Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ontological status of events

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Ontological status of events
Date: 15th December 2009 13:31

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 7 December, with your essay for the University of London Metaphysics module, in response to the question, ''A stone is a particular, but a stone's falling is not.' Discuss.'

I am impressed by the research that you have done for this essay. One worry, which I may have expressed before, is that it might prove difficult to reproduce all this in an examination. However, I have another concern, which is that an examiner may feel that you haven't really tackled the question head-on.

If I was answering this question, I would start off explaining what it is for something to be a 'particular'. Is a particular anything you can refer to with a proper name or descriptive phrase? Or (given your example of 'the average Australian') do we first need to distinguish cases of 'genuine' reference from those which are to be analysed in such a way as to remove the implication that the item in question is a 'particular?' (in other words, distinguish apparent and real logical form).

Is a particular necessarily linked to spatio-temporal location? Are particulars located? That doesn't seem to be necessarily true: consider Frege's claim that numbers are 'objects' -- i.e. abstract particulars. Or maybe this should be put to one side for the purposes of this question: i.e. define 'particular' as 'concrete particular'.

A concrete particular is an 'entity with an identity': as a matter of logic, we must have some conception of what it is to refer to the same particular on different occasions. Particulars can be distinguished by spatial and/ or temporal location.

You consider three challenges to the view that events are particulars: the recurrence challenge, the grounding challenge and the individuation challenge. This is a good way to start. However, much of your essay is concerned with specific positive responses to the third challenge. As a consequence, all the theories you give appear to be accounts of events as different kinds of particular. What would a theory which entirely rejected the notion that events are particulars look like?

Why isn't it indeed ontologically more 'parsimonious' to reject particularhood for events? Suppose that the world is 'all that is the case', and what is the case is objects (let's say, Strawson's individuals) having different properties at different times. Causal statements are to be analysed as concerning propositions. 'That Jeeves ironed the newspaper with a red hot iron at 8.30 brought it about that the newspaper was burned to a cinder at 8.35.'

Davidson considers and rejects this kind of analysis: it would surely be relevant to the essay question to say why.

What you focus on instead is the different ontological status of spatio-temporal particulars and events, both conceived of particulars, and here I am fully in agreement that 'ontological conceptualism... may be more suitable for events' than for material objects.

The identification of events clearly depends on our explanatory interests in a way that the identification of spatio-temporal objects does not. In addition, events are theory dependent in a way that ordinary spatio-temporal objects are not. These are of course different points: if the theory is refuted then the event and its 'causal relations' don't exist and never did. (That is also true of theoretical entities such as quarks.) On the other hand, our explanatory interests can lead us to identify all sorts of events which (assuming that we do not go so far as to make false claims, i.e. put forward false theories) can nevertheless seem like more or less arbitrary cuts in the flow of experience.

If we ARE going to go the ontological conceptualist route, then Davidson's account looks to me the most satisfactory. Causal relations are not objective parts of the fabric of space-time but merely the distillate of our explanatory schemas, whatever these may be -- historical, physical, even spiritual. The event of LW 'being saved' was caused by LW's reading of Tolstoy's book 'My Religion'.

You consider a potential objection to Davidson's account, about which comes first, the causal relation or the events. In response, you offer two strategies: 'Suppose that entities other than events could be causes or effects' (i.e. human agents) and 'suppose the universe began with a set number of uncaused events'. The first strategy can be modified, however, in recognizing that it is because of our interests as agents that we have a notion of a 'cause', through our capacity to intervene in the course of nature. Any point in the 'flow' where you can, as it were, throw -- or imagine throwing -- a spanner in, is a 'cause'.

There is another consideration which you haven't mentioned, which is that the identification of causes and events is holistic. We apply a schema which simultaneously determines a way of identifying events and causes, based on some theory. If causes and events were thought of as being 'out there' in the same manner as spatio-temporal objects, this would be problematic. But as we are merely working with a conceptual/ explanatory framework whose suitability is ultimately determined by pragmatic criteria, there is no worry on that score.

All the best,

Geoffrey