Monday, May 24, 2021


In his famous critique of the ontological argument, Kant said that existence is not a property. Frege and Russell gave a very influential response to Kant (though not framed as such): the existence of an object is not a property of the existent object, but it is a second-order property of an abstract object. Thus, the existence of Biden is the second-order property of being instantiated possessed not by Biden himself but by the abstract object Bidenness.

But now consider this very plausible principle:

  1. The existence of an object is explanatorily prior to all the (other) properties of that object.

The parenthetical “other” is included to make (1) acceptable both to Frege-Russell and to “pre-Kantians” who think existence is a property of the existent object.

But combining (1) with the Frege-Russell account leads to an explanatory priority regress:

  • Biden’s maleness is posterior to Biden’s existence.

  • Biden’s existence is Bidenness’s being instantiated.

  • Bidenness’s being instantiated is posterior to Bidenness’s existence.

  • Bidenness’s existence is Bidennessness’s being instantiated.

  • Bidennessness’s being instantiated is posterior to Bidennessness’s existence.

  • Bidennessness’s existence is Bidennessnessness’s being instantiated.

How can we arrest this regress? A natural move is to restrict the Frege-Russell view of existence to contingent entities. Thus, Biden’s existence is the instantiation of Bidenness, but Bidenness is a necessary entity, and its existence is not the instantiation of some further entity. Indeed, perhaps, the pre-Kantian view holds of Bidenness: Bidenness’s existence could just be a property of Bidenness.

Note that if the pre-Kantian view holds of necessary beings, then Kant’s critique of the ontological argument falls apart, since God is a necessary being.

But let’s think through the pre-Kantian view a little bit. Suppose that x is an object and e is its existence, and suppose e is a property of x. But how can x possess e without already existing prior to having e? (I.e., surely, (1) is true with the parenthetical “other” removed.) There seems to be one possible move here: perhaps x = e. That would be a view on which some objects are identical with their own existence—a view very much like St. Thomas’s, who held that God, and God alone, was identical with his own existence.

So, interestingly, thinking the Frege-Russell view through leads fairly naturally to a view like Thomas’s.

I am attracted to this variant of the Thomistic view:

  1. Uncaused objects are identical with their existence.

  2. The existence of a caused object is its being caused.

The worry that an object cannot possess a property without “already” existing does not appear pressing when the property in question is being caused.

Moreover, we might even more speculatively add:

  1. An object’s being caused is its cause’s causing of it.

On this view, a contingent thing’s existence, like on the Frege-Russell view, is a property of something other than the thing: it is a property of the cause (perhaps an extrinsic property of the cause, when the cause is God, so as not to violate divine simplicity).


Dominik Kowalski said...

Am I reading you correctly in that you are affirming that a thin theory of existence requires haeccity properties? Unless we go completely eliminativist about individuals this seems to be the logical conclusion. William Vallicella in his post about what motivates the thin theory alluded to something similar:

Dominik Kowalski said...

Also your sentence "So, interestingly, thinking the Frege-Russell view through leads fairly naturally to a view like Thomas’s."
reminds me very much of van Inwagen, a Quinean about existence, who tried to argue AGAINST the thick theory based on the fact that a real distinction can be drawn between the nature and the existence of a thing (Ontology, Identity, and Modality, 3–4). If there is indeed a natural way to converge Frege into Thomas, this would be huge and probably would come most surprising to Frege and Russell themselves.

Wesley C. said...


I have a question about the Difference Principle and PSR. The argument against a universal DP, especially in the case of God, is that if creating a specific world were intrinsic to God then this would be an accidental property that depends on creation, which would be an explanatory regress so nothing is actually explained.

But one needn't conceive of it as an accidental property dependent on creation for an explanation - instead one could say that God's act of creating this specific world is intrinsic to God but ontologically prior to creation.

Say God creates with His will assenting to or containing the proposition "Create this specific world" - that proposition about our world is ontologically prior to it as it is the basis for it in modal space.

And just as the divine ideas are necessary because they are rooted in God's essence though distinct from it, so too is the propositional content or will to create this specific world necessary but distinct from God's essence - and so we have this world existing necessarily because God by His omnipotence can't fail to bring about what He wills, and the accidental property in God NOT depending on the creation itself, only on the proposition God chose to will.

What do you think?

Wesley C. said...

To put it differently, the act of creating this world is intentional, and that intention is prior to this world and so independent of it.

