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Essay | Metaphysical Semantic’s Epistemic Viability

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Contrasting metametaphysics against epistemic virtues. Written for PHI 420: Metametaphysics with Professor McElhoes at Arizona State University on August 11th, 2022. Final Grade: A.

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Art by Gosia Herba

1. Introduction

What we know can feel familiar, like learning about the world through our experiences. Other knowledge can feel distant, as with a belief acquired through testimony or having trust in an educated fact. In ontology, the study of existence and being has led philosophers to theorize that there are fundamental facts. A fundamental fact is something that is not metaphysically dependent on a non-fundamental fact to define its certainty of existence (McElhoes 2017, 14.6). To know, in this sense, could prove that ordinary knowledge, like knowing that a “city" exists, is otherwise just a matter of linguistic semantics. It is void of any genuine ontological worth. Theodore Sider laid the groundwork for Metaphysical Semantics which aims to define fundamental facts by “carving reality at the joints” (Sider 2013, p. 5). He presents this through his identity argument, which humbles certain knowledge by contrasting linguistic and Metaphysical Semantics against a statement that generally claims “a city exists.” But philosophers like Amie Thomasson argue that our ontologies should be somewhat inverted by maintaining a common sense epistemology (McElhoes 2017, 8.19). Her approach of Easy Ontology deflates ontological problems while upholding value for what is generally known and agreed upon. In this paper, I argue that Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics is not as epistemically viable as Thomasson’s Easy Ontology. First, I will give background to Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics and present his identity argument. Then, I will offer my argument against Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics and its compare epistemic viability to Thomasson’s Easy Ontology. Finally, I will address objections and consider epistemic alternatives, which will lead to my conclusion.

2. Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics

Sider thinks that there are limits when using our linguistic semantics to solve ontological problems. The meanings we infuse into terms can be too subjective, deterring us from discovering a fundamental truth. He suggests that our language holds Metaphysical Semantics that do not contain the syntactic and psychological theories attached to our traditional semantics. By developing our Metaphysical Semantics, Sider thinks we could harness a sharper, more objective blade that “carves reality at the joints.” Carving reality at the joints is to say that an objectively structured reality exists and that we can more closely define it by using objectively structured measures. With his semantics, he proposes we use a fundamental language, Ontologese, which would reduce truth-conditional statements of a non-fundamental language into its terms. These statements must be pure in that the sentence holds nothing but fundamental notions. (McElhoes 2017, 17.18-20).

3. Sider’s Identity Argument

In the statement “it is a fact that there exists a city,” Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics might instead put forth that “it is a fact that there exists a C.” Since if these statements held an identity relation, then it could be understood that ‘city = C,’ as they are of the same fundamental fact. However, with Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics, they are not the same fundamental fact for the reason that ’city’ is not metaphysically semantic, but ‘C’ is. ‘City’ is not metaphysically semantic because it is dependent on additional, more purely joint-carving terms. ‘C’ is metaphysically semantic because it is a fundamental fact that holds a pure structure for terms like ‘city’ to build on but can not be reduced further. Therefore, ‘city’ and ‘C’ do not hold an identity relation. (Sider 2013, p. 106-11).

Sider uses a counterexample to show the difference between the statements above. Imagine we had a machine which could output true or false determinations on purely fundamental facts based on an inputted statement. When the machine receives the first statement, “it is a fact that there exists a city,” the output is false. When the machine receives the second statement, “it is a fact that there exists a C,” the output is true. The conflicting outcomes prove the importance of Sider’s necessity of purity in fundamental facts. It follows that if a statement is expressing a fundamental fact, then everything within the sentence must hold a fundamental notion. But, the first statement contains a non-fundamental notion, ‘city.’ Therefore, the first statement is not expressing a fundamental fact. (Sider 2013, p. 109-18).

