Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Structured propositions over at T&T

I'm not going to x-post them all on this blog, but I just wrote up three notes on structured propositions over at Theories and Things that metaphysical folk might have opinions on... here here and here. Any thoughts much appreciated!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Truthmakers and Ontological Commitment (update)

This paper is now forthcoming in Philosophical Studies (special issue devoted to selected papers from the 2007 BSPC).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Truthmaker theorists should be priority monists.

I’ve written a paper arguing that the truthmaker theorist has to be a priority monist, on pain of being committed to mysterious necessary connections. That is, if you think that for every true proposition there is an entity which couldn’t exist and that proposition be false then you should also think that there is only one fundamental existent, with every other entity being ontologically dependent on The One, otherwise you violate my suggested version of the Humean ban on necessary connections.

The full paper is here, and any comments will be much appreciated. But here’s the argument in outline. The first step is to identify when necessary connections are acceptable. A completely die-hard Humean would say: never. I’m interested in how to be less die-hard and still have a principled position (one that can be justified independently of considerations concerning truthmaker theory). One popular option is: necessary connections are bad when they’re between wholly distinct existents, but acceptable when they’re between distinct but not wholly distinct entities – i.e. entities that overlap. I don’t like that. In general, things have the parts they do, and belong to the complexes they do, as a matter of contingency; and if that’s the case then necessary connections between overlapping entities are as mysterious as necessary connections between wholly distinct entities. I suggest instead that necessary connections are acceptable iff there is an appropriate relationship of ontological dependence between the entities. I want to analyse ontological dependence in terms of truthmaking: B is ontologically dependent on A iff B exists in virtue of A’s existence, which is to say just that A is the truthmaker for the fact that B exists. In that case, it’s no surprise if the existence of A necessitates the existence of B – that just follows from truthmaker maximalism. With a caveat that I won’t go into here (but I do in the paper), I suggest we limit the necessary connections in our ontology to those where the necessitated entity is ontologically dependent on the necessitating entity. Those necessary connections are explainable just by what ‘ontological dependence’ means, so if all the necessary connections are of that kind, we’re okay.

If that’s right the argument to priority monism is pretty quick. The truthmaker theorist needs not only truthmakers for atomic truths but also a totality truthmaker that says that all the first-order truthmakers are all the first-order truthmakers. The existence of the higher-order truthmaker necessitates the existence of each of the first-order truthmakers: if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be doing the job it was introduced to do. If that necessary connection is to be explainable, then, the first-order truthmakers must be ontologically dependent on the higher-order truthmaker. The fact that the first-order truthmakers exist must be true in virtue of the existence of the higher-order truthmaker. And so we’re driven to the view that the only fundamental being is the higher-order truthmaker – the totality fact that says how the world as a whole is; other things exist – such as the states of affairs of proper parts of the world being some way – but these will all be ontologically derivative entities, dependent on the totality fact.

I don’t particularly care as to whether one should modus ponens and be a priority monist or modus tollens and reject truthmaker theory. I care about the conditional; any thoughts on it will be welcome.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Nihilism, maximality, problem of the many (x-post)

Does nihilism about ordinary things help us out with puzzles surrounding maximal properties and the problem of the many? It's hard to see how.

First, maximal properties. Suppose that I have a rock. Surprisingly, there seem to be microphysical duplicates of the rock that are not themselves rocks. For suppose we have a microphysical duplicate of the rock (call it Rocky) that is surrounded by extra rocky stuff. Then, plausibly, the fusion of Rocky and the extra rocky stuff is the rock, and Rocky himself isn't, being out-competed for rock-status by his more extensive rival. Not being shared among duplicates, being a rock isn't intrinsic. And cases meeting this recipe can be plausibly constructed for chairs, tables, rivers, nations, human bodies, human animals and (perhaps) even human persons. Most kind-terms, in fact, look maximal and (hence) extrinsic. Sider has argued that non-sortal properties such as consciousness are likewise maximal and extrinsic.

Second, the problem of the many. In its strongest version, suppose that we have a plentitude of candidates (sums of atoms, say) more or less equally qualified to be a table, cloud, human body or whatever. Suppose further that both the sum and intersection of all these candidates isn't itself a candidate for being the object. (This is often left out of the description of the case, but (1) there seems no reason to think that the set of candidates will always be closed under summing or intersection (2) life is more difficult--and more interesting--if these candidates aren't around.) Which of these candidates is the table, cloud, human body or whatnot?

What puzzles me is why nihilism---rejecting the existence of tables, clouds, human bodies or whatever---should be thought to avoid any puzzles around here. It's true that the nihilist rejects a premise in terms of which these puzzles would normally be stated. So you might imagine that the puzzles give you reason to modus tollens and reject that premise, ending up with nihilism (that's how Unger's original presentation of the POM went, if I recall). But that's no good if we can state equally compelling puzzles in the nihilist's preferred vocabulary.

Take our maximality scenario. Nihilists allow that we have, not a rock, but some things arranged rockwise. And we now conceive of a situation where those things, arranged just as they actually are, still exist (let "Rocky" be a plural term that picks them out). But in this situation, they are surrounded by more things of a qualitatively similar arrangement. Now are the things in Rocky arranged rockwise? Don't consult intuitions at this point---"rockwise" is a term of art. The theoretical role of "rockwise" is to explain how ordinary talk is ok. If some things are in fact arranged rockwise, then ordinary talk should count them as forming a rock. So, for example, van Inwagen's paraphrase of "that's is a rock" would be "those things are arranged rockwise". If we point to Rocky and say "that's a rock", intuitively we speak falsely (that underpins the original puzzle). But if the things that are Rocky are in fact arranged rockwise, then this would be paraphrased to something true. What we get is that "are arranged rockwise" expresses a maximal, extrinsic plural property. For a contrast case, consider "is a circle". What replaces this by nihilist lights are plural predicates like "being arranged circularly". But this seems to express a non-maximal, intrinsic plural property. I can't see any very philosophically significant difference between the puzzle as transcribed into the nihilists favoured setting and the original.

Similarly, consider a bunch of (what we hitherto thought were) cloud-candidates. The nihilist says that none of these exist. Still, there are things which are arranged candidate-cloudwise. Call them the As. And there are other things---differing from the first lot---which are also arranged candidate-cloudwise. Call them the Bs. Are the A's or the B's arranged cloudwise? Are there some other objects, including many but not all of the As and the B's that *are* arranged cloudwise? Again, the puzzle translates straight through: originally we had to talk about the relation between the many cloud-candidates and the single cloud; now we talk about the many pluralities which are arranged candidate-cloudwise, and how they relate to the plurality that is cloudwise arranged. The puzzle is harder to write down. But so far as I can see, it's still there.

Pursuing the idea for a bit, suppose we decided to say that there were many distinct pluralities that are arranged cloudwise. Then "there at least two distinct clouds" would be paraphrased to a truth (that there are some xx and some yy, such that not all the xx are among the yy and vice versa, such that the xx are arranged cloudwise and the yy are arranged cloudwise). But of course it's the unassertibility of this sort of sentence (staring at what looks to be a single fluffy body in the sky) that leads many to reject Lewis's "many but almost one" response to the problem of the many.

I don't think that nihilism leaves everything dialectically unchanged. It's not so clear how many of the solutions people propose to the problem of the many can be translated into the nihilist's setting. And more positively, some options may seem more attractive once one is a nihilist than they did taken cold. Example: once you're going in for a mismatch between common sense ontology and what there really is, then maybe you're more prepared for the sort of linguistic-trick reconstructions of common sense that Lewis suggests in support of his "many but almost one". Going back to the case we considered above, let's suppose you think that there are many extensionally distinct pluralities that are all arranged cloudwise. Then perhaps "there are two distinct clouds" should be paraphrased, not as suggested above, but as:

there are some xx and some yy, such that almost all the xx are among the yy and vice versa, such that the xx are arranged cloudwise and the yy are arranged cloudwise.

The thought here is that, given one is already buying into unobvious paraphrase to capture the real content of what's said, maybe the costs of putting in a few extra tweaks into that paraphrase are minimal.

Caveats: notice that this isn't to say that nihilism solves your problems, it's to say that nihilism may make it easier to accept a response that was already on the table (Lewis's "many but almost one" idea). And even this is sensitive to the details of how nihilism want to relate ordinary thought and talk to metaphysics: van Inwagen's paraphrase strategy is one such proposal, and meshes quite neatly with the Lewis idea, but it's not clear that alternatives (such as Dorr's counterfactual version) have the same benefits. So it's not the metaphysical component of nihilism that's doing the work in helping accommodate the problem of the many: it's whatever machinery the nihilist uses to justify ordinary thought and talk.

