We are makers. We make some things physically, other things conceptually. If I hanker after an ‘early undergraduate’ bookshelf, I fabricate it from bricks and boards. But I also make poems, puns, blog posts, and taxonomies. We undoubtedly have the power to make, and very considerable powers when we work in concert with intelligent others; but how far does this power extend?
Some say that it extends unto our being worldmakers. They think the whole world and everything in it is a conceptual fabrication both as to existence and as to essence. I find this sort of conceptual idealism preposterous. The world may be a divine artifact, but it certainly is no human artifact. (I speculate that it is because of the Death of God in Nietzsche’s sense that some philosophers recently have been toying with the wacky idea that we can take over a considerable range of divine tasks. But I won’t develop this speculation here.)
Consider the question whether New Jersey is an artifact. The example is from Robert Schwartz ("I am Going to Make You a Star," Midwest Studies in Philosophy XI (1987), pp. 427-439, p. 431 f.) Schwartz holds that "the world is a product of our conceptualizations. . . ." (427) If so, then New Jersey is a conceptual artifact. Consider
1. New Jersey is on the Atlantic.
As Schwartz points out, there is a sense in which the state of New Jersey is an artifact of legislative and other decisions by human beings. Had there been no human beings, there would have been no state of New Jersey, and had our forefathers decided differently (by drawing boundaries differently, etc.) then NJ would have had different properties than we presently take it to have. Obviously, the number of coal deposits, forests, lakes, etc. in the state of NJ depends on what the boundaries are. So it looks as if NJ is a conceptual fabrication both in its existence and in its properties.
But surely Schwartz makes things too easy for himself here. What we normally intend by (1) is something like
1*. The land mass denoted by ‘New Jersey’ abuts the Atlantic Ocean.
That is, when we assert (1) we have in mind the land mass, not the political entity. The former is not identical to the latter for the simple reason that the former can exist whether or not the latter exists. (Just ask the Indians whose ancestors were native to the region.). Now could it be true of the land mass that it is a conceptual fabrication?
Granted, the political entity exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. No people, no polis. No polis, no political entities. But it is not the case that the corresponding land mass exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. It does no good to point out that the phrase ‘land mass,’ the concept land mass, the units of measure (square miles, etc.) used to measure the area land mass, the equipment used by surveryors, etc. derive from us. I’m talking about the land itself, the topsoil, the subsoil, all the way down to the center of the earth. The existence of that chunk of land, pace Schwartz, is a state of affairs "untinged by cognitive intervention."(433) That chunk of land in no way depends on us for its existence. And the same goes for some of its properties. Or rather many of them, though not all. Of course, its being cultivated depends on us. But not so for the antecedent fertility of the land which allows its being cultivated so as to produce crops. By the 'antecedent' fertility,' I mean the fertility of the land prior to its being fertilized by humans.
Schwartz tells us that "the facts about New Jersey are dependent on our activities of categorization and classification." (433). In one sense, this is trivially true. For on one use of 'fact,' a fact is a true proposition known to be true. On this use of 'fact,' facts are mind-involving. But that is only one use of 'fact.'
On another use of 'fact,' a fact is a true proposition whether or not known or believed to be true. Such facts, like the known facts just mentioned, are facts about. For example, the fact that X exists is just the true proposition that X exists. Now if if you think of a proposition as a mental entity, then indeed the facts about NJ depend on minds and their conceptual activities.
But there is a distinction between facts that and facts about on the one hand, and truth-making facts on the other. I call the latter facts of. The fact of the earth’s being spheroid, for example, is not a representational structure. It is not about anything. It is not a truth-bearer but a truth-maker. It is that which makes-true the proposition expressed by ‘The earth is spheroid.’ And this is the case whether the proposition is a mental item or, as many would say, an 'abstract' or 'Platonic' item.
I submit that truth-making facts, facts of, are not, in general, finite-mind-dependent. If you think otherwise, then I humbly suggest that you have lost your mind. (You may want to make me a star, but I want to have you committed.) For then you would be committed (in a different sense) to such preposterous propositions as that the fact of the Moon's existence is dependent on the existence of human beings. One gets the distinct impression that ant-realists of the Schwartzian stripe are simply failing to make some elementary distinctions.
