Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics: Ontological Commitment

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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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)

https://www.amazon.com/Sense-Sensibilia-J-L-Austin/dp/0195003071

47 Comments »

  1. Thanks. I think I agree with all of this. Or, at least, I agree to the extent that I understand it.

    Ontology has always been a puzzle for me. I’ve managed to get through life without it. Particularly puzzling to me, as a mathematician, was the ontology of mathematics. I didn’t see any point to it.

    I remember asking a philosopher about that, and he explained it to me. So I suppose it made sense, but it still didn’t have any point as best I could tell.

    When doing mathematics, of course I talk about the existence of solutions for equations. But it seemed to me that saying numbers exist is merely a matter of allowing certain ways of talking about numbers. And I think that’s about the same as the Quine view of existence that you mention. I don’t have a problem with that. I have been tentatively calling that the epistemic sense of “exist”, because it really should be part of epistemology (in my opinion).

    But then there is some other sense of “exist” that many philosophers and mathematical platonists use, and which I don’t find at all useful. I’ve been tentatively calling that the metaphysical sense of “exist”, and it is probably what you are describing as hypostatic. I can understand why a theist would use that as applying to what God created. But I cannot see why a non-theist non-dualist would find it at all useful. It seems to get in the way of understanding how we relate to the world. And yes, it causes confusion about questions related to free will and to consciousness.

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  2. I’ve been finding these essays interesting in part because I’ve seen you invoke the “Sellars’ move” to deal with several different problems without being at all sure of the details of what you thought you were doing and where you thought that left us regarding various sorts of questions that some of us might find interesting.

    One question I have is do you take “thingness” to be binary? I don’t think we should. Chairs are simple straightforward things in being discrete objects that can be counted, are at some place and not another, and displace other physical objects. But people can also be counted and they exist at particular places and not others. Same of municipalities. I grew up in a suburban county where the older towns closest to the big city got surrounded while they were still small and thus could never grow. The communities out on the edge didn’t want this to happen to them and got into an annexation race where they pushed their boundaries out tens of miles. Cities displace one another–a tract of land in one city cannot be in another. That is a very thinglike property. We can count emotions. That’s thinglike. But if we take a big swan dive into Platonism and start taking about Love, well that gets weird since there is a lot about the idea that isn’t thing like at all.

    One of the most powerful insights/tools of mathematics is that relations have thing like properties. A perfectly generic example is starting with a space–a set of objects with some structure–and defining some sort of functions in this space. Now you can consider a new space whose points are all the functions on the prior space. Turning relationships into objects so as to define new relationships on the new objects can happen over and over. Treating all this stuff as things is the whole point and mathematicians certainly aren’t bothered by it and few take any interest in philosophical ontology.

    I think I have some sense of what you mean by the “hypostic conception of ontology” but it is not clear to me that “thing like properties” is what really gets to the issue.

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  3. “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.”

    Absolutely. I have no problems with the substance of what is being said in this piece.

    But, obviously, many philosophers do not see things like this and will continue to hold tight to their “peculiarly philosophical predilections and scruples.”

    I am reminded of an encounter between the Wittgensteinian Paul Horwich and Timothy Williamson. Williamson got really annoyed with Horwich because he saw what Horwich was saying as implying that philosophers more often than not create their own problems.

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  4. I had the great fortune of attending the 1998 American Philosophy Assoc, conference in which both Davidson and Quine were attendants and spoke. It was difficult to follow and I took many copious notes, now since lost. Reading this actually these three essays in particular, brings me back in a way to that time though now things appear clearer to me than they did then.
    I actually should like to see a full book length discussion of this by you, possibly with an interlocutor, or just you alone. I would definitely read it.
    What do you suppose Quine means when he demands that we “accommodate science?” Is this a scientific turn in philosophy more generally and if so what did it mean for philosophy more generally? I am interested in how you define the boundary of philosophy and science, if it is all basically rooted in the Sellars or there is even more to it than that.

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  5. “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.”

