Monthly Archives: October 2006

Eliminating cross-level universals

I’ve just come back from a CMM discussion of Lewis on Quantities (built around John Hawthorne’s paper of that title).

One thing that came up was the issue of what you might call potentially “cross level” fundamental properties. These are properties that you might expect to find instantiated at the “bottommost” microphysical level, but also instantiated “further up”. For example, electrons have negative charge; but so do ions. But ions are composite entities, which (from what I remember of A-level chemistry) are charged in virtue of the charges of their parts.
Clearly in some sense, electrons and ions can have the same determinate property: e.g. “charge -1”. But, when giving e.g. a theory of universals, I’m wondering whether we have to say that they share the same Universal.

On Armstrong’s theory of quantities, it looks to me that we won’t say that the ion and the electron both instantiate the same Universal. The “charge -1” we find instantiated by the ion will be a structural universal, composed of the various charge Universals instantiated by the basic parts of the ion. The “charge -1” we find instantiated by an electron, on the other hand, looks like it’ll be a basic, non-structural universal. So, it seems to me, it’ll then be a challenge to Armstrong’s account to say why these two universals resemble each other in a tight enough way that we apply to them the same predicate. (To avoid confusion, let’s call the former “ur-charge -1” and leave “charge -1” as a predicate that applies to both ions and electrons, though not, on this view, in virtue of them instantiating the same Universal).

Let’s suppose we’re looking at a theory of universals (such as the one Lewis seems to contemplate at various points) which is just like Armstrong’s except for ditching all the structural universals. Electrons get to instantiate the Universal “ur-charge -1”. But ions, as actual-worldly complex objects, instantiate no Universals at all. Of course, again there’s the challenge to spell out exactly what the conditions are under which we’ll apply the predicate “charge -1” to things (roughly: when the various ur-charges instantiated by their parts “balance out”—though the details get tricksy).

What goes for charge can go for various other types of property. So we may find it useful to distinguish ur-mass 1kg (which will be a genuine basic universal) from the set of things “having mass 1kg”.

A last thought. What is the relation between mass properties and ur-masses? In particular, is it the case that things can only ever have masses when their basic parts have ur-masses? I don’t see any immediate reason to think so. Perhaps the actual world is one where things have mass in virtue of their parts having ur-mass. But why shouldn’t we think that “having parts that have ur-masses” is but one *realization* of mass: and that at other worlds quite different ur-properties may underlie mass (say, ur-mass-densities, rather than ur-masses). That’s potentially significant for discussions of modality and quantities: for two worlds that intially seem to be share the same stock of fundamental properties (spin, charge, mass, etc) may turn out to actual contain alien properties from each others point of view: if one contains ur-masses underlying the (non-fundamental) mass properties, while the other contains ur-mass-densities underlying those same properties.

(Thanks to all those at CMM for the discussion that led to this. This is x-posted at Metaphysical Values. And thanks to an anonymous commentator, who pointed out in an early version of this post that by “free radicals” I meant “ions”!)

Philosophy Dissertations

Just to continue the shout outs for Josh Dever‘s excellent project of putting philosophy dissertations up online. I learned lots from reading dissertations when I was a graduate student (in particular, from John MacFarlane‘s and Cian Dorr‘s). The best dissertations not only give you not only a bunch of cutting-edge ideas, but also hugely useful surveys of the philosophical backdrop. They also give ideas of the “big picture” that’s informing interesting people’s work. I found them more interesting than most books (though I guess I was looking at a biased sample!)

A final thought. It’s being suggested that online dissertations can be put in for the latest RAE exercise in the UK (any “public domain” paper is allowed to be put in, but obviously not too sensible to put in any old scrap: but dissertations that have gone through viva-ing are a natural candidate to be put in). Perhaps we’ll see more dissertations going online because of this.

Chances, counterfactuals and similarity

A happy-making feature of today is that Philosophy and Phenomenological Research have just accepted my paper “Chances, Counterfactuals and Similarity”, which has been hanging around for absolutely ages, in part because I got a “revise and resubmit” just as I was finishing my thesis and starting my new job, and in part because I got so much great feedback from a referee that there was lots to think about.

The way I think about it, it is a paper in furtherance of the Lewisian project of reducing counterfactual facts to similarity-facts between worlds, which feeds into a general interest in what kinds of modal structure (cross-world identities, metrics and measures, stronger-than-modal relations etc) you need to appeal to for metaphysical purposes. Lewis has a distinctive project of trying to reduce all this apparent structure to the economical basis of de dicto modality — what’s true at this world or that — and (local) similarity facts. Counterpart theory is one element of this project: showing how cross-world identities might be replaced by similarity relations and de dicto modality. Another element is the reduction of counterfactuals to closeness of worlds, and closeness of worlds is ultimately cashed out in terms of one world’s fitting another’s laws, and there being large areas where the local facts in each world match exactly. Again, we find de dicto modality of worlds and local similarity at the base.

Lewis’s main development of this view looks at a special case, where the actual world is presupposed to have deterministic laws. But to be general (and presumably, to be applicable to the actual world!) we want to have an account that holds for the situation where the laws of nature are objective-chance-laws. Lewis does suggest a way of extending his account to the chancy case. It’s attacked by Hawthorne in a recent paper—ultimately successfully, I think. In any case, Lewis’s ideas in this area always looked (to me) like a bit of a patch-up job, so I suggest a more principled Lewisian treatment, which then avoids the Hawthorne-style objections to the Lewis original.

The basic thought (which I found in Adam Elga’s work on Humean laws of nature) is that “fitting” chancy laws of nature is not just a matter of not violating those laws. Rather, to fit a chancy law is to be objectively typical relative to the probability function those laws determine. Given this understanding, we can give a single Lewisian account of what comparative similarity of worlds amounts to, phrased in terms of fit. The ambition is that when you understand “fit” in the way appropriate to deterministic laws, you get Lewis’s original (unextended) account. And when you understand “fit” in the way I argue is appropriate to chancy laws, you get my revised suggestion. All very satisfying, if you can get it to work!


Things have been pretty crazy around here: semester is starting, teaching is being prepared and the long summer days seem a long time ago.

I’m currently working on the ideas about primitive vagueness I talked about in a post below. I’m giving a “work in progress” seminar here in Leeds on these next week, and hopefully then I’ll give a fuller paper on some of this stuff at York and Durham later in the year. I’m pretty excited about this stuff, not least because it gives me a chance to think about modalism, temporalism and other funky things.

Currently, I’m trying to work out what Evans’ argument looks like to the primitivist. After that, next on the agenda is vague existence (after all, why can’t it just *be the case* that it is vague whether Tibbles exists, for the primitivist?) Sider has some interesting way of making precise a worry about this, and I think the primitivist is able to buy into enough of his premises to make the debate interesting.

In the end though, primitivism doesn’t need vague existence or identity to be coherent in order to be good: not unless we have arguments that take us from metaphysical vagueness in general to those particular kinds of metaphysical vagueness. And that’s my other project at the moment: to try and survey those kind of connections for the Ontic Vagueness paper.

On that note, I just found some really interesting discussion of vague survival (in the context of personal fission cases) in a classic Bernard Williams paper “The self and the future”. I’ll be trying to get my head around this stuff soon.