I received a thoughtful comment on a recent post that I would like to share:
"I'm afraid that you have misunderstood the nature of the "location problem". It's not about physical location. What is meant is in what domain of our ontology (our account of all the things that exist) does value reside. If you are a physicalist, then your ontology only has one domain; that of physical objects. If you are a non-naturalist, then your ontology has room for non-physical things (like consciousness (assuming a non-reductionist account of consciousness of course))
If you take an expressionist view of value then value only exists in the valuations which people actually make. (this does not solve the location problem in itself because the conscious states which constitute valuations may be not reducible to physical phenomena)
If on the other hand you are a moral "realist" then value can exist whether there is anyone doing any valuing or not.
When "naturalists" talk about "locating value" they are talking about being able to say that value can be described entirely in physical terms. Not ab finding the physical place in the world where that value is."
I think the commentator is on the mark about my critique of the essay on moral realism. The essay on moral realism was an attempt at providing an answer to the question of the ontological location of value. My post did not critique the answer to that question. I did not say the answer was wrong, for example.
But I think my commentator misinterpreted my critique, which was not addressed at the answer at all, but rather questioned the formulation of the question itself. That is to say, I am not claiming the witness is lying or mistaken, I am objecting to the form of the question posed to the witness.
What do I mean? To ask the location of something is a perfectly good question in the English language. I can ask for the location of my glasses, for example. I can formalize the question into the form "Where is X located?" where "X" stands for a noun.
Now let's stipulate to some values of "X" shall we?
In English, I can ask the question: "Where is the YMCA located?"
There are certain established means of answering this question. To find the Y, I might ask a pedestrian for directions, I might look it up on a map, or search the internet. That is to say, in learning to speak English, I not only learn this phrase, but I learn certain techniques that go along with the phrase. Likewise, when I "get directions" or I look something up on a map, I know what to do with those directions, I know how to interpret them so that I can find the YMCA.
It is important to note that the question "Where are my keys located?" is grammatically similar, but the techniques that I have learned for finding my keys are radically different. I know not to ask a pedestrian for directions to my keys. I'm not going to look up the location of my keys on a map. The techniques in this context are radically different, even though the forms of expression of the question are virtually identical. That is to say, the surface grammar of the two questions masks the depth grammar underlying the two questions (two very different clusters of techniques). Now clearly, there are some techniques for finding my keys. I can try to "remember" where I last put them down (and this is an interesting and confusing thing for philosophers to do), I can ask my wife if she remembers where I last put them down. I can randomly search familiar places. But just as I don't ask a pedestrian for the location of my keys, I generally don't just randomly start wandering about town looking for the YMCA.
Changing it up, I can ask the question: "Where is the government located?"
This question has the same surface grammar as the question about the YMCA. But note that the question has several different meanings--that is to say, there are several different correct answers to this question depending on the context. In a certain context, I might say "Albany" or "Washington D.C.". In another context, I might point to a building and say "In there." In a courtroom, I might point to a specific table. In another context, I might say "In the hearts of the people" and philosophers might quibble whether this were a metaphor or a literal statement, but it would be the only sort of answer possible. In another context, I might say "in the Constitution" or even "in the vision of the Framer's."
I raise this example to point out that the question "Where is the government located?" is, on its own, completely meaningless. It clearly has a meaning when we specify a particular context, but without that context, it really asks nothing. The same could be pointed out about our other two location problems, but this aspect was hidden, for purely accidental reasons. The "YMCA" is usually used to name a building, and most cities that have a building named the "YMCA" have only one such building. We can thus imagine a single context in connection with the expression. Likewise, most people have only one set of keys, and even if they have multiple sets, they don't usually mislay all their keys at once. "My keys" generally has a unique reference, and so we can imagine a single context here.
In comparison, the question about the location "the government" can sometimes elicit the name a of city, it can sometimes elicit the location of an activity, it can sometimes provide the location where certain people operating in accordance with a certain function may be found, or it can "name something intangible." This last process is important to examine, because part of our problems stem from this construction. Names name something tangible. To say something names something intangible really means that it names nothing at all. We don't expect to find the government through dissection of the hearts of its people, nor is it the literal "glue" that holds our constitution together. Our word "name" suggests a picture of "how it ought to be"-- a "name" should have bearer--so the name gets a bearer whether or not one can be found, e.g. the name will name an intangible thing. The superficial forms of our language are given a unitary grammatical structure, even though in the depths of our usage, its clear that no such unity exists. At the same time, these "names of intangible things" are concepts in our language that are not meaningless, it is not that these concepts should be eliminated from our language, it is simply that the grammatical picture suggested by "naming" tricks us into misunderstanding these expressions. (We do not need an "ontology", we need clarity about the deep grammar of these types of expressions.)
