Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Ted Sider's 'Ontological Realism'

The following is a commentary on the first and last sections ( 'The Ontology of Composite Material Objects' and 'What Should We Believe?') of Theodore Sider's paper 'Ontological Realism'; which is included in the book Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Metaphysics.

Just as Sider's first and last sections are more or less introductory in nature; so is this commentary. I'll attempt to tackle the more technical sections within Sider's paper subsequently. 

Ted Sider on Metaphysics

Ted Sider tells us what he takes metaphysics to be. (Or, perhaps, he tells us what he wants metaphysics to be.) He writes: “The point of metaphysics is to discern the fundamental structure of the world.” What's more, “[t]hat requires choosing fundamental notions with which to describe the world.”

Metaphysics, according to Sider, can even have practical or pragmatic value. For example, Sider says that “it’s good to choose a set of fundamental notions that make previously intractable questions evaporate”. Indeed Sider continues by saying that “no one other than a positivist can make all the hard questions evaporate”. Finally: “There’s no detour around the entirety of fundamental metaphysics.”

Sider makes it plain that metaphysics asks fundamental and important questions by asking the reader a question: “Was Reichenbach wrong?— is there a genuine question of whether spacetime is flat or curved?” The obvious response to this is to ask if that's a scientific (not a metaphysical) question. Unless it's the case that metaphysics can offer insights on this which the physicist is incapable of. Though surely that can't be true. (More technically, Sider cites Quine's work and the quantification of logical and metaphysical structure as the means to establish an answer to this question.)

Sider also gets to the heart of the matter (at least in the debate between metaphysical realism and what he calls “deflationism”) when he states the following:

Everyone faces the question of what is ‘real’ and what is the mere projection of our conceptual apparatus, of which issues are substantive and which are ‘mere bookkeeping’.”

That's certainly not true about everyone; just most - not even all - philosophers. Sure, it's true that many laypersons are concerned with what's real. However, they don't also think in terms of the possibility that it's our “conceptual apparatus” that hides – or may hide – the real. Many laypersons believe that other things hide the real: lies, propaganda, “the media”, politicians, religions, drugs and even science and philosophy.

Nonetheless, the philosophical issue of realism does indeed spread beyond philosophy. Take science:

This is true within science as well as philosophy: one must decide when competing scientific theories are mere notational variants. Does a metric-system physics genuinely disagree with a system phrased in terms of ontological realism feet and pounds? We all think not.”

Or take Donald Davidson's less theoretical example of centigrade and Fahrenheit. These are two modes of expression of the same thing. However, Sider asks if the same can be said of “a metric-system physics” and a “ontological realism feet and pounds”. Does this position have much to do with what's called “empirical/observational equivalence”? If it does, then theories which are empirically equivalent need not be theoretically identical. They're equivalent in that they also carry the same weight. Sider writes:

Unless one is prepared to take the verificationist’s easy way out, and say that ‘theories are the same when empirically equivalent’, one must face difficult questions about where to draw the line between objective structure and conceptual projection.”

The Ontology of the Composition of Objects

Ted Sider is explicit about his defence of this area of metaphysics. He states:

I, on the other hand, accept a very strong realism about ontology. I think that questions about the existence of composite objects are substantive, just as substantive as the question of whether there are extra-terrestrials; and I think that the contemporary ontologists are approaching these questions in essentially the right way.”

The debate about ontological composition is “substantive” (as word which Sider uses a lot) if one accepts the legitimacy of a question which he asks his readers. Thus:

... we could ask: ‘is there any context in which it would be true to say ‘‘there are tables and chairs’’?’ It is hard to see how you could block the legitimacy of this question; and if it is phrasable in your fundamental language, it is substantive and nonverbal.”

Is Sider truly saying that the legitimacy of this statement (“there are tables and chairs”) can be questioned when it even comes to everyday (or “ordinary”) language-use? After all, he does say “any context”.

I must be honest here. The debate about the ontology of the composition/constitution of objects sometimes irritates me. It's one of the few subjects in metaphysics which does so; and, I suppose, that's saying something (if only about me). Perhaps I'm a philosophical philistine; though, as just said, I don't feel this way about any other of the main subjects in metaphysics. (Perhaps I would do about some of the minor subjects; though I would need to know what they are and none spring immediately to mind.) Perhaps I'm missing the substantive realities of these debates. Then again, perhaps there is no substance to them. On the other hand, objectual composition may be as substantive as any other subject in metaphysics. Thus it may be just a quirk of my own mind that I sometimes find it annoying.

In any case, many positions in the ontology of object composition seem extreme. Sider himself cites some of them. For example, “the nihilists have a very quick solution to the old puzzle of the statue and the lump of clay: neither exists!”. Then we have the case in which “[o]thers said that nothing you could do to the objects would make them compose something further”.

Thus what does Sider have to say about all this? After all, this truly is his own bag.

Interestingly enough (as just stated), Sider himself seems to think that some of these beliefs are ridiculous. For example, he writes:

No matter what you do to the objects, they’ll always compose something further, no matter how they are arranged. Thus we learned of the fusion of the coins in our pockets with the Eiffel Tower.”

Perhaps the position advanced above about coins and the Eiffel Tower fusing together (to make another bone fide object) is a metaphysician's way of saying that the debate itself is ridiculous. In other words, the position is an example of “postmodern irony” within analytic metaphysics.

Another position in ontological composition (as stated by Sider) simply seems trite or stupid (or both). Sider writes:

... objects have to be fastened together in some way, the way the parts of the things we usually think about are.”

