Monthly Archives: March 2007

The Shrinking Block

Why are there no defenders of the shrinking block theory of time – the view that the present and future exist but not the past? Here’s one advantage of the theory: it gives a good explanation for a version of the ‘thank goodness that’s over’ intuition. If I tell you that there is going to be an hour of pain in your lifetime and you can choose whether it’s to be in your past or your future which would you choose? I bet, other things’ being equal, you’d choose it to be in your past. But why? If Shrinking Block is true there’s a good reason for so choosing: existent pains are a lot worse than non-existent ones.

Does Growing Block have advantages over Shrinking Block? Why be a growing block theorist? My old friend from grad school, Joseph Diekemper (currently Gifford fellow at St Andrews, and soon to be lecturer at Queen’s Belfast) cites the fixity of the past and the openness of the future as reason to accept Growing Block. But his main target is the presentist: Joseph thinks the presentist can’t account for the asymmetry in fixity because they have no corresponding asymmetry between the past and future. Well, this alone won’t move the Shrinking Block theorist, because they do have such an asymmetry – it’s just the other way around from the Growing Block.

Indeed, in some ways the Shrinking Block view seems more able to account for the fixity of the past and the openness of the future. The intuition to be saved, I take it, is that we can affect how the future will be but not how the past was. Well ask yourself this: what would it be easier for us to affect – an existent state of affairs or a non-existent one? Surely an existent one, since we can’t even have causal interaction with a non-existent state of affairs.

I’m not seriously trying to get you to believe the Shrinking Block theory, of course. But I’d be interested to know just why Growing Block is meant to be a better option.

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Naturalness in Idaho

I’m off very soon to the INPC metametaphysics conference in Boise. Many other fun people will be there (not least fellow CMM-er Andy McGonigal, fresh from a spell at Cornell).

Together with Iris Einheuser, I’m going to be responding to Ted Sider’s paper “Which disputes are substantive?”. It’s been great to have a serious think about the way that Ted thinks of this stuff, and how it relates to the Kit Fine inspired setting that I’ve been working on lately.

Anyway, the whole writing-a-response thing got way out of hand, and I’ve ended up with a 7,500 word first draft. I do think there’s a couple of substantive issues raised therein for the kind of framework (otherwise really really attractive) that he’s been pushing here and in recent work. The worry centres around quantification into the scope of Ted’s “naturalness” operator. For any who are interested, I’ve put the draft response up online.

After the INPC, I’ll be in San Fran for the Pacific APA, along with many other CMM and Leeds folks.

CMM attracts more metaphysicians

We are delighted to announce that Sonia Roca Royes has been awarded an externally funded postdoc to spend two years at the CMM, starting in June 2007. Sonia’s research so far has been on essentialism, and she has published in Mind and Erkenntnis. We’re very pleased that she’ll be joining us.

This is the same period of time that Stephan Leuenberger, currently a postdoc at the ANU and winner of the 2006 Oxford Studies in Metaphysics Younger Scholars Competition, will be joining us, replaing me as the CMM research fellow in metaphysics.

It’s also around this time that Professor John Divers will be making his triumphant return to Leeds. And Helen Steward will have just joined us from Oxford.

The future of metaphysics at Leeds looks very bright indeed!

Fundamentality again

I’ve added two substantial sections at the end of my paper on real and derivative existents; the latest version, for anyone who cares, is here.

Robbie and I are going to be giving a joint presentation on this stuff at a metaphysics workshop in St Andrews on may 17th. Elizabeth will also be giving a paper. – Watch this space for details!

Dear John, thank you for your paper . . .

Elizabeth and I were talking to Kris McDaniel last night about the similarity between rejection letters from journals and ‘Dear John’ letters from significant others who are soon to be ex-significant others. So: we offer the following translation manual for interpreting journals.

In place of ‘Thank you for submitting your paper X to our journal. Competition is intense, and . . .’ read ‘We need to talk . . . ’

In place of ‘We wish you every success in finding an alternative avenue of publication’ read ‘I’m sure there’s someone really special out there for you.’

In place of ‘Competition is intense, and although I read your paper with interest . . .’ read ‘I’m young – I need to consider all my options’

In place of ‘The referees thought the paper deviated from the aims of the journal’ read ‘It’s not you, it’s me’

In place of ‘Based on the advice we’ve received, we cannot accept your paper’ read ‘My friends don’t like you, so it’s over’

In place of ‘The Editor would be prepared to consider a revised version … ‘ read ‘Perhaps we could hook up sometimes when I’m in town — on a “no commitment” basis … ‘

In place of ‘Please consider our journal in the future’ read ‘I hope we can still be friends!’

