Thursday, September 12, 2019

Ordinary language and "exists"

In Material Beings, Peter van Inwagen argues that his view that there are no complex artifacts does not contradict (nearly?) universal human belief. The argument is based on his view that the propositions expressed by ordinary statements like “There are three valuable chairs in this room” do not entail the negation of the Radical Claim that there are no artifacts, for such a proposition does not entail that there exist chairs.

I think van Inwagen is right that such ordinary propositions do not entail the negation of the Radical Claim. But he is wrong in thinking that the Radical Claim does not contradict nearly universal human belief. Van Inwagen makes much of the analogy between his view and the Copernican view that the sun does not move. When ordinary people say things like “The sun moved behind the elms”, they don’t contradict Copernicus. Again, I think he is right about the ordinary claims, but nonetheless Copernicus contradicted nearly universal human belief. That was why Copernicus’ view was so surprising, so counterintuitive (cf. some remarks by Merricks on van Inwagen). One can both say that when people prior to Copernicus said “The sun moved behind the elms” they didn’t contradict Copernicanism and that they believed things that entailed that Copernicus is wrong.

People do not assert everything they believe. They typically assert what is salient. What is normally salient is not that the sun actually moved, but that there was a relative motion between the rays pointing to the elms and to the sun. Nonetheless, if ordinary pre-Copernicans said “The sun doesn’t stand still”, they might well have been contradicting the Copernican hypothesis. But rarely in ordinary life is there occasion to say “The sun doesn’t stand still.” Because of the way pragmatics affects semantics (something that van Inwagen apparently agrees on), we simply cannot assume that the proposition expressed by the English sentence “The sun moved behind the elms” entails the proposition expressed by the English sentence “The sun doesn’t stand still.”

Something similar, I suspect, is true for existential language. When an ordinary person says “There are three chairs in the room”, the proposition they express does not contradict the Radical Thesis. But if an ordinary person says things like “Chairs exist” or “Artifacts exist”, they likely would contradict the Radical Thesis, and moreover, these are statements that the ordinary person would be happy to make in denial of the Radical Thesis. But in the ordinary course of life, there is rarely an occasion for such statements.

This is all largely a function of pragmatics than the precise choice of words. Thus, one can say: “Drive slower. Speed limits exist.” The second sentence does not carry ontological commitment to speed limits.

So, how can we check whether an ordinary person believes that tables and chairs exist? I think the best way may be by ostension. We can bid the ordinary person to consider:

  1. People, dogs, trees and electrons.

  2. Holes, shadows and trends.

We remind the ordinary person that we say “There are three holes in this road” or “The shadow is growing”, but of course there are no holes or shadows, while there are people (we might remind them of the Cogito), dogs, trees and (as far as we can tell) electrons. I think any intelligent person will understand what we mean when we say there are no holes or shadows. And then we ask: “So, are tables and chairs in category 2 or in category 1? Do they exist like people, dogs, trees and electrons, or fail to exist like holes, shadows and trends?” This should work even if like Ray Sorensen they disagree that there are no shadows; they will still understand what we meant when we said that there are no shadows, and that’s enough for picking out what we meant by “exist”. To put in van Inwagen’s terms, this brief ostensive discussion will bring intelligent people into the “ontology room”.

And I suspect, though this is an empirical question and I could be wrong, once inducted into the discussion, most people will say that tables and chairs exist (and that they have believed this all along). But, van Inwagen should say, this nearly universal belief is mistaken.

This story neatly goes between van Inwagen’s view that ordinary people don’t believe things patently incompatible with the Radical Theory and Merricks’ view that ordinary poeple contradict the Radical Theory all the time. Ordinary people do believe things patently incompatible with the Radical Theory, but they rarely express these beliefs. Most ordinary “there exist” statements—whether concerning artifacts or people or particles—do not carry ontological commitment, and those of us who accept the Radical Theory normally aren’t lying when we say “There are three chairs in the room”. But the Radical Theory really is radical.


Red said...

Do you believe in existence of holes and shadows?

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think the term "exist" (and related terms) is as big a source of conceptual confusion as "have" (and related words). But, at the end of the day, normal English discourse does NOT commit us to existential claims just because we use terms of this sort in the same kinds of sentences in which we would use the same words for things which really do exist. And every competent user of English knows this. It's the pesky philosophers who've made a mess of things. Lol.

I just don't think anyone should think that there must exist such objects as "chances for peace in the Middle East" just because a true statement says "there exist chances for peace in the Middle East". I think any philosophical approach which says there must exist such entities in order for the sentence to be true are in big trouble.