Another way of viewing it is to say that God creates this world by having the intention or proposition for that in His mind or will, and that proposition or desire or intention is strictly prior to the existence of this creation and so independent of it.

Similar to how we may sometimes consider a possibility and then choose to actualise it - our intention or will to do it, or perhaps the proposition of intending it, isn't dependent on the actualised possibility as such since it isn't actual yet. It's the proposition / intent and our assent to it that causes it.

Dominik Kowalski said...

First of all, why here? The topic we're on is quite interesting, since, even though many don't immediately realize it, the falsehood or convergence of the thin theory has tremendous metaphysical consequences.

But anyway...

But one needn't conceive of it as an accidental property dependent on creation for an explanation - instead one could say that God's act of creating this specific world is intrinsic to God but ontologically prior to creation.

[...]God's act of creating this specific world is intrinsic to God but ontologically prior to creation.

By itself this won't help you. Leaving out the question in this context as to how God is constituted (does "God" contain several ontological levels within himself? That'd be strange in my opinion). The issue arises if it is asserted that God's will is equally fundamental as his other attributes if it is demanded that God must be made distinct from his will. We can skip over that, since that seems to be merely an interpretational issue and thus secondary.

We have to set our sight on two issues. 1) the DP must still be rejected if the will flows from the fundamental ontological level in which everything is necessarily the way it is. If it wouldn't be, we'd have a brute fact and thus a violation of the PSR.

2) if you want to say that it is intrinsic and thus necessary for God to create a specific world, by itself your account creates a modal collapse. So while what you are proposing is coherent, we can find a very similar account in Spinoza. But the PSR, used in the contingency argument, goes off the fact that there is indeed something contingent. Unless further fleshed out there is a problem with reconciliation.

Dominik Kowalski said...

Another way of viewing it is to say that God creates this world by having the intention or proposition for that in His mind or will, and that proposition or desire or intention is strictly prior to the existence of this creation and so independent of it.

Do you want to affirm that a world is completely knowable before it is created? Since that requires haeccity and God knowing of individuals before they exist, I dispute that.

And do you want to say that God reasons? It's the only way I can make the suggestion intelligible that the willing of something for God is independent of that something actually coming about

Dominik Kowalski said...

Wesley, I think I misread your points. I'll leave my answers up so you can see how I would respond to the argument as I understood it, but later I'll make a revised comment

Alexander R Pruss said...

My argument only presupposes that there is some property, B, such that for Biden to exist is for B to be instantiated. It doesn't care whether B is a haecceity. I am attracted to a strong version of the identity of indiscernibles myself that would allow B to be a purely qualitative property about Biden's history.

Wesley C. said...


1) My argument doesn't necessarily assume haecceity, just possible worlds as possible in modal space, or whatever makes them contemplatable as such. If we use PW terminology and can pick out different individual PWs, then this is what I'm referring to.

2) As for modal collapse, I'm responding to the idea that accepting PSR fully also requires rejecting modal collapse since even if we say the act of creating this particular world, or the intention / will of creating this world, is intrinsic to God as an accidental property, it would still end up in an explanatory circle since the accidental property of God depends on the actually existing contingent creation, which then depends on the accidental property. So we would have no real explanation which violates PSR, and so PSR demands rejecting a universal DP.

3) As for God reasoning - I was talking about God's willing something contingent being logically prior to that contingent thing.

So God contemplating and freely assenting to creating this particular world is logically prior to the existence of the world, since for the world to exist God must have decided to create it, and that decision and likely its content referring to this world is prior to the contingent existence of it.

4) Also, why would we have to reject the DP if we accept that the Will flows necessarily from the essence? What about that is inconsistent with DP?

swaggerswaggmann said...

Always special pleading for your skydaddy, that you arbitrarily define as necessary.

El Filósofo said...

Dr. Pruss, what do you think of the ontological Nihilism which says that there are no subjects?

Don said...

I've always wondered how much ontological status one gets for maximal swag. Apparently not much.

Dominik Kowalski said...

1) I'm not so quite sure what this would amount to, but we can leave it at that in this context. I think it amounts to something similar as to how Almeida conceives of them in the pluriverse.

