Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Ontological Commitment

Maverick Philosopher has an interesting post on existence, wherein he comments:
Suppose we briefly revisit Quine's famous explication (as he calls it) of 'a exists,' to wit:

1. a exists =df (Ex)(x = a).

In something more like English, an arbitrary individual a exists if and only if there exists something to which it is identical. [... W]hat it boils down to is that a exists iff a is identical to something that exists. And that makes for a circle the diameter of which is embarrassingly short.

I may be getting in over my head here, but from my (admittedly limited) understanding of Quine, I thought a major motivation for his position here was to set an explicit standard for defining a theory's ontological commitments; that is, to clarify when we are committed to something's existence, rather than just analyzing what existence itself happens to consist of. At least, the former is the main focus of his essay: 'On What There Is' (in From a Logical Point of View).

Quine starts off with "the old Platonic riddle of nonbeing" (p.1):
I cannot admit that there are some things which McX countenances and I do not, for in admitting that there are such things I should be contradicting my own rejection of them.

If we were to claim "Pegasus does not exist", McX might insist that the word 'Pegasus' must refer to something for our claim to have any meaning. Quine instead recommends that we follow Russell in translating apparent names into descriptions instead. For example, 'The author of Waverley was a poet' can be paraphrased into the nameless: 'Something wrote Waverley and was a poet and nothing else wrote Waverley'. From this we see that the original part 'The author of Waverley' does not demand any objective reference after all - this burden is instead carried by variables of quantification.

The virtue of this analysis is that the seeming name, a descriptive phrase, is paraphrased in context as a so-called incomplete symbol. No unified expression is offered as an analysis of the descriptive phrase, but the statement as a whole [...] still gets its full quota of meaning - whether true or false. (p.6)

So, saying "Pegasus does not exist" is no contradiction after all. We can paraphrase it as (say) "Everything fails to have the attribute of being Pegasus". (This may seem to commit us to an attribute of 'being Pegasus', but it certainly doesn't commit us to Pegasus itself.)

Quine is interested in how what we say gives rise to ontological commitments. So far we've seen that descriptions or alleged names can be squeezed out of. So what does commit us? That's where "to be is to be the value of a variable" comes in:
We can very easily involve ourselves in ontological commitments by saying, for example, that there is something (bound variable) which red houses and sunsets have in common; [...] But this is, essentially, the only way we can involve ourselves in ontological commitments: by our use of bound variables. [...]

We may say, for example, that some dogs are white and not thereby commit ourselves to recognizing either doghood or whiteness as entities. 'Some dogs are white' says that some things that are dogs are white; and, in order that this statement be true, the things over which the bound variable 'something' ranges must include some white dogs, but need not include doghood or whiteness. (pp.12-13)

So while Quine's definition of existence doesn't say much about existence itself, it does seem worthwhile for providing a clear standard against which we can assess ontological commitments.

Update: The following quote helps clarify things:
Now how are we to adjudicate among rival ontologies? Certainly the answer is not provided by the semantical formula "To be is to be the value of a variable"; this formula serves, conversely, in testing the conformity of a given remark or doctrine to a prior ontological standard. We look to bound variables in connection with ontology not in order to know what there is, but in order to know what a given remark or doctrine, ours or someone else's, says there is; and this much is quite properly a question involving language. But what there is is another question. (pp.15-16)


  1. Ian Stewarts book Flatterland, talks about an idea that seesm to go along with what was just said.

    I dont have the book on me so i am going to adlib the book here.

    "What is a point?" Hopper asked.
    "It is a point." I said confussed.
    "What is a mug of beer?"
    "A mug of beer."
    "Where does the mug sit?"
    "Hopper you are make no since." I said getting anoyed with his games.
    "It sits on a bar." Hopper said looking me in the eye. It was no game.
    "Okay." I said.
    "Well the mug sites on the bar, and a point sits on a line. They are two different things, but still i could just as well call the bar a line, and the mug then would be a point on it. Or i could call the earth a line, and call your house a point on it. Names are just names, not the things them selfs."

    Okay i know that that might be a weird way of looking at it. But Shakespear said some like this too. "A rose by any other name is still a rose."

    I think we can not prove relity by showing that we are equal to something we know it real. First of all. HOW IN THE WORLD DID WE MAKE IT REAL. Since we cant say we are real, i dont think we can say any idea we have is real. And to say that something is real is an idea, once again we are running in circles.

