Chalmers on Ontological Realism

(Cross-posting from Long Words Bother Me.)

Today I have been mostly reading Dave Chalmers on Ontological Anti-Realism. (NB: Dave’s paper is a draft, not a finished product. Still, since it’s in the public domain, I thought it might be helpful to make a comment here since I think the point is important.)

A couple of quibbles then the biggie.

Quibble 1: I think it’s inviting trouble to describe anything as ‘the’ basic question of metaontology, ethics, or metaethics (p. 1). Other basic questions of metaethics, for instance, besides Dave’s (‘Are there objective answers to the basic questions of ethics?’) will plausibly include: ‘What is the best methodology for ethics?’ and/or ‘How – if at all – do we know ethical truths?’. And many people might think that the basic questions of ethics, besides ‘What is right?’, include ‘What is good?’, ‘What ought I to do?’ and/or ‘What is the force of ethical reasons for action?’.

Quibble 2: Those who hold that ‘commonsense’ and ‘correct’ ontology coincide in cognitive significance aren’t thereby forced to be deflationary about correct ontology (p. 9). They might instead be inflationary about commonsense ontology, holding that it has the cognitive significance of – and is sensitive to the commitments of – correct ontology. (Or at least, I don’t see why this option is off the table.)

The big one: Dave’s ‘ontological realism’ (section 5) consists in attributing the following properties to all ontological existence assertions:
1. objectivity, which amounts to lack of sensitivity (regarding content or truth-value) to context (speaker’s or evaluator’s)
and 2: determinacy (having truth-value true or false).
His ‘anti-realism’ is defined as the denial of realism in this sense.

My worry about this is that ‘objectivity’ as Dave defines it is orthogonal to the question of mind-independence, which I suspect is what most of those who take themselves to be ontological realists because they think ontological claims are ‘objective’ will be thinking of. By Dave’s lights, one can count as a realist about ontology despite thinking that There are Fs is true iff, and in virtue of the truth of, Someone believes at some time that there are Fs. But I think this position is pretty clearly anti-realist in at least one good (and commonplace) sense.

Moreover, I’m not sure that I know of a good (and/or commonplace) usage of ‘realism’ which goes along with determinacy of truth-value and lack of sensivity to context. No-one would say we are in danger of counting as anti-realists about physical space, say, just because we believe spatial language is full of indexicals and therefore not all spatial assertions are ‘objective’ in Dave’s sense.

4 Replies to “Chalmers on Ontological Realism”

  1. Hi Carrie, thanks for this.

    Re 1: Of course the claim about basic questions is just an introductory flourish on which nothing turns. But I’d be inclined to at least defend the thesis that if any questions are to be counted as the basic questions of ontology and metaontology, these questions have as good a claim as any.

    Re 2: If one is inflationary about the truth-conditions of ordinary existence assertions, holding that these coincide with those of ontological existence assertions, and if one is not deflationary about correct ontology, holding that its theses may come apart from the theses of commonsense ontology (that is, those reflected in our ordinary existence claims), then one will allow that some ordinary claims such as ‘There are infinitely many primes’ and ‘There are two objects on the table’ (in relevant circumstances) may be false. But then one needs a distinct notion of correctness to capture the intuitive sense in which they are certainly correct. So I don’t really see space opening up for a position that denies the relevant distinction here.

    Re 3: Yes, maybe there’s a case for explicitly building mind-independence into the definition of “objective”. I didn’t build it in because on most views on which the truth of these ontological claims is mind-dependent, the truth-value will also be context-dependent, as truth-conditions will vary between speakers and communities with different minds. But you are right that there are versions of the mind-dependence view (such as the one you mention) where this isn’t so. Of course the question of what counts as mind-dependence is pretty vexed, because of all the different ways in which truth-value might depend on a mind — e.g. as an element of circumstance of evaluation, context of assessment, context of utterance, meaning-determiner for relevant expressions, etc. I suspect that in this domain, the most important sort of mind-dependence involves minds playing a role as an element of context of utterance or assessment, but the other versions are worth attending to as well.

