Wednesday, April 25, 2007


From Wo, further evidence that scientists shouldn't be allowed to interpret their own results.


It’s always seemed to me that there is an obvious weak point in Kripke’s discussion of Wittgenstein. I don’t know the literature well at all so I may be making an elementary mistake or pointing out the obvious – either way I’d like to know.

Kripke argues that there are no meaning facts because there’s nothing to determine which of infinitely many rival meaning hypotheses are correct. Nothing about the world determines that I mean addition rather than quaddition by ‘addition’, for example. In arguing for this Kripke tries to show that various ways of choosing between the rival hypotheses won’t work. One way he considers is that it is the simplest hypothesis that is the correct one, and it is here I think he makes a mistake. He says

“[A]n appeal [to simplicity] must be based either on a misunderstanding of the sceptical problem, or of the role of simplicity considerations, or both. . . [S]implicity considerations can help us decide between competing hypotheses, but they obviously cannot tell us what the competing hypotheses are. If we do not understand what two hypotheses state, what does it mean to say that one is ‘more probable’ because it is ‘simpler’? If the two competing hypotheses are not genuine hypotheses, not assertions of genuine matters of fact, no ‘simplicity’ considerations will make them so.” (Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, p38)

Kripke's point, I take it, is this. Grant for the sake of argument that if we have multiple hypotheses about what is meant by a term then the simplest of those hypotheses is the best one. Still this is of no help, because the conclusion proper of the sceptical argument is that there are no such competing hypotheses because any hypothesis about the meaning of a term is literally contentless. As Alex Miller puts it, “if two ascriptions of meaning do not have truth-conditions, what does it mean to say that one of them is more probably true because it is simpler?” (Miller, Philosophy of Language, p173)

But consider the dialectic that was intended to establish the sceptical conclusion. We were given a challenge by the sceptic to account for why it was we meant addition by ‘plus’. And, the argument went, if we can not answer the challenge, then we are stuck with a non-factivity about meaning. The simplicity considerations are raised as an attempt to answer that challenge, so we cannot argue against that attempt by appealing to a result which is only established if that attempt fails. Kripke is illegitimately assuming the conclusion of his sceptical argument at a point in the dialectic where it is still to be established. If simplicity considerations are such that they can adequately choose between rival hypotheses then the sceptical argument fails and the non-factivity of meaning does not follow. One cannot argue against this attempt at a straight solution by arguing that the rival hypotheses lack content; that is to assume what, at this stage in the dialectic, is still very much up for debate: the truth of the sceptical conclusion. So Kripke’s argument against the appeal to simplicity here simply begs the question.

What conclusion should you draw? I’m not saying the appeal to simplicity is the way to answer Kripke; there are still the problems with this appeal that Kripke lays to one side: i.e. “that simplicity is relative, or that it is hard to define, or that a Martian might find the quus function simpler than the plus function” (ibid). But if what I’ve said above is correct is lets us respond to an objection against Kripke’s sceptical solution.

Kripke embraces the non-factivity of meaning and argues that language use and communication is something like a community wide game. The claim is that there need be no facts about meaning for language to be useful. So instead of looking for meaning-constitutive facts – a futile effort, for there are no such things – Kripke suggests we look instead to the role meaning ascriptions play in the ‘langauge game’: to when ascriptions of meaning are justified in the discourse in question. Kripke says

“All that is needed to legitimize assertions that someone means something is that there be roughly specifiable circumstances under which they are legitimitately assertable, and that the game of asserting them under such conditions has a role in our lives. No supposition that ‘facts correspond’ to those assertions is needed.” (ibid. p78)

Kripke’s sceptical solution is criticised by José Zalabardo ('Rules, Communities, Judgements' Critica 63, 1989), who says that the ‘solution’ only tells us how to choose between rival hypotheses about what are the correct meaning ascriptions, and that if Kripke’s sceptical conclusion is right – and the rival ‘hypotheses’ are contentless – then the sceptical solution is no solution at all.

