Monday, July 30, 2012

A perfect refutation

The most satisfying refutation is one that not only shows why your opponent is wrong, but why he thinks he is right.

The Open Question question

The Maverick has argued (in effect) that the meaning of the word 'exist' is an open question. However, if the meaning of 'exist' is what the thin theorist stipulates it is, it would not be an open question. Therefore the meaning of 'exist' is not what the thin theorist stipulates it is.

Against. It is not an open question whether 'Pegasus does not exist' means the same thing as 'There is no such thing as Pegasus'. But the meaning of 'There is no such thing as Pegasus' is not an open question. Therefore the meaning of 'Pegasus does not exist' is not an open question. Our understanding of sentences such as 'there is such a thing as x' and 'there are such things as Fs' is entirely settled, and indeed is entirely the understanding advocated by the thin theorist.

The thin theorist can also explain why some philosophers think there is an open question. For the 'thick' theorist of existence is tempted to think that the following is a valid inference,

(A) Pegasus does not exist therefore there is something that does not exist

or at least that it is an open question as to whether it is a valid inference. However it is not an open question as to whether it is a valid inference. For the inference is equivalent to

(B) There is no such thing as Pegasus therefore there is something such that there is no such thing as it

which is obviously invalid (for the antecedent is true but the consequent is false). The 'thick' theorist is tempted by the grammar of 'Pegasus does not exist' into thinking that '- does not exist' is a predicate. However, the grammar of 'There is no such thing as Pegasus' does not tempt us into thinking that 'There is no such thing as –' is a predicate. Thus there is absolutely no question about the semantics of 'exist', although its grammar tempts some people into thinking that there is.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

An interesting net

The discussion continues here as Maverick and others ask whether Meinong could have made an elementary mistake about logic. If ‘some things do not exist’ is a logical contradiction, how come he did not spot it?

I commented that all anti-metaphysical and positivistic theories need to explain how metaphysicians got it so wrong. It’s not like dispelling superstition, belief in which we can explain by mere ignorance or lack of education. Meinong was clever and obviously well-educated. Many clever and well-educated academics are still disciples of his theories. So the anti-metaphysical theory about the meaning of the verb ‘exist’, and generally any anti-metaphysical theory, needs to explain how clever people got an apparently simple matter so wrong.

Accordingly, Ockham puts it down to ignorance of true logic. This causes people to fall into many errors “by ignoring valid argument as though it were sophistry, and mistaking sophistry for valid argument”. Mill, following Ockham, says that metaphysics is a 'fertile field of delusion propagated by language', i.e. language has the habit of playing tricks on us, even clever people.

 Wittgenstein discusses the problem in many places. 'A clever man got caught in this net of language! So it must be an interesting net. ' ' Human beings are entangled all unknowing in the net of language.' ' In philosophy it's always a matter of the application of a series of utterly simple basic principles that any child knows, and the – enormous – difficulty is only one of applying these in the confusion our language generates.'

Friday, July 27, 2012

No true philosopher

In an earlier post, the Maverick extensively quotes the novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, intending to illustrate the "Continental" view of existence.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last days, had I understood the meaning of 'existence.' I was like all the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, 'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say two words without mentioning it, but you can never touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I must [have] believe[d] that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be.' Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that that green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things I was miles from dreaming that they existed; they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But that all happened on the surface.

If anyone had asked me what existence was, I would have answered, in good faith, that it was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature. And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness. (p. 127 tr. Lloyd Alexander, ellipsis in original.)
Omitting the novelistic turn of phrase ('breathless', 'obscene nakedness'), what is left?

1. Roquentin says that never before had he understood the meaning of 'existence.' It seems clear he is talking about some non-standard meaning of the word, which cannot be grasped by the normal process of learning a language, such as in childhood or in school. For Roquentin is an educated adult.  By implication, the standard meaning of the word 'existence', as in 'black swans exist', which can be easily learned, cannot be what he is talking about here.

