Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Official Blog Ontology

This blog's ontology is brought to you by John Heil. This is his 3AM interview. Also, his book Philosophy of Mind is a good introduction into philosophy of mind, framed in his ontology-first point of view.

[Heil, from 3AM]

. . .
What I object to is the unthinking move from linguistic premises to ontological conclusions, from the assumption, for instance, that if you have an ‘ineliminable’ predicate that features in an explanation of some phenomenon of interest, the predicate must name a property shared by everything to which it applies. (A predicate is ineliminable if it cannot be analyzed, paraphrased, or translated into less vexed predicates.)

Philosophers speak of ‘the pain predicate’. When you look at creatures plausibly regarded as being in pain, you do not see a single physical property they all share (and in virtue of which it would be true to say that they are in pain). Instead of thinking that the predicate, ‘is in pain’, designates a family of similar properties, philosophers (including Putnam in one of his moods) conclude that the predicate must name a ‘higher-level’ property possessed by a creature by virtue of that creature’s ‘lower-level’ physical properties. You have many different kinds of physical property supporting a single nonphysical property. This is the kind of ‘non-reductive physicalism’ you have in functionalism.

Non-reductive physicalism has become a default view, a heavyweight champ that retains its status until decisively defeated. Non-reductive physicalism acquired the crown, however, not by merit, but by a kind of linguistic subterfuge. If you read early anti-reductionist tracts – for instance, Jerry Fodor’s ‘Special Sciences (Or: The Disunity of Science as a Working Hypothesis)’ (Synthese, 1974) – you will see that the arguments concern predicates, categories, taxonomies. Fodor’s point, a correct one in my judgment, is that there is no prospect of replacing taxonomies in the special sciences with one drawn from physics. But from this no ontological conclusions follow – unless you assume that every ‘irreducible’ predicate names a property.

This language-driven way of thinking is not one that would have occurred to the ancients, the medievals, or the early moderns – or to my aforementioned philosophical models. It is an invention of the 20th century, one that has led to the emasculation of serious ontology.

. . .

JH: I am not sure what ‘ontological reduction’ would be. How could you reduce one thing to another? I understand reduction as a relation among categories, or predicates, or taxonomies, or theories. Can you take a true description formulated in biological terms, and paraphrase it into a description formulated in terms of quarks and leptons? If that seems unlikely, then the reduction of biology to physics is not in the cards.

My conception of ontology differs from that of Ladyman and Ross, so I am unmoved by their rhetoric. Most philosophers nowadays accept Quine’s observation that there is no sharp boundary between philosophy and science. And, as Donald Davidson puts it, ‘where there are no fixed boundaries, only the timid never risk trespass’. Measured reflection on what we know about the universe suggests that wherever physics leads us we will find substances and properties.

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