Now Zalabardo might be right that if Kripke’s sceptical conclusion is correct then the sceptical conclusion can’t get Kripke what he wants. But if what I said above about the simplicity argument is correct, then we can take Kripke’s ‘sceptical’ solution to be a perfectly good straight solution instead. If the ‘sceptical’ solution does let us choose between the rival hypotheses then why not let the meaning facts be what the ‘sceptical’ solution says they are? One can’t complain that there are no hypotheses for the sceptical solution to choose between, because that presupposes the sceptical conclusion; and if the ‘sceptical’ solution really does pick out the correct meaning hypothesis then the sceptical conclusion is not established. So to make that complaint against using the sceptical solution as a straight solution would simply be to beg the question in exactly the same way Kripke begged the question when dismissing the appeal to simplicity.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Kluwer and the persistence conditions of articles

I’ve noticed that when you submit a paper on the Kluwer on-line system, they’ve started asking you if you’ve submitted the paper elsewhere. That seems an odd question to ask. I was submitting a paper that had been rejected from somewhere else, but I was kind of reluctant to admit to that while submitting it somewhere else. Partly, that’s because of the psychological pull of the completely unreliable ‘X rejected Y, therefore Y wasn’t good enough for X’ rule, and so admitting the paper’s been previously rejected seems to be admitting something detrimental about its worth, when you want the journal you’re submitting to to think it’s a good paper.

Of course, all you need to do is create a context where strict counterpart relations are invoked and you can answer ‘no’. “I haven’t submitted this paper elsewhere, because I changed footnote 16 since the last time I submitted a similar paper.” And that just increases the sense that this is a silly question to be asking – since the answer given will depend not only just on the history of the world but on the answerer’s beliefs concerning the persistence conditions of papers.

Does anyone know why Kluwer are asking this, and how the information gets used? Any comments on whether it’s a good or bad idea to ask?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ross' rants for today

Recently Julian Baggini wrote an article in the Guardian pointing out how stupid and dangerous a naïve relativism about truth is. Predictably, this was followed by a small flurry of silly objection letters. On noticing the amount of overlap between such letters – and ones that had appeared previously – I thought I’d be magnanimous and offer the following ‘defending relativism schema’, thus freeing up the authors’ valuable time to deconstruct themselves.

(1) Begin by pointing out that your favourite maligned ‘continental’ philosopher believed some true proposition p. p should be some proposition that it is morally blameworthy to deny and that was denied by a prominent analytic philosopher. (Example: so-and-so thought Jews were no worse than gentiles, but Frege was an anti-semite.)

(2) Conclude that said maligned philosopher was correct about the nature of truth after all, even though this is completely unrelated.

(3) Apropos of nothing, accuse ‘analytic’ philosophers of indoctrinating their students into positivism, even though no-one is a positivist these days.

(4) Why not end with a nice ad hominem for good measure?

Oh well. Reading the Guardian often makes me angry, but I don’t seem to be able to stop. It’s strange as well – I get far less angry reading the Times, even though what’s written is generally far more repulsive. I just feel the Guardian ought to know better . . .

On a happier note: I have a fondness for amusing signs. I was particularly happy one afternoon while on a woodland walk when I saw both a sign saying ‘please don’t leave the path’ (how am I meant to get home?) and a sign saying ‘please leave the gate closed’ (how am I meant to get to the other side? – especially since I’m stuck to the path and can’t go round the gate!). But a recent good one was at a coffee stall in the train station. It said “Try one of our great cappuccino’s”. There are three mistakes there. Obviously, it’s afflicted with what I like to call ‘the undergrad apostrophe’. Secondly, the plural of ‘cappuccino’ isn’t even the apostrophe-less ‘cappuccinos’, it’s ‘cappuccini’. And thirdly, the coffee wasn’t great, it was rubbish.

As you can see, today I am working hard. I should probably go into my departmental office soon because they have a sign on the door saying “Please knock and enter”. I don’t know why they want me to go in, but I’ll be happy to oblige.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I've put up some photos from the recent Structure in Metaphysics workshop. I'm also happy to be able to prove that I hung out at the APA with one of the great philosophical minds (oh yeah, and Kris McDaniel also).

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Parsimony and the fundamental

In his APA comments on Jonathan Schaffer, Ross asks about some of Jonathan's ideas about the applicability of Ockham's razor. The question arises if you buy into some robust distinction between "fundamental" and "derivative" existents. Candidate fundamental existents: quarks, electrons, maybe organisms (or maybe just THE WORLD). Candidate derivative existents: weirdo fusions, impure sets, maybe tables and chairs (or maybe everything except THE WORLD).

Let's call the idea that "derivative" as well as "fundamental" entities are (thump table) existing things the expansivist interpretation of the fundamental/derivative distinction. Call the idea that only the fundamental (thump table) exists the restrictivist interpretation of that distinction.

