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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

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An interesting subject to discuss (though it isn't directly relevant to the recent van Inwagen discussion) is the epistemic status of "common sense" beliefs in general. I don't know if you've written anything on this, but it's a peculiar notion to me. A lot of people treat the dicta of common sense as having a certain sort of epistemic invulnerability, capable of being defeated only by the most impressive collection of counter-evidence. But I've never understood why this is so.

As regards van Inwagen, I suppose a problem to consider would be coming up with necessary and sufficient conditions for what constitutes an object and what doesn't. Does any collection of ontological simples constitute a composite object? (This surely leads to the existence of some not common-sensical objects.) How do you draw the restrictions in a non-arbitrary way?

Maybe motivation for accepting van Inwagen's mereological nihilism is the difficulty of giving compelling answers to the above two questions.

Hi Steven,

One problem is to identify the body of doctrine that philosophers of common sense call 'common sense.' What is included and what is not? I suspect that there will be plenty that is philosophically contentious.

Van I. is not a mereological nihilist, nor is he a mereological universalist. And he does have a criterion: There is a y such that the xs compose y iff the activity of the xs constitutes a life.

But what that means I cannot now explain.

"Van I. is not a mereological nihilist, nor is he a mereological universalist. And he does have a criterion: There is a y such that the xs compose y iff the activity of the xs constitutes a life."

You're right that strictly speaking he is not a nihilist. But he does believe that nothing which is not alive counts as a composite object, so it's close enough. After all, there are plenty more non-living things than living in the world. He'd think a dead horse was just a pile of organic matter, not an object that lacks life, for instance.

I seem to remember reading an article by Peter Unger where he argues for nihilism from typical vagueness-related worries: removing one particle at a time, do we still have an instance of an x?, etc. Does van Inwagen deal with this argument in Material Beings as it may be applied to living things?

You raise a good number of points. To some of them.

>>how are we to understand a sentence like, 'The very same house that stands here now has stood here for three hundred years'? Van Inwagen proposes the following paraphrase …

I have already addressed this here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2010/08/reduction-by-re-telling.html . If the paraphrase really is a paraphrase, i.e. says exactly the same thing but in different language, then VanI's thesis is false. If 'once upon a time there was a ship', which claims the existence of ships, can be paraphrased as "Once upon a time, there were certain planks that were arranged shipwise. ", and if VanI concedes the latter, he concedes the former (for both assert the same thing in different words).

>>If madman Mel were to say that there are no houses he would not mean what the metaphysican means when he says that there are no houses.

So when VanI denies the existence of houses, he is denying the existence of 'houses' understood in some metaphysical sense? I don't think so. If we reconstruct his argument, it is very clear he is denying the existence of houses in the ordinary sense.

>>But the truth of 'I have been living in the same house for the last ten years' is consistent with, or at least not obviously inconsistent with, PvI's denial of houses

Why is it consistent? The statement 'there are no houses' is obviously inconsistent with 'I have been living in the same house for ten years'. I really don't follow you here.

>>Van Inwagen does not deny that we utter such true sentences as 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's.' But whereas most of us would infer from this that walls exist, and thus that composite non-living things exist, van Inwagen refuses to draw this inference maintaining instead that the truth of 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's' is consistent with there being no walls.

Then he fails to understand basic logic. "there is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's.' evidently contradicts 'there are no walls'. If there are no walls, it follows that there are no walls that separate properties. Unless there is some equivocation going on, say between ordinary walls and metaphysical walls. Does he mean that there are (ordinary) walls of the kind that separate properties, but there are no metaphysical walls? But I come back to the point that has argument purportedly shows that there are no ordinary walls.

>>The standard puzzles about diachronic artifact identity lapse if there are no artifacts.

The standard puzzles which apply to ordinary walls, that is. But if there are no ordinary artifacts and no ordinary walls, there can be no (ordinary) wall that separates your property.

On the point about common sense arguments in general, I will not give any hostages to those. Common sense is often wrong. It is more a matter of claims that have profound and far-reaching consequences. If someone claims that the Earth is flat, that claim has some very extreme consequences for space-flight, for travel and even for geometry. If someone claims that planets do not exist, that would have even more far-reaching implications. I would therefore dismiss them completely - unless I saw some very convincing empirical evidence and observations that supported the claim.

Van Inwagen has given no evidence whatsoever to support his strange claim that houses, ships, and by implication stars, galaxies, universes do not exist. So I dismiss it, not for common sense but for scientific reasons.