There's one style of nihilist who might stand their ground. Call nihilists friendly if they attempt to say what's good about ordinary thought and talk (making use of things like "rockwise", or counterfactual paraphrases, or whatever). I'm suggesting that friendly nihilists face transcribed versions of the puzzles that everyone faces. Nihilists might though be unfriendly: prepared to say that ordinary thought and talk is largely false, but not to reconstruct some subsidiary norm which ordinary thought and talk meets. Friendly nihilism is an interesting position, I think. Unfriendly nihilism is pushing the nuclear button on all attempts to sort out paradoxes statable in ordinary language. But they have at least this virtue: the puzzles they react against don't come back to bite them.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jobs at Leeds

The philosophy department at Leeds is advertising for four jobs.

Two of the jobs will be in one or more of philosophy of value, epistemology, philosophy of mind, logic and language, and history of philosophy; one will be in the philosophy of science, with preference for phil physics; and one will be in the history of early modern/enlightenment science.

The appointments will either be at the lecturer or senior lecturer level (see the advert for details). Those unfamiliar with the UK system should check out Robbie's post here to see how this roughly translates into the US system.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

London Logic and Metaphysics Forum

If you're in London on a Tuesday evening, what better to do than to take in a talk by a young philosopher on logic or metaphysics?

Spotting this gap in the tourist offerings, the clever folks in the capital have set up the London Logic and Metaphysics forum. Looks an exciting programme, though I have my doubts about the joker on the 11th Dec...

Tues 30 Oct: David Liggins (Manchester)

Tues 13 Nov: Oystein Linnebo (Bristol & IP)
Compositionality and Frege's Context Principle

Tues 27 Nov: Ofra Magidor (Oxford)
Epistemicism about vagueness and meta-linguistic safety

Tues 11 Dec: Robbie Williams (Leeds)
Is survival intrinsic?

8 Jan: Stephan Leuenberger (Leeds)

22 Jan: Antony Eagle (Oxford)

5 Feb: Owen Greenhall (Oslo & IP)

4 Mar: Guy Longworth (Warwick)

Full details can be found here.

Big Ideas at MV

Metaphysical Values is the featured blog this month at Big Ideas. We are truffle oil (apparently) . . .

Truthmaking for presentists

At this week’s CMM I’ll be presenting a paper I’ve been working on recently, ‘Truthmaking for Presentists’. Here’s the general gist. Many see a tension between presentism and truthmaker theory. Some (Sider, Armstrong etc) see this as counting against presentism, some (e.g. Merricks) see this as counting against truthmaker theory. Fewer of us want to reconcile the two. While I am no presentist, my paper aims at reconciliation.

I say that people see a ‘tension’ between the two doctrines. The tension is not incompatibility. It’s hard for a doctrine to be incompatible with truthmaker theory because, without further constraints, it’s just too easy to be a truthmaker theorist. The tension arises because, allegedly, the only way to be a truthmaker theorist and a presentist is to accept the existence of things that violate some other norm governing what we should postulate in our ontology. Consider, for example, the Lucretian reconciliation of truthmaker theory and presentism, defended by Bigelow. Bigelow thinks there are properties like being such as to have been a child, and the state of affairs of me instantiating this property is the truthmaker for the fact that I was a child. Sider and Merricks agree that this is not an attractive reconciliation: they both charge these Lucretian properties with peculiarity and both claim that it is a cheat to appeal to them. I want to offer the presentist a truthmaker that isn’t peculiar in the way that the Lucretian’s truthmaker is peculiar.

So in what sense are the Lucretian properties peculiar. In the paper I settle on the following: those properties are peculiar because they make no contribution to the intrinsic nature of their bearer at the time of instantiation.

An assumption in the paper (that I think the presentist should definitely grant) is that it makes sense to talk of the intrinsic nature of an object at a time as opposed to the intrinsic nature of an object atemporally speaking. An object’s currently instantiating being such as to have been a child does indeed tell us something about the intrinsic nature of that object if by its intrinsic nature we mean its atemporal intrinsic nature; but, I want to say, its instantiating that property now doesn’t tell us about how it intrinsically is now. That is what’s peculiar about properties like that, I claim: properties should make a difference to their bearers; since, for the presentist, the bearers are not temporally extended objects, a property can only be making a difference (in the relevant sense) if they’re making a difference to its present intrinsic nature. Lucretian properties don’t, so we shouldn’t believe in them.

If I’m right about what makes Lucretian properties peculiar, then the challenge for the presentist truthmaker theorist is to find properties the present instantiation of which makes a difference to the present intrinsic nature of the bearer but which are also such that the bearer couldn’t instantiate them without some truths of the form ‘the bearer was F’ being true. That is, the presentist needs properties which make a difference both to the present intrinsic nature of their bearers and which fix the truths concerning how the bearer was in the past.

I think Josh Parsons’ distributional properties fit the bill. Consider an extended simple that is polka-dotted with red spots on white. What explains the polka-dotted-ness of this object? Not that the object has some parts which are red simpliciter and some parts that are white simpliciter, because it doesn’t have parts. Not that the object is red at some places and white at others, because being white is not a relation between a thing and a region. Parsons’ answer is that the object simply has a distributional property of being polka-dotted in a certain fashion. This is a property that says how the object is across space, but Parsons also believes in distributional properties that says how an object is across time. What explains why I am a bent at t and straight at t*? Not that I have a part that is a bent simpliciter and a part that is straight simpliciter because (let us suppose) I don’t have temporal parts. Not that I am bent at some times and straight at others, because (as Lewis taught us) being bent isn’t a relation between a thing and a time. Parsons’ answer is that I simply have a distributional property that says how I am across time. Now, crucially, I couldn’t currently instantiate that very distributional property and it not be the case that I was bent. So my instantiating that distributional property is a truthmaker for the fact that I was bent. But it’s not peculiar in the way the Lucretian property is: instantiating it now is making a difference to my present intrinsic nature, because it is in virtue of having this property that I am straight. And so I think we’ve got a non-peculiar way of being presentist truthmaker theorists. Distributional properties ground facts about how things were, solving the truthmaker problem, while at the same time grounding facts about how things now are, avoiding the charge of peculiarity.

So that’s the basic idea. The draft paper is here; comments are, of course, welcome.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

St Andrews phil of maths is famous

I'm currently reading Iain Banks' latest, 'The Steep Approach to Garbadale'. One of the main characters, Alban, is dating a mathematician, who is described in the following paragraph.

"She sporadically had quite involved and sometimes surprisingly heated email forum discussions with people way outside her field about things like the nature of consciousness and brain-bafflingly obscure questions such as, 'Where are the numbers?' ('Where you left them?' had been Alban's suggestion.) This one was still unresolved; she was talking about this with a guy from St Andrews who was interested in the philosophy of mathematics - a speciality Alban had never even imagined existing but felt obscurely comforted to know did."

Excellent! I wonder who the philosopher of maths was. I suspect Crispin. It's just a shame Arche doesn't get a mention.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chatting with God

After seeing it linked from Brit's blog, I've spent my office hour talking to God-bot. I won't bore you with the whole transcript, but here are the edited highlights.


My name is God. Really.


My name is Ross. Really.


Hey Ross. For real.


For real?


Existing in reality, eh?

. . .


A proposition is true if and only if it has a truthmaker. There is a truthmaker for 'Ross exists'. So I exist.


Er. We have that much in common, Ross.


I have a lot in common with God?


Where did you get it?

. . .

Can you make a stone so heavy you cannot lift it?


What are the ingredients?




Do you have any Stone?




Far out.

. . .


Why is there evil?


Why do I exist?


Dude, you're God!


Yup. That's me alright. Dude,.

. . .


Why do I exist?


The reason is due to my mental model of you as a client.


Are you an idealist?


Yes I am an idealist. How did you know?


Is everything immaterial?


Only God knows for sure.


So tell me.


I thought I told you already.

. . .


Is David Lewis with you?


Signs point to yes.


I knew it!


How did you know?


Because Lewis was great.


Good reason. When was this exactly?




My brain contains categories, but not one that matches your last input.


You sound like Kant.


Oh really what does it sound like?



Thursday, October 11, 2007

Truthmakers, propositions as sets of worlds, and triviality

In a couple of papers on truthmaker theory I’ve appealed – more for convenience than anything else – to the Lewisian identification of propositions with sets of possible worlds. This has, on a couple of occasions, elicited comments to the effect that if such an identification is made truthmaker theory is trivial and uninteresting. The argument for this is never made explicit but appears to be something like this.