Jonathan's position is that Ockham's razor, rightly understood, tells us to minimize the number of fundamental entities. Ross's idea (I think?) is that this is right iff one has a restrictivist understanding of the fundamental/derivative distinction. But Jonathan, pretty clearly, has an expansivist understanding of that distinction: he doesn't want to say that the only thing that (thump table) exists is the world, just that the world is ontologically prior to everything else. So if Ross is right, his application of parsimony is in trouble.

I can see what the idea is here: after all, understanding parsimony as the instruction to minimize (thump table) existents or to minimize the (thump table) kinds of existents is surely close to the traditional understanding. Whereas the idea that we need only minimize (kinds of) existents of such-and-such a type, seems to come a bit out of the blue, and at minimum we need some more explanation before we could accept that revision to our theoretical maxims.

However... One thing that seems important is to consider what sort of principles of parsimony might be present in more ordinary theorizing (e.g. in the special sciences). The appeal of appealing to parsimony in metaphysics is in large part that it's a general theoretical virtue, applicable in all sorts of areas that are paradigms of good, productive fields of inquiry. Now, theoretical virtues in the sciences is not a topic that I'm in a position to speak with authority on. But one thing that seems to me important in this connection: if you think that the entities of special sciences aren't fundamental entities, then principles of parsimony restricted to the fundamentals aren't going to be in a position to give you much bite. (NB: I think that this was raised by someone in comments on Jonathan's paper in Boise, but I can't remember who it was...).

If that's right, then whether you're an expansivist or a restrictivist about the fundamental/derivative distinction seems beside the point. Any theorist who gives a story about what the fundamentals are that's unconstrained by what the special sciences say, is going to be in trouble with the idea that principles of parsimony should be restricted to constraints on fundamental existents: for such principles of parsimony won't then be able to get much bite on theorizing in the special sciences. I'd like to think that quarks, leptons etc are going to populate the fundamental, rather than Jonathan's WORLD. This point bites me as much as Jonathan.

There's plenty of room for further discussion here, particularly the interaction of the above with what you take to be evidence for some entities being fundamental. E.g. if you thought that various types of emergentism in special science would be evidence for "higher level" fundamental entities, then maybe the above parsimony principle would still have application to special sciences: it'd tell you to reduce to the number of emergent entities you postulate (i.e. it'd be a methodological imperative towards reductionism).

Also, it seems to me that there is something to the thought that some entities are simply "don't cares" when applying parsimony principles. If I'm concerned with theorizing about the behaviour of various beetles in front of me, I care about how many kinds of beetles my theory is giving me, but not with how many kinds of mathematical entities I need to invoke in formulating that theory. Now, maybe that differential attitude can be explained away by pointing to the generality of the mathematica involved (e.g. that total science is "already committed to them"). But one natural take would be to look for restrictions to principles of parsimony/Ockham's razor, making them sensitive to the subject-matter under investigation.

To speculate wildly: If principles of parsimony do need to be sensitized in this way, and if the study of what fundamentally exists is a genuine investigation, maybe the principle of parsimony, in application to that study, really would tell us to minimize the number of, and kinds of, fundamental entities we posit.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paper changes

I've made changes to a couple of my papers that I'd welcome comments on. Firstly, I realised at the APA that I was saying some completely false things regarding the individuation of sums in my paper on fundamentality. I now hope I'm saying true things. The changed section is section 4 - the stuff concerning necessary connections and whether they're unobjectionable if the things in question overlap.

I've also made an addition to my paper on the Contingency of Composition. I have always argued that composition as identity is compatible with restricted composition and I've needed to say something about Merricks' argument to the contrary. Merricks relies on the necessity of identity, and I've previously been happy simply to play the counterpart theory card and reject this. But on further reflection I think I can show that you shouldn't accept Merricks' argument even if you accept the standard Barcan/Kripke proof of the necessity of identity. The final version of this paper has to be sent off soon, so if anyone had any comments on my response to Merricks here I'd appreciate them.

On another note. As I understand it, women are under-represented in the major journals (I mean, even given their under-representation in the profession - that is, woman are even more under-represented in the journals than you'd expect them to be, given how many women there are in the profession). Why is this? Well, we'd need a study on this, but the following seems likely to me. Since women are under-represented in the profession it is very likely, for every paper sent to a journal, that it will be refereed by a man. Men and women vary in their styles of writing and arguing. So while when a man submits a paper it is likely that it will be reveiwed by someone who writes and argues in a broadly similar style, with women this is very unlikely. Hence, women face a disadvantage in trying to get papers published.

