Thursday, February 18, 2016

Russell on Existence in TPLA III: The Argument from Transferability

In the last post we explained what Russell's views on existence are and how they entail a "higher-order" theory of existence according to which existence is not a feature of individuals but of some "higher-order" things, viz. propositional functions. Since this is, initially, a very counter-intuitive proposal ("Socrates exists" is meaningless on Russell's view!), Russell ought to have some arguments to defend his view. This is going to be a long series of posts, so we'll discuss several of Russell's arguments from The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, but in the next two posts we'll discuss one of his arguments in particular: What I will call the "Transferability Argument." But before that I'll briefly mention Russell's motivation for having a theory of existence like his in the first place.

In the first place, the whole notion of existence comes up in connection with what we might call “negative existential” statements. A negative existential statement is a statement saying that something does not exist: For instance, that Socrates does not exist, or that dogs do not exist. These present an initial puzzle. On the one hand, if they are true, then it seems “Socrates” and “dogs” do not refer to anything, and so it’s not clear what could make the sentences true. On the other hand, they seem to be saying that something, “Socrates” or “dogs,” has the feature of “not existing.”

Now, this doesn’t immediately support Russell’s view on existence, but it does give one impetus to develop some sort of view that would address the question of negative existentials. It is interesting to see how Russell’s view deals with the problem. In the first place, ‘Socrates does not exist’ is simply meaningless according to Russell, since it doesn’t make sense to attribute existence to an individual, and so neither does it make sense to deny existence of an individual. On the other hand, since existence is a property of propositional functions, “dogs do not exist,” is easy to deal with: it is the same as saying ‘x is a dog’ is impossible. This involves no shady references to non-existent dogs or anything of that sort. One need only say that ‘x is a dog’ is never true.

With that said, it is not enough to point out that Russell’s view gives an answer to this question. Russell’s view is still prima facie implausible, and there might also be other positions available. Hence, Russell needs to give some direct arguments specifically for his view and arguments against alternatives. We will discuss just one of the arguments that Russell gives, which I call “the Transferability Argument.” The argument is quite subtle in fact, and it is rather complicated. But I think it is worth thinking through because it incorporates several interesting assumptions from logic and the philosophy of language.

Before delving into it, I want to define what we will call a ‘transferable predicate’. Russell does not use this terminology himself, but he uses the concept, and his argument is easier to state with this terminology. Now, a predicate F is transferable in my sense just in case (i) F can  be meaningfully applied to some kind G, and (ii) for any kind G that F applies to, ‘G’s are F’ is true only if every individual x that is a G is also F. For instance, the predicate ‘green’ is transferable: It applies to a generic kind term like ‘men’, since we can say ‘men are green’, and ‘men are green’ is true only if each man is himself green. The predicate ‘green’ “transfers” to the individual men. The predicate ‘numerous’ on the other hand is non-transferable: While we can say ‘men are numerous’, it does not imply any particular man is himself numerous. Indeed, this last statement is meaningless.

With that said, Russell’s Argument from Transferability can be reconstructed as follows:

  • (1’) ‘Unicorns exist’ is false, but meaningful. [Premise]
  • (2’) If there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘exists’ is transferable. [Premise]
  • (3’) If ‘exists’ is transferable, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [Premise]
  • (4’) So, if there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [By 2’ and 3’]
  • (5’) If ‘a’ is a proper name then ‘a is F’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers. [Premise]
  • (6’) So ‘a exists’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers. [5’, Universal Instantiation]
  • (7’) Suppose there is an individual sense of ‘exists’. [Supposition for Reductio]
  • (8’) Then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’ for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn. [By 4’ and 7’]
  • (9’) If ‘unicorns exist’ is false, then ‘a’ does not refer. [Premise]
  • (10’) So ‘a’ does not refer. [By 1’ and 9’]
  • (11’) So ‘a exists’ is meaningless. [By 10’ and 6’]
  • (12’) No meaningful statement can imply a meaningless statement. [Premise]
  • (13’) So, ‘unicorns exist’ is meaningless. [By 8’, 11’, and 12’]

But this contradicts our assumption in (1’). Hence, we must reject our assumption in 7’:

  • (14’) There is no individual sense of ‘exists’. [By 7’ – 13’ and Reductio ad Absurdum]

This is an extremely interesting and rich argument. It is the best reconstruction I can give of Russell’s argument. The argument is clearly valid. It has a total of six premises: 1’, 2’, 3’ 5’, 9’, and 12’. I think it is useful to isolate the premises so that we can see precisely the principles at work here:

  • (1’) ‘Unicorns exist’ is false, but meaningful.
  • (2’) If there is an individual sense of ‘exists’, then ‘exists’ is transferable.
  • (3’) If ‘exists’ is transferable, then ‘Unicorns exist’ implies ‘a exists’, for some proper name ‘a’ of some particular unicorn.
  • (5’) If ‘a’ is a proper name then ‘a is F’ is meaningful only if ‘a’ refers.
  • (9’) If ‘unicorns exist’ is false, then ‘a’ does not refer.
  • (12’) No meaningful statement can imply a meaningless statement.

