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Thursday, February 13, 2020


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Thanks Bill. You said keep it short, so I did - but wrote two responses instead! (There was a lot of info in what you wrote, so forgive that)

Response 1:
One of the many criticisms of neo-Quinenans is that they look to LANGUAGE and LOGIC for answers to ontological questions, not to the world. Is that what you’re doing? Yes, I know you’re acquainted with your pal Tom and that the scientists are dealing with his various peculiarities; but are you dealing with Tom, some feature of the world, or just language and generally how language “maps onto” or represents the world?

Some questions then:

Is the datum that requires explanation some feature of the world, the familiar concrete particular “Tom the tomato”, or is your datum particular sentences, or is your datum propositions that can be said “of” Tom the tomato? (obviously only propositions can be true or false, not things, but propositions, while often expressed linguistically, are not merely linguistic items, are they? They seem to be something more). Or can we dispense with Tom and just ask how language latches onto the world?

Is this a proper topic for Metaphysics? Or best left to linguistics, psychology, biology etc?

Keep in mind, that van Inwagen isn’t opposed to metaphysics providing accounts: only accounts that are explanatory. I’m not completely taken with the idea that the proposition “Tom is red” needs an explanation of why it’s true rather than false – when I can pick up the tomato and say, “Dude, this is evidently not Tim, and obviously not green!”. I have just invoked Tom the tomato, but didn’t make a metaphysical fuss about it, and didn’t explain anything. But if one embraces truthmaker theory, a potential obstacle to the ostrich nominalist, then sure, every true proposition will need an extralinguistic truth-maker.

But. Let’s hold on a second. I’m not quite opposed to the idea that metaphysics might explain. I think the scope of van Inwagen’s claim needs to be refined.

But given van Inwagen’s challenge, I am sometimes left wondering “how am I epistemically better of now knowing that universals are transcendent rather than immanent” or that “the fragility of glass is grounded in its molecular structure”. Such matters are interesting, and certain data are being accounted for – but I’m still unsure if I have an explanation in these matters.

Response 2:

A couple of comments and then a question:

1. The over-riding question is: “Can metaphysics explain?”. This is different to what sense can be made of “metaphysical explanation”.

2. “Metaphysical explanation” is often contrasted with “causal explanation” in the literature, and “metaphysical explanation” is sometimes identified with “grounding”. But this is unnecessarily confusing. There are determination relations and dependence relations, each of which are metaphysical in nature (some conflate them) and both grounding and causation and supervenience etc. are each metaphysical in this respect.

3. But EXPLANATION is fundamentally an epistemological matter. Explanation is a particular kind of description, I guess, one related to understanding, and the truth of some phenomena. My central question is: in what way are accounts in metaphysics explanatory (however precisified) rather than merely descriptive?

4. I’m open to the idea, say, of grounding. The fragility of the glass is grounded in, not caused by, its molecular structure. Okay. Have I explained some feature of the world in saying so, or only described? That’s an epistemological question. (I find the idea of grounding intriguing, but I also feel short-changed)

5. With causal explanations, there is empirical feedback, so to speak; perhaps the feedback comes with the ability to predict thus having hypotheses corroborated or some such thing. What feedback is there for accounts in metaphysics that turns the descriptive accounts of phenomena into explanatory accounts of phenomena? (Theoretical virtues don’t cut it).

6. I’m particularly concerned with the problem(s) of universals. What is added to an account of phenomena that invokes primitives (transcendent universals, immanent universals, modes, instantiation relations etc.) such that the account is rendered explanatory? What epistemic gain has been made? How am I philosophically better off?


I don't see that you have responded directly to what I said above. Do you agree that 'Tom is red' cannot just be true and therefore needs a truth-maker? Yes or no? Give a SHORT answer in a sentence or two. If YES, then do you agree that the explanation of the truth of the sentence in question is neither causal nor logical? If YES to the second question, then you have admitted that there is metaphysical explanation.

It doesn't make sense to say that the the sentence "Tom is red" is just true; I don't know what it means to say it is "just true". If it's a sentence about Tom, and Tom is red, yes, then it's about Tom. But it seems superfluous to say that the truth of that sentence is EXPLAINED by invoking TOM; like there is some picture theory division between our sentences and the world.

To help me understand, can you provide me with success conditions for what constitutes an explanation (rather than some other account) so that I can check your claim against that?

Suppose Russell said that the universe just exists, as he did say in his debate with Copleston. You understand that, right? It means that the universe exists as a matter of brute fact: there is no explanation as to why it exists in terms of a cause external to it.

To say that a sentence is just true is to say that its being true has no explanation in terms of anything external to it. Is that not perfectly clear?

You grant that 'Tom is red' is about Tom. And you must grant that Tom is no part of the sentence, and also no part of the Fregean proposition the sentence expresses, assuming the sentence expresses a Fregean proposition.

So, obviously, Tom enters into the explanation of why the sentence is true, even though it is not the whole of the explanation. For if Tom did not exist, then the sentence could not be true.

For some reason I don't understand, you balk at my use of 'explanation' here. Why? It is perfectly clear to me.

Do you deny extralinguistic reality? Do you think reality is exhausted by words, phrases, sentences? Not even the ostrich nominalist goes that far.

Oh no. I don't balk at your use of "explanation". I'm trying to identify HOW you're using it, WHAT is being explained: what are 1) the criteria for explanation your using and 2) what then counts as a good explanation in metaphysics? This, you don’t seem to want to answer. It’s just “evident” for you that a metaphysical explanation is required. Okay. I’m on the fence and would like to have a fuller sense of the questions above. I recognize an account the sentences' truth is interesting, and involves all kinds of approaches, but unsure if this account is explanatory.

I agree that there are extralinguistic realities. Of course. And I'm curious of the relation between language and these extralinguistic realities.

I understand that the sentence “Tom is true”, if we’re to ask what makes it true, would point to good oul Tom; I’m unsure if this pointing is explanatory. Snow is white iff snow is white. I’m not sure I feel enlightened.

I’m reading a paper by Anna Sofia Maurin at the moment which she sent to me: “A van Inwagean Defense of Constitutionalism” – it seems she finds it appropriate too to ask what kind of explanation is being offered.

Don’t you think the epistemic question important? Might the account your giving of Tom be merely descriptive?

(and thanks again for the continued exchange)

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