Okay - it's hardly likely to be that simple. But I bet there's something to this. And if there's some truth to this then there's a good case to be made, it seems to me, for journals implementing the rule that papers by women should, other things being equal, be reveiwed by women. (The 'other things' packs in a lot, because it seems far more important that papers be reveiwed by experts in the subject.) Is there a good reason why this shouldn't happen?

Monday, April 09, 2007

APA post mortem

Elizabeth and I are back in the Old Country after an extremely enjoyable trip to the San Francisco APA. San Francisco is an awesome city! I was responding to Jonathan Schaffer on ‘The Least Discerning and Most Promiscuous Truthmaker’ and the session seemed to go really well (my comments are below). Other highlights, for me, included the ‘author meets critics’ session on Hud Hudson’s The metaphysics of Hyperspace (there was a particularly illuminating debate between Hud and Josh Parsons on primitive location relations), Joshua Spencer’s talk on extended simples (Joshua provides further evidence – as if Kris McDaniel, Ryan Wasserman and Shieva Kleinschmidt weren’t enough – of the excellence of the best of the WWU students), and Alyssa Ney’s paper on causation. And there were plenty of other interesting looking sessions that I didn’t get to go to because of scheduling clashes (i.e. I wanted to go to the golden gate bridge). Leeds made a good showing: as well as me and Elizabeth, CMM’s own Robbie and Andy were there, as were Leeds ethicist Ulrike Heuer, and ex-Leeds head of department Mark Nelson. There was also a reunion of the Arche old guard, since Roy Cook, Agustin Rayo and Josh Parsons were all there.

The biggest problem was a common one: chairs not chairing! It was extremely rare, at least in my experience, for a chair to tell someone there was no more time for their question, or even to hurry up and get to the point; it was as if the only point of a chair is to keep track of who wants to ask questions. This is pretty common, it seems to me; and it’s not a good thing. Chairs should rule with an iron fist. I appreciate that’s not easy for everyone to do (“I’m sorry Professor Kripke, I don’t think you’re going anywhere with this, we’ll have to move on . . .”) but it’s worth us as a community working to establish a firmer line on chairing. The speaker and the questioner are not always in the best position to decide whether a point is worth pursuing – whether or not, for example, they’re simply talking past one another; we need chairs familiar with the debate who are willing to move the discussion on if necessary. The BSPC was a perfect example of how to do things. Chairs were issued with firm chairing guidelines, and the first session was chaired by one of the organisers to lead the way. And it worked really well – when the chair intervened on questions everyone knew they were just following the rules and there wasn’t any resentment (as far as I could tell). That’s obviously going to be harder to enforce at bigger conferences; but not impossible, and it’s worth the effort.

And now, for anyone who’s interested, here are the comments I made to Schaffer. I didn’t read these out, but they approximate what I said.

Jonathan claims simplicity as a virtue of his theory. But is his theory really ontologically parsimonious? Sure, Jonathan only has one truthmaker as opposed to, e.g., Armstrong’s many, many truthmakers; but the theories may be identical as to what they claim exists. Suppose I tell you that this chair has the property of being the universal wife: it is the thing that any man is married to, if they are not married to any woman. Why should you believe me? Economy – we minimise the number of bachelors in the world! That won’t convince anyone, of course: there’s no theoretical benefit in minimising the number of bachelors if doing so doesn’t minimise the number of entities we are committed to. Why should I minimise the number of truthmakers then? Jonathan and I might agree exactly on what there is – we just disagree on what, among those things, play a truthmaking role. If so, in the absence of further explanation, I don’t see why I should concede that Jonathan’s view has the benefit of parsimony.

As always, of course, there’s more to be said. Perhaps the principle that is guiding Jonathan is ‘minimise the number of fundamental entities’. In that case, given Jonathan’s claim that truthmakers must be fundamental, which I’ll grant for the moment, it will follow that we should minimise the number of truthmakers.

But why should I minimise the number of fundamental entities? Again, unless there’s more to be said this looks just like the case above: Jonathan and I can agree exactly on what there is, we just disagree about which, among those things, has the property of fundamentality – and it’s not clear why thinking fewer things have this property is a theoretical benefit.

