The Problem of Universals

Forget market failures and terrorism: philosophers have other sorts of long-standing problems. One of these is the so-called “Problem of Universals.”
Taken from this article, which sums up the problem nicely… [italics have been removed from the original, and due to display problems or coding errors or something else beyond my understadning the “þ” symbols which appear have been replaced, by me, with semicolons]

Now that we’ve got the requisite definitional issue out of the way we may introduce the problem of universals. The author of this article also sums it up very nicely, IMO, so I won’t attempt to do one better than him.

These are the core questions surrounding universals, and the response to these questions determined the labeling used to describe one’s opinion. He also demonstrates this as follows:

So what is the problem, exactly? Well, which of the above positions is correct? Answering this question has far-reaching consequences in all realms of philosophic inquiry, and I find the topic to be rather fascinating. :slight_smile:

My own take is very wishy-washy (part of why I bring it up here). I tend to lean toward nominalism; i.e.—universals don’t exist. However, the use of universals in language really presents a problem for me if I were to take a strict nominalist stance, so I do prefer to consider that I am a realist when pushed up to the wall; i.e.—universals exist. Specifically, an immanent realist, in that we may not seperate the universal from the particular. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

For more background one can look here, or here.

If universals exists then where do they reside? If Whiteness is a thing, then where is it located? What medium connects the universal Whiteness to the particular sheet of paper?

If universals have existence we should be able to detect them, or at least detect the mechanism by which they express themselves in the world. Nothing in physics suggests that this is the case.

Is it surprising that similar arrangements of matter should exhibit similar properties? Take two lumps of clay and shape them both into identical horses. At what point in the process does this hypothetical universal Horse link up with the clay? They look alike because they are similiar arrangements of matter, not because they both are expressions of the universal Horse.

Animals, particularly humans, are good at seeing patterns in the world. If you notice that a particular arrangement of matter has certain properties you can use that knowledge to predict the behavior of similar arrangements of matter sometime in the future – a very useful survival skill. Given how important they are to our survival, is it at all surprising that the patterns that we see in the world seem to have a physical existence?

(BTW, I also think Objectivism is bunk, just not for the reasons expoused in the quoted article.)

I added the emphasis there to make my point. :slight_smile:
~What properties?
~What arrangements?
~What patterns?

Maybe I am being overly obtuse, but this is why I hate belly button contemplation philosophy. Too much of it is just substituting different words for simple concepts to make them seem complicated. Substitute “nouns” for “particulars” and “adjectives” for “universals” and you will understand my point.

Do adjectives exist? yes, in the same way ideas and information do. Are they tangible things with a physical form? no, if they were they would be nouns.

simple.

Disagree? Then define existence.

[sub]oh, and I hated Plato’s alegory of the cave for the same reason[/sub]
-Beeblebrox


“The answer?” said Deep Thought. “The answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.

Let’s consider paper and bone.

Certain arrangements of cellulose molecules have the property of reflecting a particular spectral distribution of electromagnetic radiation. Certain arrangements of calcium molecules reflect a different spectral distribution of electromagnetic radiation. Coincidentally these different spectrums stimulate the human eye in similar ways. We call this particular pattern of stimulus “white”, even though it is produced by many different spectral distributions.

Since “white” is an artifact of the human sensory appartus, where does this universal Whiteness reside?

Here, here. I’m with BB.

Besides, you (or the author of the website) is asking the wrong questions. It’s not about whether Universals exist; it’s about whether Particulars exist.

We can define exactly what we mean by “whiteness” by describing that it should reflect electromagnetic radiation of between such and such wavelengths and it should scatter those reflected photons and it shouldn’t absorb more than x% of such incident radiation etc. We can demonstrate that “whiteness” as we have defined it occurs in the real world by displaying said piece of paper. Therefore, “whiteness” can be said to exist because when we speak of it we convey specific information about the real world. If we (accurately) term something “white” we can make specific, testable predictions based on that information.

