ws_Rising_Sun_1024x768From time to time the question arises as to just how materialist and immanentist ontologies are able to handle universals.  For the materialist universals are regarded with suspicion.  The reason for this resides not in some sort of relativism or social constructivism, but from the apparent ontological nature of universals.  Where the materialist is committed to the thesis that everything is material or physical, universals seem to be incorporeal.  Take a quality like “red”.  We can readily understand red in material terms as a physical event occurring when particular wavelengths of light are refracted off of the surface of an object and interact with nervous systems structured in a particular way.  Redness is not something that an object has, but rather is a happening that occurs or takes place through the interaction of various material beings such as photons of light, the surface of an object, and nervous systems.  Turn off the lights and it’s not that we cease to see red that is still there but veiled in darkness, but rather that red ceases to take place.  Suggesting that the object is red even when the lights are out is a bit like saying that the sun rises.  The sun only appears to rise.  What is in fact happening is that the earth is spinning, creating the illusion that the sun is rising.  It’s the same with qualities like color.  They only appear to possess a color, when in fact color is a complex physical event that involves a variety of interacting entities.

1153321_f248So far we aren’t in the domain of universals but just interacting beings.  The more difficult thing to understand is something like redness as a universal.  When we speak of universality we are not speaking of a shared belief that all people possess, but rather shared properties that all entities of a particular kind share in common with one another.  No doubt there are many idiots out there that don’t know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides of a right triangle.  Whether or not people know it is irrelevant to whether or not this relationship is universal.  This is because this relationship is a feature of right triangles, not a feature of belief.  Universally all right triangles in two dimensional space possess this characteristic.

What’s mysterious here is how something– these universal features –can simultaneously be in many places at once.  Setting aside the complications of quantum mechanics, material entities all seem to have a location in time and space.  Universals are strange in that they seem to be everywhere and nowhere.  Redness as such is simultaneously in every red object and in no red object.  What, then, is redness as such?  What is right triangleness as such?  Is redness something over and above red events?  Is it, the universal, an entity in its own right over and above the entities in which it manifests itself?  There’s a whole series of considerations that easily lead one to such a [Platonist] view.  For example, even if a single right triangle doesn’t exist in the entire universe it would nonetheless be the case that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of its other two sides.  This seems to suggest that these properties of triangles are real in one of Lacan’s senses of being something that “always returns to its place”, while not being dependent on material existence in time and space.  If you have difficulty seeing this, keep in mind that we have mathematical knowledge of geometrical and mathematical entities that can be found nowhere in nature but which is nonetheless absolutely true.  Shouldn’t considerations such as this lead us to conclude that there’s an entire class of ideal entities that exist independent of material entities and that are absolutely real?  For the materialist, of course, this will be an incredibly disquieting thesis.  What’s next, we start introducing souls and god?

read on!

t1larg.chimp.stick.raciI won’t attempt to solve these problems pertaining to the ontological status of universals here– problems, I confess, that perpetually trouble and mystify me –but what if it ironically turned out that our cognition of universals was, in fact, is rendered possible through material objects?  Here the thesis wouldn’t be that we abstract from material objects to form universal concepts, but rather that material objects do the work of abstraction for us.  It is exactly this possibility that Andy Clark explores in his “extended-mind hypothesis” and his discussion of the importance of language in Natural-Born Cyborgs.  The core of Clark’s extended mind hypothesis is that objects and media outside of our biological brains are quite literally a part of our minds, not in the sense that they are images or concepts or representations, but as genuinely physical media that do part of our cognitive work for us.  Without these external, physical media, Clark argues, our biological brains would be incapable of many forms of cognition we regularly engage in.  Consequently, investigating cognition involves investigating these couplings between our biological bodies and these physical media with an eye towards determining how these physical media enhance our cognitive capabilities.

