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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sydney Ontological Commitment Conference

Just returned from a fun conference in Sydney on ontological commitment, which was organized by Luca Moretti. There were many excellent talks. Uriah Kriegel opened the conference by drawing a distinction between the two questions central to the conference: the first-order question: what should we be ontologically committed to? And the second-order question: what is it to be ontologically committed to something? Uriah's talk addressed the first-order question. It dealt with the issue of whether there are merely intentional objects, that is, entities that serve as the objects of mental states in the absence of a real object. And, as you might have expected, Uriah's response was a loud and clear 'no'. Uriah is a defender of (phenomenal) adverbialism. According to this position, if one is thinking of a unicorn, one is thinking unicornly. Uriah dealt with a number of new and old objections to this sort of position. One famous objection comes from Frank Jackson, and it runs as follows: suppose you perceive a red cube and a blue circle. In Adverbialese, we can then say, for example, that you perceive redly cubely bluly circly. But how then are we to distinguish the envisaged scenario from the scenario in which you perceive a red circle and a blue cube. You would still perceive redly cubely bluly circly. It may be replied that perhaps we can say that you perceive red-cubely and blue-circly rather than red-circly and blue-cubely. But the standard reply to this move is that one then cannot account for inferences of the following kind:

You perceive red-cubely and blue-circly
So, you perceive a cube.

The conclusion, it is alleged, doesn't follow for much same reason that we cannot infer that Alice ran quickly from 'Alice ran close-to-quickly'. Uriah offered his opponent the following sort of reply. Consider:

There is a strawberry
There is a straw and there is a berry
Therefore, there is a berry.

The inference is obviously fallacious. But just because the move from premise 1 to premise 2 is mistaken, this does not mean that all inferences from the first premise to the conclusion is fallacious. The reason the inference from the premise to the conclusion holds (without the second premise) is that all strawberries are berries. Likewise, Uriah said, the reason the inference from 'you preceive red-cubely and blue-circly' to 'you perceive a cube' is valid is that all red-cubely perceptions are perceptions of a cube. My own objection to Uriah's general adverbialist position was that it seems that it cannot account for wide aspects of meaning. Consider:

Twin Oscar is thinking of water

If interpreted against the background of Putnam's Twin Earth story the sentence sounds false. However, in Uriah's framework the sentence is to be rendered as 'Twin Oscar is thinking-waterly'. This, of course, is true. Uriah responded by denying the possibility of de re attitudes in general.

Jonathan Schaffer followed Uriah with a talk about truth-maker commitments (as shown on the pretty slide in the picture). Schaffer's position was somewhat anti-Quinean. He first argued that the important question is not what exists. This is not important because Quine was right when he said that everything exists. If you take a look at a true fragment of the language, you can simply read off the ontological commitments directly. This is quite uninteresting, however, as it does not tell us which entities are fundamental. The important question, according to Schaffer, is that of which entities are fundamental. Schaffer argued that we can, in principle, allow any kind of entity whatsoever to be deposited into our ontology: properties, propositions, numbers, etc. etc. But few of these will be fundamental. One virtue of this framework is that if we endorse it, then we do not need to engage in Quinean paraphrasing. 'There are numbers', for example, commits us to numbers at the Quinean level but it does not automatically commit us to numbers at the level of fundamentals. So, there is a sense in which it is innocent to say that there are numbers. It would be much less innocent to claim that numbers are among the fundamental entities of the universe.

There were many many other fantastic talks. Luca, who also organized the conference, argued that something like Horwich's minimalism about truth should be extended to properties, facts, and so on. Amie Thomassson argued, among other things, that we ought to reject substantive criteria for entities to 'really' exist and Quine's criterion of ontological commitment, as the latter provides only a sufficient, not necessary, condition for ontological commitment. My own talk was primarily concerned with the question of whether we can make sense of extensional and intensional criteria of ontological commitment. Michaelis Michael argued that ontological commitments are a species of commitments in general and that implicit commitments play an important role in assessing each other and our theories. Kristie Miller delivered a very interesting talk on the metaphysics of holes. Finally, Mark Colyvan argued that inconsistent theories pose a problem for the Quinean conception of ontological commitment. If accepting the best theories currently available requires us to believe they are true, then we are required to believe in impossible ojects. For most theories are inconsistent. Mark suggested that we should give up classical logic but that we shouldn't give up the hope that our best theories can be revised to avoid consistency. I argued that we need not give up classical logic, as long as we take rational belief to be closed under paraconsistent consequence rather than classical consequence. Either way Mark's conclusion that we are committed to inconsistent objects is rather surprising (to say the least).

All in all a very intense and intellectually rich conference. Thanks to Luca Moretti for organizing it and to Susanna Schellenberg for sending the photos.

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