    After the last post on professionals versus amateurs, we have a bald sentence like this one. That, somehow, poor old materialists have no approaches that deal with entities like municipalities and parking regulations. The first thing I notice about these is that they have complex structures, in the same way many material objects do. I then consider that I can make a material object with static and dynamic physical properties that map exactly onto the relevant abstract “mind-stuff” properties of these latter two (and argue that one goal of artificial intelligence is to produce material objects with the same relevant properties as persons). Computationalism is not just the latest fashion in analogies for life and mind, it is the also the most sophisticated in terms of empirical proofs that the “immaterial things” it deals with are real.

    Re mathematics, my main exposure is to applied statistics, where abstracta like the Central Limit Theorem and random matrix theory lead to, as Deift (2005) calls it, universal behaviours, which are constantly validated by my empirical experience. I understand one attraction of Higher Order Type Theory and categorical logic is it geometric foundations, which pander to statements like Vladimir Arnold’s that “Mathematics is a part of physics”.

    Specifically to Bencerraf, I’ll just point to Maddy (1980) Perception and Mathematical Intuition, who sketches a process for how we “acquire perceptual beliefs about sets of physical objects, and that our ability to do this develops in much the same way as that in which our ability to perceive physical objects develops”. We know that artificial neural networks mimicking natural neural networks end up with patterns of weights in parts of the (recurrent) hierarchical linear structure that concretize recurrent hierarchical linear statistical models (of the type I use every day) that we can inspect (either kind) and see that they represent particular concepts. There is to me an implication that now rationality has become more easily mathematized, there is a retreat to sensation as being the hard bit.

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    • After the last post on professionals versus amateurs, we have a bald sentence like this one. That, somehow, poor old materialists have no approaches that deal with entities like municipalities and parking regulations.

      = = = =

      Not sure what the juxtaposition of the first and second sentences is supposed to mean. Is the suggestion that I am not a professional, but rather some sort of amateur.

      There has been nothing remotely near a satisfactory — even non-laughable –materialist account of social reality presented thus far. And your remarks re: Benacerraf have zero to do with what I was invoking him for.

      You should watch the link that Mark posted, in which Paul Horwich — who very much represents my side of these matters — patiently and kindly dismantles Tim Williamson, who is one of the leading (and most smug) proponents of the standard way of doing business in philosophy. It’s really something to behold.

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      • “And your remarks re: Benacerraf have zero to do with what I was invoking him for”. Maddy is specifically addressing Benacerraf’s thesis, arguing that naive set theory arises from “perceptual beliefs” (ie intuitions) that she suggests can be explained along Hebbian terms (ie as neural networks). Then the reductionistic view is that mathematical sets are homologous sets of weights in neural networks present within different individual humans who use and discuss these intuitions. Does this beg some questions? I _think_ some form of qualified platonism might be necessary to allow me to think coherently about this, in that how can I summarize the correlation and coordination of the physical traces of these thoughts in the brains of different mathematicians except in terms of a larger model in my brain or the memory of a computer?

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        • I only invoked Benacerraf as an example of how a hypostatic conception of ontology, with regard to mathematics, quickly leads you to dilemmas like that described in “Mathematical Truth.”

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    • Outside hard-copy textual representations (print in law books, parking signs, parking tickets, etc.), I have no idea what a material (in the sense of the word used here) parking regulation would look like. Would we get such from a construction company or electronics manufacture? ‘Please build a parking regulation.’ Would they come in a box or need on-site construction?

      “… one goal of artificial intelligence is to produce material objects with the same relevant properties as persons” Please remember to include the relevant sex organs – robots can get lonely sometimes! (They get it from the loneliness store – it does come in a box, batteries not included.)

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      • The whole idea is ridiculous. Even if you say we can “reduce” parking regulations to sets of practices, there is no way to characterize those practices other than in intentional and ultimately teleological terms. And there can be no “reductions” of these to material properties or processes.

        When David says stuff like this, he’s just demonstrating that he hasn’t thought it through for even thirty seconds. He’s just waving his hand, and stuff is flying around and landing on the wall in random patterns.

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        • I’m following this with great interest.
          If I understand it correctly, it’s not about the manifest or the scientific worldview as frameworks to describe the world, but about the meaningful questions that can be asked within these frameworks.
          As a physicist, I tend to agree with your position.
          “Intentional and ultimately teleological” questions don’t have a place in the scientific worldview as it is commonly understood, unless, of course, one assumes that “existing things” have teleological qualities, something that’s not supported by science as I know it (although it’s a trap that’s easy to fall in when discussing subjects like evolution).

