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McTaggart and Metaphysics

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Today it is popular to ridicule idealism as a silly idea from the past, but in actuality much of what passes as bog standard philosophy today, cannot really be distinguished from idealism. Whenever anyone focuses solely on the conceptual connections between ideas in their philosophy, which is the essence of a priori philosophical reasoning, they are doing pretty much what the idealists thought philosophy is all about.

The whole idea of events acting on other events (or states of affairs, or properties, or facts…) is just weird and disturbing. In fact, it would seem that not even Hume believed that any of his contemporaries believed that events act on each other. The view he criticises is that “one billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse” (Enquiry: sect. 36). It is the balls that act on each other, not the events in which they figure.

The starting point of the argument is that an adequate conception of time is one that has to incorporate change, because the very idea of reality being in time has to do with change. McTaggart then moves on to offer a phenomenological analysis of how time appears to us in experience, in order to then consider if that appearance incorporates change of some kind.

McTaggart took truth to be the correspondence of the content of beliefs to facts, but he took the contents of beliefs to be mind-dependent and therefore accepted that truth was mind-dependent. However, he did not think this made truth any less objective.

Valdi Ingthorsson has taught research methods in the social and health sciences, but also metaphysics, philosophy of science, feminist philosophy, environmental ethics, aesthetics and the history of philosophy, in Umeå, Reykjavik, and Durham. Here he discusses McTaggart’s causation and Idealism, action at a temporal distance, McTaggart’s paradox of time, how it has been misunderstood, whether it’s one of the great paradoxes, whether the appearance of time supports a metaphysics of time and McTaggart’s correspondence theory of truth. Then he discusses the metaphysics of powers, qualities and properties and ends by saying why we should heed the philosopher.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Rognvaldur Ingthorsson: Well, it wasn’t until I was working on my MA thesis that I even started to think about philosophy as a future profession. Before that I was entirely focused on cross-country skiing, and to qualify for the Olympics. Getting a university degree was secondary. I made it to the 1992 and 1994 games, but after that I started to focus more on my studies and realised philosophy was my thing. I had only opted for philosophy as a subject because I thought it would be relatively easy and could be combined with training. I wasn’t a sports jock or anything. I graduated as Dux Litterarum from my sixth form college and could have gotten a scholarship somewhere. Skiing was simply more fun.
I did have a serious encounter with philosophy in the sixth form, which I am sure influenced me although it didn’t seem significant at the time. The college recruited this ‘old fart’ as an external lecturer in philosophy. He was really a headmaster of a primary school in a neighbouring village. And it is relevant for the story later that this was in the West-Fjords of Iceland, the most rural part, with about 7000 inhabitants in an area slightly larger than Wales. He had us read Meno, Apology of Socrates, and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, all in Icelandic translation. He had himself translated Hume. Anyway, he went in for a Socratic style lecturing, asking questions and patiently waiting for an answer. I was the only one who couldn’t bear the awkward silence so lessons soon turned into a dialogue between him and me.

Remarkably, when I returned 20 years later to give my first talk as a professional philosopher at the University of Iceland, the old fart was in the audience and clearly treated as a regular by the faculty. Turns out he is an institution in Icelandic philosophy. Studied philosophy in Edinburgh and McGill in the late forties and early fifties and in 2014 he was honoured for his longstanding contribution to Icelandic philosophy, among other things for having translated works of Hume, Mill, and Dewey, as well as producing a radio series about Whitehead. Without knowing it, I had had six months one-to-one tutoring by a real enthusiast, in one of the most remote corners of Iceland.

I went to University with the intention of getting a BA in psychology, but switched to philosophy when I realised a psychology thesis involved fieldwork that would interfere with my bid for the Olympics. The thesis work turned out to be really engaging, despite a lousy supervisor. I met with him once, only to be told that supervision of theses was a contradiction in terms; it is supposed to be independent work. All he did was photocopy the entry on time from some Encyclopaedia, because I was writing about Bergson’s durée, but only on the condition that I didn’t tell anyone else that he was helping me.

He reluctantly passed my thesis, saying it was awful, but refusing to say why. Unfortunately he also (non)supervised all the MA theses at the department. This time he failed my thesis saying I had misunderstood completely what philosophy was all about, but didn’t say anything about what was wrong with it. I approached the head of department to get a second opinion, was passed with distinction and subsequently admitted to the PhD programme where I was fortunate enough to get prof. Ingvar Johansson as supervisor.

