Explaining Philosophical Problems

Philosophers have the difficult task of explaining philosophical concepts to non-philosophers.  Most philosophers have long since stopped trying to explain why philosophical problems really are problems, especially to those people who ask only to mock the philosopher.  However, for honest inquirers (and for school of religion students wanting to know what ‘nature’ means in the Church’s proclamations on the Trinity), philosophers must find easy ways to accurately and simply state the problem.  I think I have discovered an easy way of at least introducing the problem of the One and the Many, and I’d like to hear feedback on my formulation of the problem.  I’m not exactly sure that my formulation is the same formulation of the Problem that we see today, or even if it asks the same questions that Parmenides raises.  Nevertheless, I think my formulation is easy to understand, and it serves as a good introduction as to why some people think that “spooky” things such as forms or natures exist (as a matter of fact, one might argue that I am giving a phrasing of the problem of universals instead of the problem of the one and the many!). 

First, I begin with a story concerning the nature of explanation, a story relatively well-known in philosophical circles.  Two quantum physicists were at their university office, and they were arguing about the structure of the universe and its numerous intricacies.  Both had reached a state of bewilderment.  At that moment, the janitor walks in and laughs at them.  He says, “Are you talking about all that nonsense about the universe again?”

The two scientists reply, “it’s not nonsense.  However, since you think it is nonsense you must have a better solution to these problems, problems which have bewildered the best of minds.”

The janitor responded, “Yes, in fact I do.  The structure of the universe is very simple.  Everything is sitting on the shoulders of a giant man.”

The scientists laughed.  “So what is the man standing on?”

“He’s standing on the back of a giant turtle.”

“What’s the turtle standing on?”

“Another turtle.”

“And that turtle?”

“It’s turtles all the way down.”
————-

The story tells us something about the nature of a good explanation.  In order for an explanation to be adequate, it must not be open to the same questions as the question it attempts to answer.  The janitor cannot give an explanation of what the man is standing on by giving an infinite number of turtles.  Because there is no ultimate ground that the turtles are standing upon, then the janitor never adequately answers the original question of what the man was standing on, no matter how many turtles he adds.  Nor, after positing several turtles, does saying “I don’t know what that turtle is standing on” or arbitrarily naming a particular turtle the final grounding of the man without a good reason ultimately give an explanation of what the man is standing on. 

With that said, here’s my formulation of the Problem of the One and the Many (which also touches heavily upon the realist/anti-realist debates).  Let’s say that there are three men standing before us.  Each of them are different in some way, but each of them are the same in some way.  In the modern world, we all seem to agree on what makes the men different:  each man is composed of different matter e.g. bones and tissues than the other men.  But we also want to say that all men are the same in some way:  when we talk about them, we say that person A is a man, B is a man, and C is a man.  When we call them each a man, we are using the word man univocally, meaning that it applies to each one in the same way.  If the material that the men are composed of is the basis for their multiplicity, what is the basis for their unity under the concept of Man? 

When most people are asked this question, their first response is to speak of DNA.  Since all of them have a similar “blueprint,” they are all men.  But this answer is problematic.  DNA is composed of proteins.  Let’s say that there are three proteins sitting in front of us.  We want to say that each of them is different from the other proteins, but we also want to say that the term ‘protein’ applies to them all in the same way.  What is the basis for that unity?

Referring to the material components of a thing to explain why a term can be applied to all things seems to commit the same mistake as the janitor does.  The janitor makes the mistake of trying to explain the grounding of a man with an entity that is subject to the same problem as the original case.  He doesn’t solve the problem, but “moves it back a step.”  Nor does saying that the three men “are similar” give any sort of answer because it merely rephrases the problem:  in what way are the three men similar such that we can call all three of them men?

At this point, the different solutions can be introduced.  To be brief, the conceptualist would argue that the unity lies in a concept in our head.  The nominalist might argue that the similarities are brute facts, meaning that they cannot be explained, and the Platonist would argue for an object existing in reality which serves as an objective basis for the property of being man. 

So, my philosophical readers, is the formulation what I advertised:  simple but accurate?

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