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In the book “Metaphysics, a very short introduction” by Stephen Mumford, near the end of Chapter 9 titled “Is nothing something?”, I read the following puzzling lines:

“Jean-Paul Sartre discussed the case of entering a restaurant and seeing that Pierre is absent. How can anyone do that? Absences can’t be perceived directly, for how would the absence of Pierre look any different from the absence of Jacques or the absence of a hippopotamus? Absent things look like nothing so, in that respect, they are indistinguishable. It seems problematic to say that the absence of Pierre is inferred from what is seen because, just like the hippopotamus case, there is nothing you see that entails he’s not there. It’s just that he’s not. The judgement might be of a primitive, non-deductive kind, then. We just have an ability to judge that something is not, which is denying that it is. You deny that Pierre is in the room because you’ve had a good look around and, try as you might, you couldn’t find him.”

I would like to focus on the phrase “there is nothing you see that entails he’s not there”.

I think that there is indeed something. It is the mental image of Pierre (not Jacques!) being in the restaurant. That image is compared with the actually observed one, and the resulting difference is seen as an absence. So there is nothing problematic in saying that the absence of Pierre is inferred from what is seen.

It seems that we constantly form mental images of opposites. When I make the assertion “Pierre is in the restaurant”, what I first and foremost do is pose the problem of the relation between Pierre, the restaurant and “being inside”. Pierre may be or may be not there, but in either case, I first get hold of the two opposing images and only then I proceed to make my judgment, in a clearly non-primitive, deductive way.

My question is: is there a way to refute my objection to the above quoted paragraph?

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    Inferences are from propositions to other propositions, there is nothing one can "infer", strictly speaking, from an image, two images or any number of images, even if the word is loosely used so in common talk. One cannot literally "see" a proposition, that is a category error, the transition from an image (or some other sensory input) to a proposition is called judgment, not inference. What we commonly mean by "inferring from an image" is that some judgments are made based on it and then some inferences performed with them as premises (perhaps unconsciously), but that is abuse of language.
    – Conifold
    Sep 12 at 23:40
  • @Conifold you suggest that image-based inferences are more or less pseudo-inferences that are not to be trusted to the same degree as mathematical theorems? If this is so, then the question is raised whether our primitive conception of number is image-based or not. It seems that it is, for how can we differentiate "one" from "two" other than visualizing "one dot" next to "two dots" and judging that they are different?
    – exp8j
    Sep 13 at 17:46
  • I just explained how terminology works, I am not suggesting anything at all about trust. Inferences and judgments are not superior or inferior to each other, they are just different. As for the origin of mathematical concepts, this is a separate cognitive science question that has books written about it, see e.g. Lakoff-Núñez, Where Mathematics Comes From.
    – Conifold
    Sep 13 at 17:51
  • There are at least two important things that one has to keep in mind when reading that "Pierre restaurant" example by Sartre. 1) Nothing (absence) can take place not before there is an expectation of something. 2) Nothing is not a cognitive or logical judgement, it has nothing to do with forming and comparing opposites; Nothingness is an "objective" state of affairs, apparent as a deficiency of a concrete Being; it a precedent, not a consequence, of judgement "Pierre is absent".
    – ttnphns
    Nov 29 at 16:32
  • Pay attention to how Sartre describes the atmosphere in the cafe where he's expected to meet Pierre but Pierre is not there. The miliue is "rarefied" (self-annihilated) into the background that is "waiting" for Pierre to come in as the self-annihilated focus. The concrete nothing (Pierre) and the undiffirentiated nothing (cafe) is a shimmering system on which be base our judgement "There is no Pierre here".
    – ttnphns
    Nov 29 at 16:52
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Calling it a mental image is an oversimplification of the logical quagmire of negation. This logic of the absence of knowledge has been extensively debated for millennia by Hindu and Buddhist logicians and philosophers. Vicente Fatone writes in his book The Philosophy of Nagarjuna on page 118-20:

Nevertheless, whether one adopts the primary attitude which does hesitate to attribute reality to non-being, or affirms instead that non-being escapes the possibilities of the judgement and the latter refers only to the present absence of being, the problem remains unsolved, for the question still remains: "How is absence recognized?", or "How is non-presence recognized?" The most simple and least satisfactory solution remits the problem to inference, forgetting the negative judgement (that which serves as reason) which is what one is trying to explain. The most radical solution remits the problem to perception of the non-existent. Nagarjuna goes further than the later philosophers. In the face of difficulty of negative judgements (of a knowledge which would have to refer to a reality, like any knowledge, and which cannot refer to it, for if it referred to a reality it must do so by affirming, and not by negating it) he opts for the condemnation of the negative judgement itself. He is bound to this judgement if he proceeds from the principle according to which affirmation or negation--judgement--can be referred only to that which is, for it is not possible to affirm or to negate that which is not. Hos method consists of in reducing the judgement itself, be it affirmative or negative, to absurdity although this reduction to absurdity itself appears absurd. In the method itself is affirmed the activity of judgement, which one claims to negate. The essence of the dharmas--the adversity would say--cannot be negated. If it be negated and if the judgement whereby it is negated is true, the the dharmas have essence.

The essence of the dharmas exists, since it can be refuted. The refutation of the essence implies the recognition of the essence of the dharmas in general and the recognition, in particular, of the essence of the judgement called judgement.