Clark briefly approaches the role material entities play in our capacity to think universals and abstractions in a discussion of experiments done with chimpanzees in Natural-Born Cyborgs.  There Clark writes,

Our question… is what occurs when opportunistic infant brains encounter the world of language?  One thing that happens is that a variety of cognitive shortcuts become available, allowing brains like ours to explore and understand realms that would otherwise prove intractable or simply invisible.  My favorite example of this comes from work not on humans but on a type of chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.  U.S.-based researchers Thompson, Oden, and Boysen trained chimps to associate a simple plastic token (such as a red triangle) with any pair of identical objects (two shoes, say) and a differently shaped plastic token with any pair of different objects (a cup and a shoe, or a banana and a rattle).  The token-trained chimps were subsequently able, without the continued use of the plastic tokens, to solve a more complex, abstract problem that baffled nontokened-trained chimps.  The more abstract problem (which even we sometimes find initially difficult!) is to categorize pairs of pairs of objects in terms of higher-order sameness or difference.  Thus the appropriate judgment for the pairs-of-pairs “shoe/shoe and banana/shoe” is “different” because the relations exhibited within each pair are different.  In shoe/shoe the (lower order) relation is “sameness”; in banana/shoe it is “difference.”  Hence the higher-order relation– the relation between the relations –is difference.  By contrast, the two pairs “banana/bannana and cup/cup” exhibit the higher-order relation of “sameness,” since the lower-level relation (sameness) is the same in each case.  (70)

kantcatsReaders trained in the history of philosophy will here recall Plato’s discussion of our knowledge of identity in Phaedo or Kant’s discussion of the table of categories in the Critique of Pure Reason.  Although Plato and Kant have very different ontologies– for Plato forms such as “identity” exist in their own right, whereas for Kant they are cognitive structures we’re born with –they both make similar arguments against our capacity to arrive knowledge of these universals from experience.  For example, Plato argues that we must already know the form of identity to recognize any two objects as the “same” because any two objects we recognize as the same differ in some respect or another and we’re already using the concept of “sameness” when subsuming these two objects under this category.  In other words, we do not derive these concepts from experience, but rather they are always-already operative functioning as a condition of experience.

the-grady-twinsClark takes a very different route.  For Clark it is not an already operative concept that allows us to engage in these forms of reasoning, but rather a concrete object that renders these forms of reasoning possible.  Let the symbol “+” denote things that are different and the symbol “=” denote things that are the same.  Moreover, imagine that these symbols are little plastic toys that an infant child or chimpanzee plays with.   It is the toy that allows the abstract thought and relationships to be noticed.  When presented with a pair of objects, such as two twins, that are the same the chimpanzee places a yellow “=” above the pair.  When, by contrast, the chimpanzee encounters two things that are different such as an apple and an orange, it places a red “+” toy above the different objects.  In other words, the two sets are undermined or reduced to another object, the “=” toy or the “+” toy.

apples_and_oranges_10_04_21_photoHere we encounter the beginnings of a power of undermining with respect to thought or cognition.  The toys, that are subsequently internalized by the chimpanzee and infant as a power of their biological cognition, allowing for the development of new powers of cognition as a result of the erasure or undermining of the object.  However, this power wrought through the undermining or erasure of objects doesn’t manifest itself until we get higher order, more abstract relations.  Now that we’ve erased the particularity of objects through the intervention of another object– either a signifier or the “+” and “=” toys –it becomes possible to think more abstract identities and difference.  As Clark puts it, we can now think relations between relations.  Thus, for example, we can think two identical twins (=) and two birch trees (=) and now say that these two dissimilar sets (+) nonetheless have the characteristic of being examples of sameness (=).

What is it that cognitively renders this possible?  Why are chimpanzees able to do this through the intervention of two toys and not through their biological cognitive and perceptive experience?  The answer, I think, is because the objects are strangely both undermined or erased and presented when related to the icons.  What the chimpanzee is thinking when they say that two pairs of oranges and two pairs of shoes both fall under the category of the same and are therefore the same is the toy rather than the different objects.  Score one for nominalism!  The toy is able to accomplish this cognitive work through the evacuation of differences belonging to the concrete objects that are not the same as one another ({shoe/shoe}/{orange/orange}).  Instead we just get a set composed of =/= that is, in turn, composed of subsets.  These feats of abstraction and universality are accomplished through an undermining of objects carried out by the intervention of another object.

What we get here, I hope, are the rudiments of a materialist theory of universals and how it is possible to explain, at least, the cognition of universal relations beyond the particulars (individual entities) that populate the world.  The next step would consist in showing how grammatical or syntactical relations can emerge within these nominalistic structures (something already worked out by Lacan in “The Purloined Letter”) that give us invariant relations or structures such as those found in logic and mathematics.  The final step would then consist in showing how these objects that function, through undermining, as standard-bearers for more concrete objects, can function as “attractors” within material systems, allowing us to understand how a physical or material system can begin generating values, teleological behavior, or self-regulation.

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