Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Arizona Bill commits the existential fallacy

In a post today, Maverick Bill talks about fictional and incomplete objects again, which reminds me of an idea that originally occurred to me in February 2011, and which I developed in a series of posts on logical intransivity.

The idea was that there are certain verbs – I call them logically intransitive – which take a grammatical but not a logical accusative. Let me explain. In the sentence ‘Tom is looking for a wife’ the verb ‘wants’ is logically intransitive. It clearly has a grammatical accusative (‘a wife’), but there is no object corresponding to that term, i.e. the sentence can be true (Tom really is looking for a wife) without there being any person or wife to whom the term corresponds. Clearly so, for Tom would not be looking for one, if he had already found her. By contrast ‘Tom has found a wife’ is logically transitive. It cannot be true unless there is someone to whom ‘a wife’ corresponds.

I developed the idea as follows. There is a certain species of bad philosophy which proceeds by taking sentences which are not existential with respect to their accusative, because of logically intransitive verbs, and converting them into sentences which are existential with respect to the same accusative. This typically happens in two ways.

(1) By converting a logically intransitive verb phrase into a logically transitive one. For example by translating ‘Tom is thinking of a mermaid’ into ‘Tom stands in the relation ‘thinking of’ to some mermaid’. Clearly the first sentence does not imply the existence of mermaids because of the logically intranstive ‘is thinking of’. But the second does, because of the transitivity of ‘stands in the relation ‘thinking of’ to’. Bill commits this fallacy here when he argues “When Tom thinks about a nonexistent item such as a mermaid, he does indeed stand in a relation to something”.

(2) By converting a sentence from a passive to an active form, so that the object of the logically intransitive verb becomes its subject. Since subject terms (generally, not always) are existential, the sentence when converted implies existence, whereas before converted is does not. Both of these are specific versions of the existential fallacy, i.e. arguing from premisses which are not existential to a conclusion which is existential.

Arizona Bill’s blog is a wonderful and rich mine for instances of the fallacy. In today’s post there are at least three. In the first set of sentences below, the verbs ‘want’ and ‘imagine’ are clearly intransitive, and to not imply the existence of any table.

(A1) I want a table, but there is no existing table that I want
(A2) I want a table with special features that no existing table possesses.
(A3) In the first case I imagine the table as real; in the second as fictional.

In the next three sentences, he converts grammatical object to grammatical subject, in order to imply the existence of the wanted or imagined objects.

(B1) The two tables I am concerned with, however are both nonexistent.
(B2) There is a merely intentional object before my mind.
(B3) The table imagined as real is possible due to its ontic character of being intended .

Of course, this leads to the inconsistency of implying the existence of a non-existent object. In (B1) above, he asserts the existence of the tables by the apparently referring subject term ‘the tables’, then denies it using the predicate ‘non existent’. Bill usually evades this, when he can be bothered to, by claiming there are two sorts of existence.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Appeals to phenomenology

IN his latest post on ‘pure ficta’, Arizona Bill wheels out what looks like an argument from revelation.
If Ed denies that there are merely intentional objects, then he is denying what is phenomenologically evident. I take my stand on the terra firma of phenomenological givenness. So for now, and to get on with it, I simply dismiss Ed's objection. To pursue it further would involve us a in a metaphilosophical discussion of the role of phenomenological appeals in philosophical inquiry.
Well, it probably would involve us in such a discussion, and I wouldn’t want to go there, correct. I don’t recognise the validity of any kind of appeal to revelation in strictly philosophical enquiry.
None of these men [the pre-Socratics], it is to be noted, tried to answer these questions by an appeal to any revelation, to myth, or religious knowledge of any kind; but attempted to extract the answer by using their reason; and they used it almost without reference to sensible observation and experiments. Why was this ? Clearly because they were convinced that the thing they sought lay deeper in the heart of the world than the superficial aspect of things, of which alone the senses could tell them. (Modern Thomistic Philosophy, R.P. Phillips, London 1934)
But is Bill really making such an appeal? I don’t think so. He is actually appealing to premisses which are uncontroversial, such as our ability to create fictional characters, imagine centaurs etc, and then arguing from such uncontroversial premisses to a more controversial conclusion. So it’s a matter of logic, not ‘phenomenological appeal’. The argument looks like this:
(1) You cannot write or understand a story without thinking about various fictional characters. (2) When you create a fictional character, you bring before your mind an intentional object. (3) The existence of such intentional objects is therefore phenomenologically evident.
I can buy the first premiss. The second I can understand only figuratively. What is an intentional object? The third I reject. It is bizarre to make an existence claim about things which purportedly do not exist, and such existence is far from evident. It’s a neat example of the fallacy of logical intransitivity. You start with a premiss containing a logically intransitive verb, such as ‘imagine’, ‘desire’ and so on. A logically transitive verb is one which takes a grammatical accusative but not a logical one. The accusative of the sentence ‘Jake wants to marry a mermaid’ is ‘a mermaid’, but the sentence is consistent with ‘nothing is a mermaid’. A logically transitive verb, by contrast, requires a real object. The truth of ‘Jake married a mermaid’ requires that some person is such that she was married by Jake. The fallacy consists in drawing a conclusion that contains a logically transitive verb, and which for that reason is existential. The fallacy is a specific instance of the more general existential fallacy, in which we erroneously draw an existential conclusion from non-existential premisses.

Over to you Bill.