Monday, January 28, 2008

The Objection from Emptiness

1. If Millianism is correct, then if ‘Fin Tutuola’ does not refer, then ‘Fin Tutuola’ is meaningless (has no semantic content).
2. If ‘Fin Tutuola’ is meaningless (has no semantic content), then ‘Fin Tutuola is a detective in SVU’ is meaningless.
3. ‘Fin Tutuola is a detective in SVU’ is not meaningless.
4. ‘Fin Tutuola’ does not refer.
5. So Millianism is incorrect.

Note that we also could have used negative existentials, like ‘Fin Tutuola does not exist’. So it seems that if Millianism is correct, no negative existential is true.

One option we discussed is to abandon Mill's theory and offer another in its place that avoids this sort of problem. Another option we discussed is that seemingly empty names in fact are not empty; they refer to ideas or collections of ideas. This is similar to Mill's own view, stated at the outset of 'Of Names': "All names are names of something, real or imaginary . . ."

One problem for the Millian proposal is that it seems to avoid the first problem only at the expense of a second; it gives us an account of how sentences that contain apparently non-referring names are meaningful, but at the expense of the consequence that there are no true negative existentials. Let's call Millianism plus (a) 'Modified Millianism':

(a) The referent of an apparently empty name is an imaginary object.

We can state the objection to Modified Millianism as follows:

6. If Modified Millianism is correct, then no negative existential sentence is ever true.
7. It's false that no negative existential sentence is ever true.
8. So Modified Millianism is incorrect.

- What's the best reply a proponent of Modified Millianism can offer to (6-8)?
- Are there any other replies available to the Millian other than Modified Millianism? (Hint: Think about whether any other premise in (1-5) can be plausibly denied by the Millian.)
- If (1-5) is sound, Millianism is false. If that's so, what theory should we offer in its place?


Marcus said...

In response to 6.
What's wrong with saying that there may be things that don't exist, but they are simply not the types of things we can form sentences about? If we can form the conception, that thing has at least some minimal existence as a collection of ideas.
More formally.
If we can form a sentence about something, we can conceive of it.
If we can conceive of something, it exists as an idea or collection of ideas.
So, anything we can form a sentence about exists.
So it's true that no negative existential sentence is ever true.
So, the objection to modified Millianism fails.

Perhaps another related sense of the word exist, something like - can be found in the physical universe - is the meaning that people have in mind when they say 'Kryptonite does not exist'. Likewise they might be saying that Fin Tutuola does not exist in the universe when the utter the words 'Fin Tutuola does not exist'
Maybe 6. is okay because there are these two different meanings of exist.

Justin said...

Just a question:

How would you respond to my "no 4 sided triangles exist" objection?
Given that i just wrote a sentence about it, it seems that on your view, it exists in some way. What way would that be?

Or how about something like 'no set is larger than any member of the set'. This is plainly false, and i cant think of what it would be like to have an idea of such a thing.

If your argument is supposed to be something like:
1.If we can talk about it, then we can conceive of it.
2.We can talk about it.
3.So we can conceive of it.

4.If we can conceive of it, then it exists (in some way).
5.We can conceive of it.
6.So it exists. (in some way)

I'm suggesting that we can talk or form sentences about something, but it can be physically impossible for it to exist, and also impossible to think of. So even if we can form a sentence about it, it doesn't seem to follow that it can be conceived. And if it cant be conceived, (at least by my version of your argument) then it doesn't exist.

So is my negative existential claim true? Logical impossibilities seem like good candidate for not existing.

Travis said...

Even within the the example of 'a four sided triangle', I have some concept in my mind when I talk about. Specifically, I have an idea and associated with that idea are two attributes:
1) it has four sides and
2) it is a triangle

Clearly, these attributes are contradictory, but that doesn't prevent me from forming the idea whenever I hear the phrase 'a four sided triangle'. Being a rational person, I immediate acknowledge that the idea makes for a physical and logical impossiblity, and that it can never be physically actualized because of this. Logical impossibility has never prevented me from forming many illogical thoughts.

I would also make the distinction that when we use the phrase 'does not exist' in its common form, what we really mean is that the idea we are referring to does not have the attribute of being physically actualized - we are not negating the existence of the -idea-.In this sense, negative existentials can, in fact, be true. It is true that the idea formed by the phrase 'three sided triangle' has the attribute of not being physically actualized.

When used in its strictest sense, however, I would agree that the phrase 'does not exist' is always false, that there are no true negative existentials, but that's not what we really mean when we use it.

Justin said...

Travis: here are few thoughts regarding your comments:

Remember my claim was that logical impossibilities are inconceivable. You just can’t think of them. Also recall that I asked what sort of idea one would be having when thinking of ‘a 4 sided triangle’. You responded with:

“Even within the example of 'a four sided triangle', I have some concept in my mind when I talk about. Specifically, I have an idea and associated with that idea are two attributes:
1) it has four sides and
2) it is a triangle
Clearly, these attributes are contradictory, but that doesn't prevent me from forming the idea whenever I hear the phrase 'a four sided triangle'”

I think your response is a little question begging. I asked what sort of idea one could possibly have when thinking of a ‘4 sided triangle’, and you just state that you have a “concept in your mind”, and that “you don’t have a problem forming the idea”. This doesn’t answer the question of what that idea would be like. You do however state that you associate two attributes with the idea (keep in mind I still have no clue what that idea is supposed to be).

I think, however, that on a more carefully stated version of your argument, you are thinking about the attributes ‘triangle-ness’ and ‘being 4 sided’, but not ‘being a four sided triangle’. To illustrate my point, I can think of the attribute ‘being a child’, or ‘child-ness’ and I can think of the attribute ‘being an adult’ or ‘adult-ness’, but I certainly cannot think of a child being an adult. If you don’t like the example, you could just change the terms to ‘bachelor’ and ‘married’. You can’t imagine a bachelor who is married. It makes no sense. Understanding the relevant attributes doesn’t mean you can conceive of their conjunction.

