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Monday, July 23, 2012


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When you say "The sea is green", by "the sea", are you referring to a single sea, or to the ideal object Plato talks of? A particular sea that one can point to of course exists, but the abstract idea of a sea, although it can be said to have properties, doesn't really exist, does it?

I am referring to a concrete body of water, not to a Platonic object.

Dear Mr Vallicella,

When you say "that existence is real not merely logical", what do you mean by "real"? This is a big problem in my work, which is data management in the financial services industry (Wall Street). I work with databases that manage mortgages, claims, insurance policies, credit default swaps, etc. These are all non-material objects that only seem to exist insofar as they are represented in the data I have to manage. My colleagues are very uneasy about this, as they equate "real" with material objects. I have sometimes heard my colleagues say "none of this is real" and "it's all a shell game", and I think this affects their attitudes about what is ethical in financial services - i.e. if something is not "real", then ethics are irrelevant.

Thank you for any help.

Malcolm Chisholm

You parse 'The sea is green' into "the sea exists & the sea (is) green". Where the bracketed 'is' signifies the 'pure copula' presumably not the impure copula signified by the unbracketed 'is'.

Why would the thin theorist have a problem with that? On the contrary, that is exactly what the thin theorist is saying. He is saying that the (impure) copula doesn't only join concepts together (as the pure copula does), but that the concepts thus joined are instantiated.

@Malcolm: "These are all non-material objects that only seem to exist insofar as they are represented in the data I have to manage."

The transaction data in your database represents contracts (say, a contract or promise by one institution to pay out to another on default of a credit instrument). Insofar as a promise or contract is real, the data represents something real.

If these people are arguing that it is OK to renege on a promise because a promise isn't real, then that indicates to me a serious defect in their logic.


You are raising a wonderful question, one which packs many serious issues. I hope Bill will address some of them. I hope I can also contribute something in the near future.

@Peter - I don't see any serious philosophical issues raised by Malcolm. As I said above, a promise is real - even the promissor does not intend to keep it. Indeed, the fact of not having kept 'it' proves its reality.

A contract is a promise or agreement that is legally enforceable. Usually by means of evidence of the contract, but we shouldn't confuse the evidence (a physical document which writing on) with the contract itself. If the representation of the contract (again, not to be confused with the contract) is deleted, accidentally or maliciously, from the database, there still remains the notes and records of the other party. If the other party loses the evidence as well, then of course there is no evidence of the contract any more. But its reality and existence remains unchanged, until legally terminated.

Mr Chisholm,

Thanks for your comment/question. First, of all I agree with what Ed Ockham says above.

Second, it would be a mistake to identify the real with the physical or material. Certainly one should not just assume ab initio that real = material. There are any number of putative counterexamples. Consider the original score of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, or any copy of it. Those are just pieces of paper with marks on them, and thus physical. But the symphony itself is an ideal or abstract object that cannot be identified with any of its paper representations, nor with any of its performances. I don't have the time to spell this out in detail, but perhaps you catch my drift.

The same holds for contracts and other financial instruments.

Or consider a mental state. If I am thinking about the contract I just signed, that mental act, if physical, would have to be identical to some complex brain state. But there are very powerful, and in my opinion irrefutable, arguments to show that no mental state can be identical to any physical state. This yields a second example of something real that is not physical/material.

And then there are mathematical sets. The set {Earth, Moon} has two members each of which is a massive physical object. But the set is not a physical object. Now my friend 'London Ed' Ockham, nominalist that he is, disagrees with me about math. sets -- but this is at least a putative counterexample to the identification of the real with the physical.

There are other examples as well.

There are fascinating questions about the ontology of mortgages, insurrance policies, and other financial instruments. In some sense we create these nonmaterial objects, but once created they have a status independent of us. They come to reside in K. Popper's World 3.

One mistake to avoid is the fallacious inference from 'X is an immaterial object' to 'X is not real.'

YOur question can be exfoliated in about twenty different directions. It would take a series of separate posts to even start to get clear about all the issues. I take it you are not primarily interested in the ontology of financial instruments so much as the underlying ethical questions insofar as these are affected by our understanding of the nature of financial instruments.

What do I mean when I say the existence of the sea is real as opposed to merely logical? I mean that the existence of the sea is not a 'property' it has only relative to us and our language as it would be if the existence of the sea were merely the being-instantiated of our concept *sea.*


In my response to Chisholm i said I agreed with what you said, but now I have to disagree with you. There are all sorts of phil. questions alluded to, if not explicitly posed, by Malcolm's remarks.

You don't like the word 'ontology,' but I'll use it anyway. One question concerns the ontology of financial instruments. What exactly is a mortgage, for example? They can be bought and sold. What exactly is being bought and sold? Not something physical. What then? How describe it properly?

Then there are ethical questions. When the government prints money -- money that is not 'tied' to any such standard as gold -- is it counterfeiting its own currency?