2) Well we don't *need* to reject modal collapse, it's just very desirable to do so. The only issue with intrinsic properties is that for an ultimate being, that's the explanatory stopping point. So if we have a contingent stopping point we have a brute fact. It doesn't matter whether this brute fact is prior to the caused contingent world, unless either is linked to necessity, we violate the PSR. Last time I said that the contingent world created by the unchanging essential nature causes the accidental properties. The way I see it you suggest thawe add an ontological level in between in which God's will is placed. This could work, but it makes a distinction between God's activity and God's will and as of now I fail to see the explanatory benefit.

3) I understand.

4) If Spinoza is correct, then we don't have to reject DP, but we also don't have actual contingency the way we assume it.

An alternative is Almeida's Theistic Modal Realism in which God necessarily creates the Pluriverse, the whole of all possible worlds. Since I believe creation to be infinite I'm very attracted to that idea, but since I haven't studied that idea in much detail I'm not yet sure how he solves the problem of free will and contingency there.

Wesley C. said...


1) If Almeida is saying PWs actually exist rather than just being possibilities, then no. I'm referring to PWs in the sense that they are abstract objects in modal space, not as actualised realities.

2) Couldn't one say that the contingent stopping point is self-explanatory, or explained by the necessary but without also becoming necessary?

And the main point of my argument is that just as it is God who creates the world rather than the world making God create it, so too is God's act of creating this world prior to the world itself.

An analogy can be made with how we actualise possibilities - the possibilities don't actualise the accidental property in us, we are the ones who actualise the possibilities. The accidental property is completely prior to the possibility.

In a similar way, God's intention / decision to cause this world - or just His act of creating this particular world alone, since you don't even need to talk about this in terms of intentions at all, just acts of creating that point to this world is sufficient - would be an accidental property prior to and independent of the contingent world as such.

You could even cut this down to just having God's act of creation and the creation itself - it would still be true that the act of creation is prior to creation, and so it would be an accidental property in God that ISN'T dependent on the actually existing creation for its explanation.

At least, if we view this as an accidental intrinsic property for the sake of argument.

4) So... if we say that the Will is necessary and flows from the Essence... how does this undermine the DP exactly?

Wesley C. said...


Also, do you happen to know of any good metaphysical defenses of indeterministic causality out there? That is, showing how it doesn't violate PSR or that contrastive explanations aren't necessarily required for there to be coherent and acceptable causality?

I'm primarily thinking of things like ideal fair coins or ideal dies that would be ontologically stochastic and thus indeterminate or random.

This seems to also be connected to rejecting DP - many accounts of indeterministic causality say that the same explanation can account for several different things, or that the same state can have different results.

Wesley C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wesley C. said...


In fact, here are a few arguments against indeterministic causality in the sense of ideal dies or fair coins that came to mind a while back:

One of the modal arguments for PSR is that we often say that something won't actually happen since there is no reason for it to happen, and that this implies a connection between there being a reason for X and X actually happening which would be denied by rejecting PSR - but it seems the same argument can be used against indeterministic causation. Say the only explanation for a 6-sided die falling on the number 4 is that it was tossed and is naturally restricted to six possible outcomes - but then we'd be saying that while there is a reason for the die to fall anywhere between 1-6, there is no reason for it to fall on any one of the particular numbers. So we'd have good reason to say the die won't fall on any particular number, even though we also have good reason to say it will fall somewhere in the range. But this produces a contradiction, so...

Another potential objection is that while general reasons can explain general things, generalities can't explain particular things insofar as they are particular - so while being restricted to six sides might explain why the die has the set of final causes it does, it can't reach out and be the explanation for any of the specific outcomes insofar as they are particular.

The last question would be how we could distinguish this from internal brute facts - since some brute facts are potentials being actualised for no reasons, and X's acting to cause Y is itself a potential about X, it's possible for X's very internal movement-to-cause Y to also be a BF itself. We can conceive of X doing something but for no reason, or it happening just as a matter of brute fact. So X could cause Y but for no reason, which makes us ask how we can distinguish indeterminism from internal-causal-movement BFs?

What do you think of these?

Alexander R Pruss said...

El Filósofo:

See my post for today.

Alexander R Pruss said...


One explanation of why the die fell on the number 4 is that it was tossed indeterministically and it had a side labeled "4" that was sufficiently large for it to fall on it. Note that this is a particular fact about the die.

The best defense I know of indeterministic causation is Anscombe's inaugural lecture.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex, But since this explanation applies to all the sides, couldn't one still say that it still seems to be a general explanation rather than a particular one? The fact the die has 6 sides and all have a sufficient size to fall explains the interval 1-6 as it applies to to all of them and how they can fall in the first place, but not their uniquely particular occurrence. It allows for their possibility, but not their specificity.

