Metaphysical Kit

KitfineRichard Marshall interviews Kit Fine in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You grapple with metaphysical questions ordinary folk like to think about too. So you have written about ontology, about what is real. We ask whether numbers exist, or chairs, or atoms and you suggest that there is an inherent confusion that haunts answers to this question. The confusions involve mistaking ontology with quantification. And this is due in part to Quine who thinks the question is scientific when it isn’t. You say, ‘He asks the wrong question, by asking a scientific rather than a philosophical question, and he answers the question he asks in the wrong way, by appealing to philosophical considerations in addition to ordinary scientific considerations.’ I think this is a really helpful and illuminating approach to the issue that as I said is one that captures everyone’s imagination whether or not one is a professional philosopher. Can you say something about these confusions?

KF: This is a big topic, but let me expand a little. Even ‘ordinary folk’ may wonder whether there really are numbers or chairs or atoms or the like. Perhaps the world is entirely concrete or consists entirely of microscopic particles or is merely a construction of our minds. But what are we asking when we ask such questions? For surely we can all agree that there is an even prime (viz., 2) and an odd prime (say, 3) and so there are numbers. Or we can all agree that we are sitting on some chairs and so there are chairs. Or we can all agree that there are water molecules, each of which is made up of two hydrogen atoms, and so there are atoms. The answer to all of these questions appears to be obviously ‘yes’ and so do we even bother to ask them?

Quine thought that in asking such questions we were indeed asking ‘quantificational’ questions. For the case of each kind of object in question, we were asking whether there was an object of this kind. However, he thought that the answer to this question was not as obvious as one might have thought and that subtle philosophical considerations might be involved in attempting to answer it. In the case of chairs, for example, we might establish that there were no chairs by showing that every statement apparently about chairs could be paraphrased into one that was about particles.

I think that this is a mistake. In asking these ontological questions, we are not asking about what there is but about what is real. Are numbers real? Or chairs? Or atoms? The quantificational questions are relatively straightforward – they are to be answered by common sense or by science. Philosophy does not come into it. But the questions about reality are deeply philosophical and it is only through having a conception of reality, a philosophical Weltanschauung, that they can be answered.