J. P. Moreland Reviews My Book
Note: I consider myself very fortunate in having had my book reviewed by three outstanding and fair-minded philosophers thus far: Hugh McCann, Panayot Butchvarov, and J. P. Moreland. But I am especially grateful to Moreland for digging the deepest into the book's inner workings.
A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated
By William F. Vallicella. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. 281 pages. $91. Philosophia Christi, vol. 6, no. 1 (2004), pp. 149-155.
While reading Vallicella’s excellent book, I was constantly reminded of why I went into philosophy. It addresses an important perennial issue, it is deep, well informed and broad, and it is full of precise, careful arguments. This work is one of the best books I have ever read on topics in analytic ontology. Because of space limitations and the importance of getting Vallicella’s ideas on the table for a wide audience, I will limit this review to providing a précis of his position.
In chapter one, Vallicella distinguishes two questions about (especially contingent) existence--the nature question(s) (What is it for a contingent individual to exist? What is existence itself?) and the ground question (Why does any contingent individual exist?)--and proffers a sketch of his paradigm theory of existence. In chapters two though five, Vallicella tells the reader what existence is not [chapters two and three: it is not a property of or being identical to individuals; chapter four: it is not a property of properties; chapter five: it is not belonging to a world or domain). In chapters six and seven, he offers his own account of what it is for a contingent individual to exist and what existence itself is, respectively. In chapter eight, he describes the nature of the Paradigm Existent.
In chapter one, Vallicella seeks a theory of contingent existence that steers a middle ground between being neutral (one that specifies a feature that all and only existent individuals have while remaining neutral as to what or whether anything satisfies it) and being circular (one that employs actually existent contingent individuals to formulate what it is for those actually existent individuals to exist). According to Vallicella, the only way to spit these horns is to reject the assumption that there is only one mode of existence in favor of the following: (S) Necessarily, x exists (in mode 1) iff there is a y (which exists in mode 2) such that y stands in R to x. His paradigm theory of existence is a substitution instance of S: (PT) Necessarily, for any contingent individual x, x exists iff (i) there is a necessary y such that y is a paradigm existent and (ii) y is the unifier of x’s ontological constituents, directly producing the unity/existence of y. Vallicella argues that PT provides a non-trivial unified account of the nature and ground questions about existence.
Along the way, Vallicella defends a realist view of existence against those like Panayot Butchvarov who claim that existence is a transcendental concept. The chapter closes with a very helpful taxonomy of theories about three issues that must be addressed by such theories: (1) actually existing individuals themselves; (2) the having of existence by those individuals; (3) existence itself. Vallicella distinguishes three types of theories along a spectrum: No Difference or Identitarian Theories which accept (1), reject (2) and (3) and assert that existence is identical to individuals, Extreme Difference or Eliminativist Views which accept (1) and (3) but deny (2), and Moderate Difference Views which accept all three and try to reconcile them. Vallicella’s paradigm theory is an example of a Moderate View.
In chapter two, Vallicella argues against the view that existence is a first-level property of individuals—an individual exists just in case it instantiates the property of existing. His strategy is to show that either on a constituent ontology (universals enter into the being of their instances) or a non-constituent ontology (universals are “tied-to” but do not enter their instances), existence cannot be a first-level property of individuals. Assuming a non-constituent ontology, among his arguments is the claim that an individual cannot exist in virtue of instantiating a property because something must exist ontologically prior to being tied to something, in this case, a universal. Vallicella makes the important point that “in virtue of” is not the same as “if and only if” nor it is efficient causality. Rather, the locution is equivalent to “is ontologically dependent on”, e.g., a proposition is true in virtue of its truth-maker.
One implication of Vallicella’s discussion of this locution is important for philosophical method: stating the truth conditions for some philosophical phenomenon is not the same as providing an assay or analysis of the phenomenon. Returning to Vallicella’s dialectic, he argues that the holism of existence is sufficient to refute the theory of existence under consideration (on the assumption of a constituent ontology) because the existence of a is that in virtue of which a together with all its properties exist, so the existence of a cannot be only one among many of its constituents. Vallicella closes the chapter by stating and rejecting a major reason why some think that existence is a first-order property of individuals in that “exists” can be treated as a first-level predicate in first-order logic [x exists =df (Ey)(x=y)].
In chapter three, Vallicella examines the No-Difference Theory: There is no difference between an individual and existence per se or between an individual and its existence. Existence “reduces” to existents, to existing individuals. Vallicella makes a nice distinction, parallel to one in philosophy of mind, between Identitarian (the existence of x is real and identical to x) and Eliminativist (“exists” is not a first-level predicate and cannot be attributed to individuals) versions of the theory. Against the former, Vallicella argues that on this view, a’s essence is identical to a’s existence and, thus, everything becomes a necessary being which is absurd. The argument assumes that the essence of a, which Vallicella analyzes as “all of what a is”, is a itself in abstraction from a’s existence.
Vallicella identifies three versions of Eliminativism—Brentano’s, D. C. Williams’ and a Non-Constituent Ontology version—and criticizes each. His main argument is that the eliminitivist wants to drive a wedge between existence and individuals and assign existence to a realm distinct from that of worldly individuals (e.g., the realm of judgment/falling under a concept). If so, then individuals neither exist nor non-exist, but this is absurd. Moreover, a knob is sense perceptible and not a fact, but the existence of a knob is not sense perceptible and is a fact, and facts are needed as truth-makers. Especially interesting in my view was Vallicella’s claim that an NC Ontology--the view that individuals do not have constituents--must be eliminitivist since there can be no such thing as the existence of a that a possesses as a constituent. For the NC ontologist, individuals are blobs, not layer cakes, and existence cannot be possessed by individuals.
