 10 and 11 talk about modality from the no-world perspective.  Possible worlds are rejected as metaphysics. He replaces the language of possible worlds with a plurality of actual worlds, that is, fields of sense: “They coexist, but they do not jointly make up one world of which they would be part or to which they would relate like descriptions to a description-free ‘flat’ world of facts” (16).

30. He rejects ideas about, quoting Eli Hirsch, “our ability—or apparent ability—to conceive of different ways of breaking the world up into objects” because they suggest there is a unified world whose order we trace by thinking about it.

31. A basic version of the argument from the list.  Imagine there are only three objects: x, y, and z.  And let’s say a fact is something that is true of something: it might be a fact that x is a bear, y is a rabbit, and z is a forest.  It is also a fact that the bear tries to kill the rabbit. Maybe there are finitely many facts about the world. Now we try to write a list including all the facts in this world in which the objects are embedded.  It would a representation of the totality of facts, or a world picture.

32. The problem is that the world-picture would also have to be a part of the world, if the world is really an all-encompassing domain and not just a restricted totality like the beer in Gabriel’s fridge.  The fact that there is a list changes the world: it adds objects, such as the writer or thinker of the list, as well as more facts involving the fact that there is a list of the totality of facts: “There will always be another list we can write in order to achieve a world-picture and any list will (slightly) change the world by adding facts and objects to it” (18).

33. This incompleteness is not a property of our description.  We could say the world was complete before we started thinking about it, but that would involve changing the definition of the world to “what existed before thought”.  We would have to rule out the capacity to think about the world from the world.

34. He thinks the idea that reality needs to be thought of as neutral in order to be realist has a decision behind it:

“[T]o treat the appearance of how things are to be thought of as ontologically ephemeral.  Thought with its manifold ramifications sees itself as a minor side-effect of a process it is abel to describe after a long ‘history’, or rather after a long in itself meaningless biological time of evolution.  But this decision is unwarranted. The fact that for all we know there is no good reason for the universe evolving thinking animals (by underlying teleology, say) is irrelevant for the question of ontology.” (18)

35. In chapter 1, he will say the idea that understanding being means understanding life and death is zoontology.  Zoontology does seem to underlie our evolutionary hard-wired sense of reality.  He will not deny that humans are interested in the problem of life and its relation to our epistemic activities, but that it is not central to ontology.  It is just a feature of what there is that some objects are alive and some do ontology. But it is true that our human form of life shapes our understanding of ontology by putting concrete flesh on the bare bones of logically described facts.

36. Facts are things being such and so.  A fact is a constellation of objects held together by a description that holds good of the objects. We get access to many facts through our sensory apparatus; a visual describe is logical and not linguistic, as words are not coloured.  Different sensory apparatuses can produce different descriptions.

37. This does not mean our access to reality is hopelessly perspectival:  “The descriptions I am giving of our sensory equipment are not themselves sensory, or more precisely, they belong to a different level of sense, the one associated with thinking…” (19-20)  He thinks we should think of sensation and perception as being descriptions. So he calls a true thought, including a true visual description, a fact. “True thoughts are facts, which is not to say all facts are true thoughts.  Many or most (if one could count them) facts are not exactly thoughts, but just truths, that is to say, objective mind- and representation-independent descriptions of objects” (20). That the moon is smaller than the Earth is true of moon and Earth regardless of our thinking.

38. The difference between true and false thought is that true thoughts hold good of their objects, while false thought is disassociated from it: “A true thought is a fact whereas for any false thought there is a fact to the effect that it is a false thought.  A false thought is a fact only by accident, that is, by the further fact that it is a false thought. A true thought immediately is a fact; it is a property of its objects, whereas a false thought is only a fact despite itself” (20).  We could even say that a true thought is subject-less, while a false thought “constitutes a subject”.   

39. We still need an account of false thought that does justice to the wide arrange of ways in which thought can be false, like ideology, illusions, hallucinations, and so on.  There could be room for psychoanalysis here, if we think of it as a tool for criticizing the pathologies of false thought. The same can hold true for versions of critical theory which can be used to articulate the many pathologies of human thought.  Or phenomenology in the 18th/19th century meaning of the term, where it was basically a theory of error. Any such revivals would have to live up the standards of contemporary epistemology, which basically means realism.

40. The upshot of 20th century philosophy was an overall realist turn.  The various skepticisms, like language game relativism, were misguided, because they could not accommodate the argument from facticity.   Gabriel says, “Elisabeth Anscombe pithily remarked that we need to draw a distinction between the fact that there is always a point where we have to stop asking from the fact that we always have to stop at the same point” (21).

41. We need to get past ontotheology, which is the linking of metaphysics (of totality) with ontology (the investigation into the meaning of existence).  So ontotheology is still around, as it underlies a lot of arguments in metaphysics and ontology that often treat them as synonyms. He thinks the critique of metaphysics was correct to the extent that it attacked ontotheology, but not good as it turned into “postmodern” hyperbole.  It is an open question whether anyone ever did that; Richard Rorty might be the only one.

42. Ontotheology still shapes our world-pictures, insofar as they are world-pictures.  Heidegger and Wittgenstein thought philosophy should not be presented as a theory or set of arguments.  Gabriel disagrees; he thinks understanding the failure of ontotheology presupposes an understanding of the fallacies involved in the development of ontotheology.  Getting past ontotheology just means giving different arguments in the regions opened by by ontotheology; metaphysics has to be replaced by relevant successor fields.

Appendix: The meaning of life, from Why The World Does Not Exist

My answer to the question “What is the meaning of being?,” to take up a famous formulation of Heidegger, is the ontology of fields. The meaning of being, the meaning of the expression “being,” or rather “existence,” is sense itself. This is revealed in the non-existence of the world. The non-existence of the world triggers an explosion of sense. For everything exists only because it appears in a field of sense. Because an all-encompassing field of sense cannot exist, there exist an unlimited plurality of fields of sense. It is not the case that all fields of sense are somehow connected with each other, because otherwise the world would exist in the form of an infinitely related network. The connections between fields of sense, which we observe and bring about ourselves, are made up of new fields of sense. We cannot escape sense. Sense is our destiny, as it were.

The answer to the question concerning the meaning of life lies in sense itself. That there are infinitely many senses, which we can know and change, is already the meaning we are looking for. Or, to put it in a nutshell: the meaning of life is the engagement with infinite sense, in which we are fortunately able to participate. That we are not always happy with the process is self-evident. That unhappiness and unnecessary suffering exist is also true and should present us with an opportunity to think ourselves anew and to improve ourselves morally. Against this background it is certainly important to bring clarity to our ontological situation, because humanity is always changing in light of its conception of the fundamental structure of reality. The next step consists in giving up the search for an all-encompassing structure. Instead we should build communities that help us better understand the many existing structures in a way that is more creative and free of bias, so that we can more effectively judge what should remain as it is and what should be changed. Just because everything exists does not mean that all is well or that all existing things or structures are somehow equally valid. We find ourselves together on a great expedition – we have arrived here from nowhere, and together we set out into the infinite. (Why the World Does Not Exist, 220-221)


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