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«Dispensing with Ontological Levels: An Illustration Peter van Inwagen Does metaphysics, or does it not, need ontological levels? Should metaphysics ...»

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Dispensing with Ontological Levels: An Illustration

Peter van Inwagen

Does metaphysics, or does it not, need ontological levels? Should

metaphysics endorse the thesis that things of some kinds are ontologically

more fundamental than things of some other kinds? Must it be a datum of

metaphysics that entities of certain kinds are ontologically grounded in entities of certain other kinds? Must it be a feature of any adequate metaphysical theory that it awards a special ontological status to entities of certain kinds and denies this special status to entities of other kinds?

There are two ways to approach these questions (or this question—for the four questions I have asked are essentially the same question). I’ll call them, tendentiously perhaps, the Bad Way and the Good Way. This is the

Bad Way:

Begin by giving examples of pairs of things that supposedly occupy different ontological levels (or one of which is ontologically more fundamental than the other or one of which is ontologically grounded in the other or one of which enjoys a special ontological status denied to the other). Proceed to use these examples as intuition pumps in the service of an affirmative answer to our question. Alternatively, play the other side of the game: insist that the default answer to our question is No, and dispute the examples that your opponents say support an affirmative answer—deny the existence of some of the entities that figure in the examples, or deny that there is any reason to suppose that the members of any of the pairs do occupy different ontological levels. (And similarly for the other formulations of the question.)

And this is the Good Way:

Let metaphysicians who accept the idea of ontological levels construct theories that incorporate that idea. Let metaphysicians who reject the idea of ontological levels construct theories that do not incorporate that idea. Once these things have been done—of course they will be done only if they are possible, only if it is possible to construct theories of both sorts—compare all the theories that our metaphysicians have constructed and determine which is the best. (I say ‘is’ for the sake of simplicity; in this paper, I’ll use ‘metaphysical theory’ to mean something fairly comprehensive—sufficiently comprehensive that any two “metaphysical theories” will be incompatible with each other. (What I am calling a metaphysical theory is what once would have been called a metaphysical system.) Thus, platonic realism and presentism are not metaphysical theories in the present comprehensive sense; but any metaphysical theory must in some way incorporate a theory of universals and a theory of time.) And—again, for no better reason than my desire to keep the sentences I have to write as simple as possible—I’ll ignore the possibility of two metaphysical theories tying for first place in the goodness sweepstakes.) And, finally, affirm the reality of ontological levels only if ontological levels figure in the best metaphysical theory. (And similarly for the other formulations of the question.) Granted, to become a follower of the Good Way is to commit oneself to finding a way to decide which metaphysical theory is the best one. But that would seem to be a problem that we metaphysicians are going to have somehow to deal with simply in virtue of being metaphysicians. (At the very least, most metaphysicians will concede that there are in metaphysics positions worthy of being called theories, and most metaphysicians will regard some of these theories as being in some sense better than some of the others.) And, of course, we do know of some ways to compare the strengths and drawbacks of at least some pairs of metaphysical theories. I’ll give an example of the kind of thing I mean. I intend in this paper to present parts of a metaphysical theory (not to defend it; rather it will serve as an illustration of theory that, as my title implies, dispenses with ontological levels).

Suppose that I were to set out to compare this metaphysical theory with some theory of the general kind endorsed by Jonathan Schaffer in his important recent paper “On What Grounds What.” I find it easy to predict the items that would figure in a debate between Schaffer and me about the relative merits of the two theories. For his part, he would say that my theory rests on an unworkable conception of metaphysics and that it contains a disguised but essential appeal to grounding. And I would give reasons in support of my conviction that his theory is vitiated by its failure to distinguish between sentences and propositions (a distinction that is pedantic in many philosophical contexts, but crucial in the context that Schaffer’s subject-matter has placed him in). I would give reasons in support of my conviction that his theory—the parts of it that have any meaning at all— incorporates, explicitly or tacitly, various theses that are simply false. For example—this is one of his tacit theses—, the thesis that the existence questions that are commonly disputed in metaphysics are best understood as questions about whether certain proper and common nouns that have a firm place in our everyday or scientific or philosophical discourse—‘God’, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘property’, ‘number’, ‘mereological sum’—have (whichever is appropriate) referents or non-empty extensions.

It will, of course, be controversial whether any given theory really does have any of the features I have that I have imagined Shaffer and me ascribing to each other’s theories, but I doubt whether there are many philosophers who would deny that the following features constitute defects in such theories as may have them: resting on an unworkable conception of metaphysics; making a disguised but essential appeal to a thesis such that the inventors of the theory formulated it with the specific intention that it should not commit its adherents to that thesis; failure to observe a crucial distinction; depending essentially on vocabulary that means nothing at all;

incorporating false theses. So—the Good Way tells us—to determine whether metaphysics needs ontological levels, examine proposed theories, not supposed cases: examine (on the one hand) theories that imply that there are indeed things that occupy distinct ontological levels, and (on the other) theories that imply either that the very concept of an ontological level is in some way defective or that there is only one ontological level. Compare these theories in respect of matters like the incorporation of meaningless or false statements, having unnoticed entailments that demonstrably unfit them for the metaphysical work their authors intended them to do, and so on. (One will of course want to consider the virtues as well as the vices of the theories in question—but I refrain from naming any theoretical virtues because it is hard, very hard indeed, to find plausible and non-trivial examples of theoretical virtues that can be described in the brief compass appropriate to an illustrative example.) The Good Way tells us that the only real argument for the existence of pairs of things that occupy distinct ontological levels, the only argument worth paying attention to, is this: a theory according to which there are such pairs emerges from this dialectic as clearly superior to all theories according to which there are not. And, of course, the Good Way tells us the same thing, mutatis mutandis, about arguments for the nonexistence of such pairs.

