The Wholeness of the World was given to me by a stranger I met recently at a Midwestern airport when I was delayed between flights. I am not quite sure what to make of it. Having taught philosophy for over a quarter century, I thought what he told me at the time made surprisingly good sense. And after reading what he gave me, I wonder why I shouldn't accept it. But it is not up to me. Others need to consider it. The best way to share it seems to be the Internet. He called it an "inside-out encyclopedia," but in order to explain what he meant by that -- and to introduce tWoW.net -- let me tell you the story about our encounter.
I was in line at one of those indistinguishable airport food dispensaries deciding whether to have a bagel and cream cheese with my coffee. A delayed flight had left me with a couple of hours to kill, but for some reason, I was feeling rather cheerful . Having accidentally bumped into a young man getting into line, I said I was sorry, and to coat my apology with a little humor, I quipped, when the bagel was delivered, "That's not a real bagel. That's a Wonder Bread imitation of a bagel."
"That's just your interpretation of it," the young stranger replied brightly. "They surely see it as a real bagel."
His comment had the ring of relativism. Perhaps he was a multi-culturalist or a victim of deconstructionism, the now fashionable relativism in literature studies. As an old fashioned philosophy teacher, I tried to draw him out. "But isn't that just your interpretation of what I am saying? Aren't you just commenting on my comment?"
"Well, yes, I suppose so," he said in a more somber tone, "but that doesn't mean there isn't a truth of the matter about the bagel. I'm no relativist. In fact, I believe there is an absolute truth."
That intrigued me. Relativism is so much the currency of popular culture these days that I meet few students who don't take it for granted. And the stranger could not have been more than a few years out of college. "Really? That's uncommon these days," I replied, "But I have to admit that I agree with you."
"Oh, you do? You believe there is an absolute truth?" Looking a bit skeptical, the young stranger said, "I'd be interested to know what you mean." He glanced back at the seating area and, hesitating briefly, said, "Perhaps you would like to share a table? My flight doesn't leave for a while."
Young people don't usually take much interest in people like me. But this young man seemed eager to talk. He was rather attractive on the whole, neat and clean, though in a casual way. And I thought it might be fun to pass the time arguing with him about relativism.
When we arrived at the table, he held out his hand and said, "I'm Hugh."
"Nice to meet you. My name is Phillip."
As we sat down, he got right to the point, "And so why do you say that you agree with me about there being an absolute truth?"
It was a point I often made in my classes, and I launched right in. "Relativism is the view that what is true depends on what you believe. Or, perhaps, what your group believes. In any case, it makes truth relative to the believer: what you believe is true for you and what I believe is true for me. But I can't help believing that the world is real. I mean this world, the world where we are talking to one another, really exists, including you and me. And if there is a real world, it has to exist in some way or another. It is something determinate. So whatever we may believe about the world, it is either true or false, because it either corresponds to what exists or not. And aside from confusion about the meanings of the terms we are using, it either corresponds or not the same way for everyone. That is what 'absolute' means: 'the same for everyone.' It means that, if there were a God, he would know something determinate, even if we cannot. That is why I agree with you about truth being absolute."
I think this way of defending absolute truth takes the wind out of the sails of relativism. I had had fun using it in my classes for years, though students are naturally reluctant to be convinced that something so universally accepted could be refuted so easily. Though Hugh was nodding in agreement, he added quickly, "But that is merely to refute relativism. You can deny relativism in that way without claiming to know anything about the world. All you know is that between any pair of contradictory statements, one is true and the other false. But you needn't know which. Either the universe will expand forever or it won't. No one knows. So you can still be a skeptic about knowing the truth. But when I say that there is an absolute truth, I mean that I know what it is."
Hugh's response took me aback. He understood what I was saying, and consequently how little it amounted to -- or how little it would amount to, if it weren't for the facile deconstructionist fashion in academia these days. Being caught off guard, I was a bit defensive. "Well, I'm not a skeptic either. I believe there are some things we know. Science, for example -- or at least, natural science. It has been too successful for too long not to be on to something real. Just look at the power it gives us over nature. Those airplanes out there, for example. And it's not easy to deny science, since it bases everything on what we observe." My habits from teaching philosophy of science were showing, and I wanted to speak more broadly. "And surely what perception tells us about the natural world is basically true, even if we can't prove it to the satisfaction of anyone who clings tenaciously to skepticism. The scientific method is simply the most adequate way of knowing we have. No other claim to systematic knowledge has the same capacity to win over people from every culture in the world."
"Fine," Hugh said, "but that's not absolute truth. That's just belief in a truth that, at best, happens to be true. It is true, and everyone may agree that it is. In that sense it may be absolute. But what I mean when I say that there is an absolute truth is that some doctrine is known to be absolutely true.
“The position you're defending is just 'scientism.' You are simply taking sides with the empirical method of science and the conclusions based on it, but without any deeper reason for doing so. You can't take the success of science as confirming it, unless you already accept 'prediction and control' as the criterion of truth. That is the criterion that scientists accept. But others accept other criteria of truth. There are theists, for example, who claim to know God by a mystical intuition of some kind. They simply accept the validity of mystical intuition without any deeper reason, as you do the scientific method. Poets have felt the same way about the sense of beauty. And most people feel that way about their native culture. You may not be a skeptic, but the position you take offers no reason for not being a skeptic. You still grant everything relativists really want to insist on. What they really believe is that there is, in principle, no way to tell which world view is true. You choose science. Others choose Eastern religion. And so on. But everyone has to choose."
