Philosopher with abiding interest in nature of truth and free will
DJ O'CONNOR:IN 1957, two years after Exeter University gained its royal charter, Daniel John O’Connor, who has died aged 98, set about expanding its philosophy department. Known to colleagues and students as Dan, he was a gifted communicator. His clear, precise thinking is evident in 10 books and numerous papers.
A student and then close friend of AJ Ayer and Karl Popper, O’Connor shared, but was not limited by, their commitment to logical empiricism, taking logic, mathematics and the physical sciences as a primary focus for reflection, and as a foundation for the clarification of long-disputed philosophical problems.
One of his earliest papers, “Is There a Problem About Free Will?” (1940), pointed to his abiding interest in the conflict between our beliefs in our freedom of choice and in the causal predictability of all events in the physical world. His book Free Will (1971) displays a non-partisan approach: an empiricist might have simply adopted the determinist’s generalisation that “Every event has a cause” to close the case against free choice, but instead O’Connor argues that although the generalisation may be true, it has clearly not been proved to be so.
Therefore it cannot be treated as a scientific law. Scientific laws are confirmed and falsifiable hypotheses that have not yet been falsified, he insists, while the determinist’s generalisation is neither.
The Correspondence Theory of Truth (1975) explored the difficulties in spelling out the relation between statements of empirical fact and the world which makes them true. The intent of correspondence theorists is to treat concepts as the work of the perceiving and thinking mind, which gives us our articulated experience of objects, their properties and their interrelations: the world itself is therefore lacking this conceptual articulation.
O’Connor dismisses attempts at depicting this world as a collection of “facts” or “states of affairs”, for these are already conceptually structured, and instead proposes a two-stage model of the relations between world, perception and statements. For this he introduces his own term, the status rerum, for the “raw unexperienced welter of objects and events”.
At the first stage, our sense organs provide a limited conceptual awareness of things and their properties, situations and events. At the second stage the final selection process of language results in statements that are candidates for truth. The idea of the status rerum has proved controversial, for a welter of objects and events hardly constitutes an unstructured and unconceptualised place. Welcoming the controversy, O’Connor defended his idea to the end.