The first premise is uncontroversial I assume. The third premise seems to follow from the definition of ‘transferable’.  12’ also seems straightforward: If, by hypothesis, p is meaningful, then it does not imply anything meaningless, and this is just what 12’ says. That leaves 2’, 5’, and 9’ as the crucial premises.

I take it that the motivation behind 2’ is that if ‘existence’ is just another predicate of individuals, like ‘green’, say, then it should be transferable in precisely the way they are. After all, how could it be that ‘frogs are green’ is true but that ‘green’ does not transfer to all of the individual frogs? But if ‘exists’ is just like ‘green’ then it should behave in the same way.

5’ seems to be motivated by the fact that we are supposing ‘a’ to be a proper name in Russell’s sense. Recall that, according to Russell, a logically proper name is a word whose meaning just is a particular object; in other words, the proper name ‘a’ is meaningful only if, and because, ‘a’ refers. So if ‘a’ is meaningless, then the whole sentence ‘a is F’ will be meaningless too.

Finally, 9’ is motivated by the fact that if ‘unicorns exist’ is false then there simply aren’t any unicorns for ‘a’ to refer to, and so ‘a’ cannot have a reference.

On the face of it, there is some reasonableness about all of these premises. However, I think there are worries for all of them. In the next post I will try to raise some of those worries.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Geach on Good and Evil: Some Counterexamples?

In Peter Geach’s paper “Good and Evil” Geach draws a distinction between attributive adjectives and predicative adjectives. An adjective A, as in the phrase “is an A B,” is predicative just in case the phrase can be broken down into “is a B” and “is A.” Otherwise A is attributive. For instance, “This is a sweet pastry” can be broken down into “This is a pastry” and “This is sweet.” So “sweet” is a predicative adjective. On the other hand “This is a small elephant” cannot be broken down into “This is an elephant” and “This is small,” so “small” is an attributive adjective.

Geach wants to argue for the thesis that “’good’ and ‘bad’ are always attributive, not predicative, adjectives.” I would like to bring up three intelligible, legitimate uses of the word “good” that are not obviously attributive, and suggest that they may provide counter-examples to Geach’s thesis. The first is what I will call “comparative goodness.” The second is what I will call “relative goodness.” The third is what I will call “global goodness.”

In the first case, consider the claim that it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Or consider the claim that God is the greatest conceivable being and its apparent implication that it is even better than being a dissatisfied Socrates to be God. Both of these claims seem, on the face of it, intelligible. They may be open to dispute, but if they are open to dispute then that presupposes they are intelligible.

Now, ‘better’ and ‘greater’ are not, by themselves, the same word as ‘good’. But these claims presuppose that there is some scale of being according to which a satisfied pig is somewhere below dissatisfied Socrates, dissatisfied Socrates is presumably below satisfied Socrates, and satisfied Socrates is somewhere below God. Now, if we suppose, just for argument’s sake, that the satisfied pig is at the very bottom of the spectrum, and that God is at the very top, it seems intelligible to say that being satisfied Socrates – this being somewhere in the middle – is good. This is what I have called the “comparative sense” of goodness. But in this sentence, “Being satisfied Socrates is good,” there is not even another adjective for “good” to modify. Hence, this appears to be a case where “good” is used in a predicative sense.

The second case, which I have called “relative goodness,” is the type of goodness we have when something is good for something else. It is what we express by saying “X is good for Y.” For example, “This spaghetti is good for me,” or “my dog Paco is good for me.” It is interesting to note that both of these sentences might be true even if this spaghetti is neither good food nor good spaghetti and even if Paco is not a good dog. This spaghetti might be terribly undercooked. It might be incredibly cheap. But the relief it gives me may be enough to make it good for me. And Paco may be a crooked, maimed, and disobedient beast – hardly a good dog – but the licking he gives me at the end of the day makes him good for me still.

So things that are good in this sense can’t be likened to cases where I eat spaghetti and say “Oh, this is good!” In that case the adjective that “good” is supposed to modify is implicit (e.g., “Oh, this is good [spaghetti]!”). Whereas here it is not clear at all what the implicitly modified adjective would be; nor would it be clear what the meaning of such a construction might be (what does it mean to say “This spaghetti is good [spaghetti] for me”?); and as we’ve just shown, it is false that, in general, the F that is good for me is a good F (the spaghetti that is good for me need not be good spaghetti). So it doesn’t seem that “good” modifies any adjective in this case; so relative goodness seems predicative.

