Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ontological Cheating and Ockham's Razor

I’ve written a brief reply to Jonathan Tallant’s forthcoming Analysis paper, 'Ontological Cheats Might Just Prosper', that argues in favour of being the kind of ‘cheating’ presentist and actualist that simply takes truths concerning the past, or what could have been, to be ungrounded. Tallant argues that Ockham’s razor suggests we should be cheats, because if we can do without past or merely possible ontology, Ockham’s razor says we should. Don’t multiply entities beyond necessity, so since it’s possible not to believe in such things, you shouldn’t believe in them.

I argue that this has to be a bad understanding of Ockham’s razor: were it good, we should be Ontological Nihilists and believe that nothing exists. Since it’s possible to believe in nothing at all, believing in anything multiplies entities beyond what’s necessary, hence we shouldn’t believe in anything! Since we’re not Ontological Nihilists, we can’t be operating with this version of the razor.

Why aren’t we Ontological Nihilists? Because while it’s ontologically parsimonious, it’s ideologically extravagant. (See Jason’s paper.) Ockham’s razor has to allow that ontological parsimony needn’t be purchased if the cost is extravagant! But once we allow this, we’re just back to the old game of weighing up the admitted ontological benefits of cheating against what should be the admitted costs in its ideology and/or in its account of how truth depends on reality. The debate hasn’t progressed any.

I argue that every theory owes us an account of three things: what exists, what is true, and how truth links up to ontology. Ockham’s razor tells us, I suggest, that we shouldn’t accept a theory that postulates the existence of some things that don’t, according to its own view of how truth depends on ontology, do any work in accounting for what it itself says is true. That principle is going to tell us not to say, e.g., both that truths about the past are brute but yet there are nevertheless past entities. And that’s as it should be: that’s a bizarre combination of views to hold. But it’s never going to let us decide between two theories just by looking at their ontologies. And I think that’s as it should be: we have to look at the other two components as well, and see if the ontological advantage is being paid for at an appropriate price. And I can’t see any version of the razor that will mandate accepting the ‘cheating’ theories that won’t also mandate accepting Ontological Nihilism.

(I’ve also written a reply to a forthcoming paper by Stefano Predelli which argues against my view that there are no musical works. It’s here.)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Leeds metaphysicians sweep Oxford Studies in Metaphysics prize!

Some fantastic news for the Leeds metaphysicians: Jason Turner has won the the Younger Scholar Prize in Metaphysics, for his paper 'Ontological Nihilism'! This was after a record number of submissions. Well done Jason!

And the joint runners-up are Robbie Williams and Elizabeth Barnes for their paper 'A Theory of Metaphysical Indeterminacy' and me for my 'Truthmaking for Presentists'. So a clean sweep for Leeds!

These three papers will all be appearing in a forthcoming volume of Oxford Studies in Metaphysics.

Update: Jason's paper is now available on-line: check it out via the link above!

Further update: It looks like the above three papers will be published alongside Richard Woodward's earlier accepted paper 'Metaphysical Indeterminacy and Vague Existence'. So it looks like Leeds is really going to dominate that issue of OSM! Maybe it should be called 'Oxford Studies in Leeds Metaphysics'.

(Both Rich's and my paper make use of the way of thinking about metaphysical indeterminacy in the way Elizabeth and Robbie tell us to - so this journal will also see three papers defending the Elizabeth/Robbie plan. Metaphysical indeterminacy's day is here!)