The issue concerning the reality of substance is the most important issue in ontology. It concerns the nature of individuals, and we are individuals; furthermore, realizing one position on this issue may be required for living well.
The traditional question of ontology [metaphysics] is: “What kinds of entities are real?”
Different thinkers separate entities into different categories. Assuming there ought to be a distinction between individuals [particulars] and qualities [commonalities; see the post “Define Qualities”], the issue here is about how to understand individuals.
Is there anything else in addition to its qualities that constitutes an individual? Is there an ontological surd beyond them?
Consider any individual– perhaps a physical object like a stone. Is there something underlying its attributes (such as its shape, size, color, and so on) in which they inhere? If there is, what is it? If there is not, how should we understand the togetherness of its qualities?
In western philosophy Aristotle gives the classic presentation of a substance ontology in his Categories and Book XII of his Metaphysics. The critical mark of one for him is its ability to remain the same while changing qualitatively. For example, you can be warm at one time and cold at another time and still be the same individual person [3b20].
For there to be such change, there must be something that changes (such as a quality) and something that remains the same to change, which is the logical substratum. [If there weren’t one, instead of one changed entity there would be two different entities.] A “continuant” is something that is the same at two or more times. So the notion of continuant substrata goes with the claim that individuals change, which seems to be commonsensical.
It is the notion of a logical substratum that is critical. Nobody denies the appearance of change, but the reality of change has been denied. There is not just one way to understand flux.
Even some later western substance philosophers eliminate an Aristotelean analysis of flux with the idea of “bare particulars,” which are momentary substrata devoid of any qualities except their ability to hold qualities together to constitute individuals. What appears to be one individual changing over time is, for them, actually a sequence of momentary individuals.
It is precisely this notion of logical substrata that many modern western philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Nietzsche, and Bradley question or reject. After all, if to be real is to be multiply singleoutable [see the post “Define Reality”], substances do not exist because they are not singleoutable. It’s impossible to pick out something with no qualities. So substances violate the Principle of Acquaintance.
To give an example of the dialectic [the back and forth or argumentation], one of Bradley’s arguments for his view that positing substances leads to an infinite regress is this: Let ‘a’ denote a substance and ‘F’ denote a quality. Assume that a is F. Either a is related to F or it is not. If it is not, it must be false that a is F. If it is, there must be something that connects or ties a to F-but then there must also be, for example, something that ties the original tie to a and the original tie to F and so on. However, this is a vicious endless regress. Hence, the claim that a is F is either false or unintelligible.
Some substance ontologists reply to such arguments that substances must be real because, otherwise, the togetherness of an individual’s qualities cannot be understood and the problem of individuation cannot be solved. After all, individuals are not merely sets or lists of qualities: they are unified clusters of qualities.
Butchvarov, a nonsubstance ontologist, argues in response that substrata are not necessary to understand the togetherness of an individual’s qualities [see Chapter 8 of Being Qua Being]. To my mind, it’s always preferable to adjust one’s assumptions about the world rather than to rely on transcendental arguments about what must be real according to one’s prior assumptions.
In eastern philosophy Master Gotama, the Buddha, seems to have been the world’s first nonsubstance ontologist. He did more than provide a Hume-like critique of substances more than 20 centuries prior to Hume; he argued that it is possible to prove that a nonsubstance ontology is correct in one’s own case and that it is very important to do so.
According to him all phenomenal individuals are characterized by annatta, non-self. He does not deny that the notion of a self or substance has conventional validity, but he argues that the characteristic of non-self follows from the other two characteristics of individuals, namely, impermanence and dukkha (dissatisfaction, suffering). All individuals are empty of a separate self or substratum.
It’s not just that there are no sound arguments for the reality of substrata and that there is a way to conceptualize the world adequately without positing their existence, it’s also that it is possible to realize that we ourselves are empty (and, so, extend that realization to all other individuals). How?
He remarks in The Dhammapada that “There can be . . . no wisdom for those who do not meditate” [Easwaran, tr.]. To meditate is not to conceptualize [see the post “Define Understanding”]. To meditate is to stop conceptualizing!
That’s a very simple idea and, I can assure you from personal experience, a very difficult one to practice. However, many sages in addition to Master Gotama have argued that it is only by stopping our incessant tendency to conceptualize that we are able to attain a direct experience of undistorted reality.
They have also said, over and over and over, that there is no way to conceptualize or think or reason one’s way to that direct experience.
Furthermore, not having that experience, condemns us to ceaseless suffering! It’s at this point that the ontological dispute regarding the reality of substances becomes very important. If the Buddha is correct, nothing is more important to your well-being than letting go of your attachment to your self-concept (ego/I).
Is he correct? There’s only one way to find out.