Now, we turn our attention to “this piece of paper” only to discover that the phrase we use to indicate the Particular is not well defined. First off, we can bring the paradox of Theseus’ Ship to bear on it. Is it the same piece of paper if some part of it is replaced? With our knowledge of quantum physics we are forced to acknowlegde that the particles that consitute the paper can be (and likely are being) replaced all the time. Furthermore, is it the same piece of paper if I tear off a corner? What if I tear off two corners? How many bits of paper do I have to tear off before it’s no longer “this piece of paper”? (see also the heap paradox)In which piece of paper does the “thisness” reside? If I recycle “this piece of paper” and particles of it end up in 1000 sheets of paper, where is it? What I recycle it and all its particles end up in the same piece of paper, would that still be “this”? What if I add ink to the paper, does that alter it’s “thisness”? Physics also tells us that the more exacting we are about our definitions with regard to some aspects of “this piece of paper” the less certain we will be about other aspects.
Therefore, “this piece of paper” cannot be said to exist because when we speak of it we fail to convey specific information about the real world and our terminology leads to no specific, testable predictions.

[sub]Now, how’s that for obtuse![/sub]

Yes, it’s quite easy to get bogged down in semantics in these sorts of questions.

To shift the discussion a little (hopefully NOT hijack), what about “absolutes?”

People seem very fond of absoltes, for reasons that I suppose involve simplicity. Virtually every religion has absolutes and preaches that their “ethics” are correct all the time without varience (e.g. killing is always wrong).

Do “absolutes” actually exist?

An artifact of the human sensory apparatus? Or a “certain type of reflection” property of the molecule? You try and escape that conclusion, I see, by noting, “Coincidentally these different spectrums stimulate the human eye in similar ways.” What’s so similar about them? I can put my “white” piece of paper next to my “white” wall and notice, very clearly, that they are not the same “white.” One, in fact, is more “tan” than the other, where tan is “like a light brown.”

Some universals you might like to dismiss for me, since you seem to have color down pat:
[li]length[/li][li]temperature[/li][li]direction[/li]
No obligation there, of course, but I’d be interested in seeing those represented as artifacts of perception. In fact, length and direction (you might want to say “orientation” to avoid relativity issues (not general or special reltivity)) are two things that make me wobble away from nominalism.

“This” is why you hate bellybutton contemplation philosophy? Because of the subject of universals? I hope you aren’t saying that there is a property of philosophy you dislike. That’s suspiciously like a universal itself. :slight_smile:

epolo, perhaps you should join my identity discussion here where particulars are the topic. :slight_smile: We wrestle with the ship issue extensively, though I put a different twist on it (not an original different twist, however).

Just out of curiosity, why would you want to avoid relativity issues when considering two qualities which are meaningless outside of a relative context?
-Not that I want to get sucked into more navel-gazing (my head still hurts from the “identity” thread)! :slight_smile:

erl
Immanent realism is correct, of course. All else is sophistry and ignorance. :wink:

Pochaco

In pattern and prganizational principle (which are themselves universals, of course).

I disagree. Physics is replete with universals: atom, hydrogen, electron, nucleus, probability wave, etc.

Let’s take a simple example: does hydrogen exist? Sure, one can (as a thought exercise) point to many, many separate molecules. But what makes these molecules hydrogen? For that matter, what makes that particular grouping of particles a molecule?

Yes, that is why immanent realism differs from platonic realism. I submit that the “arrangement of matter” we call a hydrogen molecule exists in a sense independent of our intellectual modelling. I submit that when we speak of hydrogen we are not simply grouping particulars under a convenient heading but are, in fact, referencing an existential property of reality.

Yes we are. The nominalist position is that all patterns are artifacts of human consciousness. I disagree. Some patterns exist independently. Much of science, I believe, has been the quest to recognize these patterns.

Beeblebrox

I would say, yes, you are being obtuse. But perhaps that is just substituting a different word for the simple concept, “if I don’t enjoy it it must not have value”. Feel free to substitute “understand” or “appreciate” for “enjoy” if you wish.

The noun:adjective analogy fails on a number of points, not the least of which is that both general nouns and adjectives are universals. Substitute proper nouns::nouns and you have a more reasonable analogy.

