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Monday, December 24, 2012


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Dear Dr Vallicella,

Merry Christmas!

I am struggling to understand your posts as I am involved in a practical problem in this area. I am tasked to work on data quality, which has traditionally been divided up into a number of so-called "dimensions". These are (usually): accuracy, timeliness, consistency, conformity, precision - and there are several others in the list.

The first problem is that in my trade (data management) there are no commonly agreed definitions of any of these "dimensions". This already makes them unusable for data management. However, there is tremendous pressure to have accurate, timely, etc. data, so I am obliged to deal with them. I have got as far are recognizing that they are abstractions, and that they seem to be properties of data. Yet, I can fashion my own definition of, say, accuracy (e.g. using the correspondence theory of truth) and then use that to measure accuracy of data. For instance, I can create a database where today's date is stored and then inspect it and compare the value to an independent reference value for today's date. Now, both data and accuracy are intangible, but I seem to have an empirical detection mechanism available that tells me about accuracy of data. This seems to me to be at odds with what you are saying in your post about intangible properties not being empirically detectable. I suspect I may have misunderstood your post, but I am not sure how.

Best regards, Malcolm Chisholm.

Hi Bill,

I am wondering if your attempt to motivate a constituent ontology might be resisted by someone who believes that colors are secondary qualities. In particular, I wonder if the view that colors are dispositional properties could be adopted by someone who is resistant to constituent ontology.

You say that when you look at the cup, and see that the cup is blue, you see blueness. You infer from this that you are seeing a property, whether it be a universal or trope. And the property that you see is blueness.

Suppose that blueness was a disposition to cause certain phenomenal experiences in observers in standard conditions. That disposition, we might say, is grounded in certain categorical properties of the object. But those categorical properties are not the blueness; they include, say, the underlying molecular structure of the cup. When a thing with those categorical properties is observed in standard conditions, a normal observer will have a phenomenal experience as of seeing blueness.

On this view, blueness is of course a property. But it is a dispositional property. So I would submit that it is not visible. *Phenomenal* blue is visible; it is what normal observers see when they observe certain objects in standard conditions. But blueness is not phenomenal blue, since the latter is not a disposition.

If this is right, then - plausibly - blueness is not a constituent of concrete particulars. At least, the sort of motivation you seek to provide for constituent ontology by appealing to this sort of case may be undermined by the view that blueness is a dispositional property. I have a hard time getting my head around the idea that dispositional properties could be constituents of concrete particulars.



That's a plausible objection. It occurred to me as I was finishing the piece.

Here is one response that needs to be explored.

You are familiar with Sellar's distinction between the manifest and the scientific images. What if I said that the ontology under discussion is the ontology of the Manifest Image, or, equivalently, phenomenological ontology? Couldn't there be a dispute within phenomenological ontology between C-ontologists and R-ontologists? PvI in his "Relational vs. Constituent Ontologies" in Phil Perspectives 2011 uses the example of the color green, p. 398. He says there is such an object as the color green and he also says or implies that it is an abstract object -- which is precisely what I am denying. It seems pretty clear that he means phenomenal green.

It seems, therefore, that the dispute between C- and R-ontologists is (or can be) a dispute at the level of the Manifest Image i.e., a dispute within phenomenological ontology. Accordingly, green = phenomenal green, and the question concerns the status of this property. Is it a constituent of green things or not?


Read 'Sellars'' above not 'Sellar's.'

Phenomenal blueness is non-dispositional, but not a property of the cup in the Scientific Image. Physical blueness is dispositional, but not a property of the cup in the Manifest Image.

Let's assume that blueness = physical blueness and that the latter is a dispositional property grounded in certain 'categorical' properties. It seems to me that dispositional properties and their categorical underpinnings would have to be in the things that have them and couldn't be 'kicked upstairs' to Plato's Heaven.

>>I have a hard time getting my head around the idea that dispositional properties could be constituents of concrete particulars.<<

But if dispositional properties reduce to categorical properties, why should that be hard to understand? Or consider the physical properties of the cup that make it such that, if an observer is on the scene and the conditions are right, then he has an experience of phenomenal blue. These properties are the ones that make the cup reflect light of a certain wavelength. Those properties are plausibly considered to be in or at the physical objects.

You might want to argue that there are pure dispositions, dispositions without categorical bases. This is a thorny side topic. But if dispositions have categorical bases, then the categorical properties are plausibly viewed as constituents of the things that have them.

This is because they are involved in the causation of certain experiences (e.g. seeing blue) in the knowing subject. Wouldn't it be absurd to make abstract objects of them?

Merry Christmas, Dr. Chisholm!

I would like to help you, but I am not sure I can. Although we use some of the same words -- 'data,' 'property,' 'abstract' -- we use them in different senses. That's one propblem. Another is that the problems I am grappling with are on a different level than yours, a deeper level, though that does not imply any value judgment.

I take it that when you speak of data you mean information. Since I don't know your field I 'll just guess that information comes in discrete bits that are recorded in declarative senses. For example, 'The actor Jack Klugman died on 24 December 2012' records a bit of information. Of course, this bit of information has verious properties. It is accurate if the proposition expressed by the sentece is true. It is timely if it is 'news.' Bits of information are consistent if it is logically possible that they are all true (which is not to say that they are all true).

Your concern is to elaborate rigorous definitions of the properties you deem relevant in the assessment of information. You want to know what these properies are, how they differ from each other, and how they are best defined.

My concern is entirely different.

My question is not: what are the properties in a given field and how are they best defined, but what are properties? For example, in electronics, there is investigation of such properties as voltage, amperage, resistance, capacitance, inductance, but no investigation of what properties are.

Hi Bill,

I am familiar with Sellars' distinction between the Scientific and Manifest Images, but I am not always sure what role - if any - it ought to play in our metaphysical theorizing. My main concern with the distinction in general, and with your application of it here, is that I take the view that ontology is the study of the fundamental structure of reality. Taking this view, I'm inclined to believe that the ontological debates worth having would fit, if anywhere, into Sellars' Scientific Image.

When I said that I had a hard time getting my head around the idea that dispositional properties could be constituents of concrete particulars, I think I had something like the following in mind. As Michael Loux points out in his "Aristotle's Constituent Ontology", the constituent/relational distinction is neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. One could have, for example, both universals and tropes, where the latter are constituents of concrete particulars and the former are externally related to concrete particulars. Alternatively, one could have an ontology that is neither relational nor constituent. E.J. Lowe has recently defended such an ontology. Keeping this in mind, especially the possibility of an ontology that is neither relational nor constituent, my suggestion was not that dispositional properties ought to be construed as denizens of Plato's heaven to which concrete particulars are related. They just seem to me not to fit into the relational/constituent dichotomy in the first place. Perhaps this is simply a failure of imagination, but the distinction seems to apply most naturally to categorical properties. Dispositional properties seem not to fit.

On this view, dispositional properties do not *reduce* to their categorical bases. Being grounded in them is not the same as being reducible to them. That said, if your argument successfully shows that the categorical bases, due to their causal role, must be constituents of concrete particulars, then my objection has been little more than a lengthy digression. So I'll have to think more about how to resist your argument. (Perhaps one way to resist it is to adopt a regularity or counterfactual account of causation. It's fascinating to me how interrelated all these issues are. But can the causal role that properties play immediately rule out relational ontologies?)

Thanks for the comments, John. There are indeed many criss-crossing issues at play here. I think they ought to be addressed in separate posts.

Perhaps the next point to get clear about is whether Lowes' ontology succeeds in being neither constituent nor relational.

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