Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Paradox:

We often say that certain things don't exist. Santa, unicorns, Sherlock Holmes, and Atlantis are a few examples. But consider the sentence "Unicorns do not exist." This sentence seems to have a subject-predicate form in that there is a subject--unicorns--to which a predicate or property--non-existence--is being attributed. Consider other subject-predicate sentences: Sarah is tall. John doesn't like mushrooms. Liza does not have a car. By saying that these various people have these various properties, we are implying that these people exist. But aren't we then doing the same thing when we say of unicorns that they do not exist. Aren't we saying that unicorns have a certain property; namely, the property of non-existence? If so, then what are we talking about that have this property but unicorns? There has to be a subject of the sentence. Here's another way to put this: To be able to truly claim of an object that it doesn't exist, it seems that one has to presuppose that it exists, for doesn't a thing have to exist if we are to make a true claim about it?

6 comments:

BHFoster said...

Immanuel Kant a critique of the ontological argument argued an idea like this about religion. As he said both answers are equal in terms of greatness. Therefore each cancel each other out and become identical so the ontological argument ends up failing.

Bryce H. Foster

Jesse Steinberg said...

Bryce-Can you clarify your comment a bit? What do you mean by "both answers are equal in terms of greatness"? Which answers and what do mean by "greatness"? Also, can you explain the connection with this paradox and the ontological argument? I'm familiar with Kant's reply to the ontological argument, but it's not clear how it links up with the paradox. A little explaining might help those readers of this blog that aren't familiar with Kant's work. Thanks!

upshooter91 said...

Mmyes. I think that if something does not exist, then it only exists in the imagination, and not in reality. I suppose to answer that question, also, one has to ask what the property of non-existence really is. The property of non-existence is the opposite of the property of existence. The property of existence is that which can be experienced through one or more of the senses or through reason. Reason can allow me to realize that numbers exist, even though none of them are really accessible through any of the senses. The representation of the numbers is accessible through the sense of sight in the form of written characters or physical manifestations (two rocks together, for instance). The property of non-existence is to attribute the things we know from sensory or reasoned experience to form something "new". Santa Claus is (1) a fat dude with a white beard (something we've all seen, I think -- especially in Pennsylvania), (2) a red, probably 70% cotton/ 30% polyester, made in China, robe (mostly out of style today), (3) a sack (Wal-Mart bags have since replaced the usual pillow-case-like object Santa Claus is said to wield), skin/flesh, and excessive joviality (uncommon in Pennsylvania but has still been experienced in some parts of the world. This idea has evidently spread from somewhere). So, to not exist means to not have a physical manifestation and to have parts that are conceived from actual, physical or reasoned parts (Santa Claus might be 7' tall, but what is a foot anyway? OK, it's a body part. So Santa Claus can be imagined as 2 meters tall. What's a "meter" then??? This is a better example). I still can't figure out God, though. If I were a person described by a derogatory term that I will not mention here, I would envision him/her/herm as the stereotypical "man in the sky with the white beard" that some people describe him as being. But I find this absurd, to put it lightly. What's a spirit? A mist, a fog? Who knows? But it may or may not exist because we are presupposing that it has some properties of existence, such as electromagnetic activity. At least, the last property is what the ghost-hunters say spirits are made out of....

Anonymous said...

When determining realness, I feel like its most important to keep the property values of the subject in mind. For example, the squircle is still impossible but it does exist. How? Nobody can draw it, nobody can imagine it, but we all accept it for what it is: an impossibility. Impossibilities are real right?

Put another way, I happen to believe that if one can think it, even get a faint mental whiff of it, the subject is real. Not only do our thoughts literally manifest themselves physically through chemical and energetic interactions in our brains.

If you think of something, it pops into existence. Too bad.

-Matt

Jesse Steinberg said...

Matt-It doesn't seem to me as if impossibilities are real. In fact, I'm not even sure what it would mean to say this. I think they're only "real" in the sense that some things (events, etc.) are impossible. A square-circle is an impossible shape. A region cannot be (entirely) two different colors at once. The number 2 cannot be odd. These are all impossibilities, but in what sense are they real?

Regarding the conceivability stuff, you might want to check out the vast philosophical literature on the relationship between conceivability and possibility. More generally, there's some great work being done in "modal epistemology" that you should look into.

Kevin Morgan said...

The way I see it, the sentence "Unicorns do not exist" is saying the idea of a physical unicorn does not exist. A noun is a person, place, thing, idea, etc. A unicorn is an idea, or a potential thing, therefore, making the sentence make sense. I don't know any other way to put it, really. I'm taking grammar class, and my professor talks about the differences between formal written English and common spoken English. What we speak is sometimes wrong compared to what we write, but what is said is widely understood. So while I can't say I can prove the formal written way of that sentence, it can be understood as "unicorns do not exist." You'd have to go out of your way to not understand what that means.