Our surface grammar suggests a certain picture, that the meaning of the location of the government (when we are asking about the location of something intangible) is similar to asking for the location of a key. But the depth grammar shows that it has nothing in common. We are talking about the names of things that cannot be named. Does this mean that it is nonsense to say "The government is located in the hearts of the people"? Obviously not, the assertion has a perfectly good use in the English language. Further, the assertion is a literal assertion, it cannot be broken down into an analogy, the way we could break down "The Capital City is located in the hearts of the people." The second expression can be changed into a simile, "The Capital City is like the location of the hearts of the people." The simile then becomes "The capital city is located in the country like the government is located in the hearts of its people." It is also important to point out that when we assert that "the government is located in the hearts of the people" we could put our hand over our heart in a gesture (and there would likely be a characteristic expression on our face and in the way we carried our frame, also). In fact, the physical gesture could be substituted for the verbal expression. This is to say, in certain contexts, it has the same meaning as the expression.
It is also true to say that in some contexts, our location problem can be solved by the gesture of pointing, and that the gesture of pointing might substitute for the verbal response. For example, showing where the activity of government occurs. We can also imagine the verbal answer is eliminated from English. In this case, we could clearly distinguish between the figurative answer (patriotically placing our hands over our hearts) and the indexical answer (pointing to a building or an area in the building). The illusory unity created by the form of our expression has now disappeared, and the responses no longer suggest that we are talking about the "same thing." Further, we can see whatever "domain" our "ontology" ascribed to "government", it would be nonsense, as the concept of "government" is used to refer to several kinds of things, and sometimes it is used to refer to nothing at all (but what we say is meaningful and important).
To move on to another set of location problems, we can examine the question "What is the location of the motion?" It is important to note that this question, like the one about the government, is meaningless without a context. If we are deer hunting, in the forest, it is associated with one set of techniques (and answers). If we are learning African dance, it has another meaning (another technique). If we are conducting polling for a political campaign, it has another meaning, another set of techniques. If we are repairing a broken mechanism on a car, it has another meaning, another set of techniques. If we are conducting a physics experiment, we find other meanings, other techniques. Last, we can consider the use of this question in the context of a therapy session. The surface grammar is identical, but the depth grammar is incredibly complex.
I hope I have succeeded at making my point here. Location questions have a superficially similar surface grammar that masks an incredibly complex depth grammar, even in very mundane contexts. A location question asked outside of a specific linguistic context is meaningless. The surface grammar of a location question forces a kind of picture on us, even if the depth grammar suggests that the picture is actually meaningless (names an intangible).
Let's attempt to apply this analysis to the "location problem" of values. To talk about the "location" of something is to suggest a metaphor between that something and a physical object. To talk about a kind of "domain" is to suggest a metaphor with a physical realm. Now, we could consider a number of actual contexts in which we talk about domain, akin to asking about a location, but I will leave this to the reader.
Let us consider the "domain" of "ontology." According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "[a]s a first approximation, ontology is the study of what there is." This definition is interesting, because it suggests that ontology is empirical, e.g. we are going to study the empirical world and discover our ontology. However, any empirical description of philosophers will reveal that ontology is generally anything but empirical. My commentator defines "ontology" as "our account of all the things that exist." This also suggests that ontology will turn out to be something like an encyclopedia (empirical), or perhaps a typology of our encyclopedia, a sort of Dewey decimal system for beings.
Herein lies the point of disagreement between myself, the author of the essay I critiqued, and my commentator. It is fundamentally ontological in nature. There is what we say, and what we can empirically observe. Scientific inquiries concern themselves with what we can empirically observe. Philosophical investigations concern themselves with what we say, particularly what we are inclined to say regardless of the facts. That is to say, philosophy concerns itself with understanding the conventions of our ordinary language. Philosophy is an investigation into meaning, science is an investigation into truth. Philosophy deals with concepts, science deals with the empirical observation of things.
Thus, "ontology" may be understood as the symptom of a condition that results from the false conflation of scientific inquiry and philosophical inquiry. We sometimes develop physical ailments, and we sometimes develop metaphysical ailments, but the first is the result of disorder in the body, the second is the result of conceptual confusion. Language is a labyrinth that deceives us, and we become lost in the forms of our language.
We have a noun in English, "existence," and we have a verb "to exist." There are certain preexisting grammatical conventions that govern our usage of these words. For example, we sometimes say houses exist, people exist, deities exist, numbers exist, possibilities exist, nations exist, languages exist, corporations exist, money exists, and we even say values exist. Why do we need to overlay our ordinary conventions with an "account" of "all the things that exist" when a description of our conventions would suffice? How could our "account" have any more authority than our conventions here? Further, if we make up an "account" that departs from our conventions, it does not, in fact, change that which is truly independent of our language. All an "ontology" does is to arbitrarily propose to change our use of ordinary language, and it does so on the basis of what authority, reason? But reason is simply another concept with a use in our language, and there can be no hierarchy in what we are inclined to say (the hierarchy is manifest in what we are inclined to do). [The entries in a dictionary have no importance until we turn to the dictionary to look something up.] What we need here is clarity about what we say, we need to see the surface grammar and the depth grammar, and we need to see how the surface grammar can mislead us, send us down the wrong path toward the ontological minotaur.
