This post continues my discussion with Lukas Novak who, so far, as been wiping the floor with me, refuting my arguments for the distinctio realis. Now I take a different tack. I want to see if we have a genuine problem here, but one that is simply insoluble. Such a result would be consistent with my preferred yet provisionally held metaphilosophy according to which the problems of philosophy are most of them genuine, some of them humanly important, but all of them insoluble.
I would like to uphold both of the following propositions, but they appear logically inconsistent (with each other). I will call the first the Metaphysical Primacy of Individual Existence (MPIE), and the second, the Real Distiction between Essence and Existence in Contingent Beings (RD). These are the two limbs of the dyad. I will make a case that they are each exceedingly plausible, but cannot both be true.
1. The Metaphysical Primacy of Individual Existence
MPIE includes a subthesis that I will call the Metaphysical Primacy of Existence (MPE). MPE's slogan is 'No essence without existence.' There are no nonexisting individual essences, no nonexistent items in Meinong's sense, no merely possible individuals. MPE, then, is a rejection of possibililism and an affirmation of actualism, the view that everything (actually) exists. Actualism, however, allows for Plantinga-style haecceity properties capable of unexemplified existence. These abstract and necessary properties actually exist; they are not mere possibilia. But they too must be rejected if we are to affirm the metaphysical primacy of individual existence. The idea is that the individual essence of a concrete individual cannot exist apart from the individual. Individual essences or quiddities there may be, but none of them float free from existence. Peter, for example, is a concrete existing individual. But there is no such haecceity property as identity-with-Peter (Petereity), a property that can exist unexemplified (and does exist unexemplified at times at which Peter does not exist and in possible worlds in which Peter does not exist) . This putative property is an haecceity property of Peter in that, if exemplified, it is exemplified by Peter, by Peter alone, and not possibly by any individual distinct from Peter. If there are such properties, they nail down, or rather are, the nonqualitative thisnesses of concrete individuals. (See here for arguments against haecceity properties.)
MPIE, then, amounts to the rejection of nonexistent and nonsubsistent items, together with Meinongian items having Aussersein status -- whatever exactly that is! -- as well as actually existing haecceity properties. Consider the golden mountain. On MPIE, there exists no golden mountain; there subsists no golden mountain; and it is not the case that some item is a golden mountain. (Each of these clauses makes a different claim, by the way.) Furthermore, on MPIE, nothing's identity or nonqualitative thisness is a property that can exist at times and in worlds when and where the indivdual whose nonqualitative thisness it is does not exist.
But MPIE is not anti-Platonic: it allows for multiply exemplifiable properties (universals). Thus MPIE is not to be confused with nominalism.
2. The Real Distinction between Essence and Existence
In each concrete, contingent individual there is a real distinction between individual essence and existence. To say that the distinction is real is to say that it is not merely conceptual or notional: the distinction subsists independently of us and our mental operations. Thus the distinction is not like the distinction between the morning star and the evening star, which is presumably a distinction between two ways one and the same physical thing, the planet Venus, appears to us. But the reality of the real distinction does not imply that essence and existence are capable of separate existence. Thus the distinction is not real in the way the distinction between Venus and Mars is real, or in the way the distinction between my glasses and my head is real. If Giles of Rome thought otherwise, then he was mistaken. The real distinction is more like the distinction between the convexity and concavity of a lens. Neither can exist without the other, but the distinction is in the lens, and is not a matter of how we view the lens. This analogy, however, limps badly inasmuch as we can empirically detect the difference between the convex and concave surfaces of a lens, but we cannot empirically detect the existence of a thing. But then every analogy limps, else it would not be an analogy.
