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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


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There is a deeper puzzle here.

(E) There are no A's. There are only B's.

(R) There are A's but A's are only B's.

Clearly (E) and (R) do not disagree about the basic ontology. They agree that there are only B's. But they fundamentally disagree about the definition of 'A'. The eliminativist (E) is saying that an A, as the term 'A' is correctly and properly understood, cannot exist, because its definition would include features inconsistent with being a B. The reductivist (R) is saying that, as the term 'A' is correctly and properly understood, it is entirely consistent that an A can be a B, indeed that *every* A is a B.

But if it is merely a quarrel over definitions, why is there any disagreement at all? There is no disputing over definitions. Perhaps the answer lies in the difficulty that surrounds all philosophically interesting notions. The SEP says "Like many philosophically interesting notions, existence is at once familiar and rather elusive. Although we have no more trouble with using the verb ‘exists’ than with the two-times table, there is more than a little difficulty in saying just what existence is http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existence/ . That is, there are certain terms which we all understand and have no difficulty using with a standard sense in everyday life, but which we find terribly difficult to define. Hence there may be profound disagreement over which features are essential to the term, and hence profound disagreement between (E) and (R). Both agree that in using the term 'A' they are talking about the same kind of thing, and using the term in the same sense. But they disagree about what are the fundamental features of an A. The eliminativist believes that there is some feature of A's, correctly understood, that makes it inconsistent with an A being B. And since he believes there are only B's, he holds that there are no A's. The reductivist agrees that this feature is inconsistent with being B, but regards it is non-essential, and so it is possible - indeed true - that no A actually has the feature.

Considering the example of truth - which is as philosophically interesting as any - we have

(E) There is no truth. There is only warranted assertibility.
(R) There is truth, but truth is only warranted assertibility.

The disagreement here does not involve equivocation (as I previously thought). Both (E) and (R) both think they are talking unequivocally about the same thing: truth, an idea that we have no more trouble in employing than in using the two-times table, but which is elusive in the sense that we find it difficult to agree on its essential features. Where they disagree is that (E) thinks that truth involves more than warranted assertibility, and so truth cannot exist if there is only warranted assertibility. (R) by contrast thinks that there is nothing more to truth than warranted assertibility.

So the disagreement is not about ontology or about which entities/features are to be eliminated. Both agree that 'truth involving more than just warranted assertibility' is to be eliminated. The disagreement lies in the analysis of the everyday notion of truth. (E) holds that it involves more than warranted assertibility. (R) holds that it involves no more than that.

I have a modified version of this post here http://ocham.blogspot.com/2010/09/eliminativism-elusiveness-of-ordinary.html .

Now that is an excellent comment, clear and helpful!

I agree with your first paragraph. But then you say, "There is no disputing over definitions." Well, it is clear that there is no disputing purely stipulative definitions, or at least no disputing them in respect of truth or falsity. If I define: x is a fred =df x is both fat and red, there is no reasonable controverting of its truth-value, since it has none.

But if someone defines: x exists =df x is a spatiotemporal particular, then I say he is just wrong: the proposition that definition expresses exists but is not a spatiotemporal particular. And so on for many examples.

So, although you are right that much rides on the meaning of 'A,' that meaning is not a matter of stipulative definition. One cannot just stipulate what 'exists' means.

Some philosophers say that properties are sets. I say that any reasonable sense that could be attached to 'property' rules it out that properties could be sets. So someone who says the above is a 'closet' eliminativist: he is committed to the nonexistence of properties. It seems obvious to me that one cannot just stipulate a sense for 'property.' We have to unpack the inchoate sense the term already has.

You say: "The disagreement lies in the analysis of the everyday notion of truth." I think that is right. If you understand the concept or notion of truth, then you understand that truth cannot be identified with warranted assertibility. Therefore, someone who puts forth this identity is denying the very existence of truth. In this case, (R) collapses into (E), willy-nilly.

>>You say: "The disagreement lies in the analysis of the everyday notion of truth." I think that is right. If you understand the concept or notion of truth, then you understand that truth cannot be identified with warranted assertibility.

There is a deeper difficulty.

1. We agree that we are both using the word 'truth' in the standard signification. Otherwise one or of us is simply stipulating its meaning, and standard meaning - as you say - is not a matter of stipulative definition. One cannot just stipulate what 'truth' means.

2. But if it signifies the same for each of us, we must understand it in the same way. significare est intellectum constituere.

3. Yet we disagree on its definition. You say it is not identical with warranted assertibility, I say it is (speaking hypothetically).

4. How is it possible for us both to understand a term in the same way, but disagree on its definition?

5. This problem goes back at least to Plato, and we appear to be no closer to solving it.

>>4. How is it possible for us both to understand a term in the same way, but disagree on its definition?<<

It could be that we have the same pre-analytic understanding of the word, but we diverge when we try to set forth an explicit analysis of this understanding.

But there is something else that needs to be said, namely, that people like R Rorty who speak of warranted assertibility are not really interested in analyzing the concept of truth but of replacing it with a 'successor concept' that they think is somehow more useful.

Just to summarise what I am taking home from this long discussion. I wonder who agrees.

1. The eliminativist and the reductivist are fundamentally agreed on the ontology. One denies that walls exist (e.g.) because there are only bricks arranged wallwise. The other says that walls exist but walls are only bricks arranged wallwise. The ontology is ‘bricks only'.

2. The reductionist is eliminativist, but covertly. He is denying the existence of walls in the standard sense of the word, but asserting existence in a non-standard sense. He is eliminating walls in the standard sense, like the eliminativist. (I’m thinking the reductivist is a bit like the Church of England when it comes to God. Essentially agreeing with Dawkins, though not superficially).

3. For that reason, reductive explanation is not mere assertion of identity.

4. Both are using the word ‘wall’ in the same sense – no equivocation.

5. But (paradoxically, in light of (3) above) they disagree on the definition. The eliminativist defines wall in the standard sense, as a singular thing composed of bricks – and denies such a thing exists. The reductivist defines it (!) as bricks arranged wallwise.

As that a reasonable take-home? And where does it leave us regarding Van Inwagen? I’m seeing him as an eliminativist.

We are making progress. And I think the above is a pretty good preliminary 'take-home.'

But #2 needs some tweaking or qualifying. Reductionism about some things needn't be eliminativist at all. Consider 'Lightning is an atmospheric electrical discharge.' No elimination here. Or how about 'That [pointing skywards on a clear night] is the planet Venus.' On second thought, the second example is not reduction but simply an identification.

I too am reading van Inwagen as an eliminativist about non-living composite entities. That includes artifacts and things like severed heads and dead dogs.

But here is a puzzle for van I: when a living dog dies he undergoes a most radical transformation from an existent composite entity to a nonexistent composite entity, from the unity of a substance to a mere plurality of simples.

>>Consider 'Lightning is an atmospheric electrical discharge.' No elimination here.

I think the reductivist has to be meaning something like 'Lightning is ONLY an atmospheric electrical discharge.' I.e. there he is explicitly contradicting the assertion that there is more to lightning than electric discharge, or pragmatically indicating that.

Otherwise, we seem to be progressing towards a rare agreement on philosophical issues unparalleled in the history of the subject. Something is wrong.

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