David Enoch has recently proposed that the deliberative indispensability of irreducibly normative facts suffices to support their inclusion in our ontology, even if they are not necessary for the explanation of any observable phenomena. He challenges dissenters to point to a relevant asymmetry between explanation and deliberation that shows why explanatory indispensability, but not deliberative indispensability, is a legitimate guide to ontology. In this paper, I aim to do just that. Given that an entity figures in the actual explanation of some phenomenon, it is not an open question whether that entity exists. Thus, if you can manage to find actual explanations, you can find answers to ontological questions. In contrast, even if some entity is indispensable to deliberation, it still might not exist. For example, even if some form of libertarian free will is deliberatively indispensable, we still might not have libertarian free will. So even if you manage to discover the indispensable commitments of deliberation, there is still more work to do to get to the bottom of things. That additional work is explanatory work, and so deliberative indispensability is not an independent guide to what there is.
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As I explain in Sect. 4, this discussion rests on the (legitimate) assumption of a realist treatment of explanation.
Harman’s original text and much of the ensuing literature explicitly discusses moral facts, rather than normative facts. I am modifying the scope of the challenge here to tailor my discussion to Enoch’s argument, which focuses on normative facts construed broadly, rather than moral facts in particular. Throughout my discussion, I will be shifting between talking about entities, properties, and facts. This is intended to mirror Enoch’s noncommittal attitude about how best to fill in the metaphysical details. He claims (e.g. 2011, p. 5), I think rightly, that his argument does not require taking a stance on more specific metaphysical issues.
It is important to note that I am excluding some of the details from Enoch’s argument. Among other things, his account of intrinsic and instrumental indispensability is introduced as a pragmatic vindication of basic (i.e. foundational) belief-forming methods (p. 56ff; cf. Enoch and Schechter 2008). I set this aside here because my reply to Enoch is independent of his account of basic belief-forming methods (cf. footnote 12 below).
Enoch does not offer detailed criteria for determining one’s ontological commitments. He argues (p. 75), however, that to incur these ontological commitments in deliberation, it is not necessary to form explicit beliefs about the existence of normative facts—it is enough that acceptance of them is implicit in our deliberative practices. I am in agreement with Enoch on this (but cf. Quine 1948).
See Colyvan (2001, pp. 8, 25) for discussion of the relevant background in the context of indispensability arguments in mathematics. As he points out, it is unnecessary to argue for the legitimacy of IBE in the context of arguing for the existence of numbers on the grounds of their explanatory indispensability, since the goal is only to convince scientific realists (who already accept IBE) to accept numbers. The argument challenges scientific realists to explain how they can legitimately accept things like unobservable particles on the basis of their explanatory indispensability, and yet treat (explanatorily indispensable) numbers with suspicion.
I am sympathetic to the view sometimes called “entity realism,” according to which it is only the entities appealed to in causal explanation that receive realistic treatment (Cartwright 1983; Hacking 1982; Clarke 2001; but see Massimi 2004). So, I am willing to restrict my claim so that it reads: at least in cases of causal explanations, the entities appealed to in the actual explanation of some phenomenon must exist. This is compatible with broader conceptions of the relationship between explanatory indispensability and ontology (e.g. Colyvan 2001, ch. 3).
This might include differentially weighting the various proxies in a contextually sensitive manner (Fisher 2014).
Echoing Searle, Nagel (1986, p. 114) offers a description of our sense of freedom according to which it:
presents itself initially as the belief that antecedent circumstances, including the condition of the agent, leave some of the things we will do undetermined: they are determined only by our choices, which are motivationally explicable but not themselves causally determined.
Like others, Nagel thinks that our possession of this kind of freedom is important to our sense of what we are, because when we act, we have a “sense that we are the authors of our own actions” (p. 114). This is essential to the practice of taking and distributing responsibility for our actions and viewing ourselves as rational agents more generally.
I am grateful to Jon Houston for raising this objection.
These remarks highlight some ways in which my criticism of Enoch differs from that offered by McPherson and Plunkett (2015). Although there are superficial similarities between our arguments, their criticism is directed at Enoch’s pragmatic vindication of basic methods of belief-formation. As I explained in footnote 4, I have suppressed the fact that Enoch proposes his account of intrinsic indispensability as a pragmatic vindication of treating certain methods of belief-formation as basic sources of justification. McPherson and Plunkett argue that Enoch’s proposal is unsuitable as an account of basic sources of justification, because it flouts a requirement that such an account must explain the connection between truth and basic sources of epistemic justification. In this paper, I have set aside questions about the justification of basic methods of belief-formation. As I indicate in the text, even if Enoch’s claims about intrinsically indispensable projects fail, there is still a challenge for defenders of the Explanatory Requirement who accept IBE to point to some relevant asymmetry between explanation and deliberation. That challenge still stands whether or not McPherson and Plunkett’s critique succeeds, and as I mentioned in Sect. 4, responding to that challenge has been my goal in this paper.
Since Enoch’s characterization of the Explanatory Requirement explicitly mentions justification, it might need amending in order to be workable for a normative error theorist. One way to go might involve changing it to the Explanatory Constraint: Only believe in the existence of a certain kind of fact if such facts play an indispensable role in explanations. One could then say: no one should obey this constraint, but if they do, they will increase their chances of success in the ontological project. This is not quite my preferred approach, but that’s a story for another time.
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For helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper, I am grateful to Jon Houston and an anonymous reviewer. I have also benefitted from valuable discussion with James Beebe, John Beverly, Shane Hemmer, Robert Kelly, Stephen McAndrew, Jake Monaghan, Justin Murray, Ariane Nomikos, J. Neil Otte, and audiences at the University at Buffalo.
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Cline, B. Against deliberative indispensability as an independent guide to what there is. Philos Stud 173, 3235–3254 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0661-z
- Moral explanations
- Robust realism
- David Enoch
- Deliberative indispensability
- Normative facts