No escape from metaphysics (an interivew with Trenton Merricks)

Interview by Richard Marshall

Propositions, truth, persons and vagueness

EXCERPTS: Trenton Merricks's main fields are metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion. Here he discusses the contemporary metaphysical scene, propositions, sentences, Kripke's puzzle of belief, propositions and possible worlds, structured propositions, what propositions are, truth to the world, correspondence, persons and objects, freewill and vagueness.

[...] 3:16: You’re interested in a range of metaphysical issues. Before we look in detail at your arguments and ideas, can you say something about contemporary metaphysics. Many non-metaphysicians heard the news that logical positivists and Heidegger from a different angle had put paid to metaphysics and missed the news about Lewis, Kripke et al bringing it back. What’s the contemporary scene looking like?

TM: I think the contemporary scene is thriving. But you still run into critics of metaphysics. I find these critics genuinely puzzling. Let me try to explain why.

For me, the most interesting aspect of philosophy is the arguments. And there are arguments in metaphysics. Suppose you think that metaphysics is dumb. Then you must think that the arguments in metaphysics are dumb. Take one of those arguments. Suppose you think it has a false premise. Fair enough. That is a good reason to oppose that argument. But opposing that argument in that way is not being a critic of metaphysics, it is instead opposing a single argument.

Moreover, in opposing that argument in that way, you are almost certainly doing some metaphysics yourself. One reason that I say this is that the denial of the premise that you are rejecting will probably be as “metaphysical” as that premise itself. With this in mind, it is unlikely that you can successfully oppose all the arguments in metaphysics without just becoming another metaphysician. (Welcome home.) So opposing those arguments-showing where they go wrong-is not a likely route to becoming a critic of metaphysics.

But most of the critics that I have encountered seem to sidestep this route to becoming unwitting metaphysicians. For they do not explain where the arguments in metaphysics go wrong. After all, you cannot do that unless you are intimately familiar with those arguments. And those who are most dismissive of metaphysics, in my experience, are definitely not intimately familiar with those arguments. Yet they still think that those arguments are dumb.

I do not understand why anyone would be dismissive of any field of philosophy that is populated with arguments-metaphysics included-without being familiar with the details of the arguments in that field. It’s like these naysayers think that they can tell, a priori, that all those arguments have false premises or are invalid or beg the question. Talk about armchair philosophizing!

3:16: You’ve argued that propositions exist, and your argument for this conclusion is rooted in modally (possible and necessary) valid arguments. Can you give us the argument?

TM: All arguments have premises. So my argument for the existence of propositions has a premise. That premise is that there are modally valid arguments. That is, there are arguments such that, necessarily, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is true.

An entity must have certain features if it is to serve as a premise, or conclusion, of a modally valid argument. Those features include-so I argue-existing necessarily and having its truth-conditions essentially. I then argue that whatever entities have those features end up being the fundamental bearers of truth and falsity. I then use the label ‘propositions’ for those entities. So: There are modally valid arguments. If there are modally valid arguments, then there are the premises and conclusions of modally valid arguments. So there are (what I call) propositions.

3:16: How come sentences and not propositions are the premises and conclusions of logically valid arguments?

TM: A logically valid argument is an argument that is valid in virtue of its form, and in particular in virtue of the logical form of its premises and conclusion. So the premises and conclusion of a logically valid argument must have logical form. I think declarative sentences have logical form. But I deny that propositions have logical form. This is a reason to say that sentences (and not propositions) are the premises and conclusions of logically valid arguments.

I am not going to try to summarize my defense of the claim that propositions do not have logical form. (For that defense, see the first two chapters of Propositions.) Instead, let me say something that might make that claim seem attractive... (MORE - details)

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RELATED: Trenton Merricks entry at "Information Philosopher"
Yeah, anyone who actually tries to refute a metaphysical premise or conclusion inevitably just ends up expressing another, competing metaphysical premise or conclusion. So, as he says, they just blithely argue from complete ignorance. Philosophy, in general, and metaphysics, specifically, make far too many claims that literally seem to scare many materialists. I've even tested it myself, trying to give materialists a free choice in all the metaphysical options. They never choose one, for fear any might have logical ends that don't square with their world view. So afraid that they won't even admit the necessary philosophical basis for the science they so desperately cling to.

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