3. Are the Limbs of the Dyad Logically Consistent?
I'm having doubts. It would be easy to argue for (RD) if (MPIE) is false. Suppose there are merely possible individual essences that subsist necessarily whether or not they exist contingently. Then we can argue as follows. Peter is possibly nonexistent, but not possibly non-human. His existing cannot therefore be reduced to his being the particular human he is. Existence cannot be reduced to essence because Peter's essence subsists in possible worlds in which Peter does not exist. (It also exists at times at which Peter does not exist.) Essence and existence differ extensionally: for every contingent being, there are possible worlds in which the essence of the individual subsists but the individual does not exist. In the case of Plantinga the actualist, abstract and necessary haecceities exist just as robustly as the concrete and contingent individuals whose haecceities they are; so there is no call in his case for a distinction between subsistence and existence.
But if (MPIE) is true, then the extensional difference disappears: in all and only the possible worlds in which Peter exists does his essence subsist/exist. But then we have no good reason to maintain that there is a real difference between essence and existence. This is the brunt of Novak's point against me.
4. Neither Limb is Easily Rejected
Now if the limbs of the dyad are logically inconsistent, we can solve the dyad by rejecting one of the limbs. But which one? I find both to be very plausible.
MPIE is plausible. Something that has no being is nothing at all. So if essences have no being, they are nothing at all. Kein Sosein ohne Dasein. A merely possible individual is one that is not actual, hence nonexistent, hence, in itself, nothing at all. Haecceity properties, though existent, are objectionable for the reasons given here. To put it very simple: the identity of a thing is nothing apart from the thing whose identity it is! In short, there are no individual essences apart from the existing individuals whose essences they are.
Why is RD plausible? When I say that Peter, or any contingent thing, exists, I am saying that he is not nothing, that he is, that he is 'there,' that he is 'outside' his causes and 'outside' my mind and indeed 'outside' any mind. But the dude might not have existed, i.e., there is no logical or metaphysical necessity that he exist. There is nothing in his nature or individual essence to require that he exist, whence it seems to follow that he cannot be identical to his existence. But if Peter is not identical to his existence, then he is distinct from his existence. And if he is distinct from his existence, then that is equivalent to saying that Peter qua individual essence is distinct from Peter qua existing.
But is this distinction real? Or is perhaps merely notional? Is it a distinction we make, or one we find and record? Well, Peter's existence is real, and his essence is real, and his contingency is real, so I say the distinction is real. It is in Peter intrinsically and not supplied by us.
5. Contingency Merely Epistemic?
But wait! How do I know that Peter is really contingent, really possibly such as not to exist though in fact he does exist? Might this contingency be merely epistemic, merely a matter of my ignorance as to why he must exist? His nonexistence is thinkable without contradiction. But does that suffice to show that his nonexistence is really possible? Peter's nonexistence is conceivable, i.e., thinkable without logical contradiction. But there is a logical gap between conceivability and (real) possibility. On the other hand, if conceivability is no guide to possibility, what guide do we have? So I'll set this problem aside for now.
6. Where Does This Leave Us?
I think it is reasonable to hold that the problem is genuine but insoluble. Both limbs are plausibly maintained, but they cannot both be true. It could be that our cognitive architecture is such as to allow us to formulate the problem, but also such as to disallow a solution. This is not to say that there are contradictions in reality. I assume that there are none. It is to suggest that discursive reason is dialectical in roughly Kant's sense: it comes into conflict with itself when it attempts to grasp the Unconditioned. Existence, after all, is the unconditioned or absolute 'aspect' of things. Better: it is the absolute or uncinditioned depth dimension in things. For a thing to exist is for it to exist outside its causes, outside minds, and outside relations to other things (a thing is not constituted by its relations, but must exist apart from them if it is to stand in them).
This goes together with the fact that existence is what confers uniqueness upon a thing. To the conceptualizing mind, nothing is strictly unique. For every concept is repeatable even if not repeated. Existence, however, cannot be conceptualized. As the absoluteness and uniqueness in things, it is perhaps no surprise that the difference between existence and essence cannot show up extensionally.
But this won't convince many. They will insist that there has to be a solution. Well, then, let's hear what it is.