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.

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