    The idea that names, or content vaiable names can be used is a bad idea. cause as i just said, names are just names, how are we spossed to know that the name we are saying is calling the right object. If you study Object Orented Programing, it is not what the objects name is the matters. It is what it holds. I think we need to look beyond names to what things are made of to prove that they are real.

    I guess with that, we can say all is real because atoms are real, and we are all made up of atoms. But once again, who made up the atom?

    Posted by Chase Whittemore

  2. Hmm, that's a little different from what I meant to be talking about here. Though it sounds as though you might like some of my semantics posts - especially Essential Meanings and True Contradictions

    Posted by Richard

  3. Richard, I think you're right, MV has either completely missed Quine's point, or is just way over my head. Quine's "theory of existence," as MV calls it, is about commitment, rather than an attempt at an ontology of what really is, out there. This makes what MV calls its circularity the very point! Another reason why I don't read his blog. 

    Posted by Chris

  4. I probably know less about Quine than all of you, but you only responded to the first part of his post. I'm not sure that BV implied anything other than what you said in your post in the first part of his post. He doesn't talk about ontological commitment in his post, but he does in the paper that he linked to. The second part of his post, I believe, is saying that while Quine may only be trying to say something about ontological commitment, he is in fact saying something about "existence itself."

    If Quine appeals to, instead of the name Pegasus, the attribute of "being Pegasus," this is a claim about "existence itself." The claim being that existence is the instantiation of some attribute.

    I guess I just don't see how one can talk about ontological commitment without talking about what existence actually is. 

    Posted by Macht

  5. Because you could have any ontology and still instantiate his view of ontological commitment, I can't really see Quine saying anything about the nature of existence. And even if he is, the passage
    BV quotes is, in its circularity, saying exactly what Quine wants it to. Anyway, if Quine really is saying something about existence, it is nothing more than that something exists if it exists, as BV himself notes, and that's hardly a substantive ontology. Why would we criticize it, when Quine's primary point is linguistic/psychological? 

    Posted by Chris

  6. Words words words !!
    empty cleverness about nothing. Would it be very provocative to suggest that there is a 'real existence' and that words are not it? Of course i would need to use words to try and prove that ... so.... 

    Posted by david

  7. When Quine/Richard makes the leap from "Pegasus exists" to "having the attribute of being Pegasus" he is saying something about what "existence itself" is. (I don't know whether this is a good leap or a bad leap, it might not be a leap at all, but it is saying something about what existence is.) The way I read it, what BV was saying in the second part of his post was that Quine's primary linguist/psychological point relies "logically prior" idea of what existence actually is or "What is it for an item to be there?"

    Remember, the whole point of his blog entry was to say why he wasn't a Quinean. The point of him criticizing it seems to be something along the lines of "If you accept Quine's ideas about ontological commitment, then you also have to accept yada, yada, yada. I don't find yada, yada, yada acceptable, so I won't accept Quine's ideas about ontological commitment."

    So, I guess, while you are complaining that he is missing Quine's point, I'm complaining that you are missing his point.

    Of course, I could be totally misreading BV. 

    Posted by Macht

  8. That pegasus translation was merely an example, to show why using the (apparent) name 'Pegasus' doesn't necessarily commit us to an existing named entity. We don't have to make the translation I suggest. The point is simply that we have the option, if we don't want to admit that Pegasus exists. But we could just as well say "there is something that is Pegasus", which would uncontrovertibly commit us to Pegasus' existence.

    So I just don't think it's true that "If you accept Quine's ideas about ontological commitment, then you also have to accept yada, yada, yada."

    The framework he provides is a neutral one; it can tell us what the ontological commitments of a theory are. But it can't tell us which theory to choose. 

    Posted by Richard

  9. I don't mean to be a nuisance but from the small amount of reading I've done over the past day, Quine did take that extra step. Of course, we don't have to take it, but the fact remains that Quine did. And since the point of BV's blog post was to explain that he wasn't Quinean, I just don't see the problem. I still think that you guys are the ones who are missing BV's point.

    I very may be wrong, though, when I said this: "If you accept Quine's ideas about ontological commitment, then you also have to accept yada, yada, yada." 