Anyway, I finally realised that philosophy had become a way of life when Ingvar asked whether I really wanted to become a professional philosopher in light of the very uncertain prospects of a job in academia. The conviction with which I told him I saw no other future surprised even myself. Looking back now—20 years down the road and still without tenure (I’ll be fired in 2 years when my current funding runs out, unless I find other external funding)—I can tell you there have been times that I have had to dig deep to convince myself that I made the right choice. But those moments pass quickly.

[McTaggart by-V.H.Mottram]

3:AM: You’re interested in many key metaphysical problems and in particular McTaggart’s paradox of time. You say that he was a man who argued that drinking is not the cause of drunkedness but drunkedness is the cause of drinking. How does he argue this and does this give us a clue to understanding how McTaggart understands causation and his Idealism?

VI: Well, to begin with, if you are an idealist then there is no material reality, and then of course there really aren’t any chemical compounds like alcohol that could physically affect biological brains. Consequently, all connections boil down to conceptual connections between ideas. Causal connections hold between the idea of some or other cause and the idea of its effect. To make a long story very short, McTaggart argues that the idea of you having been drinking doesn’t conceptually imply that you are drunk, because you can drink without getting drunk, but the idea of you being drunk does imply that you have been drinking. You can’t become drunk without having been drinking. If you then apply the popular conditional analysis of causation in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, then it will very naturally lend itself to the interpretation that you being drunk is a sufficient condition for inferring that you have been drinking, while your drinking may at best be necessary for inferring that you are drunk.

Hegel had similar views, arguing that the understanding of the concept of any particular cause is conceptually dependent on your understanding of the effect it brings about, and vice versa, from which he drew the conclusion that cause and effect were in fact mutually dependent, or conceptually reciprocal, and that we were therefore wrong to assume that causation is asymmetrical.

Today it is popular to ridicule idealism as a silly idea from the past, but in actuality much of what passes as bog standard philosophy today, cannot really be distinguished from idealism. Whenever anyone focuses solely on the conceptual connections between ideas in their philosophy, which is the essence of a priori philosophical reasoning, they are doing pretty much what the idealists thought philosophy is all about.

3:AM: What do you argue causal production is and do you think there is a necessary connection between cause and effect?

VI: Well, first of all, to ask about what causal production is, is to no longer be satisfied with the concept of causation as merely a two-place relation between two distinct states or events; it is to ask about the process that brings about a change in a material system from one state/event to another. It is to ask about the process that produces causal relations.

As far as I can tell, this was how causation was thought of in philosophy from Aristotle and until Hume came along and suggested we think of causation merely as a succession of distinct but contiguous events. As Mario Bunge say, this really constitutes a shift in our thinking of causation from being an ontological category to merely a conceptual category.

The material system that the Aristotelians had in mind was composed of two or more powerful particulars, typically denoted the Agent and Patient, since it was assumed that in interactions between such particulars one would act and the other merely received the action. The atomists instead thought of the material system as any arbitrary collection of atoms, which would change as the atoms collided with each other.

My particular take on production, based heavily on the work of Mario Bunge’s early work, has been to challenge the unidirectionality of actions, on the grounds that natural science doesn’t recognise any forms of unidirectional agency. It is one of the more uncontroversial facts of physics that all influence is reciprocal between interacting objects. If one takes this reciprocity seriously, it becomes impossible to attribute the efficiency of causation to any particular object involved in an interaction; all interacting objects contribute equally to produce the outcome. So my suggestion is to modify the concept of cause to include an interaction as a whole, and the concept of effect to include the resultant change in the whole system of interacting objects.

If we conceive of causation in that way, we arguably get two and not just one necessary connection. One is generic; cause and effect are necessarily two states of the very same material system. The other has more to do with uniformity; whenever two things of a certain kind interact in a certain way, the outcome is always the same. The generic connection is compatible with a certain degree of contingency—with the idea that you might not always get the same outcome from two identical interactions—but I am more interested in exploring the idea that interactions are in fact uniform and necessary.

3:AM: And you yourself have asked yourself this: is there a problem of action at a temporal distance? Does this problem disappear if we discard Newtonian laws of motion?

VI: There is one particular conception of causation that has this problem; the conception Russell criticises in ‘On the Notion of Cause’, and which is the default view on causation today. I think it is a conception no one should accept. However, the trick to resolving the problem is not to discard Newtonian Laws, but to draw the right lesson from them; they do not support the view Russell criticises.

The view Russell starts from is that causation is a two-place relation between two entities such that (i) they are temporally successive in a non-overlapping way and yet temporally contiguous, and (ii) the former acts on the latter. It is because one of the entities is meant to act on the other that they need to be contiguous, because it is assumed that influence only occurs on contact. The problem arises when it is also assumed that time has the structure of the continuum, because then two temporally successive but non-overlapping entities cannot be contiguous; between any two time points—no matter how close they are—there will always be an infinity of time points in between, such as between the time at which the cause ends and the time at which the effect begins. Ergo, you inevitably have a temporal gap.

