Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Ontological Commitment
by Daniel A. Kaufman
My working idea in these prolegomena is that (a) philosophers feel forced to embrace various “desperate” positions (Panpsychism, Dualism, Illusionism, etc.), because of a number of (often venerated) assumptions that they’ve taken on board, all of which happen to be wrong, and (b) the re-examination of those assumptions, within the frame of Wilfrid Sellars’ famous distinction between the Scientific and Manifest Images (or at least, that distinction as I understand it) will show us why the adoption of such “desperate” positions is unnecessary, because the problems they purport to address – the free will problem; the mind/body problem; etc. – are not, in fact, problems at all.
Regarding these assumptions, one of the most far-reaching in terms of the damage it has caused is what I have been referring to as the “hypostatic” conception of ontology: that to be is to be a thing; that existing is something that things – in the sense of discrete objects and substrates – do.
It is because of this assumption that so many of the most mundane, obviously existing things cause such terrible headaches for philosophers. People clearly exist – there are three in my house right now – but what kind of things are they? Efforts to suggest that ‘person’ and ‘human being’ are co-extensive (or to be even more extreme, synonymous) lead us down various reductionist roads, the failures of which then lead some to the “desperate” positions already mentioned: Dualism (people are spiritual entities (whatever those are supposed to be)); Eliminativism (there are no people); Illusionism (people are an illusion (useful or un-useful)); etc. But why think people are “things” at all? Because they exist? That’s the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment at work, and I see no reason to accept it.
In “On What There Is,” W.V.O. Quine, a diehard naturalistic philosopher, admits that his theory of ontological commitment (more on which in a moment) indicates that numbers and sets and the like exist. (“We commit ourselves to an ontology containing numbers when we say there are prime numbers larger than a million…”) If they don’t, then the truth-conditions of statements concerning them are going to be difficult to make sense of, and they can’t be spirited away by clever analysis, as Russell did with the (non-existing) “present King of France,” in On Denoting (a method Quine is happy to employ in dealing with all manner of statements about non-existing entities).
But this may strike philosophers as leading to thorny problems, such as the dilemma described in Paul Benacerraf’s famous paper, “Mathematical Truth.” If numbers and sets and the like exist, then what kinds of things can they be? Well, they obviously aren’t material – what is 7 made of? – so they must be Platonic things; so-called “abstract objects.” But then, how do we know anything about them, insofar as we can have no perceptual or other causal interaction with things that are not material? And before we know it, we are off to the desperation races.
Quine notes that these particular races, whether ending in Nominalism, Platonism, Conceptualism, etc., go back as far as the Middle Ages and that the options haven’t changed much in the thousand or so years that have since passed, which alone suggests that something is amiss. But, why think numbers or sets are “things” at all? Thinking they are or that they must be if they exist is just the hypostatic conception of ontological commitment again, and as I just said, I see no reason to accept it.
I essentially want to agree with Quine that to exist is no more (nor less) than to be the value of a bound variable in a true statement, with the recognition, of course, that there may be some complexities with which we will need to contend (apparently true statements about Santa Claus and the like, for example). And I will want to emphasize – as Quine does not, other than indirectly – that ontological commitment implies nothing about “thingness”; indeed, that it suggests nothing at all about the manner of being, in which the ontologically committed-to participate. But, I want to reject his claim that ontological commitment should be reserved for or restricted to that which must exist in order for the statements of our best scientific theories to be true, as this either would require us to say that some of the most obviously existing things – tables and chairs, for example – do not, in fact exist (which is one of the “desperate” views these prolegomena are designed to help us avoid), or else to stretch the word ‘scientific theory’ in such a way as to render it essentially useless. Then again, it’s not entirely clear that this way of describing Quine gets him quite right. What he says is:
Our acceptance of an ontology is, I think, similar in principle to our acceptance of a scientific theory, say a system of physics: we adopt, at least insofar as we are reasonable, the simplest conceptual scheme into which the disordered fragments of raw experience can be fitted and arranged. Our ontology is determined once we have fixed upon the over-all conceptual scheme which is to accommodate science in the broadest sense…
If we reject the hypostatic understanding of ontological commitment, as I do, then it is not obvious to me that tables, chairs, people, parking regulations render our “over-all conceptual scheme” unable to “accommodate science in the broadest sense.” Such commitments in no way contradict or clash with science, if we do not understand them as saddling us with strange objects or substances existing in strange manners. So, the emendation of Quine that I have suggested may not even be necessary.
Adopting a non-hypostatic Quinean conception of ontological commitment makes it possible for us to reject materialism without saddling us with strange entities and substances, and as a result, the supposed problems that arise either from being forced to countenance such things or by “eliminating” them or treating them as “illusions” disappear like wisps of smoke. Non-material things exist – people and municipalities and parking regulations for example – but that does not mean they are immaterial things, but only that they aren’t things at all. The protest “but what are they then?” is inapt, because it presumes existing without thingness is problematic or strange, something that is not born either of our ordinary language or behavior – there is nothing problematic or strange or even uncommon about thinking that there are practices, values, forms of life, etc., and not thinking they are things – but of peculiarly philosophical predilections and scruples that should be and are easily dropped.
Note that all of the so-called “interaction” problems that we encounter in philosophy, whether in the philosophy of mind (“how does a non-physical mind interact with a physical body?”), the philosophy of mathematics (“how do we, material beings, have knowledge of non-material, mathematical entities, with which we cannot causally interact?”), etc., depend on the hypostatic understanding of ontological commitment. And think about what strange problems they are. Does anyone puzzle over how they interact with other people or with their bicycles or with parking regulations? Of course not, and that’s because they haven’t embraced a set of assumptions that turn such mundane interactions into problems. (My point here is intended to be reminiscent of some of Austin’s criticisms of philosophers’ uses of terms like ‘material object’ and ‘illusion’, in Sense and Sensibilia).
How my believing that there are girls in the mall and my wanting to meet girls “makes” my going to the mall happen or “how it is possible for me to know” that 2+2=4 are only puzzling for people in the grip of a number of assumptions (and notions born of those assumptions), none of which anyone need accept. One of those assumptions, as we’ve seen here – and it’s a big one – is that ontological commitment is hypostatic. But there are others, some equally as significant, to which I will turn my attention in future installments.
Works Mentioned (in order of appearance)
W.V.O. Quine, “On What There Is” (1948) http://www.uvm.edu/~lderosse/courses/metaph/OnWhatThereIs.pdf
Bertrand Russell, “On Denoting” (1905) http://www.uvm.edu/~lderosse/courses/lang/Russell(1905).pdf
Paul Benacerraf, “Mathematical Truth” (1973) http://thatmarcusfamily.org/philosophy/Course_Websites/Math_S08/Readings/Benacerraf.pdf
J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (1962)