Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Distinguishing queer from straight

In my previous post I gave four criteria for distinguishing ‘queer’ from ‘straight’ terms. The most important of these was the last one: a queer term does not refer to or denote anything, and thus does not pick out any category or kind of thing. Bill Vallicella and Peter Lupu are now impatiently challenging me on this. What are the considerations or criteria on the basis of which we decide how to draw the distinction between terms which refer or denote*, and those which do not refer or denote?

There are several techniques used by Ockham throughout Summa Logicae. The one I will use is as follows. Take any proposition p containing a possibly queer occurrence of some term F. Construct a proposition q that uses the term to assert that there are F’s – preferably avoiding the use of ‘exists’ or its cognates, to prevent the realist from driving a wedge between ‘something’ and ‘some existing thing’. Then show, by logical analysis, that p does not entail q, i.e. it is possible that p is true but q false. We can easily do this using an earlier example.

(1) Jake is looking for a gold mine in Surrey, therefore some gold mine is in Surrey.

Even the most hardened realist will agree that the inference is not valid. For it is perfectly possible that the antecedent is true, and that Jake is looking for a gold mine in Surrey, but the consequent false – for there is no gold mine in Surrey, and so ‘some gold mine is in Surrey’ is false. Note my careful use of the categorical sentences ‘some gold mine …’ and ‘no gold mine …’ here, and the avoidance of the word ‘exists’. This is necessary in case the realist argues that there is no existing gold mine in Surrey, i.e. there are gold mines, but they are not ‘existing’ or ‘existent’ ones. We reply: that there is no gold mine in Surrey, not even in this qualified sense. It is not that there is no existent gold mine, as though there could be some non-existent gold mine. That is an abuse of language, and it leads far from the truth. There are no gold mines in Surrey at all.

This reasoning can be confirmed as follows. Consider

(2) Vallicella is discussing a non-existent thing, therefore something is non-existent

The realist cannot explain away the truth of the antecedent, as he might try to do with ‘gold mine in Surrey’, by reference to non-existent things. For he agrees that the inference is invalid, therefore he agrees that the consequent is false, and so nothing is non-existent. It is not merely that the non-existent does not exist (as though there were some things, which happen to exemplify the property of non-existence). It is that nothing - not even a non-existent thing - is non-existent.

Thus I have distinguished a ‘queer’ from a ‘straight’ term by purely logical means. Tomorrow, I shall address Vallicella’s ‘aporetic triad’. We can think of the non-existent; ‘thinking of’ is a relation; a relation must relate existing relata. Does the triad make sense? And if it does, which of the propositions is false?

* I have changed Lupu’s wording from “refers in a way that entails ontological commitments” because I do not understand it. If a term refers, by definition it refers to something, and so there is something to which it refers. By Brentano’s equivalence (i.e. ‘there exists an F’ is convertible with ‘there is an F’), it has existential commitment.

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