At that point, I began to realize that I had been underestimating this young man. I agreed with him, of course. Even philosophers of science now admit that their naturalism is basically dogmatic, though they usually put it more delicately -- saying that they see philosophy as "continuous with" science, rather than as its foundation. But having pretty much shot the last round I had in my anti-relativism arsenal, I decided to turn the table. "So you say you know the absolute truth." It had crossed my mind that Hugh might be a fanatic of some kind, a true believer who made up in depth of feeling for what he lacked in reason. "Are you saying that you believe in an absolute truth with a capital 'A' and capital 'T'?"
"You could put it that way, if you want. Some would dismiss it as 'The One True Theory,' also capitalized, or as a 'God's Eye View' of the world. The important thing, in my view, is that what is known is the complete truth about the world. I take the Absolute Truth to be a belief about the basic nature of what exists in the world, that is, about the basic entities that make up the world. It's one that can account for everything in the world, including all the concrete objects, their properties, relations, how they change -- everything. And it can explain everything about the nature of the world."
I couldn't keep myself from trying to smoke him out. I asked him, "Do you believe in God?"
"Well, yes, in a way. God has a place in the Absolute Truth, though it's not quite what people believe." Hugh hesitated and then added, "But it is not just that I have faith in God, if that’s what you're getting at. When I say that the Absolute Truth is known, I mean that it is known by beings like us, using their rational faculties. Nothing about it is mystical or even mysterious. I'm merely saying that we can know the nature of the basic substances that constitute the world. And we can see how those substances explain the existence of everything in and about the world. That gives us the Absolute Truth."
The young man seemed too calm to be a fanatic. He was being reasonable. But he could be making the mistake of thinking he knew the Absolute Truth when he didn't. Indeed, he must be, given what I believed after teaching the history of philosophy for thirty years. Having all but accused him of being a true believer, however, I wanted to let him know that I thought there was a way I could agree with him about the basic nature of the world. What he seemed to be describing was materialism, a view that had always seemed plausible to me, given my sympathy for science.
"If that is what you mean by Absolute Truth," I began, "wouldn't materialism be the Absolute Truth? It holds that what makes up the world are material substances, or bits of matter that move and interact. Of course, physics tells us that the simplest particles are rather different from the atoms that Democritus described long ago -- and also different from Hobbes' view of matter at the beginning of modern science. There are just particles and fields. But still they are material substances of a kind. In any case, the laws of physics are a theory about the basic nature of what exists. They describe the basic entities that constitute everything in the world. And since everything happens in accordance with physical laws, this view is sometimes called "physicalism." But whatever it is called, materialism can account for everything in the world. It is the complete truth, if it is true at all. So it could be the Absolute Truth. Isn't that what you mean by Absolute Truth?"
"Well, something like that," he replied.
Hugh might have gone on, but I felt relieved, having pinned him down, and my reflex as a philosopher was to move in for the kill. "But the problem with materialism is that it's not true. Or at least, there are plenty of reasons for doubting that any such ontology can explain everything. Even biological functions are now recognized to be irreducible to physics, at least, in the strict sense. And if that seems like a mere technicality, there is still the problem about the nature of conscious mind. Even if science could explain how the brain works, that would not explain why it is 'like something' to perceive the world or have other conscious states. There is a subjective aspect to experience, the way it feels, and since that eludes materialism, there is some ground, at least, for believing that mind is not material at all. And that's not all. It seems to me and many others that there is a real difference between good and bad, and between right and wrong. It is something about the things themselves, not something about how I feel about them -- or how anyone else feels, for that matter. But that's the only way for materialists to explain what goodness is. In a world of just matter in motion, what difference does it make whether one thing rather than another happens? It has to come down to how beings like us feel about it." I felt I was beginning to regain a teacher's proper control over his student. "What is more, I have colleagues I respect very much who believe in God. They admit they can't prove the existence of God. But they insist that religious experience itself is something that materialism doesn't even come close to explaining. I'm not saying that I agree with them, but how could religion be so central to the lives of so many people, if there isn't really anything worthy of worship? In any case, even if we discount belief in God, materialism can't be true, if either consciousness or goodness is a real aspect of this world."
To my consternation, Hugh seemed to have a smile on his face. He was apparently amused by what I had said, and looking something like a cat playing with a mouse, he asked, "But what if those phenomena could be explained? Wouldn't materialism be the Absolute Truth then?"
"That is quite a bit to grant, isn't it?" I was ready to show him how intractable these problems really are.
"Yes, but right now we are not interested in what is absolutely true, but in what Absolute Truth is, and I want to know what would be wrong with calling materialism the Absolute Truth, if it did somehow explain all those phenomena."
"Well, if we are talking about Absolute Truth with a capital 'A' and capital 'T,' there is still a lot wrong. I think it would have to be something more special about knowing the Absolute Truth. It can't be just re-baptizing something we already believe about the basic nature of the world as “Absolute Truth” and then insisting on it with greater confidence. If materialism were the Absolute Truth, I’d expect it to tell us something more than what science tells us. Something more fundamental. At the minimum, knowing the Absolute Truth would mean knowing that some truths about the world hold necessarily. It can't be just a collection of facts that happen to be true."
"Well," Hugh protested, "if materialism were true, couldn't one insist that some truths about the world are necessary? It does imply, after all, that whatever science discovers to be causing any phenomenon, be it in the physics laboratory or the everyday world, it is ultimately nothing but the motion and interaction of bits of matter, or whatever you call the basic entities, in space over time. It is all just the playing out of the basic laws of physics."