You object: Van Inwagen can give a 'paraphrase' of a statement like 'nine planets orbit the sun'. I reply as before: if the paraphrase means the same, and if the paraphrased sentence implies the existence of planets, then so does the paraphrase. If not, then again, where is his evidence?

Addressing the point you make here

>>For suppose that what the vulgar call a wall is (speaking with the learned) just some stacked stones, some stones arranged wall-wise. And to simplify the discussion, suppose the stones are simples. Then the denial that there is a wall is a denial that there is one single thing that the stones compose. But this is consistent with the existence of the stones. Accordingly, the sentence 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's' is true in virtue of the existence of the stones despite the fact that there is no wall as a whole composed of these stony parts.

If that is his argument, he is not denying the existence of walls. According to you, he is denying that walls are things. Walls exist, but they are not things. Or 'walls are not wholes'. But he is not just denying that walls are things, or wholes. It is plain that his argument is stronger than that. He is arguing for the impossibility of this wall having a new brick, or a replacement brick. For to have a new brick is to have had an old brick. If the collection of bricks which includes the 'new brick' is not the same things as the collection of bricks that included the old brick, then the former has been created anew, de novo, with the replacement. This wallwise collection always had the 'new' brick, and never had the 'old one'. And since our ordinary concept of 'wall' includes the idea that a wall can have a new brick (and thus can have had - past tense - old bricks), it is plain that he is denying the existence of walls simpliciter. Not just metaphysically conceived walls, or walls-as-wholes, or walls-as-things.

Bill,

A quarry delivers a big pile of stones and dumps them in your driveway. You go out in your neighborhood and round up a gang of Mexicans laborers and tell them ,”Get to work you so-and-sos and build me a nice wall or I’m going to calling Immigration on you.” While you are off spending the afternoon at the PussyKat Lounge—with some of the girls pictured above—your laborers build you a fine wall. Build=create=bring into existence. Before there was a pile of stone, now there is a wall. In fact, if you did this construction legally, you had to apply for a permit to build a WALL. No permit is needed to re-arrange stones. After the wall is built, you will get a notice from the county property assessor asking, have you improved your property by adding a WALL? If you are foolish enough to say “Well, no, I’ve actually just rearranged some stones in a wall-wise way”, you will be summoned into court, and a judge will again ask you “do you have a wall on your property?” If you are crazy enough to repeat that same sort of philo-babble to the judge, you will be lucky if all he does is hold you in contempt and doesn’t order you committed for a mental evaluation. Such is deserved fate of people who walk around saying things like there are no walls or houses.

I understand the game the metaphysician is playing here. The metaphysician has wheeled out one of his the venerable constructs, the material or physical object, and now wants to argue that these things can only be simples. No composite material objects, “no wholes” (what a charming slogan), because...blah-blah-blah. This kind of claim, that the real must be simple, is a very old game in the history of philosophy, starting with Parmenides, championed by Leibniz, renovated here to work on material objects. Fine. All good clean harmless fun except when you begin to say that walls and houses are in this sense “composite material objects”, which (it is claimed) do not exist. We are now firmly in Cloud-Cuckoo Land if we are still speaking English. But there is a dodge that the metaphysician pulls out of his hat at this point to avoid being hauled off to the loony-bin. We are no longer speaking English! When I say “Walls don’t exist”, says the metaphysician, I don’t mean walls don’t exist. Really! This is how Humpty-Dumpty explains it to Alice: “words just mean I say they mean. It is a question who is to be master.”

The metaphysician is actually saying “walls” (not walls) don’t exist, but he is concealing his covert redefinition by omitting the quotes, which would alert us that this is not about walls. Many people consider this kind of covert redefinition to be a serious act of intellectual dishonesty--I do--and it is vigorously condemned in the law of contract and torts, but in philosophy it seems to pass as fair play.

Steven writes, >>You're right that strictly speaking he is not a nihilist. But he does believe that nothing which is not alive counts as a composite object, so it's close enough. After all, there are plenty more non-living things than living in the world. He'd think a dead horse was just a pile of organic matter, not an object that lacks life, for instance.<<

Close enough? There are a lot of microbes out there. But you have put your finger on a very strange consequence of his view, which is that when a horse dies, it goes from being a whole of parts to not being a whole of anything. The same happens if a limb of a living animal is severed. And then imagine it successfully re-attached.