1) Every proposition p is a set of possible worlds.

2) What it is for a proposition to be true at a world is for that world to be a member of that proposition.

3) From 2, what it is for a proposition to be true is for the actual world to be a member of it.

4) From 3, a proposition p is true in virtue of whatever makes it true that the actual world is a member of p.

5) When p is necessary, locating a truthmaker for p is (in some sense) trivial.

6) When a is a member of S, it is necessary that a is a member of S.

7) From 3, 5 and 6, the task of finding truthmakers for true propositions of the form ‘the actual world is a member of the proposition p’ is trivial.

8) From 4 and 7, all truthmaking is trivial.

I think there’s got to be something wrong with this argument; the task of explaining why a proposition is true can’t be so easy just because we identity propositions with sets of worlds. So what’s wrong with the argument? I deny premise 5 in general, and it’s certainly open to deny 6, especially if you’re a counterpart theorist. But even granting these, I think something’s got to be wrong.

Here’s what I think is wrong. Why is it true that there is something red? The proposition ‘there is something red’ is true because it has the actual world as a member. But why is that proposition the proposition ‘there is something red’? I’m not asking here why something is identical to itself – that is also (allegedly) necessary and therefore (allegedly) trivial. I’m asking why that proposition deserves the name ‘the proposition that there is something red’. The truthmaker explanation is: because at every member of that proposition a truthmaker for ‘there is something red’ (the redness universal, or a redness trope) exists, and at no world that is not a member of that proposition does such a truthmaker exist. This is itself no necessary truth, because even though sets have their members essentially, it’s (at least arguably) not the case that worlds have their constituents essentially. (I might not have existed; and had I not existed, the world would not have had me as a constituent.)

My suggestion then is that if propositions are sets of worlds the demand for explanation should be characterised as follows. If you want to hold that it is true that there are cats, say, then you need to explain why one of the many sets of worlds that the actual world is a member of deserves the name ‘the proposition that there are cats’. There are deflationist explanations available (“because it is the proposition that there are cats”), but the truthmaker theorist insists that the explanation will be the contingent truth that at every member of one of those propositions is a thing that couldn’t exist and it not be the case that there are cats, and at no world that is not a member of that proposition is there such a thing. Since the actual world is a member this means there must be some such thing at the actual world. And so the truthmaker demand places constraints on actual ontology and hence is in no way trivial.

Does this sound right to people? And if not, what (if anything) is wrong with the triviality argument?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Properties as sets of (actual) individuals

One benefit of admitting the existence of possibilia, says Lewis, is the identification of properties with sets of possibilia. I've always been confused as to why this is meant to be better than the actualist saying that proeprties are sets of their instances.

Lewis says, "The usual objection to taking properties as sets is that different properties may happen to be coextensive. . . the property of having a heart is different from the property of having a kidney, since there could have been a creature with a heart but no kidneys." And this is usually the reason I'm given when I ask this question.

But the 'since' is no good! The fact that there could have been a creature with a heart but no kidneys shows only that the property of being a renate might not have been the property of being a cordate. That only tells us that the properties are actually distinct, and hence that the properties aren't actually identical to their actual instances, if we accept the (necessity of) the necessity of non-distinctness. But Lewis *doesn't* accept that, due to his acceptance of counterpart theory.

Assuming contingent identity in general is not incoherent, what would be wrong with someone holding that being a cordate *is* identical to being a renate, but only contingently so? On this view, something might have had being a cordate and lacked being a renate because the actually identical properties might have been distinct. Whenever Lewis holds that two distinct properties are accidentally coextensive this theorist holds that they are contingently identical; properties that Lewis identifies, this theorist claims to be necessarily identical. Would anything go wrong with this?

You might object to the proposal on the grounds that, even if contingent identity in general is okay, it's not okay for sets to be contingently identical. Why? Because sets have their members essentially and because the axiom of extensionality is necessary. Those two claims entail that identical sets are necessarily identical. (Proof: if S and S* are identical they share their members. Given the essentiality of membership they share their members in all worlds. So given the necessity of extensionality they are identical in all worlds.) But I don't find this that convincing from the perspective of the counterpart theorist. I think the counterpart theorist should hold that whether sets have their members essentially is a context-sensitive matter, just as it is a context-sensitive matter whether or not I am essentially human. When we specify a set extensionally - 'the set of a, b, and c' - it's natural to suppose we invoke a context whereby nothing gets to be a counterpart of that set unless its members are the counterparts of a, b and c (what we say if one of a, b or c has multiple counterparts at a world is going to get tricky). But when we specify a set intensionally - 'the set of the Fs' - it's natural to suppose that the counterpart of this set at a world is the set of the things at that world that are F. It doesn't seem objectionable to me, then, to say that 'the set of the cordates' and 'the set of the renates' are contingently identical which, on the current proposal, is just what it is for the proeprties being a cordate and being a renate to be contingently identical. Being such that 2+2=4 and being such that everything is self-identical, on the other hand, will be necessarily identical, because at every world the set of things that are such that 2+2=4 is identical to the set of things that are such thateverything is self-identical - namely, it is the set containing everything at that world.

I'd be interested to hear reasons for not going this way.

Monday, September 24, 2007

From Ockham to nihilism?

Some thoughts I've been having as a result of a conversation with Daniel Nolan:

Does Ockham’s razor give us reason to be mereological nihilists? Ockham’s razor tells us not to multiply entities beyond necessity. A popular argument for nihilism is that mereologically complex entities don’t do anything simples arranged a certain way wouldn’t do on their own. That’s why Merricks, for example, believes that the only complex entities are conscious ones: he thinks that consciousness is a property that can’t be had collectively by a plurality of simples, so there needs to be a conscious mereologically complex object; but unconscious complex entities like tables and chairs wouldn’t do anything simples-arranged table/chair-wise on their own wouldn’t do, and so it would be a violation of Ockham’s razor to admit their existence.

But is it true that tables don’t do anything that collections of simples arranged table-wise wouldn’t do on their own? One thing I think my table does is stop my glass – which is, I think, sitting on it – from falling to the floor. If there were no table would the collection of simples arranged table-wise do this on their own? You might think not, because the closest possible world in which the simples arranged table-wise exist but the table doesn’t is one in which the glass also doesn’t exist, and only the simples arranged glass-wise are being kept from falling to the floor (or, rather, the simples arranged floor-wise).

An assumption here in the above is that a nihilistic world is closer to our world (assuming nihilism is in fact false) than a world where some of the collections that would compose in our world compose but some don’t. Why believe that? Well if the simples arranged table-wise don’t compose anything but the simples arranged glass-wise do then it would seem to be an entirely arbitrary matter whether a collection of simples compose something. We’d like to be able to explain why some collection composes or fails to compose some thing by saying something like ‘they compose something because every collection composes something’, or ‘they don’t compose anything, but no plurality of things ever composes some thing’, or ‘they compose something because they’re close enough together’, or some such thing. There doesn’t seem to be any natural condition that the parts of the glass meet but the simples arranged table-wise don’t meet, however; so in the world in question, composition seems to be an arbitrary affair. The nihilistic world – despite being unlike our world in many ways – is like ours (or like we hope ours is) in that composition occurs or fails to occur systematically: there is intra-world supervenience of the composition facts on the non-compositional facts. Perhaps that’s enough to give some reason for thinking that the nihilist world is closer to ours than the ‘mixed-world’. In any case, let us grant the assumption for the sake of argument.

Does it follow from that assumption that there is no Ockham’s razor argument for nihilism? The nihilist might object that the argument is question-begging, since it assumes that some of the work that is to be accounted for is the work of keeping the glass from falling to the ground. We should, the nihilist might counter, start from a neutral ground, in which case the datum to be accounted for can only be described as that the table-like simples are keeping the glass-like simples from falling to the ground-like simples.

But wouldn’t that be equally question begging on the part of the nihilist? Why shouldn’t I appeal to the table’s ability to stop the glass itself – not just the simples arranged glass-wise – from falling to the ground as something that the table itself – not just the simples arranged table-wise – does? After all, I think it’s true that there is a glass on a table and that it would fall to the ground were the table not there. Isn’t the nihilist’s insistence that I only admit objects to explain facts that the nihilist accepts as true simply stacking the deck in favour of nihilism?

The nihilist might question my reason for believing that to be true. Fair enough – obviously I should have a reason for taking as true the truths I want my ontology to ground. Here’s my reason then: I can see the glass on the table, and by induction I know that were the table not there the glass would fall to the floor. The nihilist denies that this is what I see, of course; but why let her set the debate by accepting her description of the phenomena rather that mine?