"But even if that is necessarily true, it is just what science already assumes," I replied. "In fact, science is the reason for believing that materialism is true. Materialism might even be called the 'ontology of science.' It is what scientists believe about the substances making up the world. And if that is the Absolute Truth, it is an Absolute Truth that is strangely uninformative. It tells us nothing us about the world that science doesn't already believe. If materialism is the Absolute Truth, what is so significant about knowing it?"
I thought that this tirade against materialism as a metaphysics might stir up some opposition from the young stranger, but to my surprise, he was now clearly smiling. "Of course, you are right. It can't be the Absolute Truth, unless it reveals some new necessary truths about the world. But that is what I mean. The Absolute Truth I have in mind does tell us many new things about the natural world, things not already known by empirical science. They are prior to empirical science and other ordinary ways of knowing things because they are necessary. And when these necessary truths are combined with what is already known by science, they yield a complete explanation of the nature of the world. That is what I mean by the 'Absolute Truth.' And what is new are some truly important things, such as how consciousness is possible and what the difference between good and bad is. Wouldn't that count as an Absolute Truth in your book? Or do you still think I don't know the difference between truth being absolute and there being an absolute truth with a capital 'A' and capital 'T'?"
What Hugh was describing did seem like something that would have to be called "Absolute Truth," if it could be known to be true at all. New necessary truths that explained consciousness and goodness would certainly be special. So at that point, it seemed clear that I could no longer hope to agree with him by taking him to be giving some special, limited, acceptable meaning to the term, "absolute truth." He was clearly making the sort of claim that had been made repeatedly in the grand tradition of philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to Descartes and Hegel. That left only one possibility, that there was something badly mistaken about his reasoning. And I was sure it was a mistake that some philosopher had already made. Traditional philosophers thought they had found a foundation from which to claim that certain propositions are necessarily true relative to what is discovered by empirical science. But we now know that philosophy was a failure. Rationalism does not work. There is no way to know that you have the Absolute Truth about the world by reflecting on how we know about it. Skepticism, if not relativism, is the lesson that everyone learns from the history of philosophy. Anyone who insists on having such an Absolute Truth in this century is rightly seen as lacking a higher education. Hugh was obviously smart enough to have got it, if he had gone to college.
"Have you been to college?" I asked tactlessly. "Surely you don't expect me to believe that you have found some way of defending Descartes or Plato?"
"More like Hegel, I would say." Hugh laughed, seeming almost gleeful about taking up my challenge. "I thought you might be someone who would understand what I am saying when we first met and you didn't just dismiss my comment about Absolute Truth out of hand. That is, besides the book I saw you carrying." But then he added quickly, "Of course, I'm not defending traditional philosophy. It is, rather, that there is another way of doing philosophy, one that does work and does entail truths that are necessary relative to empirical science. New truths."
Despite Hugh’s cheerful confidence, I was, of course, doubtful about this claim. After a lifetime of teaching, I had found no reason to believe that philosophy could ever attain its highest aspirations. I had even come to think of philosophy as basically mistaken, at least insofar as it claims to be anything more than just science or critical thinking. But I also like to think of myself as open minded – as someone who is willing to listen to an argument and to judge it on its merits. I am certainly not dogmatic. And since it was still more than an hour before my plane would be boarding, there was time to ask Hugh what he meant.
A restrained eagerness replaced the amusement on his face. "As you say, traditional philosophy had a foundation for defending necessary truths. But its foundation was some theory or other about how rational beings know about the world. Right?"
"Yes, that is what I meant by saying that it was based on reflection on how we know," I replied docilely. I sensed the table beginning to turn again.
"But that is epistemology, and the foundation of this new way of doing philosophy is ontology. An ontology is a theory about the nature of existence, and I take that to mean a theory about the kinds of basic substances that constitute the natural world. What such an ontology implies about specific issues are its necessary truths about the world. That's why I called them 'ontologically necessary truths.'"
I was puzzled. "But now we are back to materialism, aren't we?"
"Yes and no. Materialism is an ontology, but as you pointed out, it is based on science. It is the ontology that most scientists accept, when they take their theories about the world to be true and they reflect on their belief that the world being described is real and exists independently of them. They have to believe in matter, or particles and fields, if you prefer. You were right to deny that such an ontology could tell us anything that science does not already know. It is uninformative.
“But there is another way to approach ontology, the way the Pre-Socratic philosophers did way back before the beginning of traditional philosophy. From Thales through Democritus, they said that they were trying to discover the 'first principle,' or archê, for explaining everything in the world. It is clear in retrospect that what they were trying to discover was not the basic laws of nature, but rather the basic substances that make up the world. Thales thought it was water. Others thought it was air. Empedocles thought it was earth, air, fire and water. Of course, they didn't have the advantage of modern science. They didn’t know how the elementary bits of matter behave. The discovery of the laws of physics had to await the development of mathematics, among other things. But the Pre-Socratics could do without it. Their project was different from empirical science. They were looking for the best ontological explanation of the natural world."
"But," I protested, "they were mostly materialists, weren't they?" I had always thought of the Pre-Socratics as anticipating what we call "modern science."