>>I seem to remember reading an article by Peter Unger where he argues for nihilism from typical vagueness-related worries: removing one particle at a time, do we still have an instance of an x?, etc. Does van Inwagen deal with this argument in Material Beings as it may be applied to living things?<<

Unger means something different from 'nihilism' than PvI does. Actually, Unger is a universalist is PvI's jargon. PvI does discuss Unger, but argues that living things cannot be denied.

Phil,

Well, you are totally mistaken, but I know from years of experience that I will never convince you. Hell, if PvI himself couldn't convince you to give up your OL ways, there is no way I am going to.

But I will make a brief comment so that you know I'm not just blowing you off. You write, "Build=create=bring into existence." This is a piece of dogmatism on your part that misses the underlying issue. Is it perfectly obvious to you that building a wall by arranging stones brings something new into existence?

William: >>Van Inwagen has given no evidence whatsoever to support his strange claim that houses, ships, and by implication stars, galaxies, universes do not exist. So I dismiss it, not for common sense but for scientific reasons.<<

So you've read his book, eh? And you know that therein are no arguments in support of his denial of artifacts and non-living non-simples?

Who was it who essayed to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone? You appear to be adopting a similar refutation-strategy.

>>So you've read his book, eh? And you know that therein are no arguments in support of his denial of artifacts and non-living non-simples?

What are these arguments? You have cited the 'paraphrase argument', which proves nothing either way, and the 'Theseus Argument' which proves there are no artefacts *in the ordinary sense*. See my remarks above.

>>Who was it who essayed to refute Berkeley by kicking a stone?

A wholly misleading example. Berkeley was not arguing that there are no such things as stones. He was arguing against a metaphysical doctrine of substance. Had he been arguing that there are no stones, Johnson's refutation would have been perfect.

But you have not made it clear whether VanI is denying the existence of houses in the ordinary sense, or in some metaphysical sense. The arguments you cite suggest he is arguing against houses in the ordinary sense (which Berkeley never denied).

Well, I'm glad you understand Berkeley. There are plenty who don't, e.g., the benighted David Stove.

If you can understand Berkeley and why he is not refuted by Johnsonian stone kicking which is exactly analogous to G. E. Moore's hand waving, then you can understand that van I is arguing against a particular metaphysical interpretation of artifacts.

Bill, would you be interested in a guest post on this? There are some general issues about eliminitavism versus reductionism that could be usefully aired. The question is whether Van Inwagen's approach is reductionist or eliminativist. A reductionist (as I understand it) is someone who does not deny the existence of whales, but who denies they are fish. If Van Inwagen is not denying the existence of ships, but is denying that they have certain 'metaphysical' properties, such as being 'concrete wholes' or 'logically singular' or whatever, then he is a reductionist. And his paraphrasis of talk about 'ships' aims not to disturb the truth-value of such talk, but to remove any misleading implications or suggestions that ship-talk might have. Reductionists generally are not opposed to common-sense belief as such, but rather to mistaken metaphysical or pseudo-scientific interpretation of such belief (the mistaken classification of whales as fish, e.g.).

By contrast, an eliminativist genuinely denies the existence of certain things altogether. Take witches: "witches" signifies women who practice black magic. But there is no such thing as black magic, so there are no such things as witches. It is not that we can validly talk about witches, but have somehow misclassified them or wrongly attributed certain features to them. It is that there cannot possibly be such a kind of person, in the proper sense of the word. Any paraphrasis of talk about witches will disturb the truth-value of the talk, and something will be genuinely lost. E.g. we lose the black magic (although we may retain something, perhaps PMS or hysteria or something like that). Eliminativists do deny common-sense or common beliefs. People used to believe there are witches. Eliminativists argue that these beliefs are unequivocally false. Is Inwagen an eliminativist? When he says (or appears to say) that there are no such things as ships, he appears so. He appears to be denying a common widely-held belief (ships exist). And, construed as eliminativist, his paraphrasis disturbs the truth-value of such beliefs (there are shipwise arranngements of planks or metal plates, but no ships).

On the standard interpretation of Berkeley, he is a reductionist. He does not deny common-sense belief in the existence of tables and chairs. But he does deny belief in the Aristotelian doctrine of substance (as interpreted by Locke), which he regards as an invention of the philosophers, not shared by ordinary people. Hume is more difficult to classify. How are we to interpret Inwagen? Is he a reductionist, or an eliminativist?