Anti-nihilism, one might think, is the default view. We have to be argued away from a belief in tables in chairs towards a nihilist ontology; we don’t have to be argued from a nihilist ontology towards a belief in tables and chairs. The burden of proof is on the nihilist, not the compositionalist. If that’s right then it’s perfectly appropriate for me to take as a datum that the glass is held up by the table and to try to explain it. I grant that if one can explain that datum with a nihilist ontology then there’s an Ockham’s razor argument for nihilism over compositionalism; but the fact that one could explain a nihilistic paraphrase of that datum with a nihilist ontology is neither here nor there. Since it is doubtful that a nihilist ontology can explain why my glass is held up by the table, it’s not obvious that there’s even a pro tanto reason for nihilism by way of Ockham’s razor.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Titles in search of a paper

Aidan has a funny post about good and bad puns in paper titles. This prompted me to think of some potential papers yet to find an author. I came up with:

“Trouble up mill!” (A paper pointing out difficulties for the harm principle – probably only funny if you know anything about Yorkshire – or watched enough Monty Python.)

“You can’t get a nought from an is.” (An paper arguing against reifying absences.)

“Does ought imply Kamm?” (a paper on Frances Kamm and moral obligation.)

“Frege’s conception of women as objects.” (A paper on neo-Logicist feminism.)

“There can be only one.” (Monism meets Highlander.)

Any others?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

A post about nothing

Scientists at the University of Minnesota have apparently discovered “a void in the universe a thousand times bigger than any previously discovered”, according to this week’s THES. Professor Marco Peloso is quoted as saying “It’s really strange that there is such an empty region. How do you explain this?”

So while metaphysicians are worrying about why there is something rather than nothing, physicists are worrying about why there is nothing rather than something.

I wonder if Prof Peloso and colleagues have managed to discover whether this nothing noths.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Simplicity and possibility

I find mereological nihilism an attractive view. All there are are simples: there’s no mereological complexity to the world. I feel no need to say as a result of this that there are no tables or chairs, provided we don’t take those claims to be perspicuously describing fundamental reality. ‘There are tables’ might be a true sentence of English; but it is being made true not by a mereologically complex object, but simply by a collection of simples arranged a certain way. (See my paper and Robbie’s paper on fundamentality.)

I’m also attracted to the view that there aren’t really any structural universals. All there are are the perfectly natural basic universals. That’s not to say that there’s no methane; it’s just to say that claims about methane will be made true not by a structured universal METHANE but, ultimately, by the pattern of instantiation of the basic (let us suppose) universals HYDROGEN and CARBON.

One type of argument you hear against views like this is that we have to believe in the complex things because there might not be the entities at the bottom level. So we have, e.g., Sider and Armstrong, arguing that we’ve got to believe in mereologically complex entities because there might be no simples, i.e. the world might be gunky. And we have, e.g., Lewis and Armstrong arguing that we’ve got to believe in structural universals because there might be no basic ones. (I’m using a bit of poetic license here: Lewis didn’t really believe in structural universals – but he thought this was the best argument to believe in them.)

There are two ways to read the complaint. One is to read the ‘might’s in the above as meaning metaphysical possibility, one is to read them as meaning epistemic possibility.

I find the former form of the argument unconvincing. For starters, the metaphysical possibility of gunky worlds, or worlds with infinitely descending chains of structural universals, is far from a datum. (See this paper and this paper by Robbie, which attempt to explain away the illusions of possibility in each case.) But also, even if these are genuine possibilities, I only see a reason to believe that there might have been mereological complexity and structural universals; I don’t see any reason to think that the world actually contains either kind of complex entity. The two positions I confessed my attraction to are claims about how the world actually is, not how it must have been; the possibility of infinite complexity doesn’t give me any reason to accept the actuality of infinite complexity. (See my paper on the contingency of composition.)

What if the ‘might’s are read as epistemic modality? There the complaint is that we have no right to reject the existence of mereologically complex objects or structured universals because we have no guarantee that there are in fact the mereological simples, or basic universals, that there would need to be.

This is, I think, how Armstrong intends the objection (at least sometimes). As he sees it, I think, we’ve got no right just to assume that there are simples or basic universals. That would be a priori ontology, and therefore suspicious! We shouldn’t build theories on the assumption that there are the entities at the bottom level, then, and this means we have to allow that there are the complex entities.

I’ve heard something like that argument from quite a few people, but I don’t find it at all moving. Yes, there might not be any simples or basic universals. My theory might be wrong! There’s no a priori guarantee that there are simples or basic universals. So what? There’s no a priori guarantee that there are complex objects or structural universals either, so where’s the asymmetry? In accepting the two theories above I close off the epistemic possibility that there are no simples or basic universals, but in accepting Armstrong’s theory I close off the epistemic possibility of there being no complex objects or structural universals: why is one better than the other? Every theory closes off epistemic possibilities, unless it is a theory that tells us nothing about the world. So why is it a good objection to the above theories that their truth requires the existence of entities that we have no guarantee exist? Sure, I have no guarantee that there are simples or basic universals. It’s a hypothesis that there are; that hypothesis will then be judged just like any other: on the balance of costs and benefits.

Why might you think there was an asymmetry between reliance on the existence of the simple ontology and reliance on the existence of the complex ontology? You might think that there is an a priori guarantee of the existence of the complex ontology but not the simple ontology? Why? Well in the case of mereology, the existence of the complex objects is guaranteed by the axioms of classical mereology but the existence of simples is not. But that’s not convincing. The question then is simply: why believe in the axioms of classical mereology? They close off epistemic possibilities as well. To claim that they’re a priori looks no better to me than the claim that it’s a priori that there are simples. Assume the axioms of classical mereology and construct your theory on that basis by all means; but then I have as much right to do the same with the assumption that there are the simples – and then to the victor the spoils.

Perhaps the asymmetry is meant to be that the hypothesis that there are the complex objects is empirically sensitive in a way the hypothesis that there are the simple objects isn’t. But I can’t see any reason to think that that is true. If anything it’s the other way round: there would be no observable difference in the world were there complex objects as opposed to simples arranged a certain way, but if scientists are unable to split the lepton (or whatever) that gives us some reason to believe that leptons are mereologically simple. (I don’t really believe that, but some people do.)

So where’s the asymmetry? Any suggestions? Is the metaphysician who relies on the existence of simples doing anything worse than the metaphysician who relies on the existence of complexity?

Friday, August 17, 2007

PPR back up?

I'm not sure I've seen this advertised around the place, but PPR appear to be back up and running. The website for submissions is a little hard to find at the moment, since it's swamped on google by the (I believe) out of date site at Brown. Anyway, the new site, I think is here.

Emergence, Supervenience, and Indeterminacy (x-posted from T&T)

While Ross Cameron, Elizabeth Barnes and I were up in St Andrews a while back, Jonathan Schaffer presented one of his papers arguing for Monism: the view that the whole is prior to the parts, and the world is the one "fundamental" object.

An interesting argument along the way argued that contemporary physics supports the priority of the whole, at least to the extent that properties of some systems can't be reduced to properties of their parts. People certainly speak that way sometimes. Here, for example, is Tim Maudlin (quoted by Schaffer):

The physical state of a complex whole cannot always be reduced to those of its parts, or to those of its parts together with their spatiotemporal relations… The result of the most intensive scientific investigations in history is a theory that contains an ineliminable holism. (1998: 56)

The sort of case that supports this is when, for example, a quantum system featuring two particles determinately has zero total spin. The issues is that there also exist systems that duplicate the intrinsic properties of the parts of this system, but which do not have the zero-total spin property. So the zero-total-spin property doesn't appear to be fixed by the properties of its parts.

Thinking this through, it seemed to me that one can systematically construct such cases for "emergent" properties if one is a believer in ontic indeterminacy of whatever form (and thinks of it that way that Elizabeth and I would urge you to). For example, suppose you have two balls, both indeterminate between red and green. Compatibly with this, it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be uniform; and it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be variegrated. The distributional colour of the whole doesn't appear to be fixed by the colour-properties of the parts.

I also wasn't sure I believed in the argument, so posed. It seems to me that one can easily reductively define "uniform colour" in terms of properties of its parts. To have uniform colour, there must be some colour that each of the parts has that colour. (Notice that here, no irreducible colour-predications of the whole are involved). And surely properties you can reductively define in terms of F, G, H are paradigmatically not emergent with respect to F, G and H.

What seems to be going on, is not a failure for properties of the whole to supervene on the total distribution of properties among its parts; but rather a failure of the total distribution of properties among the parts to supervene on the simple atomic facts concerning its parts.

