Grounding metaphysics

Fri 10 Feb 2012 07:39 AM

In a recent article,* Karen Bennett poses and attempts to answer a metaphysical dilemma about the relationship between ontological grounding and the fundamental. Grounding is a relation between basic and less basic facts or stuff. For example: a series of notes grounds a melody, the physical grounds the mental (according to physicalists), and so on. Fundamental things and facts are ones which are absolutely basic, i.e. ungrounded.

Is the grounding relation itself fundamental?

First, suppose the answer is yes. Then consider some grounding relation, like that physical states ground my sadness. It is ex hypothesi a fundamental fact. So there are fundamental facts that involve my sadness, even though sadness is not a fundamental notion. That can't be.

Second, suppose the answer is no. Then there must be some further fact or stuff which grounds physical states grounding my sadness. Regress ensues.

Bennett's own strategy is to argue that the regress is stopped by the nature of the grounding relation. I have little to say about that. Instead, I want to thnk about some different replies.

A strategy which Bennett considers but passes over is to reject grounding. This would mean that everything which exists is metaphysically fundamental. As she puts it, the world would be ontologically flat. She writes, "I have no knockdown argument against the claim that the world is flat. But every fiber of my being cries out in protest." Crying fibers are like incredulous stares, but I think it would be a bad turn to say that everything is necessarily fundamental. If that were so, it would not be clear what the hell 'fundamental' was supposed to mean. It must at least have a possible contrast to be sensible.

A related strategy is to reject fundamentality. Bennett considers this only in a footnote and objects:

I truly think it is near impossible - certainly a bad idea - to do away with fundamentality talk altogether. Everyone, even those who reject grounding, should be able to claim that some things are more fundamental than others. (Good luck doing philosophy if you can't.) [fn 9]

There is something funny about this reply. She is right to say that we ought to be able to say that "some things are more fundamental than others." For example: individuals are more fundamental than trios, subatomic particles are more fundamental than atoms, and so on. However, this comparative notion 'more fundamental than' does not require that we can say of anything that it is utterly fundamental. That notion of absolute fundamentality is one I can do without. I accept only the comparative notions of grounding and more-fundamental-than. This dissolves Bennett's dilemma, because without the utterly fundamental there is no way to pose the worry about grounding.

One may object to my suggestion: It is possible to define the monadic 'fundamental' in terms of the relations. Let 'A is fundamental' mean 'There does not exist an X such that X grounds A' or 'There does not exist an X such that X is more fundamental than A'.**

The problem with the objection is that the existential quantifier in the definition must be unrestricted. On the usual accounts, like Sider's, unrestricted quantification is itself a fundamental notion. By refusing to accept the notion of fundamentality, I am also refusing to countenance unrestricted quantification. So my suggestion eliminates the resources required for the objection.

Although the fibres of metaphysicians' being might cry out, rejecting fundamentality does not make it impossible for me to do philosophy. Insofar as I care about grounding or more-fundamental-than in the first place, it is to consider particular cases. For example: What's the relationship between the mental and the physical? the musical and the acoustic? kinds and individuals? These questions can be answered in terms of the relation. It seems to me, in fact, that a term 'utterly fundamental' does not help me with such questions whatsoever.

* 'By Our Bootstraps', Philosophical Perspectives, 25(1), 2011.

** This objection is readily available. Bennett suggests this argument in her essay. Ted Sider made it explicitly to a similar suggestion in the Q&A at the UAlbnay Grad Student Conference last Spring.


from: Matt Brown

Fri 10 Feb 2012 11:12 AM

Perhaps you've heard about this already, but there is a movement that has somehow developed out of Continental philosophy (not sure whether that's in the party-line or broader sense) which accepts flat ontology as a pretty basic premise and goes on to do metaphysics and things from there. It's called "Speculative Realism" or "Object-Oriented Ontology." Interesting stuff. But it least it seems to show that you can do interesting philosophy without these notions.

from: Greg Frost-Arnold

Fri 10 Feb 2012 11:51 AM

Hi P.D. --

I am very sympathetic to your view here -- I would hazard that many fewer fibers belonging to philosophers of science cry out against your "no utterly fundamental level" view.

I am wondering about this move:

"On the usual accounts, like Sider's, unrestricted quantification is itself a fundamental notion. By refusing to accept the notion of fundamentality, I am also refusing to countenance unrestricted quantification."

Why is the following position not possible/ consistent?

"I accept unrestricted quantification, but I reject absolute/utter fundamentality."

Is your idea that one needs (the concept of) absolute fundamentality to have (the concept of) unrestricted quantification? I don't think of unrestricted quantification this way, but I'm not an expert.

from: P.D.

Fri 10 Feb 2012 12:10 PM

Greg: My thought was the other way round. If I were to accept unrestricted quantification, then Bennett or Sider is free to define non-relational 'fundamental' in terms of the relation 'more fundamental than'. So one does not need fundamentality to have unrestricted quantification, but unrestricted quantification suffices to get you fundamentality.