The third case is what I call “global goodness.” This is the type of goodness we attribute to whole facts or propositions. For instance: “It is good that God created the universe,” or “It is bad that animals suffer needlessly in factory farms.” Of course, these constructions could be turned into subject-predicate form too (that-p is good), in which case it will be clear that global goodness is prima facie predicative. Note that these are not just roundabout ways of saying “It is morally bad;” for even if nobody were responsible for the suffering of beasts – say, if they were harmed by some natural disaster – it would still be bad that they suffered (an objective tragedy, if you will).

But in these cases, it is not clear what the implicit adjective would be that “good” is supposed to modify. Should we say that-p is a bad proposition? This doesn’t seem to make much sense. Or that it is a bad state of affairs? This doesn’t seem to make much sense either: It’s not clear what counts as a good state of affairs or a bad one. States of affairs just are what they are. (If a state of affairs consists of an object having a property, as some philosophers say, then is a good state of affairs one where the object really has the property? Or maybe it must have the property well?). Besides, even if one did not believe there were states of affairs at all (an open question in metaphysics), one could still affirm that it is bad that animals needlessly suffer. This isn’t the case with genuinely attributive uses of “good,” since one cannot consistently believe “he is a good robber” and at the same time believe there are no robbers. Hence, this cannot be an attributive use of goodness. So this sense of “goodness,” global goodness, seems to be predicative: We can say, in a seemingly intelligible manner, “It is good that-p” or “that-p is good,” good simpliciter.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Russell on Existence in TPLA II: Russell's Second-Order View of Existence

In my last post I introduced the topic of Russell on existence. Now I'll deliver. Let’s see what Russell thinks.

First, it is helpful to understand some of Russell’s technical vocabulary. In particular, for our purposes, we should consider his notion of a name, of a definite description, of a proposition, and of a propositional function.

For Russell, a logically proper name (or, for short, just a name) is a word whose meaning is a particular, i.e., an individual object or entity. For instance, intuitively, the name “Socrates” directly denotes the particular object, Socrates. Or the name “Paco” directly denotes my Chihuahua, Paco. Now, this is simplifying a little bit, since Russell has a whole theory of what a particular is and which words actually are proper names, but this isn’t really essential to his account of existence. One could hold to views about existence that are basically the same as Russell’s even if one modified his account of particulars and the extent of the proper names.

What is important, however, is that proper names be contrasted with definite descriptions. A definite description is some phrase that is meant to describe a particular, unique individual. For instance “the Chihuahua that I have had since 6th grade” is a definite description. (As it turns out, it does successfully denote something: my dog Paco.) “The dragon flying above my head” is a definite description too, though to my knowledge it is one that does not refer to anything.

Note: Names are not definite descriptions and definite descriptions are not names. The meaning of a name is just the object it refers to; the meaning of a definite description includes all of the predicates mentioned in the description (for instance, in the last example, "dragon," "flying", and "above my head" are all part of the meaning of the description).

It is important to bring up this contrast between definite descriptions and proper names because Russell gives a separate account of existence statements for each. What we are interested in when talking about “individual existence” statements is existence statements whose subject term is a proper name. This is the type of existence statement Russell will say is meaningless.

A proposition for Russell is, in essence, something that can be asserted, or something that can be true or false. For instance, that it is raining is a proposition, or that Paco is black is a proposition. Once again, this is simplifying a bit, but the particular details of Russell’s views on propositions are not essential here.

Finally, there is the notion of a propositional function. Russell says that a propositional function is “any expression containing an undetermined constituent, or several undetermined constituents, and becoming a proposition as soon as the undetermined constituents are determined.” Examples include ‘x is a man’ or ‘n is a number’ or ‘(x+y)(x-y)=x2-y2’. So, if we were to “fill in the blanks” so to speak we would have a full proposition. For instance, replacing ‘x’ with ‘Paco’ gives the proposition that Paco is a man. Replacing 'n' with '2' gives the proposition that 2 is a number.

Russell's propositional functions can be necessary, possible, or impossible. Russell defines this as follows. A propositional function is:
  • Necessary, when it is always true;
  • Possible, when it is sometimes true;
  • Impossible, when it is never true.
Russell technically says that we have to take at least one of these locutions – “always true,” “sometimes true,” etc. – as undefined. But intuitively, “always true” means that every instance of the propositional function is true. For example, ‘x is x’ is a propositional function that is “necessary’ in Russell’s sense, since it is “always true,” whereas ‘x is a man’ is a propositional function that is possible but not necessary. These locutions are clearly not meant in a temporal sense.