The reason we shouldn’t think of causation in terms of an event acting on another, is that it is abomination, if you pardon the expression. It is the infertile offspring of a combination of two ideas from two incompatible views about causation. On the one hand there is Hume’s idea about causation as a mere succession of contiguous events between which no action takes place, and the causal realist conviction that causation involves the exertion of influence; i.e. action. Joining the two results in the idea that one event acts on another event, and that is one of the weirdest ideas in the history of philosophy. Let me explain.

The Aristotelian tradition never conceived of actions occurring between events, nor did the Stoics, or the Scholastics, although a common misconception today is that transeunt causation, in the Scholastic sense, is when one event influences another event. This is incorrect. transeunt causation is when one body transmits an influence to another body, i.e. from agent to patient. In other words, actions occur between two material objects whose relation is synchronous. Similarly, the atomists, both ancient and modern, assumed that the atoms impinge on each other and thus change each other’s state of motion. This was Newton’s understanding of actions, as it was Locke’s, and it is still a standard understanding in particle physics. That is what they do in the Large Hadron Collider. They don’t try to make one event smash into another event; they try to smash high-energy particles together, which will produce a succession of events. The whole idea of events acting on other events (or states of affairs, or properties, or facts…) is just weird and disturbing. In fact, it would seem that not even Hume believed that any of his contemporaries believed that events act on each other. The view he criticises is that “one billiard-ball would communicate motion to another upon impulse” (Enquiry: sect. 36). It is the balls that act on each other, not the events in which they figure.

Now, what do Newton’s Laws of motion say about actions? The first law says nothing about them, it only deals with inertial motion; how a body moves when it is not acted upon. The second says that the magnitude of an impressed force is proportional to the resultant acceleration of the object acted upon. As such the second law may perhaps appear—at first blush—ambiguous between a reading in which forces act on accelerations, and one in which a body acts with a certain force on another body, causing an acceleration. But the third law removes any doubt; it says that a force exerted by one object on another is always accompanied by an oppositely directed force exerted by the second object on the former. These forces exerted between objects give rise to changes in their respective states of motion and that is how successive and contiguous events come about. Voila, no problem of action at a temporal distance, since the action occurs between synchronically existing entities and not between successive events.

So, rather than resolving action at a temporal distance by discarding the laws of motion, let us properly understand what they say.

3:AM: Can you sketch for us the paradox as McTaggart sets it out in 1908 and the A and B series ideas of time that have become standard fare in philosophy of time discussions ever since?

VI: The starting point of the argument is that an adequate conception of time is one that has to incorporate change, because the very idea of reality being in time has to do with change. McTaggart then moves on to offer a phenomenological analysis of how time appears to us in experience, in order to then consider if that appearance incorporates change of some kind.

Time appears to us, he says, in the form of events having temporal positions and we find two different kinds of temporal positions. On the one hand the events in time are earlier and later than each other, and that offers a conception of time as a series of positions standing in the asymmetric, transitive, and linear relations of earlier and later than; the B series. On the other hand events are future, present, and past, and continuously passing from the remote future towards the present, and then through the present into the distant past. This latter sense in which events have a position in time also allows us to imagine all events in time as lined up in asymmetric, transitive, and linear order; the A series.

So, time appears as an A and a B series, but McTaggart asks which of the two series is more fundamental with regards to temporality, and of course whether reality can be like an A and/or B series. So, he asks if the B series on its own would be adequate as a conception of a temporal series. He answers no, because he thinks there is no change in the B series. That is, no event is ever earlier than another at one time, but at another time later than that same event. McTaggart’s conclusion is that we only get change if the events that make up a B series also pass from being future to be present, and then from present to past, and thus also make up an A series.

Finally he argues that the conception of events forming an A series involves a contradiction, and so there can be no A series and since we have no other means to incorporate change, then the order of events in history doesn’t manifest any change and therefore cannot be said to be temporal. The controversy about McTaggart’s Paradox revolves mostly around the exact sense of this contradiction. But it is commonly agreed though that the B series as sketched by McTaggart is really a model of what time is really like according to the B view of time, and that the A series is a model of what time is really like according to the A view of time.

3:AM: Ok, so what, then, is the contradiction said to be embedded in the A series view of time?

VI: It is typically presented first in the following naïve form. Future, present, and past are incompatible determinants, so nothing can be future, present, and past, but in time as a whole every event has them all, so every event nevertheless is future, present, and past. Proponents of the A view are typically baffled by this arguments. Surely, the tenses are only incompatible when had simultaneously, but not when they are had successively in time as a whole. Where is the contradiction in that?