And in place of ‘I’m sorry to tell you that, upon consideration of the referees’ comments, your paper will not be accepted for publication’. Read: ‘I just don’t think this is gonna work’

Vagueness and contradiction in derivative reality

While we disagree on some of the details, both Robbie and I agree one can admit that there are complex objects without, in some sense, being ontologically committed to complex objects: there need be no complex objects in fundamental ontology.

What complex objects exist derivatively then? Well, if they’re not really extra elements of our ontology we might think we should just go ahead and say that the claims of universalism come out true: that for any collection of objects, there is (derivatively) a sum of those objects. That, I think, is Armstrong’s view: complex objects are an ontological free lunch, so we might as well be universalists.

But we’re certainly not forced into saying that. Just as we are concerned with reconciling a nihilistic ontology with the truth of everyday judgements concerning the existence of tables and persons, etc, we might also be concerned with not going too far – that is, preserving the everyday judgements concerning the non­-existence of the sum of Hitler’s left ear, an atom in the sun, and the number 2. So we might tell a story whereby our fundamental, atomistic, ontology accounts for the truth of some theory of restricted composition.

Indeed, it seems that we can avoid one of the main objections to restricted composition: namely, the Sider-Lewis objection from vagueness. If composition is restricted, they say, it must be either brute or vague. If it’s brute, that’s metaphysically arbitrary in an objectionable way. But if it’s vague then this must be ontic vagueness, since there’s no vagueness in the language of quantificational theory, and that’s no good because ontic vagueness is A Bad Thing.

There’s plenty to say about that argument as applied against run-of-the-mill restricted composition theorists, of course, (Is brutality really all that bad?[1] Is ontic vagueness?[2]), but even if you think the argument is good there, it seems to have no weight at all against the kind of restricted composition you would get on the Robbie/Ross route.

Suppose we go organicist. A complex object only (derivatively) exists if the simples that account for its existence jointly and exhaustively participate in some life. There will be cases where it is vague whether we have a complex object. Is this objectionable? It seems not – even on the assumption that there cannot be ontic vagueness. Because what there really is is (we may suppose) perfectly precise. It’s just vague whether some collections of the fundamental existents account for the existence of a complex object. In my terminology, it will be vague whether they make true any existence claims concerning complex objects. Ontic vagueness only looks worrying, if it ever does, if it infects fundamental ontology: the derivative can be as indeterminate as you like. (C.f. Elizabeth’s ‘Ontic vagueness without supervenience’.)

(Maybe this gives us an argument for priority monism: the view (defended by Jonathan Schaffer) that the one big whole is what’s fundamental, and the parts derivative on it. Quantum mechanics tells us (my esteemed colleagues tell me!) that the very smallest things are indeterminate. Maybe that gives us reason to deny that they’re fundamental and instead accept that the quantum particles are derivative on the fundamental whole.)

If that’s right, it seems to apply to other cases as well. I’m thinking in particular of dialetheism. Many people find objectionable the idea that both a proposition and its negation can be true. I share the suspicion if the proposition concerns how fundamental ontology is; but it doesn’t seem objectionable to me if fundamental reality is consistent, but the consistent way fundamental reality is results in an inconsistent derivative reality.

Think of the particular cases of true contradictions dialetheists are fond of. The Liar sentence – L – springs to mind. L is both true and false! But who cares? Sentences are not, we might think, part of fundamental ontology. What’s fundamental is, on my view, just the truthmakers. So what would be objectionable is if, say, the truthmaker for L both existed and didn’t exist, for then fundamental reality would be inconsistent. But the dialetheist is not committed to anything like this. We could easily tell a story whereby fundamental reality (for me, the truthmakers) is consistent and makes true both L and its negation. And this just doesn’t seem objectionable to me. Why should I care about some sentence being both true and false? Why should I care, even, if some thing both does and doesn’t exist – provided the sense in which it exists is mere derivative existence? All that seems bad to me is if there is inconsistency at the fundamental level; if our best theory tells us that this consistent fundamental reality accounts for true inconsistencies, so be it.


[1] See Ned Markosian’s ‘Brutal Composition’, Daniel Nolan’s ‘Vagueness, Multiplicity and Parts’ and my ‘The Contingency of Composition’.

More on fundamentality

Robbie says below that people thinks about the fundamental/derivative distinction in such different ways. One truthmaker for this claim is the pair of him and me! At least, maybe: we’ve been talking about this stuff, and I’m not entirely sure about whether we do in fact disagree substantially. Anyway, I thought I’d also post my current thoughts on the matter. This is *extremely* work-in-progressy, and a lot of work needs to be done, so comments are very welcome.

My paper is here.