Tag Archives: metaphysics

Quote of the day – John Heil Explains What’s Wrong With Non-reductive Physicalism

What I object to is the unthinking move from linguistic premises to ontological conclusions, from the assumption, for instance, that if you have an ‘ineliminable’ predicate that features in an explanation of some phenomenon of interest, the predicate must name a property shared by everything to which it applies. (A predicate is ineliminable if it cannot be analyzed, paraphrased, or translated into less vexed predicates.)

Philosophers speak of ‘the pain predicate’. When you look at creatures plausibly regarded as being in pain, you do not see a single physical property they all share (and in virtue of which it would be true to say that they are in pain). Instead of thinking that the predicate, ‘is in pain’, designates a family of similar properties, philosophers (including Putnam in one of his moods) conclude that the predicate must name a ‘higher-level’ property possessed by a creature by virtue of that creature’s ‘lower-level’ physical properties. You have many different kinds of physical property supporting a single nonphysical property. This is the kind of ‘non-reductive physicalism’ you have in functionalism.

Non-reductive physicalism has become a default view, a heavyweight champ that retains its status until decisively defeated. Non-reductive physicalism acquired the crown, however, not by merit, but by a kind of linguistic subterfuge. If you read early anti-reductionist tracts – for instance, Jerry Fodor’s ‘Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis)’ (Synthese, 1974) – you will see that the arguments concern predicates, categories, taxonomies. Fodor’s point, a correct one in my judgment, is that there is no prospect of replacing taxonomies in the special sciences with one drawn from physics. But from this no ontological conclusions follow – unless you assume that every ‘irreducible’ predicate names a property.

This language-driven way of thinking is not one that would have occurred to the ancients, the medievals, or the early moderns – or to my aforementioned philosophical models. It is an invention of the 20th century, one that has led to the emasculation of serious ontology.

~From an interview with Richard Marshall at 3am.

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Quote for the Day – Einstein’s Louse and the Limits of Scientific Understanding

Nature is showing us only the tail of the lion, but I have no doubt that the lion belongs to it even though, because of its large size, it cannot totally reveal itself all at once. We can see it only the way a louse that is sitting on it would.

 ~Albert Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, quoted in Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking


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Quote for the Day – We Live In a Dappled World

This book supposes that, as appearances suggest, we live in a dappled world, a world rich in different things, with different natures, behaving in different ways. The laws that describe this world are a patchwork, not a pyramid. They do not take after the simple, elegant and abstract structure of a system of axioms and theorems.  Rather they look like—and steadfastly stick to looking like—science as we know it: apportioned into disciplines, apparently arbitrarily grown up; governing different sets of properties at different levels of abstraction; pockets of great precision; large parcels of qualitative maxims resisting precise formulation; erratic overlaps; here and there, once in awhile, corners that line up, but mostly ragged edges; and always the cover of law just loosely attached to the jumbled world of material things.

~Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World, p. 1

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Quote for the Day: Huw Price on the “Ghost of metaphysics” haunting contemporary philosophy

“In my view, this metaphysical rebirthing myth is in large part bogus, in the sense that niether of Quine’s achievements actually supports what is now widely taken to rest on it. On the one hand, the ontology that Quine revived in “On What There Is’ is itself a pale zombie, compared to the beefy creature that positivists since Hume had being trying to put down. And on the other, Quine’s stake missed the heart of Carnap’s metaphysics-destroying doctrine completely, merely lopping off some inessential appendages, and leaving the argument, if anything, stronger than before.”

~ Huw Price, Metaphysics After Carnap: the Ghost Who Walks?

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An Ontological Argument for Atheism

This is a totally unoriginal thought, but I can’t remember where I learned about the ontological argument for atheism. It’s been bouncing around my head for awhile, so if anyone could tell me who originated this argument it’d be appreciated. I’ve probably butchered it anyhow, but here goes.

The ontological argument for theism is supposed to prove God exists from the supposition that the concept of God includes not only the properties of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good but the property of perfection itself. That is, God, if He is anything at all, is the most perfect being that could possibly exist. Now here’s the workhorse of the ontological argument: does the property of existence itself count amount the properties that a perfectly perfect being necessarily has? Theists answer in the affirmative, since surely a God that exists is more perfect than a God that does not exist. And since God is by definition the most perfect being possible, we can conclude that God exists because the most perfect being would perfectly have the property of existence .

