Friday, August 27, 2010

Radical versus conservative ontology

Before I move on to discuss the other assumptions that generate the conclusion that there are no artefacts, I realise there is something else to discuss. This is the distinction between what Steven Savitt calls 'ontologically conservative' or 'retentive' theory change, or reductionism, and 'ontologically radical' or 'eliminitavist' theory change, or eliminativism. This is explained well here. Ontological conservatism is when we revise our view of the entities posited by the original theory, without eliminating them. For example, our conception of light was transformed by the discovery that it is electro-magnetic radiation, and older explanations of it had to be rejected as incorrect or incomplete or misleading. But this discovery did not lead to abandoning the existence of light. Ontological eliminativism is when we drop completely the view that certain entities exist. For example, there is nothing in modern psychology that justifies the existence of malevolent spirits or demons. So we dropped demons altogether from our modern scientific ontology.

This is closely connected with what I discussed here about Inwagen's paraphrase argument. If his paraphrase of a story about ships is intended merely to change our view about ships (e.g. that they are not identical with their component parts, and that there is something singular over and above the parts corresponding to the grammatically singular 'a ship') then the paraphrase is ontologically conservative. It still affirms the existence of ships, just as the electro-magnetic theory affirms the existence of light, but it changes our view of what ships are, just as the electro-magnetic story changes our view about light. By contrast, if the paraphrase really 'loses ships', then it is ontologically radical. It challenges our common-sense ontology in a way that modern psychology challenged demons.

It is also connected with the 'aporetic' set of propositions I discussed earlier. (I have modified proposition B to meet an objections made by earlier comments).

A. An artifact remains numerically the same if one of its components is replaced, without replacing the others.
B. If the components of X, are now the components of Y, arranged in the same way, then X=Y
C. Identity is transitive (if X=Y and Y=Z, then X=Z)
D. If artifact a and artifact b have numerically different components at the same time, a and b are numerically different.
E. Artifacts exist.

If the four propositions A-D are true, artefacts do not exist, which is the ontogically radical position. Otherwise, one of more of these four propositions is false. This would revise our view about the fundamental properties of artefacts, which is ontologically conservative. This is by way of background. I will return to the original plan tomorrow, when I will discuss whether modifying our account of numerical identity could resolve the logical inconsistency between the five propositions above.


David Brightly said...

O, before you go on, could you clarify something for me?

(A) appears to refer to a unary relation, 'numerical sameness'.
(B) and (C) refer to equality, '='.
(D) refers to a binary relation, 'numerical difference'.

I suspect we need just one relation for this business, but we must see. I'm worried about (A) on two counts. (1) 'numerical sameness' appears to be a property that an artifact can lose, so strictly speaking we should be talking about 'numerical sameness at time t' (2) 'numerical sameness' is probably intended to codify 'identity over time'. But the latter is a presupposition of applying tensed predicates to referring terms such as your Xs and Ys. This leaves me uncomfortable, but again, we must see how it goes. I appreciate that you like to proceed from ordinary usage of language, but in this case, since the conclusions are potentially very radical, perhaps we should work rather more formally?

Edward Ockham said...

>>I suspect we need just one relation for this business, but we must see.

I agree. How about 'numerical identity', and how about representing it by the sign '=', which is the logical sign for the same thing (although it is also the mathematical sign for equality, which is not quite the same thing).

I will work on cleaning up the propositions.

Erik said...

David, I like this comment. It is a nice way of pressing for clarification. Though, I now am worried that you introduce another unclarity by saying to proceed formally. So to say: does proceeding formally strip away relevant aspects of this problem?

Edward Ockham said...

>>Does proceeding formally strip away relevant aspects of this problem?

Proceeding formally has the advantage of getting us all on the same page.