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        • Hi Dan.

          “juxtaposition of the first and second sentences”: This was a slightly uncharitable allusion to the fact that you make not even a token nod to that bulk of philosophers who hew to a “scientific realism” and to “naturalism”. The second sentence is merely that those characters have philosophical theories about “tables, chairs, people, parking regulations” that they presumably do not think particularly desperate – rather that they think they align with our best current scientific theories. Like most scientific theories, they also presumably think that any weird speculative ontologies (qv quantum mechanics) must be completely consonant with their own and their interlocutors’ subjective experiences of the world “of medium sized objects”, some of which move around and do things. Personally, I am aware of lots of scientific theories applicable to these entities that I feel expand my knowledge of the world, even though you seem to be equally sure they have absolutely nothing to say.

          For example, as to reduction of parking regulations, I reckon it is *self-evident* that these are complex mechanisms to maximize the efficiency of our mechanized society, and that there is no single planner involved ie they have evolved via the interactions between agents at multiple levels (geometry and physics of roads and vehicles, drivers, planning departments, legislatures) – that is, any overall telos arises at the system level (viz the physiologists’ organismal analogy for societies I cited earlier).

          Re hand waving, these are short comments to a blog posting. Nevertheless, I would like to think there is an underlying coherent hypothesis there about difficult questions – those interested can look at my blog about how they might hang together in the most general sense.

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          • David, the really honest, most dedicated materialists — like Alex Rosenberg — are Eliminativists, so it’s not as if anti-reductionism is limited to anti-materialists like me.

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          • Re reductionism for parking regulations, Rosenberg [2015] has it that :

            …[N]aturalism tells us that the social norms, like all norms, will be instrumental, hypothetical imperatives, grounded in means/ends regularities that emerge randomly and get fixed into conventions, ones not much different from ‘drive on the left or the right, but not both.’ We have David Lewis (1969 Convention, Harvard, 1969), and Skyrms [Signals, evolution, leaning and information. 2010] to thank for an introduction to how these norms get developed, maintained and stabilized, as solutions to Darwinian design problems.

            I don’t quite understand what Rosenberg is eliminating w.r.t. intentionality (opacity), and point out he is not 57% of the respondents to the The PhilPapers Surveys who “Accept or lean toward: physicalism re the mind”. And even though he eliminates intentionality, I presume he might endorse scientific statements like [Reddy and Thorpe 2014]

            Concept cells are highly selective neurons that seem to represent the meaning of a given stimulus in a manner that is invariant to different representations of that stimulus. For example, a single neuron in the human hippocampus was found to selectively respond to several different pictures of the actress Halle Berry, even when she was disguised as Catwoman, the role she played in one of her movies. The same neuron also responded to the letter string “HALLE BERRY” but not to other letter strings.

            as a possible substrate underlying something that others label intentionality.

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          • David, Rosenberg is an eliminative materialist. It’s not a secret. But honestly, I am having a difficulty even deciphering what most of your latest response says, so I think I’m going to bow out at this point. You reject my approach. I reject yours (to the extent that I understand it). We’ll just have to develop our own lines of thought and see who is the more persuasive.

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      • ‘”Perhaps the most daring research of all…is an attempt to synthesize living matter…using only six basic ingredients.”
        ‘”If you would do an old man the kindness,” croaked the monk. “…I was wondering – are they permitting him to use both hands?…And…is it to be performed from the sitting, standing, or prone positions?”‘

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  6. Taking my inspiration from Wittgenstein, I wonder whether the 20th-century philosopher’s idolization of first-order quantificational logic — manifest, for example, in Quine’s dictum that to be is to be the value of a bound variable — has contributed to the sense that to be is to be a thing.

    After all, every interpretation invokes discrete items in relations, or with properties, or as members of sets, etc. Even interpretations of higher-order logics treat concepts or properties or relations as if they are discrete things.

    I for one could see how, combined with other assumptions about how formal languages are telescopes that let us peer into the metaphysical firmament, the fastidious translation of philosophical claims into these languages and the insistence on “doing philosophy” in the medium of these languages would lull one into a certain metaphysical picture of reality according to which there are none but discrete items and their properties or relations.

