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Aboutness, objects, propositions

Another brain dump, continuing my ongoing effort to (a) make sense of Brian Cantwell Smith (b) be of some use to OBO Foundry, which in my opinion is in a crisis regarding information
(see IAO_0000136). Don’t take this too seriously – I’m a dilettante when it comes to philosophy. Take this as a homework exercise for someone who’s trying to figure it out. Please provide corrections. [edited 2014-07-04 to change ‘OBO’ to ‘OBO Foundry’]

Alan Ruttenberg once gave me the following definition of ‘about’: a sentence (or other utterance) X is about an object Y iff a [syntactic] part of X refers to Y.

At a gut level I don’t like this at all, but the following is the best alternative I’ve come with:

A proposition X is about an object Y if the truth of X depends on the state of Y.

This seems better because it is semantic instead of syntactic. It doesn’t depend on how the proposition is expressed / coded, or on any understanding of reference, which is almost as mysterious as aboutness.

My alternative relies on an understanding of ‘depends on’. To nail this you have to rule out any changes to the truth of X caused by factors other than changes to the state of Y. [Added: That’s badly said, what I mean is that to prove the change to Y is responsible for the change in the truth of X, one would want to come up with a situation where there’s nothing else to attribute it to. See next sentence.] That would lead to the following: The truth of X depends on the state of Y, if there are two possible world states w1 and w2 such that w1 and w2 differ only in the state of Y, but in which X has opposite truth values.

The above is independent of your choice of modal logic and world states, which could just be temporal (BFO is effectively a temporal theory).

(Maybe there are other ways than this to depend, but I don’t want to get distracted by causation.)

Both definitions of ‘about’ depend on ‘object’ (which I take to be akin to BFO ‘continuant’). I take an object to be a part of the world, so a state of an object is part of a state of the world, and the state space of the world (the space of possible world states) is some kind of product of the object’s state space and the state space of states of everything that’s not that object.

And all this relies on some understanding of the integrity or identity or continuity of an object, such that if you pick out an object in world state w1 and then try to pick out the same object in world state w2, you’ll have some way to decide whether you’ve done so correctly.

I have been reluctant to grant legitimacy to ‘objects’ (or ‘continuants’) – I’ve been wondering whether they are primarily syntactic or logical or social constructs, as opposed to something with some objective clout. Maybe the question here is: if you have two candidate identity criteria for an object that coincide in some world states but not in others, is there some principled way to choose between them? Maybe: the parts of an object are more closely coupled to one another, both spatially and temporally, than they are to parts of things that aren’t that object. This is a bit mushy but seems to have potential.

In this formulation entities (such as mathematical ones) aren’t objects unless they can be said to have variable state. Does the state of the number 7 change through time? Is 7 an object? Hard to say, but I think it would be a pretty unnatural world view that would say it does / is. (But you can have a book about the number pi… hmm… maybe this particular ‘about’ is a term of art.)

There is also the question of what a proposition is, but I don’t see that as hard; a proposition is a 0-ary predicate, which in nonmodal logic is true or false depending on your choice of model / interpretation, and in modal logic is true or false depending on which world state you’re in. I.e. a proposition is a predicate over, or set of, world states, like an ‘event’ in probability theory.

How propositions fit into BFO, I’m not sure. In some ways they resemble universals, while in others they resemble particulars (maybe they’re so-called ‘qualities’ of the world).

[Added: I admit the above account only handles particular kinds of propositions. To be complete I ought to provide ‘aboutness’ accounts of propositions about the past and future, whose truth doesn’t vary over time; and of universal and conditional propositions, such as “where there’s smoke there’s fire”.]

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2014-04-02 at 12:23

    Can you explain the relationship of propositions, as you articulate them here, to fiction? A first assessment is that truth of propositions in fiction isn’t really something one would expect. Yet despite this there is reference to types and entities that are actual. How does that work?

    • 2014-04-02 at 17:34

      I didn’t say that a phrase has to be part of a meaningful sentence in order to be able to refer. I don’t know whether I’d say that or not. I don’t have an explanation for reference yet (working on it). Not having an explanation for reference is one reason I want aboutness to be explained independent of reference.

      Talking off the top of my head… as usual… I’d say that there has to be some way, in principle, to confirm any true proposition. (‘In principle’ because perhaps you would need a time machine, or special measurement apparatus that you don’t actually have.) Truth is going to come out of some deductive system (not necessarily a formal one) starting from ground truth (axioms, or propositions you’re not going to argue about). You’d expect axioms to come from sensory input and speech acts (like baptisms and promises), but in fiction and mathematics they have other sources. Is it true (a true proposition) that the reals are uncountable? Yes, based on axioms that most mathematicians conventionally accept, and you can confirm it based on those axioms. If the axioms were different, it wouldn’t be. As for fiction, that Ike and Nina had an affair is a true proposition in the short story, and you can confirm it by reading the story. It is the same proposition in non-fiction, but not true. Most people would take the proposition that Harry went to Hogwarts to be true because the premises on which is rests (and which allow the names to refer) don’t interfere much with our thinking about reality. When pressed to be more scientific, the axiom set shifts and we say it’s not true, that it is in fact meaningless because ‘Hogwarts’ is nonreferring, and the sentence can’t be interpreted as a proposition at all.

      Mathematics and fiction get us into possible world semantics, which I know BFO is allergic to. But aboutness is certainly easier if you allow yourself to speak in counterfactuals. Is X about Y? Yes, if Y being different from what it is could, in the right circumstances, by itself, invert the truth of X. When I translate possible-world ideas back into BFO I just restrict the set of possible world states under consideration to those that are either past, present, or future states of the world, and put mathematics and fiction out of consideration.

      (I think I’ve told you which philosophy of truth I like; it’s Horwich’s. It’s what liberates me to use the word ‘true’ without explanation.)

  2. Alan Ruttenberg
    2014-07-04 at 05:15

    Passing by again, I note that not all utterances are even candidates for being true or false. An example is the imperative.: “Beat eggs until fluffy”, part of a recipe, isn’t true or false, and isn’t fiction. But it is about (sensu IAO) (at least) eggs (the type) and fluffiness (the type).

  3. 2014-07-04 at 20:39

    I think it’s loose talk to say that utterances are about anything. A proposition can be about something, and an utterance can be interpreted by someone or something to be a proposition. To relate events such as utterances to aboutness has to do with correlations between what’s said and what’s true, in particular contexts, not any inherent property of the event.

    There are indeed imperatives that cannot be carried out. This is a failure of a communication, a pathology similar to errors, lying, and betrayal, that needs to be analyzed separately from the ordinary cases of sentences interpreted correctly as true propositions, and question-utterances interpreted as demands for propositions (answers).

    I’ve been meaning to blog about Yablo’s book, which is very exciting, and compatible with my view. Just haven’t gotten around to it.

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