I would like to object to Sider’s claim (with which Dan appears to agree) that “questions of fundamental ontology … are not susceptible to the non-fact-of-the-matter argument since there are no multiple candidates for ‘exists’ to mean” (206); the standpoint from which I make the objection has some connections with the Carnapian view of existence, but they also differ significantly. I would object on a similar basis to Sider’s argument for 4-D in “Against Vague Existence,” Philosophical Studies 114, 142-144.
Sider assumes that there is a non-arbitrary meaning for the logical expression ‘there is’ or its formal counterpart ‘∃’ – non-arbitrary unlike the alleged meaning he envisages (204) on which it has to do with what Nelson Goodman says – such that it ranges “unrestrictedly over absolute everything, except perhaps non-“concrete” things” (204). He also thinks that non-arbitrary meanings such as this for the more basic logical constants are determined in part by eligibility, given the “existence of logical joints in reality” (205). I am happy to grant all of this (although later I will come back to discuss to what extent one should grant the latter assumption).
We have the practice of, and the freedom for, ascribing new “temporary” meanings to expressions with specific literal meanings, under certain constraints. This is what we do when we convey implicatures, and (perhaps just a particular case of the former) when we produce new metaphors. We apply this freedom to expressions whose literal meaning is fundamentally determined by eligibility, such as natural kind terms. Thus, perhaps ‘to swallow’ has a basic meaning such that it refers to natural events; but nothing stands in our way to use it “temporarily” for what ATMs sometimes do with our credit cards. I see no reason why we cannot do the same with more “abstract” or “formal” expressions, like the apparatus of reference – the quantifiers, the referential expressions which may occupy the “positions” in logical form “occupied” by the variables they bind, the identity sign. To provide a philosophical account of how this is implemented, we would need at the very least an account of how those “temporary” meanings are created, and one of what exactly is the literal meaning of the referential apparatus (even if Sider is right about the role of eligibility considerations, there might well be more to it, such as its cognitive and inferential role). But we do not need such accounts to accept the possibility of extending the practice to such a case.
A plausible case in which this applies to the apparatus of reference, granting Sider’s assumptions, is in my view that of explicit reference to, quantification over, and identification of, fictional characters; given a sufficiently elaborated philosophical account of the kind envisaged in the previous paragraph, we could develop along these lines a figurative view of fictional characters, close, I think, to views put forward by Stephen Yablo for abstract entities.
Now, a complication for Sider’s claim results from the fact that “temporary” meanings such as the metaphorical meaning for ‘to swallow’ turn easily into standard, conventional meanings. It is no easy matter to contend that afterwards they are still not “literal”, even if the meanings are related (so that the resulting ambiguity is not like the one in ‘bank’). Obviously, the figurativist about fictional characters I have envisaged would acknowledge that the “extended use” of the referential apparatus he posits is a fully standardized one.
Let us now apply this to Sider’s discussion. Here are three different candidates for ‘exists’/’there is’ to mean, granting his assumptions: (i) the nihilist is right about an “ontologically fundamental” core given solely by the eligibility considerations Sider mentions, and a figurative account along the sketched lines applies to the use of the referential apparatus that both the chaste endurantist and the friend of 4-D invoke. (ii) it is the chaste endurantist who is right about the core. (iii) it is the friend of 4-D who is right. Now, one could think that the availability of these candidates does not contradict Sider’s claims, such as those quoted at the beginning, because it will still be the case that “eligibility” considerations as a matter of fact select one of the candidates, no matter what it is and independently of whether or not we can come to know what their verdict is. But I think this would be to quick; it is here that I need to go back to this assumption I said before I was granting to Sider.
Eligibility considerations, as pointed out by Sider, have to do with sensible replies to Putnam’s “model-theoretic” argument, and similar arguments with an anti-realist basis for the indeterminacy of reference, translation or meaning. They come to the fact that causal-explanatory relations between language use and the objective extra-linguistic world by themselves contribute to determine meaning, independently of whether or not they are part of our linguistically stated beliefs. But they should be applied with care, and holistically. To go back to the analogy I have been repeatedly using, perhaps they can be invoked to argue that expressions such as ‘to put’, ‘to walk’, ‘to swallow’, ‘on’, ‘in’, etc., have, among their equally standard/conventional meanings, an “ontologically fundamental” core (the “more physical” meanings) distinct from more “figurative” ones; although it is not clear how exactly they do.
Now, as I said I am prepared to grant that the objective world comes equipped with “logical” or “formal” features, contributing as part of the global eligibility considerations to determining the correct semantics for a given language or representational system. But given the unclarity concerning their nature, and even more about how exactly they intervene in the global eligibility considerations, I do not find at all out of the question that neither facts about linguistic use, not facts about eligibility properly understood in this global way, give any verdict on the three meanings envisaged before for ‘exists’. In any case, I think the model I have sketched provides a conceptually coherent possibility that suffices by itself to refute Sider’s claims quoted at the beginning, rejecting a “dismissive” attitude (to use Bennett’s term) towards questions of fundamental ontology, in Sider’s own terms.
This discussion has, I think, consequences for the Bennett’s paper. I guess the form of dismissivism I envisage here is, in her taxonomy, a form of semanticism; although the view that there is no fact of the matter whether, say, the 4-D position is just a legitimate figurative extension of the referential apparatus, or is rather rendered correct by pure eligibility considerations applies to the natural kind existence, sounds also close to her “anti-realism”. I share with others that posted before on this blog the concerns about her objections to the analyticity of existentially committing claims. My main concern is whether there is room for a distinction between real believers and hermeneutic nihilists.