Below are a few of the more notable highlights from our exchange.
As is often the case when theists are confronted with the axiom of existence, controversy flared up right on schedule:
AP: “Existence doesn't exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.”
Me: I’m having a real hard time understanding what you’re trying to say here. So, in your view, existence is a property of things that do exist, and yet this property itself doesn’t exist? Yikes! How does that work? Is this from the bible some place? What does the bible say about these matters?
…In fact, it’s doubly confusing to contemplate your statement and then go over to James Anderson’s latest post in which he lists six things that people take for granted on which he bases his case for the Christian worldview, and the first thing he lists is – you guessed it – existence! Perhaps Anderson doesn’t know that “existence doesn’t exist”?
… But I’m still wondering how you can say on the one hand, “Existence doesn’t exist” and then, on the other, affirm that “existence is a property of things that do exist.” In fact, I think you summed up a major contradiction which is implicit in analytic philosophy and which Objectivism expressly rejects (and avoids!).
As I have explained many, many times in my writings on these matters, as Objectivism uses the concept ‘existence’ in the axiom “existence exists,” it is a collective noun denoting anything and everything that exists. As you look around yourself and see things that exist, that’s existence. The concept ‘existence’ is the widest of all concepts and includes all of what you personally perceive and more without specifying any further. It doesn’t need to specify any further - it’s a starting point. It is very much like saying “reality is real.”
And to your point, the task of the axiom of existence is not to “tell us anything about the nature of reality” beyond what it affirms and implies. What’s important to note is that the axiom of existence (a) is obviously true, (b) is conceptually irreducible and (c) therefore fundamental, (d) must be true to question or dispute it, and (e) implicit in all thought, judgment, choices, etc. In fact, one cannot affirm any alternative to the axiom of existence as one’s starting point without implicitly presupposing it. I elaborate on the task of the axioms in many of my writings, including ones I linked to above.
…It’s always baffled me how critics of Objectivism either simply cannot understand what Objectivism teaches on these matters, or insist that what Objectivism teaches means something other than what it teaches. Either way, they seem hell-bent on disallowing Objectivism to speak for itself. I have my suspicions why this is the case though.
So again, please explain, from your worldview, how it can be the case on the one hand that “existence doesn’t exist” and yet “existence is a property of things that do exist.” How can these two statements be integrated without contradiction? That is what you need to explain here…
AP: “I prefaced my comments by saying that I wasn't sure if I'm saying what I want to say correctly. The exact quote is [i.e. I said], "People better at philosophy and grammar have expressed what I'm about to attempt to say imperfectly." And that sentence was also a link to those Triablogue blogposts. My worldview doesn't stand or fall with that critique. I can take it back if, upon further reflection, I realize it actually inconsistent with my worldview and/or irrational, non-sensical or a strawman representation et cetera.”
Me: Just for the record – earlier you had affirmed: “Existence doesn’t exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.” Do you still affirm this? Or do you take it back now? I just want to be clear. Do you understand that this statement is self-contradictory? Are you willing to re-consider the statement “existence exists”? Do you still think that “existence doesn’t exist”? Or are you now starting to understand that existence in fact does exist?
AP: “It depends on what one means by ‘existence’”
Me: What did you mean by ‘existence’ when you stated it? Can you state your definition, if you have one? Essentially, you’re saying that existence is a property that doesn’t exist. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. And when I ask if you still mean it, you respond with “It depends.” But it was your statement.
…Regarding your assertion that “existence doesn’t exist,” I’m still having a hard time understanding your position on this matter. So let’s try again.
In your recent spate of comments, [AP] wrote: “Manata's explaination of one way the term ‘existence’ is used as distinct from existents is clear. I agree with his conclusion per that understanding/definition of existence.”
I guess we just have different standards when it comes to being clear. For one, I didn’t see a definition of the concept ‘existence’ in Manata’s statement; he did say it’s a universal, but that’s not a definition – it’s just naming a category in which the concept belongs. Also, upon closer examination, his use of the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘existent’ is unhelpful in its own right, and it does nothing to untangle what appears to be a blatant contradiction on your part.
Again, your statement: “Existence doesn’t exist. Existence is a property of things that do exist.”