Those who defend the validity of the argument respond that even if we allow the events to have the different tenses at different times, this makes no difference for our attempt to give a complete description of time as a whole; in such a complete description you will get the incompatible statements ‘e is future’, ‘e is present’, and ‘e is past’. The sceptics will then say that, no event ever appears to be unqualifiedly future, present, and past, but may at best appear to ‘have been future, is present and will be past’. The defenders will then argue that this reply presupposes the application of the tenses in the explanation of how they are had successively and that this is viciously circular; you explain tense by invoking tense.

The sceptics tend then to think that this is grossly unfair, because there wasn’t initially a problem with saying that e was future, is present, and will be past; the problem arose when that somehow was (falsely) meant to be understood as implying that ‘e is future, present, and past’. The dispute typically ends at an impasse where defenders of the argument demand a solution to what they see as a paradox, while the sceptics demand to be told why there is a paradox at all.

3:AM: You say that the argument McTaggart was setting out was misunderstood from the very beginning and this explains why there are seemingly an incommensurability of views don’t you? Can you explain what you think happened?

VI: I’ll try. With very few exceptions, the argument is treated as a standalone-argument, one that doesn’t rely on any contentious metaphysical principles. That of course is the natural reading, if you believe McTaggart is trying to reveal a contradiction inherent in the appearance of time itself even before we start to theorise about it. I think this is the wrong way to understand the argument, but to see why, one has to do more than just read the original journal article published in Mind in 1908.

One of the factors contributing to the misunderstanding is that McTaggart does nothing to tie the argument to his overall philosophy in the original journal article of 1908. I think he fails to do this because he assumed that his readers would know the argument was a continuation of his engagement with a particular problem in the Hegelian dialectic, notably how ultimate reality could be all at once Absolute, i.e. a perfect and completed whole, which is one of the results of Hegels a priori metaphysics, and also Temporal, which suggests an image of reality as an imperfect and incomplete whole in becoming. He discusses this problem in a two part paper published in Mind in 1893–4, and it was discussed by Schiller and Watson in 1895, and again by McTaggart in 1909. Perhaps he also thought he didn’t need to say anything about it because he thought nobody would disagree with the relevant a priori principles.

Anyway, he makes up for the lack of a connection between the argument for the unreality of time and his own a priori metaphysical principles when the argument reappears in 1927; then as the first chapter of Vol. II of The Nature of Existence. In that book, he makes it explicitly clear that he means to demonstrate that Reality cannot be Temporal in the way that it appears to be in Experience, if it is assumed that Reality is Absolute in the way he has already established by a priori arguments in Vol. I. McTaggart declares these intentions in the introduction to Vol. I, elaborates on them in Ch. 3 where he explains the method with which he proposes to investigate the ultimate structure and nature of reality, and then repeats it in the introduction to Vol. II. Despite of this, C. D. Broad, in his Examination of McTaggart’s Philosophy in 1933 makes a particular point of noting that the argument for the unreality of time is the only thing in Vol. II that doesn’t rely on the results of Vol. I. However, he offers no argument for his claim, which he should in light of the fact that McTaggart clearly presents Vol. II as a whole as being a demonstration of the practical consequences that follow from the result of Vol. I. Anyway, if we take McTaggart on his own words, the argument turns out to be perfectly coherent and not the least obscure. And if we understand Broad and other commentators to have ignored or overlooked what he said, it explains why proponents of the A and B views of time have such incommensurable views about the argument.

So, in my view, to understand the argument one has to understand its place in McTaggart’s systematic exposition of his philosophy in The Nature of Existence. The two volumes each present distinct steps in his inquiry into the structure and nature of reality. First, he wants to determine the perfectly general characteristics of existent reality using only a priori arguments, i.e. ones that do not depend on any empirical observations. His conclusions, simply put, is that existence and reality coincide and have no degrees, and that existent reality is constituted by substances that have properties and stand in relations.

Basically, the result of the first volume says that for anything to be real—including time—it must exist, in the same manner as everything else exists, and therefore either must be a substance, a property of a substance, or a relation holding between substances. We really get a conception of reality as a perfect and complete whole of substances bearing determinate qualities and standing in determinate relations. Temporal reality must be a perfect and completed whole too, and each part of it must exist in parity with everything else. Ergo, the future and past, if real, must exist, and exist in the only way possible, and therefore be as existent and real as the present. It is against this background that McTaggart considers, in Vol. II, whether the temporal features that reality appears to have in experience can really belong to a reality that is a perfect and completed whole. He answers that it cannot.

