(Note to Alfredo and Peter L: I need your help in understanding this particularly opaque portion of PvI's paper.)
Here are some notes on section 2 of Peter van Inwagen's "Being, Existence, and Ontological Commitment" (pp. 476-479 of the Metametaphysics volume).
The first of the Quinean theses that van Inwagen maintains is that "Being is not an activity." Here is the opening sentence of the section:
Many philosophers distinguish between a thing's being and its nature. These philosophers seem to think of, e.g., Socrates' being as the most general activity Socrates engages in.
These two sentences have me flummoxed. Let me explain why.
First, the two sentences taken together imply that philosophers who distinguish between a thing's being (existence) and its nature think of a thing's being as the most general activity it engages in. That's just false. There are philosophers who distinguish between being and nature (Aquinas for example) without holding that a thing's being is the most general activity it engages in. Since I hesitate to impute something plainly false to the dean of the thin theorists, I must question what he's driving at.
My suspicion is that van Inwagen (447) gets the notion that being is an activity entirely from J. L. Austin's jocose footnote to p. 68 of Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford, 1962): "The word ['exist'] is a verb, but it does not describe something that things do all the time, like breathing, only quieter -- ticking over, as it were, in a metaphysical sort of way." That's clever all right, but too frail a reed to support a global imputation to all thick theorists of the view that being is a peculiarly quiet activity.
Second, since van Inwagen goes on to deny that being is an activity, are we to conclude that he rejects the distinction between being and nature? Is PvI denying that there is a distinction between Socrates' nature and his existence? Is he suggesting the following argument:
a. If there is a distinction between a thing's being and its nature, then being is the most general activity the thing engages in.
b. Being is not the most general activity a thing engages in.
c. There is no distinction between a thing's being and its nature.
I hope van Inwagen is not suggesting any such argument. For that would not cohere with his commitment to a Quinean translation of 'Socrates exists' into 'It is not the case that everything is identical to Socrates.' This implies that the existence of Socrates is his identity-to-something -- in which case there is a distinction between Socrates' nature and his existence. After all, Socrates' nature and the property of being identical to something are distinct.
Third, PvI speaks of "many philosophers' but gives no examples. He needs a footnote right at the end of the second sentence above. He needs to quote philosophers who explicitly say that being is a most general activity. Farther down the page he mentions Heidegger and Sartre, but no page references are given and no quotations. So my third point is that PvI seems to be committing a Straw Man fallacy. Which philosopher ever said that being is the most general activity a thing engages in?
The view van Inwagen ascribes to thick theorists such as Heidegger and Sartre involves the following propositions:
1. Being is an activity.
2. Being is the most general activity that a thing engages in, one that is implied by every other activity the thing in question engages in. Thus if Socrates is running, then he is moving on his feet, and if so, then he is moving through space, etc. until we come to some one terminal activity that is implied by all the other activities the thing is engaged in at the time.
3. This most general terminal activity -- being -- is the same activity at every time the thing in question is engaging in any activity.
4. This most general activity is the same for each member of a given category, Thus it is the same for Socrates and Plato, but presumably not the same for a bridge or an ass.
5. This most general terminal activity of being (existing) is different (or can be different) for different categories of entity. Thus the most general activity of a table is not the same as the most activity of a human being. And so there are different kinds of being, different kinds of this most general terminal activity.
Van Inwagen imputes the above five theses to Heidegger and Sartre and, it appears, to all thick theorists.
There are several topics to discuss. One, which I will leave until later, is whether Heidegger and Sartre are committed to the five theses listed. A second is whether thick theorists in general are committed to them.
Well, I'm a thick theorist and I don't see that I am committed to them. As a thick theorist I am committed to the intelligibility of the idea that there are modes of existence (ways or modes of being). The thin theory, however, entails the unintelligibility of this idea. For van Inwagen, the idea springs from a clear-cut mistake, namely, the mistake of transforming a difference in nature into a difference in mode of existence. For van Inwagen, the vast difference between a human being and a rock is simply a vast difference in their natures, and does not imply any difference in the mode of being of that which has these natures. The idea is not that a rock and a human being have the same mode of being, but that one cannot intelligibly speak of one or more modes of being at all. The rock exists, the man exists, and to say that is just to say that each is identical to something or other.
I will now given an example which to my mind shows that it is intelligible that there be modes of existence. We will have to see if I am committing the mistake of transforming a difference in nature into a difference in mode of existence.
Pains and Brains
Phenomenal pains exist and brain states exist. More generally, there are non-intentional mental states and there are physical states. But felt pains and felt pleasures and such have a “first-person ontology” as John Searle puts it. The being of a pain is (identically) its being perceived. But nothing physical is such that its being is (identically) its being perceived. This certainly looks like a difference in mode of existence. Pains exist in a first-person way while brains exist in a third-person way.
What can the thin theorist say in rebuttal? The thins think that we thick-heads illicitly transfer what belongs to the nature of an item to its existence. So a thin theorist must say that it belongs to the nature of a particular pain that it belong to some particular person. But this cannot be right. It cannot belong to the nature of this pain I am now enduring that it be felt by me. For natures are multiply realizable. We can of course say that it is the nature of pains in general to be perceived by someone or other. If a pain exists, however, it is a particular pain and it cannot be part of the nature of that particular pain to be perceived by some particular person sich as me. The dependence of a particular pain on its being perceived is therefore due to its dependent mode of existence and not due to its nature.
Note also that nothing I said implies that the being of the particular pain I am in is a most general activity the pain is engaging in. My pain is not an agent engaged in an exceedingly quiet activity; it is not an agent at all but a subjective state.
We must also note that the being of my felt pain and the being of your felt pain are numerically different contra van Inwagen's #4 above.
As far as I can see, little or nothing van Inwagen says in section 2 of his paper touches the thick theory. What he has given us is a straw man argument.