Friday, January 25, 2013

Two Metaphysical Pictures

While there are any number of logically consistent combinations of metaphysical views that one could hold, it seems to me that there are two particularly coherent and ideologically unified competing "pictures" on offer.  We might call them the objects in flux view vs. the timeless qualities view.  Let me sketch each view in turn.

(1) Objects in Flux: On this view, objects are taken to be the fundamental building blocks of reality, and they endure as they change.  Abstracting from these concrete changes in objects gives rise to the notion of time.  But since temporal talk is just a way of regimenting the changes objects undergo, the resulting conception of time is thoroughly tensed and indeed presentist in nature.  The objects existing now are, strictly speaking, the only objects that there are; though we can also speak of what was (before certain changes took place), and speculate about what will be.

Laws of nature are generative: they govern how the world changes, and so bring about the future.  These changes involve genuine causation.

There are fundamental facts about the identities and essences of things: whether this object will endure through various changes, or whether it will instead be replaced by a different kind of thing.  In this way, the view endorses haecceitism and essentialism.  De re (or objectual) modality is seen as prior to de dicto (or qualitative) modality, as famously championed by Kripke (ht: Rad Geek):
[W]e do not begin with worlds (which are supposed somehow to be real, and whose qualities, but not whose objects, are perceptible to us), and then ask about criteria of transworld identification; on the contrary, we begin with the objects, which we have, and can identify, in the actual world. We can then ask whether certain things might have been true of the objects. (53)

(2) Timeless Qualities: On this picture, qualities (shape, mass, charge, etc.) are fundamental, and distributed across the four dimensions of space-time.  Comparing different moments of time gives rise to the notion of change.  Reality is itself tenseless, as all moments of time are metaphysically on a par.  ('Now' functions as an indexical, much like 'here'.)  They stand in 'before' and 'after' relations to other moments, but there's no privileged location in time that qualifies as objectively present.  Each moment is present to itself.  The space-time "loaf" as a whole is eternal.

Laws of nature merely describe patterns or regularities in spacetime.  They are explanatorily downstream of the space-time "loaf".  There's no fundamental causation -- mere "constant conjunction", as Hume taught us.

There are no deep facts about identities or essences -- such talk is purely conventional.  We can bundle different qualities (spread through space and time) together into "objects" however we like.  There are no deep facts about de re modality, or whether I could have been a poached egg.  All is qualitative, as Lewis would have it.  So, first we grasp the qualitative possibilities, and then we decide which of the people in those possible worlds are enough like me to qualify as my "counterparts" for our current purposes.

Do you agree that these are the most natural ways to "cluster" the specific metaphysical views discussed?  Have I missed anything?  For convenience, let's call adherents of the two pictures "Fluxians" and "Humeans", respectively.  Presumably most Humeans will be either physicalists or epiphenomenalists about the mind.  Any interactionist dualists would surely adhere to something closer to the "objects in flux" picture (though it's not a strict dichotomy, of course; also worth noting that Fluxians need not be dualists).  I suspect that Humeans tend strongly towards consequentialism, whereas deontologists are more likely to be Fluxians (or, again, somewhere in that general vicinity).

Geographically speaking, this 'Humean' worldview is strongly associated with Australian philosophy.  It seems likely to appeal to those with a penchant for systematization, and a suspicion of extravagant metaphysics.  Though rarely discussed together, it seems very natural to say, "Haecceities?  Natural rights?  Nonsense on stilts, the both of them!"

If you agree with my categorization: which cluster are you more drawn to, and why?


  1. I am sympathetic to the categorization and find myself drawn to the Humean side of the divide; my sympathies tend towards anti-hacceitism, skepticism about de re modality, physicalism, and consequentialism. I can think of at least one close friend whose sympathies are "fluxian" on every count. I suspect that Humeans will also tend towards "anti-realist" metaethical views to go along with their first order consequentialism. Though you may be an exception (I take it you are Humean but metaethically realist, though maybe I'm wrong).

    1. Yes, I guess I'm a slightly anomalous "Humean" in that respect!

    2. If the distinction is useful, and reflects more than mere sociology, I wonder: should it make you less confident in your moral realism? The general question is of course whether one should try to bring one's opinions closer to either of the two pictures.

    3. It may at least indicate that there are reasons of a sort that I'm generally very receptive to (primarily intelligibility worries, in my case, but also to some degree parsimony and "metaphysical extravagance" considerations) that I'm resisting in this particular case. That's not necessarily a problem: it may well be that normativity is genuinely intelligible in a way that haecceities, say, are not. So we may reach different verdicts about the two while recognizing that it's no accident that people's views on them tend to be highly correlated.

      That said, I definitely feel the pull of the metaphysical objections to normative realism. So, partly for that reason, I'm not actually all that confident in the view. Rather, I'm confident that either normative realism or nihilism/error theory is true, and I then accept the former as a "working hypothesis" on "might as well" grounds -- it can't be that we ought to accept normative nihilism, after all! (If it's true then it doesn't matter, so we might as well accept the alternative whose truth might actually matter. At least then we have a chance of believing as we ought to.)

    4. Thanks for the reply, Richard.

      I'm curious about the reasoning outlined in your second paragraph. Do you think this argument works whenever one has some non-zero credence in normative realism? Suppose someone is torn between theism and nihilism/error theory, and doesn't take non-theistic normative realism to be a live option. Should this person accept theism on the grounds that at least then he has a chance of believing as he ought to?

    5. That would seem to depend on the more general question of what a person "should" believe when they are psychologically incapable of separating two theses, one of which is justified and the other of which isn't.

  2. Humean too, though I strongly suspect that with a little kaleidoscopic perspective-shifting and broadening, the two can be shown to be equivalent.

