Another subtle existence entry to flummox and fascinate the Londonistas. Hell, this Phoenician is flummoxed by it himself. Ain't philosophy grand?
In section 53 of The Foundations of Arithmetic, Gottlob Frege famously maintains that
. . . existence is analogous to number. Affirmation of existence is in fact nothing but denial of the number nought. Because existence is a property of concepts the ontological argument for the existence of God breaks down. (65)
Frege is here advancing a double-barreled thesis that splits into two subtheses.
ST1. Existence is analogous to number.
ST2. Existence is a property (Eigenschaft) of concepts and not of objects.
In the background is the sharp distinction between property (Eigenschaft) and mark (Merkmal). Three-sided is a mark of the concept triangle, but not a property of this concept; being instantiated is a property of this concept but not a mark of it. The Cartesian-Kantian ontological argument "from mere concepts" (aus lauter Begriffen), according to Frege, runs aground because existence cannot be a mark of any concept, but only a property of some concepts. And so one cannot validly argue from the concept of God to the existence of God.
Existence as a property of concepts is the property of being-instantiated. We can therefore call the Fregean account of existence an instantiation account. A concept is instantiated just in case it has one or more instances. So on a Fregean reading, 'Cats exist' says that the concept cat is instantiated. This implies, of course, that 'Cats exist' is not about cats, but about a non-cat, a concept, and what it says about this concept is not that it (singulatly) exists, but that it is instantiated! A whiff of paradox? Or more than just a whiff?
My concern in this entry is the logical relation between the above two subtheses. Does the first entail the second or are they logically independent? There is a clear sense in which (ST1) is true. Necessarily, if horses exist, then the number of horses is not zero, and vice versa. So 'Horses exist' is logically equivalent to 'The number of horses is not zero.' This is wholly unproblematic for those of us who agree that there are no Meinongian nonexistent objects. But note that, in general, equivalences, even logical equivalences, do not sanction reductions or identifications. So it remains an open question whether one can take the further step of reducing existence to instantiation, or identifying existence with instantiation, or even eliminating existence in favor of instantiation. Equivalence, reduction, elimination: those are all different. But I make this point only to move on.
(ST1), then, is unproblematically true if understood as expressing the following logical equivalence: 'Necessarily Fs exist iff the number of Fs is not zero.' My question is whether (ST1) entails (ST2). Peter van Inwagen in effect denies the entailment by denying that the 'the number of . . . is not zero' is a predicate of concepts:
I would say that, on a given occasion of its use, it predicates of certain things that they number more than zero. Thus, if one says, 'The number of horses is not zero,' one predicates of horses that they number more than zero. 'The number of . . . is not zero' is thus what some philosophers have called a 'variably polyadic' predicate. But so are many predicates that can hardly be regarded as predicates of concepts. The predicates 'are ungulates' and 'have an interesting evolutionary history,' for example, are variably polyadic predicates. When one says, 'Horses are ungulates' or 'Horses have an interesting evolutionary history' one is obviously making a statement about horses and not about the concept horse. ("Being, Existence, and Ontological Commitment," pp. 483-484)
It is this passage that I am having a hard time understanding. It is of course clear what van Inwagen is trying to show, namely, that the Fregean subtheses are logically independent and that one can affirm the first without being committed to the second. One can hold that existence is denial of the number zero without holding that existence is a property of concepts. One can go half-way with Frege without going 'whole hog' or all the way.
But I am having trouble with the claim that the predicate 'the number of . . . is not zero' is 'variably polyadic' and the examples van Inwagen employs. 'Robbed a bank together' is an example of a variably polyadic predicate. It is polyadic because it expresses a relation and it is variably polyadic because it expresses a family of relations having different numbers of arguments. For example, Bonnie and Clyde robbed a bank together, but so did Ma Barker and her two boys, Patti Hearst and three members of the ill-starred Symbionese Liberation Army, and so on. (Example from Chris Swoyer and Francesco Orilia.)
Now when I say that the number of horses is not zero, what am I talking about? It is plausible to say that I am talking about horses, not about the concept horse. (Recall the whiff of paradox, supra.) What I don't understand are van Inwagen's examples of variably polyadic predicates. Consider 'are ungulates.' If an ungulate is just a mammal with hooves, then I fail to see how 'are ungulates' is polyadic, let alone variably polyadic. 'Are hooved mammals' is monadic.
The other example is 'Horses have an interesting evolutionary history.' This sentence is clearly not about the concept horse. But it is not about any individual horse either. Consider Harry the horse. Harry has a history. He was born in a certain place, grew up, was bought and sold, etc. and then died at a certain age. He went through all sorts of changes. But Harry didn't evolve, and so he had no evolutionary history. No individual evolves; populations evolve:
Evolutionary change is based on changes in the genetic makeup of populations over time. Populations, not individual organisms, evolve. Changes in an individual over the course of its lifetime may be developmental (e.g., a male bird growing more colorful plumage as it reaches sexual maturity) or may be caused by how the environment affects an organism (e.g., a bird losing feathers because it is infected with many parasites); however, these shifts are not caused by changes in its genes. While it would be handy if there were a way for environmental changes to cause adaptive changes in our genes — who wouldn't want a gene for malaria resistance to come along with a vacation to Mozambique? — evolution just doesn't work that way. New gene variants (i.e., alleles) are produced by random mutation, and over the course of many generations, natural selection may favor advantageous variants, causing them to become more common in the population.
'Horses have an interesting evolutionary history,' then, is neither about the concept horse nor about any individual horse. The predicate in this sentence appears to be non-distributive or collective. It is like the predicate in 'Horses have been domesticated for millenia.' That is certainly not about the concept horse. No concept can be ridden or made to carry a load. But it is also not about any individual horse. Not even the Methuselah of horses, whoever he might be, has been around for millenia.
A predicate F is distributive just in case it is analytic that whenever some things are F, then each is F. Thus a distributive predicate is one the very meaning of which dictates that if it applies to some things, then it applies to each of them. 'Blue' is an example. If some things are blue, then each of them is blue.
If a predicate is not distributive, then it is non-distributive (collective). If some Occupy-X nimrods have the building surrounded, it does not follow that each such nimrod has the building surrounded. If some students moved a grand piano into my living room, it does not follow that each student did. If bald eagles are becoming extinct, it does not follow that each bald eagle is becoming extinct. Individual animals die, but no individual animal ever becomes extinct. If the students come from many different countries, it does not follow that each comes from many different countries. If horses have an interesting evolutionary history, it does not follow that each horse has an interesting evolutionary history.
My problem is that I don't understand why van Inwagen gives the 'Horses have an interesting evolutionary history' example when he is committed to saying that each horse exists. His view , I take it, is that 'exist(s)' is a first-level distributive predicate. 'Has an interesting evolutionary history,' however, is a first-level non-distributive predicate. Or is it PvI's view that 'exist(s)' is a first-level non-distributive predicate?
Either I don't understand van Inwagen's position due to some defect in me, or it is incoherent. I incline toward the latter. He is trying to show that (ST1) does not entail (ST2). He does this by giving examples of predicates that are first-level, i.e., apply to objects, but are variably polyadic as he claims 'the number of . . . is not zero' is variably polyadic. But the only clear example he gives is a predicate that is non-distributive, namely 'has an interesting evolutionary history.' 'Horses exist,' however, cannot be non-distributive. If some horses exist, then each of them exists. And if each of them exists, then 'exists' is monadic, not polyadic, let alone variably polyadic.