Now consider that we are categorizers and conceptualizers. Is my being a conceptualizer a product of someone’s conceptualization? If yes, then whose? Do I conceptualize myself as a conceptualizer, thereby creating my being a conceptualizer? Or would you prefer a vicious infinite regress: A’s being a conceptualizer derives from B’s conceptualizing A as a conceptualizer, B's from C's, et cetera?
It gets worse when we consider my existence. Does my existence derive from someone’s acts of conceptualizing? Do I ‘bootstrap’ my way into existence by conceptualizing myself as existent? Not even God could bootstrap himself into existence in this way: Causa sui cannot be plausibly interpreted to mean that God causes himself to exist; it is more plausibly taken to mean that God is not caused by another. And if God is not up to the task, then surely your humble correspondent isn’t either. Or would you rather bite into another vicious infinite regress?
If you say that we conceptualizers just exist, then you have an excellent counterexample to the claim that the world "is a product of our conceptualizations." (427) Or do you prefer to say that the world depends on us, but that we are not in the world?
The notion that everything is an artifact, some sort of human construct, whether individually or collectively (socially) is plainly absurd if you think about it carefully.
Consider Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years from earth. Schwartz’ claim implies that this star is a product of a conceptual (not physical) making by human beings. We make it have the properties it has, and we make it exist. Schwartz writes, "Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can emerge only in our attempts to describe and organize our world." (435)
Read in one way, this sentence is trivially true; read in another way, it is clearly false. The plausibility of Schwartz’s conceptual idealism, I contend, rests on the conflation of these two readings. This is a very common pattern in philosophy. One makes an equivocal statement bearing in its bosom two senses, one that makes the statement appear clearly true, the other that makes it appear informative and substantial.
Reading 1: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can BE KNOWN only in our attempts to describe the world and organize our thoughts about it.
Reading 2: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can EXIST only in our attempts to describe thre world and organize our thoughts about it.
Now (1) is clearly, indeed trivially, true. That Alpha Centauri exists, and that it is 4.3 light-years from earth, could not possibly be known unless there are beings who desire to know, and prosecute the requisite investigations. (2), however, is a stellar falsehood; or at least there is no reason to believe it.
One problem, of course, is the weasel word (fudge word?) ‘emerge’ that Schwartz employs in the preceding quotation. Being ambiguous, it can mean come to light, come to be known, but also, come to exist. Thus the Schwartzian thesis is fueled by an equivocation.
I cannot know something except by knowing it. I cannot talk about anything except by talking about it. I cannot think about anything except by thinking about it. I cannot refer to tables in English except by using 'table.' But these tautologies and near-tautologies give no aid and comfort to anti-realism. What I refer with is a bit of language, but what I refer to is extralinguistic. The same goes all the more for reference to non-artifacts. This platitude must be upheld at the price of loss of sanity no matter how puzzling the phenomena of linguistic and mental reference.
A second problem is one I mentioned already. A fact that is a true proposition. For example, ‘It is a fact that Chomsky teaches at MIT’ is equivalent in meaning to ‘It is a true proposition that Chomsky teaches at MIT.’ A proposition, however, is a representational entity: it represents something, in the typical case, something distinct from itself. Now propositions can be reasonably viewed as mental entities, entities that exist only ‘in’ minds, i.e., only as the accusatives of mental acts. (Beware the treacherous word ‘in.’) So of course facts require minds if by ‘fact’ is meant ‘fact that.’ But there is another, more robust, notion of fact. Facts in this second sense are not propositional representations, or any kind of representation, but truth-makers of propositional representations. These are not facts that, but facts of. For example, the fact of Chomsky’s being a leftist. It is even clearer if we omit the ‘of’ which here functions as a mere device of apposition rather than as a genitive: the fact, Chomsky’s being a leftist. This concrete fact composed of Chomsky and the property of being a leftist is the truth-maker of ‘Chomsky is a leftist.’
So although it is reasonably held that facts that (i.e., true propositions) are mind-involving or mind-dependent, it does not follow that facts of (truth-making facts) are mind-involving.