Here we find ourselves in the attitude, so familiar to us in the West, according to which nothingness can neither be affirmed nor thought of nor can it contain something more than the concept of something (the latter and its negation). Strictly speaking, we cannot refer to nothingness either affirmatively or negatively. In the face of nothingness the quality of the copula is dissolved. Every judgement is either affirmative or negative, and affirmation, as well as negation, is incompatible with nothingness. Nothingness cannot be affirmed, nothingness cannot be negated. Indian thought has laid emphasis on the second aspect, for the negative judgement has in it an importance greater than what obtains in the Western tradition. Nagarjuna concedes that what is not cannot be negated. Affirmation and negation only make sense insofar as they refer to that which is. The Buddhist texts abound in the formulation, in a variety of forms, of this principle: that which is not is neither affirmed nor is it negated. The affirmation--as well as the negation--of that does nor imply contradiction.`

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  • Thank you for the valuable suggestion of studying Hindu and Buddhist literature on this topic. It seems to me that mental visualization easily solves the problem of particular objects having or lacking particular attributes; certainly not the problem of absolute Non-Being!
    – exp8j
    Sep 14 at 20:27
  • An actually non-red chair is already red in my mental system; in fact it has all colors known to me, in a set of co-existing images that I can compare with the ones I actually perceive. It's a set of well-defined possibilities that the human creature can naturally grasp; it seems to remove the clouds surrounding the perception of absence. What is it that makes it an erroneous oversimplification?
    – exp8j
    Sep 14 at 20:27
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I have not read this book nor familiar with the author.

But I believe there are two relevant concepts that support your claim and do not refute it. The concepts are information channels and triangulation.

James Ladyman and Tim Maudlin (two unrelated philosophers) both claim our senses and perception are information channels. An important feature of an information channel is that absence of singal is still information transmitted.

Maudlin uses a different example, that of a dog barking or not barking to inform you if a person is outside.

Bas van Fraassen brought up the idea of triangulation of the senses. Me not hearing the dog causes my mental image to expect not to see a person outside.

Since our senses capture something real or structural about the world, we can use these information channels and triangulation among the different senses to derive well informed conclusions.

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This is somewhat futile. We would need to read both Mumford's book as well as the entire fragment of Sartre's book discussed by Mumford.

This being said, who is Stephen Mumford?

Stephen Dean Mumford (born 31 July 1965) is a British philosopher, who is currently Head of Department and Professor of Metaphysics in the Department of Philosophy at Durham University.[1] Mumford is best known for his work in metaphysics on dispositions and laws, but has also made contributions in the philosophy of sport. -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Mumford

He wrote several books and at least twenty articles in various philosophical journals. So it seems Mumford is typical of today's metaphysicians.

Repeat of Mumford's considerations:

Jean-Paul Sartre discussed the case of entering a restaurant and seeing that Pierre is absent. How can anyone do that? Absences can’t be perceived directly, for how would the absence of Pierre look any different from the absence of Jacques or the absence of a hippopotamus? Absent things look like nothing so, in that respect, they are indistinguishable. It seems problematic to say that the absence of Pierre is inferred from what is seen because, just like the hippopotamus case, there is nothing you see that entails he’s not there. It’s just that he’s not. The judgement might be of a primitive, non-deductive kind, then. We just have an ability to judge that something is not, which is denying that it is. You deny that Pierre is in the room because you’ve had a good look around and, try as you might, you couldn’t find him.

Absences can’t be perceived directly

Sartre himself didn't talk about seeing or perceiving an absence. This is typical of the analytical technique used in metaphysics whereby you essentialise the absence of something as if it was itself something. It is trivial to realise that someone you know is not in a room and this does not require the perception of this person's absence.

for how would the absence of Pierre look any different from the absence of Jacques or the absence of a hippopotamus?

Indeed, so we cannot perceive the absence of person, but this is still not what Sartre said he was doing.

It seems problematic to say that the absence of Pierre is inferred from what is seen because, just like the hippopotamus case, there is nothing you see that entails he’s not there. It’s just that he’s not.

there is nothing you see that entails he’s not there. Mumford does not understand logic. We all routinely infer from what we see around us the absence of particular things. Looking now around me, I can infer the absence of Donald Trump. Is my inference correct? I don't know but I still inevitably infer that Trump is not here near me. I could not infer that God is not here, and I could not infer that the current king of France is not here, but I could infer that Joe Biden is also not here, as well as a myriad of other particular things. We all do that and there is no difficulty.

The judgement might be of a primitive, non-deductive kind, then.

Mumford really does not understand logic. Whenever you infer something from something else, it is a deduction. There is no other sort of inference.

We just have an ability to judge that something is not, which is denying that it is.

This is moving into typical metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. To realise that someone you know is absent from a place is to realise that it is not the case that this person is present. To equate this with the statement that "something is not" is fallacious. The absence of something is not a case of something which is not, unless you want to say that the presence of Pierre is not, which would be fallacious because we don't infer from the absence of something at a particular place that this thing is absent at all places and therefore does not exist.

You deny that Pierre is in the room because you’ve had a good look around and, try as you might, you couldn’t find him.

Exactly. Oh, he does understand the situation, then!

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    The ad hominem is unnecessary.
    – Eliran
    Sep 12 at 18:02
  • @Eliran When you claim something about my answers, please be polite enough to include a quote so I know what you mean. Sep 12 at 18:07
  • 2
    @Speakpigeon should we read Mumford for Dumford?
    – exp8j
    Sep 12 at 19:18
  • @exp8j Thanks! It was an honest typo. I corrected. My apologies to the man himself if he felt aggrieved by the apparent suggestion. Sep 13 at 10:51
  • Looking now around me, I can infer the absence of Donald Trump. Is my inference correct? Your inference is formally correct, but is void, hence futile. It simply is a sentence of words with no relation to a human reality. That is because you were not waiting for Trump in the room. In a void logic, "absence" and "presence" can be seen as symmetric opposite categories. In life, they are never symmetric and are not abstract categories.
    – ttnphns
    Nov 29 at 17:11

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