"Right," Hugh agreed. "But they considered materialism as an ontological theory. They weren't merely describing the substances they were already committed to by the empirical laws they believed. They expected matter to explain the existence of the natural world and the basic features of what exists. In other words, they were looking for a different kind of explanation from science. Science tries to figure out the efficient causes of what happens in the world. That's why it looks for laws of nature and tests them by their capacity to predict and control what can be observed. But the Pre-Socratics were looking for the substances that explain everything in the world, including not only what happens in the world, but also what exists there. For example, they wanted to know not only how things change, but how there could be change at all. That made it possible for them to discover something that has been forgotten since then, something that makes it possible, in our era, to do philosophy in a new way."
There was an intensity and clarity about the way Hugh spoke at this point, as if it were the crux of everything. And my great admiration for the Pre-Socratics made me sympathetic, trapping me into his argument.
"What I am referring to is ancient atomism. As you probably know, Pre-Socratic philosophy developed in a dialectical way over several generations. New theories were tried out, criticized and revised again in light of criticisms. They were mostly materialists, but eventually their arguments led Leucippus and Democritus to insist that there are two elements, atoms and the void. The atomists recognized that the best ontological explanation of the natural world would have to recognize that space is just as much a substance constituting the world as matter is. The recognition that space and matter together constitute the world made it possible for them to explain aspects of the natural world that preceding materialists had simply taken for granted. Earlier Pre-Socratics had simply assumed that bits of matter have spatial relations, but the atomists could explain why objects have spatial relations. And though motion had to be possible in order to explain change by mixture and separation, the atomists could explain how motion is possible. And, thus, how change itself is possible. At least, that is how I understand the atomists. What they meant by the 'void' was something like a big three-dimensional container in which all the atoms had a location and could move. But modern science doesn't recognize that space is a substance in that sense. So my ontology differs from contemporary materialism in the same way that ancient atomism differed from the forms of materialism that preceded it. That's what makes it possible to defend new truths that are necessary relative to science. Space is a substance in their sense of a 'first principle,' an archê, along with matter, a giant three-dimensional container of all the matter in the world.”
I could see his point, though I wanted hear more about how space is required to explain motion before I agreed that the ancient atomists had the best ontological explanation -- or for that matter, that this is what the ancient atomists believed. But I let that pass, because there was an even more obvious objection. Didn't Hugh know about Einstein? Once again, the young man was beginning to sound like someone lacking a twentieth century education. And once again my academic reflexes won out. "It is for good reason that science doesn't take space to be a substance. It does have an advantage over Democritus. It has learned about spacetime from Einstein. We now know that, if there is any 'substance,' as you call it, in addition to matter constituting the world, it's not space, but spacetime. To hold that space is a substance, enduring through time like matter, is to believe in absolute space and absolute time. That was Newton's view. But the Newtonian view is what was overthrown by contemporary physics." I refrained from adding, "Surely you have heard of Einstein."
"Yes, that is a problem all right," Hugh admitted, "but it's not my problem. It's a problem about contemporary science. Remember I'm defending an ontological position, not merely proposing a scientific theory. Physics accepted Einstein's special and general theories of relativity because they made new and unexpected predictions of precise measurements that turned out to be true. The empirical method used in science required them to accept relativity theory. But what goes unrecognized, even today, is that it is possible to formulate a theory with all the same empirical implications on the assumption that bits of matter are located in absolute space and absolute time. It all depends on how we interpret the equations in Einstein’s two theories. Physicists take them to be referring to spacetime because that is what their equations seem to describe. But it is possible to interpret those equations as referring to absolute space and time, even in the case of the general theory of relativity. And the reason for insisting on such an interpretation is that absolute space is required by the best ontological explanation of the natural world. That is the Pre-Socratic discovery that has been forgotten. Instead of merely inferring to the best efficient-cause explanation of what happens in the world, the Pre-Socratics were trying to figure out the best ontological explanation of what exists (as well as what happens) in the world. They were doing empirical ontology, and since ontology offers a deeper explanation of the world than science, empirical ontology is prior to physics. The atomists were right to insist on an ontology that recognizes both space and matter as substances.”
Hugh leaned across the table, as if he were telling me a secret. “That is, I suggest, the foundation from which new necessary truths can be proved. Its consequences are ontologically necessary. They follow from the best ontological explanation of the world, which is prior to empirical science, including physics, and all its theories about the efficient causes of what happens in the world. That is what I mean by doing philosophy in a new way. Instead of using epistemology to show that some truths are known with certitude, as traditional philosophy did, I am using empirical ontology to show that certain truths are ontologically necessary. They may not be certain, but they can be denied only by giving up the best ontological explanation of the world."
Hugh was speaking rapidly with an intensity that belied its importance to him, and I was beginning to sense that he was on to something beyond anything I could have imagined when he first made his casual comment about there being an absolute truth. It was no longer clear to me that he must be making some big mistake. I could not help responding, “Well, I suppose it is possible that space is absolute after all. In fact, I've always suspected that the paradoxes that Einstein left us with were not the final truth about space and time.”
There was surprise in Hugh’s face for the first time. “Wow! You do have an open mind, don’t you?” And then looking down, he added sadly, “You know, it’s not easy for physicists to consider this possibility. The relativity debate earlier in the century was so long and heated that they don't want to believe the issue is still open. No one defends absolute space any more, and it's taken for granted that there can be no reason for doubting relativity that doesn't come from predicting some new quantitatively precise measurement. Ontological arguments against Einstein's theories are seen as showing a preference for Newtonian intuitions over mathematical rigor. Pressing such arguments can get you expelled from graduate school in physics. This has gone on so long now that it is like an ideology. It's hard for physicists not to simply dismiss ontological doubts about relativity in anger, as if they were being pestered by a spoiled child.”