We can translate this into more modern terminology, and say that McTaggart has in effect already committed himself to the principle of temporal parity, the thesis that all times exist in parity, on a priori grounds, before he even starts to consider what time appears to be really like. So, his construction of time as an A series is not just a conception of a series of positions ordered in a linear, asymmetric, and transitive fashion, but consists of the existing totality of all the times at which every event exists equally in every one of the various positions that make up the time series. Since each position is incompatible with the other, it is no surprise that you cannot construe a series of that kind without contradiction; a single event e cannot equally exist in the present, and in all the infinity of degrees of futurity and pastness that make up an A series. This is an absolutely useless argument against the A view of time, because it doesn’t accept the principle of temporal parity, and so does not ascribe to the idea of time being an existing A series in the manner McTaggart spells out. It simply is wrong that the A view depicts time like an A series.

The basis of the misunderstanding of commentators on both sides of the debate, is that if the a priori metaphysical principles are not taken into consideration when one is interpreting the argument, the argument will appear incomplete, except to those who already implicitly agree with the principles. And the proponents of the B view tend to agree with the principles. Just look at the beginning of David Lewis’ On The Plurality of Worlds. It is basically nothing more than a paraphrase of McTaggart’s view that existence and reality coincide and have no degrees. And it is interesting that while McTagggart drew from this the conclusion that possibilities are unreal—statements of possibility reduce to ignorance about the existent and real—because otherwise we could need a realm of possibilities that either were real but non-existent, or which existed in some different manner, then Lewis draws the conclusion that possibilities exist and are real in the same way anything existing and real exists; its just that they must exist in some other world than the one we experience, simply because it is an empirical fact that they do not exist in this world. Lewis’ a priori conclusion about existence drives him to an extravagant ontology. Anyway, it is agreement about certain fundamental principles that explain why proponents of the B-view of time tend to find the argument valid, and disagreement about said principles that explain why proponents of the A-view completely fail to see that McTaggart’s argument makes any sense at all. Since neither party realises that these presuppositions are at play in the interpretation of the argument, no one understands why they arrive at such different interpretations and that is why their views appear so incommensurable to the other.

3:AM: Does the paradox deserve to be counted as one of the great paradoxes alongside those of Zeno, the Liar and Anselm’s Proslogion argument?

VI: I am not familiar enough with the other paradoxes to really have a strong opinion about any comparison, but it should be considered as a great paradox because it does reveal an incompatibility between certain widely accepted fundamental metaphysical principles—i.e. that existence and reality coincide and have no degrees—and a certain conception of what time appears to be like in experience—i.e. that events pass from future to present and from present to pass. I think he has proved that we cannot accept them both, wherefore we must reconsider either one or the other, or both. However, so far the commentators have failed to see McTaggart’s Paradox in this way; they take it to reveal only a contradiction in the appearance of time itself.

3:AM: And does the B series view supposedly establish that reality is really changeless?

VI: Well, the popular view today is that McTaggart’s argument for the lack of change in the B series is based on the simple mistake of identifying change with change of temporal position. Instead, as everyone knows, change is when one and the same object has different intrinsic properties at different times, and this is a form of change that can perfectly well fit into the B series.

First of all, it is a mistake to think McTaggart overlooked this conception of change. He devotes a whole chapter to it in Vol. I of The Nature of Existence, when he comes to the conclusion that things can only persist over time by being composed of temporal parts, and so can only have different properties at different times as a result of variation between the temporal parts. As he later returns to in the time argument, to appeal to changes in things as a way out, is really just to look for change in the variation between the temporal parts of something—say, a poker being hot at one time and cold at another time—but this simply isn’t change; change requires numeric identity as much as qualitative difference. Lewis later comes to the same conclusion that variation between temporal parts is the only way things can ‘change’. Most other proponents of the B view do not want to accept this conclusion, because they take the reduction of change to variation between temporal parts to be an elimination of change, just like McTaggart argued. Change has to be a variation in the properties of an object that remains numerically one and the same between times. However, if you accept the principle of temporal parity, as the B view does, then the claim that things persist by enduring seems to lead to the contradiction that one and the very same entity exists equally at a number of incompatible positions in time and has at those times incompatible properties. This is a contradiction I think is more difficult to resolve than the alleged contradiction of the A series

3:AM: Does the appearance of time provide any support for any metaphysical theory about what time is like?

