Knowledge Under Ontological Uncertainty

  • Inconsistent Ontologies and Incompatible Beliefs

Some quick reminders: ontology is the philosophical study of what exists. But ontological claims require an epistemology: when is one justified in claiming that something exists? Here, we have seen that ontological claims are justified via metaphysical inference, and metaphysical inference is influenced by judgments of epistemic risk. Epistemic risk, in turn, is finding an optimal balance between empirical answerability (“vulnerability”) and explanatory power. But what one considers an optimal balance is stance dependent. Consequently, there is a continuum of ontological claims that different philosophers and scientists will deem justified given their different stances.

If one accepts this picture of ontological justification, then two kinds of uncertainty are likely to arise.

  • In which ontological domains is belief justified and which is it not? For example, should we be realists about DNA and antirealists about processes?
  • Given inconsistent descriptions of a given object, event, process, etc. within a domain, which description are we justified in believing? For example, are fluids continuous media or collections of discrete particles? This kind of uncertainty is Chakravartty’s focus in this chapter.  

Focusing on the latter, note that stance voluntarism has ample room of “reasonable” or “faultless” disagreement: individuals with different stances may have inconsistent beliefs, yet both are justified in those beliefs.

Chakravartty contrasts the stance voluntarist’s approach to reasonable disagreement with a neighboring position called perspectival realism.

  • Belief and Ontological Pluralism/Perspectivism

Suppose that we have a pair of inconsistent descriptions D and not-D. Perspectivists propose to resolve some of these inconsistencies by thinking of these two descriptions as elliptical for:

            According to Perspective A, D.

            According to Perspective B, not-D.

Note that these two “according-to claims” are consistent. For instance, imagine that A and B are standing in a line with a third person, C, in between them. To use a non-scientific example, according to A’s perspective, C is on the right, but according to B’s perspective, C is on the left. There is no contradiction in this. The same thing can be said in science, but perspectives won’t simply be spatial positions: they will include models, instruments, and the like.

As Chakravartty (2017, 174) notes, “not all cases of inconsistent models give rise to the worry of incompatible beliefs.” First, an underlying theory can explain away the apparent inconsistency. Second, one of the inconsistent models may be on better footing than the other, such that the inconsistency clearly counsels rejection of the latter model. Third, where the inconsistent models appear to be on a par, then suspension of belief is appropriate. However, at least the first two cases are catch as catch can. As such, perspectivism might well be the preferred strategy when those alternatives are unavailable, and suspension of belief seems inappropriate.

Chakravartty considers two kinds of perspectivism:

P1. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because our epistemic abilities do not extend as far as perspective-transcendent knowledge.

P2. Knowledge of scientific ontology is bound within specific contexts because there are no perspective-transcendent ontological facts or states of affairs to be known.

Note that P2 implies P1, but not vice versa.

  • Perspectivism’s Trilemma

Chakravartty claims that perspectivism of this sort will end up with one or more of the following untoward consequences:

  • Irrelevant: While certain aspects of scientific practice are perspectival, they frequently have no ontological upshot. For instance, the following is a bad inference: Lavoisier proposed the theory of oxygen from a particular perspective. Therefore, our epistemic abilities do not extend as far as perspective-transcendent knowledge that oxygen combusts.
  • Unstable: A putatively perspectival ontology collapses into a non-perspectival or deflationary ontology upon closer scrutiny.
  • Incoherent: Some perspectival claims do not really resolve the problem of inconsistent models; a contradiction still lurks.

Chakravartty’s goal: to show that these problems arise for the key arguments for P1 and P2. Let’s consider three arguments for P1 and P2, and Chakravartty’s objections to them.

  • Argument from Partial Modeling
  • PM1. If scientific modeling only provide partial representations of their targets, then non-perspectival facts are unknowable.
  • PM2. Scientific models only provide partial representations of their targets.

P1.       Therefore, non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

  • Chakravartty’s Objection: PM1 is false. It’s possible to have knowledge of non-perspectival facts even if complete representations are impossible. Consequently, perspectivism is irrelevant or unstable.
  • Argument from Conditioned Detection

CD1.    If different detectors produce (seemingly) inconsistent but equally acceptable descriptions of the same target system, then non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

CD2.    Different detectors produce inconsistent but equally acceptable descriptions of the same target system.

P1.       Therefore, non-perspectival facts are unknowable.