“Not so fast!” says the atheist. Consider this. One of God’s most impressive alleged feats was the creation of the universe, an event universally considered to be a big deal. But wouldn’t it be more impressive if God had managed the trick of creating the universe without existing at all? Now that would be impressive! To make yourself vanish and in your place have a universe. Neat trick. A God who could do that seems more powerful than a God who couldn’t even manage to create a universe without existing. When you think about it, it seems awfully easy to create the universe if you actually exist. But to do so from beyond the grave is very difficult. But if anyone could do it, it’s God alright. Therefore, God does not exist.


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Counterfactuals as Commands

One of the reasons philosophers are prone to accept possible worlds into their metaphysical worldview is to find truthmakers for counterfactual claims. If I say “The cat is on the mat”, the truthmaker for the claim is the fact that the cat is on the mat. However, if I say “If I hadn’t caught that egg it would have hit the ground”, what is the truthmaker for this claim? Because the claim is about something that didn’t actually happen, we can’t just point out the truthmaker as we did with the cat being on the mat. So what grounds the truth of the counterfactual claim? Such questions have led philosophers to posit the existence of possible worlds to ground the truth claims of counterfactuals. So the idea is that there is some possible world where I failed to catch the egg and it splatters. It is this possible world that grounds the truth of the counterfactual claim.

But before we accept the existence of possible worlds into our metaphysics, we should ask ourselves whether counterfactual claims even need truthmakers. After all, not every speech act needs to have a truthmaker. Take commands, for example. If I say to you “Pick up that pen”, what is the truthmaker for this claim? It’s not clear what the truthmaker could be, since in commanding you to do something, I am not describing how the world is, but rather, trying to get you to do something.

So here’s an idea I had last night: what if counterfactuals are a species of command? If counterfactual claims are really commands, then we wouldn’t need to find truthmakers for them, and we wouldn’t need to say possible worlds exist. So how could counterfactual claims be commands? Well, my idea is to think of them as commands to imagine or commands to conceive. When I say to someone “If I hadn’t stopped watering the plant it would still be alive”, what I am implicitly doing is giving instructions on how to imagine something. So the idea is that counterfactuals are implicit commands written for the imagination. When I start talking to someone about how things might be or how things might go, what I am doing is giving their brain instructions on how to make an imaginary construct similar to the one in my head.  And in the same way that commanding someone to pick up a pen doesn’t need a truthmaker, neither does commanding or instructing someone to imagine something. So on this view counterfactual claims are not truth apt.

My account of modality is not quite a Quinean skepticism about modal concepts. I think modal concepts are quite fine in philosophy, since it just seems self-evident that I am in fact capable of imaging how the past might have gone, how the future might go, or even imagining whole other realities. But I don’t think that the ability for us to think modally require the inclusion of possible worlds into our metaphysics. I don’t think it’s quite right to say possible worlds exist. Processes of imagination exist in our heads. But the intentional objects of such processes don’t need to exist. The imagination doesn’t need truthmakers. It’s only true that I am imagining some way the world could have been, but the imaginary construct does not itself need truthmakers, for the same reason that commands don’t need truthmakers. And counterfactual claims are just implicit commands or instructions on how to guide your imagination.

So in everyday conversation if someone asks me to consider a counterfactual and I say in response “That’s true”, this need not commit me to any sort of possible worlds. It could just be a convenient shorthand for “Yes, it’s true that I am capable of imagining what you just instructed me to imagine”.  But I do not think we need to invoke actual truthmakers to make sense of counterfactual language and thought. Let’s reserve truthmakers for things like cats on mats, not abstract imaginary constructs like possible worlds.

I’m quite open to the possibility that this idea of counterfactuals as commands is deeply confused because of some logical quirk about counterfactuals that I am not aware of. I’m also not sure if it’s an original idea or not. But I thought it was a neat idea, and it’s kind of inspired by some of the stuff I have been reading lately about language being first and foremost a tool, which has led me to think about all sorts of other cognitive activities as tools, including Reason. I think you could see counterfactual thinking as a kind of cognitive tool that enables humans to engage in activities that we would otherwise be incapable of.


