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.


Anonymous said...

I hope you don't mind if I (self-servingly) point out that each of the "highlights" of the APA that you mention has connections to the University of Rochester. Hud Hudson received his Ph.D. from UR. Joshua Spencer is currently in the Ph.D. program at UR and Hud was one of his professors at WWU. And Alyssa Ney is currently a professor at UR. Hmm...I see a trend!

Ross Cameron said...

Of course I don't mind.

(By the way, I'm still waiting on that cheque from the UR philosophy dept . . .)

bradley said...

Personally, I think Hud makes a better universal wife than the chair... That session was one of the best I've been to. Jonathan's paper was interesting and he presented it well, your comments were on-point and well-stated, and the discussion following was illuminating.

I also think you make a good point about chairing. Having not been to many conferences, I assumed chairs did not have much responsibility. But during Josh Spencer's talk I found myself thinking, "Is Josh Parsons even going to get the opportunity to speak?" Considering Spencer interacts with him in the paper, it would seem important to give him a chance to comment. So, in addition to "ruling with an iron fist," I advocate chairs asking presenters who they would like to hear from. This way the chair can make sure that if any of those people raise their hands, they will get a chance to speak.

Ross Cameron said...

Thanks for the comments Bradley. I wanted to hear from Josh in that session too - but I have reservations about the idea of chairs making a 'most wanted' list. It seems to me likely that what would happen is that the 'bigwigs' would get an automatic privilege, and less known junior people would be less likely to get called on - and that would be shame, I think.

Of course this happens to some extent anyway. I remember one particularly annoying APA session when it came time for Q&A and no-one had their hands up except for one junior, and female, academic. The speaker, who was feilding his own questions (another bad idea - why was the chair even there?!) looked around trying to find another hand. There were none, and he was clearly about to call on this woman, when a more senior male academic put his hand up and the speaker then took his question. It made me furious - that's totally inappropriate behaviour. I think chairs, as well as keeping things to time and on point, should be there to stop anything like this happening.

bradley said...

I suppose, but I would hope that preference is at least given to those whose ideas are interacted with in the paper. Of course, that will probably be the bigwigs, but if I write a paper where I "decisively refute" your view, wouldn't it be unfair if you did not get the opportunity to respond?