Thursday, January 20, 2011

Meinong's gambit

In yesterday’s post I argued that not only is the inference

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

invalid, but that practically everyone will agree it is invalid. Even the most hardened and extreme realist or Meinongian will concede the possibility that nothing is non-existent (even though, as a matter of fact, they believe that some things actually are non-existent). It follows that they cannot use Meinong's gambit to explain intentionality. They can’t explain Bill’s thought as being somehow about a non-existing thing, because they concede that he could have the same thought even if there were no such objects at all.

With this in mind, we can approach the problem which (according to Bill Vallicella here) is central to the phenomenon of intentionality. Bill says that the problem can be expressed in terms of an aporetic triad, saying that while each of these propositions has some claim to plausibility, all three cannot be correct. At least one must be false. Which?

W1. We sometimes think about the nonexistent.
W2. Intentionality is a relation between thinker and object of thought.
W3. Every relation R is such that, if R obtains,then all its relata exist.

I will begin by ‘Ockhamising’ these propositions so that they express the same problem, but in language more acceptable to an Ockhamist. (E.g. I argued here that a term like ‘the nonexistent’ is question-begging).

O1. The proposition ‘Bill is discussing a nonexistent thing’ can be true even when there are no nonexistent things.
O2. The proposition ‘Bill is discussing a nonexistent thing’ expresses a relation between two things.
O3. Every relation is such that if it obtains, all of its relata exist.

With my previous comments in mind, the answer may now be obvious. We can assume that the first proposition is true. The third proposition must also be true. As argued above, the realist cannot plead the ‘nonexistence’ amendment. He can’t argue that the third proposition is false because Bill’s thought may relate him to a nonexistent thing. For the problem remains even when there are no nonexistent things. It is not that we sometimes think of the nonexistent. It is that the predicate "Bill is thinking of ---" may not apply to anything at all, rather than applying to some nonexistent something. Thus, even if there were nonexistent things, this would not explain the problem of intentionality, i.e. the problem that all three propositions above are inconsistent.

It remains that the second proposition must be false. Indeed, isn’t this obvious? The simplest and most economical hypothesis to explain this is that while the proposition ‘Bill is discussing a nonexistent thing’ has grammatically the form of a relation, and is syntactically similar to ‘Bill is meeting his wife’, it does not actually express or signify a relation. What other explanation is there? The second proposition has no claim to plausibility at all.

This explanation involves no recourse to ‘queer objects’ of any kind. The underlying logic of the proposition must be different to the underlying logic of ‘Bill is meeting his wife’. As is manifest and provable, for the latter implies ‘someone is such that Bill is talking to her’. ‘Something is such that Bill is discussing it’.


David Brightly said...

I'm not so sure we can sidestep Meinong (and his descendants) quite so readily. For doesn't he draw a distinction between being (Are) and existing (E)? All things Are but some things may not Exist. If we say a relation like Looking-for requires that its relata Are rather than Exist we can write the new triad as

~ (bLa ---> Ea)
bLa ---> Ab & Aa

And together with Ab, Aa, Eb, and ~Ea, the three above can still be true. Doesn't it all come down to whether one can accept the wedge between E and A?

What I'm looking for here (Oh! the naivety!) is a theory that helps me understand how I can think and reason about Caesar and my grandfather and Sherlock who no longer or never existed. It's possible that more than one theory might be self-consistent. I might have to accept some radical departure from common sense with every theory. I'm reminded of the discomfort I had as a maths undergrad learning that one could theorise about vector spaces without using coordinates. Like vertigo. But after a while I got the hang of it.

So arguments that purport to show that a certain route through the maze is the right one because all the others lead to dead ends don't impress me, though I appreciate that this is how philosophical debate proceeds. What I'm keen to discover is what discomfort I'm going to suffer on the Ockhamist theory. I've an idea where this is going (the change from thinking to discussing is perhaps a clue) but I'll keep silent for a while yet.

So what is the characteristic feature of relations that prevents 'thinking about', 'discussing', 'looking for' etc etc from being relations? Can we say any more than that assuming this leads to contradiction? After all, I can't give a much better reason for root two's irrationality!

David Brightly said...

Let's apply the something-is-such-that test for a relation to 'I am descended from my grandfather'. This gives us 'Someone is such that I am descended from him'. Now, all my ancestors are deceased and no longer exist. This is problematic. For it would imply at least one of the following:

1. Our use of 'someone' etc and 'exists' comes apart.
2. 'Descended from' is not a relation.
3. The test doesn't work.