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    • ‘”teleological” questions don’t have a place in the scientific worldview’:
      You’d be aware of the discussions around the principle of least action in this context.

      ‘a trap that’s easy to fall in when discussing subjects like evolution’: yeah, well, just like Jaegwon Kim’s “conclusion…that although we cannot have physicalism tout court, we can have something nearly as good”, I think there is something pretty much like teleology out in the world, but without a single locus, being inherent in large enough complex self-organising systems. Either you think putting “self” and “organising” together only applies to humans, or it is a literal description of some of the things science studies. Continuing, if one follows Hume and thinks the sentiments rule the intellect, and if one is also a naturalist then you would also surely think that human goal-directedness has roots in the historical interaction between environment, genes and behaviour, rather than appealing to a non-Real Space of Reasons.
      You can decide if I am throwing things at the wall or not.

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      • Dan will correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the teleology of the principle of stationary action (if any) is related to the teleology he’s talking about.

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        • Hi Couvent. We are back with Bellarmine and Galileo – that is, Bellarmine has no problems with a heliocentric model for the purposes of doing calculations in the same way that biologists are allowed to the use the “intentional stance” every day in generating compact hypotheses about “apparently” goal-directed behaviours in the dumb animals. A fun example that Jerry Coyne recently
          mentioned
          is about how Japanese bees rather uniquely kill an Asian giant hornet – by forming a ball of bees around it that vibrate their abdomens to generate heat sufficient to cook it to death. At the reductionistic level, we understand pretty clearly about how this behaviour has arisen and persists in these bees. As a compact high level description, however, I can say “the purpose of this behaviour is to destroy a dangerous predator with the ends of continuing the existence of the hive”. I don’t think distorts any of the key features of the processes involved, specifically if we are producing a model of how the behaviour could fail ie of pathology (eg “if an insufficient number of bees takes part in the behaviour, the temperature will not be high enough”). It’s really easy to define pathological processes in a teleological framework (diseases are processes that impair organismal flourishing), but hard in other ways (statistical etc). I have read and listened to Massimo Pigliucci on these matters, and I think he is missing the point about levels of description.


          Mossio and Bich [Synthese 2017]
          make similar arguments.

          And I can also make the reverse move in psychology when I talk about unconscious motivations for human behaviours (pace Rorty’s joke “Consider the fact that only philosophers remain perplexed about how one can have unconscious motives and desires”). In the Manifest Image, where the person gives an empirically falsifiable reason for doing something. Are unconscious reasons “teleonomic”, and conscious reasons “teleological”?

          At the level of physics, organisms are physical, and that at the lowest level of self-organisational processes in metabolism, one looks to the thermodynamics of information. I have posted references previously.

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          • Davidlduffy,

            When biologists use the intentional stance to study behavior, are they reducing intentions to “existing, material things” on a lower level of description? I don’t think so. They say that this material thing – a Japanese bee – shows intentional behavior, and analyze it from that point of view.

            I don’t know anything about Japanese bees, but in itself it’s not necessarily problematic to observe that material things show intentional behavior. Even Dan (I suppose) will admit that humans are made of existing material things.

            The question, in my opinion, is: when you are examining behavior within the framework of an intentional stance, can you find the answer in the Scientific Worldview, i.e. on a “lower level” as you say? Again, I don’t think so. What does the lower level tell you? That this behavior of Japanese bees “evolved”. But intentions are absent in evolution.

            Maybe I’m misunderstanding what Dan is trying to say, but that’s for me the point. If you’re using the Scientific Worldview to answer questions it cannot answer, by its own limitations, the results risk to be disappointing, weird or even absurd.

            And being a physicist – more like an ex-physicist, but OK – I immediately add that the same is true for the Manifest Worldview.

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          • Hi Couvent.

            “…you’re using the Scientific Worldview to answer questions it cannot answer”

            I’m saying that the intentional stance is actually a standard part of the Scientific Image when applied in biology, and obviously in the human sciences. We can write the models, just there’s a lot more randomness, one has to be cautious in one’s interpretations. Re intentionality, check out the literature on teleosemantics.