4. A Fundamental Problem

Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics has a logical possibility, but a problem involves his claim to fundamental facts and epistemological viability. He says, "if belief aims to conform to the world, and if belief and the world are both structured, belief aims not just at truth, but also at the right structure— truth in joint-carving terms.” (Sider 2013, p. 62). Here, Sider is building on the idea that our ordinary language has metaphysical semantics within it. These metaphysical semantics form fundamental facts about our world. When seeking truth, we are carving at the structure. But not all truths are purely joint-carving. So, when our belief is structured with the world, in purely joint-carving terms, we can have certainty around our knowledge. In this case, knowledge is genuine by its relation to fundamental facts, constituted by metaphysical semantics. The problem is that this concept has the potential to greatly limit what we can say that we genuinely know, suggesting that it may not be epistemically viable. Assuming his Metaphysical Semantics are correct, then to genuinely know whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘city,’ we must know if the sentence “it is a fact that there exists a city” has metaphysical semantics. To know if the sentence has metaphysical semantics, we need to know how to state the truth conditions of its terms in a purely fundamental joint-carving language. But, we do not know what a purely fundamental joint-carving language is. If we do not know what a purely fundamental joint-carving language is, then we can not state the truth- conditions for the sentence, “it is a fact that there exists a city,” in a purely fundamental joint- carving language. Thus, we can not know how to state the truth conditions for the sentence in a purely fundamental joint-carving language. So, we can not know if the sentence has metaphysical semantics. Therefore, if Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics is correct, then we can not know if we genuinely know whether or not there is such a thing as a ‘city.’ (McElhoes 2022). With Metaphysical Semantics, genuine knowledge of existence can only be so by its direct relation to a fundamental fact. It is not enough to perceive, experience, learn of, or collectively agree that there is a city to know of its existence as such fact. But, surely, we know that cities exist. Even if this ontology is understood as common sense knowledge, it is clear that such claims expand beyond the narrow realm that Sider presents them in. Where only a particular level of existence is regarded as absolute truth. In this essence, our epistemology becomes depleted, if not entirely diminished. It is clear that we should look for an ontology that is more epistemically viable.

5. Thomasson’s Easy Fix

Thomasson’s Easy Ontology is a view that considers that most ontological questions can be easily answered or solved with deep conceptual analysis (McElhoes 2017, 8.16). To her, “the relevant conditions of existence, identity, and persistence for the objects to be referred to are determined by the application and coapplication conditions for the terms speakers use — all that is required of speakers is competence with these rules of use for their terms, not knowledge of the metaphysical conditions that may be read off them.” (Thomasson 2013, p. 450). What this means, is that ontological claims such as “a city exists” can be reasonably true when considering normative speaking practices. She suggests that metaphysicians can go beyond these shallow inquiries to better define our use of rules around existence, identity, and persistence. Recognizing that our common sense use can be rather vague may leave some unanswered questions and debates. The unanswerable questions can be converted to pragmatics, where we can work to adopt rules that clarify our linguistic framework (Thomasson 2013, p. 452). (McElhoes 2017, 8.16-9). Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics arguably attempts to build out a structure to clarify our linguistic framework, but he does this by creating an entirely new language concept outside of our ordinary language. It is comparatively more extreme in this way. To Thomasson, what is even more extreme is how Sider’s theory impacts our epistemology. In response to his view, she noted that if someone were to specify an object in their domain under his Metaphysical Semantics, they would fail to do so. Since Sider’s view so abstractly encompasses the truth, it also eliminates our ability to form quantifiable claims that are truth-evaluable (Thomasson, p. 464). For example, if I am attempting to tell you about a specific pen that exists on a desk, the expression would be blurred to where you would not know what I was referring to. With Metaphysical Semantics, there could be no particular pen or particular table. So instead, the existence claim would reflect something like a jumble “there exist atoms in space and time.” If we can not form such claims, then we are not really making any. In fact, the best claim we may be making is that we can not make any, effectively removing ordinary epistemic viability. Next to Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics, Thomasson’s view comparatively sustains our common sense knowledge that there is such a thing as a ‘city,’ ‘pen,’ or ‘table’ because, with her Easy Ontology, we can know whether or not there are such things. If an ontology sustains common sense knowledge and its rival view does not, then the ontology which sustains common sense knowledge is more epistemically viable than the alternative. Thus, Thomasson’s Easy Ontology is more epistemically viable than Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics. (McElhoes 2022).

