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    platopus, Considering ontological nihilism

    Johnathan R. Razorback
    Johnathan R. Razorback

    Messages : 18040
    Date d'inscription : 12/08/2013
    Localisation : France

    platopus, Considering ontological nihilism Empty platopus, Considering ontological nihilism

    Message par Johnathan R. Razorback Ven 9 Déc - 16:45

    "As Quine once noted, the question “what is there?” admits a truthful reply of just one word: “everything”. The glibness of this point illustrates a difficulty encountered when posing ontological questions. When the philosopher asks us if there are trees, we are inclined to say that of course there are. If the philosopher is frustrated by the ease with which this reply is given, it is likely because they sought to place a stricter meaning on the verb ‘to be’ than we have granted it. The question was not really “are there trees?”, but “are there really trees?”

    Armed with this general caveat we can divest ontological nihilism — the view that nothing exists — of some of its surface angst by rendering it more faithfully as the view that no thing exists. In their paper on the topic [1], John O’Leary-Hawthorne and Andrew Cortens (who will from hereon in be assimilated into the unity known as ‘HC’) approach the idea (which they defend) by considering the various degrees of commitment we can hold towards objects in general.

    1. Straightforward realism. The world comes to us “articulated into distinct objects” [2]. On this view the ontologically honest sentences are those which take the familiar grammatical form in which nouns are used as subjects. Example: “There is a pebble.”

    2. The world consists of stuffs, not of things. Many of what we think of as objects are actually just partial regions of scattered stuff. The ontologically honest sentences are those that employ mass terms [3] which refer to these stuffs. Here the pebble example would more honestly be put as: “There’s a bit of pebble.”

    3. Token monism. There is just one object, and that object is the world. Everything we perceive as an object is just some local modification of the world-stuff. (This view is associated with Spinoza and Parmenides. [4]) Our example becomes: “The world-stuff is pebblish there.”

    The positions on this list become more ontologically innocent [5] as we ascend, in that they become committed to the existence of fewer and fewer objects. Realism treats all or most of the things we refer to with nouns as objects, the stuff view reduces this number dramatically, and token monism reduces it to one. Ontological nihilism is then the view which reduces this number to zero.

    To see how this works it is helpful to consider which sentences would be ontologically honest according to nihilism. The paradigmatic example given by HC is “It is raining.” Sentences of this type are referred to as ‘feature-placing’ [6], and are distinguished by the fact that ‘it’ is not being used as a noun-subject, and hence carries no tacit existential commitments. (As we can see by noting that “It is raining” is not semantically equivalent to “There is a thing which is raining”.) Adding it to our list, we have:

    4. Ontological Nihilism. There are no objects. Ontologically honest sentences are those, like feature-placing sentences, which are completely ontologically innocent. Our example becomes: “It is pebbling there.”

    Arguments against

    The primary argument against nihilism appeals to the indispensability of (ontologically guilty) subject-predicate grammar. We are, of course, far more at home with descriptions like “there is a pebble” than “it is pebbling there”. The question is then whether this familiarity is simply a matter of historical contingency, or if subject-predicate grammar provides an intrinsically good way of representing reality which we have, as it were, discovered in the course of our linguistic development. If it is the latter then the case can be made that this utility is best explained if reality really is divided into objects prior to its perception, i.e. if object realism of some sort is true.

    HC criticise this argument by challenging the indispensability of subject-predicate grammar directly. They do so by attempting to provide an account of how a descriptively rich language can be constructed based on ontologically innocent sentences. The first step, as we’ve seen, is to replace noun-subjects with feature-placing verbs: “there is a pebble” becomes “it is pebbling there”. Next, predicates of nouns are replaced with adverbs: “there is a white pebble” becomes “it is pebbling whitely there”, then adverb-dropping inferences are dealt with, then counting terms, tense terms, generalising quantifiers, etc. Finally, charges that these constructions smuggle objects back into the picture are met. I will not go into details here — let us just grant that there may be some hope for this approach. For the remainder of this post I will assume that it succeeds.