Then again, Sider gives a sensible repost to this when he says:

But van Inwagen taught us of people stuck or glued or sewn or fused to each other. Such entanglements, van Inwagen thought, create no new entities.”

Perhaps the position of “mereological nihilists” is, prima facie, the most ridiculous of all. Sider writes:

According to these ‘mereological nihilists’, tables, chairs, computers, molecules, people, and other composite objects, simply don’t exist. All that exist are simples—entities without further parts; subatomic particles presumably—which are ‘arranged table-wise’, ‘arranged chair-wise’, and so on.”

It can of course be the case that I simply don't understand the arguments. It may also be that I don't want to understand the arguments. More relevantly, these issues may well be substantive without me knowing it. They may be substantive without anyone (except mereological nihilists and Sider) knowing it.

Finally, there's a position which appears to be quite arbitrary; which Sider himself acknowledges. That's the position of Peter van Inwagen. According to Sider,

Van Inwagen himself also dispensed with tables and chairs, but departed from the nihilists by admitting people and other living things into his ontology.”

As a response to that position, Sider states (in parenthesis): “Why he spared the living few could tell.”

Conceptual Analysis and Deflationism

Sider asks a couple of good questions of deflationists and philistines like myself. He asks:

Is your rejection of ontological realism based on the desire to make unanswerable questions go away, to avoid questions that resist direct empirical methods but are nevertheless not answerable by conceptual analysis?”

It's hardly surprising - if we take the positions above (alongside my earlier personal reactions) - that Sider himself has heard “[w]hispers that something was wrong with the debate itself”. Despite that, according to Sider:

Today’s ontologists are not conceptual analysts; few attend to ordinary usage of sentences like ‘chairs exist’.”

I'm tempted to say that ontologists should indulge in a bit of conceptual analysis! I don't mean that conceptual analysis should be the beginning and the end of metaphysics; only that it may help things. Thus Sider's statement begs the following question: What wrong with (a little) conceptual analysis? Who knows, Sider may well have answered that question elsewhere. Indirectly, Sider does comment on conceptual analysis; or at least on what is called ontological deflationism. Sider writes:

These critics—‘ontological deflationists’, I’ll call them—have said instead something more like what the positivists said about nearly all of philosophy: that there is something wrong with ontological questions themselves. Other than questions of conceptual analysis, there are no sensible questions of (philosophical) ontology. Certainly there are no questions that are fit to debate in the manner of the ontologists.”

Sider states the position of ontological deflationists; though, here at least, he doesn't offer a criticism of their position.

In terms of conceptual analysis and ontological deflationism being relevant to the composition/constitution of objects, Sider writes:

... when some particles are arranged tablewise, there is no ‘substantive’ question of whether there also exists a table composed of those particles, they say. There are simply different—and equally good—ways to talk.”

Ontological Structure and Quantification

What is realist in Sider's ontological realism is “objective structure”. This does the work done in the past by objects, entities, events, laws, essences, conditions, etc.

It's interesting that Sider stresses the importance of structure in both science and metaphysics considering the fact that analytic metaphysicians just like Sider are the main enemy of, for example, ontic structural realists, whom also stress structure. (See my 'The Basics of Ladyman and Ross's Case Against Analytic Metaphysics'.) For example, Sider says that some questions “are questions of structure”. That is, “how much structure is there in the world?”. Sider gets more technical when he says that

Quine’s (1948) criterion for ontological commitment is good as far as it goes: believe in those entities that your best theory says exists.... believe in as much structure as your best theory of the world posits”.

Does the expression of ontological commitment in the language of quantifiers automatically solve our problems? (Hilary Putnam once sarcastically said that he thinks that “part of the appeal of mathematical logic is that the formulas look mysterious – you write backward Es!”.)

Even Sider's locution “[i]f quantifiers carve at the joints” seems nonsensical. How can quantifiers (which are only logical symbols, if with content) carve anything? (They're not sharp enough.) Less literally, shouldn't it be said that quantifiers quantify and describe the world as (if it is) carved at the joints? In other words, not even ontology does the carving. It describes, explains, justifies and accepts the ontological and/or scientific carving (into natural kinds, etc.) of the world. Then logic codifies that world-as-carved. It's only then that we can see ontology as ‘factual’ and ‘deep’.

Put simply, the quantificational statement ∃x (x = F) simply codifies our ontological positions. It doesn't explain (at least, not entirely), justify, and describe (at least not entirely) them.

In any case, Sider gives his own example. He states:

... ‘there is an F such that ...’, where F must be replaced by a sortal predicate, rather than the bare quantifier of predicate logic.”

That's not ontology – it's logic. Or, at the most, it's the logical codification of an ontological position. Or, as Sider puts it, the statement there is a F such that... “would not make all the ontological questions go away”. In other words, the substitution of an F for an x doesn't help. That's the case because “we could ask what the range of sortals is”. This is an important ontological question and not simply one of logical codification. After all, after someone has used the sortal F, Sider's asks us if there is “any sortal F such that #there is an F that is composed of me and the Eiffel tower is true?”. (Sider also offers us [person] and [subatomic particle] as less extreme examples of a sortal.) Could there be the following sortal? Namely, [Ted Sider and – or fused with - the Eiffel tower]? To state the obvious, sortals (at least here) concern objects which could include the fusion of Sider and the Eiffel tower (or even Quine's “rabbit fusions”). The logical codification of such things is unconcerned with what objects are posited or accepted. That's the job of the scientist and/or ontologist and these questions arise before logical codification... or they should do.

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