Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Reference magnets are as bad as primitive intentionality. Psychologize!

On Ted Sider's suggestion, I read Rob Williams' Phil Review paper "Eligibility and Inscrutability" with hopes that it would lead to my being less creeped out by reference magnets. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I got more worried that we'd have to appeal to the darned things in building theories of reference, but I dislike them just as much as before. Depressing.

I take it that this is how the reference magnet strategy is supposed to work: Say we're trying to reduce intentional relations to something nonintentional. We do the whole Ramseyfication thing, and... uh-oh, we either have too many equally good candidates for what our terms refer to and many of them are counterintuitive, or as Williams' paper suggests, something counterintuitive ends up being the winner. So on the reference magnet strategy we say that the intuitive things have a certain kind of primitive naturalness to them, and that's why they get selected. Now we've reduced the intentional successfully to something nonintentional!

But it's hard for me to see any real theoretical gain here. We've avoided using primitive intentionality by introducing another primitive -- naturalness -- that's just as ontologically extravagant. If naturalness did some other interesting kind of theoretical work so we needed to appeal to it, there would be something to be said for it. But it's hard for me to see what kind of work it's going to do. A notion of natural kinds, which we might maybe be able to get out of the sciences, isn't going to do enough work for us, because we're going to need lots of primitive naturalnesses that go beyond what scientists use in explanation and prediction. We don't just need primitives like 'electron' and 'orangutan', we need 'corset' and 'film noir' and 'Optimus Prime.' We don't have primitive intentionality, but we have a bunch of primitives that are shadows of the intentional relations we were wanting to reduce. So in the end our overall theorizing ends up just as complicated, and the reduction of intentionality is a hollow victory.

I'm quite attracted to the idea of somehow psychologizing the naturalness out of the picture, so that instead of having primitive naturalness in the world, we have some kind of psychological state that does the work of selecting what ends up being the most intuitive referent for a term. There's good explanatory reason to posit something like this -- it explains people's behavior, namely, their yes- and no-saying behavior when you ask them whether this or that thing is the referent of their term (or in complicated cases that support semantic externalism, whether this thing or that thing would be the referent of their term if the world turned out to be a certain way). What's explaining their behavior when you ask them these questions has to be something in their heads, and it's there for us to appeal to.


Anonymous said...

2 points

1. Naturalness comes in degrees. For the perfectly natural properties, you can run the sort of argument you suggest, from explanation/prediction in science. So, grant me that perfectly natural properties (e.g., mass, charge) can serve as reference magnets.

But in addition, once an assignment of perfectly natural properties has been made, all facts about relative naturalness automatically follow, without any further metaphysical posits.

So, take being a corset. Not very natural. But, more natural than being a grorset (a corset before t and a green emerald after). This makes corsets better reference magnets than grorsets. And crucially, this relative naturalness isn't a further fact we have to build in but is supposed to follow from our original assignment of perfectly natural properties. This would need to be worked out, but the rough idea is that being a corset is more closely related to those perfectly natural properties than being a grorset is.

2. Ran out of time, so I'll leave it at one point.

~justin tiehen

Aidan said...

I find the appeal to naturalness unappealing too, but there's a lot of literature on the theoretical work it can do (actually, most of the relevant material appears in the Lewis corpus). We actually did a reading group on naturalness in metaphysics and language my first semester at UT.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Rob Williams' argument got too technical for me pretty fast, but he argues that you can always beat the intuitive assignment of naturalness, calculated in the way Justin describes, with some kind of crazy thing where you assign numbers to all the terms and the world ends up being made of numbers.

Robbie Williams said...


Just a thought on this---I think a big decision-point here is whether we restrict ourselves to working with an ultra-sparse set of natural properties (for Lewis, microphysical and metaphysical primitives), or just a relatively sparse set (maybe inc. chemical, biological, ecological kinds).

As Aiden says, positing an ultra-sparse set of natural properties is supposed (within the Lewisian picture) to have lots of work to do, so it isn't ad hoc to appeal to it. And Lewis' official story, I think, has us only appealing to these within the metasemantics (and defining up relative naturalness as Anon. suggests. As Neil S notes, the second half of the paper you mention is intended to cause trouble for that specific proposal).

Early work of Jonathan Schaffer pushes the idea that for pretty much all of Lewis' the "new work" for a theory of universals, we need to think that the range of perfectly natural properties includes the relatively macro, sparse properties as well as the Lewis-approved ultra-sparse ones. That'd help a lot in this context. I doubt that "corset" will be on that list, but more natural kind-y things might be.

But (contrary to what you suggest) I don't see why "corset" has to be on the list of reference-magnets. First thought is roughly this: to maintain charitable interpretation of English while giving "corset" a weirdo reference, you'll have to give weirdo interpretations to other terms (maybe "human" or "rigid" or whatever). But those will be terms that do stand for magnetic properties. So the idea is that the interpretation of "corset" will be constrained by reference-magnetism extrinsically---through the interpretation of other words in the language. Second thought is this: once we've got lots of natural kinds flying around, it's no longer so crazy to think that "corset" is a reasonably short definitional distance away from the perfectly natural. In which case it gets graded as relatively natural in the way anon mentions, and that directly constrains its interpretation. In any case, the move to sparse but not-too sparse natural properties blocks most of the inscrutability arguments I know of (including my own).

But however we go here (and I'm a bit suspicious of the sort of structured macroworld that the above needs to posit) I think it's worth distinguishing the idea that there's a role for "reference-magnets" within our metasemantics, from particular theses about what makes something a reference-magnet. Naturalness, or definitional-distance from the perfectly natural, is Lewis' candidate for the latter. I think that's negotiable---but it doesn't mean we have to abandon the idea of magnetism per se (which I prefer to think about in terms of maximizing simplicity of semantic theory as stated in a canonical metalanguage---the reference of terms in the canonical metalanguage are picturesquely called the reference magnets). The real questions concerns what this canonical metalanguage should be---and we hope for a nice non-ad hoc answer. But prima facie, the idea that the canonical metalanguage should be the language of microphysics and micrometaphysics looks bizarre. So there's a project here: of looking to see what well-motivated choices of canonical metalanguages/reference magnets are available, and seeing to what extent we can characterize them without the sort of appeal to intentional notions that'd hamstring the reductive ambitions of Lewisian metasemantics.

Robbie Williams said...
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Robbie Williams said...
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Robbie Williams said...
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Robbie Williams said...

sorry for all the deletes! I was arguing with the blogger comments software for a while there....