You also say that “Logical impossibility has never prevented me from forming many illogical thoughts”. That’s fine, and consistent with what I said. Logical impossibilities prevent you from thinking about logical impossibilities. Thinking (or acting) illogically and thinking of things which are logically impossible are two different things. I am in a massive amount of debt, and spend thousands a year on coffee. This is illogical, but not logically impossible.

As a final note, if you buy what I say, then it seems there’s a sense in which ‘doesn’t exist’ can be used in an unrestricted fashion, and be true.

Travis said...

If you want me to accurately describe what an idea in my mind looks like, I'm afraid I can only disappoint, and I'd be skeptical of anyone who could.

If you require that an idea have an associated mental image or picture, that we have to visualize the idea being actualized, then yes, I readily agree with you. I cannot conceive of a four-sided triangle, or of a married bachelor, or of any of hundreds of other examples.

I am no psychologist (nor even much of a philosopher) but I am not so certain that our ideas require mental pictures. I think it might be possible for us to conceive of something without necessarly visualizing it. If I'm not visualizing it, the collection of attributes I associate with the idea don't really have to make sense.

As it is rather late, I am inclined to put forward an alternative explaination that I haven't really thought through all the way, please tell me what you think. You've even provided an excellent example for me to work with.

Suppose you tell me 'John is a bachelor' and then you tell me 'John is married'. I will certainly conceive of something called 'John', though I will be rather confused as to his marital status. 'John' will have many other attributes that I will instinctively infer - that he is human, that he is male, and so on, and many others that I might be inclined to arbitrarily assign to him - he is short, has blond hair, etc. I have plenty of attributes now which allow me to visualize 'John'. When it comes to his marital status, I have, thanks to your description attached both values to 'John', making him a logical impossibility. A sort of Orwellian double-think allows me to do so; in a way, I force myself. Or perhaps I have two separate but otherwise identical mental images of 'John', one that is married and one that is not that I call up whenever I wish to refer to 'John' - I make no other distinction between them.

Or in the case of a 'four sided triangle', I have many other, visualizable attributes to work with - I know that it is a polygon, that it is two-dimensional, that it is made of lines and vetices, etc. I may also think of it as red. At this point I have something that I can sort of picture in my mind, though when I try to examine how many sides it has, the image kind of blurs.

But this new point of view seems to be just what you're saying, that we cannot conceive of logical impossibilities; what we're really doing in this sense is separating the impossible parts of the idea from what is possible, and only picturing the latter. The remaining, contradictory attributes are, in a way, separated from the idea itself, sort of 'tags' that are attached to the idea, but do not contribute to the mental image.

As an side, and not that it makes a big difference, but do you make a distinction between 'being a triangle' and 'triangle-ness'?

Justin said...

Hey Travis:

When you say that:

“I have plenty of attributes now which allow me to visualize 'John'. When it comes to his marital status, I have, thanks to your description attached both values to 'John', making him a logical impossibility.”

To begin, if i tell you "John is a bachelor" and "John is married", and both sentences are about the same person at the same time, i am lying to you, or greatly confused about the words I’m using. But regardless of that, your example seems to be the same as mine, and in the end im not sure how you draw your conclusion differently than i did. Just because you have a stockpile of ideas doesn’t mean you can conjoin them (I provided reasons for thinking this in my last post). It just seems like what’s going on is that a mistake is being made on the behalf of the speaker who holds that John is both married and a bachelor. Its not the case that John actually is both those things. I also haven’t read 1984 in a long time…

I also know precious little about psychology, and I’m also getting confused. What would it mean to “imagine an idea being actualized”? Like if i think of a building that extends into the stratosphere, just imagining its existence? Which seems okay, i can think of that. Numbers might be tricky though. I have some understanding of infinity, but surely can’t imagine such a thing. Which I suppose calls into question what sorts of ideas, if any, I actually have about infinity. I personally don’t know if ideas require a corresponding mental picture. It seems like sometimes no. I suppose i would have to think about it more. But remember I was merely trying to refute the “form a sentence… conceiving… existing” claim. The broader claim was that there are negative existential claims that are true. The suggested modification to Millianism was appealing to the realm of ideas for existence, and I just tried to show that there are things we don’t and can’t have ideas about.

To answer your question, yes, I think ‘being a triangle’ and ‘triangle-ness’ are different. To be vague, the former is a thing, the latter is a property of a thing.

Marcus said...

To stir the pot just a little more...

There seem to be a plethora of things which exist, in either sense of the word proposed, that I cannot form a mental image of. Take the 10000 sided figure example from class. If it's the case that some things that are indisputably possible can't be imaged what is our justification for using this as a criterion for what can exist? It seems like we must abandon this.

I personally am sympathetic to Travis' propositional suggestion. When someone mentions a 4 sided triangle I simply concatenate all the beliefs I have about 4 sided objects with those I have about triangles.

Having said that, I think Justin is right to express concern about holding contradictory beliefs. Perhaps it is open to the skeptic to say that I am entertaining ideas like a married bachelor on some level but have not fully considered their logical ramifications. So, I am never truly imagining a married bachelor or a four sided triangle etc.

Perhaps this is a cheap shot but here goes...

It still worries me to think that I can truly assert A doesn't exist while simultaneously claiming that A is impossible to imagine. If it is impossible for me to imagine, what exactly am I asserting does not exist? It still seems to me that if A were truly impossible to imagine, we could never make any claims about it.

Marcus said...

This link contains some interesting ideas on the topic.