Sunday, July 29, 2007

Meta-ontology talk

We had some fun discussion at Canterbury last Friday on the question of 'what is existence?'. Philip generously recommended this blog when he introduced me, so I should probably direct any new visitors to the post on which my talk was based: here. Other related posts may be found under the 'metaphysics' category on the left sidebar. (Comments and counterarguments welcome, as always!)

Update: My central argument could be summarized as follows:

1. Ordinary existence claims (e.g. denying that the tooth fairy exists) serve to distinguish between rival possible worlds, whereas ontological disputes instead concern how best to describe a (qualitatively) given world.

2. Substantive inquiry into the nature of the world requires narrowing the possibilities, with the ultimate aim being to discern which possibility has been actualized. (This is arguably the job of empirical science.)

3. So, ontology is lacking in worldly 'substance'.

Meta-ontological projectivism: My positive view is then that ontology (and the rest of philosophy, for that matter) is better understood as a rational construction: it concerns the question of how to carve up the world - or project our concepts onto it - most coherently. The ultimate end (truth) is fixed by the ideals of rationality, rather than any thing in the world. The proposed meta-philosophy in this sense privileges the epistemic over the ontic.


  1. Any highlights from the talk?

  2. The ultimate end (truth) is fixed by the ideals of rationality, rather than any thing in the world. The proposed meta-philosophy in this sense privileges the epistemic over the ontic.

    It sounds interestingly Kantian.

  3. Richard,

    I am worried about your view. At the talk, I criticized your categorization of reality as optimistically oriented i.e. that there is a benefit to 'discovering' what is real.

    Your explication leads to further worries. What mechanism constructs the rational reality? If there is a reality to be constructed, there must be some reason for its construction. Although I despise imposing the views of other philosophers, Ian Hacking has a similar idea. Unobservables are real as far as they are instrumental, experimentally, towards truth. This seems to be your view regarding ontology. That we can simply call real what we create does not seem to capture the severity (italics intended) of realism.
    Denoting objects as 'real' requires an attribution of warranted (in the strict sense Salmon gives it) belief. If something is real, then it is irrational to accept the negation. If electrons are real, then one should believe they exist.
    TO claim that reality is signaled by rational construction lays credence to possible irrational beliefs.
    There is circumstantial evidence that big foot exists e.g. large foot-prints, sounds of heavy breathing, unconfirmed video evidence; though we would not claim he does exist.
    Rational constructions give the same warrant to scientific, religious, etc. explanation as does the argument that big foot exists.

    I will end with a question; do you think it is careless, in a sense, to attribute reality to unobservable objects assuming reality requires the belief of existence.

    If yes, then it seems we should be pessimistic about our ability to define reality, and in every Kantian sense, recognize that the 'thing in itself' is unknowable. Schopenhauer realized this, where Hegel did not. Are you prepared to be a Hegelian about reality?

    (I have not argued that reality requires belief; though it seems intuitive. Perhaps, barring a ridiculously simple explanation, you could elaborate on this point.)

  4. That's kind of a depressing conclusion. I was thinking that I agree with you on ontology with the crucial exception of our philosophizing about the most fundmental level of reality. This could be seen as continuous with the work of speculative theoretical physicists.

  5. Roger-
    I would think point (3) above
    distances Richard from any sort of Hegelian ontology.

    From Richard's post "What is Existence?": Substantive claims of superficial existence (say of concrete entities) serve to distinguish between various possible worlds. Fundamental existence claims are different. Ontologists don't discriminate between possibilities, telling us that world w1 is actual rather than w2. Rather, they fill out the possible worlds' contents, specifying what (exactly) we find in the given worlds w1 and w2.

    Hence, what is real is taken from a list of possibilities. But saying that something is possible (the unobservable) is not to say that it's real. That's why Kant needs a posteriori (spelling!) knowledge to make any claims on what is real; one doesn't know anything unless one can test pure reason against empirical phenomena.

  6. Steve - physics might tell us what the smallest level of reality is. But why think that this is "fundamental" (or metaphysically privileged)?

    Brandon - Yeah, I haven't actually read Kant myself, but I've probably been influenced by people who have!

    Roger - I'm not sure what you mean by "reality requires belief". I think that the first-order ontological facts are fixed by the normative fact of what it would be ideally rational (maximally coherent) to believe. But ideals may be purely hypothetical. In particular, these normative facts would still exist even if there were no human beings (or other "believers") at all. So I don't think that reality is contingent on our actual minds, or anything like that. (It doesn't require us to actually "construct" it. So perhaps my terminology was misleading in that regard.)

    I'm very puzzled by your suggestion that my view opens the gate to "possible irrational beliefs." On my view, if a belief is - all things considered - less than perfectly rational, then it likewise falls short of being the truth (since I identify this with ideal rationality!). I'm definitely not suggesting that just any old (imperfect) "rational construct" is true!

    Hope that clears things up a bit...

  7. Hi Richard,

    I have a question for the positive view that you put forward that I think shows what is wrong with the way you cast the existence/ontological distinction.

