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T. Parent

Hi Marcus,
Thanks for the post, and the rec for the Chalmers paper. (I hadn't read that one, and I enjoyed it very much.) This is a topic I care deeply about, so I'm glad to have an opportunity to chat with you about it.

My principle response is that your remarks seem to concern two different topics. One is the merely verbal disputes that occur in metaphysics. The other is the nature of metaphysics, generally speaking. More precisely, the second topic is whether metaphysicians are investigating the world, or just the concepts they use to represent the world.

It seems these two can come apart. Indeed, most everyone will agree that some disputes in metaphysics are merely verbal. E.g., the Humean compatibilist may be just using 'free will' in a different sense than the libertarian. Nonetheless, even if the dispute is merely verbal, this would leave open whether these metaphysicians are really investigating a concept or the world. Thus, even if the dispute is merely verbal, one could still say that they really are inquiring into worldly phenomena. It's just that they are concerned with different worldly phenomena (perhaps without realizing it). Indeed, the different worldly concerns is what might explain the differences in their use of 'free will'. But despite being aimed at the world, the dispute might remain purely verbal. For the dispute may well evaporate once they realize that they use 'free will' to pick out different worldly phenomena.
Anyway, my two cents for what it's worth.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Ted: I'm glad you enjoyed the post, as well as the Chalmers paper -- and I'm glad to have the opportunity to discuss it with you, too.

I agree with you that I'm discussing two issues -- but I wonder just how distinct they are (i.e. how much they can come apart). Here's a thought: a dispute is "merely verbal" iff it doesn't carve nature at its joints.

Consider the case I discuss: causation. On the analysis I gave, counterfactual theories of causation are merely accounts of what we *call* "causes". Although they concern features of the world -- namely, counterfactual dependencies within it -- they are merely verbal in that they merely classify the things in the world we call "causes" without providing any metaphysical account of whether/how those things actually carve nature at the joints. In contrast, necessitarian and Humean theories are not merely verbal because they can both make a genuine claim to doing the latter (carve nature at its joints).

The same is true, I want to say, of free will. The compatibilist account is merely verbal because compatibilism merely classifies the things we call "free will" in ordinary life -- without giving anything resembling a compelling account of how our practice of calling such things "free" or "not free" carves nature at its joints...whereas deeper *metaphysical* theories of free will do.

In other words, I kind of want to say: a theory or dispute is merely verbal just in case the theory/dispute concerns how we use a given term (e.g. "causation", "free will", etc.) without providing any deep theory of whether/how the given use of the term actually carves nature at its joints. I may be wrong about this, but if this is correct, it collapses the two issues into one, no?

Jonathan Livengood

First, a small complaint. In Billy and Suzy cases of pre-emption, you need to decide whether the events are coarse-grained or fine-grained. If events are fine-grained, then there is no problem in pre-emption cases, you just index the events by time. (If the first rock had not been thrown, the event of the window breaking at the time it did would not have occurred. Rather, the window would have broken at some later time.) If events are coarse-grained, then it is not the case that the breaking counterfactually depends on both throws. Rather, the breaking counterfactually depends on neither throw. (And that's the usual treatment of the case.)

Second, a question: What exactly are you asking for when you ask for an account that carves nature at the joints? It is of course a familiar and evocative phrase, but what is the demand here?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jonathan: Thanks for your comment. Here are some thoughts in reply to both of your main points. First, thanks for clearing up the preemption stuff. I wasn't meaning to suggest that counterfactual theorists don't have any good answers to preemption cases (as I understand it they've now moved on to overdetermination issues); I was just trying to use the case to illustrate.

As to your (very good, and difficult) second question, I’ve been toiling with different answers to it on and off all day. For a while, I didn’t think I could come up with a good answer. However, now I think I may have the beginnings of a good one. Although I can't pretend to give anything like an iron-clad account of "nature-carving", allow me to offer up a first-gloss analysis for discussion. If it’s completely off, I’ll be happy to see why it is – and, in any case, I’m happy that you asked the question. It has, at the very least, helped me to clarify my own thinking.

I’d like to begin with an observation on how counterfactual theories of causation are constructed. Let’s look at the world. There are, obviously, countless types of counterfactual dependencies in the world. So, let’s say there are type-A dependencies, type-B dependencies, type-C dependencies, and so on. Next, let’s suppose some counterfactual theory successfully picked out the specific type of dependency – say, type-C dependencies – as corresponding with our concept of a cause (such that all and only type-C dependencies are the type of thing that we judge to be “causes”).

Now let’s think about how this theory was constructed. There *are* a number of dependencies in the world. The counterfactual theorist then asked, “What type of counterfactual dependencies answer to our concept of a “cause”?” See what’s going on here? The counterfactual theorist *begins* with our concept of a “cause” and then simply aims to describe the things in the world out there that answer to it. The counterfactual theorist cannot point at anything in the world to *explain* why we should have conceptualized the world that way. They cannot point to anything objectively *special* about type-C dependencies to explain why should have conceptualized them as “causes” (for – absent something additional, such as necessitation or regularity [see below]) there is nothing objectively special about type-C dependencies; they are “just another” type of dependency in the world among many). The order of explanation is precisely the *other* way around: counterfactual theorists regard type-C dependencies as special *because* they correspond to our concept of a “cause.”

This is why I don’t think counterfactual theories can make a claim to carving the world at its joints. They take our *concept* of a cause – *our* way of carving the world -- as-is and ask which sorts of things in the world correspond to that way of carving it. The only answer they can give to the question, “Why do C-type dependencies count as “causes”” is a convention-based, instrumental one. Their only answer is: “Because type-C dependencies *answer to our concept*.” Let us call any theory of this structure an OUR-CARVING theory.

Now turn to regularity and necessitation theories of causation. I think they are legitimate candidates for carving the world at its joints. Why? The short answer is: because they can point at something in the world *about* C-type dependencies that makes them special. According to a regularity theory, type-C counterfactual dependencies are unique among all dependencies in the world – and indeed, unique among *all* things in the world – in virtue of possessing an additional world-based property: the property of being constantly connected with other events in specific ways. Similarly, according to a necessitation theory, type-C dependencies are unique among all such things by *necessitating* other things.

Notice what’s different here. Unlike the counterfactual theorist, who simply *begins* with our concept of a “cause” (OUR CARVING) and attempts to determine which things in the world answer OUR-CARVING, regularity and necessitarian theories look for some unique property in the world itself to *justify* carving the world that way. Call any such theory – one that seeks *whether* a given concept (e.g. “cause”) refers to any objectively unique property in the world – a WORLD-CARVING theory.

Now we have a the beginnings of an analysis. A theory is not genuinely metaphysical (an OUR-CARVING) theory just in case it begins with nothing more than our concepts and seeks to provide an account of the kinds of things in the world that answer to our concept. A theory is genuinely metaphysical (a WORLD-CARVING) theory just in case, independently of our conceptual scheme, there are truly unique properties in the world that *justify* conceptualizing the world one way over another (viz. if there really *is* a necessitating relation, there is a unique, robust property in the world that *distinguishes* the kinds of things we call “causes” from all other things). I realize I probably didn’t put this last part very well, but I have to run to watch the Super Bowl. Hopefully what I have written is at least worthy of discussion. If not, oh well. ;)

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