Hugh seemed to be dwelling on an unhappy memory, but when he glanced at his watch, he looked up at me with a combination of childlike hopefulness and anxiety. "I have something you might be interested in, if you see what I am getting at. I haven't the time to explain it all right now. But it’s all here." He opened his backpack and pulled out a thick pack of papers and handed them me. "Here is a diagram that represents this new, ontological way of doing philosophy and a manuscript defending it. You can do what you want with it."
The diagram had two main boxes, one at the top labeled FOUNDATION and the one beneath it labeled NECESSARY TRUTHS . It is the 'whole diagram' reproduced in the next section of this web site, and the main parts are included in the image here.
Inside the Foundation box, Hugh pointed to the three smaller boxes at the top which he said represented his three assumptions: (1) Naturalism, the belief that what exists is just what is in space and time; (2) Ontological Explanation, the belief that ontology is a kind of explanation which is deeper than efficient-cause explanations; and (3) the Empirical Method, the belief that the way to tell which theory to believe is by which is the best explanation of what we find in the world. These three assumptions, he said, lead to Spatiomaterialism, the belief that the world is made up of both space and matter as substances enduring through time. A line from the FOUNDATION box led to the other big box, labeled NECESSARY TRUTHS. Hugh explained that the recognition of spatiomaterialism as the best ontological explanation of the world is what demonstrates the new ontologically necessary truths about the world. They are what reason can know about the world from the vantage of this ontological foundation.
Those necessary truths were laid out under two main headings: one for theoretical reason containing all the conclusions about What Is, and the other for practical reason, with conclusions about What Ought To Be. Though both are ontologically necessary, he explained, the truths about the good are supported by those about the true in a way that resembles how both kinds of necessary truths are supported by the Foundation. The proof of necessary truths about what is not only solved all the problems that had arisen in the philosophy of mind, mathematics, and science, but also showed that evolution follows an inevitable course in the direction of natural perfection, leading stage by stage to rational beings like us. And the recognition of natural perfection is what resolved all the received philosophical issues about the nature of goodness, including the goodness of self interest, ethics and religion.
Each of the smaller boxes in both the FOUNDATION and NECESSARY TRUTHS represented arguments with several parts, and in each case there was a subdiagram depicting those more detailed logical structures. Pointing to the boxes, Hugh outlined for me all the major moves in his argument. Finally, he mentioned the manuscript itself, entitled "The Wholeness of the World," which he said explained in detail everything represented in the diagrams. It showed not only that absolute space is compatible with Einstein's two theories of relativity, but also how explaining physics ontologically made it possible to reduce theories in all the other branches of science to spatiomaterialism, solving major problems in every branch of science, social science and even the humanities. And it answered all the objections that have traditionally been raised against materialism by explaining the nature of consciousness, the nature of goodness, and how there could be something worthy of worship in a strictly natural world. The diagram was a road map to the manuscript, which carried out his new way of doing philosophy, he said, down to great detail in many cases.
I was curious. And it made sense, though I couldn't help also being more than a little doubtful that it did everything he claimed. Seeming more hurried now, Hugh said, "You might think of it as an inside-out encyclopedia. You know how ordinary encyclopedias inventory everything known by listing all the pieces of knowledge alphabetically. Well, in this encyclopedia, no alphabet is needed. Alphabetization is replaced by a diagram, the whole diagram. Everything reason can possibly know has a relationship to the whole, and that is how it can be located. The two largest boxes represent the two steps of the argument of ontological philosophy. The first, FOUNDATION, lays out what reason needs to assume in order to know that spatiomaterialism is true. The second, NECESSARY TRUTHS, lays out all the ontologically necessary truths about the world that follow from spatiomaterialism, including those that hold only of spatiomaterial worlds like ours, where the laws of physics are true. That is the framework in which all the contingent facts about the world are located, making it an encyclopedia of everything that reason can know. But two kinds of ontologically necessary truths are distinguished in the diagram, because the necessary truths about what ought to be are supported by the necessary truths about what is in much the same way as the Necessary Truths are supported by the Foundation."
"Ah, I see," I blurted out, "That is why you title it 'the Wholeness of the World.'"
"Yes, though there are other meanings. For example, in a more elemental and concrete way, 'the wholeness of the world' also refers to space itself, because space is a kind of substance that, by containing all the matter, can make a world whole. In a way, that is all that is really different in what I am saying."
Beginning to see what Hugh was getting at, I added helpfully, "And as an ontological explanation, it explains the world completely. Everything in the world is constituted by the basic substances, all the objects, the properties, and what happens. And I suppose it doesn't really matter that ontologically necessary truths can be known in a different way from contingent truths, since they are both true in the same way, I mean by corresponding to aspects of substances. That too could be 'the wholeness of the world,' I guess."
"Yes, that's another way it's whole. You might call it a God's Eye View of the world." Perhaps Hugh was encouraging me, like a teacher. "What gives us a God's Eye View is recognizing that space is a substance. We're so used to thinking of everything as being in space that it's hard for us to see space itself as an object. That's why 'substance' seems to mean material substance, as if it were self-contradictory to speak of space as a substance. But to get to the bottom of what exists, we must see space as well as matter from the outside, like an object. And we can do that by thinking of space as a substance. That is, after all, how God would have to have seen space in order to create the natural world."