PS there is a reasonably good explanation of Berkeley's reductionism here:

"[…] the philosophies of Locke and Berkeley are related to our ordinary beliefs in radically different ways. Locke's goal, it seems, is to turn our ordinary beliefs into a system of metaphysics. To this end, he takes material objects to be more or less metaphysically basic, and to have more or less the properties - color, location, texture, etc. - we ordinarily take them to have. (I say 'more or less' because I am ignoring some important complications, such as the famous primary/secondary qualities distinction.) However, as Berkeley recognizes, 'common sense' doesn't actually tell us about metaphysics. Instead, it tells us about matters relevant to the ordinary conduct of our lives. Berkeley's accusation against Locke is that by attempting to turn common sense into a theory of metaphysics, he has undermined common sense in its own domain. For instance, according to Berkeley, common sense tells me that if I can see and touch my desk, then it is most certainly here; but, Berkeley argues, Locke's view leads inexorably to skepticism about these most basic of claims. Locke's claim that my desk is a 'material substratum' removes the desk from the realm of my knowledge, and falsifies an enormous number of 'common sense' beliefs."
http://blog.kennypearce.net/archives/philosophy/common_senseintuition/locke_berkeley_and_common_sens.html

( I have been enjoying the discussion, but thought I would finally comment)

William's question about whether van Inwagen is an eliminativist or reductionist seems to be the main issue here. If he is an elminative atomist, so to speak, then the Moorean/Johnsonian refutations would be enough to dismiss him. If he is merely a reductionist and being hyperbolic for dramatic effect by claiming ships don't exist, (while meaning they don't exist in any metaphysical sense as distinct entities in addition to their parts) then the Moorean refuations would not apply. Considering him a reductionist would seem to be the charitable interpretation, unless there is something in the rest of his book that would contradict that interpretation.

>> I have been enjoying the discussion

As have I since Bill added the distraction of the 'Sloggi' picture which one has to pass on one's way here.

William,

Yes, I would love for you to write a guest post on the issue of eliminativism vs. reductionism. But it would be best if you leave van I. out of it since, as far as I can tell, you haven't read his book. Write something very clear, not too long, and send it to me in the main body of an e-mail message, not as an attachment.

William,

I'm glad you liked the 'eye candy.' But don't expect too much more except insofar as I can press it into service of a serious point. You shy away from the political stuff, but it would be nice to have a report from you on Shari'a and creeping dhimmitude in London towne. (If you care to report, send me an e-mail.)

T. Hanson,

Thanks for dropping by. (Did you say you were coming out to PHX this fall?) I'll have to think some more about whether van I's denial of artifacts can be usefully classified in terms of the elimnativist/reductivist distinction. But off the top of my head: PvI is not an eliminativist about walls in the way that he and the rest of us are eliminativists about flying horses. If, speaking with the common man, the proverbial main in the street, one were to assert (sincerely and in oratio recta) 'There are no stone walls' then one would be saying something crazy.

But it is not crazy to say that there is no y such that the xs compose y, where 'y' ranges over artifacts and 'xs' ranges over things like stones and planks. For PvI, then, a stone wall is just some stones arranged wall-wise.

This looks like reductionism: the wall is being reduced to its parts, the stones. But if a whole W is reduced to its parts, as opposed to be eliminated, then that typically means that W exists, but is identical to its parts. But van I doesn't say this either since it implies that W exists. Furthermore, one thing cannot be identical to many things. It is a syntax error to connect a singular term to a plural term using 'is identical to.' And this is a point that van I makes.

So it looks as if van I is not classifiable in terms of our otherwise useful distinction. But as I said, I'll have to think about it some more.

Here is an interesting question for you to ponder. Is Hume's analysis of causation in terms of spatiotemporal contiguity, temporal precedence, and constant conjunction reductivist or eliminativist? Is he say that there is causation but all it is is regular succession, or is he saying that there is no causation?

One might take the following line: Hume is an eliminativist because production is essential to causation (where x produces y iff x brings y into existence) but the Humean theory leaves out production.

You can raise a similar question about Humean theories of natural laws. Is the Humean saying that there are laws but they are just regularities, or is he saying that there are no laws? One could take the line that laws must be more than regularities so that the Humean theory is eliminativist in issue if not in intent.

>>But it is not crazy to say that there is no y such that the xs compose y, where 'y' ranges over artifacts and 'xs' ranges over things like stones and planks. For PvI, then, a stone wall is just some stones arranged wall-wise.

But if he is a reductivist why can't he say just that? If the wall is really these stones, why can't we say this stone is one of these stones, or that these stones are composed of stone1 and stone2 ... and stone_n?

I will also have to thing about this some more (and perhaps take a look at his book, as you suggest, Bill).