VI: I would say no, at least not directly. However, like McTaggart, I think the appearance of time provides us with criteria of success for a metaphysical theory of time. Basically, it can show us that a theory is false, or at least incomplete. In McTaggart’s terminology, it is an undisputable fact of experience that reality appears to be temporal. So, any theory about the nature of temporal reality that fails to explain how that kind of experience can arise, even if only as an illusion, is at least incomplete. This doesn’t require a theory of time to represent time being exactly like it appears to be, but at least to explain how reality can appear to be different from what the theory says it is. So, for instance, the B-view claims that reality is temporal in a way that differs from what it appears to be like, and then it better be able to explain to us how the illusory experience can arise. As long as the theory is unable to explain how the illusion can arise, we have reason to doubt its adequacy.

There is no agreement to this date about whether the A or B view fares better on this score. Those who think that there is at least the appearance of a passage of time tend to believe that the A view has a better explanation of how that appearance can arise, but then again it is disputed whether time really appears to pass at all. For instance, Simon Prosser has recently argued that we really do not experience passage.

3:AM: So how do you think we should deal with the problem of tensed change in McTaggart to avoid the contradiction?

VI: Well, I think we should simply not think of tense like McTaggart. We should not represent future, present, and past as equally existent and real places where events can have a position, and that they somehow pass from the future into the present and away into the past. That is at best a metaphor for something. I am tempted think Augustine got it right (provided I get him right). In his view, the future is an imagined realm of expected events; it is really only our representation of how we believe the world will develop from what it is now. The past is again an imagined realm of how we believe or remember events to have unfolded; it only represents how we believe the world to have developed to its present state. In one sense this does make future and past into merely subjective notions, but they are still meant to capture some objective feature of the world, notably that it changes and that as it changes some states go out of existence and others come into existence. Those who deny the reality of tense, as the B view does, really deny that anything comes into and goes out of being; everything exists in parity. That, I believe, is what this whole dispute is about; is there real becoming in the world?

3:AM: McTaggart had an interesting take on the correspondence theory of truth didn’t he? Do agree with him that proponents of the theory shouldn’t take a mind independent truth for granted in their position? How does your thinking go here?

VI: Yes, that is a totally neglected part of McTaggart’s philosophy that is arguably more interesting than his views on time. So, he took truth to be the correspondence of the content of beliefs to facts, but he took the contents of beliefs to be mind-dependent and therefore accepted that truth was mind-dependent. However, he did not think this made truth any less objective. Let me explain that in a little more detail.

McTaggart took the content of beliefs to exist only as instantiated qualitative states of a mind, minds being understood as substances that can bear qualities. We can think of it in terms of brains and brain-states. Since truth is a property of beliefs that correspond to fact, and beliefs only exist as instantiated states of mind, then there are no truths unless there exist minds that entertain certain beliefs. That is the sense in which truth is mind-dependent; truth depends for its existence on the existence of minds that have beliefs about something other than themselves. However, the states of mind do not make themselves true; it is the real-worldly facts to which they correspond that make them true. The mind cannot do anything to make a belief true, except to generate the belief. Truth therefore is objective, despite being mind-dependent, since the truth-values of mind-dependent beliefs is determined by the objective facts that exist outside the mind and not by the mind itself. This is a conception of the correspondence theory that I think Donaldson could have accepted, since his rejection of the correspondence theory revolved around his conviction that the correspondence theory implied that truth is mind-independent.

The most interesting feature of McTaggart’s view on truth is that he has a very compelling argument against the idea—now widely taken for granted—that truth is mind-independent. He simply thinks it derives entirely from a misguided way of testing our intuitions about truth. Typically the testing begins by suggesting that even if there were no thinking beings, everything else being equal, it would still be true, say, that the sun exists. When deciding whether to accept this suggestion or not, we consider whether the sun—or whatever is meant to be the truthmaker—could exist in the absence of thinkers. Coming to the conclusion that it could—we could cease to exist but the sun remain—we falsely infer that therefore it would still be true that the sun exists even if there was no one to think ‘the sun exists’. It is an invalid inference because the conception of the truthmaker existing in the absence of a thinker is not to think of the obtaining of a truth but only in the obtaining of the truthmaker. Remember that truth is meant to be a property of a proposition that corresponds to fact, not merely the obtaining of a fact. We have yet to consider whether the existence of the truthmaker necessitates the existence of a truthbearer. McTaggart thinks we can well imagine a world of truthmakers that do not contain any truthbearers, and that would be to conceive of a real and existing world without truth. The source to any uneasiness about this argument, is that we have become so accustomed to think of what reality is like in terms of what is true about reality, that we have subconsciously stopped making a distinction between truth and reality. But the distinction is clear enough. Reality is the world as it is in itself, and truth is the correspondence between something that is about reality (or some part of it) but is still distinct from that part of reality. Truth and reality do not coincide on any conception of truth, except possibly the identity theory.

