What Things are Real? - Eric Steinhart | Closer to Truth

What Things are Real? - Eric Steinhart

Eric Steinhart - Philosophy

Eric Steinhart

Eric Steinhart is a Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

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Eric
Steinhart

Professor of Philosophy, William Paterson University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Eric in seeking to wonder about things, one of the questions I asked, not only does God exist or what can our perceptions know, but just a very fundamental, simple question; what things are real? What are the simple things of existence that are real? Not that we invent, but that are really out there. What are the different categories? How can we begin to access reality?

Eric Steinhart:

Well we start to access reality by using our senses, perception. And so we see that the things that are around us, physical things, have characteristics that make them stable and persistent and they have structure. And then we go from there, and we build up with science, we build up a complicated taxonomy of these things; protons and neutrons and quarks and leptons and Higgs Bosons. And so we've got a catalog that describes different types of matter. But then we also find—and I like to start with that. And then we find things like our equations use numbers. So now we start to think well our equations use numbers, and it doesn't seem like we'd really be able to do science without numbers. And so if our equations that we need to do science to describe the stuff that's here involve numbers, then it seems we should say numbers are real too. Numbers are at least as real as the things that uh, they're used to describe. And so our science becomes very complex mathematically. And suddenly you start to think that mathematical things are real. This is known as Platonism. You're saying there are physical material things, right. And there are also mathematical things. And so in mathematics we've got things like numbers, and numbers and things like that are often thought to be reducible to these other things called sets. So zero is the empty set. One is the set of the empty set. Two is the set of the set of the empty set and so forth. It's technical. But now we've got set theory, which fills out the mathematical realm. So I like Platonism. I think Platonism is the right way to go, from our scientific understanding of the world.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Now you believe that Platonism is a helpful way to think about the world, or it really has an independent existence? If human beings never existed and if minds never existed, there really would be this something external, somewhere, that really exists.

Eric Steinhart:

I think that Platonism is correct. Yes. I'm always skeptical that I might be deluded or dreaming, sure. But I've got to do something. I've got to try my best. Well you, we've got to try our best.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right, right.

Eric Steinhart:

So I think trying my best as other philosophers have, I come up with the notion that yeah, even if we weren't here, the abstract objects would be here.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. So do I now see now two very broad categories of stuff that are real; one physical objects, like you tapped here and this can be reduced down to molecules and then atoms and subatomic particles and who knows how far we get down, string theory or whatever.

Eric Steinhart:

Sure.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that's one class of stuff that builds up from the bottom up.

Eric Steinhart:

Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

We don't know how far down it can go but it goes that way. And then another class of platonic abstract objects which are numbers, possibilities, logic; who knows what's in that...

Eric Steinhart:

Sure.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that's an infinite set of things in its own...

Eric Steinhart:

Yeah, that builds up too.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that builds up too, sure. Is there anything else?

Eric Steinhart:

Is there anything else? Well I wouldn't like to keep the physical stuff or the concrete stuff. Let's say concrete instead of physical.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It's a big difference.

Eric Steinhart:

Well but physics posits things like spacetime, or spacetime points. And that's not really material.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Eric Steinhart:

So maybe let's say concrete instead of just material.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Eric Steinhart:

Maybe it's all physical, fine. But other universes might have different physics than our universe has.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, but that would still be the category of stuff.

Eric Steinhart:

It'd be the category of concrete stuff.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Concrete stuff.

Eric Steinhart:

That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right

Eric Steinhart:

But I wouldn't want to say all concrete stuff goes down to, say, protons and neutrons and leptons are...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay so another universe might have another system or a small...

Eric Steinhart:

That's right, that's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But are there things on other realms, like concrete nonphysical stuff; gods, angels, spirits, cosmic consciousness. I can go on if you're interested. It doesn't sound like you are.

Eric Steinhart:

Keep going. No, please. I think that there are... I think that there are gods. There are little G gods, and they are concrete. And they are the grounds or support for all other concrete things.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, now what does that mean? So you think there's a plane of existence that is different than the physical world as you've defined it and different in the Platonic abstract world? Is this a third category or does it fit one of the other two categories?

Eric Steinhart:

I'm not sure what a plane of existence is. It sounds like something you get on to travel somewhere.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, no, okay, so, you define it... they're your gods, you define it as you want.

