I’m writing a review of Horgan and Potrč’s new book, Austere Realism, and I thought I’d float some of the ideas here first. Their big project is to defend a totally stripped-down ontology, in which (among other things) there are no tables, mountains, or other ordinary composites, but all the while insisting that ordinary utterances like ‘there are tables’ are strictly and literally true. I’m planning to have a second (and possibly third) post on their strategy for reconciling their revisionary metaphysics with ordinary discourse, but first I want to talk about one of their arguments against “naive commonsense ontology.”
The idea behind their “argument from arbitrariness” (§2.3, if you have the book) is that naive commonsense ontology is too messy and unsystematizable to possibly be right. Here I think is a fair reconstruction of the argument:
(P1) The correct answer to the special composition question, “under what conditions are some things the parts of a further thing?”, must be general and systematic.
(P2) There is no general and systematic answer to this question that accommodates the bulk of our intuitive judgments about when composition does and does not occur.
(C) So a great many of our intuitive judgments about when composition does and does not occur must be incorrect.
Anyone who’s attempted to give even a rough-and-ready answer to the special composition question that accommodates our intuitive judgments about composition is going to feel the force of P2. But why accept P1? Horgan and Potrč suggest that if indeed the compositional facts do not conform to some general and systematic answer to the special composition question, then they would have to be explanatorily basic (or “brute”), which surely they are not. It is far from obvious, though, that one who embraces the bruteness of composition—i.e., that there is no general and systematic account of the conditions under which composition occurs—is thereby committed to the brutality of compositional facts—i.e., that facts about whether composition occurs are explanatorily basic. To deny that there are interesting general principles governing the conditions under which composition occurs seems entirely compatible with maintaining that, in each case, there are noncompositional facts in virtue of which the compositional facts are as they are.
Now for the ad hominem: Horgan and Potrč themselves defend just such a particularist claim later in the book. For reasons having to do with their revisionary semantic theory, they wind up embracing a semantic particularist thesis on which there are no general and systematic answers to a certain range of questions about the semantic facts (§6.4). But of course they don’t think that the unsystematizable semantic facts are explanatorily basic; rather, they’re explained by specific (nonsystematizable) facts about the speaker’s context together with facts about intentional mental states (§7.4.3).
One last thing: It’s worth comparing the special composition question to the “special inheritance question,” that is, under what conditions does a composite inherit properties from its proper parts? (I’m borrowing this case, and most of the examples, from Dave Liebesman’s very cool paper on generics.) Hard question. In order to have the property of touching the wall a chair only has to have a single part that’s touching the wall. But, in order to have the property of being plastic, the vast majority of its parts have to be plastic. And in order to have the property of being red, only the parts on its surface have to be red. And it may be 5.7 pounds even though none of its parts are 5.7 pounds. In other words, good luck trying to find a general and systematic answer to the special inheritance question! But we don’t find that intolerable; we don’t take that as grounds for skepticism about our “naive” intuitive judgments about inheritance. We don’t then become universalists about inheritance (all of thing’s parts have to be F in order for it to be F) or nihilists (inheritance never occurs) or god forbid organicists (composites only inherit properties from their living parts), for fear of being stuck with an unsystematizable mess. And notice that here, the bruteness of inheritance certainly doesn’t entail the brutality of inheritance facts: the table inherits the property of being red from its parts because the parts on its surface are all red.
First question: is there any reason why one who denies the bruteness of composition also has to deny the brutality of compositional facts?
Second question: is there any reason to think that bruteness of composition (without brutality of compositional facts) is worse than bruteness of semantics (without brutality of semantic facts)?
Third question: why is the lack of a systematic answer to the special composition question any more reason for skepticism about our intuitive judgments than the lack of a systematic answer to the special inheritance question?