"But these are not the only ways that the world is whole, at least, not a spatiomaterial world like our own, where the laws of physics are true. Another way is how language-using animals inevitably come to exist through evolution. That makes the world whole because they evolve the capacity to reason and eventually come to see how spatiomaterialism is the foundation of a explanation of necessary truths about the world. Hence, a part of the world inevitably understands the basic nature of the world, giving the world itself a reflective nature."
"Ah ha," I exclaimed, "that's why there's a little green circle labeled 'reason' toward the bottom of the whole diagram! It's the part of the world that knows about the wholeness of the world. You know, as a naturalist, it has always seemed to me that the world is somehow completed by our knowledge of it. The universe knows itself through us. But it would be even more perfect, if what the world wrought were beings with a complete understanding of world."
"Right. That's how it seems to me too. It means that reason comes to know everything represented by the whole diagram. But that can also be called wisdom. If philosophy is the love of wisdom, the whole diagram represents the structure of the wisdom that philosophy is the love of, both wisdom about truth and wisdom about goodness. It is wisdom about truth, because the FOUNDATION tells us not only what is true about the world, but also why the true is true. Truths of all kinds are true because they correspond to aspects of the basic substances constituting the world. But it is also wisdom about goodness, for not only does the ontological explanation of evolution and natural perfection tell us what is good. It also explains why the good is good. The good is good because it contributes to natural perfection. In both cases, the mark of wisdom is that both questions, what and why, are answered by the same property. The whole diagram represents such a two-level justification of both beliefs and intentions, That's how ontological philosophy can defend knowledge of a kind that is more fundamental than what people ordinarily claim to know. It is a wisdom worth loving."
Then Hugh looked me in the eyes and asked, "But, now, don't you see another way in which that would make the world whole?"
I felt like a student called on in class, afraid of not knowing his lesson. Suspecting that what Hugh meant must have something to do with how the whole diagram represents wisdom, I scrambled to put an argument together. "Well, if the diagram is about our world, it gives us a new way of doing philosophy. The wisdom it represents is our wisdom. We could use this way of knowing what is true and good in our world. So we could be certain about it. Is that what you mean? Does its certainty makes it the Absolute Truth?"
"Hold on!" Hugh leaned back, as if pulling on the reins. "Certainty is what epistemological philosophers expect of the Absolute Truth. They have to take the Absolute Truth to be something that cannot be doubted, because self evidence is what an epistemological foundation has to offer. But there can be no such certainty about ontological philosophy. The truth of its foundation depends on the world being constituted by the substances it says, and there is no way for beings like us to know about those substances except from information about the world, such as perception provides. With an empirical foundation, it is always possible that we are mistaken. There are, after all, experiences that would falsify spatiomaterialism. For example, material objects could start disappearing from one location at one moment and appearing at a distant location the next."
Feeling a bit defensive about my epistemological bias, I asked, "But how can the whole diagram represent the Absolute Truth without our being certain that it is true?"
"Well, there is another way of being sure of its truth, though its weight is felt only at the end of the argument. That is its completeness. An ontological explanation has a unique kind of simplicity, because it reduces everything to the same basic substances. And so if doing that explains everything in the world, it has a unique kind of coherence as a whole. There is no reason to doubt the best ontological explanation of the basic aspects of the world, if it also explains all the various kinds of phenomena that have seemed problematic and resisted explanation through the years, such as the fact that there are rational beings like us in the world, that we are conscious in the sense that it is "like something" to be one of us, why there is real difference between good and bad, and how there is something worthy of worship in the world. And there is further reason to believe it, if it shows not only the ontological necessity of many beliefs that were already recognized to be true, but also the ontological necessity of many truths that were not already believed, especially if the new ontological truths reveal a structure of necessity in which all the kinds of things found in the world have essential natures. The simplicity of its causes together with the all-encompassing scope of its conclusions about what is possible and what is necessary gives this ontological explanation the maximum coherence possible. What justifies the claim to certainty is that everything we know about the world fits together as a single system in the simplest possible way. You can't give up any one of its implications without giving them all up, for they all follow from the same simple ontology."
"That's certainly an excellent reason for believing it." Hugh was pointing to the kinds of reason that a naturalist like me could not dismiss, but I suspected him of trying to get away with something. "But surely you're not saying that there is nothing more to learn, are you? And if not, how can ontological philosophy be the Absolute Truth?"
"Because it's absolute in the relevant sense. Of course, there's more to learn, much more, including the details about the natures of the basic substances, which will eventually explain the strange astronomical phenomena, not to mention the details about the structure of natural perfection. By calling it 'absolute,' I am merely saying that nothing learned in the future will change the structure or content of the wisdom represented by the whole diagram. There is no equivalent theory that is as simple and comprehensive as ontological philosophy. No other conceptual system can do as well, because space and matter are the simplest basic substances that can explain all the basic aspects of the world. And unless physics is fundamentally mistaken, the necessary truths they entail explain all the kinds of things found in the world. There is no reason to accept conceptual relativism, or what contemporary Kantians, like Hillary Putnam, call 'internal realism.' Internal realism is the realism of science, and internal realists deride the possibility of 'metaphysical realism' by calling it the 'One True Theory' or 'God's Eye View' of the world. But the possibility of metaphysical realism is shown by ontological philosophy. That is the sense in which it is the 'Absolute Truth.'"