    So, if the epistemic is priveldged over the ontic so that the way that we determine the right way to carve up a given possible world is via appeal to what an ideally rational ontologist would do then don't you run into all of the problems that Quine was so interested in harping on?
    Especially relevent for your kind of view, I think, is the argument in 'Ontological Relativity' the upshot of which is that there are many ways to carve up the (actual) world that are each equally rational. This idea was taken up by Eli Hirch, see his "Dividing Reality", where he forcible argues that there is absolutely no rational reason to prefer an ontology of common sense objects or a wierd for instance he argues that in English 'car' picks out an object such that it is the same object when it is parked in the garage. But we can imagine a language that has two words "incar" and "outcar" and the the speakers of this language think that an incar (a car when it is parked in the garage) is a different object from the outcar (the car when it is driving around). These are two ontological claims according to you, yet there is n rational reason, ideal or otherwise, that leads us to prefer one over the other. Or at least I don't see seems to me that if anythng could decide this issue it would have to be some fact about the world, not about rational observers...

    To me this illustrates the problems with taking possible worlds to be 'given' in some sense. As Kripke says, possible worlds are stipultated, not discovered...and we stipulate in the description that we mean to be talking about some particular object...we need more than mere qualitative descriptions of a world and facts about ideal observers to fix otological facts

  8. Richard : my thinking on this has a couple of steps, each controversial.

    First, there is a metaphysically fundamental level of reality, otherwise our search for explanations leads to a regress. Recently, I liked Ross Cameron’s “Turtles all the Way Down” paper on this. He concluded there is no conclusive argument against such a regress, but if you want metaphysical explanation, one needs explanation to bottom out somewhere. Also, I was influenced by Jonathan Schaffer’s comments on Chalmer’s Ontological Anti-Realism paper that suggested his framework implied realism regarding a fundamental level. Still, my view here could be at least partly wishful thinking.
    Second, given evident pluralism in the world, either the parts or the whole is ultimately prior.
    Third, for primarily a posteriori reasons, I conclude the parts are prior, and the smallest parts in particular, given the success of reductionism as explanation in science.
    Thanks, - Steve

  9. Hi Richard B. - I'm not sure whether it's really true that there are many equally rational ways to carve up the world. It may be that 'incars' and 'outcars' are sufficiently similar as to rationally necessitate unifying them under the single category of 'cars'. (Isn't there something a bit extravagant about claiming that driving a car into a garage turns it into an entirely different object!? Common sense seems more coherent, in this respect.) But if not, then I'd take that to simply show that there is no fact of the matter as to what objects there "really" are, i.e. whether it is "really" a car or an incar. On those assumptions, relativism seems precisely the right result. So I'm not sure I see the objection here...?

    Steve - that's interesting. I'll need to chase up those references you mention.

    (On the empirical question, a local philosopher of science tells me much the opposite: the smallest parts of objects are radically interdependent, to the extent that the behaviour of a single particle really can't be predicted or understood at all without understanding it's whole environment. But, like you, he takes this question to be metaphysically significant: in particular, he takes it to be a reason to favour holism.)

    But can you clarify the relation between scientific explanation and metaphysical conclusions? I'll grant the success of reductionism for a moment. My question is then this: is the metaphysical fundamentality of simples (philosophical atoms) guaranteed by their explanatory value? Or is the latter merely fallible evidence of fundamentality? That is: could there be a possible world that is qualitatively identical to ours, so yielding all the same empirical evidence, but in which a different level of reality is truly fundamental? (Does holism remain metaphysically possible, in the face of good reductionist explanations?)

    Explanatory value is something I can get a grip on, I think. But if metaphysical fundamentality is something distinct from this, I remain unsure exactly what it is...

  10. Well, you asked the crucial question. It’s a problem for my view if I can conceive of that kind of qualitatively identical but differently grounded world. I was troubled by the idea of a possible gunky world, and I have a tentative answer which questions the conceivability and hence metaphysical possiblility of that one. In the case of the holistic alternative where the whole is prior to the parts, I have to think more about whether this is conceivable in the right way.

    I want a solution where we somehow come to explain how possbilities are actualized for us, and then come to conclude that the same process would be responsibile for all possibilities. Could this be a way to bring together the emprical and the metaphysical?
    Best regards, - Steve

  11. I'm not sure I understand this enough to post a comment but I'm going to anyway, so feel free to ignore it.

    If I understand this:
    - we have a complicated, messy Universe, but one that has lots of patterns
    - we have an agent that wants to capture the Universe as well as possible in a conceptual structure that is predictive.

    Our solution is to have an agent that knows the fundamental laws, the current state of the Universe and can propagate them forward brute force. But this is a little unrealistic.

    A more realistic agent has a much more complex conceptual structure with higher level concepts such as "car" but can make predictions much more easily and reasonably accurately. However, there will always be a trade off between the complexity of the model, and the complexity of its execution. I don't understand how we could define an ideally rational agent.

  12. Hi,

    Oh, I guess I kinda thought ontological relativism was itself an objection...but OK, let's see if I can flesh out the intuition. what is Ideally Rational either depends on the way the world is or it does not. If it does then possible worlds cannot be simply given qualitatively. If it does not then there is no one true list of objects in any possible world. Your intuitions about incars and outcars seems to me to indicate that the way the world actually is plays a role in what is ideally rational.


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