>>But if he is a reductivist why can't he say just that? If the wall is really these stones, why can't we say this stone is one of these stones, or that these stones are composed of stone1 and stone2 ... and stone_n?<<

'These stones' is a plural term. It cannot be used to refer to some one whole of which the stones are parts. The reductionist says: there is a wall W and W is identical to these stones. This is the composition-as-identity view that van I rejects.

One reason for rejecting it, if I understand him, is that 'is identical to' cannot be flanked by a plural term and a singular term.

MB 287 n. 13: 'A whole is its parts' ". . . seems to me to be syntactically radically defective."

Bill, my plan was to take off from Reno where I will be a few days in the last week of September and hopefully meet up with the Sages of the Southwest in Phoenix. Hopefully I can swing it, but there are little complications like school starting up around the same time. :-)

Now that I think about this some more:

"For PvI, then, a stone wall is just some stones arranged wall-wise."

Does he think "a stone wall" in the above sentence is folk psychology which should be eliminated in a proper metaphysically ideal language using x-wise arrangements of atoms instead? If so, PvI would be an eliminativist, as I understand it. There are no stone walls in he sense of wholes in addition to parts.

But this description could be consistent with him being a reductionist, too. He could say it is okay for people to talk about walls and ships, as long as we understand this as merely shorthand for x-wise arrangements with the metaphysical folk psychology of a whole beyond the parts eliminated. In this case, he could say there are stone walls understood as x-wise arrangements undercutting the Moorean rebuttal, and he would be 'reducing' our talk about artifacts to x-wise arrangements.

In the same way Hume would be an eliminativist with respect to causation since the essential feature of our ordinary conception (folk psychology) of causation – necessary connection or production is missing (or not perceived). He has done away with causation.

This is consistent with saying he has offered a reduction of our ordinary conception of causation by revising it to priority, contiguity, constant conjunction only. So we can still talk about x causing y as long as we remember now what causality really is and do away with the folk psychology.

(I don’t think Hume actually denied causality in any sense, rather he simply says causality is an unwarranted assumption, but that is another issue)


Bill, you said in your first post to me:

"For PvI, then, a stone wall is just some stones arranged wall-wise."

In your last post you said:

"One reason for rejecting it, if I understand him, is that 'is identical to' cannot be flanked by a plural term and a singular term."

Isn't the first claim an identity involving a singular and plural term?

Tony,

I hope you can make it out here. Let us know when you firm up a date.

It's Friday night, and my wife wants me to come out of my 'man cave' to have a beer with her, so this will be short.

You raise a good objection in your last response. Van I is not saying that there is a wall but it reduces to some stones, for in cases like this there is no y that the xs compose, nor is he saying that there is nothing there (which is what the madman says) : there are stones arranged wall-wise. So I'd say he is neither a reductionist nor an eliminativist. But putting his claim into English is difficult. We cannot seem to avoid such singular terms as 'This wall.'

Salud!

One more thought.

His idea seems to have some force when it comes to simple artifacts like a wall (or maybe a ship in the time of Theseus) but think about a computer or car: "a computer is just a collection of silicon, plastic, copper, etc. arranged computerwise?" What would that mean?

Perhaps add to the paraphrase "such that it performs thousands of the following interrelated functions...." How do the functions of artifacts fit into his analysis? It seems he would have to deny functions of artifacts too, since he is denying the subject of those functions. There is nothing that sails since there are no ships.

Something as complex and functionally useful and central to people's lives as a computer or car deserves an acknowledgement of existence! At the same time it's components are for most people opaque and hardly worthy of attention, and individually have no significance to them unless they break down (nod to the early Heidegger).

"Is [Hume] say that there is causation but all it is is regular succession, or is he saying that there is no causation?"

Hello Bill. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it or not, but you may be interested in the following Hume quote that is taken from the 3rd edition of Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. I'll include the source Craig gives if you're interested in trying to track down the book.

"But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anthing might arise without a cause: I only maintain'd, that our Certainty of the Falsehood of that Proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration, but from another source."

David Hume, The letters of David Hume, 2 vols., ed. J.Y.T. Greig (Oxford: Clarendon, 1932), 1:187.

>>MB 287 n. 13: 'A whole is its parts' ". . . seems to me to be syntactically radically defective."

Interesting. Yet a dozen things can be twelve things (as I have argued).

This is of course a different argument from (a) the paraphrase argument I discussed above (b) the Ship argument.

I suppose I really should get the book.

>>Isn't the first claim an identity involving a singular and plural term?

Ha.

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