March 6, 2014

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

McDaniel's Ontological Pluralism and the Puzzle of Existence

The very last essay in The Puzzle of Existence is the article by Kris McDaniel which examines the bearing of ontological pluralism on the question, why is there something rather than nothing?

Ontological pluralism, as McDaniel uses that term, is the thesis that there is more than one kind of being, existence, or reality. (McDaniel usually prefers the term 'being,' but seems to use 'existence' and 'reality' as synonyms.) This is not simply the trivial thesis that there are many different kinds of beings (i.e., that there are things of many different kinds), and it is not a metaphysically deflationary thesis like Eli Hirsch's theory of 'quantifier variance.' Rather, McDaniel takes it to be a deep metaphysical fact about the world that there is a plurality of existence-like attributes things can have. In other words, McDaniel is pluralism is a version of what has sometimes been called a 'thick' conception of ontology, a conception on which ontology seeks not only to tell us what things there are, but also to make substantive, informative claims about what being is.

McDaniel has written extensively about this elsewhere, but he does an excellent job of summarizing his view in this short essay before showing how it bears on the question of why there is something rather than nothing. McDaniel uses the term 'being' for the 'semantic value' of the English existential 'is' or 'exists' which, he says, is "either a property of properties or a kind of relation between properties" (271). Presumably he has in mind something along the lines of Frege's view that 'Fs exist' should be analyzed as F-ness is instantiated, attributing the property being instantiated to the property F-ness. He uses the term 'modes of being' for the semantic values of other terms which function syntactically and inferentially like the existential quantifier, and he argues that some other modes of being are more fundamental than being, that is, that some things exist (or could exist) in a more 'full-blooded' sense than that expressed by the English existential 'is.'

McDaniel's project in this paper is to determine whether, given ontological pluralism, there is a version of the 'why is there something rather than nothing?' question which is both well-posed and ontologically deep. Like many other important questions, this one depends on what the meaning of 'is' is.

McDaniel starts by considering the possibility that the question might be about being proper, i.e., about why there is something in the plain English sense of 'is' and not some 'Ontologese' sense. McDaniel argues that plain English recognizes the existence of such things as absences and omissions, and even takes them quite seriously: they can be counted, they can be causes, they can be classified into kinds, and so forth (277). Under what conditions does an absence exist? McDaniel is not totally sure about this, but he suggests that perhaps our conventions may be such "that an absence of Fs exists when there are no Fs" (278). If this is not our convention, then the existence conditions for absences must be rather gerrymandered, and so a non-gerrymandered mode of being, more fundamental than being proper, would recognize absences whenever there are none of something. Now this, McDaniel says, can answer our question, for if nothing existed other than absences, then an awful lot of absences would exist!

I found this line of thought rather intriguing, but I think there's a better way of spelling it out, and coming to the conclusion that there must be something. It should really be an argument by contradiction: Suppose nothing existed. Then, by the existence condition for absences, the absence of everyting would exist. But the absence of everything is something, in contradiction to our supposition.

Interestingly, absences of contingent things are themselves contingent, so we can run the same argument by contradiction from the supposition that there are no continent things. (Note: this is essentially why God, on a Leibniz-Ross type theory of omnipotence, cannot avoid actualizing some world: if he doesn't create any contingent beings, he thereby actualizes the empty world, or, if one likes, the absence of all contingent beings.)

Furthermore, absences of concrete things have many of the markers of concreteness: they can be causes, they can be spatiotemporally located ('the match failed to light due to the absence of oxygen in the chamber, at the time it was struck'), they can be perceived by the senses, and so forth. So perhaps absences of concrete things are themselves concrete, in which we can also use the argument to show that it is incoherent to suppose that there were no concrete beings.

Now, I think this argument is rather nifty, but one must admit that it has an air of sophism about it. McDaniel recognizes this, and he says that what the argument shows is that when interpreted as being about being proper, that is, the plain English sense of 'is', the question is not in fact a metaphysically deep or interesting one. Perhaps, then, there is a more interesting interpretation in terms of some other mode of being. Pursuant to this, McDaniel finds it necessary to introduce some considerations about the nature of modality.

McDaniel first considers the possibility of endorsing a form of modal realism, by which he apparently means not realism about merely possible entities (as in David Lewis) but rather realism about modality itself, that is, the view that modal concepts like possibility and actuality are fundamental. The way of spelling this out that McDaniel considers takes possibility and actuality to be distinct, fundamental modes of being. Each of these modes of being will be associated with a quantifier. However, McDaniel suggests, it may not make sense to put a modal operator in front of the possibilist quantifier. So, on this kind of modal realism, the question will have to be about actual being. The general point McDaniel is trying to make is that, if there is more than one equally fundamental quantifier, then it might be that modal operators do not make sense in connection with all of them. If that's so, then the claim 'possibly, nothing exists' will not make sense in connection with those values of 'exists'.

In the final section, McDaniel argues against modal realism. He argues that any property which applies to things that are less than fully real must be less than fully natural. This immediately entails that de re modal properties are not fully natural. Furthermore, if modal operators designate properties, then presumably de dicto modality is a matter of certain propositions having certain properties. It follows, on McDaniel's view, that 'why is there something rather than nothing?' has a metaphysically deep interpretation only if propositions are fully real.

I found this paper quite interesting, but there is a fundamental assumption behind McDaniel's whole discussion which doesn't even get stated until the last page. This is the assumption that the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' presupposes that possibly, nothing exists and is unintelligible, or at least ill-posed, if that assumption fails. But this is simply not true. It makes perfectly good sense to ask 'why is the Incompleteness Theorem true?' and one could even say, 'true rather than false.' Because this assumption is undefended (and, until the last page, unstated), the relevance of McDaniel's essay to the issue at hand is left in doubt. Beyond this, I found McDaniel's claim that there might be a quantifier to which we can't intelligibly prefix modal operators quite questionable. I can see how there might be modes of being such that anything that possesses them possesses them necessarily, and I can see why possibilist being might be such a mode. But if that was true, then, on the possibilist interpretation, 'possibly, there are talking donkeys' and 'necessarily, there are talking donkeys' would both be trivially true and trivial truth is worlds away from unintelligibility. Nevertheless, McDaniel is certainly right about one thing: ontological pluralism opens up a whole new universe for possible reflection about why there is something rather than nothing.

This is, as I said, the last essay in the book. My next post will be some concluding reflections together with an index of my posts.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion.)

Posted by Kenny at March 6, 2014 9:49 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:


Ontological and epistemic issues always have to be framed in the context of the origin of mind from brain activity. How do semantics arise and within that process how are categories established? Being is a reality construct within the human psychic process. The possibilities of an ontological pluralism lie in this realm. While the analytic dynamic examining this issue adheres to a certain logic, both the syntactic and the semantic aspects have certain inherent origins that should be discussed.

Posted by: Harvey at March 16, 2014 7:10 AM

Post a comment

Return to