Friday, October 20, 2006

Second Order Ontology

I want to defend a strong analogist position. According to my view, whatever sort of metatheoretical claim (e.g. realist, antirealist, etc) that we may want to make about natural sciences applies, mutatis mutandis, to theories of mind. Thus, if there is chance for a scientific realist, there’s also space for a mental realist. I think that views that hold natural sciences to be distinct and privileged theories are misconstrued (at the best) and metaphysically inconsistent (very often).

Theorizing is something humans do, but sometimes they do absurdly. Macedonio gives us a nice example

- General F improvised a discourse.
- He will be lost if he misreads it.

There’s some beauty to this case, since it’s not only showing absurdity but also how it is justified once it is embedded within a particular normative layer. Improvisation is in itself the art of always reading well for there’s nothing to be read. However, there’s also the misleading assumption that all discourses must be well read. When we mix both ideas, we find stupidity.

I think something very similar goes on with second order properties and objects. I’m of the idea that concepts, theories, propositions and meaning are all the same thing. Furthermore, I’m convinced that they are all second order properties, that is, they are all relations or properties that exist because of the particular relation that an object, or a set of properties, bear in virtue of the way in which they relate to each other. I also believe that, as such, concepts, meaning, propositions and theories are ineliminable, though functionally reducible to first order properties. Thus, the second order property of being the father of X is, first, a legitimate (i.e. causally efficient) property, second, a property that an object O may bear in virtue of other first order properties (e.g. being a living organism capable of reproducing itself), as well as other second order properties (e.g. being part of a social network), and third, a property that is not identical to any first order property.

Some problems have been and keep being raised against accounts of meaning such as this one. A typical one, famously endorsed by Jaegwon Kim, says that all this properties do not, in fact, have causal powers; that they, at the most, inherit their causal efficacy from first order properties. I think, however, that all this is just as absurd as the example given by Macedonio. Kim takes something he calls “physical causation” as the honorary member of the causal efficacy club. Within it, I take it, he includes gravity and inertia. These, however, are also honorary members of the second order properties club. Both, gravity and inertia are properties that objects have in virtue of their standing in certain relations with other objects. Physical objects alone can be dismantled in all their first order properties without finding gravity in them. Gravity is, by definition, a relational property. The most basic causal forces that constitute Kim’s honorary club of causal efficacy are, themselves, relational properties. So why not take other second order properties, such as meaning something, or being true, or having a certain extension, as equally legitimate properties occupying an important part of our ontology?

A negative answer cannot be based on purely Aquinas’ like claims such as the fact that we don’t see meanings, and we can’t see propositions. Such reasoning would force us to reject inertia and gravity as well. And don’t reply by claiming that we can measure gravity and inertia, for we can do so with meaning and propositions as well. We have theories of physical objects to take care of the former task, and theories of mind to take care of the latter. There are good reasons to be an analogist.

Thus, continuing with Macedonio’s illuminating example. We might want to say:

-General K has accepted the efficacy of second order properties.
-He will be lost if we accepts the efficacy of the mind.