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MINDWORLD IDENTITY THEORY AND SEMANTIC


REALISM: HALDANE AND BOULTER ON AQUINAS
B G D A
In a recent article, Stephen Boulter takes issue with John Haldanes proposed
account of the relationship between mind and world based on Aquinas theory of
cognition.1 While accepting the direct realism of Haldanes theory, according to
which mind and world are (potentially) structurally identical, Boulter argues against
Haldanes attempt to square metaphysical realism with semantic anti-realism. He
has three main objections. First, Haldanes Aquinas would be a truncated one, i.e.,
only a truncated reading would support the suggestion that Aquinas holds metaphysical realism (hereafter MR) in conjunction with semantic anti-realism (SAR).
Secondly, the complete Aquinas does not in fact accept SAR. Thirdly, Aquinas
MR and SAR are incompatible. In considering these objections, I shall argue that
even if MR and a full-bodied SAR may be incompatible, from the stance of the
mindworld identity theory, one may nevertheless maintain MR together with
the negation of semantic realism (SR). Further, I shall suggest that this is what Haldane actually claimed, and moreover that Aquinas would have accepted it.

I
Haldanes Aquinas holds (a) that one can talk about x only if ones intellect is in
conformity with it. Boulter (p. ) emphasizes (b) that Aquinas really recognizes
two ways of acquiring knowledge of the natural world:
one can come to know something directly by being literally informed by the object in
question in the manner Haldane has discussed; or one can come to form some idea of
the existence and nature of something indirectly by noting its effects. It is this second
mode of knowing (much the poorer of the two) which Haldane has ignored.

It is contentious that (b) is inconsistent with (a). Even if it were true that Haldane
does not deal with indirect knowledge (cf. Haldane p. ), (a) merely claims that one
can think about x only if one has the relevant concepts. There is no restriction of the
ways in which one may arrive at those concepts, i.e., whether only directly or also
indirectly. Even if an account of indirect knowledge may still be needed, (a) does not
1
S.J. Boulter, Could Aquinas Accept Semantic Anti-Realism?, The Philosophical Quarterly,
(), pp. ; J.J. Haldane, MindWorld Identity Theory and the Anti-Realist Challenge, in J. Haldane and C. Wright (eds), Reality, Representation and Projection (Oxford UP, ),
pp. .

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MINDWORLD IDENTITY THEORY AND SEMANTIC REALISM

imply the impossibility of such an account. Accordingly one could endorse Aquinas
claim that cognition requires formal identity between mind and thing, and at the
same time suggest that it is possible to possess the form of something one has not
directly encountered. Haldanes Aquinas may need to be completed, but it is
not clear that he is truncated.

II
According to Boulter, the second mode of knowledge, indirect knowledge, is important both for science and natural theology, and it entails that according to
Aquinas, one can understand a proposition p without ever being able to recognize
that p, a direct contradiction of SAR. In support of this claim he notes (p. ) that
Aquinas allows one can know something through mere acquaintance with its effects:
one will be able to claim partial knowledge of x, perhaps no more than that x exists
(unless the effect is adequate to the cause, i.e., a member of the same natural kind).
But this is enough to formulate theories concerning the nature of x, as the history of
science clearly illustrates.

An example might be force fields: we have experience of bodies moving through


regions of space in ways which can best be accounted for if we postulate the existence of particularly structured forces in those regions. However, our knowledge of
those forces is imperfect: we do not know what they are nor what encountering
them would be like, we know only their effects. According to Boulter, Aquinas can
allow this kind of knowledge only because he endorses SR. In summary structure,
Boulters argument is as follows (pp. ):
.
.
.

One can come to know something directly by being literally informed by the
object in question ... or one can come to form some idea of the existence and
nature of something indirectly by noting its effects
The effects of an unobserved x serve as the nominal definition (or significatio nominis)
of x, and when x is used in a proposition the term is initially taken to mean no
more than the cause of certain effects2
Once the existence [of x] has been established, one can move on to formulate
some idea of its essential characteristics [according to Aquinas, terms for observable entities can be applied to unobservable ones through analogy].

Therefore
.

This semantic theory ... provides a way of conceiving of entities known imperfectly through their effects; it does not extend ones recognitional capacities

2
The expression serve as is ambiguous: it may taken to mean either that the effects of an
unobserved x are its significatio nominis, or that they can be used instead of the proper significatio
nominis when this is unavailable because x is unobservable. The latter seems to be the correct
interpretation, if consistency with () is to be maintained: a proper nominal definition of a
thing defines what sort of thing it is, and this can only be given when the essential characteristics of that thing are determined.

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[Consequently] it is not necessary that one be able to recognize that p, even in


principle, in order to understand the proposition p.