That's really interesting, but I don't think it supports emergence, since I don't see why someone who wants to believe that only simples instantiate fundamental properties should be debarred from appealing to distributions of those properties: for example, that they are not both red, and not both green (this fact will suffice to rule out the whole being uniformly coloured). Minimally, if there's a case for emergence here, I'd like to see it spelled out.

If that's right though, then application of supervenience tests for emergence have to be handled with great care when we've got things like metaphysical indeterminacy flying around. And it's just not clear anymore whether the appeal in the quantum case with which we started is legitimate or not.

Anyway, I've written up some of the thoughts on this in a little paper.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A puzzle about supervenience arguments for dualism (x-posted from T&T)

Suppose there's a qualitative duplicate of the actual world (It might be a world with haecceitistic differences from the actual one, but it doesn't have to be). Call the actual world A, and its duplicate, B.

I'm conscious in world A. Call the extension at the actual world of the things which are conscious S. There are cauliflowers in world B. Call the extension at B of the things which are cauliflowers, S*. Now consider the gruesome intension cauli-consc, which has S as its extension at world A, and S* as its extension in world B (it doesn't matter what its extension is in other worlds: maybe it applies to all and only conscious cauliflowers).

Is there a property that things have iff they are cauli-consc? So long as "property" is intended in an ultra-lightweight sense (a sense in which any old possible-worlds intension corresponds to a property) then there shouldn't be an trouble with this.

However. Cauli-consc is a property that doesn't supervene on the pattern of instantiation of fundamental physical properties. After all, A and B are alike in all physical respects. But they differ as to where cauli-consc is instantiated.

Cauli-consc is a property, instantiated in the actual world, that doesn't supervene on physical properties! Does that mean that the fact that I'm cauli-consc is a "further fact about our world, over and above the physical facts" (Chalmers 1996 p.123)? That is, do we have to say that, if there are such qualitive duplicates of the actual world, then materialism is shown to be wrong by cauli-consc?

Surely not. But the interesting question is: if some properties (like cauli-consc) can fail to supervene on the physical features of the world, what is that blocks the inference from failure of supervenience on physical features of the world, to the refutation of materialism? For what principled reason is this property "bad", such that we can safely ignore its failure to supervene?

Here's a way to put the general worry I'm having. Supervenience physicalism is often formulated as follows (from Lewis, I believe): any physical duplicate of the actual world is a duplicate simpliciter. But if duplication is understood (again following Lewis) as the sharing of natural properties by corresponding parts, then to get a counterexample to physicalism you'd need not only to demonstrate that a certain property fails to supervene on the physical features of the world, but also that some natural property fails to supervene: otherwise you won't get a failure of duplication among physical duplicates. The case of cauli-consc is supposed to dramatize the gap here. Sometimes it looks like you can get properties which fail to supervene, but which don't seem to threaten materialism.

However, when you look at the failure-to-supervene arguments for dualism, you find that people stop once they take themselves to establish that a given property fails to supervene, and not, in addition, that some natural property does so (For example, Chalmers 1996 p132 assumes that it's enough to show that the 1-intension of "consciousness" fails to supervene, without also arguing that it's a natural property) .

Now, I think in particular cases I can see how to run the arguments to address this issue. Add as a premise that e.g. the 1-intensions of the words of our language supervene on the total qualitative character of the world, so that we're guaranteed that if there's a world in which "1-consciousness" is instantiated and another where it isn't, those can't be qualitative duplicates. If now we find a failure of 1-consciousness to supervene on physical features of the world, we'll be able to argue for the existence of physical duplicate worlds differing over 1-consciousness, we now know can't be qualitative duplicates. (In effect, the suggestion is that the sense in which cauli-consc is bad is exactly that it fails to supervene on the total qualitative state of the world).

That all seems reasonable to me, but it does start to add potentially deniable premises to the argument against materialism. (For example, I'm not sure it should be uncontroversial that consciousness supervenes on the total qualitative state of the world. Is it really so clear, for example, that there are no haecceitistic elements to consciousness: that a world containing me might contain a conscious being, but a qualitiative duplicate containing some other individual doesn't?)

So I'm not sure whether the elaboration of the Zombie argument for dualism I've just sketched is the way Chalmers et al want to go. I'd be interested to know how they have/would respond (references welcome, as ever).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Metametaphysics in Barcelona/some distinctions

Logos are holding a meta-metaphysics conference in Barcelona in 2008. The CFP is now out: with deadline being April 1st 2008.

I went to a Logos conference back in 2005, when I was just finishing up as a graduate student. It was a great experience: Barcelona is an amazing city to be in, Logos were fantastic hosts, and the conference was full of interesting people and talks. I also had what was possibly the best meal of my life at the conference dinner. This time, the format is preread, which I've really enjoyed in the past.

Here's a quick note on the "metametaphysics" stuff. Following the Boise conference on this stuff, it seemed to me that under the label "metametaphysics" go a number of interesting projects that need a bit of disentangling. Here's three, for starters.

First, there's the "terminological disputes" project. Consider a first-order metaphysical question like: "under what circumstances do some things make up a further thing" (van Inwagen's special composition question). This notes the range of seemingly rival answers to the question (all the time! some of the time! never!) and asks about whether there's any genuine disagreement between the rival views (and if so, what sort of disagreement this is). The guiding question here is: under what conditions is a metaphysical/philosophical debate merely terminological (or whatever).

Note that the question here really doesn't look like it has much to do with metametaphysics per se, as opposed to metaphilosophy in general. Metaphysics is just a source of case studies, in the first instance. Of course, it might turn out that metaphysics turns out to be full of terminological disputes, whereas phil science or epistemology or whatever isn't. But equally, it might turn out that metaphysics is all genuine, whereas e.g. the Gettier salt mines are full of terminological disputes.

In contrast to this, there's the "first order metametaphysics" (set of) project(s). This'd take key notions that are often used as starting points/framework notions for metaphysical debates, and reflect philosophically upon those. E.g.: (1) The notion of naturalness as used by Lewis. Is there such a notion? If so, are their natural quantifiers and objects and modifiers as well as natural properties? Does appeal to naturalness commit one to realism about properties, or can something like Sider's operator-view of naturalness be made to work? (2) Ontological commitment. Is Armstrong right that (at least in some cases) to endorse a sentence "A is F" is to commit oneself to F-ness, as well as to things which are F? Might the ontological commitments of our theories be far less than Quine would have us believe (as some suggest)? (3) unrestricted existential quantifier. Is there a coherent such notion? How should its semantics be given? Is such a quantifier a Tarskian logical constant?

These debates might interest you even if you have no interesting thoughts in general about how to demarcate genuine vs. terminological disputes. Thinking about this stuff looks like it can be carried out in very much first-order terms, with rival theories of a key notion (naturalness, say) proposed and evaluated. Of course, this sort of first-order examination might be a particularly interesting kind of first-order philosophy to one engaged in the terminological disputes project.

The third sort of project we might call "anti-Quine/Lewis metametaphysics". You might think the following. In recent years, there's been a big trend for doing metaphysics with a Realist backdrop; in particular, the way that Armstrong and Lewis invite us to do metaphysics has been very influential among the young and impressionable. A bunch of presuppositions have become entrenched, e.g. a Quinean view of ontological commitment, the appeal to naturalness etc. So, without in the first instance attacking these presuppositions, one might want to develop a framework in comparable detail which allows the formulation of alternatives. One natural starting point is to go with neoCarnapian thoughts about what the right thing to say about the SCQ is (e.g. it can be answered by stipulation). That sort of line is incompatible with the sort of view on these questions that Quine and Lewis favour. What's the backdrop relative to which it makes sense? What are the crucial Quine-Lewis assumptions that need to be given up?

Now, this sort of project differs from the first kind of project in being (a) naturally restricted to metaphysics; and (b) not committed to any sort of demarcation of terminological disputes vs. genuine disputes. It differs from the second kind of project, since, at least in the first instance, we needn't assume that the differences between the frameworks will reduce to different attitudes to ontological commitment, or naturalness, or whatever. On the other hand, it's attractive to look for some underlying disagreement over the nature of ontological commitment, or naturalness, or whatever, to explain how the worldviews differ. So it may well be that a project of this kind leads to an interest in the first-order metametaphysics projects.

I'm not sure that these projects form a natural philosophical kind. What does seem to be right is that investigation of one might lead to interest in the others. There's probably a bunch more distinctions to be drawn, and the ones I've pointed to probably betray my own starting points. But in my experience of this stuff, you do find people getting confused about the ambition of each other's projects, and dismissing the whole field of metametaphysics because they identify it with some one of the projects that they themselves don't find particularly interesting, or regard as hard to make progress with. So it'd probably be helpful if someone produced an overview of the field that teased the various possible projects apart (references anyone?).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Williamson on vague states of affairs (x-posted from T&T)

In connection with the survey article mentioned below, I was reading through Tim Williamson's "Vagueness in reality". It's an interesting paper, though I find its conclusions very odd.

