October 14, 2008

Minimalist Ontology and Familiar Object Talk

I have just finished reading Mark Johnston's 1992 paper, "Constitution is Not Identity," reprinted in Michael Rea's Material Constitution: A Reader. After arguing against a variety of theories of material constitution, Johnston claims that, with regard to our talk about familiar objects, "the distinction it embodies is acceptable as it stands and what is bogus is the conception of justifying our practice which requires that, for the distinction to be justified, the difference between an F and its constituting matter must be a deep metaphysical difference secured by an extra ingredient of the F." (Rea, p. 58) Johnston calls the person who holds this view 'the Minimalist' and describes such a thinker (presumably himself?) as follows: "here, as elsewhere, he aims for ontology without metaphysics, which is to say general talk about reality without the postulation of extra ingredients which it is the peculiar privilege of philosophy to discover."(ibid.)

This struck me as a rather odd conclusion to this paper, because Johnston spends quite a lot of time arguing that counterpart theory, for instance, doesn't give the correct account of 'survival,' and he argues against other theories in the same fashion. But if the ontology of familiar objects is not metaphysically deep then, strictly speaking, there's nothing there in the first place! We are doing 'folk' ontology, and not metaphysical ontology. Johnston says in his conclusion that he is trying to save us from an eliminativism like Peter Unger's. If this is so, and he considers this goal accomplished even if the resultant account of familiar objects is not metaphysically deep, then what he is really looking for is a reductivist account. Now, it seems to me that the difference between Johnston's Mimimalist and a typical reductivist is that the Minimalist is perfectly happy to go without an account of the reduction.

This means that there is very little problem with the weirdness of counterpart theory or relative identity or anything of this sort. All we need to do is give a coherent semantics to our familiar object talk. The consequences of relative identity are, for instance, far from disastrous, since what we are really saying is 'whether we say something persists in a certain situation depends on the concept under which we are considering it.' This actually seems intuitively true. A similar point applies to David Lewis's idea of multiple counterpart relations, selected by context. So when there is a table (and nothing else) in the corner, we will be able to say that there is one object in the corner and that object is a table, and is a collection of boards, and is a mass of wood, and is a collection of atoms, and then give different answers when asked whether the table, the collection of boards, the mass of wood, or the collection of atoms would persist under such and such circumstances. This seems to me to be what we actually do (when not thinking about metaphysics). The break-down of Leibniz's Law is untroubling: if we're not talking about real metaphysical existence, why should we be talking about real metaphysical identity? It's just a way of speaking.

Posted by Kenny at October 14, 2008 10:40 AM
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