    On the use of “realism”: I think your point here is just an instance of a general phenomenon, that there’s no good domain-independent characterization of what counts as realism about a domain. The issue is very much sensitive to the domain, and to the particular concerns that we have about it. I think that given the concerns that are operative about ontology, the view that ontological truth is context-dependent pretty naturally qualifies as a sort of anti-realism (though it’s not the most important version, and at one point in the paper I mention the possibility of counting it in a distinct category of ontological pluralism instead). But in any case, as almost always with realisms and anti-realisms, it’s the view rather than the name that matters.

  2. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Re: 1, I think your conditional has a better chance of being true …! ūüôā

    Re: 2, you say:

    \‘But then one needs a distinct notion of correctness to capture the intuitive sense in which they are certainly correct.\’

    The view I have in mind denies that they are correct. (While this seems implausible, that surely isn\\‘t a reason to deny the view a place in logical space.)

    Re: 3, you say:

    \‘on most views on which the truth of these ontological claims is mind-dependent, the truth-value will also be context-dependent, as truth-conditions will vary between speakers and communities with different minds. But you are right that there are versions of the mind-dependence view (such as the one you mention) where this isn\‘t so.\’

    Not only that, but there are also going to be views on which you have context-dependence but (it would be natural to say) no \‘lack of objectivity\’ through¬†mind-dependence. So for instance, you can think it is a matter for context to determine which of two things you might be expressing by \‘Fs exist\’,¬†but once it does that, there\‘s a fully objective fact of the matter, determined by mind-independent reality,¬†as to whether the thing you expressed (whichever thing it was)¬†is true or not.¬†(It feels wrong to call this¬†a \‘lack of objectivity\’, or \‘mind-dependence\’,¬†as¬†it would be to do the same with¬†spatial indexicals.)

    I agree that the view rather than the name is what matters, though I think there is a risk that if you use terms like \‘realism\’ and \‘objectivity\’ you will bring to mind a kind of mind-independence which as far as I can tell is¬†two-way independent of context-independence.

    (On good domain-independent characterizations, of course there are many different uses of \‘realism\’ in different domains, but mind-independence¬†gives us the beginning of¬†a fairly good cross-domain characterization in cases where the realism in question is getting cashed out with talk of \‘independence\’ or \‘objectivity\’. My best shot at saying what kind of mind-independence counts¬†is in my paper Realism and Independence, APQ, 2005.)

  3. Re 2: Yes, this is certainly a position in logical space. In the paper I acknowledge it and then set it aside on the grounds that it cannot account for a key feature of our ordinary use of the relevant sentences.

    Re 3: Yes, I suppose that contextual variation between just two contents of ontological existence assertions (say, Meinongian being and existence) is compatible with a degree of realism. But once it goes much beyond that, one gets to views that are widely regarded as anti-realist about ontology, even if the satisfaction of any given content is objective. E.g. Ted Sider’s “Ontological Realism” sets up the main issue as the debate between quantifier variance (with multiple contents for the quantifiers) versus quantifier monism (with a privileged content), and Putnam tends to set things up along these lines as well. Maybe this does speak further in favor of a separate category of “ontological pluralism”, though.

    As for mind-dependence: I take it that this sort of talk needs to be cashed out with details about the sort of dependence in question, and that the most relevant sort of dependence will vary between domains. I’m inclined to think that in this debate, the most plausible roles for minds are as elements of contexts of utterance or of assessment, and that by contrast, a role in circumstances of evaluation (which is what initial characterizations of mind-dependence often suggest) is much less salient. But of course it’s at least a position in logical space. In any case, I’m certainly not opposed to invoking some sort of mind-independence in the definition of “objective”, as long as one can find a precise enough version.

  4. Re 2: Ah, I see: so the p. 9 point is inside the consequent of a big conditional whose antecedent is of the form ‘If we set aside xxx, then …’. OK, that makes sense.

    Re 3: It feels infelicitous to say that it’s the number of selectable contents that makes the difference between realism and anti-realism. (Sider’s paper also seems to me to amalgamate these distinct questions of objectivity/independence, substantiveness and quantifier semantics in a way that seems to me fraught with potential for confusion. I’m not sure it’s a fair reading to say that he thinks quantifier semantics is ‘the main issue’. At the end of his section 2, for e.g., he clearly thinks the issue is deflationism vs substantiveness. Later, in section 7, he says that objectivity/independence is a ‘core’ aspect of realism.)

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