6. Epistemic Viability

Someone might object to my assumption that we can know that “a city exists.” It follows that regardless of whether or not we know ordinarily that there is a ‘city,’ it can only be knowable in a non-fundamentally factual sense. But we are not looking to know of something only in a non-fundamentally factual sense because we are working to develop our ontology. To develop this, we need to understand fundamental facts. So, we should disregard whether or not we know ordinarily that there is a ‘city’ to draw focus on fundamental truth-discovery. If we follow Metaphysical Semantics, we may arrive at fundamental facts. Sider’s view is designed to explicitly carve reality at the joints with an objective to attain a purely fundamental ontology. Therefore, we should follow Metaphysical Semantics. I can see the validity in following Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics, but only on the basis that his view could draw focus to fundamental truth-discovery. It is otherwise nonsensical to disregard whether or not we know ordinarily that there is a ‘city.’ Fundamental facts are important, but as far as I know, they do not negate or minimize the necessity to understand our ontology in an ordinary way. It is imperative to our day-to-day lives and translations that we are able to communicate truths that address our common or shared reality. We do need an ontology that is epistemically viable in this way. The concept of fundamental truth-discovery form the objection is significant because it grants an alternative perspective of epistemic viability to Metaphysical Semantics. While it is epistemically virtuous to sustain common sense knowledge, as Thomasson’s Easy Ontology does, it is similarly so to advocate for fundamental truth-discovery. In this, I find that epistemic viability must be dependent on both sustaining what we know more commonly and promoting fundamental truth-discovery. Easy Ontology sustains common sense knowledge but it does not promote fundamental truth-discovery. It follows that Easy Ontology is able to answer myriad ontological questions, but it deflates many others by endorsing their ‘unanswerability.’ An ontology which is thoroughly epistemically viable should promote fundamental truth-discovery, leaving no answer unanswered. Metaphysical Semantics does not sustain common sense knowledge but it promotes fundamental truth-discovery. Since Metaphysical Semantics aims at what is fundamentally factual, it glosses over potential common sense knowledge. Nonetheless, it can partially uphold epistemic viability through its active pursuit of fundamental truth-discovery. Therefore, neither Easy Ontology nor Metaphysical Semantics is totally epistemically viable. Hence, we are at a stalemate.

7. Ontological Considerations

It seems that where Easy Ontology prides epistemology, Metaphysical Semantics fails, and vice versa. As ontological theories, they are not obligated to marry the epistemological virtues of sustaining common sense knowledge and promoting truth-discovery. However, I think that their opposition reveals that there are holes in our ontological considerations. Our theories seem to lack a great deal of adaptability, namely between our terms ‘knowledge,’ ‘existence,’ ‘identity,’ and ‘reality.’ I question the resilience of concepts like ‘fundamental’ and ‘truth.’ I suspect there is a great opportunity for us metaphysicians to rework these structures proposed by Sider and Thomasson to be more inclusive, organized, and flexible. Their views may seem to compete with each other, but after my argumentation, I think a more fitting description may be that they are complimenting each other.

8. Conclusion

In this paper, I argued that Sider’s Metaphysical Semantics is not as epistemically viable as Thomasson’s Easy Ontology. After exploring Sider’s view and identity argument, I showed that his Metaphysical Semantics could not lead to ordinary knowledge. Knowing in an ordinary sense is embedded in Thomasson’s view. I presented her Easy Ontology in support of an epistemically viable ontology that sustains common sense knowledge. When anticipating objections to my argument, I found that neither of these theories is completely epistemically viable. Having arrived at a stalemate, it was plain that Sider and Thomasson both offer juxtaposing views of our ontology and value to our epistemology. After this analysis, I briefly discuss considerations for further ontological study. There is an inspired position to be taken between these challengers. One which does not limit or confine what there is that we can claim to know, but maybe one which holds both adaptability and resilience through such incredibly altered perspectives.

Works Cited

McElhoes, D. (2017). Lecture 8, 16-17. PHI 420: Metametaphysics. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from module_item_id=8401569.

McElhoes, D. (2022, August 8). Argument Sketch. Sider, T. (2013). Writing the Book of the World. Oxford University Press.

Thomasson, A. (2013). Answerable and Unanswerable Questions. In D. J. Chalmers, D. J. Manley, & R. Wasserman (Eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology (pp. 444–469). Essay, Clarendon Press.

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