Metaphysics and Supervenience
Armstrong (David)
Source: Crítica: Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Vol. 14, No. 42 (Dec., 1982)
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. An argued metaphysics should, I suppose, start with an epistemological base: something which pretty certainly exists. So much tribute would I pay Descartes. But, of course, I do not want a logically indubitable epistemological base. There are no such bases and, even if there were, too little would be logically indubitable to make such a base a suitable starting point.
  2. The epistemological base which I favour is that unitary object: the world of space and time. It is not indubitable that such a world exists. Even to describe it as the world of space and time is to introduce a certain amount of scientific theorizing. But it does seem that, given our epistemological situation now, in the twentieth century, this is something which we know to exist. At the very least, to believe that there is such a world is a preeminently rational belief. I will call the view that this world exists the Weak Naturalist view.
  3. My further hypothesis is that, not only is there a world of space and time, but that it is all that there is. I will call this the Strong Naturalist view, or, more simply, Naturalism. Strong Naturalism, of course, is not part of my favoured epistemological base.
  4. There are plenty of non-philosophers who accept Weak Naturalism, but who do not accept the Strong view. They do so because they believe in the existence of the soul and/or God. They are joined in this position, of course, by a number of philosophers. But in this paper I will not be concerned to argue against such views1.
  5. Among philosophers who accept Weak Naturalism, however, it is quite common to find the Strong Naturalist view rejected, but not for the reasons which non-philosophers would give. Indeed, there are philosophers who regard doctrines of Cartesian souls and of a transcendent Deity as regrettable manifestations of tender-mindedness, who would be equally impatient with the rejection of Weak Naturalism, yet who reject Strong Naturalism. They do so because they think that metaphysics must find place for possibilities and/or classes and/or numbers and/or universals2 and/or objects of thought. They think, furthermore, that no place can be found for some or all of these entities in the world of space and time. If they are North Americans they may murder a good and useful word, and say that they believe in 'abstract' entities.
  6. It is these philosophers whom I wish to argue against.
  7. The argument which I will try to use against them may be called the Argument from Supervenience3. It runs thus. Suppose that we are given a certain base. (It might be the world of space and time). Consider then whether the existence of this base entails the existence of certain entities. (For instance, given two individuals, a and b, the existence of the class {a, b} is entailed4.) Call entailed entities the supervenient entities. It may then be argued that the supervenient entities are not any ontological addition to the base.
  8. This argument has a presupposition, of course: that if the existence of an entity entails the existence of an entity, then we do not have here wholly distinct entities. In a familiar phrase: there are no logically necessary connections between (wholly) distinct entities. The principle is in some degree controversial, and although I believe that it is true, I do not know how to show that it is true in the face of some awkward possible counter-examples. So because the principle is in some degree controversial, I will mount the argument in the cautious fashion which now follows.
  9. It is clear, I take it, that one good explanation of a necessary connection between entities is that they are not wholly distinct from each other. If in particular cases it appears that certain sorts of entity are logically supervenient upon a certain base, then it may be the most plausible explanation of this fact that the entities and the base are not wholly distinct. An inference to the best explanation can then be made with some confidence. Now it appears to me that at least in the cases which we will be dealing with, the best explanation of supervenience5 is indeed absence of distinctness.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 4: As also is the aggregate (a + b).

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