  3. I'm sorry Richard but I don't find this taxonomy useful and I think the impulse to try to treat metaphysics as a collision of (to use your term) "ideologies" of any description a bad idea.

    I know that American grad schools teach philosophy as a collection of ".isms" to be compared and contrasted but I think the evidence (cf. any current professional journal) suggests this approach has not been very productive. Indeed it seems to me to have been so poisonous to philosophical discourse that the practice should be actively deplored.

    So, suppose that we decide some particular doctrine or philosopher is or is not "Fluxean". So what?

    1. Hi Tomkow, I was thinking that it would be interesting, if true, that various views are strongly correlated in the way I've described. I think it's especially interesting if the correlation is no mere sociological accident, but due to a deeper coherence of content between various particular views. That is, while there are any number of bundles of views that one could hold, my thought was that some bundles are more unified and coherent than others. If that's true, and if there are two main coherent bundles as I've proposed here, then it would seem illuminating to recognize this fact (if it is one): that various more particular debates aren't just taking place "in isolation", so to speak, but can be seen as stemming from a more general and fundamental clash of worldviews.

      So, when you doubt that this is "useful", which particular step are you denying? That the views are in fact correlated? That there's a philosophical (and not merely sociological) reason for the correlation? Or that big-picture questions about how naturally various particular positions "fit together" are interesting?

    2. Hi Richard! Sorry to sound grumpy on this theme, but I think it touches on serious questions about how to approach philosophical problems.

      Quine once joked that whether or not one was attracted to nominalism might depend upon whether one had "a taste for desert landscapes". He meant it as a joke, because, even if it was true: so what?

      I'm all for trying to determine when metaphysical thesis are *logically* contradictory, contrary , or mutually entailing. But that doesn't seem to be your project. You are interested in trying to group ideas that "fit together" (nb. The sneer quotes are yours ) or "cohere" or "correlate".

      You see a "fit" (correlation? Coherence?) between e.g. Endurance theories, Presentism and "generative" views of laws. I take it that you are not claiming that these views are mutually entailing-- that would be an interesting claim-- but rather that they are "clustered" in some other way.

      But what way? The organizing principle seems to be that that someone who is tempted by one "picture" is likely to like another? If so, so what?

      I think the philosophical literature is already full of two many ill defined "isms" and too many people who prefer taxonomizing ideas to engaging them.

    3. Okay, it sounds like you're skeptical that the correlations here are of anything more than sociological interest. But note that there are interesting epistemic relations besides those of strict logical entailment. There are, for example, relations of inductive support. That's more like what I have in mind when I talk of views mutually "cohering". Even if not strictly entailed, I find it plausible that Haecceitism, for example, is more likely to be true if Presentism is. In other cases, e.g. consequentialism and naturalism, it may be that the views share similar theoretical virtues (and alleged shortcomings) -- theoretical simplicity at the cost of contradicting certain pre-theoretic intuitions, say. While obviously weaker than relations of logical entailment, these other epistemic relations strike me as being similar in kind, and so of similar philosophical interest.

      (I confess, I'm also simply interested in the sociology and psychology of philosophy -- if some views appeal more to people with certain personalities or aesthetic sensibilities, that seems pretty interesting to me! But if you disagree, that's fine, no-one's forcing you to take part in the conversation.)

      I'm not sure I really understand the general objection to "isms". I mean, I'm on board with opposing "ill defined" things (in favour of well-defined ones), but the fact remains that if we are to talk about different views then it can be useful to give them names...

    4. Chappell - I think this little comparison of yours is well worth speculation! And further, I see Quine as one who rather be all for it: If we can find Occam's Ontology then pragmatic/scientific principles should lead us to (passively?) accept them!

      It's my suspicion that the fluxian view has more metaphysical baggage, and a lot more work to do than the Humean to bring about epistemic consistency within philosophy and also relating without

  4. I'm struck by the fact that this is pretty much a rationalist / empiricist divide: all of the major historical rationalists are Fluxians or Fluxian-tending, and all the major historical empiricists are at least Humean-tending (although I think for the most part only -tending). (Of course individual rationalists and empiricists will tend the opposite direction on certain points.) And I think even more strongly definite modern Fluxians would clearly be more likely to have sympathies for strong rationalist positions than definite modern Humeans. If this is true, though, I think the systematization is chiefly a peculiarity of the Australian version, and not something that appeals to Humeans generally; in general people attracted to empiricism seem less likely to be interested in systematization than people attracted to rationalism.

    I don't like either cluster in most of their modern versions (for instance, I have much more respect for Hume than Humeans in this sense), but forced to choose I would without any hesitation pick the Fluxion side; why settle for weak swill when you have at least a chance at strong ale? I'd rather dismiss ambitious metaphysics as too extravagant at the end of the inquiry than at the beginning. But that's more along the lines of a wager I'd rather lose than never make, and not so much temperamental sympathy, on which I think I'm all over the map.

    1. Interesting (especially the point about the contingency of associating systematizing tendencies with Humeans)!

  5. Funny how you word things. You set the sentences causation from Humean to some other believe, but to some other believe to Fluxean.

    Humean --> physicalists; epiphenomenalists; consequentialism;

    Interactionist dualists;deontologists --> Fluxean

    This makes me think you are a Humean, although I don't know exactly why. Maybe it sounds like Humeans follow the consequence of their believes, but Fluxean chose believes to justify what they would like to do.

    1. No rhetorical effect intended. It's really a difference in the logical relations. The "Fluxian" view leaves more options open, in many respects. A Fluxian could be a physicalist or an epiphenomenalist, just as easily as a Humean. But if you want to be an interactionist dualist, you really need to be a Fluxian. Hence the Humean picture forces you more towards one of the alternatives: physicalism or epiphenomenalism.


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