            More SI/MI, just been reading Menninghaus et al in the journal Poetics on the the emotional and aesthetic powers of parallelistic diction.

            Going beyond studies on cognitive facilitation effects of individual parallelistic features (most notably rhyme, alliteration, and meter), the present study shows that the joint employment of multiple such features in 40 sad and joyful poems intensifies all emotional response dimensions (joy, sadness, being moved, intensity, and positive affect) and all aesthetic appreciation dimensions (beauty, liking, and melodiousness) that we measured.

            It’s a bog-standard scientific paper that cites Cicero, Quintillian and Aristotle.

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          • I’m saying that the intentional stance is actually a standard part of the Scientific Image when applied in biology, and obviously in the human sciences.

            I tend to think of the scientific image as being mostly the image from physics. I see biology as using something closer to the manifest image, though it is mixed. Biochemistry is using something close to the scientific image. But ethology is mainly using the manifest image.

            At least, that’s how I see it.

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          • Just a side note, that I find it amusing that you link to a post by Jerry Coyne, who, as a dogmatic hard determinist, sees teleology absolutely nowhere. The post quotes from Why Evolution Is True, and the passage is clearly written in teleonomic terms, which only uses teleologic terms metaphorically (“*as though* it were designed”) – this is not a “higher level description,” it is a popularization for the general reader as target audience for his book.

            Evolution is mindless. Natural selection is the process by which species go extinct if lacking mutations adaptive to changes in the environment. Lamarckism is dead, and Intelligent Design is a fraud. Both Coyne and Pigliuccii seem to agree on that.

            As to your quote from Menninghaus et al, – without reading the article, I found it amusing so far, since it is simply a retread of what poetics theorists have been saying for centuries (hence the references to Aristotle et al no doubt), only in cross disciplinary language that effectively colonizes the humanities with scientific-sounding jargon. That, after all, is part of what’s at stake here, which departments get the funding for what research. The question Dan is raising, and that I would raise in another way, is whether the premises of the research are valid. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the research should stop and its participants sent to the unemployment line; but it may mean reframing how we perceive and receive the research as evidence, and evidence of what?

            Basically, I think your basic premises are sometimes wrong, and sometimes in reverse of what is actually the case; and so far your argument has not persuaded me otherwise.

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          • Hi EJ.

            “Menninghaus et al”: I did read the article, and just like much of psychological research, it does feel like “it’s all common sense, everybody knew that already” – compare the example I gave earlier of psychometric studies of personality, or everyday physics. As Pliny the Elder says, every sailor knows the world is round, it’s only desert dwellers who think it’s flat. And that’s exactly where the scientific knowledge takes off from, formalized models and tests rather than gut instinct and individual experience. If you read through that journal (Poetics), you will find multiple articles in the same vein, some confirming common-sense expectations, and some not (“treasure your exceptions”). So, rhymes help you remember things (“A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself”), unless it’s too complex, when recollection is harder, but such difficulty causes some readers to concentrate and analyse more – you knew that already, didn’t you? The theory that Menninghaus et al are generating hypotheses to test is that of the linguist Jakobson, who was also a poet, and amusingly was suspect in the eyes of some linguists because of “a teleological view of language, where reference is not the primary goal, so ‘the sound system…cannot be analysed without taking into account the purpose which that system serves..'”.

            As to Coyne, even the Devil can quote Scripture 😉 There is a longstanding fear of talking too much about teleology etc because it is “unscientific”. Pittendrigh [1958], who coined the term “teleonomy”, says:

            Biologists for a while were prepared to say a turtle came ashore and laid its eggs, but they refused to say it came ashore to lay its eggs…recognition and description of end-directedness does not carry a commitment to Aristotelian teleology as an efficient causal principle [my bolding, his emphasis]…[There are two scientific questions] (1) what is the goal of turtle organisation…(2) What is the origin of the information that underlies and causes the organisation.

            But has anyone thought “goals” are causally efficacious in the last say 400 years? The puzzle was always (2), for which Darwin produced a naturalistic answer.

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  7. Sometime next week, Crispin Sartwell and I will record the first of several discussions/dialogues on this series, on BloggingHeads.TV. I will post a link when the first dialogue goes live.

