Theory on framework issues

Monday, January 21, 2013

19.1. The meaning of “existence”: Lessons from infinity

Based on 19.0. Can infinite quantities exist?

The topic is the concept of existence, not its fact—not why there's something rather than nothing—but the bare concept brings its own austere delights. Philosophical problems arise from our conflicting intuitions, but “existence” is a primitive element of thought because our intuitions of it are so robust and reliable. Of course, we disagree about whether certain particulars (such as Moses) have existed and even about whether some general kinds (such as the real numbers) exist, but disputes don’t concern the concept of existence itself. If Moses’s existence poses any conceptual problem, it concerns what counts as being him, not what counts as existence. Adult readers never seriously maintain that fictitious characters exist; they disagree about whether a given character is fictitious. Even the question of the existential status of numbers is a question about numbers rather than about existence. As will be seen, sometimes philosophers wrongly construe these disputes as being about existence.

When essay 19.0 asked “Can infinite quantities exist?” existence’s meaning wasn't in play—infinity’s was. Existence is well-suited for the role as a primitive concept in philosophy because it is so unproblematic, but it’s unproblematic nature can be thought of as a kind of problem, in that we want to know why this concept is uniquely unproblematic. We would at least like to be able to say something more about it than merely that it’s primitive, but in philosophy, we acquire knowledge by solving problems, and existence fails to provide any but the unhelpful problem of its being unproblematic. The problem of infinity provides, in the end, some purchase on the concept of existence, which concept I assumed in dealing with infinity.

In one argument against actual infinity, I proposed as conceptually possible that separate things might be distinguishable only concerning their being separate things. If we assume that infinite sets can exist, the implication is the contradiction that an infinite set and its successor—when still another point pops into existence—are the same set because you can’t distinguish them. (In technical terms, the only information that could distinguish the set and its successor, given that their members are brutely distinguishable, is their cardinality, which is the same—countably infinite—for each set.)

What’s interesting is the role of existence, which imposes an additional constraint on concepts besides the internal consistency imposed by the mathematics of sets. Whereas we are unable to distinguish existing points, we are able—in a manner of speaking—to distinguish points that exist from those that don’t exist. While no proper subsets are possible for existing brutely distinguishable points, the distinction within the abstract set of points between “those” that exist and “those” that don’t exist allows us to extend the successor set by moving the boundary, resulting in contradiction.

If finitude is a condition for existence, we’ve learned something new about the concept of existence. Its meaning is imbued with finitude, with definite quantity. Everything that exists does so in some definite quantity. Existence is that property of conceptual referents such that they necessarily have some definite quantity.

Existence is primitive because almost everyone knows the term and can apply it to the extent they understand what they’re applying it to. The alternative to primitive existence is primitive sensation, as when Descartes derived his existence from his “thinking.” But sensationalism is incoherent; “experiences” inherently lacking in properties (“ineffable”) are conceived as having properties (“qualia”). The heirs of extreme logical empiricism, from Rudolf Carnap to David Lewis, have challenged existence’s primitiveness. Carnap defined existence by the place of concepts in a fruitful theory. Lewis applies this positivist maxim to conclude that all possible worlds exist. Lewis isn’t impelled by an independent theory of logical existence, such as a Platonic theory that posits actually realized idealizations. Rather, the usefulness of possible worlds in logic requires their acceptance, according to Lewis, because that’s all that we mean by “exists.” Lewis is driven by this theory of existence to require infinitely many existing possible worlds, which disqualifies it on other grounds. But the grounds aren’t separate. When you don’t apply the constraints of existence because you deny their intuitive force, you lose just that constraint imposing finitude. The incoherence of sensationalism and actual infinitism argues for a metaphysics upholding the primacy of common-sense existence.

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SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.