Friday, March 20, 2020
Craig contra the truthmaker objection to presentism
Presentism holds that, in the temporal realm (that is to say, apart from eternal and aeviternal entities), only present objects and events exist. Now, if statements about past events and objects are true, then there must be something that makes them true. But in that case, the “truthmaker objection” to presentism holds, past objects and events must exist. I’ve argued in that this objection is greatly overrated. Indeed, for the reasons I gave there, I can’t myself fathom what all the fuss is about. William Lane Craig seems to agree. In his book (which I reviewed recently ), he has occasion briefly to address the issue. Craig writes:
[I]t seems indisputably true that ‘There have been forty-four US presidents’. The non-existence of most of them is no impediment to our quantifying over past US presidents. To infer from the truth of such statements that time is, in fact, tenseless and that past and future individuals are on an ontological par with present individuals would be to draw a breathtaking metaphysical inference on the basis of the slim reed of the neo-Quinean criterion of ontological commitment.
It is noteworthy that in debates over presentism, tenseless time theorists tend simply to presuppose without argument that quantification is ontologically committing, and so our ability to quantify over past/future individuals in true sentences is taken to commit us to their existence… It never seems to occur to tenseless time theorists that our ability to quantify over purely past/future individuals in true sentences might be a good reason to reject the criterion of ontological commitment which they unquestioningly presuppose… [I]t is far more obvious that, for example, the [past-tensed] statement ‘Some medieval theologians wrote in Latin’ is true than that the neo-Quinean criterion of ontological commitment is true. (pp. 117-18)
End quote. Here Craig frames the issue in terms of “ontological commitment” rather than “truthmaking,” but in this context the basic issue is the same. The writers he is responding to hold that if we take statements about past objects and events to be true, then we are thereby “ontologically committed” to the existence of past objects and events. Similarly, the truthmaker objection holds that if we take statements about past objects and events to be true, then we are thereby committed to the existence of past objects and events as “truthmakers” of those statements.
The last sentence in the passage quoted from Craig is directed at philosophers who suggest that presentists, to be consistent, should give up the assumption that past-tensed statements are true, in favor of a “fictionalist” thesis that we should regard such statements merely as if they were true. As Craig rightly says, what should be given up instead are the tendentious metaphysical assumptions that inspire such bizarre proposals! In fact it is perfectly possible consistently to take statements about past objects and events to be true while at the same time denying that past objects and events exist. As Craig says, it isn’t the truth of these statements that entails otherwise, but rather the neo-Quinean assumptions that are read into the statements that entail otherwise.
That has been my point in my earlier remarks about the truthmaker objection. I am happy to agree with the claim that true statements require truthmakers. Indeed, it’s just common sense, and the truthmaker objection trades on the commonsense appeal of the claim. But by itself the claim is in fact not terribly informative, because “truthmaking” is a vague notion. Take the statements “Robert Downey, Jr. is an actor” and “Tony Stark is Iron Man.” Both statements are true, and both have truthmakers. But the respective truthmakers are very different. The first statement is true because Robert Downey, Jr. really exists and really is an actor. The second statement is true because the Marvel comics and movies were written a certain way, but not because Tony Stark exists, since he doesn’t.
If you wanted to justify some dramatic metaphysical conclusion to the effect that fictional characters like Tony Stark exist, you aren’t going to get it from the (trivial) fact that true statements require “truthmakers.” Rather, you’re going to have to come up with some metaphysical theory that restricts what can count as a “truthmaker,” and then justify reading this theory into the commonsense (and indeed by itself pretty banal) thesis that true statements require truthmakers. Trying to pull the dramatic metaphysical conclusion out of the banal commonsense premise that truths require truthmakers is just sleight of hand.
Craig makes the same point about all the heavy-going talk among analytic philosophers about “ontological commitment.” Common sense would agree that when we make a true statement, the things that the statement is about in some sense “exist.” But terms like “exist” are in ordinary usage very elastic, covering not only tables, chairs, and the like, but things as diverse as the way that you smile, a lack of compassion in the world, the chance that something will not happen, the way things might have been, and so on (to cite several examples of the sort Craig gives on pp. 111-12). And there is nothing in common sense that entails that the way things might have been is an entity in the way that a table is an entity. You can argue that it is, on the basis of some metaphysical theory, but it would in that case be the theory – and not common sense – that is doing the work.