2. He says he once felt that "'The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,' but I didn't feel that it existed or that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself." This is baffling. He says that the ocean is green, but doesn't 'feel' that it existed? Again, he cannot be talking about the standard meaning, where 'the ocean is green' implies 'the ocean exists'. He then says that usually existence 'hides itself'. More evidence that he is using the word 'exist' in some specific, novelistic sense, rather than the ordinary, standard one. Maverick comments here that analytic types will guffaw at this, and that they are 'existence-blind' - "to the blind, that which is luminous must appear dark." Of course, but this confirms the point I made in yesterday's post, about philosophy eschewing revelation and all knowledge whose acquisition requires a special state of awareness of some kind. Such knowledge may be important and interesting, but it is not the subject matter of philosophy, properly understood.

3. He says that existence is all around us, but that we cannot touch it. Is he making some scientific claim, then? Is existence like the air or like electricity or gravity, that we cannot touch, but whose existence we infer? Do we infer the existence of existence? If so, do we also infer the existence of the existence of existence? It seems entirely circular.

4. I'm not sure is meant by the next part – Roquentin seems to be contrasting his old way of thinking about existence, such as being asserted by the verb 'to be', or being an assertion of class-membership ("I was telling myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects") with this new revelation. He would have once said that existence "was nothing, simply an empty form that was added to external things without changing anything in their nature". Now he sees that "existence had suddenly unveiled itself. " OK, existence is now something that reveals itself to his senses or experience. "It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. " Which may be all be true, but it is so mystical as to be meaningless. As for "the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness", it is sheer poetry. But is it philosophy? Can everyone share the revelation given to Roquentin? Or is it mere euphony, sound and language that is impressive in a novel, but has no real place in a work of true philosophy?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Number and Existence

I go away for a week or two and look what happens. Discussing the Maverick's post on number and existence, and Brandon's comment, Michael Sullivan argues against conflating statements about number with existential statements. Consider:

(a) The number of cats in the room right now is two.

(b) Of the four hobbits that set out for Mount Doom, the number that arrived is two.

The two statements are true: his cats are two and Frodo and Sam are two, and in the same sense of 'two'.
But obviously the two hobbits don't have existence in the way that the cats do: my cats have actual existence and the hobbits don't and never did.
Thus we cannot conflate existence with number.

Contra: we clearly can reduce statements about number to existential statements, even when they are in a book. For example

(1) Tolkien said that two hobbits arrived at Mount Doom
(2) Tolkien said that a hobbit arrived with another hobbit at Mount Doom
(3) Tolkien said for some x, y: x was a hobbit, y was a hobbit, not x = y, and x arrived at Mount Doom and y arrived at Mount Doom

But we can't infer from any of these that there are such things as hobbits, or that hobbits exist. What about the claim that 'Hobbits don't have existence in the way that cats do'? Wrong: it's not that hobbits have a different kind of existence. They don't have any existence at all. The book says that, or pretends that hobbits exist. Indeed, it pretends or states that two hobbits – two existing hobbits – arrived at Mount Doom. But what it says is literally false. Nothing of the sort really happened. No hobbits arrived at any mountain. There is an implicit 'says that' or 'pretends that' operator around 'true' fictional statements such as 'two hobbits arrived at Mount Doom', which blocks any inference to existing things.

The problem is that we easily confuse such operators with spatial operators like 'In Europe', 'In London' and so on. We tend to move easily from statements like (4) below to (6), via (5).

