Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Representational Fallacy

Heather Dyke gave a very interesting talk, suggesting that the 'representational fallacy' is the near-ubiquitous mistake of drawing metaphysical conclusions from (merely) semantic facts.

Realists about some entity point to features of our language that seem to commit us to the existence of such entities, whereas nominalists try to rebut this through the method of paraphrase. For example, early B-theorists about time tried to defend themselves against presentism by arguing that tensed sentences are reducible in meaning to tenseless sentences. As Heather put it, "Metaphysical debates are transformed into debates about the meanings of sentences." This seems wrongheaded. To learn about the world we should look to the world, not to our language.

The appropriate response to presentist arguments from tensed language is not to paraphrase our way out, but rather, deny their premise that irreducibly tensed sentences entail that there are tensed facts. Indeed, this is just what the New B-theory of time does, asserting that "The truthmaker for any true tensed sentence is a tenseless fact." It doesn't matter that tense is ineliminable from natural language. (E.g. the sentences U: "The enemy is now approaching." and V: "The enemy [is] approaching simultaneously with U." are presumably made true by one and the same fact -- the tenseless fact of the enemy's approaching at some time t which is also U's time of utterance -- despite their lack of synonymity.)

I think Heather's position basically amounts to a rejection of Quine's (existential quantification) criterion for ontological commitment. She told me that she rejects the indispensability argument for numbers, for example. Though I would like this approach to work, one concern is that it seems somehow dishonest for us to embrace theories which quantify over some entities, and then to go on to deny that any such entities exist. "Reading off" the ontological commitments of our semantics seems fair game -- quantification doesn't come for free. But perhaps I misunderstand? Comments welcome...


  1. I'm inclined to agree with Heather: the only commitment involved in existential quantification is commitment to the positing of something in some form or other; nothing is implied about an ontology. I think this follows clearly from things like quantification over counterfactual possibles, fictional characters, etc. At the very least, the 'ontological' commitment of existential quantification is very, very weak. Surely an instrumentalist about quarks, for instance, could still quantify over them as elements of the theoretical apparatus, without committing to their actually existing.

    With regard to theories of time, however, I think inability to translate would be a significant issue, not because of quantification, but because it raises the question of whether a tenseless theory can actually do justice to all the relevant experienced facts (which are formulated in our natural language). I don't think it's a deciding issue; but I think it's one that has to be faced seriously.

  2. maybe we should all change to language that doesn't explicitly use tense - like maybe chinese.
    I thhought this "the near-ubiquitous mistake of drawing metaphysical conclusions from (merely) semantic facts." was similar to my point I made before which you were going to write a post on but forgot about maybe? (relating to how semantics seem to dominate so many philosophical debates)

  3. I didn't forget, and I do still plan to write about terminological disputes some time soon(ish). There are a couple dozen other topics also on my list though, so I can't guarantee how soon that'll be.


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