Commonsense usage, Craig says, is “metaphysically lightweight” (p. 112). The neo-Quinean metaphysician reads his heavyweight metaphysics into ordinary usage and pretends that he is simply drawing out the implications of common sense.
I have argued that the truthmaker objection to presentism does exactly the same thing. “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March” is true, and common sense would agree that this truth needs a truthmaker. And it has one. Caesar’s really having been assassinated on the Ides of March (rather than this being a fictional story, say) is what makes the statement true.
Now, the proponent of the truthmaker objection comes along and says that this entails that Caesar, his assassination, etc. exist, no less than present objects and events do. But this doesn’t follow from common sense. Rather, it follows only from some metaphysical theory about what can count as a “truthmaker.” Hence for anyone who does not accept that theory – as, of course, presentists would not – the objection amounts to just a question-begging assertion. It seems more than that only if we read the metaphysical theory into the commonsense and banal “truthmaking” assumption shared by presentist and non-presentist alike.
I noted in an earlier post on this subject that we have ample independent reason to reject the anti-presentist’s assumptions about “truthmaking.” Consider “negative existentials” like the statement “There are no unicorns.” This statement is true, and thus needs a truthmaker. But it can’t be that there is some entity that makes it true, since the statement is denying the reality of some entity rather than affirming it. So what is it that makes the statement true? Common sense would say: “The fact that there are no unicorns, the absence of unicorns from reality, is what makes it true. What’s the big deal?” Some metaphysicians respond: “But then what is a fact? What is an absence? Aren’t these entities of some kind?”
Now, you might think this a major metaphysical conundrum. Or, stifling a yawn, you might think it much ado about nothing. Either way, it certainly doesn’t entail that people who deny the existence of unicorns need to go into crisis mode, and to reject or at least remain agnostic about the statement “There are no unicorns” until the metaphysicians have solved the alleged problem. If anything, it is the metaphysicians who need to conform their theorizing to the truth of the statement “There are no unicorns.” It isn’t those who affirm this obvious truth who need to conform their opinions to some tendentious metaphysics.
Similarly, if the proponent of the “truthmaker objection” thinks it a real chin-puller to understand how statements about past objects and events can be true if past objects and events don’t exist, he is welcome to pull his chin. It’s a free country. But he can’t reasonably expect the rest of us to agree that this a deep metaphysical problem for presentism, any more than there is a deep metaphysical problem for people who affirm that there are no unicorns. Or at least, he can’t expect us to think that the banal thesis that truths require truthmakers shows that there is any deep metaphysical problem. He’s first got to justify his tendentious metaphysical assumptions about what can count as truthmaking if he’s going to convince us that we need to pull our chins too.
Craig offers several important further parallel examples. There is, first of all (pp. 113-17), the case of quantification into intentional contexts, which is standardly taken to involve quantification into intensional contexts. (Note the difference here between intentionality-with-a-t and intensionality-with-an-s, which are related but distinct technical notions.) Take the statement “Ponce de Leon was searching for the Fountain of Youth.” This is an “intentional” context (to use the jargon of philosophy of mind) in the sense that it concerns the contents of a person’s thoughts, which have the feature of intentionality or “aboutness.” Ponce de Leon’s thought was about the Fountain of Youth. It is said also to be an “intensional” context (to use the jargon of logic and philosophy of language) insofar as we cannot quantify into it, i.e. affirm the existence of all the things its terms refer to. Though the statement is true, there is no Fountain of Youth.
Now, as Craig points out, the statement in question nevertheless seems obviously to entail the further statement “There is something that Ponce de Leon was searching for.” After all, Ponce de Leon was not wandering around aimlessly. There was a specific thing he was trying to find. But it might seem problematic to affirm this further statement, insofar as it might seem to entail the existence of the thing (namely the Fountain of Youth) that Ponce de Leon was looking for. But this would follow, Craig says, only if we assume a neo-Quinean criterion of ontological commitment, on which the use of quantificational phrases like “There is” necessarily commits the user to the existence of something. The “problem” disappears if we don’t make this assumption. It arises only given a tendentious metaphysical interpretation of ordinary usage, not from ordinary usage itself.