A clear reading of this can only mean that you think existence is a property which doesn’t exist and that, according to your metaphysical viewpoint, “things that do exist” have this property that doesn’t exist. In fact, I know of no reasonable way to understand it otherwise. So I’m looking for your help here.
Unfortunately, as I had stated earlier, the statements you quoted from Paul Manata are quite unhelpful here. What’s curious is that you haven’t made much effort to explain why you think Manata’s statements do help untangle what by all accounts appears to be a blatant contradiction.
Now, at one point, you did state in regard to your statement: “I can take it back if, upon further reflection, I realize it actually inconsistent with my worldview and/or irrational, non-sensical or a strawman representation et cetera.” But when I asked you, in the interest of clarity, if you were taking it back, you came back with “it depends” and went into a digression about monism and smuggling and what Objectivism seems, per your limited understanding of it, to do. The upshot is that you haven’t taken it back, so I’m inferring from this and your own statements that your statement above is actually consistent with your worldview.
As for the distinction between ‘existence’ and ‘existents’, I don’t think anyone is denying any distinction here: on my view, the concept ‘existence’ is a collective noun denoting anything and everything that exists; the concept ‘existent’ individuates specific existing things (e.g., “this existent” as opposed to “that existent”), whether they are entities in their own right, or attributes of entities (for both do in fact exist).
But perhaps there was something in the Manata quote that I missed? In fact, I don’t think Manata fares any better here. Like you, he asserted that “’existence’ doesn’t ‘exist’,” but he qualified this (without explanation) as being the case “on a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world.” (Why “a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world” is relevant here is a mystery; what is *Manata’s* view? What is *your* view, AP?) But he seems to agree that “existence doesn’t exist” when he says “I can kick a rock, I can't kick ‘existence’" only then to repeat what he had just stated about this being the case “on a materialist or nominalist understanding of the world,” which means he doesn’t move any closer to presenting any kind of argument here. Notably, he does not, at least in the quoted section, indicate an understanding of the world in which existence does exist (cf. Objectivism). He also stated ‘Existence’ is a universal that can be said to be exemplified by exisTENTS.” So, “exisTENTS” on this view are, presumably, real things, but they “exemplify” a “universal” that doesn’t exist. That’s some “metaphysic” there!
Frankly, when Manata originally made his statement, I got the impression that he was simply trying to be contrary in order to discredit Objectivism, plying his habit of –ism-dropping to make it seem more credible and scholarly, when in fact it’s quite the opposite. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now: just as 10 years ago, his statement still ends up as a murky mess of contradictions.
I followed this up with these additional points:
I wrote: I know when I am imagining something: it is a volitional exercise – one chooses to imagine.
AP: “Dreams are usually not voluntary.”
I’m not talking about dreams. I’m talking about the faculty which I know I use when I contemplate Christianity’s (and other religions’) claims, namely the imagination. I presume you know when you’re imagining, do you not? If not, then this needs to be addressed, and quickly! But if you do know when you’re imagining, I’m supposing you’re very much like me: you choose to imagine – it’s a volitional activity. There was a time when I was a Christian myself; I was raised to believe this stuff. I’m guessing you were too. So was Van Til (see here). But as I tried and tried harder and harder to believe what Christianity wanted me to believe, I began to realize that all along, I was suppressing a fundamental fact that for a long time I didn’t want to face, and which I was in fact encouraged to ignore, namely that all the while my imagination was actively involved in all my god-belief activity. I was in fact trying to live a pretentious lie, lying to myself that what I was only imagining was real, when in fact it was merely only imaginary. Eventually I summoned up the strength to be honest to myself and admit that in fact I was simply imagining the Christian god and all that is supposed to come with it: belief in heaven and hell, believe in angels and demons, belief in predestination and prayer, etc. Once I admitted that all of this was imaginary, the whole artifice sloughed off me like a dead skin that I never needed in the first place. And that was the beginning of my intellectual liberation.
So, while dreams may not be voluntary, I know that imagination is volitional, and I know that I have no alternative but to employ my imagination when contemplating supernatural notions. I really don’t think you’re any different from me in this respect. After all, you’re human, you have a mind, and you too can imagine things, right?
by Dawson Bethrick