Saturday, April 08, 2006

Away from poetry...

Bill Vallicella contemplating Hamlet's question.

Philosophers haven't always been the friendliest companions to poets. Plato wanted them censored in his republic for presenting persuasive lies about the gods. Indeed, all writers of fiction needed to be controlled, as Plato has Socrates tell us:
Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded. (The Republic, Book 2, translated by Benjamin Jowett)
I don't think that I'd like to live in Plato's republic. My own made-up tales like "The Boney" -- a story that scared the wits out of my little boy (but who kept wanting to hear it anyway) -- would likely be outlawed.

But I enjoy visiting the empire of philosophy and have several friends who live there. I mentioned some posts back that I'm re-reading Bill Vallicella's A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated, which is a hard read but rewarding and even fun. Here's his amusing Cartesian critique of Meinongian nonexistent objects:
If anything can count as an established result in philosophy, it is the conclusion of Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum argument. Thus to the query, 'How do I know that I exist?' the Cartesian answer is that the very act of doubting that one exists proves that one indubitably exists. Now this may not amount to a proof that a substantial self , a res cogitans, exists; and this for the reason that one may doubt that acts of thinking emanate from a metaphysical ego. But the cogito certainly does prove that something exists, even if this is only an act of thinking or a momentary bundle of acts of thinking. Thus I know with certainty that my present doubting is not a nonexistent object. But if Meinong were right, then my present doubting could easily be a nonexistent object, indeed, a nonexistent object that actually has the property of being indubitable. For on Meinongian principles, I could, for all I can claim to know, be a fictional character, one who cannot doubt his own existence. In that case, the inability to doubt one's own existence would not prove that one actually exists. This intolerable result certainly looks like a reductio ad absurdum of the Meinongian theory. If anything is clear, it is that I know, in the strictest sense of the word, that I am not a fictional character. Forced to choose between Descartes and Meinong, we ought to go with Descartes. (Vallicella, Paradigm Theory, page 42)
Bill's point is that if Meinong's is correct that existence is a property and thus that some objects can lack that property, then one could oneself be an object lacking the property of existence but having the property of an indubitable certainty of one's own existence.

Bill terms this an "intolerable result" because he knows that he exists.

Leaving aside Bill's argument, which becomes rather complex, I call his critique "amusing" because behind the formidable logic (if you read the entire book) lurks a playful fellow -- not a deceptive, Cartesian demon playing the cosmic practical joke of deceiving us about everything that we think that we know but a man (Bill Vallicella) entertained by the Meinongian implication that even Bill Vallicella could, for all he can claim to know, be a fictional character incapable of doubting his own existence.

Or perhaps I'm projecting my own amusement onto Bill. For I find amusing the thought that on Meinongian principles, I could very well be a nonexistent object with an inability to doubt my own existence.

Except that on Meinongian principles, I can doubt it ... so I guess that I'd need to have a further property -- the property of being ignorant of Meinongian philosophy.

But I no longer have that property.


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