Philosophy & Ideas

The Components of the Real World

Sketch for a Systematic Metaphysics
by D.M. Armstrong
Oxford University Press, 2012, 123 pages, $22.95

For two generations David Armstrong has been regarded around the world as the characteristically Australian philosopher. In his persona he is seen as very self-consciously Australian and in his philosophy he seems to exemplify an approach to the subject that is tough-minded and forthrightly honest, virtues to which Australians like to lay claim. The key feature of his thinking is a very emphatic realism about both the world of ordinary experience and the world that we know from the physical sciences. If he is sceptical about the existence of the supernatural, it is for lack of evidence. In conversation he once said, “Give me one really good miracle and I’ll be on my knees in a flash.”

Armstrong came to prominence through his revolutionary book A Materialist Theory of the Mind (1968). The theory he elaborated was not wholly original, but he was the first to work it out in detail. It was very influential in Australia, but initially dismissed overseas as “the Australian heresy”. Within a generation it came to be acknowledged wherever analytic philosophy held sway as the “default position” in philosophy of mind. It was the view that one had to deal with if, as most still did, one wanted to put forward a different view.

Mind and matter clearly have different characteristics. So it seemed obvious that they cannot be the same stuff. Behaviourists attempted to avoid dualism by claiming that talk about minds was just talk about observable behaviour patterns that in no way imply that behind them there are causes that need to be understood. Mental behaviour patterns are just different from physical behaviour, and that’s all there is to it. Oxford philosophers in particular seemed to assume that philosophy was just a matter of analysing different ways of talking about the world, not how the world really is. Armstrong would not accept that. If what we are saying is true, that must be because it corresponds to something in reality that isn’t just talk.

An older position, adopted by Bertrand Russell, was that underlying mind and matter was a neutral stuff that could be described from either point of view. But that seemed an evasion that raised unanswerable questions about the nature of this underlying stuff. So Armstrong bit the bullet and said there is only one sort of stuff, matter, and in so far as it is something that is real, in the sense of having effects in the real world, any mind is in fact just a particular configuration of physical causes. Mind is a supervenient entity, something that arises not out of matter as such, but out of appropriately structured organisms functioning in a particular environment. A rough analogy is heat. The laws of thermodynamics and the distinctive properties of heat are not due to some caloric stuff, but to the interactions of the molecules of which the hot stuff consists. That does not mean that heat is an illusion or that it has no effects. The individual molecules are not hot, but heat has its effects through the way they interact with each other and with the environment.

We do not at present have any precise explanation of the mental activities of people in terms of their physical components in the way we can explain what a computer can do because its operating structure incorporates certain logical operations. The claim that our thinking is so explicable remains just a projection from the success of the physical sciences in explaining so many other supervenient properties. All the philosopher can do is show that the objections to this belief are not as strong as they seem at first sight. That led to increasingly specialised discussions involving problems of meaning and truth, philosophy of science, logic and so on. Armstrong, always a big-picture person, turned his attention towards justifying his basic realistic stance by developing a metaphysics, the branch of philosophy variously described as the theory of being as such or of what is true in all possible worlds, or what is necessarily true, not just as a matter of contingent fact.

Metaphysics was out of fashion in the latter part of the twentieth century, even among professional philosophers. Some had joined the sceptics and a lot of non-philosophers, especially people familiar with science, in using “metaphysics” as a term of abuse. Armstrong argued that we do know quite a lot. We can frame a lot of true sentences that have clear meanings. If a sentence is true, that implies there is a state of affairs that makes what it says true, quite independently of whether we think it is true or know how to prove that it is true. A true sentence must have a truthmaker that is quite independent, not just of what any particular person thinks, but even of what everybody happens to think. It is perfectly possible, at least in some particular instances, for everybody to be wrong. That is the very meaning of truth. But that is where a lot of philosophers part company.

Many, loosely called pragmatists, reject the “correspondence” theory of truth. In most cases we cannot check a sentence against a state of affairs directly, in the way we might go up in a helicopter and check a street map against the view from above. We have to rely on inferences from other true sentences. In every case when a sentence is claimed to be true that means that it would survive the most rigorous examination. Moreover, these philosophers continue, except perhaps in the most trivial instances, that sort of checking does not lead us to some indubitable sentences on which that examination can be based. All our substantial knowledge in the sciences and in everyday life depends on converging probabilities. Deducing the structure of reality from the structure of our language is like inspecting closely a television screen and concluding that whatever it represents is composed of bits like pixels.

In any case, the concept of a truthmaker is full of difficulties. It looks simple enough in cases like: “The cat is on the mat”, but what about: “If Mary were home she would have answered the phone”? There is nothing one would call a “state of affairs” corresponding to that assertion. It goes way beyond any particular fact about some particular state of affairs. Even some pretty simple negative sentences such as “Mary is not at home” do not seem to have a single truthmaker. Mary might be anywhere. There is an indefinitely large number of states of affairs that might “correspond” to Mary’s not being at home. So a great deal of the task that faces the believer in truthmakers is to answer these difficulties. Armstrong set out to deal with them systematically in a long series of books and articles stretching over thirty years. The result is theory of the types of components that have to exist to constitute (not cause) the real world. In the light of the spectacular theoretical and practical success of modern physics it is difficult to deny that there are, for example, universals, real factors that are strictly identical in every instance, not just things we find it useful to lump together.

Even if one denies Armstrong his basic premise, it is a massive achievement that has helped stir up a new interest in metaphysics in some unexpected quarters. The present book is the last in the series, summing it up in fluent, relaxed and accessible prose. A masterly performance.

But what is the point? At least this. Grappling with questions that lie at the limits of our understanding, questions about what is possible or impossible, inevitably leads us to conceive of new possibilities, and being prepared to envisage them is the key to discovery in every field of inquiry. We can stretch our minds in two opposed ways, each of which is both important and dangerous. In the arts we can explore ways of taking forms of expression far beyond their accustomed uses to create imaginatively new forms of expression. Some philosophical enterprises are like that. Taking the opposite direction we can insist on tighter and tighter standards of precision and rigorous proof. That has been one strand of our philosophical tradition going back to the Greeks. It can land you in desert landscapes where there is not much to eat or drink. But even deserts have their attractions and their place in the cultural ecosystem. Deserts are home to many surprising forms of life.

John Burnheim’s autobiography, To Reason Why: From Religion to Philosophy and Beyond, was recently published by Darlington Press.

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