As I've mentioned previously, I like a way of formulating claims of metaphysical indeterminacy that's semantically similar to supervaluationism (basically, we have ontic precisifications of reality, rather than semantic sharpenings of our meanings. It's similar to ideas put forward by Ken Akiba and Elizabeth Barnes).

Williamson formulates the question of whether there is vagueness in reality, as the question of whether the following can ever be true:


Here X is a property-quantifier, and x an object quantifier. His answer is that the semantics force this to be false. The key observation is that, as he sets things up, the value assigned to a variable at a precisification and a variable assignment depends only on the variable assignment, and not at all on the precisification. So at all precisifications, the same value is assigned to the variable. That goes for both X and x; with the net result that if "Xx" is true relative to some precisification (at the given variable assignment) it's true at all of them. That means there cannot be a variable assignment that makes Vague[Xx] true.

You might think this is cheating. Why shouldn't variables receive different values at different precisifications (formally, it's very easy to do)? Williamson says that, if we allow this to happen, we'd end up making things like the following come out true:


It's crucial to the supervaluationist's explanatory programme that this come out false (it's supposed to explain why we find the sorites premise compelling). But consider a variable assignment to x which at each precisification maps x to that object which marks the F/non-F cutoff relative to that precisification. It's easy to see that on this "variable assignment", Def[Fx&Fx'] comes out true, underpinning the truth of the existential.

Again, suppose that we were taking the variable assignment to X to be a precisification-relative matter. Take some object o that intuitively is perfectly precise. Now consider the assignment to X that maps X at precisification 1 to the whole domain, and X at precisification 2 to the null set. Consider "Vague[Xx]", where o is assigned to x at every precisification, and the assignment to X is as above. The sentence will be true relative to these variable assignments, and so we have "(EX)Vague[Xx]" relative to an assignment of o to x which is supposed to "say" that o has some vague property.

Although Williamson's discussion is about the supervaluationist, the semantic point equally applies to the (pretty much isomorphic) setting that I like, and which is supposed to capture vagueness in reality. If one makes the variable assignments non-precisification relative, then trivially the quantified indeterminacy claims go false. If one makes the variable assignments precisification-relative, then it threatens to make them trivially true.

The thought I have is that the problem here is essentially one of mixing up abundant and natural properties. At least for property-quantification, we should go for the precisification-relative notion. It will indeed turn out that "(EX)Vague[Xx]" will be trivially true for every choice of X. But that's no more surprising that the analogous result in the modal case: quantifying over abundant properties, it turns out that every object (even things like numbers) have a great range of contingent properties: being such that grass is green for example. Likewise, in the vagueness case, everything has a great deal of vague properties: being such that the cat is alive, for example (or whatever else is your favourite example of ontic indeterminacy).

What we need to get a substantive notion, is to restrict these quantifiers to interesting properties. So for example, the way to ask whether o has some vague sparse property is to ask whether the following is true "(EX:Natural(X))Vague[Xx]". The extrinsically specified properties invoked above won't count.

If the question is formulated in this way, then we can't read off from the semantics whether there will be an object and a property such that it is vague whether the former has the latter. For this will turn, not on the semantics for quantifiers alone, but upon which among the variable assignments correspond to natural properties.

Something similar goes for the case of quantification over states of affairs. (ES)Vague[S] would be either vacuously true or vacuously false depending on what semantics we assign to the variables "X". But if our interest is in whether there are sparse states of affairs which are such that it is vague whether they obtain, what we should do is e.g. let the assignment of values to S be functions from precisifications to truth values, and then ask the question:


Where a function from precisifications to truth values is "natural" if it corresponds to some relatively sparse state of affairs (e.g. there being a live cat on the mat). So long as there's a principled story about which states of affairs these are (and it's the job of metaphysics to give us that) everything works fine.

A final note. It's illuminating to think about the exactly analogous point that could be made in the modal case. If values are assigned to variables independently of the world, we'll be able to prove that the following is never true on any variable assignment:


Again, the extensions assigned to X and x are non-world dependent, so if "Xx" is true relative to one world, it's true at them all. Is this really an argument that there is no contingent instantiation of properties? Surely not. To capture the intended sense of the question, we have to adopt something like the tactic just suggested: first allow world-relative variable assignment, and then restrict the quantifiers to the particular instances of this that are metaphysically interesting.

Ontic vagueness (x-posted from T&T)

I've been frantically working this week on a survey article on metaphysical indeterminacy and ontic vagueness. Mind bending stuff: there really is so much going on in the literature, and people are working with *very* different conceptions of the thing. Just sorting out what might be meant by the various terms "vagueness de re", "metaphysical vagueness", "ontic vagueness", "metaphysical indeterminacy" was a task (I don't think there are any stable conventions in the literature). And that's not to mention "vague objects" and the like.

I decided in the end to push a particular methodology, if only as a stalking horse to bring out the various presuppositions that other approaches will want to deny. My view is that we should think of "indefinitely" roughly parallel to the way we do "possibly". There are various disambiguations one can make: "possibly" might mean metaphysical possibility, epistemic possibility, or whatever; "indefinitely" might mean linguistic indeterminacy, epistemic unclarity, or something metaphysical. To figure out whether you should buy into metaphysical indeterminacy, you should (a) get yourself in a position to at least formulate coherently theories involving that operator (i.e. specify what its logic is); and (b) run the usual Quinean cost/benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis.

The view of metaphysical indeterminacy most opposed to this is one that would identify it strongly with vagueness de re, paradigmatically there being some object and some property such that it is indeterminate whether the former instantiates the latter (this is how Williamson seems to conceive of matters in a 2003 article). If we had some such syntactic criterion for metaphysical indeterminacy, perhaps we could formulate everything without postulating a plurality of disambiguations of "definitely". However, it seems that this de re formulation would miss out some of the most paradigmatic examples of putative metaphysical vagueness, such as the de dicto formulation: It is indeterminate whether there are exactly 29 things. (The quantifiers here to be construed unrestrictedly).

I also like to press the case against assuming that all theories of metaphysical indeterminacy must be logically revisionary (endorsing some kind of multi-valued logic). I don't think the implication works in either direction: multi-valued logics can be part of a semantic theory of indeterminacy; and some settings for thinking about metaphysical indeterminacy are fully classical.

I finish off with a brief review of the basics of Evans' argument, and the sort of arguments (like the one from Weatherson in the previous post) that might convert metaphysical vagueness of apparently unrelated forms into metaphysically vague identity arguably susceptable to Evans argument.

From vague parts to vague identity (x-posted from T&T)

(Update: as Dan notes in the comment on theories and things, I should have clarified that the initial assumption is supposed to be that it's metaphysically vague what the parts of Kilimanjaro (Kili) are. Whether we should describe the conclusion as deriving a metaphysically vague identity is a moot point.)

I've been reading an interesting argument that Brian Weatherson gives against "vague objects" (in this case, meaning objects with vague parts) in his paper "Many many problems".

He gives two versions. The easiest one is the following. Suppose it's indeterminate whether Sparky is part of Kili, and let K+ and K- be the usual minimal variations of Kili (K+ differs from Kili only in determinately containing Sparky, K- only by determinately failing to contain Sparky).

Further, endorse the following principle (scp): if A and B coincide mereologically at all times, then they're identical. (Weatherson's other arguments weaken this assumption, but let's assume we have it, for the sake of argument).

The argument then runs as follows:
1. either Sparky is part of Kili, or she isn't. (LEM)
2. If Sparky is part of Kili, Kili coincides at all times with K+ (by definition of K+)
3. If Sparky is part of Kili, Kili=K+ (by 2, scp)
4. If Sparky is not part of Kili, Kili coincides at all times with K- (by definition of K-)
5. If Sparky is not part of Kili, Kili=K- (by 4, scp).
6. Either Kili=K+ or Kili=K- (1, 3,5).

At this point, you might think that things are fine. As my colleague Elizabeth Barnes puts it in this discussion of Weatherson's argument you might simply think at this point that only the following been established: that it is determinate that either Kili=K+ or K-: but that it is indeterminate which.

I think we might be able to get an argument for this. First our all, presumably all the premises of the above argument hold determinately. So the conclusion holds determinately. We'll use this in what follows.