So, ultimately the confusion is between the question ‘are many things true that are never thought of’ and the question ‘do many things exist that are never thought of’, and we can say yes to the latter and no to the former.

3:AM: You’ve also looked at the metaphysics of properties and asked whether they are qualities or powers, or both. So could you sketch out what these alternatives are claiming?

VI: I find it is best to understand the alternatives by looking at their historical development, so I’ll offer a synopsis of how I understand this development. It seems to me that it was more or less universally assumed that properties are both qualities and powers up until and including Locke. That is, properties were treated as the determinate ways objects are, and it was assumed that they determined what the object was capable of doing. To be spherical was a determinate way of being that also made the object capable of rolling.

Locke complicated the matter by distinguishing between the qualities as they are in the objects, and the ideas we have in our minds of what those qualities are like. In the objects there are (at least) two kinds of qualities, the primary and secondary qualities. The primary qualities are so fundamental that they belong even to the most fundamental constituents of material objects, the corpuscles; they are properties that are essential for being a material object in the first place, so no matter how you divide matter, the parts will still have the primary properties. The secondary qualities can only be said to belong to collections of corpuscles; they are structural properties if you like.

In our minds we have then ideas of primary and secondary qualities, and those ideas arise in the mind as the result of the influence of the qualities of objects on our senses. Locke thought our ideas about primary qualities correctly represented the qualities as they were in the object, but our ideas of secondary qualities did not. That is the sense in which the ideas of primary properties represent objective knowledge, but the ideas of secondary properties do not; they are epistemically subjective. This does not mean that secondary qualities are only in the mind, only that our ideas about them are subjectively biased.

Now, for my money, it is clear that Locke believed that both primary and secondary qualities belong to the objects outside the mind, and that both are powers as well as qualities. The corpuscules ‘impinge’ on the senses, both individually and in bulk, in virtue of having extension, impenetrability, and a state of motion. So far in the history of philosophy, it was never a problem of whether properties are qualities or powers, only about whether we had ideas that correctly represented properties as they are in the object and how they determined the behaviour of objects.

Then Hume came along and argued that we cannot infer from our ideas or impressions of qualities, whether there are in fact any objects or qualities outside the mind or how these objects will behave given the ideas we have about them. In his view the only intelligible way to make sense of qualities was as qualities of perception. We really get a reduction of the concept of quality of objects to causally inert qualities of perception, and a reduction of dispositions or powers into just contingent succession of qualities of perception. Now, throughout the empiricist school of thought up until the middle of the twentieth century qualities were treated as observable, simply because they were assumed to be present to the mind. And they were so treated until people started to worry that we were really trying to make sense of the world merely in terms of biased sense data, while the qualities as they are in the object were in principle unknowable. Then suddenly the concept of properties as pure qualities changed into an idea of properties that were in principle unknowable, but which were still assumed to ground the dispositions that objects had to behave in one way or another. That is what we now know as the categorical view of properties.

The modern idea of powers as mind-independent and fundamental properties of objects, that didn’t depend on qualities, arose at least partly among those that wanted to make sense of the scientific image of the world. According to science, the fundamental properties of objects, like mass, charge, spin, etc. are all typically powers that we only understand in terms of the behaviour of the objects that have them but of which we have no perception; we only have theoretical knowledge of them which is based on how they influence each other. Now we arrive at a conception of properties as the power to manifest some future behaviour, but which doesn’t seem to embody any conception of the object before it behaves like that. That is a conception of properties that arguably leads to a regress. How do we understand the power F? It is the power to manifest G. But what is G? It is the power to manifest H, etcetera ad infinitum. This is a regress that never ends in a property that just is manifested; they all remain potentialities to manifest some further potentiality.

So, all in all, I regard the powerful qualities view, the view that properties are qualities and powers, as the first view in the history of philosophy, and not a novelty although it is sometimes presented like that today. Then there is the pure qualities view, which once began as a reduction of qualities in objects to observable qualities of the mind, but which changed to being a concept of unobservable qualities of objects that contingently ground the observable dispositions of the objects. And finally there is the pure-powers view that says that fundamental properties are powers to manifest other powers but don’t represent any manifest quality in the object itself.

3:AM: And what is your answer: are properties qualities, powers or both? Why is your position superior to alternatives?

VI: My answer is that they are both—as I think we all naively assume when we are not doing philosophy—and the reason I favour this position is that I find that the arguments that are meant to lead us away from the naïve view are bad arguments. Also, I think the powerful qualities view is the only one that makes sense of how science describes the properties of things. Furthermore, I think I can see the making of a coherent world-view in which the powerful qualities position makes sense, while the other alternatives lead merely to chaos and confusion. I can of course be wrong about this. I am just saying that if I had to make an inference to the best explanation today, this would be my answer.