An "ontology" is not a domain, it is a proposed change to our ordinary use of our verb "to exist" (or sometimes "to be.") To "locate" value is to propose a connection between the concept of value, and some other set of concepts. But note, the concept of "location" is something that is incredibly rich and complex, we have only touched on a fraction of the complexity of the concept. Further, to talk about the location of something outside of a specific context is meaningless. "What is the location of a physical thing?" is not a question, but the form of a question. If we specify the type of thing and the context in which the question is asked, we can talk about an answer, we can talk about a meaning and we can do something with the question. But without a specific type of thing, and without a specific context, the question is meaningless.
The assertion "Physical things exist" is not an assertion, but a pseudo-assertion. This is not to say that I cannot refer to (or even point to) something we agree is called a physical thing. Further, our concept of a "physical thing" would not be coherent if I could not point to something I call a physical thing. Perhaps I want to say "But something exists that I call a physical thing." But note that "something" here has no reference. I seemed to be making an ontological statement about "something," but really I am making a grammatical statement, that the concept of "physical thing" is connected with the concept of pointing. Perhaps someone says, "But I can give 'something' a meaning here, look! <points to the table> That is a physical thing. That exists." What has this person done? They have repeated a rule about how we talk about physical things. They have not "proved" that physical objects "exist", they have "proved" that the concept of "physical object" can sometimes be made to have a reference. But I have not objected that the concept of a "physical object" cannot sometimes have a reference, I have objected to misconstruing a statement about our linguistic conventions into some kind of "general" empirical description of anything. Of course, I agree that if it became impossible for any person to point to something, our concept of "physical object" would become vestigial, useless. But here I am talking about the conventions of our language, not the "general domain of existence", whatever that could be.
What is ontology? Ontology is the general grammatical form of a description, similar to the way an algebraic expression, such as "y = ax +b", is the general mathematical form of a description of a line. But "y = ax + b" does not describe a line, and we cannot graph any line with the expression unless we stipulate to the value of a and b. What ontological domain does "y = ax + b" belong to? Does it matter what I say here, provided the expression can be connected with a use, a set of techniques? Moreover, it is hopefully clear that ascribing an "ontological domain" to "y = ax +b" does not mean anything at all--it is not connected with any use, any set of techniques, except the technique of conceptual confusion.
The depth grammar of the concept of a "physical thing" or a "value" or a "domain" or "consciousness" or "physical world" are equally complex and differentiated. I can say that "value is located in the physical world" but note that the assertion is not an actual assertion, but the form of one. An antique dealer might point to a clock and say "there is value in that thing," which in some sense might be said to locate value in the physical world (but in this specific context). But when the philosopher says (or denies) "there is value in that thing" that statement has no connection to ordinary human activity. When the antique dealer says it, I know what she means, e.g. she can buy and re-sell the item at a profit. With the philosopher, I do not actually know what she means. Its not connected to anything.
Any attempt to structure the forms of the descriptive concepts of our language based strictly on the surface grammar of our words is essentially meaningless. Ontology is not only arbitrary, but 150 proof metaphysical moonshine. It is a house of cards that resembles a building, but collapses upon scrutiny. Thus, I disagree with my commentator that I misunderstood the "location problem". The "location problem" is nonsense, and the answer to nonsense is to come to see nonsense as nonsense, and not to make up a nonsensical answer.
But here I must pull back, as before. To talk about the location of value is to make a metaphor between the location of a physical thing and value. Asking for the location of your keys suggests that you have lost something of great personal value. Further, asking for the location of your keys is also often related to the act of searching for the lost bearer of personal value. The forms of our language can suggest a certain kind of picture, even when the forms of our language are actually meaningless. (We can compare this to a portrait of Phillip Marlowe, private investigator.) A philosophical answer, e.g. a meaningless expression, can also suggest a certain kind of picture. If value resides in the physical world, like our keys, then maybe we can find it again, and we feel reassured. If value does not reside in the physical world, and the physical world is all that exists, then perhaps we feel sadness, loss. We can compare our responses here to a work of fiction, for which the names of characters name intangibles, but concerning which we can shed tangible tears for the bearers none-the-less. Perhaps philosophy then, by virtue of its fictional character, can sometimes change the meaning of our world, and the meaning of our life.