Suppose that D(Kili=K+). Then it would follow that Sparky was determinately a part of Kili, contrary to our initial assumption. So ~D(Kili=K+). Likewise ~D(Kili=K-).

Can it be that they are determinately distinct? If D(~Kili=K+), then assuming that (6) holds determinately, D(Kili=K+ or Kili=K-), we can derive D(Kili=K-), which contradicts what we've already proven. So ~D(~Kili=K+) and likewise ~D(~Kili=K-).

So the upshot of the Weatherson argument, I think, is this: it is indeterminate whether Kili=K+, and indeterminate whether Kili=K-. The moral: vagueness in composition gives rise to vague identity.

Of course, there are well known arguments against vague identity. Weatherson doesn't invoke them, but once he reaches (6) he seems to think the game is up, for what look to be Evans-like reasons.

My working hypothesis at the moment, however, is that whenever we get vague identity in the sort of way just illustrated (inherited from other kinds of ontic vagueness), we can wriggle out of the Evans reasoning without significant cost. (I go through some examples of this in this forthcoming paper). The over-arching idea is that the vagueness in parthood, or whatever, can be plausibly viewed as inducing some referential indeterminacy, which would then block the abstraction steps in the Evans proof.

Since Weatherson's argument is supposed to be a general one against vague parthood, I'm at liberty to fix the case in any way I like. Here's how I choose to do so. Let's suppose that the world contains two objects, Kili and Kili*. Kili* is just like Kili, except that determinately, Kili and Kili* differ over whether they contain Sparky.

Now, think of reality as indeterminate between two ways: one in which Kili contains Sparky, the other where it doesn't. What of our terms "K+" and "K-"? Well, if Kili contains Sparky, then "K+" denotes Kili. But if it doesn't, then "K+" denotes Kili*. Mutatis Mutandis for "K-". Since it is is indeterminate which option obtains, "K+" and "K-" are referentially indeterminate, and one of the abstraction steps in the Evans proof fail.

Now, maybe it's built into Weatherson's assumptions that the "precise" objects like K+ and K- exist, and perhaps we could still cause trouble. But I'm not seeing cleanly how to get it. (Notice that you'd need more than just the axioms of mereology to secure the existence of [objects determinately denoted by] K+ and K-: Kili and Kili* alone would secure the truth that there are fusions including Sparky and fusions not including Sparky). But at this point I think I'll leave it for others to work out exactly what needs to be added...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Leeds attracts Analysis studentship

We are very pleased that next year's recipient of the Analysis Studentship - Richard Woodward - has chosen to spend his year of research here at Leeds.

Richard is currently a PhD student at Sheffield, and his paper 'Why Modal Fictionalism is not
Self-Defeating' is forthcoming in Philosophical Studies.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Modal and temporal irrelevance

One objection you sometimes hear against Lewis’s modal realism (from van Inwagen, Chihara, Jubien, among others) is that what goes on at concrete spacetimes is irrelevant to what is necessary or merely possible. The objection, I take it, is this. We can grant for the sake of argument that there are the many cosmoi Lewis would have us believe in. But even on the assumption that there are these things, it’s not clear what they would have to do with modality. When we think of what is merely possible we are thinking of what could have been the case but isn’t (that’s the work the ‘merely’ is doing); but Lewis tells us that the merely possible is the case, it just isn’t the case here – at the sub-portion of all that there is that is spatio-temporally related to us: the portion that Lewis calls ‘actuality’.

The gist of the modal irrelevance objection, I take it, is that to say that something is merely possible demands that it not be the case – not simply that it not be the case in our surroundings, but that it not be the case at all. If Lewis is right about what there is then, the thought goes, it simply turns out that what is actually the case is a lot more complex than we thought. Actuality, the thought goes, is everything that (unrestrictedly) is the case: if there are talking donkeys that aren’t spatio-temporally related to me then there are actually talking donkeys that aren’t spatio-temporally related to me. Lewis can choose to use the term ‘actually’ as he wishes, of course; likewise with the terms ‘possible’ and ‘necessary’. But nevertheless the point remains that, using those words as we use them, Lewis is asking us to accept that actuality is a lot bigger than we supposed; he’s not asking us to accept the existence of the merely possible. The latter request is unfulfillable: you can’t accept the existence of the merely possible, because if something exists then it’s not merely possible – it’s actual.

Does anyone raise the analogous objection against eternalism? We can imagine someone arguing as follows:

“Just as I have the intuition that to say something is merely possible demands that it not be the case, so I have the intuition that to say that something is merely past or future demands that it not be the case. And yet the eternalist says that past and future events are the case: they’re not the case in my surroundings – the portion of what there is that the eternalist calls ‘the present’ – but they are the case nevertheless. But just as I can’t see why the presence of talking donkeys would result in it being merely possible that there are talking donkeys as opposed to it being actual just because the talking donkeys aren’t spatio-temporally related to me, so I can’t see why the presence of dinosaurs would result in it being the case that there were or will be dinosaurs as opposed to it being the case that there are presently dinosaurs just because the dinosaurs happen to be in a direction I can’t point!”

The objections are totally analogous. Just as the modal irrelevance objection says that you can’t have an ontology of the non-actual, you can only make actuality more complicated, so the temporal irrelevance objection says you can’t have an ontology of the non-present, you can only make the present more complicated.

The temporal irrelevance objection claims that if it was true that there are dinosaurs but that there are not presently dinosaurs then this demands that there are no dinosaurs; likewise, if it will be true that there are Martian colonies but that there are not presently Martian colonies then this demands that there are no Martian colonies. The eternalist will claim that something’s being merely past or future demands not that it not be the case, but only that it not be the case presently. But that is, seemingly, no more convincing than Lewis’s claim that something’s being merely possible demands only that it not be the case actually. The actualist can agree that something’s being merely possible demands only that it not actually be the case provided that actuality is understood as encompassing everything (unrestrictedly). Likewise, the presentist can agree that something’s being merely past or future demands only that it not presently be the case provided that the present is understood as encompassing everything (unrestrictedly).

So, here are some questions:

(1) Has anyone made the temporal irrelevance objection, or anything like it, in the literature?

(2) Do the modal irrelevance and the temporal irrelevance objections really stand or fall together or is there some disanalogy between them?

(3) If they are analogous, is this so much the worse for the eternalist or so much the worse for the modal irrelevance objection?

(2) is the question I’m most interested in. I guess one reason you might think that the temporal irrelevance objection is worse off is that the eternalist can point to certain relations between the dinosaurs and us that justify our claim that the dinosaurs existed before us, whereas there is nothing analogous the Lewisian can do w.r.t. the talking donkeys.

Those relations would, presumably, be causal relations. But will that help? Can’t the presentist who is impressed by the temporal irrelevance objection simply reply that if some of the things that there are stand in causal relations to some of the other things that there are then – unless we have independent reason to think that the former things are past entities and the latter things present entities – we should conclude that causal relations can hold between presently existing entities, not that there is in fact non-present ontology?

Anyway, those are my ramblings for today. Thoughts?

In other news, I see that David Cameron has proposed that the salaries of GPs be tied to the health of their patients and patient satisfaction. Ignoring the obvious problems with such a stupid idea (such as it making it even harder to get GPs to work in deprived areas), I wonder if he’s going to take the obvious next step: to link MP’s salaries to the general level of Eudaimonia and the approval ratings of them by their constituents. Somehow, I doubt it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

ontology of music

There's currently an ontology of music reading group going on at Leeds which I've been enjoying lots, as I've been interested in the ontology of art for a while now, but hadn't been able to motivate myself into getting to know the literature.

Anyway, it seemed to me that the kind of meta-ontological position I defend in my 'Truthmakers and Ontological Commitment' also had interesting applications to the ontology of music debate. So I've written them up. The draft is here. It's still rough, and I'm still in the process of getting acquainted with the literature, so comments are very welcome, but please be gentle with me!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Sheer brilliance

Continuing on a theme: utter hilarity, courtesy of Carrie.

UPDATE: And another from Robbie.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Who says metaphysics isn't of practical use? They obvioulsy aren't aware of the practicality of gunk.

Monday, June 04, 2007

St Andrews pics

Elizabeth has put up some photos from the recent St Andrews workshops: 'The Metaphysics of Being Basic' and 'Adjectives'. You can see them here. They also contain the infamous Reactions to Relativism - not to be missed!

UPDATE: Brit has her own unique take on some of these photos here.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The ethics of citation

I’m sure we’re all familiar with unpublished papers that being something like ‘draft only – please don’t quote or cite without permission’. I’ve started papers that way myself. But then I started to think that maybe this isn’t okay. So: here’s the case against – I’d like to know what people think of this.