(4) According to The Lord of the Rings, two hobbits arrived at Mount Doom
(5) In The Lord of the Rings, two hobbits arrived at Mount Doom
(6) In the universe of The Lord of the Rings, two hobbits arrived at Mount Doom

Now 'In Europe, there are hobbits' implies 'there are hobbits'. But 'In the universe of The Lord of the Rings there are hobbits' doesn't, because there are no hobbits anywhere. Objection: Can we not say that there are hobbits somewhere, namely in the universe of LOTR? Reply: yes, if 'somewhere' means 'it is said somewhere that …'. But then we are equivocating on 'somewhere'. There should be a special name for this fallacy, but I don't think there is one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Logic, language and metaphysics

A long piece from Maverick today about existence and the 'Continental' school of philosophy, which he contrasts, mostly favourably, with the 'analytic' or 'Anglo American analytic' school. At the heart of his argument is the idea that the analytic philosopher prefers the 'thin theory' of existence because he lacks some sense or intuition of existence "that philosophers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Maritain, and Sartre share, a sense or intution he fells must be bogus and must rest on some mistake".

A wider point that I believe that he has raised elsewhere is that the analytic technique or 'logic' in the wider sense, cannot usefully engage with metaphysics proper.

I disagree – at least if 'metaphysics' is understood in its properly philosophical sense (and not its other sense of New Age mysticism, crystals, and sitting cross-legged and chanting 'OM' and all that).

Another term for 'metaphysics', used by the scholastic philosophers, was 'first philosophy'. 'Philosophy' on its own meant any scientific study or systematic account, which is why 'natural philosophy' is so-called. So metaphysics is a type of philosophy – the primary type, prior to and higher than any departmental branch of the subject. As for philosophy, the subject began in Greece as a method of getting knowledge about the universe without appeal to any revelation, to myth, or religious knowledge of any kind,but only byeason. There's a nice piece about this in the Logic Museum here.

Note the avoidance of appeal to revelation. Why? Because revelation depends on something being revealed, a state of mind that may be accessible to some, but not to everyone. The starting point of true philosophy is not some state of mind or thought or idea that is available to some, but not to everyone capable of thought and reason. Nor is it some religious text or authority, or anything of that sort. The starting point of philosophy is propositions that are clear and self-evident to everyone who thinks or reasons, without appeal to any religious sense or das mystische. The end point is propositions that are derivable from the primary ones by some process of reason or logic. Hence the appeal by analytic philosophers – and scholastic ones – to clear definition, and to logical principles.

All of this involves language, of course. If you can't say it clearly, you can't say it at all. And the point of logical principles is to distinguish valid reasoning from mere disconnected sentences. This can only be done by rules that apply to the use of language. Philosophy is essentially linguistic. Even the long passage the Maverick quotes from Sartre is expressed in words, in language. Either (1) Sartre is arguing from basic assumptions to a conclusion, or (2) he is trying to express those basic assumptions alone or (3) he is trying to use language as a form of prayer or chanting 'OM' to get us into some kind of trance state so some truth will be revealed to us. Only the first two count as philosophy.

I expect the Maverick wants to deny this. My point is: if he does, he is not really doing philosophy, properly so-called. We can't do philosophy without viewing reality through the lens of logic and language.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On the meaning of 'exists'

There is progress, so much so that I mostly need to report it, rather than make it happen. Maverick concedes the points I made here. He agrees that if 'Some man is white' and 'A white man exists' have exactly the same meaning, then 'Some man is white because a white man exists' is unintelligible. “That's entirely clear”. So he must show that the two sentences -- call them the some-sentence and the existence-sentence* -- do not have the same meaning.

He gives a negative reason. If we stipulate that the two sentences have the same meaning, the thin theory “is wholly without interest. Substantive philosophical questions cannot be answered by framing stipulative definitions.” Correct, but this begs the question as to whether there is any substantive philosophical question. A thin theorist is likely to be a positive or a nominalist, who wants to show how apparently ‘metaphysical’ questions really arise from a misunderstanding of language, or from being misled by it.

He goes on to give a positive reason.
‘A white man exists’ says all that ‘Some man is white’ says, but it says more: it makes explicit that there are one or more existing items that are such that they are both human and white. The existence-sentence is richer in meaning than the some-sentence. It makes explicit that the item that is both human and white exists, is not nothing, is mind-independently real -- however you want to put it.
Will this work? I’m not sure. For the thin theorist, ‘there are one or more existing items’ and ‘there are one or more items’ or equivalent in meaning, by stipulation. The realist has failed to communicate anything.