Of course, using that analogy to dismiss the question is a bit like using Pascal’s Wager to dismiss Hinduism.

I diagree.
Existence: the property of manifesting, or being capable of manifesting, in material reality.

Other answers are possible, of course, but they would likely involve some of that “belly-button” philosophy which you hate so much.

epolo

No. The original question was correct. You make a mistake in framing your response.

This demonstrates nothing about the existence of whiteness. It demonstrates only a particular object exists, which we label with the word “white”.

This is an interesting definition of existence. It would seem to also prove that “nonexistence” exists. Of course, the test of “about the real world” seems a bit circular. How are we to know whether the information is “about the real world” unless we know whether the referent exists? Are virtual particles real?

The quality this speaks to is “identity”, and it is a universal, not a particular.

Also, you are wrong that saying “this piece of paper” does not convey specific information. It may not specify every conceivable variable of physical manifestation, but neither does “whiteness”. For that matter, “this piece of paper” need not address identity at all. I can specify the particular without any care at all for Theseus’ ship or possible future rips and tears. Continuity, like identity, is a universal.

Possibly, but they will never be verifiable from a limited perspective. I think I will leave it at that, for now, erl can probably tell you why. :wink:

This problem was solved more than eight hundred years ago by the great Scholastic philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard. The problem is an ancient one: it comes down to us from the Neoplatonist Porphyry’s Isagoge, a commentary on Aristotle written at the end of the third century AD.

Here is a decent reading list on the problem and its solutions.

MR

Ack, didn’t see your links the first time, erislover, sorry.

There are three types of cone in the eye, each sensitive to a particular band of wavelengths. When we “see” a color we aren’t sensing the full spectrum, only three narrow samples. Two light sources can have wildly different spectral distributions, but appear identical to the human eye, as long as they stimulate the cones in the right proportions.

This is why we have three primary colors. If we had four types of cones in our eyes, there would be four primary colors. Color is very anthrocentric.

What is the length of a ball? Length only has meaning within a human-imposed frame of reference. A pencil doesn’t know that it has a long axis to be measured. The priveleging of one axis over another is a human choice.

Direction is similar. We assign a facing to an object by giving priority to a particular frame of reference.

Temperature is a human way of defining the average velocity of a collection of particles – it’s an abstraction. An atom doesn’t have a temperature, only a velocity.

I’ll grant that there might be some fundamental physical rules of the universe that could be considered universals. Mass, for example. But Mass is a long way from Whiteness, or Truth, or Beauty, or Freedom.

I’ve answered your questions, now will you answer mine?. If universals exist, where do they reside? By what medium do they interact with the brute stuff of reality?

Solved? I do hope that was a joke, Maeglin. Abelard’s conceptualism (or, nominalism-lite, as I like to think of it) is little more than an elaborate beg of the question. “Universals” don’t exist as particulars do, but “universal words” exist and reference “abstractions” which exist as creations of the mind extrapolated from the experience of particulars.

Abelard asserts both the existence and nature of these constructed abstractions and uses them to answer the questions: do universals exist and what is their relationship to particulars. Voila, the circle is closed.

Hey, I’m not saying it wasnt an elegant attempt at compromise. But to claim he “answered the question” is just a bit of an overstatement, eh?

I should have said “settled the controversy” rather than “solved.” It, with some modification, satisfied philosophers for quite a long time, and I confess that I am surprised to see someone bring it up again.

And how is it a “beg of the question,” exactly? I confess, I have never heard anyone say that about his discussion of universals before.

Nitpick alert:
The sensitivity of the three types of cones does not align with the three primary colors folks learned in art class (blue-red-yellow, the primary colors of pigment) but are generally associated with the primary colors of light (blue-green-red).

In fact, the “red” cones actually have their peak of sensitivity in the “yellow-orange” part of the spectrum.

