Friday, October 15, 2010

Other New Work For Verisimilitude

This is a metaphysics blog, but while I am on the topic of verisimilitude I thought it might be worth mentioning two other philosophical purposes for which it might help to take verisimilitude seriously, for which to my (limited) knowledge it has not yet played a role in the literature:

1. Might verisimilitude be the norm of assertion, rather than e.g. truth? If it is, this might give us a reason to suppose that people are speaking literally when indulging in harmless idealisations, or glossing over details for a conversational purpose (at least some of the time, at any rate). Or if it is not verisimilitude, might it be something like known verisimilitude (rather than knowledge tout cour), or justified belief in verisimilitude?

2. Is verisimilitude a problem for minimalism and deflationism about truth? Suppose one thought there was not much more to “snow is white” being true than snow being white (and perhaps the sentence meaning what it does). What, then, is it for “snow is white” to be close to true? One might suggest that it is snow being close to white. But that is not the only way “snow is white” could be close to true, it seems to me. If something close to snow was white, but snow was all transparent, the claim might still be close to true, especially if the near-snow was ubiquitous. If no snow was white right now, even though it nearly always was and nearly always will be, the claim might be thought to be close to true. And of course even if “snow is close to white” captures a necessary and sufficient condition for “’snow is white’ is close to true”, there may be plenty of other examples which are not so easily captured.

The worry is that to explain being close to truth one might need to say something non-minimal about what it is to be true. One way to avoid this without playing “hunt the paraphrase” would be to introduce an operator into the object language (or claim it was there all along) so that we can say, without truth, exactly what is the case whenever a claim is close to true. E.g. the operator “kind of”

“Snow is white” is close to true iff KIND OF: snow is white.”

Of course, we might still wonder whether such an operator is understood without recourse to thinking about truth and closeness of claims to that standard.

Verisimilitude and Accommodation

As well asking whether a claim is true, we can also assess a claim by asking whether it is close to the truth. If we miss out on truth, verisimilitude seems like a good consolation prize.

There is an interesting question about the metaphysics of verisimilitude – what does the world have to be like for a claim to be close to true? This might be a matter of the similarity in relevant respects between this world and a world where it is true, for example – or maybe, while the talk of similarity is a helpful heuristic, or a metaphor with some truth in it, the sober story might need to be something else.

But in this post I do not want to talk about the metaphysics of verisimilitude so much as work that verisimilitude can do for metaphysicians.

Often metaphysical conclusions appear to go against things we normally say: there are many short-lived objects exactly where my stapler is, there are no tables and chairs, A=B yet there are features A has which B lacks, and so on. (I do not recommend saying all of these things at once.) In the terminology of Hawthorne and Michael, we can distinguish between compatibilist approaches to this apparent disagreement and incompatibilist approaches: the compatibilist holds that this conflict is only apparent, and that really what the metaphysicians says is consistent with what we normally say: maybe we normally tacitly restrict our quantifiers to ignore many things, or the metaphysicians speaks tenselessly and the folk normally speak in a tensed language, or the language of the ontology room is sufficiently different from the language of the street that “there are no tables and chairs in this room” in the ontologist’s mouth is consistent with what is expressed by “there are tables and chairs in this room” in a normal speaker’s mouth, even when the ontologist and the normal person are in the same room (I take it this last is e.g. van Inwagen’s view).

Dan Korman has been arguing in a number of places that these compatibilist strategies are usually inadequate (See for example here). On the other hand, incompatibilists seem to face a number of challenges, including saying what is good about many of the claims the folk take to be true but which are false according to the incompatibilist. (Maybe “there is a table in this room” is somehow wrong, but it’s not wrong in the way “there’s a hippopotamus in this room” would usually be.)

It seems to me that a metaphysician who claims that what ordinary claims say is very close to the truth in the usual cases has some of the advantages of both camps. She can (pretty much) agree with the ordinary claims, like the compatibalist, without hunting for a paraphrase or exotic semantic hypothesis. She can allow that the claims are strictly speaking false while having something a lot like truth, epistemically and otherwise, to attribute to the claims – they are close to the truth. That’s a pretty good status to have, one that is epistemically worth aiming for, one which we might think the demands of interpretive charity would be satisfied by, and so on. I’m not sure which side of the compatibilist/incompatibilist line we should put the verisimilitude option – Korman thinks it is a version of incompatibilism (at least he did when I asked him) – but whichever side of the line it falls on, it seems to me pretty close to the dividing line.

Compatibilists and Incompatibilists also can take a stand on what non-metaphysicians believe – to what extent is ordinary opinion consistent with their views, as opposed to what we ordinarily say? Here there is also a verisimilitude option – ordinary opinion is close to correct, or close to correct as far as it goes. There might be reasons for these to come apart – one may wish to think that people’s beliefs are often a little less committed than what they say, for example, in which case one might be tempted to think what is said is only close to true while what is believed might be entirely compatible with the truth. Though, as usual, it is often simplest to treat talk and thought together, and mark them both down as close to true.

The issue of what to say about ordinary beliefs, or orthodox theories, when one is a philosopher arises well outside the parts of metaphysics about which ordinary people might be thought to have views, of course. Metaethics is familiar with a variety of error theories, for example, and nearly every part of philosophy faces the challenge of saying what is good about some claim or intuition that is apparently rejected by a theory. Allowing that claims are close to true might provide a “comfortable” rather than radical kind of error theory about moral value, some intuitions about knowledge, or whatever else. (One application that has arisen around here at the moment is a way to sugar the pill of Alan Hajek’s thesis that most counterfactuals are false. If many of the false but apparently acceptable ones are close to true, while many of the false but unacceptable ones are not, that might help explain why we prefer the acceptable ones to the unacceptable ones.)

Of course, using verisimilitude to do philosophical work elsewhere does suggest that we should hope to clear up some of the philosophical puzzles about verisimilitude and how exactly it works. But a philosophical concept can be fruitfully used before all the puzzles with it are cleared up (see: every other philosophical concept which can be fruitfully used).