On the point that “It makes explicit that the item that is both human and white exists, is not nothing, is mind-independently real”. Well, so does the ‘some’ sentence’. ‘Some man is white’ makes it explicit that the item that is both human and white exists, and that it is not nothing, and is mind-independently real. How could it say any less. If ‘some buttercups are blue’ is true, then blue buttercups exist (in virtue of the meaning alone), and so blue buttercups are not nothing, otherwise ‘no buttercups are blue’ would be true. And blue buttercups are mind-independently real, for ‘some buttercups are blue’ does not merely say that people think there are blue buttercups, or that they are figments of some kind. Over to Phoenix.

*We neo-scholastics call these ‘categorial’ and ‘existential’ sentences respectively. The medievals made a similar distinction between the use of the verb ‘is’ as a second elements, as in ‘Socrates is’, and as a third element or copula, as in ‘Socrates is white’.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Circularity and the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Maverick has said a bit more about his conception of metaphysical circularity in a post about Plato's Euthyphro Dilemma. Do the gods love piety because it is pious, or is it pious because they love it? He argues that the question is intelligible, and therefore, by implication, his questions about existence is intelligible. That is, we can intelligibly ask whether a man is white because a white man exists, or not.

Now I'm still puzzled. The Euthyphro question is intelligible because the terms "That which is loved by the gods"and 'that which is pious' have clearly different meanings. The gods may disagree on the nature of pious. Even if they agree, this offers us no insight into the nature of the pious. In later Western theology, this turned into the question of whether something is good simply because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just. And the question is intelligible because 'good' does not have the same meaning as 'willed by God', even if the two referents turn out to be the same. (Perhaps it is similar to the question of whether Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, or not).

Now I agree that if 'a white man exists' has a different meaning from 'some man is white', then the question of whether some F is a G because some FG exists, is an intelligible one. But it is not intelligible if they have the same meaning, as London 'thin' theorists claim. After all, the statement

(1) Some man is white because some man is white

is not intelligible. Nor is

(2) Some man is white because the sentence 'quidam homo est albus' is true

For the Latin sentence 'quidam homo est albus' means the same as 'some man is white'. The one sentence translates into the other. So there is no meaningful 'because' here. So why does Maverick think that

(3) Some man is white because some white man exists.

is intelligible? He says as much in his comment #6. So does he think that 'some man is white' has the same meaning as 'a white man exists'? Surely not, for the reasons stated here. But if the meaning is different, what is that difference?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Greece, rainbows and existence

A much better post today from the Maverick.

Greece was a powerful tonic. God made it last of all the countries, and had little left over except a handful of dirt and stones. So he scattered it over the Aegean and Ionian seas, adding a rainbow as he did. So Greece is all light and rainbow, existence in the fullest sense. No wonder the ancients thought of death as some dark unlit cavern. London is in a halfway state, a sort of twilight between the Hellenistic day and the darkness of nonentity.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How much does a Greek earn?

Some economists talk about the 'Mars bar index', i.e. using the price of a Mars bar as a metric for inflation, or to measure the relative value of currencies. I prefer to use the price of beer.  In Greece I thought it was unusually expensive, namely E3.50 for a 400ml glass.  This was the local beer (Mythos) as opposed to any imported rubbish.  Converting to more natural units (pint, sterling) gives us about £4 a pint (multiplying by 568/400, dividing by 1.2).  This is more expensive than many places in cold, grey London.

I wondered whether this was just seasonal loading, but the taxi driver (who by definition must be right) said that this was standard.  This must be why there are so many Greeks in London: the driver, who has a degree in environmental science, said that the average starting salary for a graduate in Greece - assuming a job is available, which it usually isn't - is about E6,000. 

Rent is much lower in Greece, of course - the driver estimated about E300 per month for a reasonable apartment, whereas the nearest equivalent in London would be above E1,200, probably well above.  And of course, as I mentioned in my earlier post, it is usually sunny in Greece.

