Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Is the Problem of the Many a Problem in Metaphysics? (Bristol)

The 2007 Joint Session in Bristol, organized by Anthony Everett and his team, was also excellent! Besides philosophy, and as expected, it was great seeing lots of friends, and meeting lots of new people: apparently it was the biggest JS ever!

There I presented my ‘Is the Problem of the Many a Problem in Metaphysics?,’ which I very happily had just learned has been accepted in Noûs. The discussion didn’t go that well at the time, as I was particularly slow and obtuse, but now I think it was very useful. (The following reconstruction is greatly indebted to posterior discussion with Patrick Greenough and Katherine Hawley.)

Tim Williamson objected that there is the danger that many if not all genuine disputes in metaphysics turn out to be “in semantics” in the sense in which I was claiming that the dispute between different solutions to the problem of the many is “in semantic”—assuming the view of vagueness as semantic indecision. One might try to block this overgeneralization concern via appealing to both parties agreeing that the ‘mountain’-free description is complete with respect to all the facts—except for facts about which should also be described as facts involving mountains—, along the lines I suggested in the paper. But then, Tim worried, one would be thereby committed to a coarse-grained notion of fact incapable of expressing controversial issues in philosophy—for under this sense (one of the parties would hold) the fact that mountains are mountains* is identical to the fact that mountains* are mountains* and so on. On reflection, I am now inclined to say that this is indeed right, but something that the defenders of the view should actually endorse. Consider, for an analogy, a Lewisian conception about values according to which it is analytic that something is good iff we are disposed to value it under appropriate conditions. If this is correct, then the fact that something is good would be identical to the fact that we are disposed to value it under appropriate conditions—its philosophical controversiality and non-obviousness notwithstanding.

Katherine Hawley pointed out that, as stated, a dispute would qualify as in semantics according to me even if the parties agreed on what things there are and which properties they have—when they are described in a suitably neutral way—but disagree about the relative naturalness of these objects and properties and, as a result of this, disagree about the semantics of certain expressions. I think I agree on the general point, and that a full characterization of the relevant metametaphysical attitude should take this point into consideration. I don’t think this would affect the particular claim about the problem of the many, as the different objects and properties seem to be equally natural according to both parties, but I’d like to think more about this.

Robbie Williams wondered whether the main issues could be more neutrally raised directly in terms of the relevant definiteness-involving statements, leaving the view of vagueness as semantic indecision as one possible way among others of explicating the notion. As I said there, I haven’t explored yet the shape to these issues if the assumption of vagueness as semantic indecision is not in place.

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