–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Remarks on Truth, Ontology, and “Physicalism”

by | Apr 23, 2024

‘Truth’ and ‘is true’

The most popular view on truth is some variation on the correspondence theory, according to which saying that a statement is true is saying that it “corresponds” to “reality” or “the facts” or “states of affairs” or some such thing. The trouble with this is at least threefold: (i) As per Donald Davidson’s observation, it’s not at all clear that saying “‘S’ is true to the facts” tells us anything more than simply saying “‘S’ is true”; (ii) The notions of “reality,” “the facts,” etc., at play seem either obvious and uninteresting or else hopelessly vague and obscure; (iii) Worst of all, even if one sets (ii) aside, I don’t see how one could give an account of any of these things – “reality,” “the facts,” etc. – without either explicitly or tacitly employing the concept of truth, which makes the correspondence theory circular.

For quite some time, it’s seemed to me that going too deeply into the concept of truth is a mistake, which is why I’ve found deflationary accounts of the expression ‘is true’ appealing. To say that ‘snow is white’ is true is simply to say that snow is white. (As you might expect, there are umpteen versions of this account, each with its own peculiarities.) As Kant maintained that ‘exists’ is not a predicate – and that consequently, existence is not a property – so the deflationist thinks that ‘is true’ is not a predicate and truth is not a property.

Some want to make hay of the fact that ‘truth’ can appear as a subject in sentences, as in “The truth is important” or that we can say things like “something he said must be true” and that such uses demonstrate that there must be something more to the words ‘truth’ and ‘true’ than deflationary accounts give credit for. I must admit to having always found such objections petty, not to mention insensible to the even broader, myriad uses of these terms and their variations:

“What he said is nothing more than a truism,” meaning trivial and uninteresting.

“She remained true to me, through good times and bad,” meaning faithful, in both the broad and narrow senses. 

“His arrow flew straight and true,” meaning “without deviation.”

“This is my grandmother’s tried and true method of getting rid of red wine stains,” meaning “effective.”

If anything, the diversity of such uses would seem to suggest that there is no single account of ‘truth’ and ‘true’ to be had; that like a multi-bit tool, the words can be used for a number of purposes, in a number of contexts and that at best we can describe what some of these uses are, as the deflationist does with ‘is true’.

Ontology and Physicalism

When we talk about ontology, we are talking about what exists. In this regard, most philosophers and scientists are physicalists, in that they think that everything that exists is physical. But it seems obvious to me that physicalism must be false.

Before anyone gets too excited, I’m not thinking about gods, angels, demons, ghosts or anything like that. I don’t think there are any. Nor am I thinking of mathematical objects like numbers, sets, geometrical figures and the like, though I don’t think I believe that those exist either, at least not strictly speaking.

But Missouri certainly exists. As does the United States. I used to be a resident of the first and I am a citizen of the second, which means that residents and citizens also exist. The money in my bank account definitely exists, and if it ceased to exist I’d be in serious trouble. The laws requiring that the tags on one’s cars be up to date certainly exist, which is why, several years ago, I got a ticket for having expired tags. You get my drift. All of these things exist. Obviously. Straightforwardly. And yes, strictly speaking. Yet, none of them is physical on any plausible interpretation. The constitution of the United States exists, and if you burned every extant manuscript of it, it still would exist. The same is true for Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  

Some have thought that these things can be given a type/token treatment. As this strategy goes, any instantiation of my money will have to be physical – in paper, metals, electrical signals, etc. – and this might lead you to say (as it made people like Jerry Fodor say) that you are at least a “token” physicalist. This still leaves types unaccounted for, but one might deal with them like one deals with mathematical objects and say they don’t exist strictly speaking. Still, I don’t see any of this is going to help you with residents or citizens or civil and criminal laws. It’s not at all clear that the ink markings in a book in some law library are “instantiations” of laws, in the way that a piece of paper is an instantiation of $5 or a performance is a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and even as I write this, I wonder if it makes sense in all of its applications. After all, if I burn a $5 bill, I’ve lost $5, not an instantiation or token of $5.

What we are talking about is social and cultural reality and the ontological status of the things that belong to it. It is somewhat common to distinguish “brute” facts – which might have existed independently of any human activity – from “institutional” ones – which only exist because of human activity. Terry Diffey used this distinction to make the case that artworks are institutional facts in “The Republic of Art,” and John Searle employs it in his book, The Construction of Social Reality, where he maintains that institutional facts arise, when certain brute facts are assigned various “status functions,” by way of “collective intentionality.” Searle, however, is not particularly interested in the question of the ontological status of the things that comprise social reality; indeed, he thinks it’s all physical, all the way down: 

I see the human ability to create money, property, government, and marriage as an extension of more basic biological phenomena such as the ability of human beings to engage in cooperative behavior, and their innate capacity for linguistic symbolism. My concern, in short, is with institutional reality, which is a special case of social reality. It is a matter of status functions, it is about the deontic powers accruing to status functions, and it is utterly naturalistic.

Searle’s chief concept – he refers to it as a “mnemonic” – is X counts as Y in C, the idea being that an institutional fact is a brute fact that comes to be counted by people as being and doing something, which could not have occurred solely as a result of the physical features that make up the brute fact. This is all very well, and it certainly is Searle’s prerogative not to be interested in social ontology, but it seems clear to me that (a) there is nothing wrong with the ontological questions – What is a citizen? What is money? What are laws? and (b) that one cannot slide smoothly from talk about facts to talk about things and that “X counts as Y in C” is not going to make sense of all of the different kinds of social facts we have been examining. It’s not me, the biological organism that is a resident of Missouri or a citizen of the United States, but me the person, and my personhood is not a brute fact as Searle has defined it, and with respect to something like a law or contract, the idea that these things are physical objects upon which certain statuses or roles have been imposed just seems wrong.

My own view is that the brute/institutional distinction might be of some use, but only if we drop the identification of brute facts with physical ones. Anscombe did just that – for her, what is “brute” is simply defined in relation to that which is not – i.e. “He has potatoes” is brute relative to “He supplied me with potatoes” – so in her view a social fact may itself be brute relative to another social fact. Indeed, I think this is the case not just with social facts but with social things, and with Wittgenstein, I would say that many of the things we have been talking about are “social all the way down,” and I mean that ontologically. People may object to this as being mysterian or involving“ queer metaphysics,” but those who do are simply conflating the Manifest and Scientific images. In the Manifest Image, things like persons and points of view – and thus, intentionality – are ontologically basic, and social reality only exists within it. The Manifest Image is neither reducible to the Scientific Image, nor eliminable in favor of it, and I would argue that with respect to our ordinary, lived lives, it is primary.  

So yes, all sorts of things exist, strictly speaking, that are not physical, but rather social and cultural, and this doesn’t involve any Platonic or Cartesian entities, but only the most common, ordinary things in the world. [1]


[1] For a deeper dive into my views on ontology and the way it intersects with the Sellarsian framework of “Manifest” and “Scientific” Images, see my “Prolegomena to a Pluralist Metaphysics.”