And, as long as I’m rambling tangentially, a non-trivial number of humans have been shown to be experiencing a duplication of the genetic structures on the X-chromosome that correspond to red-green colorblindness. Some folks have speculated that this duplication is “ripe soil” for a genetic mutation which might result in folks being able to perceive brand new colors in teh near (in genetic terms–don’t hold you breath waiting for little Johnny to wonder why you see sunsets and bricks as the same color.). Of course, it could be that we will just see a slight decrease in red-green colorblindness among men, too. Or that it means nothing at all.

Okay–back to your regularly scheduled debate. Nominalists: pretend this particular post was a universal.

Settled? Hardly. Abelard (and later Acquinas) certainly had strong influence upon Christian philosophers, but I think it is very misleading to claim that the nominalist::realist debate was ever settled. Certainly philosophers of the past few centuries have not treated the matter as settled.

Abelard asserts both the nature of abstractions and the relationship of abstractions to particulars. Thenhe uses those assertions to solve the questions: are universals real and what is the relationship of universals to particulars.

How does he solve those questions? By saying that “universal words” have “abstractions” as referents. Thus, the answers to the questions become the very qualities that he has asserted for abstractions.

What questions has he really answered? Consider, for instance, the question “are abstractions real?” How does Abelard answer?

It’s late and I want to go home but…

>>No. The original question was correct. You make a mistake in framing your response.

Sorry, I was just being a smartass.

>>This demonstrates nothing about the existence of whiteness. It demonstrates only a particular object exists, which we label with the word “white”.

But also:

>>Existence: the property of manifesting, or being capable of manifesting, in material reality.

My point was that as long as we define “white” carefully, and we demonstrate that it can manifest (in the form of white paper) then “white” exists.

>>This is an interesting definition of existence. It would seem to also prove that “nonexistence” exists. Of course, the test of “about the real world” seems a bit circular. How are we to know whether the information is “about the real world” unless we know whether the referent exists? Are virtual particles real?
I’m pretty sure that I’m starting from some form of bastardized set theory. Without going into the details of how I’ve garbled this all up, I think it would need a lot more work to really make sense. But I’m pretty sure that any sentence about the existence of “nonexistence” breaks some rule about valid sentences. Or something. And virtual particles do exist.

>>The quality this speaks to is “identity”, and it is a universal, not a particular.

>>Also, you are wrong that saying “this piece of paper” does not convey specific information. It may not specify every conceivable variable of physical manifestation, but neither does “whiteness”. For that matter, “this piece of paper” need not address identity at all. I can specify the particular without any care at all for Theseus’ ship or possible future rips and tears. Continuity, like identity, is a universal.

I still don’t understand. I don’t see how you can specify a particular. It seems to me that any specification of a particular must appeal to some universal. To say “this piece of paper” implicitly uses the universal concept of “identity”. Otherwise, I could tell you that it’s not a piece of paper; it’s two pieces of paper cleverly joined to look as one. And it also appeals to the universal concept of paper. Otherwise, it’s not paper; it’s just one very thin slice of dried wood pulp.

How about this: Sets exist as long as you can define the rules for determining what gets into them. Elements do not exist (unless they are themselves sets) because you can never give a full accounting of what sets they belong to.

Hmm, Spiritus, it is nice to agree with you on identity and universals after the free will fiasco. I am breathing a sigh of relief!

xeno, pochacco: direction is not merely a human imposed construct. This is demonstrated best by magnetic polarity, current flow, solar wind, fluid flow… any number of things have direction.

pochacco alone: time and temperature are also not human constructs. Temperature is a measure of energy. That we call certain temperatures “hot” doesn’t invalidate temperature. You also say, “A pencil doesn’t know that it has a long axis to be measured.” It doesn’t need to know anything, it just needs to have length. Would pencils stop being longer than black widow spiders if humans stopped thinking?

See, that is the core problem of nominalism (IMO). Pencils cannot cover black widow spiders (even more interesting, black widows cannot cover pencils!). We call that property of “not being able to cover” length (and height and width). Pencils will continue to be unable to cover black widow spiders even if we are not here because of the universal property length(width, height).

Yes. The first one i can think of is: Existence exists, even though it is a little tautological :wink: