Friday 9 September 2022

Notes on Modal Issues Regarding the Ontology of Propositions

Cross-posted here.

A true sentence like ‘John is here in this room’, and its Twin Earth counterpart, express different propositions, since they are about distinct people. And that means that propositions sometimes constitutively involve particular external things that they are about.

What, in light of this, should we say about how, if at all, what propositions there are—what claims exist—varies across possible worlds?

One side of this issue is: could propositions like the ones expressed by a normal true use of ‘John is here in this room’ have failed to exist? Do they fail to exist in (or with respect to, perhaps?) all worlds in which John does not exist? (I set aside Williamsonian necessitarianism about what there is.)

My notion of the internal meaning of a sentence, or the way it is used, gives me a way of agreeing that there’s something right about the idea that the meanings of sentences are just there and exist necessarily. Given a normal occurrence of ‘John is here in this room’, the way the sentence is being used—which it has in common with its Twin Earth counterpart—may be regarded as a pure abstract object, like a way of dancing, which we can say is just there and could in no sense have failed to exist.

Here is another question we might ask: propositions about particular people and physical things—suppose they do exist in some possible worlds apart from the actual world. But do they themselves have different properties in worlds where the things they are about have different properties? A way of using a sentence, we might say, is just what it is and doesn’t have different intrinsic properties at any rate in different worlds—it will of course have different extrinsic properties such as ‘having been instantiated by someone wearing a blue hat’. But if a claim constitutively involves the object it is about, is the object with respect to the claim like a diamond set in a piece of jewellry, so that the piece’s properties change whenever the diamond’s do, since the diamond is part of it? I think perhaps this need not be so. We could instead use the model of something which needs to be tied to something else, and which disappears, or at least ceases to be that thing, if we cut the tie or remove the something else.

A tremendous complicating factor is that there are undoubtedly, in some sense, claims about things that do not in fact exist. We cannot here follow Kripke in Reference and Existence into the view that these sentences do not in fact express propositions, anymore than we should follow him in analyzing particular existential statements as talking about whether there is such-and-such a proposition. (That theory is I think clearly tortured but this is not the place to mount objections but see Postscript.) And recall there that even Kripke was keen to avoid the seeming absurdity of having to hold that the correct analysis of a statement can depend on whether it is true or false. However! It seems to me there is one thing in this general vicinity which we might indeed have to come to terms with. Namely, that the modal profiles and identity conditions of propositions expressed by statements involving names that happen to be empty differ from those of propositions expressed by statements which are being used in exactly the same way but where the names aren’t empty. 

Someone might want to say: just because we can’t pick out particular propositions about physical objects and people etc. that do not actually exist, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. (Anymore than the fact that non-actual people can’t pick out our propositions means that they don’t exist.) But this is only really correct given something like Lewisian modal realism.

‘What if Vulcan had existed?’—Are we to follow Kripke in his view of unicorns and apply that even to the case of names, i.e. say that there is no particular possibility in question at all here? A lot of what I am otherwise tending toward does seem to be leading me that way—but I suspect that here the shoe might really pinch, and that dwelling on this part of the issue and trying to do it justice will lead to a breakthrough—-a better view. A kind of more nuanced view which, pace recent Williamson, would not be a case of overfitting.

‘What if the claims made by some astronomers about Vulcan had been true? I don’t mean what if they had been right when they spoke. I mean, consider the claims they expressed about Vulcan. What if those claims had been true? Is there a possible world in which they are true?’

Postscript. It seems a very important objection to Kripke’s analysis of negative existentials in R&E that he is kicking the can down the road. For how does it get to be true that ‘There is no such proposition as that Vulcan exists’ expresses a true proposition? If we interpret it metalinguistically, it’s wrong as an analysis. So then how do we interpret it? The ‘no such’ has a soothing effect and as it were shrouds the occurrence of ‘Vulcan’ in a haze. But we still need to account for what it’s doing there and how we get different statements when we pop in different empty names.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Queen Elizabeth II.