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An Extended Tractarian Argument for the Simplicity of Objects

I’ve been getting back into Wittgenstein lately. For my proseminar at Wash U we had to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus for a weekly assignment. I had never really studied it in depth before, but I now have a new found appreciation for early Wittgenstein. I’m fascinated by the metaphysical claims in the book. For example, 2.02-2.0212 might be charitably understood as endorsing the following reductio ad absurdum argument for the idea that any meaningful language must presuppose the existence of metaphysically simple objects:

1. Assume that a meaningful language does not necessarily presuppose there being metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.
2. Assume that in this language you can successfully refer to ordinary middle-sized objects (which are not simple).Accordingly, assume the statement “The cat is orange” is meaningful.
3. If “The cat is orange” is meaningful, it’s because, at the very least, in saying it a speaker presupposes that the cat is an object.
4. If (1) is true, and if the statement “The cat is orange” presupposes a distinct cat exists, then it also presupposes that the cat is a metaphysically nonsimple object (i.e. it is composed of further objects)
5. If statements about a cat presuppose that it is composed of further objects, and (1) is true, then those objects it is presupposed to be composed of are also presupposed to be nonsimple and composed of further objects, ad infinitum.
6. Thus, if (1) is true, the presuppositions built into the statement “The cat is orange” are infinite in complexity.
7. By the same reasoning, the presuppositions about the cat built into the opposing statement “The cat is not orange” are also infinite in complexity.
8. It seems natural to think that if talk about objects like cats has an infinite complexity in its presuppositions about how the cat is composed, then the statement “The cat is orange” can only be logically distinguished from the statement “The cat is not orange” if the most elementary parts of the presupposed infinite complexes of objects are different in some distinctive manner. [2.0201, 2.0211-2, 4.221]
9. By (1), the language is not committed to there being such things as “most elementary parts”; everything is composed of further things ad infinitum, for any posited basic entity would not be basic if it was assumed there were no basic entities. In other words, there would be no “substratum” for the regress to bottom out at; no substance [2.021]
10. Therefore, by (8) and (9), two opposing statements in the language about a complex object with infinite presuppositional complexity cannot be logically distinguished from each other simply on the basis of their elementary presuppositions because it seems strange to say two infinite complexes are different unless their (basic) members are different, but this is ruled out by (1), which assumes there are no basic members.
11. If two opposing statements are logically indistinguishable in the totality of their presuppositions, then they cannot refer to different states of affairs.[2.02331]
12. If two opposing statements cannot refer to different states of affairs, then the statements are not meaningful, for each statement could not be true or false.
13. The statements “The cat is orange” and “The cat is not orange” are obviously meaningful, so we must reject (1), since that is what got us into the infinite regress.
14. Thus, any meaningful language that refers to objects at all must be logically committed to the existence of metaphysically simple objects i.e. objects that are not composed of further objects.

Arguably premise (8) is the most problematic and controversial, for it might be begging the question. For this I don’t know how to repair the argument. Either you get it or you don’t. This might be a clash of intuition between people who have a gut feeling that it’s “parts all the way down” or that it bottoms out somewhere. I used to not have a strong opinion on this, but I am now inclined to think it bottoms out somewhere. I take this to be a logical fact, and not a fact of the universe, for only science can tell us what the actual bottom to reality is, be that quarks or whatever physics tells us. The intuition that reality bottoms out is driven by the inner logic of the idea of finite objects being composed of parts. It just seems downright strange, almost mystical, to say that a finite object like a coffee mug is composed of an infinite number of smaller objects. Surely it makes sense to say it is composed of a great many smaller objects, but I see no reason for thinking this amount infinite. Objects must bottom out according to the sheer logic of our ways of talking about composition. If this is right, then we arrive at a different interpretation of Wittgenstein’s argument for metaphysical simples than is commonly given. The concept of simple objects is not arrived at by seeing it in our language and then saying because language mirrors reality there really are metaphysical objects. Rather, the argument is transcendental in the sense that Wittgenstein shows that if we are going to talk about objects at all, we must presuppose metaphysically simple objects. So the Wittgensteinian point is not that language mirrors reality therefore simple objects exist (“One cannot, e.g. say “There are objects” 4.1272). The point is that language use logically commits us to the idea of there being simple objects when discussing objects. As Wittgenstein says, “Logic is transcendental” [6.13].


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