"So is that what you meant by a further sense of 'the wholeness of the world'? That ontological philosophy is absolute in a way that defies conceptual relativism?"
"Not quite! You were closer to the wholeness I was thinking of when you were pointing to the effect on our world of our coming to have the wisdom represented by the whole diagram. That wholeness is what the world comes to have as rational beings discover this ontological explanation of the world. Evolution in the direction of natural perfection makes it inevitable that beings like us come to exist in a spatiomaterial world like this one, and as they come to understand what is represented by the whole diagram, they will understand their own nature and their own place in the world. Since they will understand the nature of natural perfection, they will see how they can act for the good of the world as a whole, that is, besides doing what is good for themselves. And since they will also understand the nature of goodness deeply enough to see why it is good for them to do so, they will do what they can to make the world more perfect. Action guided by such an understanding of natural perfection is an essential part of the perfection of the world. That is the most complete sense of 'the wholeness of the world,' as far as I can see."
Looking into the distance, Hugh added, "You might say that such rational beings do God's work in the world. And if we were going to use those traditional terms, we could even call ontological philosophy a proof of the existence of God."
"So what you are saying is that Nietzsche was wrong about God being dead. Though God doesn't exist outside the natural world, the deeper truth is that God is being born inside nature through us."
"Well, if we're going to use traditional terms, it is more like pantheism. Though it is true that rational beings like us will be doing God's work when we act for the good of the world as a whole, the larger truth is that the world itself will be acting through us as its personal agent within space and time. After all, the existence of beings like us is a consequence of the basic nature of a spatiomaterial world like ours, the very same nature that is the source of purpose in the world, the source of a real difference between good and bad. So if you're looking for God, it is the whole world, not just a part of it. The perfection of the world is the most complete sense of 'the wholeness of the world.'"
Though he was clearly not a just true believer, I thought he was a bit too eager to get to such a happy conclusion, and so I tried puncturing his balloon. "But if God comes to exist in the world, where did the world come from? What caused the Big Bang?"
"Ah, that."Unfazed by my objection, Hugh leaned back and replied, "There was no Big Bang. That is one of the implications of using spatiomaterialism to explain the truth of physics. All the phenomena on which the Big Bang theory is based can be explained without denying that the universe is eternal. It is possible that the universe has always been pretty much like it appears now, infinite in extent and enduring forever. Instead of a Big Bang, there are more local events from which galaxies derive. 'Local big shrinks' is what I call them. The evolutionary process that has led to the existence of beings like us in our solar system occurs throughout the universe. It has always been occurring. And it will always be occurring."
Secretly, I admired his response. It had always seemed to me that grown men should be embarrassed to claim that the world came into existence from nothing. But I was still a long way from believing what Hugh said. "That is easy to say."
Hugh sensed that I had gone about as far I could go with him. "You've been very good about, hearing me out like this. There aren't many people who would, you know." He looked at me and went on, "I know this is a lot to take in at one sitting. And in this day and age, it's got to be hard to believe.”
"Well, I admit that it's an interesting idea. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard it before." Though I no longer doubted that Hugh meant "Absolute Truth" with a capital "A" and capital "T," I still wanted to keep a safe distance from it. "But don't get me wrong. I'm not saying I believe you. Far from it. I may not see what’s wrong with it now, but there are lots of issues. You know, Einstein, consciousness, goodness. Not to mention your claim that rational beings like us exist necessarily."
"Yes, of course. All that must be considered carefully." He paused and went on as if he were thinking of it for the first time. "It's not easy to take something like this seriously. Not talk about Absolute Truth. Even after you realize that it has nothing to do with Hitler or any kind of political absolutism that might enforce its authority by violence, it still has to overcome the stigma about claiming Absolute Truth that derives from the foolish way that Hegel defended Absolute Truth in his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. But ontological philosophy is different from epistemological philosophy, and it might be better to think of this inside-out encyclopedia as a game. The whole diagram purports to represent a single, complete explanation of everything in the world that reason can know. So take it as a challenge. If you think you are sure that it is not true or somehow goes wrong, well, then, all you have to do is point out where. Identify some aspect of the world that it cannot explain, or even an aspect that it cannot explain as well as it is currently being explained. That will show that it is not the Absolute Truth. Or just show where the argument does not follow. Then, you can go back to your own business with a clear conscience. But what you will find, I predict, is that all those objections can be answered. It does hang together and it does explain everything better than what is currently believed. I don't believe that anyone can show that this new way of doing philosophy does not work."
Glancing at his watch, Hugh said, "I'm sorry. I’ve got to run now." Then, pausing to smile, he added, "I’ll leave you to eat your bagel -- if that’s what it really is."
We had been talking so intensely that I had barely reached the hole on one side. As Hugh rose from the table, I thought to ask, "But how can I get in touch with you?"
"You can't," he replied. "I'll have to get in touch with you." His bright smile then gave way to a more serious look. "But I am leaving the Wholeness of the World in your hands. Remember what I said. It's up to you what to do with it."
