Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is "necessary" more than just a word?

The Maverick Philosopher blogged some thoughts designed to offer evidence that there are necessary beings. Overall, the argument relies on the common co-mingling of the formal and the real, between the description and an actual existence. We've looked at such arguments before, (for example, in this post) and in my series reviewing The Last Superstition. Proponents of the supernatural go to a great deal of trouble to convince us in the existence of archetypes for the descriptions we use for things, because they wish to use those archetypes to cast some being as the thinker of the archetypes. Here, the archetype is "necessary".

Dr. Vallicella breaks his argument down in 6 parts, which I will address in six paragraphs below the fold.

The first part gives the general idea of the descriptions of "contingent" and "necessary". It provides no reason to think of these descriptions as having any sort of independent existence, just as labels we might apply to various phenomena.

The second part introduces a new description, concrete (defined as objects which are or can be involved in causal chains/lattices) and abstract (things that by their nature make them not causally relevant. Non-physical items, such as emotional states, can still be concrete as long as it is possible for them to influence things. However, the items offered for abstracta seem curious. The claim is that ideas like "7 is a prime number" or the set containing Socrates (i.e., not Socrates himself, but the set containing him) are abstracta. Yet, if "7 is a prime number" is abstract, by definition that idea could not have resulted in Dr. Vallicella, nor me, typing that clause into the keyboard. Under these definitions, there are no abstracta that can be discussed, because to discuss them is to have them participate in causing the discussion.

The third part makes the case that there are necessary truths, offering the example that "7 is a prime number" is a necessary truth. As I have mentioned before, this is like claiming that "the Fool's Mate is the shortest chess game" is a necessary truth. People set up the rules of chess, just like people create the number system. There is nothing necessary about the rules we used to create the number system; we can change them at our convenience. So, I am actually unconvinced that necessary truths exist. Nonetheless, I will grant that for the sake of the rest of the argument.

The fourth part has a discussion of what a truth is (a true truth-bearer), and how such a thing can exist, by pointing out that neither marks on a paper nor a brain inscription can be true in and of themselves. Rather, it is the interpretation that we give to those marks, or that inscription, that is true or false. I think the phrase "true thought-bearer" or even "true proposition-bearer" would have been closer to what Dr. Vallicella is trying to convey. After all, if a bearer could only carry truths, it would not need the redundant description "true truth-bearer". Another point of disagreement is the need for there to be a proposition bearer at all. Propositions don’t need to be born to be true, they merely need to be born to be seen as true by the bearer. Especially if the truth is necessary, it will be true regardless of the existence of a bearer. This is another attempt to take a description, in this case "true", and impose some sort of underpinning or instantiation to it.

The fifth paragraph notes that since the marks/inscriptions are themselves contingent, the truths themselves might not be necessary. Applying modus tollens and the existence of necessary truths, Dr. Vallicella arrives at the conclusion there must be non-contingent proposition-bearers. This is where the underpinning attempted in the prior part bears fruit within Dr. Vallicella’s argument, and why the argument fails to be convincing to people who distinguish between descriptions and instantiations of descriptions.

The sixth arguments attempts a reducito ad absurbum on the possibility that all truth bearers are contingent, by using the notion that all descriptions are instantiated to show that, since a proposition can be conceived in any possible world, there must be something to conceive it within that world. It fails to be convincing for the same reason, namely, that there is no reason to think all descriptions are instantiated, so there does not need to be something to think a proposition in any particular possible world.

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