    If the indispensability argument can be undercut in this fashion, then pending further objections to nihilism the playing field is levelled. What’s more, nihilism’s greater parsimony seems to sway things in its favour. Still, a point won on appeal to Occam’s Razor is unlikely to provoke revolution. What ontological nihilism needs is some substantial arguments in its favour.

    Arguments for

    HC offer two positive arguments, both of which aim to show that nihilism can help to dissolve certain metaphysical problems which are (they allege) in grave need of dissolution. The first concerns the persistence of identity over time, the second concerns composite objects.

    In the case of identity we are asked to consider a watch that has been taken to bits then reassembled with a faulty part replaced. Some feel it is the same watch as before, others feel it is a new one. Who is correct? HC note that the temptation is to view this as a pseudo-problem, and to convey the dispute as a semantic one. But it’s hard to see how this can be the case given object-realism. If we are serious about objects, then the problem remains stubbornly metaphysical: is it the same watch or not? It seems as if the realist’s realism leaves them unable to diagnose their own suspicions. For the nihilist the problem just doesn’t come up. There are no objects, only verb-like happenings of the mysterious ‘it’ (“it was watching then and now it’s watching likewise”), so there is no problem of object identity.

    There is a sense in which this would get us out of the fix, but I do not think it is a particularly compelling strategy. We can always dissolve a problem by denying the existence of its subject matter, but this will rarely do much to alleviate the tensions that gave rise to it in the first place. It is inconsequential whether it’s the same watch or not, so the example illustrates their point well. But consider a situation in which moral outcomes hang on identity criteria. If we were to develop teleporters in the far-flung future, whether or not the person who emerges from one end is the same person as whoever entered at the other seems roughly equivalent to asking whether teleporting someone is murder. To take a more sober example, the question of whether we have moral obligations to ourselves (a question with obvious implications for the ethics of suicide) seems to hinge on whether we remain the same person from decade to decade as our cells are gradually replaced.

    If the ontological nihilist doesn’t want to embrace moral nihilism — and deny the existence of yet another subject matter — how do they make good on such quandaries? If nihilism is to provide a genuine dissolution to the problem of persistent identity, then it will have to do so in the cases that matter.

    The situation with composite objects is mildly better, but ultimately amounts to the same thing. In what sense can we say that a table exists, as opposed to just that its parts exist and are “arranged tablewise”? [7] Again the problem seems false, again the realist is powerless to identify it as such, and again HC dissolve it by nuking the concept of objects altogether. While the link to consequential matters is perhaps less obvious in the case of composite objects than it was in the case of persistent identity, HC’s treatment of it is uncompelling for much the same reasons.

    The general worry is that the nihilist is going to lose the ability to articulate ontological contrast of any sort. This leaves them with a problem when it comes to making sense of disputes which are couched in terms of ontological commitments, but whose content is not wholly ontological (moral disputes in particular). There are no doubt ontological disputes for which dissolution is the wisest approach (do gaps and crevices exist?), but there are others which are harder to dismiss as contentless (do human rights exist, or are they just useful fictions?). It is the latter that the ontological nihilist will have to account for if their constructive project is to succeed.


    [1] John O’Leary-Hawthorne and Andrew Cortens – Towards Ontological Nihilism.

    [2] Here HC quote Michael Dummett.

    [3] ‘Mass term’ is a key notion in Quine’s Word and Object. Examples include ‘red’ as in “Add some more red!”, and ‘kirsch’ as in “Good grief Dorothy, how much kirsch did you put in this?”

    [4] It’s worth distinguishing token monism — the view that there is only one particular — from type monism — the view that all particulars are of the same metaphysical type. (Examples of type monism include materialism and idealism.)

    [5] ‘Ontological innocence’ is a phrase which, once again, comes from Quine, and is appropriated here by HC.

    [6] Nope, not Quine this time — ‘feature-placing’ is a term coined, according to HC, by PF Strawson.

    [7] HC’s discussion of composite objects pays heavy lip-service to Peter van Inwagen’s Material Beings.
    -platopus, "Considering ontological nihilism", The Platopus, 28 juin 2014, consulté le 9 décembre 2022: https://leplatopus.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/considering-ontological-nihilism/

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