I was staying in Macedonia - not far from Aristotle's birthplace in Stagira, as it happens, though I didn't have time to visit, and he probably wouldn't have been in.  I will explore the phenomenon of Greek driving in a subsequent post - this is another area where I have deep disagreement with the Maverick.

Metaphysical circularity

Following my post on my return from sunny Greece, the Maverick now has finally conceded that the 'thin' definition of 'exists'

(1) A-B exists =df A is B

cannot be circular, at least in the strict and ordinary sense of circular. However, he insists that the following equivalence (note the omitted 'df') is still circular.

(1a) A-B exists = existing A is B

He adds: "One response I anticipate Ed making is to say that there is no difference between 'x' and 'existing x': whatever is a value of the one is a value of the other, and vice versa. If so, then perhaps (1a) collapses into (1) and there is no circularity in the sense in which the examples above are circular." That's roughly right, but let's see why I am saying that. It follows from definition (1) that "A man who is white" is equivalent to "an existing white man", and it clearly follows from this that "existing white man" is equivalent to "white man". Thus (1a) above is a mere logical consequence of the original definition.

But Maverick goes on to claim that I am confusing semantic with metaphysical circularity. He says (I modify his wording to accommodate my example):
A presupposition of (1)'s truth is that the domain of quantification -- the domain over which the variable 'A' ranges -- is a domain of existents. Therefore, if I want to know what it is for A to exist, you have not given me any insight by telling me that for A to exist is for A to be identical to something that exists. For of course the A is identical to something that exists, namely the A! Suppose we distinguish between semantic and metaphysical circularity. I am willing to concede that (1) is not semantically circular. But I do maintain that (1) is metaphysically circular: its truth presupposes that the domain of quantification is a domain of existing items.
I reply: the fact that the "domain of quantification", i.e. all the items which satisfy 'A is B' is not a presupposition of the definition, but rather a consequence of it, for essentially the same reason I gave above. Let's first define 'satisfy':

(2) 'A is B' is satisfied by any A that is B

And then make the following assumption:

(3) 'A man is white' is satisfied by that man over there.

Then the following statements logically follow:

(4) That man is white (2, 3)

(5) That white man exists (1, 4)

(6) 'A man is white' is satisfied by an existing white man (3, 5)

So of course the items in the domain of quantification have to be existing items, but the sense in which they 'have to be' existing is a matter of logical consequence alone. They 'have' to exist in the same sense that a bachelor 'has' to be unmarried.

He adds that his claim that the thin conception is 'ontologically' or 'metaphysically' circular is something I fail to understand. This I agree with, of course, for the reason that 'metaphysical circularity' is incoherent.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Circularity of the thin conception after a spell in the sun

Back in the rain-drenched UK.  Returning seems like entering a room with a low, darkened ceiling (I was in sun-drenched Greece, not far from Aristotle's birthplace in Stagira, though did not have time to visit).

Meanwhile, I had time to think long and carefully about Maverick's 'circularity objection' to the thin conception of existence, and I now think I missed a trick.  The thin conception rests on a definition.  But how can a definition be circular at all, so long as it truly is a definition?  Suppose we forget the word 'exists'.  Suppose I want to define the verb 'xxxxts'.  Thus

(1) A-B xxxxts =def A is B

I mean that anything of the form 'A-B xxxxts' -- for example 'A white man xxxxts' -- means exactly what 'A man is white' means.  That's all. Nothing more, nothing less.  I am explaining a term whose meaning is not initially known (the verb 'xxxxts') by the use of terms whose meaning is known.  How can that be 'circular'?  So long as the term I am trying to define does not appear in the definiens side, the right-hand side, so that I have to return to the left-hand side and so on in an infinite regress, there is not even a hint of circularity.

Why then does the Maverick even think the definition is circular?  I think I have an answer to that as well, but more tomorrow.