Week 1 – Fine on ontology

A good turnout this week and an interesting paper. The handout is here and the original paper is here. Kit Fine has a habit of packing a lot into papers and I found it quite hard to absorb everything in this one. Anyway, these were our main thoughts:

– Fine seems sure that we philosophers have a good intuitive grip on what we ask when we ask the ontological question, and we just have problems working out how to express or formalize the question. I’m not convinced – the lack of agreement or consensus on how to express the question is surely prima facie evidence that our intuitive grip on it isn’t strong, and that there may in fact be no consensus on what question is being asked.

– Fine presents the way that the Quinean formulation of the ontological question fails to separate philosophical from scientific concerns as a problem for it (the problem of autonomy). Many Quineans see this not as a problem but as a merit – and Fine just completely fails to engage with them.

– Cian pointed out what seems a big problem with Fine’s approach – on his logic of commitment, ‘people are real’ entails ‘people with superpowers are real’ – and indeed – ‘things are real’ entails ‘things with any properties whatsoever’ are real. Of course, Fine can explain this away by saying that in the bad cases, the reality of the problematic entities is vacuous, and there is merely a pragmatic rule against asserting their reality. But there is still a problem here – we just don’t think that the entailments in question hold.

– It’s an interesting question whether merely possible objects are counted as real or unreal. If Fine wants to count actuality as playing the role of a restriction G(x) on which entities we are to be real about, then we get the result that there are both merely possible people and actual people, but only the actual ones are real. We weren’t sure whether Fine would want to endorse this.

– It wasn’t clear what the force of Fine’s complaint was against those who want to use fundamentality instead of reality to do similar theoretical work. He argues that in a world where everything is water, and water is infinitely divisible, no quantity of water is fundamental despite it being real. But can’t the fundamentalist just say that in such a world it is water itself which is fundamental, rather than some particular quantity of water?

– I was very unimpressed by Fine’s complaints against the philosopher who disagrees with the Democritean principle that there are only atoms by pointing out that there are also chairs. He says they are ‘either guilty of a crass form of metaphysical obtuseness or else too sophisticated for their own good’. They might legitimately say that they are just too sophisticated to agree with Fine!

– Finally, Cian instituted a poll, the result of which was overwhelmingly that we didn’t think we had a good enough grasp on the notion of metaphysical reality which Fine spends the end of the paper trying to persuade us we do understand. Clearly Fine has more work to do…


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