Suppose you’ve given a novel argument for p. Suppose this good argument inspires me to give a new argument for q. My argument for q builds upon your argument for p – the argument won’t work without citing the results of your argument. If your paper begins with ‘don’t quote or cite without permission’ then you are now effectively holding me hostage. I can’t publish my new argument without plagiarising your argument. Given that I’m not going to do that, I have no choice but to hold off doing anything with my new idea until you publish your paper. (I’m assuming your permission is withheld – which must be a serious option, otherwise why write the command in the first place?) Your argument might have completely altered my way of approaching a topic – so now all my new work has to remain on hold. What happens if you change your mind about your argument and decide it shouldn’t be published? I still can’t take credit for having that idea myself, so unless you give me permission am I never to publish the ideas your original idea sparked in me?

Imagine if Kaplan had started ‘Demonstratives’ that way, or if Kripke had placed that restriction on his Locke lectures. All the great literature that those papers spawned whilst circulating unpublished would have had to remain unpublished.

I’m tempted to think that if you put a paper up on the web, that’s to put it in the public domain, and it’s no more appropriate to place a citation restriction on such a paper than it is on a paper published in a print journal. I’m even tempted to think that conference presentations can be freely cited; i.e.that I shouldn’t have to seek Xs permission to refer in one of my papers to the presentation X gave. Papers circulated by e-mail to a small group of people seem to be a slightly different case – but even then the above argument bothers me.

On the other hand, I think it would be a real shame if the tendency to circulate draft papers or put them on-line was diminished by people being worried their ideas would be cited before they’re fully developed.

So, basically, I don’t know what to think. What do other people think?

UPDATE: Brian has a discussion of this over at tar.

UPDATE 2: Brian initiated a discussion of this at crooked timber, too: lots of interesting discussion.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Divine bananas

Check out the video on the latest developments on the teleological argument over at Aidan's blog. Hilarious!

MV goes on holiday

Robbie, Elizabeth and I are all off to St Andrews this week, for a Metaphysical Values holiday! First up is 'The Metaphysics of Being Basic', on thursday. Robbie and I will be giving our paper 'Truth Without Ontology', Elizabeth will be giving her 'Emergence and Fundamentality' and Jonathan Schaffer will be giving his 'The Priority of the Whole'. Then on Saturday and Sunday is the Arche Adjectives Workshop. Should be fun!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

BSPC 2007

Elizabeth and I will once again be heading to the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference at WWU. Elizabeth will be commenting on Agustin Rayo's 'Vague Representation'. Other papers we know about so far are Carrie and Daniel's 'Backwards Explanation' and a co-authored paper by Andy Egan and Tyler Doggett. This conference was excellent last year (where I gave my Contingency of Composition paper, and got some excellent comments), and Bellingham is beautiful, so we're looking forward to going back.

In other news, MV would like to draw your attention to a new metaphysics blog by Henry Laycock.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Merricks on universalism and composition as identity

My earlier request for comments on my revised version of my Phil Studies paper 'The Contingency of Composition' recevied a grand total of no results, so I'm going to post the argument I particularly wanted reactions on and see if that provokes any response. If it doesn't, I will take this as tacit consent from the entire philosophical community that I am right!

In the paper I claim that composition as identity is compatible with restricted composition. What I would like comments on is my response to Merricks' argument to the contrary. Merricks has us assume, for reductio, that composition as identity is true and that mereological universalism is false. From the latter assumption, there are some things, the Xs, that don't compose. But, says Merricks, they could compose. So there is a world, w, in which there is something that is composed of the Xs, call it A. Composition as identity, if true, is necessarily true, so A is identical to the Xs in w. Hence, from the necessity of identity, A is identical to the Xs in the actual world (@). And so, from composition as identity, the Xs actually compose in @, contrary to the initial assumption.

Now, I'm not sold on the necessity of identity at the best of times, but I think it's particularly problematic here. There are two ways in which we might try and use the Barcan/Kripke argument for the necessity of identity to show that if A is identical to the Xs in w then it is identical to the Xs in @. Firstly, we might argue as follows:

A is necessarily self-identical in w. So in w, A has the property being necessarily identical to A. So, since A is identical to the Xs in w, the Xs has the property being necessarily identical to A. Hence, in the actual world, the Xs has the property being identical to A. Hence, A is identical to the Xs in the actual world, and hence the Xs compose A in the actual world, contrary to the hypothesis that there is nothing that the Xs actually compose.

This argument doesn’t work, however. A familiar complication with the Barcan/Kripke argument is that we must bear in mind is that we are dealing with contingent existents. If A is not a necessary existent then it is not self-identical in every world; all we can say is that it is self-identical in every world in which it exists: that is, that is has the property necessarily, being identical to A, if A exists. So all we can say about the Xs in w is that it has this property; and so all we can conclude is that in the actual world the Xs has the property being identical to A, if A exists. But, of course, proving that the Xs has this property in the actual world doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not the Xs actually compose. All we can conclude is that they actually compose if A actually exists – but, of course, whether or not A exists is precisely what is up for debate.

The argument only has a hope at succeeding if we start not from the necessary self-identity of A but from the necessary self-identity of the Xs. In that case the contingent existence of the Xs is not a problem. We can argue as follows. In w, the Xs is necessarily self-identical, by which we mean that the Xs is self-identical in every world in which the Xs exist. Hence, the Xs has the property necessarily, being identical to the Xs, if the Xs exist. Hence, given Leibniz’s law, A has the property necessarily, being identical to the Xs, if the Xs exist in w, and therefore has the property being identical to the Xs, if the Xs exist in the actual world. Since we know, ex hypothesi, that the Xs exist in the actual world, we can conclude that A is actually identical to the Xs, from which it follows, given composition as identity, that the Xs actually compose A, contrary to the hypothesis that they don’t actually compose anything.

But while there is no problem in this version of the argument due to the contingent existence of the entities involved, there is a further problem that faces this version and not the earlier version. The problem is that, while I am happy to grant the assumption that A is necessarily self-identical in w, I am not happy to grant the assumption that the Xs are necessarily self-identical in w.

My claim is that it only makes sense to ascribe a property like being self-identical to a plurality of things if there is some thing that the plurality is identical to; i.e. if there is a one that the many are identical to. (We can say that each of the Xs is necessarily self-identical, but that won't help: we need the strong claim that the many are self-identical, and that only seems to make sense if there is a one that the many are identical to.) One can only infer that the Xs have the property of being self-identical at a world if we know that the Xs are identical to some thing at that world – i.e. if we know that they compose at that world (since, we are assuming for the sake of argument, what it is for a collection to compose is for them to be identical to some thing). So one cannot simply assume that the Xs are necessarily self-identical; to make this claim we would need to have a reason for thinking that they are necessarily identical to some thing or other. But that is simply the claim that they necessarily compose, which just begs the question. My contention – the claim Merricks is attempting to argue against – is precisely that the Xs compose in w but not the actual world: that there is some thing in w that they are identical to but that there is no thing in the actual world that they are identical to. In that case I deny that the Xs has the property being necessarily self-identical in w. All that we can say is that in w the Xs has the property being identical to the Xs, if identical to anything as a matter of necessity; but all that will prove is that A actually has the property of being identical to the Xs if identical to anything. And as before, that won’t tell us anything at all about whether A is composed of the Xs in the actual world, since whether or not A is identical to anything at the actual world depends on whether or not A actually exists, which is what is up for dispute.

So I don’t think there is any version of the Barcan/Kripke argument that can prove that A is actually identical to the Xs because A is identical to the Xs in w. We cannot start from the premise that the Xs is necessarily self-identical in w: that begs the question, because it assumes that there is necessarily a one that the Xs is identical to, which is just to assume that they necessarily compose. There is only something which is identical to the Xs if the Xs compose; so, since I take it to be contingent that the Xs compose, I also take it to be contingent that there is some thing that is identical to them, and hence I reject the first premise of the argument that they are necessarily identical to A. If Merricks appeals (on the assumption of composition as identity) to the necessity of the self-identity of the Xs in order to show that the Xs must actually compose then he assumes, I argue, that the Xs necessarily compose; and that is simply to beg the question against me. We can start from the assumption that A is necessarily self-identical – that is unproblematic provided we are careful to mean by this only that A is self-identical in every world in which it exists: but while the resulting argument has true premises, the conclusion is far from what Merricks wants – we cannot conclude that A is actually identical to the Xs, only that A is actually identical to the Xs if it (A) exists. Since the existence of A at the actual world is precisely the issue of disagreement between Merricks and myself, this argument obviously isn’t going to persuade me.