Thursday, July 12, 2007

Truthmakers of Existence

I highly recommend Ross Cameron's paper on 'Truthmakers and Ontological commitment' [doc]. He rejects the Quinean dogma that allows "serious ontological questions [to be] decided by linguistic facts," and argues instead that a claim like "there are tables" may be literally true without committing us to the inclusion of tables in our fundamental ontology:
Once we allow that the truthmaker for <x exists> can be something other than x this becomes an option on the table: ‘there is a sum of A, B and C’ might be true – but perhaps we don’t need a complex object to make it true: perhaps A, B and C themselves are enough to make this sentence true.

I like it! (Cf. the representational fallacy.) Cameron allows that x exists in such a case, but insists that it does so derivatively, i.e. x doesn't really - fundamentally - exist. This then raises my old worry: what is it to exist fundamentally? This problem is brought out by the fascinating penultimate section of Cameron's paper, when he writes:
I suggested... a picture of the world whereby the only things that really exist are simples, but where we have complex objects as derivative existents. But of course, we can run something like the above story without it being the simples that are taken as fundamental. We could follow Jonathan Schaffer and claim that there is only one fundamental existent – the world – with the proper parts of the world being taken as derivative.

What's the difference? The world is how it is, and this can be described from the perspective of various mereological 'levels' (from the greatest whole to the smallest parts), but - I'm inclined to suggest - at the end of the day there's nothing to decide between them. What would it even mean to privilege one level rather than another with a deeper status of 'being'? What is this difference supposed to consist in, exactly? I just can't get a grasp on what's being claimed here.

If forced to pick one, I'd go with Schaffer's suggestion that the world is fundamental. I don't think that anything else is. And I guess I can't very well claim that everything's derivative; the buck must stop somewhere. So maybe I'm committed to this view after all. I'm not sure, though. I'd really prefer to reject the fundamental/derivative distinction altogether, and simply say that claims are made true by the world - the way things are - without giving ontological priority to any particular aspect of it -- even the unitary entity "the world". In other words, I'd like to get by without any ontology at all (or with a moderately relativistic ontology, may be a better way of putting it). Have I any chance of getting away with this, or is the suggestion simply confused?


  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading both Cameron and Schaffer on this topic. If you want to take metaphysical explanation seriously you need a fundamental level. As to whether it is more likely to be the simples or the world which is ontologically prior, I think (contra Schaffer’s analysis) that we have some good posteriori evidence from science that reduction is the better path toward explanation. This argues that the world is built up from fundamental simples.
    Best regards, - Steve Esser

  2. Thanks for the nice comments about my paper.

    There're (at least) two ways you can think of the fundamental/derivative distinction.

    The norm (held by people like Jonathan Lowe) is, I think, to think of it as a distinction amongst everything that has being. That is: we've got our ontology, and then we select a proper sub-part of that ontology and privilege it as fundamental, holding that the rest of our ontology is merely derivative, or ontologically dependent, on that privileged sub-part.

    So understood, I simply have no idea what fundamental/derivative is meant to mean. I don't understand what ontological priority is meant to be when it is thus construed.

    I am thinking of the distinction very differently. (Or at least, I'm aiming to!) (Some things Schaffer says in print suggest to me he's thinking of it in a similar way to me, as opposed to the way characterised above - but some things he's said in person go against this.)

    The derivative, I hold, has no being at all. Our ontology is exhausted by the fundamental ontology. When I say that tables are derivative, I mean to not admit tables into my ontology - not to accord them any being at all. I don't mean to say that they have being, but somehow have less being than the simples that compose them: I don't know what that means.

    Tables have no being. Look in God's ontological shopping basket and you won't find any tables. But, nevertheless, the sentence 'tables exist' is a true sentence of English. And that's all I mean by saying that tables exist derivatively. The sentence that proclaims their existence is a true one. But we can't, I claim, conclude that tables have any being from the truth of this.

    So the choice between (priority) monism and pluralism, for me, is not a choice over what in our ontology to privilege. It is a choice over what to admit into our ontology. Do we admit lots of small things or one big thing? All I want to insist on is that making this choice doesn't by itself decide the question as to the truth-value of claims concerning the existence of the things we chose not to admit into our ontology.

    Does that help at all?

  3. Hi Ross, thanks for the clarification!

    I guess I'm a bit confused by ontological debate in general. Given that the world is such as to make 'tables exist' true, I'm not sure what's at stake over the further question whether they have "being". Holding all other truths of the world fixed, what difference does our ontology make? Perhaps it's the issue of "metaphysical explanation" that Steve points to. Or I guess you would say that only things in our ontology can do truthmaking work for us. Here I have trouble imagining how we could decide between the one big world or all the small things in it (they seem equivalent!), but maybe I just need to read more of the first-order work that's done in this field.

    (Can you recommend a good entry point in the literature?)


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