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  8. 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.

    Well, of course numbers and sets are things.

    The term “thing” is so vague, that it can accommodate whatever we want it to accommodate.

    Dan: Numbers exist, but are not things;
    Me: Numbers are things, but they don’t really exist except in a strict mathematical sense.

    Clearly, we are using these terms differently.

    I’m a mathematical fictionalist because I deny that numbers have any Platonic essence, or any properties at all beyond what comes from the way that we use them.

    As to things — there are things because we thingify our world. And I presume that we start to thingify our world as infants, before we have acquired any language. The way that we thingify is entirely pragmatic. It has nothing to do with truth and logic, except to the extent that we may try to maintain some logical consistency in how we thingify.

    What I see as the mistake, is to assume that things are things independent of us, and that what we take to be a thing is a matter of truth and logic.

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    • I appreciate this and can see what you’re
      Getting at, but to my mind this remains far to much in the traditional frame and thus, will retain too many of its problems.

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  9. Very interesting. I am interested in Buddhist Philosophy, ontological commitment Professor Kaufman is talking about is at the root of an over one thousand year debate in Buddhism as well.

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  10. Though the discarding of the hypostatic conception of ontology is an idea well worth exploring, I remain skeptical that this will dissolve problems specifically related to the philosophy of mind.

    To the state the argument as I understand it, by discarding the hypostatic hypothesis, it can be said that persons exist, but are to be understood as ontologically distinct from their material bodies (ultimately governed by the deterministic laws of physics). Yet, despite the ontological distinction, persons are not “things” that exist over and above their material bodies, as they are not “things” at all. The ontological distinction thus dissolves the “free will problem” because persons, distinct from their bodies, are not identical to material objects governed by deterministic laws of physics. Moreover, the postulation that persons are not things over and above their material bodies dissolves the interaction problem as there is no weird interaction between an immaterial thing and material thing.

    But I would like to understand the consequence of this pluralistic metaphysics concretely. As I see it, Laplace’s Demon is useful for this purpose: On this pluralistic metaphysics, if a vast intellect (Laplace’s Demon) knows the state of the entire universe ( i.e. the state of the fundamental components of the physical universe) and the fundamental laws of physics, and has a sufficient computational ability, would this intellect know the entire history of the universe?

    If persons are not things that exist over and above their physical bodies, it seems that Laplace’s Demon would know the entire history of the universe, including the actions of persons. if this implication is true, then I believe it is a legitimate position to deny the existence of free will. At minimum, there seems to be an explanation that is called for if someone were to assert both that this implication is true, yet persons do have free will (which is the compatibilist position).

    I anticipate that Kaufman’s response would be that the movement of bodies (which is entirely known by Laplace’s Demon) is not to be equated with the actions of persons. But does this mean that Laplace’s Demon knows nothing of the actions of persons? This seems bizarre, as of course persons are embodied.

    Perhaps it can be said that Laplace’s Demon doesn’t know of actions because it cannot (at least in this thought experiment) attribute intent to the bodies of persons. It’s description of the universe would be bereft of statements such as “Mary hit John because she was angry”.

    But is this “lack of knowledge” sufficient to grant that there really is an ontological distinction between bodies and persons? I’m inclined to say no, and if this is the case, then the classic problems of the philosophy of mind still persist.

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    • The abandonment of hypostatic conceptions of ontology is only one element in my approach. There will be several more, and of course, I will be returning to Sellars. I think in total I have enough to preclude the difficulty you correctly raise, but we will have to see whether you agree, once I’m done.

      The question is a very apt one, though, and i will need to account for it.

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    • The mistake you are making is that somehow by knowing the equations of the universe, you also know the behaviour of every entity in that universe. Unfortunately this is incorrect. For certain entities such as atoms the answer is yes, but only because we have a physical model of an atom that out equations can deal with. For entity us as a person no such physical model exists, and probably it is not a well defined enough concept for us to ever create one. As such there is never going to be a way to construct a mapping in physics from atoms to people.

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      • If a satisfactory answer can be provided, I’d be happy to hop on the “pluralistic metaphysics” train.

        Look forward to the essays and the dialogue with Crispin.

