php hit counter The Everpresent Wordsnatcher
“you mean you have other words?” cried the bird happily. “well, by all means, use them.”

Saturday, December 06, 2008

New blog

Several years ago I started a blog to share personal updates and musings for my family and friends. More recently, I’ve also blogged about philosophical puzzles and ideas, and I’ve appreciated it when other philosophers have occasionally showed up. But it’s turned out to be an awkward double life for the blog. Since there’s personal stuff in the archives, I’ve wanted the blog to keep a low profile—which means I don’t get as much feedback and discussion from other philosophers as I’d like. Conversely, as the content and audience have become more academic, I’ve been less comfortable writing much about my personal life.

My solution: I’ve started a new philosophy blog. Tell your friends. I’ve moved over a few posts from earlier this year to kick it off (but without the comments, alas). For philosophy discussion, go there. For whatever is left after that, keep your dial pointed right here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

All things great and small

This is a blog-sized summary of a paper I’m working on.

For more than a century now, there’s been a problem with “everything”. Here’s a simple version: say you have all of the sets. Then there ought to be a set of just those things—a set X that contains all the sets. But in that case X is a member of itself, which no set can be. Paradox!

In 1906 Bertrand Russell writes,

[T]he contradiction results from the fact that…there are what we may call self-reproducing processes and classes. That is, there are some properties such that, given any class of terms all having such a property, we can always define a new term also having the property in question. Hence we can never collect all of the terms having the said property into a whole; because, whenever we hope we have them all, the collection which we have immediately proceeds to generate a new term also having the said property.

Michael Dummett (1993) calls properties like this indefinitely extensible—the main example is “set”, but related paradoxes also show up for “cardinal number”, “order-type”, “property”, and “proposition”. Because of this a lot of philosophers are driven to conclude that we can’t speak intelligibly of all the sets (cardinals, properties, etc.). Whenever we think we’ve caught them all, another pops up to defy us. And if we can’t talk about every set, then we also can’t talk about plain everything—since that would have to include all the sets.

This kind of argument leaves open an escape to somebody with enough nerve: one way out is to deny outright that there are any sets (cardinals, properties, etc.). This is kind of an attractive view anyway, since sets are a lot spookier than, say, tables and chairs and galaxies and electrons—even without the paradoxes. The strong-nerved people who deny the existence of such things are called nominalists (contrasted with platonists or realists).

I have a way to close of the nominalists’ escape route. What we need is a new indefinitely extensible property that isn’t “abstract” (like “set”, etc.): instead, it applies to concrete, material objects. (Even nominalists don’t want to deny those!) I don’t claim that there actually are any such things, though: instead I claim that there could be. This is enough, because it would be very odd if it turned out that “absolutely everything”-talk was intelligible just by luck. The people who think it makes sense to talk that way think that it necessarily makes sense to talk that way. If they’re right, then it shouldn’t even be possible for something to be the way I suggest.

Here’s the idea. Material things could be made of atoms: they might have smallest parts that cannot be divided any further. Alternatively, they could be made of “atomless gunk” (David Lewis’s term (1991)): any piece of it contains ever-smaller bits. Inside our “atoms” we find protons, in the protons we find quarks, and it never stops. Gunk has a long pedigree as a theory of how the world is—and even if it happens to be false about our world, it sure seems like a way a world could possibly be.

But gunk doesn’t by itself give us what we need: it could be that the parts of a gunky material object eventually run out. If you follow finite chains of decreasing objects, there is always something further down—but if you follow infinite chains, you may succeed in getting all the way to the bottom, with nothing smaller below. But also, (it seems) that might not happen. As you go further and further down to smaller and smaller parts, there are always smaller parts further on. An object with parts like this I’ll call supergunk.1

More precisely, an object X is hypergunk iff it satisfies the following condition:

  • For any parts of X, the x’s, such that each x is a part of or has as a part each of the x’s, there is something that is a proper part of each of the x’s.

From this condition it follows that “part of X” is an indefinitely extensible property: X is indefinitely divisible. So if there’s trouble for the sets, there is just as much trouble for supergunk. And it sure seems like there could be supergunk (even if there isn’t any in the actual world). So the nominalist has a problem with “everything”, too.

  1. Daniel Nolan (2004) describes something he calls “hypergunk”, but unfortunately that’s a bit different. ↩

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Do it now!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fiction skepticism

This post is inspired by Dinosaur Comics, but I can’t find the relevant comic—it was from a while ago. If anyone knows, tell me.

There are lots of fictional characters. Most fictional characters think that they are real. And they seem (to themselves) have all the reasons to believe they are real that I do. But in fact, they are fictional. They are mistaken. Moreover, there are so many fictional characters—let’s say there are vastly more of them than there are real people (though I doubt this is true). So it is antecedently much more likely that I am fictional than that I am a real flesh-and-blood person. My evidence gives me no way to discriminate between the two situations, since there are (deceived) fictional people with the same kind of evidence. So I have some reason to believe that in fact I am fictional, or at least to doubt whether I am real.

If this is a real skeptical problem, then it seems like it should be worse than some other such problems. To be concerned about the possibility of being a brain in a vat is one thing—but suppose that I knew there were actually lots of deceived brains in vats around in my world. That seems much more justification-threatening than merely possible such brains—though I admit I’m not sure why. And there really are lots of fictional characters, even though there aren’t lots of brains in vats.

But in fact, fiction skepticism sounds sillier to me than the usual skeptical scenarios. But, again, I’m not sure why.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fatalism and fundamentality

Here’s another argument for fatalism (from a conversation with Dean Zimmerman):

  1. If P is true, then P is true in virtue of some Q which is fundamentally true.
  2. If P is true in virtue of Q, and Q is necessarily true, then P is necessarily true.
  3. Whatever is fundamentally true is necessarily true.
  4. Therefore, if P is true then P is necessarily true.

Understand “P is necessarily true” as “P cannot be changed”. The conclusion is that whatever is a fact cannot be changed. Thus if there are facts about the future, then the future is fixed, so that no one can do anything about it.

The most suspicious premise of the three is the third—and indeed, I think it is false. But it does have some tug. I think the tug comes from a principle of sufficient reason (PSR):

  1. If P is contingently true, then there is some further reason for why P is true.
  2. If P is fundamentally true, then there is no further reason for why P is true.
  3. So if P is fundamentally true, then P is necessarily true.

The full argument is more or less Leibniz’s. It is unsound, since this version of the PSR is false (though I think there is a good methodological principle in the neighborhood). But I won’t defend this claim right now.

For now I just want offer a sociological speculation: I suspect that something like this kind of reasoning is what drives people to views like presentism in order to rescue our freedom. Suppose that there are future things; why would their existence threaten our power to make it such that there be different things instead? Existing future things would threaten this freedom, if tenseless existence facts are fundamental (at least for fundamental sorts of things), and the fundamental facts could not be changed. The right thing to say to this is that (some) fundamental facts, including tenseless existence facts, can be changed.

(I heard a good joke today—Adam Elga attributed it to Steve Yablo: “Everyone talks about how people could have done otherwise. But why doesn’t anyone?”)