(Interesting side-note: Obviously Russell's definition of "possible" and the like is not at all the definition we would immediately think of when we hear these words. What's interesting is that it's not clear whether he even meant to capture what we do with possible worlds semantics. He makes it explicit that he thinks previous thinking about modality is confused and problematic in some way, but it's not clear whether his discussion of modality is trying to capture some sort of traditional modal phenomenon as opposed to just making stipulations, nor whether his attitude toward traditional notions of modality is one of revision or rejection. Another interesting question: Is there any way to modernize Russell here? Is he on to anything at all? Anyway, enough of this digression...)

That brings us finally to Russell’s theory of existence. Russell’s official view is that “existence is a predicate of a propositional function.” In particular, if F is a type or kind of entity, then to say that F’s exist is just a shorthand way of saying that the propositional function ‘x is F’ is possible:
  • (EXIST): F’s exist iff ‘x is F’ is possible (in Russell’s sense above).
For instance, dogs exist iff ‘x is a dog’ is possible. Or men exist iff ‘x is a man’ is possible.

This makes Russell's view a "second-order" or "second-level" view of existence. If we think of individual objects or entities as the "first level" and we think of things that apply to individuals -- propositional functions -- as the second level, then existence is a property of things at the second level, since it is a property of propositional functions. Hence Russell's view has been variously described as a "second-order", "higher-order", or "higher-level" view of existence.

So, according to Russell, “It is of propositional functions that you can assert or deny existence.” On the other hand, to say of a particular thing in the world that it is exists or not is “strictly nonsense.” After all, it doesn’t make sense to say of a particular object a that it is “possible” or “sometimes true.” Hence, individual existence statements are meaningless.

This is of course rather shocking on the face of it. We seem to make true individual existence claims all the time. But on Russell’s view, “John exists” isn’t simply false. It isn’t even a loose way of speaking. It’s simply nonsense. Moreover, the seemingly indubitable inference from “I think” to “I exist” is not invalid on this view; it isn’t even an argument, since arguments have to have propositions as their conclusions, and “I exist” isn’t even a comprehensible thought. What one might have thought incorrigible turns out to be unintelligible.

Nonetheless, as repugnant to common sense as this might seem at first, common sense is not infallible. And to be fair, we have only laid out Russell’s views and have not presented his arguments for them. In the next post I'll consider some of the reasons why, exactly, Russell might have come to this conclusion.

[Part III is here!]

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Russell on Existence in TPLA I: Why Care?

In the next few posts I'm going to talk about Bertrand Russell's views on existence as one finds them in his The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (TPLA for short). (Note: I have already written the posts, so I will actually deliver!)

In TPLA Bertrand Russell offers a brief but intriguing account of the notion of existence. Russell holds forcefully to the view that existence cannot be said to apply to individual objects – at least, not without descending into nonsense. According to Russell we cannot meaningfully say this or that particular thing exists; instead, only types or kinds of things can be said to exist.

I will first try to make clear what, exactly, Russell’s views on the matter of existence are, at least insofar as he talks about it in TPLA, and I will clarify his technical terminology along the way. I will then attempt to lay out what are, so far as I can tell, Russell’s arguments for his views, as well as some of the problems concerning existence that motivate him to have a view in the first place. After questioning the soundness of Russell’s arguments I will lay out an alternative view that deals with some of the problems of existence he has identified. This alternative view of existence is more similar to that held by the majority of people before him, including the medieval Scholastics. Ironically, it turns out that this view is actually similar to some of what Russell says about propositions and propositional functions (as well as his own earlier view before TPLA).

Before I begin, however, I’d like to explain why I think it is worthwhile to think about Russell’s views on existence and to bother to critique them. After all, Russell gave the Lectures for TPLA nearly a hundred years ago, and hardly anyone would agree with the precise details of his account of existence (let alone his general metaphysic).

It is probably true that Russell’s precise views are not generally accepted, and arguably parts of his technical “machinery” are archaic. Nevertheless, Russell’s spirit lives on. Russell’s claim that existence is not a predicate of individuals and that existence should ultimately be defined in a “higher-order” way, in terms of quantification, has been widely accepted by many prominent philosophers.  Indeed, the slogan that “existence is what is expressed by ‘existential quantification’” is standard orthodoxy nowadays. (See, for instance, Frege’s  Foundations of Arithmetic sec. 53, Quine’s “On What There Is,” C.J.F. Williams’ What is Existence?, and Peter van Inwagen’s “Being, Existence and Ontological Commitment,” just for a few examples.)

So, aside from the fact that Russell was a great thinker, and the general guideline that it is worthwhile to interact with great thinkers, we should think about his views on existence because views like his are held in one form or another even today.

[Part II is here.]