Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Only the Starstruck Could Believe that We Make Stars

I propose to continue yesterday’s reflections on the thesis advanced by Robert Schwartz according to which "the world is a product of our conceptualizations. . . ." ("I am Going to Make you a Star," Midwest Studies in Philosophy XI (1987), p. 427). I again thank Peter Wizenberg for getting me going on this topic. He informs me by e-mail that he sent a copy of yesterday’s post to Professor Schwartz. We shall see if it gets a rise out of him. By the way, Schwartz’s article is very entertainingly written and is indeed quite stimulating, as you can see from the fact that it is turning my crank yet again today.

Consider Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years from earth. Schwartz’ claim implies that this star is a product of a conceptual (not physical) making by human beings. We make it have the properties it has, and we make it exist. Schwartz writes, "Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can emerge only in our attempts to describe and organize our world." (435)

Read in one way, this sentence is trivially true; read in another way, it is clearly false. The plausibility of Schwartz’s conceptual idealism, I contend, rests on the conflation of these two readings. This is a very common pattern in philosophy. One makes an equivocal statement bearing in its bosom two senses, one that makes the statement appear clearly true, the other that makes it appear informative and substantial.

Reading 1: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can BE KNOWN only in our attempts to describe the world and organize our thoughts about it.

Reading 2: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can EXIST only in our attempts to describe thre world and organize our thoughts about it.

Now (1) is clearly, indeed trivially, true. That Alpha Centauri exists, and that it is 4.3 light-years from earth, could not possibly be known unless there are beings who desire to know, and prosecute the requisite investigations. (2), however, is a stellar falsehood; or at least there is no reason to believe it.

One problem, of course, is the weasel word (fudge word?) ‘emerge.’ Being ambiguous, it can mean come to light, come to be known, but also, come to exist. Thus the Schwartzian thesis is fueled by an equivocation.

A second problem is one I mentioned yesterday. A fact that is a true proposition. For example, ‘It is a fact that Chomsky teaches at MIT’ is equivalent in meaning to ‘It is a true proposition that Chomsky teaches at MIT.’ A proposition, however, is a representational entity: it represents something, in the typical case, something distinct from itself. Now propositions can be reasonably viewed as mental entities, entities that exist only ‘in’ minds, i.e., only as the accusatives of mental acts. (Beware the treacherous word ‘in’ and while you are at it, beware the Ides of March!) So of course facts require minds if by ‘fact’ is meant ‘fact that.’ But there is another, more robust, notion of fact. Facts in this second sense are not propositional representations, or any kind of representation, but truth-makers of propositional representations. These are not facts that, but facts of. For example, the fact of Chomsky’s being a leftist. It is even clearer if we omit the ‘of’ which here functions as a mere device of apposition rather than as a genitive: the fact, Chomsky’s being a leftist. This concrete fact composed of Chomsky and the property of being a leftist is the truth-maker of ‘Chomsky is a leftist.’

So although it is reasonably held that facts that (i.e., true propositions) are mind-involving or mind-dependent, it does not follow that facts of (truth-making facts) are mind-involving.

More tomorrow.