Another example would be modal contexts, such as statements about possibilities (pp. 119-21). Consider that there are uncountably many stars that could have existed even if they don’t. Hence the statement “There are uncountably many possible stars” is true. Should we conclude that these possible stars must really exist after all? Some metaphysicians would draw precisely such conclusions. Now, like me and like Craig, you might think this an utterly ridiculous non-starter. Or, instead, you might think that the question whether such a result follows is, however bizarre, another real chin-puller that we need to take seriously. Either way, as Craig notes, the truth of the statement “There are uncountably many possible stars” by itself does not entail any such recherché metaphysics. You have to read the metaphysics into the statement before you can read it out again.
Or consider mereological statements, i.e. those concerning parts and wholes (pp. 121-24). For example, consider a statement like “There is an entity consisting of my left hand and the coffee cup sitting next to it.” We can come up with innumerably many such statements about all kinds of similarly bizarre objects (or “mereological fusions,” as philosophers like to call them) – the object consisting of your eyeglasses, the moon, and a certain ham sandwich; the object consisting of the center of the earth, the square root of 2, and the temperature in Phoenix; and so on.
We can talk about these entities and (to go along with the gag for the sake of argument) even make true statements about them. So should we conclude that the object consisting of my left hand and the coffee cup sitting next to it is a real entity on all fours with you and the table you are sitting at? Does this follow from the truth of the statement?
You might think this is really serious, cutting-edge metaphysics. Or you might think it is too stupid for words. Either way, Craig’s point is that affirming statements like the one in question does not by itself commit you to the existence of such bizarre entities. It can do so only if conjoined with some tendentious metaphysical theory, such as a neo-Quinean criterion of ontological commitment, or some metaphysically loaded “truthmaker theory.”
Now, I would say that what we have in these various cases is essentially just a set of logico-linguistic puzzles. They are not without interest, and ultimately they may even have metaphysical implications of some sort or other. What they do not do is by themselves have any obvious metaphysical implications, and they certainly do not by themselves pose any grave challenge to any commonsense metaphysical assumption.
The same thing is true of the puzzle raised by the “truthmaker objection” to presentism. By itself it doesn’t raise a metaphysical problem that is any more grave or pressing or dramatic than these other puzzles. It’s a logico-linguistic puzzle alongside other logico-linguistic puzzles, that’s all. To ask:
“How can statements about the past be true if past objects and events don’t exist?”
is like asking:
“How can statements about fictional characters be true if fictional characters don’t exist?”
“How can negative existential statements be true if the things they talk about don’t exist?”
“How can statements about what people believe in, desire, search for, etc. be true when the things they believe in, desire, search for, etc. don’t exist?”
“How can statements about merely possible things be true when those things don’t exist?”
“How can a statement about the object consisting of my left hand and a coffee cup be true if that object doesn’t seem to have the kind of reality that a table does?”
You can puzzle over these things if you like, and it can be worthwhile doing so as long as one keeps in mind the precise nature and scope of the inquiry. But in my opinion, to suppose that the first of these questions poses a grave threat to presentism is ridiculous. It is like supposing that these other questions entail that there is grave pressure on us to believe in the existence of fictional characters, non-existent things, every single object of belief or desire, merely possible objects, all mereological fusions, etc.
Craig alludes to the assumption, made by many philosophers who write on these topics, that “exists” is a univocal term, though he does not pursue the issue. But in my view, that is a major part of the problem, and one that any Scholastic is bound to be sensitive to. “Exists” and related terms are analogical rather than either univocal or equivocal, and we are bound to be led into trouble when we ignore this. There are also the Scholastic distinctions between real being, beings of reason, intentional being, and (for some Scholastics) an intermediate category between real beings and beings of reason. Too much contemporary discussion of the issues rides roughshod over such distinctions, wrongly treating terms like “exist” as if they have the same force in all contexts.