Claims ()() are paraphrases from Aquinas, claims () and () are conclusions
drawn by Boulter. The crucial point seems to be (), especially its second conjunct,
since if this is conceded, the defeat of the conjunction of MR with the rejection of
SR seems to go through. Claim (), though, is ambiguous. First, if it is taken literally,
the second conjunct of () says that Aquinas semantic theory does not improve the
recognitional capacities of speakers. If this were the claim, it would be not only unsurprising but trivial, for it is not the task of a semantic theory to improve speakers
conceptual abilities by allowing new uses of their language. Furthermore, on this
reading, () does not entail (), since the idea that a semantic theory allows the
meaningfulness of analogical uses of terms, conjoined with the idea that the same
theory does not improve the recognitional capacities of speakers, does not entail that
speakers must be able to understand propositions for which they lack recognitional
capacities. For the recognitional capacities associated with the literal uses of terms
could be also at work when the terms are used in an analogical sense, at least for the
respect in which the analogical use is not completely ambiguous. Some further
argument is needed to show that this is impossible.
Secondly, if () is taken less literally, it may be seen as claiming that Aquinas
semantic theory concedes that the terms of a language can be used on occasions
where they go beyond their literal meaning, i.e., used analogically, even if it does not
concede that the recognitional capacities of speakers are wider than is normally
thought. Normally thought by whom? Since this is said in reference to Aquinas
semantic theory, and since the core of that theory is Aquinas thesis on analogy, then
the answer seems to be by those who do not accept the thesis that language can be
used analogically. Would () follow from ()() on this reading? It seems that there
is nothing in ()() which prevents one from holding that the recognitional capacities of speakers are extended when they are also able to speak analogically. A
semantic anti-realist, who believes that understanding a sentence is a sufficient condition for having the capacity necessary for recognizing its truth-conditions, could
thus consistently accept ()(). In order for () to follow from ()() one must first
reject anti-realism. Therefore, as an argument against the possibility that Aquinas
could accept the thesis of the semantic anti-realist that conception is co-terminous
with recognizability in principle, ()() is question-begging.
Boulter backs up his reasoning with examples taken from Aquinas considerations
about science. According to Aquinas, in some cases our arguments cannot prove
their conclusion with certainty. They do not produce science (scientia), in the sense of
a system of deductive demonstrations, but opinion or belief, i.e., they can only
establish a possible solution (science here must not be taken in the modern sense
discussed above: in Aquinas terms, the unobservable entities of contemporary
physics would probably be objects of possible solutions, rather than objects of
science). Boulter comments (p. ):
when one arrives at a possible solution one has simply recognized what could be the
case one has no warrant to assume that the possible solution represents what actually
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MINDWORLD IDENTITY THEORY AND SEMANTIC REALISM

is the case. The points of concern for us ... are (a) that by definition, a possible solution is a theory whose truth-value eludes us; and (b) that all we can produce concerning entities inaccessible to sense observation is a possible solution. However, one has
every reason to believe that Aquinas maintains that one understands these propositions,
despite the fact that, in principle, we can never determine their truth-value.

There are at least three remarks to be made about this. First, prima facie, this
seems a strange consideration. If the fact that Aquinas allows that some of our
claims lack certainty were enough to make him a semantic realist, then it would
mean that the semantic anti-realist has no resources with which to draw a distinction
between belief and knowledge. This would be contentious, to say the least.
Secondly, with regard to (a), Aquinas could maintain that the truth-values of the
propositions of a theory may elude us because they are evidence-transcendent, or
because they are undecided. If the latter disjunct is accepted, Aquinas view would
be compatible with semantic anti-realism. Thirdly, (b) seems false, since there are
counter-examples to be found in Aquinas: especially apt, perhaps, is the fact that he
believed the existence and some attributes of God to be demonstrable with certainty,
even though God is not an object of the senses.
Boulter raises the interesting case of the anti-realist rejection of bivalence and
Aquinas treatment of future contingents. He claims that Aquinas does not reject
bivalence, and therefore accepts semantic realism. Is this a proper reading? According to Aquinas, true signifies that what is the case is said to be the case, a thing
[being] true in the way in which it is or exists.... But when something is yet to come,
it does not exist in itself .3 Future contingents do not exist in themselves, but in
something else, i.e., in a mind. Consequently when a mental content is about a
future contingent, reality lacks those facts which may decide if that content is a good
representation or not. Thus a statement about a state of affairs which does not yet
exist cannot be said to be true or false, i.e., to have a truth-value: its truth-value is
not decidable. If this reading is plausible, then Aquinas view may not clash with
anti-realism.
It may be countered that this holds only for future contingents. Given Aquinas
theory of truth, the truth-values of statements concerning the far past may be
decided even when the truth-conditions of those statements are beyond our
recognitional abilities. Something which was the case had existence in itself, to use
Aquinas expression, and so it can truly be said to have been the case, even if the
truth-value of a statement which expresses it transcends our recognitional abilities. If
this is so, then Aquinas and the semantic anti-realist do disagree after all: for would
not the anti-realist maintain that the truth-values of statements beyond our recognitional capacities are undecided?
At this point the mindworld identity theorist may distinguish two senses in
which something may be said to be beyond our recognitional capacities: in the first
sense, we cannot recognize it because we lack the relevant concepts or the intellectual ability to form them; in the second sense, we cannot recognize it because we
cannot have empirical access to it. Thus, against the semantic realist, mindworld
3

Peri Hermeneias xiii , quoted by Boulter p. .

