Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Neo-Carnapianism and triviality

So here's something that's been puzzling me, and I've made very little progress on. The neo-Carnapian holds that ontological debates are shallow. When two ontologists argue as to whether there are Fs, the neo-Carnapian says that this isn't a genuine ontological debate: that at worst these two theorists are simply talking past one another; at best their disagreement is merely linguisitc, over the correct usage of the English terms involved.

Now, it's obviously trivial that we could use the term 'exists' differently, so that 'there exists an F' would have had the opposite truth value from what it in fact has. We could have meant by 'there exists' what we in fact mean by 'there doesn't exist', for example. That's not interesting. So what is the neo-Carnapian thesis? Sider characterises it, correctly, as the doctrine that there are multiple meanings for the quantifier and that none of them is more natural than any of the others. (Either because there's no such thing as naturalness, or because there is and they're all equally natural.) Okay, but we just used a quantifier to state that: there are multiple meanings for the quantifier that are equally natural. So if neo-Carnapianism is true, wouldn't their own theory tell them that their theory is not a substantial theory: that is, one whose truth is sensitive not to the metaphysics but simply to what we mean by our words? If neo-Carnapianism is false, it's substantially false, but if it's true it's trivial (in one good sense of trivial).

Is that right? And if so, is it a problem for neo-Carnapianism? It's a strange dialectical position to be in, to hold a view that is trivial if true and substantially false if false, but it's not obviously incoherent.

(I've been considering a neo-Carnapian who thinks that all ontologiacal disputes are shallow; of course, many don't - Hirsch, for example, thinks disputes about the existence of complex objects etc are shallow, but not disuputes about the existence of, e.g., numbers and sets. So let the question be: does the above give us reason to reject global neo-Carnapianism: to hold that at least the question as to whether there is a most natural meaning for the quantifier is a substantive ontological question?)


Anonymous said...

I vote for not a problem, even if true. I think what this amounts to is that neo-Carnapians have to think that the reasons for accepting their theory are pragmatic ones (like the reasons for using quantifiers in a particular way). But they can think that these pragmatic reasons are strong ones. I think that to infer that on their view neo-Carnapianism is trivial is a bit odd. If they're open to hearing pragmatic arguments against neo-Carnapianism, they can't think it's trivial in any ordinary sense of the word. Perhaps better just to say that they think the dispute over neo-Carnapianism is shallow.

But I'm not sure that neo-Carnapians have to say any of this. Even though they think that there are various options for different conceptual schemes, they might not be able to make sense of the one which Sider claims to have i.e. one where there is a unique natural meaning for the quantifer. So they might not think that the reasons for rejecting Sider's claims are merely pragmatic. In that case they'd think that neo-Carnapianism (defined as the negation of Sider's view) is trivial, though in a different sense to the one you're talking about. But I feel confused about what's going on in that situation.

Also, I think Sider's position will be isomorphic. If Sider is right that the question of what the quantifier means is deep (rather than shallow), then the question of whether he's right about the first question is deep, and the question of whether he's right about the second question is deep too etc. Whereas if Sider is wrong about the first question, the fact that he's wrong won't be deep. Is that dialectical position any less weird?

Luigi Speranza said...

Please provide references!

I mean:


at least!

I know ALL about Carnap!


It is interesting to focus on the (Ex). But is Sider speaking of the, say, 'substitutional' vs. 'non-substitutional' uses? We don't think so! Non-substitutional and substitutional usages usually apply to the universal rather than the existential quantifier.

Plus, I think the idea of the "meaning" of (Ex) is _so_ complex that one may not want to go there.

As it happens, I'm a Gricean, so I do think it's the EASIEST way out to blame a cute little thing like (Ex) has being _polysemous_!

I would like Hirsch referring to Carnap explicitly. As a Gricean, I love a palaeo-Gricean, and I hope Cameron loves a palaeo-Carnap too!

(You decipher a neo-Carnap close enough and you may soon see it was no Carnap to start with!). Or something