Perhaps it’s because only the fundamental is real. If the derivative entities are unreal – if we don’t occur any genuine ontological commitment by believing in the derivative – then it’s reasonable to assume that when Ockham’s razor tells us to minimise entities it means the fundamental, real, entities.

I don’t think of fundamentality that way: I think of the ‘fundamental/derivative’ relation as holding between equally real entities; but opinion differs here. But if Jonathan takes this route I think it weakens his case for the priority monism that lies behind his truthmaker theory. Jonathan is keen to distinguish his monism from what we might call numerical monism: the claim that only one thing exists. Many are willing to dismiss the latter monistic theory because of the violence it does to common sense intuitions: namely, that it denies that you and I exist, or that the tables and chairs here exist, etc. Jonathan points out that such objections don’t touch his theory: he does believe in you and I and in the tables and chairs – he simply doesn’t think they’re fundamental. But if Jonathan thinks that you and I don’t really exist this response seems somewhat weakened. The intuition against monism is that we exist, dammit! To find out that it’s okay to talk about us, even though we’re unreal, hardly sweetens the pill! I pose Jonathan a dilemma then: either there is genuine ontological commitment to the derivative or there isn’t. If there is, then it is not clear to me that I should concede him parsimony. If there isn’t, then, while I grant him parsimony, I think he incurs a serious cost in going against common sense intuition.

Also, I granted for the sake of argument Jonathan’s claim that truthmakers must be fundamental, but I don’t actually believe that. I think the truthmaker for , for example, is the redness of the chair (a trope); but I do not think this trope is fundamental – I think it is dependent on the chair.

When arguing for the fundamentality of truthmakers Jonathan says “The truth of propositions is not fundamental, and so needs grounding. But if the truthmakers are not themselves fundamental, then the ground has not been reached.”

I think there is an equivocation on ‘ground’ here. I think there are two distinct grounding relations: the relation between a true proposition and its truthmaker, and the relation between a dependent entity and that which it is dependent on: the existence of a truthmaker necessitates the truth of that which it makes true, but for ontological dependence the necessitation goes the other way – the existence of the dependence necessitates the existence of that which it is dependent on. Jonathan thinks it is the same relation. In correspondence he proposed the following reduction of truthmaking to ontological dependence:

(*) A makes p true iff the truth of p is ontologically dependent on A.

Okay, so now we’re believing in ‘the truth of p’ – a particularised verity belonging to a proposition? That’s not something I believe in, so again I’m brought back to asking: is Jonathan’s theory really economical? Jonathan can say ‘Yes, because I only recognise an ontological commitment to the fundamental, and the truth of p is derivative’. But I can’t help but feel that the cards are being stacked too highly in Jonathan’s favour from the outset: he can appeal to anything he likes that will help him out and not face any charges of ontological profligacy because he only ever recognises commitment to one thing: the world.

Let me end by wondering whether Jonathan really has slain the dragon of negative facts. Jonathan rightly says that any theory according to which the number of truthmakers is a necessary truth will slay the dragon. Once we know what the n truthmakers are we know that is false, because there would have to be another truthmaker were it true, and we know that there aren’t any others, because there have to be exactly n. Since Jonathan’s theory says that there is, necessarily, exactly one truthmaker, then it slays the dragon.

But Jonathan’s justification for thinking that there is necessarily exactly one truthmaker relies on his view that priority monism is not just true but necessarily true. I am more attracted to the view that such claims are contingent truths: that whether the dependence relation goes from part to whole or vice-versa varies from world to world.

I won’t say too much about that here, although I will say that I take the burden of proof always to be on he who sees necessity over he who sees contingency. But also, consider one of Jonathan’s arguments for priority monism. If the whole is dependent on the parts, says Jonathan, the world couldn’t be gunky, for then dependence would never ‘bottom out’. Since gunk is possible, then, priority monism is true. I agree that the whole couldn’t be dependent on the parts in a gunky world. But for the same reasons, the parts can’t be dependent on the whole in an ‘anti-gunky’ world: a world where everything is a proper part of some thing. I don’t see the possibility of gunk being on a stronger footing than the possibility of anti-gunk, so I think this is as good an argument for priority pluralism as the previous argument was for priority monism. The conclusion I take is that priority pluralism and priority monism are both possible, and that what is true depends on the contingent mereological facts concerning the actual world. But in that case, even if priority monism is actually true, and there is actually only one truthmaker, it will be possible for there to be many truthmakers. And so the problem of negative facts remains open.