Monday, 16 July 2018

The Things | Relations Dichotomy

Yin-Yang by Sandi Baker
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We humans have always been accused of dichotomous thinking: us and them, good and evil, for and against, and so on.  It pervades our thinking, and our existence.  Such dichotomous thinking is closely familiar to us.  Not a day goes by without someone suggesting that we should be more nuanced, less one-sided, better rounded. 
Yet there is a strange dichotomy which is more pervasive still, which passes all but unnoticed in our lives—and, I shall argue, bedevils all of our thinking.  Within its broader bounds, it goes by hundreds of names—which in itself suggests that it has too much escaped our attentions.  One might describe it as the static and dynamic, or being and becoming—but there are many ways to describe it besides:
things and relations (Kant)
objects and arrangements (Wittgenstein)
the spatial and the temporal
nouns and verbs
operators and variables
And so on. It is the simple matter of a world where things exist (we include events, which is things that happen), and exist in a certain relation to one another.  This dichotomy pervades all of our thinking—and this it does at a level which is embedded in our thinking.  As one sees, even in our grammar and our sums, for example.

It all has to do with individuation.  We all begin, apparently, with what William James called ‘one great blooming, buzzing confusion’, then we single out complexes from nature and call them things, entities, objects, even concepts—or events, actions, processes, and so on.  We distinguish these then from the relations between them.

We may have said enough in these few words to identify the presence of this dichotomy at the core of some major philosophical problems, of which just a sample here:
The fact-value distinction (Hume).  We have fact on the one hand—or statements which contain things—yet do not know on the other how we should arrange them or bring them into relation. 
The ‘own goal’ of science (Hawking).  By singling out things from nature, and discarding all that (we think) does not belong to them, we create a world of unforeseen side-effects, as we relate them.
Free will and determinism.  Free will goes to the question of cause and effect, and causation in turn is about the relation between two or more events. This, too, rests on the dichotomy of things and relations.
The mind-body problem.  This problem may rest on our experience that things exist in the world (or so we feel), while only relations can exist in our networking brain—not things, of course.
God.  The problem of God’s existence may rest on the notion of causality, since that which is caused is not influenced by God.  Again, causality rests on the distinction between events and their relations.
We may put it this way.  If we did not have this dichotomy of things (and the sort) versus relations, it would be impossible that we should have any of the problems listed above—and many more.  This suggests that we may solve these problems by doing away with one side of the dichotomy—say, things.  This would leave us only with relations, and relations within relations.  It is not an entirely new idea.

Someone might object.  Even if we have no things, objects, entities, events, actions, and so on, we do still have relations—and these relations are governed by scientific law.  But wait a moment.  Without things, there is no scientific law.  At least, not as we know it.

The fact of the dichotomy is presented here simply as food for further thought.  In my view, the dichotomy is artificial and false.  It is a reflection of something in the human fabric that insists first on our individuating things, then on relating them one to the other.  Yet there never has been anything to set this on a firm foundation.


mylearningsimonthomas said...

The innate human nature does seem to desire the good but often follows more base inclinations. But trying to find meaning in our human nature, using only our human nature as a staring point is part of our problem (Francis Schaeffer)

Keith said...

I find ‘being’ (static) and ‘becoming’ (dynamic) a particularly curious and challenging case, Thomas, of what you nicely lay out. Where perhaps there’s the appearance in the moment (‘now’) of a dichotomy but not, arguably, the underlying reality of a dichotomy. That is, I wonder whether anything actually ‘is’ — that is, ‘being’ in a final, steady-state fashion — apart from what one believes to experience in the moment. Or whether, instead, everything is otherwise ‘becoming’. In that regard, isn’t everything — and by extension, everything’s relations with everything else — in an unremitting state of change, no matter how subtly or perhaps indiscernibly? Only ever ‘emerging’, one might say — or, to complete the cycle, eventually ‘lapsing into disorder’ — under the forces of change? Might that be one reason why, as you offer, “the dichotomy is artificial and false” — at least insofar as the apparent dichotomy of ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ is concerned?

Thomas Scarborough said...

NOTE: The 'Recent Comments' column is still broken. This is pulling them in from a Pi mirror.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Yes, I think this is insightful, Keith. It was Zeno who liked to joke about the 'dichotomy' -- if in fact he was joking. I would say, not only is there the continual flux of 'becoming', but the very 'things' of our experience are continually shifting in our minds as we zoom in and out, view them in different contexts, and so on.

I'm assuming, Simon, that you mean our own human nature is not a starting point. In a sense, that also offers a starting point, when we decide that it isn't one. That has all kinds of corollaries. Schaeffer was a professor of mine, though mostly absent due to illness at the time.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear gentlemen,

There is a buddhist story about two monks that encounter a woman crying at the river. The water is too high for her to pass and go home. Then one of the monks takes her on his back and carries her across the water. Afterwards when the monks have retaken their pilgrimage one monk notes that they are not allowed to touch a woman and how did that feel? The other monk responds, "I left her where I left her, and you are still carrying her along?”

Somehow this story seems to adhere to Keith's previous post and yours Thomas.

p.s. Thomas, you repaired the comments column, thank you!

Tessa den Uyl said...

Well, close!

mylearningsimonthomas said...

yes, it was Schaeffer who said that form a human perspective it is futile to understand elements set in eternality with a finite mind. In reading the old time philosophers it seems like a concept they also struggled with.

Thomas Scarborough said...

A pseudo-repair, Tessa.

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