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identity theorists may accept that we cannot understand statements that transcend
our recognitional capacities in the first sense, but may not follow the semantic antirealist in requiring that recognitional abilities in the second sense are also needed for
understanding. In this way they may object to SR without embracing at the same
time a full-bodied SAR. This seems consistent with Aquinas views as considered
above, and seems also to be Haldanes point. He does not claim that he is an antirealist, but only that an anti-realist and a supporter of his view may be allied in
arguing against the conception of truth of a metaphysical realist who does not hold
the mindworld identity thesis (cf. Haldane p. ).

III
The kind of metaphysical realism proposed by Haldane is marked by the idea that
mind and world are structurally identical, which means that the wide contents of
thought are intrinsically representational and that the world is intrinsically intelligible. Haldanes debts to Aquinas, though, seem to force him to accept other
Thomistic theses, such as the idea that the human intellect cannot know all of created reality, and that truth and reality are convertible. The latter claim means that
the set of all possible true sentences represents all the facts which exist in the world.
From these two premises, Boulter quite rightly draws the conclusion that there are
truths concerning external reality that are beyond human knowledge. The latter
claim, though, seems to be in tension with the thesis that the world is intrinsically
intelligible. Boulter suggests (p. ) that only the acceptance of SR can reconcile
these two claims:
the portion of reality which lies within human purview is rendered intelligible only if
one is able to posit the existence of causal entities and processes lying beyond the immediate recognitional capacities of human beings.

This conclusion can be avoided if one notes that what the thesis of the intrinsic
intelligibility of the world implies is that the world is conceptualizable or thinkable.
It is consistent with this implication that the world may be only partly intelligible to
humans. Intelligibility and intelligence, on this view, come in degrees. The more
intelligent subjects are, i.e., the more extended and profound their recognitional
capacities are, the wider the part of reality available to them will be. Given the
mindworld identity thesis, there will be no room for the traditional scepticism
originating from the conjunction of MR and SR. Since knowledge in less than
omniscient beings is possible because of a partial identity between the world and
their minds, there is no risk that the addition of further information about the world
may cause all of their beliefs to be false. Further information here does not refer
to the facts which have not yet been encountered but which belong to a kind for
which the subjects already have the relevant recognitional capacities (in either sense
of this expression). For we are already assuming ideal epistemic conditions for the
subjects. Rather the further information in question is the availability of a portion of
reality which was not open to the subjects before, i.e., it is due to an improvement
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MINDWORLD IDENTITY THEORY AND SEMANTIC REALISM

of their recognitional abilities. The new information will enlarge their recognitional
capacities (i.e., make their minds more extensively identical to the world), and allow
the discovery of new truths besides those already acquired.
At this point a metaphor may be helpful. If we want to reproduce an object, we
may decide to take a cast or imprint of it. If we use finely grained plaster, the cast
will reproduce all the smaller details of the object. If on the other hand we use
rougher clay, the cast will miss some of the surface details of the object. Both casts
are reproductions of the object, reproducing its shape and structure. But the former
does so in greater detail than the latter, i.e., with regard to surface structure it
exhibits a more extensive isomorphism. Similarly, the limitations of human conceptuality lie on the side of the intellect, not on the side of reality. The claim that the
world is necessarily such as may be fully comprehended does not imply either that it
is, or even that it may be, fully known by us.
In conclusion, it can be said that, from the standpoint of mindworld identity
theory, MR is consistent with the rejection of a full-bodied SR, since the mind
world identity theorist may maintain that there is nothing in reality which cannot be
conceptualized, while agreeing that not all truths can be empirically known. As we
have seen, this is consistent with Aquinas semantic conception, which involves the
analogical use of terms, and may be suggested by his views about future contingents.
Finally, this is all that Haldane claimed, since, as we have seen, he did not try to
support SAR, but only to show that some of the anti-realist complaints against SR
may also be accepted by a mindworld identity theorist.4
University of St. Andrews and University of Padova

4
I would like to thank John Haldane, and anonymous referees of The Philosophical Quarterly,
for their comments on a previous draft of this paper.

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