Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On What Grounds What (a glance at a paper)

Since I'm away and missing this weeks reading group I thought I'd post some comments on the readings here to fish for replies.

The reading is here: http://rsss.anu.edu.au/~schaffer/papers/Ground.pdf

In the paper, Schaffer argues that metaphysics should be concerned with the grounding relation and what things are fundamental. He contrasts this with a view he attributes to Quine, according to which what metaphysics should be concerned with is what things exist.
Very roughly, he seems to have these points in favor of his view:
- Quine's agenda is part of his agenda, so anyone who loves thinking about what exists need not stop doing that on his account.
- His view lends some insight into a plausible way to implement a philosophical methodology much like Quine's methodology.
- There are simple arguments for the existence of lots of abstracta. His view admits of their existence (thus maintaining lots of common sense truths) yet gracefully bears their ontological cost (they exist, but that isn't a cost because they may not be fundamental).
- Grounding is an intuitive primitive relation that we need for metaphysics anyway (to support this he mentions that supervenience cannot bear the weight we put on it, but grounding can do all it does and more).
- Many important existence debates can be better frames as grounding debates.

I thought this paper was excellent and thought provoking. Here's a few points to hopefully start things off.

1) What does this view exclude from metaphysical inquiry?
For that matter, what does quine's view exclude from metaphysical inquiry? Arguably, the answer to both is nothing. Schaffer gives a rough method for posing any interesting question as an existence question, so presumably no question is out of the game for Quine. Since Schaffer must also answer all existence questions no question is out of the game for him either. So what's supposed to be the difference? Is it methodological? Well, he certainly gives reason enough to reject Quine's method, but he seems to want to say more than that. He's rejecting Quine's characterization of the fundamental question of metaphysics. But again, both questions demand the same information. Is it a recommended strategy or style he's suggesting to philosophers? If so, his point may be important, but merely pragmatic. After all, any style or strategy that yields knowledge will do the trick for us philosophers. It could be an important pragmatic point he's making, but at first blush I see two other options:
a) He's making an object level grounding claim: Facts about grounding themselves ground facts about existence. It's a short step from here to say that it's more important to look at facts about grounding then facts about existence, since grounding facts are more fundamental.
b) Schaffer is lending too much importance to grounding, and Quine is lending too much importance to existence. Metaphysics is concerned with everything that exists and all interesting relations they stand in. Grounding is an important one, but one of many. They're views when analyzed are mere recommendations on where we should put our focus.
2) Is this unfair to Meinong?
I'm no Meinongian, but if we're defining a framework in which to do metaphysics all the major players should at least be represented. Meinong can make a distinction Schaffer doesn't allow, in addition to a "non-existence waste bin" he can have a "there are none of waste bin". Quine had the same problem. I don't think Meinong should be outcast as "not doing metaphysics anymore" or anything like that.
3) Does it make all our metaphysical distinctions?
If this point is right, then point (1) is wrong and vice versa, but what the heck, I'm just talking here. It seems that if two distinct types of entities occupy the same place in the grounding game (two types of entities that both ground the same things, and are grounded by the same things), Schaffer is committed to that distinction being uninteresting, or not in the scope of metaphysical inquiry. Here's a couple pairs that could plausibly be like that (and may still be metaphysically interesting):
a) Space - Time
b) Math - Logic
c) Fiction - Myth

I think I'll leave off here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Film tomorrow

I wanted to let folks know that the documentary Examined Life, which features interviews with famous philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer, is playing at the Cinematheque tomorrow, June 4 at 7 pm. I've had a chance to see it and it's pretty good, some interesting stuff, and it's nice to see familiar names in the flesh.