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    • On this pluralistic metaphysics, if a vast intellect (Laplace’s Demon) knows the state of the entire universe ( i.e. the state of the fundamental components of the physical universe) and the fundamental laws of physics, and has a sufficient computational ability, would this intellect know the entire history of the universe?

      I deeply skeptical of this kind of argument. It presupposes that “the state of the entire universe” is a meaningful concept. And I very much doubt that it is.

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  11. Dan, I remember Massimo writing about process metaphysics back on his old blog, and this seems at least an alternative to the assumption of the ‘thingness’ of reality that your anti-hypostatizing calls for. The scientific view, if we take Sellars’ division seriously, need not itself indicate a commitment to some fundamental thingness backing reality. Science these days (from what I gather) hypostatizes only as a pragmatic means rather than an ontological commitment. We simply talk about the world more conveniently by populating it with things.

    The problems I see with a commitment to a world completely reducible to things is evident in a number of questions. What is the difference between something being the same or being different? Neurath’s ship is an example of this issue, but so is the idea of biological species, and even our own continuation as ‘selves’. Related is the question of difference in kind versus difference in degree. Is this even a proper distinction? Are there natural kinds? Are there essences? Are there universals? Also related is the difference between abstract and particular. Pluralism seems to chart a course in which we can make sense of these divisions but not either invest them with absolute authority or undercut them with merely seeming.

    I read Victor’s comment above and was struck by how the entire argument was already firmly entrenched in the idea of the thingness of reality. If you talk about persons as merely ‘things’ of a non-material, ’embodied’, kind, you are still stuck using the language of hypostatization. Laplace’s Demon only has purchase on the world if we concede the world is fundamentally substance oriented. This seems neither necessary nor true. The question of a ‘free will’ itself comes in danger of being a new sort of metaphysical thing that populates the world. We can talk in terms of things, not because we are accurately describing an independent reality, but because it makes sense to do so. I took this as your point in the essays you wrote concerning social ontologies.

    Of course I turn to Wittgenstein here. He was interested in getting us outside of our heads and back onto the rough ground of where we do our living. And while it may seem obvious to some that we live in a world that is made up of things, a substantive in our language taken as evidence of actual substance, Wittgenstein pointed us to the idea that meaning was more often akin to use, and that use is neither static nor strictly representative of ‘things’. Words are not merely the names of things.

    I take it he was pointing to process more than anything. The idea of a form of life is the idea of a process, a practice. He continually asked us to look at what we were doing. What we are doing is not merely something contained inside our heads nor a matter of interacting ‘things’ out in the world. He was not a behaviorist. To make sense of anything is to have sense of the form of life in which it is manifest. Or so it seems………

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  12. Dan: On the questions you are discussing (very lucidly, as commentators agree), I find helpful Hanna and Harrison’s notion of a “nomothetic object”. They give the example of a chess-King.

    “the King … is plainly an entity constituted by the rules of chess, whose essence, whose being, as it were, is determined simply by certain provisions of those rules; as that it is the piece that occupies a certain square at the outset of the game, which disposes of certain powers of displacement from square to square of the board, and that, finally, is the piece whose immobilisation by one of the players constitutes victory in the game. Granted, the King in most actual games of chess is
    represented by a piece of boxwood or ivory carved in a certain characteristic way. But it is not the material of which it is made, nor the characteristic shape into which it is carved, which makes it a chess-King. Chess-Kings can be carved or moulded out of many materials, and in many styles. What makes a physical object a chess-King is its place in a practice: a practice that is in part a linguistic practice. What makes it a chess-King is that it is one of a set of objects made to serve as chess-pieces, and hence carved in ways that make it possible to distinguish pieces endowed by the rules of chess
    with conventional properties of one sort or another: different powers of displacement from square to square, for instance.

    It is in the nature of names for nomothetic objects that it will not be possible to explain the meaning of such a name by correlating it with any constituent or aspect of the natural world. For nomothetic objects are not natural. They are, precisely, creatures not of physis, but of nomos.”

    Word and World, p.96. Harrison has put the relevant chapter on his website: https://utah.academia.edu/BHarrison.

    It is a Wittgensteinian solution to the problem of the relation between ontology and meaning very similar to your view, I think.

    Alan

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