Perspectivism and CD1: Suppose that Detector D1 indicates that a target system T has property x, while Detector D2 indicates that T has property y, and that nothing with x can also have y or vice versa. Then, to avoid a contradiction, we should adopt perspectivism: According to D1, T is x; According to D2, T is y.

Chakravartty and CD1: Scientists can frequently show that detectors are describing one and the same perspective-independent target. In this case, once again, perspectivism is either irrelevant or unstable.

  • Argument from Meaning & Reference

MR1.   If the structure of the world depends on the concepts we impose upon it, then there are no non-perspectival facts to be known.

MR2.   The structure of the world depends on the concepts we impose upon it.

P2.       There are no non-perspectival facts to be known.

  • Chakravartty’s Objection:
  • Suppose that one person’s concepts entail that T is x, and another’s, that T is not x.
  • If the structure of the world depends upon the concepts we impose upon it, then T is both x and not-x.
  • So, either (a) everyone’s concepts entail the same thing for every target system or (b) the structure of the world does not depend upon the concepts we impose upon it.

In the first case, (a), we seem to have a perspectivism that only allows one perspective, which isn’t really perspectivism at all (incoherence). In the second case, (b), MR2 is false, and so there’s no good reason to accept P2 (instability).

  • Context-Transcendent Pluralism About Ontology

The uncertainty with which we began still requires pluralism about ontology. However, Chakravartty takes the preceding arguments to indicate that this pluralism should not be perspectival. He offers two alternatives.

  • Pluralism about Packaging

First, there is pluralism about packaging, the position “that entities and kinds of entities may come in different sorts of packages, corresponding to different aggregations, even at one and the same level of analysis” (190). Which package is appropriate depends on the particular prediction, explanation, or other scientific aim is relevant.

Regardless of whether one thinks of the aggregate as merely conventional or having reality over and above its constituents (anti-reductionism), there is no difficulty with the problem of inconsistent models. For conventionalists, this collapses into a deflationary ontology, where only the lower-level entities exist and the higher-level talk is merely convenient. For anti-reductionists, there is no inconsistency, because different aggregates are different things, and thus no inconsistency arises.

  • Pluralism about Behavior

Second, there is pluralism about behavior. This hinges on dispositional realism. Suppose that a target T has a dispositional property, such that, if condition C1 is the case, then T behaves like an x; if C2, then T behaves like a y, where x and y are incompatible properties. (Note that objective conditions are playing the same role of dissolving the contradiction that perspectives played for perspectivists.)

  • Not Perspectivism

Neither pluralism about packaging nor pluralism about behavior are perspectivist, since on either view, one can transcend one’s context/perspective when making ontological claims. There are a number of perspective-independent facts out there, and context/perspective functions more like a spotlight for focusing on particular facts of interest. Just as facts do not fade out of existence when we turn our spotlights elsewhere, these pluralist positions do not claim that aggregates or dispositions depend on perspectives for their existence.

  • Ontological Explanation and Contrastive Why-Questions

Chakravartty concludes by showing that pluralism about ontologies lead to “anything goes” about ontology. For instance, pluralism about packaging requires any description of an aggregate to serve some scientific goal (explanation, prediction, etc.) Since dispositions are out there in the world, packaging about behaviors are objectively constrained.

Chakravartty proposes a theory of contrastive why-questions that is compatible with a harmless form of perspectivism: “Investigative contexts afford perspectives, which in turn facilitate knowledge of non-perspectival facts.” (197)

On such a view, questions of the form, “Why P?” are often elliptical for questions of the form, “Why P rather than Q?”, where context frequently indicates the value of Q (often called the foil of a why-question). Note that A may correctly answer this question, but not be a correct answer to the question, “Why P rather than R?” For instance, “Why did Khalifa (rather than Chakravartty) teach the seminar in Middlebury’s philosophy department?” only needs to point to the fact that Khalifa is a Middlebury faculty member. However, this fails as an answer to the question “Why did Khalifa (rather than Besser) teach the seminar in Middlebury’s philosophy department?,” which would have to point to certain teaching rotations in Middlebury’s philosophy department. Note that the two answers are compatible but their truth does not hinge on perspective. Regardless of your perspective, Khalifa is a member of the Middlebury Philosophy Department, and Chakrvartty is not, for example. So a kind of non-perspectival pluralism emerges.

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