You have no doubt inferred, and inferred correctly, that my advice to those who try to answer the “levels” question is to follow the Good Way. If you are comfortable with the idea of metaphysical intuitions (I’m not, not really, but you may be), my advice could be put like this: Apply your metaphysical intuitions to carefully stated and well-worked-out and very general theories, not to particular examples or individual cases. Examples can, of course, figure in the comparison of theories: one can compare the ways in which rival theories deal with particular examples. But don’t first— before considering any theory—decide what to think about some range of examples, and then use the set of conclusions you have reached by considering each case individually as a fixed store of data to draw on when you are evaluating competing metaphysical theories.

My purpose in this paper is simply to give an outline of the metaphysical theory I favor—or, at any rate, of the part of this theory that is particularly relevant to the question of ontological levels: the ontology I favor. It will emerge that there is no place in this ontology for the concept of ontological levels or for the designation of certain entities as ontologically fundamental or for ontological grounding or for a special ontological status that is enjoyed by some of but not all the entities it recognizes. I do not suppose that the fact that this one ontology has no place for ontological levels is any sort of argument for the conclusion that metaphysics does not need ontological levels. An argument for that conclusion—the Good Way tells us—would have to consist in a comparison of all the ontologies that do not incorporate the idea of ontological levels (presumably, mine is not the only one) with the competing ontologies that do. Before any such comparative evaluation can be carried out, however, we must have the competing ontologies on the table. This paper is intended only to accomplish one part of that preliminary undertaking—to put one theory on to the table and to formulate it in a way that brings the fact that there is no place in it for the concept of an ontological level into sharp focus.

The theory that I propose to put on to the table is not the theory of material beings that I presented in the book of that name. If I were to write a systematic Summa Metaphysica in ten chapters, my theory of the metaphysics of the physical world would be presented in Chapter 9 or thereabouts. Earlier chapters, those in roughly the middle of the book, would be devoted to topics like realism versus idealism and the nature of space and time. Earlier still would be the chapters on cosmology and creation (or, more generally, on the question ‘Why is there anything at all?’). The ontology that I am going to lay out in this essay would occupy the second chapter of the book. (The first chapter would contain (a) an analysis of being and existence, and (b) a development of the concept of an ontological category— a concept that I shall use without explanation in the present essay, and (c) an account of the nature of ontological disputes—disputes about, e.g., the existence of universals or temporal parts or mereological sums. The first chapter would be, in a word, an essay in what I have called “meta-ontology.” And the meta-ontological position defended in that essay would be, in many respects but not all, Quine’s position. In the present essay, I will presuppose a Quinean understanding of existence and being and the proper method to employ in resolving disputes about what there is.) Although, as I say, the theory that I am going to “put on to the table” is not the metaphysic of the physical world that was set out in Material Beings, I take just a moment to insist—vehemently—that that metaphysic does not in any way involve the idea of a plurality of ontological levels. I remind you that my metaphysic of physical things does not imply that electrons inhabit a more fundamental level of being than that occupied by chairs. For that to be the case, there would have to be a level of being occupied by chairs, and for that to be the case, there would have to be chairs. And there are no chairs.

Nor does that metaphysic imply that electrons and mice inhabit different ontological levels: electrons have no proper parts (so they say), and mice have proper parts (whatever Aristotle may have supposed), but an electron and a mouse are both equally “there,” and the two phrases ‘has no proper parts’ and ‘has proper parts’ are not—at least so far as I can see—phrases that even seem to be, that so much as represent themselves as, names of ontological levels.

While we are on the topic of the physical world, I will note parenthetically that physicists often speak of one entity’s being more fundamental than another, and that their idea of fundamentality is both clear and useful: an entity x is more fundamental than an entity y if x can exist in a wider range of regimes than y. For example, a proton is more fundamental than a sparrow because a proton can exist in every circumstance in which a sparrow can exist and can also exist in the center of a star (an environment hostile to sparrows). A quark is by the same token more fundamental than a proton because quarks existed where protons could not: in the quark-gluon soup of the very early universe. It seems evident, however, this use of the word ‘fundamental’ is entirely unrelated to the use of the word in metaphysics.

Let us then turn to the metaphysic, the ontology, that I am putting on the table. The first thing to say about this theory—the content of the second chapter of my imaginary Summa Metaphysica—is that it is, if I may so express myself, radically platonistic. I will try to explain what this slogan means.

According to this ontology—let us call it the Proposed Ontology—, the things that there are may be exhaustively divided into two broad categories.

One of them is a category that I am willing to call by any of three names: the category of universals; the category of


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