I don't know why he gave it to me, and considering how things have turned out, I wish I had been more curious. Perhaps it was just chance. The book Hugh saw me carrying was entitled, What Remains to be Discovered, a survey of the many questions that science can be expected to answer in the future. It was written by John Maddox, the longtime editor of Nature, a prestigious scientific journal, to show that the "end of science" had not yet come. And since Hugh probably caught on that I teach philosophy for a living, he may have seen me as someone on whom he could unload his burden. At the time, I still assumed that, despite the originality of what he was saying, Hugh would turn out to be a young man who fails to understand the magnitude of the obstacles facing intellectual culture at the close of the twentieth century. But having read his manuscript, I now realize that what Hugh gave me includes not only the explanations that Maddox thinks science will eventually discover, but more. Much more. In fact, what is surprising now is how little empirical scientists expect to know in the foreseeable future (though, in all fairness, I should mention that Maddox does see the importance of understanding the nature of space). But now that my doubts about Hugh's being a philosopher have vanished, I have nothing more to say about who he is, except to mention that his manuscript identifies its author as Hugh Renbircs.
I have found nothing in Hugh's argument by which I can reject it. It may well turn out that there are problems with certain parts of it, but I don’t see how any problem could be serious enough to derail the project as a whole. So ontological philosophy does seem to be a new way of doing philosophy. I am even warming up to the idea that it is the Absolute Truth. If it works, it can be seen as a proof of the existence of God, with all that that suggests. However, the judgment about it hardly depends on me. It depends on all those who consider it – as Hugh would no doubt insist, considering how his ontological philosophy explains the nature of reason. And only time will tell how that turns out.
Hugh made so much of the whole diagram as the key to the Wholeness of the World that I have decided to use the medium of the Internet to present it more or less as he presented it to me in person. That is a most efficient way to see what it is all about, and his argument lends itself to the new medium. The whole diagram is a spatial representation of the argument, and the interactive devices of web pages can use its spatial structure to bring out how everything in the world is explained by its relationship to the whole, that is, like an inside-out encyclopedia..
The diagrams start on the next page, with the “whole diagram” in the main pane of the window. If you click on a box in the whole diagram, you will be taken to a more detailed diagram of that part of the argument. And if you keep clicking, you will eventually be taken to the text of the argument itself. (There is a further layer of diagrams under Change which lays out the points about evolution.)
The left pane of each window is a navigation bar. The red labels are a Contents for the main chapters of the text, and when you reach the text, it can be downloaded for easier reading by simply clicking in the text pane and clicking print. The icons for the diagrams will take you to diagram pages, from which you can also proceed to the text. Clicking the icon for the Inside-Out Encyclopedia will bring you back to this introduction, and clicking the icon for tWoW will take you back to the entrance, the tWoW home page. (The entrance has a link to the Site Map from which you can also navigate to all parts of the argument, both diagrams and text, as well as links to various supplementary explanations of ontological philosophy.) As you may have found in getting here, it takes a while to load the main window at 28 kilobits per second. But after that, the diagrams and text pages load somewhat more quickly, and you can easily switch among them once they have been cached in your computer.
Once any diagram is up, however, there is quite a lot to explore before going the next diagram (or going on to the text), because I have put Hugh's brief explanations of the boxes in the diagram into labels that show up in the top frame of the main window whenever the mouse is hovering over them. That conveys the brief explanations of the argument he gave me.
The natural order of the argument, from premises to conclusion, is to start at the top of the whole diagram, considering the boxes in order from left to right (following out the implications of each), and then to proceed to the next row of boxes, where you do likewise. The text to which all these boxes refer is a single argument laid out from beginning to end in the traditional linear fashion. But if you are willing to grant what is shown in any box, you can skip that part (or consider it only as far you need in order to satisfy yourself) and proceed directly to the next box, until you get to the end. Thus, the diagrams make it possible for you to construct your own version of this argument, one that suits your needs. You may need to read only those parts of the standard text where you have doubts. And some people may follow the argument completely enough without having to read the standard text at all.
In any case, you can always see where you are located in the argument as a whole. The text is always accompanied in the top frame by a relevant diagram to nearby sections. You can see where you are in that diagram by letting your mouse hover over the nearest box in the text itself, for that will light up the corresponding box in the diagram. And you can see where that diagram is located in the argument as a whole by going back to the whole diagram. Thus, those who take up Hugh's challenge can use the whole diagram as an inside-out encyclopedia to isolate the part where you think ontological philosophy fails to be a new way of doing philosophy.
Can you say why ontological philosophy does not work? Is there some step in the argument that does not follow? Is there some aspect of the world that it does not explain? Without being able to point to some such failure, I do not see how anyone can dismiss it and still think of themselves as a philosopher. To dismiss it without an argument would be to give up the rational pursuit of truth and accept relativism, like the sophists.
Those who do find some reason for doubting that ontological philosophy works are asked to bring their objection here for all to see. Objections can be made publicly by joining the discussion of ontological philosophy at "onto-phil" (by sending to onto-phil-request@tWoW.net an e-mail with the sole text in its body: subscribe). Or you can e-mail me directly (webmaster@tWow.net).
In either case, I will acknowledge the argument and either refute the objection or show how a minor revision will enable to ontological philosophy to work as a whole in the same way. If I cannot do that to the satisfaction of rational people generally, I will admit that ontological philosophy is a failure, terminate this challenge, and close the tWoW.net web site, so that everyone can go back to business as usual.
If you cannot find anything wrong with it, then I suggest that you carry Hugh's challenge to those who are supposed to know what is wrong with such arguments, such as teachers, professors, scientists, ministers and journalists – anyone who claims an interest in intellectual culture. Force them to tell you what is wrong with it, or else admit that they are sophists, who do not take part in the rational pursuit of truth.
In the end, it is up to you what is to be done about the wholeness of the world.
Washington, D. C.
December 26, 1999