You rightly say that the evidence of a contract should not be confused with the contract. Of course. Even if all the physical evidence of the contract ceases to exist, there is still the contract. Surely one can reasonably ask what the status of that contract is given that it is not the status of a physical object or objects. Does it have a merely mental existence? And how account for its intersubjective character? Does it have a Popperian World 3 status, or a even a full-blooded Platonic status?

You say that a contract is legally enforceable. Right, but how can it be legally enforceable if all the physical evidence has been destroyed? Solve this aporetic triad:

1. Every contract, by its very nature, is legally enforceable.
2. No contract is legally enforceable if the physical evidence thereof does not exist.
3. Every contract is distinct from all of its physical embodiments.

You have committed yourself to all three limbs, but they can't all be true.

So at seems that here is one philosophical problem!

1. Every contract, by its very nature, is legally enforceable.
2. No contract is legally enforceable if the physical evidence thereof does not exist.
3. Every contract is distinct from all of its physical embodiments.

Something for the weekend, I think.

@Edward Ockham: Suppose the thin theorist accepts Dr. Vallicella's analysis where 'a is F' is analyzable in terms of 'a exists and a (is) F.' How would you understand singular existentials like the 'a exists' here? In terms of some further predication like 'a is A', where A refers to the haecceity of a? It seems you must do this to preserve the instantiation account. For existence is reducible to instantiation, instantiation is expressed by the copula, so existence statements like these should be reducible to copulative statements. But in that case, doesn't the thin theory turn out circular, in spite of all the protestations to the contrary thus far? For, accepting Dr. Vallicella's parsing, 'a is A' would have to be explicable as 'a exists and a (is) A'. So we appear to end up explicating 'a exists' as 'a exists and a (is) A'. But we were trying to give an informative analysis of 'a exists' in terms of 'a is A'. And thus we have the circularity.

On the thick theory on the other hand 'exists' is a genuine first-order predicate, so no circularity here. This might be one way in which Vallicella's analysis is congenial to the thick theory but not the thin.

Or am I confused here about instantiation?

Hi Alfredo,

You are not confused at all. I think what you have said is exactly right.

The point I am making is that 'exists' cannot be eliminated by replacing it with a purely predicative use of the copula. The equivalence of 'Socrates is white' and 'White Socrates exists' presupposes that 'is' expresses both existence and predication.

Ed might respond by saying that 'is' expresses only predication, but that existence comes in via the fact that 'Socrates' has a referent.

To which I respond: if 'Socrates' has a referent, then it has an existing referent, in which case it is true that Socrates exists.

It is also worth noting that 'White Socrates exists' involves copulation -- it is just that the copulative tie is expressed by the immediate juxtaposition of 'white' and 'Socrates.'

A trickier question is whether 'Human Socrates exists' involves any copulation given that it is of the essence of S. to be human.

@Alfredo – this problem has been discussed here more than once. I have argued that there are only two options for the thin theorist. (1) Classical 'direct reference' – we assume a fundamental difference between subject terms and predicate terms. Predicate terms like 'dodo' can be satisfied or not, and so it is appropriate to attach an existence predicate to the predicate, e.g. 'dodos exist', meaning that the predicate 'dodo' is satisfied. But subject terms cannot be meaningful without an existing subject, and to 'a exists' is either trivial or meaningless. (2) Admit singular concepts, so – as with your example – we allow 'A exists' as true when the singular concept signified by 'A' is satisfied, otherwise not.

Bill and I are broadly agreed that these are the only options. I support (2) but Bill disagrees, and we have argued about it for ages.

Returning to the actual topic of the post (novelists attempting to do philosophy) I have a splendid post here about what is proper to philosophy, and what is proper to poets and novelists and other visionaries.


Rather than a temporary aphasia---an inability to speak---I think we could see Roquentin's experience as an episode of an agnosia---an inability to recognise. For he says that the diversity of things, their individuality, melts away. Root, gate, bench, etc, 'disappear', though he is not left seeing nothing. It is as if he becomes unable to distinguish objects one from another and recognise what they are. Instead he sees undifferentiated stuff---he actually uses the bulk term 'masses'---normally 'clothed' in individuality but now 'naked'. I imagine that this could be a quite disturbing, possibly nauseating, experience. And, of course, if he cannot recognise objects he cannot say what they are. If this is right then Roquentin hasn't gained any deep insight into the nature of existence. He has merely lost an ordinary cognitive function.


Thanks for introducing me to the term 'agnosia.'

One time I was waiting for an elevator and I was staring at the word 'Up' and repeating it to myself. It lost its meaning and became a mere physical sign. I didn't lose my ability to speak or understand but what occurred is something analogous to aphasia.

Before the quotation I gave, there is this: "The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface."

But 'agnosia' may be better.

It may be that certain absnormal mental conditions do in fact reveal truths normally hidden.

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