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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Nature of Analytic Metaphysics



The Nature of Analytic Metaphysics

Jason Zarri

As he was leaving a philosophy conference in a nearby possible world, one of my counterparts overheard the following conversation:

            Smith: Great job on your presentation on the problem of the many! You almost convinced me to give up on multipleism.
            Jones: Glad to hear it! How many of you did I almost convince?
            Smith: Ha-ha. Well, anyhow, I hope you have a good weekend!
            Jones: (Chuckles to himself)
            Smith: What’s so funny?
            Jones: Uhh…nothing.
            Smith: C’mon, out with it.
            Jones: Well, I never thought about it before, but it just occurred to me that we call Saturday and Sunday ‘the weekend’ when Sunday is really the first day of the week. It’s a little incongruous to count the first day of the week as a part of its end, isn’t it?
            Smith: Hmm…that’s interesting. I guess I always thought of Monday as the first day of the week.
            Jones: Ah, a clash of intuitions! How…usual—for us, anyway. Perhaps I think Sunday is the first day of the week because I’m Anglican, and you think Monday is because you’re agnostic?
            Smith: Wait a minute…“intuitions”? Are you saying you’re a realist about “days of the week”?
            Jones: Well, yes. Why wouldn’t I be? After all, today is Friday, right? And Friday is a day of the week. So, since it’s true that today is Friday…
            Smith: A semantic argument? Really? Next thing you know you’ll be telling me you think holes exist too! “After all, Swiss cheese is full of holes. So, since it’s true that Swiss cheese has holes in it…”
            Jones: Very funny. But a parody isn’t a counterargument.
            Smith: Ok, how about this: Suppose God creates a universe out of nothing—or, as I would be more inclined to believe, that it springs into existence uncaused—lasts for a single day, and then completely vanishes. If there truly are “days of the week,” what day of the week would it have been?
            Jones: Two points. First: I’m not sure that being (some particular) day of the week is an intrinsic property of a span of time. In fact, I doubt it. But let’s pretend it is. Why couldn’t it just be a contingent fact about a span of time that it’s a certain day of the week? There may be many possible worlds that answer to your description, some being intrinsic physical duplicates of each other. Maybe being Sunday, for example, is a non-physical, non-supervenient property that is instantiated in some of these worlds and not others. Maybe God just chooses at random what day of the week to make it in those worlds. Again, I doubt it, but I don’t think it’s conceptually incoherent. Second: Suppose, as I take to be more probable, that that what day of the week it is is supervenient on, or constituted by, certain of our social practices. In that case, what day of the week it is—if any—would in your scenario depend on whether there are people around in your short-lived universe. If there are, and they had false memories which concerned the appropriate social practices, what day of the week it was would be determined by the content of their false memories, and also by what they did during that one day—which days they marked on their calendars, for instance. Your thought experiment, I think, only seems to pose a problem for me because your description of the universe is under-specified.
            Smith: Wow, you’re really taking this seriously! Ok, I’ll play along. Let’s say there really are days of the week. It still doesn’t follow that there’s a fact of the matter about which day—Sunday or Monday—is the first day of the week. Any member of any group can be the first, or second, or third…on an arbitrary ordering. But you seem to think that Sunday is “objectively” the first day of the week. And what I’d like to know is what you think it is that makes it true that Sunday, rather than Monday—or any other day—is really the first day of the week.
            Jones: Does something have to make it true that Sunday’s the first day? Maybe it just is! “Explanations come to an end somewhere.” But as it turns out I do think there’s an account to be had: As I said before, I think that what day of the week it is is determined by social convention. Why then couldn’t it also determine which day is the first?
            Smith: Social convention might determine it, if it could first determine what being first comes to in this context.
            Jones: I think it can. As long as ‘first’, or some equivalent word, is already in use, we can say that a day is the first day of the week iff most other members of one’s society, understanding that they are participating in a social convention, agree to call it ‘the first day of the week’. Given my supposition that the word ‘first’ is already meaningful, my account is non-circular.
            Smith: Non-circular, but maybe not non-contentious.  Let’s “get medieval” and make some distinctions. Call the view—or the apparent view—that Sunday is the first day of the week ‘Sundayism,’ and the (apparently) rival view ‘Mondayism.’ Now, we can distinguish two versions of each view. ‘Strong Sundayism’ is the view that Sunday is essentially the first day of the week, and ‘weak Sundayism’ is the view that it is only contingently the first. Correspondingly, we also have strong Mondayism and weak Mondayism…
The conversation continued for quite some time. When it was finally over, my counterpart left feeling privileged to have overheard what he rightly suspected to be the beginning of one of the great metaphysical debates of his time. To some the dispute between Sundayists, Mondayists, and their anti-realist critics seemed interminable, impractical, or at least a bit odd. But the philosophers who were involved rested easy, secure in their conviction that they were doing their part by making a small but important contribution to the advancement of human knowledge.

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