    Posted by Macht

  10. Richard, great quote in the update. I just don't see what Quine is committed to, ontologically (sorry for the pun). 

    Posted by Chris

  11. Fortunately, reality exists whether we are ontologically committed to it or not.

    The idea that by saying "Pegasus doesn't exist" we imply that "Pegasus exists" because otherwise we couldn't use the word is just stupid. It's boringly stupid, because our definitions of objects are so pathetic. Humans name stuff, and not even hardcore logicians claim anymore than there is any kind of sensible way by which we do so. "You can never step into the same river twice" but as a human, the Yarra River is still the Yarra River. It's a mess of naming conventions.

    Saying "Pegasus doesn't exist" is nothing sure than a human-rational shorthand for asserting the nonexistence of anything with the set of fuzzy properties associated with the mythical beast pegasus. Okay, you can assert that pegasus has meaning only because of the existence of the myth, and thus "pegasus" in some sense exists, it's not the same meaning as implied by the sentence "pegasus does not exist". Quine's paradox only exists because his language is too fuzzy to distinguish between myth-pegasus and the claim that there is no living beast with the same properties as myth-pegasus.

    All you have to do is reject that the description of pegasus in insufficient for the logical task, then realise that ontological objects are inherently fuzzy, never conforming to a logic including an excluded middle, and then all of a sudden you realise it's easy to explain why these people are just talking rubbish.


    Posted by Tennessee Leeuwenburg

  12. A number of years ago I was having an agrument with a young man about the nature of reality. I finally got so frustrated with his vacuously worded nonsense about unreal nature of the real that I slapped him REAL hard with my REAL hand on his REAL face. Unfortunately, it caused REAL blood to flow and he got REAL mad. We then got into a REAL fight, were placed under REAL arrest and after posting REAL bond were released until a REAL court date was set. The REAL judge then fined my REAL ass, but the assult charge was dropped so I guess THAT wasn't REAL!

    I'm probably not as smart as the rest of you guys, but all I know is that try as I might, after reading the post and comments, I'm REALLY confused. 

    Posted by William G

  13. I'm a little puzzled (I'm way out of my field, so that's perhaps not surprising); I see nothing in BV's post that assumes Quine has a particular ontology at all. I took him to be summarizing an argument against the view that existence is what the existential quantifier expresses. 

    Posted by Brandon

  14. Brandon, I think you're probably right, but since Macht brought up the Pegasus paraphrase I wanted to sort that issue out too.

    To explain the original post: I understood BV as complaining that Quine's explication of existence was circular. But that would only be a problem if the explication's purpose was to provide an analysis of existence (i.e. in terms of something else). I don't think that was Quine's purpose here - or at least not his only purpose. Rather, I thought Quine's explication of existence was intended to clarify ontological commitments, not existence itself. In other words, it seemed to me that BV was criticising Quine for doing badly something that Quine hadn't attempted in the first place.

    I should note that it's very possible that BV's criticism is based on further claims Quine makes elsewhere, of which I am unaware. But I had wanted to post about ontological commitment anyway, so (even if my counter-criticism turns out to be misplaced) BV's post served as a convenient starting point. 

    Posted by Richard

  15. Richard, I still think you're right, and can't think of any other passage in Quine that would change that. The circularity that BV criticizes is not only not a problem given Quine's project, but is required by the project. The very point is that I assume something exists if there is something in (or applied by) my statements that is identical to that thing.BV's critizing this point would only make sense if he thought it a bad reason for assuming that people are, by referring to things in certain ways, committed to their existence. This is a common criticism of Quine's ontological commitment. When he criticizes it for being a circular point about existence, it's not clear he understands the point at all.

    Now Mach's criticism of Russell's theory of reference, in which any statement can be paraphrased by replacing names with descriptions, as being ontological is just odd. Russell may be claiming that things are just collections of describable features, though I am not really sure what this would entail. However, all Quine is saying is that I am not committed to the existence of something (e.g., Pegasus) if I can paraphrase my statement in such a way that its existence is not assumed. Since I can replace "Pegasus" with a description that involves the nonexistence, or at the very least, does not involve the existence of Pegasus, then I am not committed to Pegasus' existence. It's amazing that BV used this sort of example in his post without giving Quine's solution.

    It might also note that in the paper to which BV refers, Quine does offer an ontological position (no universals, no fictional entities, and, in his view, mathematical entities (which seem to be one of the main reasons for coming up with the theory of ontological commitment), etc. BV could have criticized what Quine does say about what exists (and perhaps elsewhere he does), but instead, he criticizes what Quine says about what our statements imply we are committed to, ontologically. That is baffling to me, and nothing in his post justifies it. 

    Posted by Chris


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