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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Colorless green ideas sleep furiously 25.X.2004 21:07
PHIL 355 (Theories of Reality aka Metaphysics) is definitely the most worthwhile academic endeavour in which I've ever taken part. It just seems like, for once, I'm taking a course that actually discusses, and forces me to think more rationally about, things which are important to me. Now, obviously, to most people in the world, metaphysics is not exactly up there in terms of concerns, but to me, nothing could be more important, at least from an intellectual-analytical perspective. I really do want to try to understand the world as best I can, and metaphysics deals with the most basic level of this: what it means for things to exist. Almost all the sciences have tacit metaphysical assumptions that they never explore, because they are simply widely assumed, based either on common sense or observation. However, it seems to be to be at least equally important to consider, and justify, these assumptions, and this is exactly what metaphysics is concerned with doing. I recommend anyone even remotely interested in philosophy take a metaphysics course. It's the foundation upon which all else is laid.

Specifically, I'd like to write about a problem we've discussed in class (it was on my recent midterm, which I think went pretty damn well), this being: is x exists a predicate. This is mostly intended as a rebuttal to the ontological argument, but it has a number of interesting side consequences when it comes to talking about things from a formal logic standpoint.

First of all, we must see what we are really saying when we make a predicate statement like, 'the Prime Minister of Canada is uncharismatic,' which he most surely is. Logically, though, what we are saying is 'there is something that is the Prime Minister of Canada and uncharismatic, and nothing else is the Prime Minister of Canada.' This sort of formulation, although farther from the natural language equivalent, it saves us from false statements being dismissed as nonsense. For example, if we say 'the present King of France is bald,' we cannot say that this statement is true or false, but are forced to dismiss it as nonsense. However, if we recognise this statement for what it really is, 'there is something that is the present King of France and bald, and nothing else is the King of France,' we can easily see how this statement is false: there is nothing which is the present King of France.

In this case, though, what can we do about existence as a predicate. Let us take an example from my textbook. We define a bachelor as something which is an unmarried male, and a superbachelor as something which is a bachelor and also exists. The question is: have we added anything to the definition of the former by positing existence as a necessary trait? Note that this is one thing that supporters of the ontological argument, from Anselm to Plantinga, have said of God: any maximally perfect being must have existence as one of his attributes. Thus they define God into existence, and existence being a predicate would allow them to do that. But is existence really a predicate?

If it is, then a problem arises when we try to make statements about non-existence. When we say 'x does not exist', this is a statement of the form 'subject-predicate', which is to say, logically, 'there exists a subject such taht subject is predicate', which would lead, in our example, to 'there exists an x such that x does not exists,' which borders on nonsensical. There are a couple ways to dance around it, most notably wading into the murky realm of 'unactualised possibles', objects that could exist, but don't. So, saying 'x does not exist' is really saying 'there exists an x such that the existential possibility of x is not instantiated.' However, such evasion becomes impossible when dealing with truly impossible objects.

The title of this post comes from Chomsky, being his famous sentence which he used to prove that impossible sentences do, in fact, make sense to us as long as they're syntactically valid, even though they refer to nothing in the world, or even to anything possible. Similar we could discuss something like, to use Quine's example, 'the round square cupola atop Berkeley College.' Needless, to say, there is no such thing: most of us would agree that it is true to say 'the round square cupola atop Berkeley College does not exist.' Yet this is not an unactualised possible, it is a plain impossibility. Thus, there must be some logical way of stating that it does not exist.

The solution is of course that existence is not a predicate. To say 'x exists', and consider it a subject-predicate statement, is as ridiculous as saying that in 'unmarried bachelors are unmarried', the predicate portion adds meaning to the proposition, which it obviously doesn't. This lends coherence to statements about incoherence: it is easy to see how saying 'there does not exist and object which is round and square and a cupola and atop Berkeley College.' Thus, it seems prettylogical that existence is in fact not a predicate, and thus the ontological argument, or at least one of its core arguments, is rendered invalid. If anyone's still reading at this point, give yourself one gold star!

On an interesting sidenote, one of the CompEng profs here at UW, who happens to be president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, made the news recently by declaring that all Israelis over the age of 18 are eligible targets for the intifadeh. His argument is that since military service is compulsory, all adults should count as soldiers of the enemy, but come on. It's not like you'd say war veterans are legitimate targets once they've been discharged. And why would you even make statements like that? To piss off the Jews? To make the government lean further towards Israel? To increase the distrust of Muslims in the west? Whom the hell do comments like that help? Nobody, that's who.
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