Saturday, January 06, 2007

Chalmers on Ontological Realism

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.

Update: I have cross-posted this to TAR where it has received some discussion from Chalmers.

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