Tuesday, March 06, 2007

MM Chalmers: On Another MetaMetaphysical Taxonomy

As I understand it, David Chalmers’ ‘Ontological Anti-Realism’ has two main aims: first to explore the geography of positions in metametaphysics (§§2&5-6), and then to offer a consideration in favour of the view he labels ‘ontological anti-realism’ vis-à-vis the view he labels ‘lightweight ontological realism’ (§7). I’ve found the latter less than compelling: I hope to post on it soon, but the main source of concern is already discussed at bleb. Here I want to voice some worries about the former, taxonomical part.

According to him, (ontological) realism holds, while (ontological) anti-realism denies, that the relevant “ontological existence assertions” have a determinate and objective truth-value. Non-surprisingly, for an assertion to have a determinate truth-value is for it to be true or false. Quite more surprisingly, for an assertion to have an objective truth-value is for its truth-value not to depend on features of the context of utterance—nor of that of assessment, if this other sort of dependence ultimately makes sense. (This is surprising, for it makes the truth-value of my utterance of ‘I weight (now, here) exactly 193#’ non-objective! (See related discussion of this by Carrie Jenkins and comments at TAR.)

What is it that makes an assertion—an utterance of a declarative sentence—ontological as opposed to ordinary is, however, much trickier. I reckon that I found his gloss of the distinction—in terms of the “correctness” (truth, or otherwise) of the assertions being or not “obviously” “sensitive” to “ontological matters”—less than fully satisfactory. He himself admits that his gloss is disputable, but claims the distinction itself to be a natural (enough) one. As argued by Jonathan Schaffer (comments posted at FoC), however, the examples only seem to motivate the view that in some contexts the domain of quantifiers is restricted—in a way that is relevant for accounting for intuitions as to which assertions are regarded as conversationally appropriate (in those contexts), even if (perhaps) less than, strictly speaking, true. In any case, and as JS also emphasizes, the taxonomy only seems to require the notion of “ontological” existence assertions, or existence assertions hereafter. Thus realism holds, while antirealism denies, that the relevant existence assertions are true or false, regardless of the context(s).

A crucial subdivision within realism concerns the heavyweight vs lightweight varieties thereof. It is here that I have my main worry. Officially, the latter but not the former holds that the (determinate, objective) truth-values are nevertheless “shallow” or “lightweight.” Elsewhere, however, what seems relevant is whether they are somehow answerable to conceptual analysis. The two kinds of distinctions would not be in tension if considerations of ‘analyticity’ and the like were always “shallow” or “lightweight,” what seems far from being correct!

To illustrate, consider the view that I propose to label analytical universalism, having it that

Whenever there are two things there is something which is a sum of them.

has the same relevant form as and shares the relevant logico-semantic status with

Whenever something is a proper part of another, there is something that is part of the latter but not of the former.

but that establishing that this is so requires a great amount of substantive, everything but trivial, philosophizing (“from the armchair,” as it were). (As he observes, David Lewis might have been one such analytical universalist; I also have sympathies for this view.) A defender of this view would not regard the (genuine) dispute between herself and her opponents as semantic (or “terminological”)—although it is a matter of (substantive, non-trivial) conceptual analysis to settle which view is the correct one. Now she would be counted as a heavyweight realist, according to the letter of the official characterization, but as a lightweight one according to the unofficial one (which seems to be the one in place elsewhere, see for instance footnote 13 on Lewis).

1 comment:

Oscar Cabaco said...

I must confess that I thought that more important to Chalmers’ purposes was the claim that philosophers use a different peculiar sort of existential quantifier, the “absolute existential quantifier” or “heavyweight quantifier”. Since this is a question that is addressed by Dan just indirectly I would find interesting if someone else agrees with me and gives an opinion about this issue (and then I’ll know that I’m not alone in my interpretation of the article.) Personally I found this hard to swallow, but maybe that’s because I would identify myself as a lightweight realist.... Of course, another interesting question is whether those who claim that ontological questions are not answerable a priori would accept Chalmers’ view on quantification in philosophical discourse...