Posted On 03 Dec 2011
Is there a way of ordering objects that enables us to think better?
This is an interesting question that can lead to all kinds of issues in what is often called the philosophy of mind.
All thought requires a starting point. I have often used the notion of an object, which seems to be the same as what Buddhists think of as a “form” and what some thinkers think of as a “being.”
In something like the way that it’s natural to order integers from lower to higher, there is a natural way of ordering objects that, if used more frequently, would increase clarity when we think.
“Let us say that an ‘object’ is, minimally, anything that may be singled out for one’s attention or referred to in thought, discourse, or perception, whether or not it exists or is taken to exist. . .Everything is an object. . . It must not be supposed that one needs a criterion for singling out an object. The notion of singling out an object is too fundamental. One either singles out an object or one does not” (from my The Concept of Existence .).
Whenever you think, you’re thinking is about some object or other, whether it is a pebble or a lake or a cloud or a dog or another human being. Almost always, we take the objects we think about to be entities (real, existent objects).
(Do you disagree? Try thinking without thinking of something or other!)
To think is to conceptualize. Concepts are principles of classification (sorting, categorizing, dividing, separating).
What about the notion of an object? Is it a concept?
If it were, it would be useful for sorting things into objects and non-objects. However, that’s impossible. There are no non-objects.
All you need to do to prove that statement wrong is to give a counter-example. However, that’s precisely what is impossible. To give a counter-example would be to single out a non-object, but, if it can be singled out, it’s an object rather than a non-object.
(In terms of fundamentality, which is the way of ordering objects I’m about to suggest, the notion of an object is more fundamental than any concept.)
“To ‘single out’ is to ‘make alone,’ and thus make lonely” (from A Course in Miracles.).
Before we get to ordering objects, there’s something to wonder about when it comes to singling out objects that may be lurking behind this quotation.
When an object is considered apart from its context (conceptual space, background), is merely singling it out somehow distorting reality? After all, if it were really unrelated to any other object, it wouldn’t be itself.
The reason for this is that all objects have qualities. Qualities are commonalities such as being blue or rectangular or heavy or warm.
If, as is natural to think, two different objects can have the same quality (for example, two shirts can both be light blue), then there is a sense in which objects cannot ever be singled out apart from their contexts.
Sengcan seems to state this when he says, “If mind does not discriminate, / all things are as they are, as One.” If there were no singling out of objects, reality would be simple unity.
Eckhart Tolle may be making the same point when he claims that every entity “is ultimately unknowable. This is because it has unfathomable depth” (from A New Earth, p. 25.).
One might object to this by suggesting that, still, there would be a difference between consciousness (mind, awareness) and unity itself.
The answer to this objection is, as Butchvarov puts it, “If we take the intentionality of consciousness seriously, we must say that a singling out of an object . . . is nothing apart from its object” (from Being Qua Being, p. 120.).
Whether or not merely singling out an object distorts it, there is still an issue about ordering objects.
The ability to single out objects (forms, beings) is insufficient for judging (understanding, conceptualizing). For that to occur, objects must be ordered or somehow related.
The ability to make identity (two-in-one) judgments is a necessary condition for judging.
Is there a natural way of relating or ordering objects?
Spiritually awake people, who are in a rush to claim that all thought systems are delusional and nothing but egoic fantasies, have a tendency to say that there is no natural way of ordering objects. For example, “suspend judgment entirely” (from A Course in Miracles.).
Surely it is a good idea to view all judgments with detachment and question them. Furthermore, because conceptualizing is divisive, it’s foolish to believe that any single judgment captures the whole truth: “Not one thought you hold is wholly true” (from A Course in Miracles.).
Yet even if only some judgments are, at best, partially true, they are still useful. If someone hadn’t told me about spiritual awakening, I never would have thought of it.
I think there is a useful, natural way to order judgments: the logical relation of fundamentality is the natural way of ordering objects. X is more fundamental than Y if it is impossible to single out Y without singling out X.
For example, consider this important question, “What is a wise human being?”
Since the answer to that question presupposes or takes for granted the answer to the question, “What is a human being?”, the question, “What is a wise human being?” is less fundamental than the question, “What is a human being?” If you don’t understand which objects are human beings, it’s impossible to classify them into those who are wise and those who are not.
Similarly, the interesting question, “What is a human being?” presupposes the answer to the question, “What is a being?” If you don’t understand which objects are beings, it’s impossible to classify them into those who are humans and those who are not. So, “What is a human being?” is less fundamental than “What is a being?”
As a philosopher, I am often frustrated by people who supposedly have interesting things to say about certain topics without clarifying what they are talking about!
It may not always be fun to clarify, for example, the nature of beings, but, if you are going to talk coherently about the nature of human beings, you’d better do it.
Do I have to tell you that I never listen to talk radio? The hosts and guests always seem to me to be jabbering idiots who are unable to think well. I’d much rather listen to a gurgling brook or rain on the roof.
If you are serious about improving your understanding (thought system, set of judgments), I suggest paying far less attention to nonphilosophers and doing more ordering objects for yourself.