Wesley C. said...

Also, what consequences do you think would a saturated nonmeasurable indeterministic die have for indeterminism? Say that there is a possible object (or even a 6-sided die) that produces results indeterministically, and that the various sides it could land on have no meaningful probability because they are dependent on S-N sets, or are in other ways connected to Nonmeasurability?

Would an indeterministic die that is saturated nonmeasurable get scarily close to approximating what a brute fact or brute result would look like? Do we have to deny the possibility of such indeterministic objects, or can we still deal in the sense that they still aren't as problematic as brute facts are?

Alexander R Pruss said...

There may be metaphysical limits on nonmeasurable events. The chapter on the axiom of choice in my infinity book is relevant here.

Wesley C. said...

@Alex, Well, the nonmeasurable die may have its nonmeasurability as an intrinsic quality, not as something constructed through an infinite series of actions which causal finitism rules out (and if we assume CF to be false, or are just non-commital to it, the question still arises). Tts substantial form and definition may then include nonmeasurability within it by definition. So the only thing necessary is for the die to exist and to be what it is to get us grappling with the nonmeasurable indeterminism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe, but what intrinsic qualities are possible is unclear.

That said, I don't know that probabilities are absolutely essential to explanations. A causal power to produce a particular effect may be all that's needed.

Wesley C. said...

That's understandable. But what then do you think would be the benefit of the PSR over brute facts, if even some explanations can lack probability and be epistemically undeterminable by definition?

What bad consequences may BFs have on reality and our epistemology that even nonmeasurable indeterminism doesn't have? That is, what distinguishes BFs from nonmeasurable explanations, other than the seemingly trivial fact the latter has a cause?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Without the PSR, nothing can rule out the possibility of brute facts popping out all over the place, and destroying all our empirical predictions.

Given a PSR-based system, we might be fortunate enough to have a system where our causes do in fact act in fairly probabilistically stable ways. This is especially true if it turns out there is a first cause that is a perfect being.

Wesley C. said...

You mentioned once that even nonmeasurables can have probability bounds which BFs would lack - so does this mean that even if saturated nonmeasurability or S-N were an intrinsic quality of things, it could still have probability bounds and so doesn't need to be as unpredictable in principle as BFs would be?

Also, one response to your second paragraph could be that even if we could be living in a probabilistically stable world, the possibility of S-N causes perpetually undermines our certainty as all the empirical stability around us could still just be an S-N fluke, and so we have the same problems as with BFs - it's just that S-N really needn't be a threat since it S-N causes could fail to be instantiated, while BFs are always a threat as long as they are merely possible. What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...


There are no probability bounds on S-N events.

If our reasons for thinking we live in a fundamentally probabilistically stable world were _a posteriori_ in nature, then I think the point in your second paragraph would go through. I conclude that the reasons must be _a priori_.

Wesley C. said...

What would an a priori reason for that be then? One could appeal to God as a guarantee against universal S-N or S-N to any degree that would be highly problematic, but in this context one can't argue for God via the standard cosmological argument by ruling out BFs because of their lack of probability - the existence of S-N proves that probability could be fully lacked, and so one can't prove God by ruling out BFs due to them lacking probability.

Another question is - could God be S-N or do things without there being any probability to them? I guess it could be argued that probabilistically stable rationality is a transcendental value that is likely going to be preferred by God, so God is unlikely to universally prefer a No-Probability state when creating the world.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It could be, and I think it is, just a fact about our nature that we ought to have low priors for certain sceptical scenarios.

Wesley C. said...

Would this just be something about our epistemology and what is more functional and beneficial for us, or could we also make an a priori argument based on the nature of axiology or rationality, such that it's more likely that the world would be probabilistically stable?

Could we then also use a general argument against skeptical scenarios on the basis of a Moorean common-sense approach to rule these out - appealing to basic intuitions or basic tenets which we naturally hold to rule such scenarios out?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it could just be a fact about our natures. I am inclined to a significant amount of species-relativism in rationality and morals. If God made beings for a messier world, the norms of rationality for them would likely be quite different, and it would be irrational for them to engage in induction like we do.

Mikhail said...

Hi Dr. Pruss,

You write: "How can x possess e without already existing prior to having e?" I don't see the problem. My parents are *my* parents even if I didn't exist before they did. Analogously, my existence is called *my* existence because it grounds me.