3:AM: Some scientists would say that metaphysics is not required: science has all the answers. You think humanities shouldn’t mimic the approach of the natural sciences but nevertheless produces genuine and objective knowledge. So where does metaphysics fit in this? Are you doing something closer to natural science than the humanities? And why should natural scientists and humanities scholars heed the metaphysician?

VI: I don’t think science has all the answers, we need metaphysics, but I think people that have been trained in the natural sciences can just as much do metaphysics as those explicitly trained in the discipline—and they frequently and inevitably do, often oblivious of the fact that they have indulged in it.

This is how I see the difference and relation between the empirical sciences and metaphysics. Allowing myself a healthy dose of oversimplification, then the empirical sciences each focus on a particular segment of reality and focus on the understanding of the particular phenomena within that segment. Physics focuses on the elementary particles, their properties, and the particular interactions they engage in, all of which are unobservable to the naked eye. Chemistry focuses on the compound entities and their interactions—which are then called ‘reactions’—and often these reactions are observable to the naked eye. Biology focuses on even more complicated systems and their interactions. The demarcation between chemistry and biology might perhaps be drawn between systems that have some form of functions or causal feed-back loops. The point here is that metaphysics focuses on categories of entities and ways of being that cut across the segments that are the focal points of the individual empirical sciences.

Physics deals with electrons and their charges and how charged particles interact. It doesn’t deal with cell-division or metabolism in mitochondria, and it sure as hell does not consider whether there are classes of phenomena that we find in all the segments, such as whether all of them contain persistent bearers of properties, the properties that they bear, the relations they hold, and the events that these bearers enter into, and which often bring about a change in them. Nor do they ask what are the most general characteristics of persistent entities, of properties, relations, causation, or of persistence itself. That is what metaphysics tries to do. Metaphysics is the business of asking whether all the phenomena in all the segments fit into a general scheme that all the sciences can incorporate in their scheme of things, or even if they already have incorporated it without realising it.

The fact that I take the findings and theories of the natural science to be relevant input to metaphysics—as something we must consider—it doesn’t mean that slavishly accept their theories and finding uncritically (a common but misguided criticism of naturalism). I try to look at the findings and theorising of the empirical sciences—at least those parts I can hope to understand—how the world appears to us in experience, how we make sense of the world in our everyday conceptual scheme, and how we talk about them, and I pitch the findings from each of these approaches against the other in an attempt to find some way to bring it all together in one coherent whole.

I don’t believe we can come to any conclusion about the world merely by scrutinising language, or merely by phenomenological analysis, or merely by a priori reflection on the conceptual scheme already in place, or merely by accepting the facts and theories of physics. Metaphysics, in the sense I have sketched it, is a project beyond the scope of an individual. We all take a shot at some part of the overall project, in our own limited way, and in time, over generations, we hopefully move towards greater clarity.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into your philosophical world?

VI:

The Nature of Existence, by J. M. E. McTaggart. This book simply is one of the best works in philosophy ever written. You can read it in order to understand the mind-set and methodology of idealism or of a priori reasoning generally, to get a lesson in basic metaphysics, or simply to admire the cool clarity of a succinctly stated argument. If someone wants a real challenge, then please try to understand what McTaggart really means by ‘determining correspondence’; and then explain it to me please. That is the one part I have not yet worked out. I suspect it would be interesting for anyone working out a ‘gunky’ conception of reality.

Causality, by Mario Bunge. To my mind this is essential reading for anyone interested in the philosophy of causation, especially if you have naturalist inclinations. He offers a really good overview of various views and their historical development, an early criticism of the shortcomings of empiricism, and offers a really sharp analysis of the incompatibility of philosophical views of causation with the theories and findings of the natural sciences.

Ontological Investigations, by Ingvar Johansson. This is an example of the kind of holistic approach to metaphysics that I try to aspire to, that draws on the whole body of philosophical literature to bring the physical, chemical, biological, and social level together in one coherent world-view. Be sure to note that everything Ingvar has written is guaranteed to qualify the current debate on whatever issues it is about.

The Passage of Nature, by Dorothy Emmet. This book is written with the same kind of flowing clarity that characterised McTaggart’s writing, and which I think is one of the best starting points for an exploration of the philosophical notion of process.

The Possibility of Metaphysics, by Jonathan Lowe. I read this book in the early years of my PhD project. It had a deep impact on my understanding of metaphysics. I still regularly revisit it.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 9th, 2018.