Eric Steinhart:

Well they're just gods, they're not mine. But sure. So there are gods which I think of as being computers. As being things that are concrete, yet very mathematical in their natures. And through their activity, they generate all other physical things.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

You're entitled to that theory, that's fine. All I'm asking is that a category? Or do you classify it... you gave me two very nice categories. I accepted both of them.

Eric Steinhart:

Yeah, the gods are concrete. They're concrete things that generate other concrete things within our universe.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay but does that mean that they're in the...that they're not abstract, so...

Eric Steinhart:

They're not abstract.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

All right but does that mean they're in the physical con... because you said they're physical stuff that go from, from material objects down the, the chain of being to atoms...

Eric Steinhart:

Oh, I see.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

...and protons and then quarks or whatever else is beneath that, string theory. And in another universe it might be a different thing, but that's a, that's a certain hierarchy of being.

Eric Steinhart:

That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Doesn't seem like your beings fit that.

Eric Steinhart:

Yeah, that whole hierarchy of being that you just gave us, that in our universe, right so we've got you know, you know our atoms and protons and neutrons and leptons and quarks and we go down to let's say strings. And they'll go down to spacetime points. That whole hierarchy sits on top of a god.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That whole hierarchy sits on top of a god.

Eric Steinhart:

In exactly the same way that information processed by a computer sits on top of the computer. Now, I don't mean sit like physically sit of course.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, supervene.

Eric Steinhart:

But I mean supervenes, to use the technical term. That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right and they're just dependent upon and...

Eric Steinhart:

Right, in a...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

In a deep way.

Eric Steinhart:

...technical way. But so right so all the physical things in our universe that we call physics, supervene on our local god.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Depend upon for their deep ontology.

Eric Steinhart:

That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Their deep meaning.

Eric Steinhart:

They depend upon for their existence.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right. Now does that mean that – is that a different category? Of, of stuff? Your little gods that every physical thing depends upon?

Eric Steinhart:

Well I think if we had to divide into a Tree of Porphyry right we might say being and abstract and concrete and then the concrete you'd have the ultimate concrete things, which I say are these little G gods, right? The hardware. They're just hardware. So the concrete divides into hardware and software. And everything else is software.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well what's everything else?

Eric Steinhart:

Protons, neutrons, quarks...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's software.

Eric Steinhart:

Yeah, that's software.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Running on the hardware of your little gods.

Eric Steinhart:

That's right. Take a cellular automaton as a good example. I don't know if you know cellular...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure, sure.

Eric Steinhart:

The game of life. Right? And you look at the game of life, and the game of life is running on a computer. But you can watch it through a screen, right? But what you're watching is of course little patterns of energy, fine.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right.

Eric Steinhart:

But you see a glider going across the game of life screen, right, and that glider looks like a little particle. So that's analogous. It's not exactly like it, but it's analogous to, you know, a quark or a lepton. So the idea that I have is that, to use an analogy, I don't think our universe is a cellular automaton. It's not quite the right structure. But that's technical. But let's use the analogy of a cellular automaton. So a god is like a computer, hardware object, that's running a cellular automaton. And in the cellular automaton there are things like spacetime points. There are the particles that move across it. Very complicated structures now emerge. So that's exactly how the software, physics, if you wanna call it that, emerges.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But this hardware that you have of these gods, that that's of a wholly different character than the, than the software of the physical world. I mean it's just totally different. It's, to my mind, a different category.

Eric Steinhart:

But it's concrete in the sense that it's not, you know, not completely mathematical in the way that one thinks of it, or they're not universals. It's not like... the gods are not... they're, they're concrete in the sense they're individuals. They participate in relations that are at least analogous to causal and temporal relations. Structures that are usually associated with concreteness. And it's not like a copy of any god would be identical to... well it would be identical to that god, right? So they fall under the indiscernibility of identicals, and this is all technical stuff.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah.

Eric Steinhart:

Right but they satisfy what most philosophers think of as the requirements of concreteness. So I think that if we were to look at the totality of reality, its categories, its categorical structure, we would start with, you know, existence at the top, and probably split into the concrete and the abstract. In the abstract, I think everything is ultimately a pure set. You know, pure set theory. And numbers and things like that supervene on sets. And so we might have pure sets and all the stuff that supervenes on it. In the category of the concrete, we have what I'll call hardware and software. And the hardware objects are little G gods. They are things that design and create universes. The software objects are objects that run on top of these hardware objects in much the same way that a cellular automaton runs on an ordinary computer. And the things in the cellular automaton run, or supervene, on top of that. So that's a very quick little map of... I don't know if that map will get you around, but it's a map.