In chapter four, Vallicella takes on the view that existence is a property of properties—the property of being instantiated. Again, he draws a nice distinction between Identitarian (there is such a thing as singular existence of an individual and it is identical to the instantiation of some property) and Eliminativist versions (the existence/non-existence contrast does not apply to individuals, but is kicked upstairs and becomes the instantiation/uninstantiation distinction and, thus, individuals neither exist nor non-exist) versions of the view and offers a critique of each. Regarding Identitarianism, Vallicella argues that it is intrinsically problematic and the only sorts of properties that could do what the theory requires do not exist.
Among his arguments for the intrinsic difficulties in this view of existence, one stands out: Assuming (which I grant) that properties and the nexus of exemplification are universals, then, e.g., the existence of cat a is identical to the exemplification of catness and, by transitivity, all cats are identical which is absurd. This may be avoided by saying that the existence of cat a is the exemplification of catness by a and similarly for other cats. But this is circular. Cat a must be ontologically prior to its exemplification of some property P.
This is a powerful argument and Vallicella employs it against many of the accounts of existence within the book’s purview. I have more thinking to do on this argument, but as an initial response, it may be that Vallicella conflates the nature and ground questions. Clearly, the ground of a contingent individual’s existence must exist ontologically prior to that individual. The fact that an individual exists is not identical to the entity that constitutes the nature of its existence. The grounding relation is asymmetrical, irreflexive and transitive. But it is not clear that a contingent individual must exist ontologically prior to the entity that constitutes what it is for the individual to exist in the first place. Indeed, the claim itself seems circular. All that seems to be required is that there is more to the contingent individual than the entity that constitutes the nature of its existence.
Next, Vallicella claims that the only properties that could do the work this view of existence requires do not exist. Included in his crosshairs are, depending on your point of view, those treasured or dreaded non-constituent properties called Leibnizian essences, e.g., being-identical-to-Socrates. Vallicella argues that it is unclear how such properties “involve” their corresponding concrete particulars, and it difficult to see how such a property could remain abstract and chorismos in another realm while “involving” a concrete particular.
The chapter closes with a very nice critique of Eliminitivist versions of the view that existence is a property of properties. Particularly interesting is his rebuttal of “Plato’s Beard,” a general argument against `exist’ being a genuine property of individuals on the grounds that if it were, singular existentials are necessarily true and singular existential denials necessarily false. Vallicella rejoins that such an argument is guilty of a modal fallacy: Just because `necessarily, every sentence of the form “a exists” expresses a truth’ it does not follow that every sentence of this form expresses a necessariy truth. Problems with singular existentials are deep, indeed, and their solutions involve taking a stand on such things as reference and intentionality. However, regardless of where one stands on such matters, Vallicella’s treatment of Plato’s Beard is delightful and insightful.
Chapter five takes up mondial attribute theories of existence where existence is a property of a world, where a world cannot be taken to be a mere collection but, rather, must be understood in a monistic sense as an individual in its own right. “X exists in w” is the claim that w has the property of containing x. A major part of the chapter involves breaking this view into three alternatives and attacking each one. On view one a world is a collection, a mereological sum dependent on its members for existence. This option, Vallicella argues, is circular since it claims that some individual exists x in virtue of belonging to world w, but w exists in virtue of its members, including x.
View two involves a world as a non-collective dependent individual (one’s visual field is an example of a dependent individual). But the existence of some individual x cannot be analyzed without remainder in terms of belonging to w construed as a dependent individual for in this case w’s existence itself is not accounted for. This leaves view three: some x exists in virtue of belonging to w taken as an independent individual. This will work only if w is understood as a maximal individual (one that is the totality of everything that actually exists in w). However, this view drifts towards Spinozism, says Vallicella, such that w is a necessary, self-existent being and individuals in w are modes or mere abstractions of w, a view that will be a hard sell to many.
In chapter six, Vallicella turns to a development of his own view and addresses the ontology of the contingent individual. It is impossible to do justice to this and the next chapter is a short review, but briefly, the focus of chapter six is to answer two closely related questions: (1) How does existence belong to an individual? (2) What is the nature of the existence that so belongs? Vallicella’s approach involves two claims. First, contingent concrete individuals are states of affairs with ontological constituents arranged in a proposition-like way. Second, the existence of an individual is the contingent unity of its constituents, the unity in virtue of which they constitute it.
Along the way, he rejects, correctly in my view, Ostrich Realism (universals and particulars exist but there are no states of affairs consisting of a particular instantiating a universal) and non-constituent ontologies (universals are not constituents in the things that have them) and he adopts constituent realism. Given constituent realism, the nasty problem of individuating particulars raises it ugly head, and Vallicella embraces a unique Aristotelian-style version of bare particulars to solve the problem. More specifically, he says that what individuates states of affairs A and B are not bare particulars a and b simpliciter, but a-instantiating-properties and b-instantiating-properties.
This move seems troublesome, however, since it would seem that a and b individuate the entities to which the hyphenated locutions refer, and not conversely. But Vallicella needs to make this move because, while he denies that numerical difference is an unanalyzable, brute fact, he wants to say that the numerical difference between A and B does not consist in a constituent in each, but rather in the unity of each. He also accepts the existence of uninstantiated universals and denies that bare particulars, or anything else for that matter, can exist without instantiating a property. Granting a constituent view of instantiation and the Paradigm Existence as a simple, constituentless entity, it seems difficult to avoid equivocation regarding the two modes of existence. Difficulties with religious language are well-known, and Vallicella does address the problem of equivocation, albeit quite briefly. I simply register my complaint that Vallicella’s ontology does not seem to have the resources to keep analogous talk of the Paradigm Existence from sliding into equivocation.
Given that the existence of a concrete individual is identical to the unity of its constituents, the question arises as to what accounts for, what grounds this unity, and chapter seven tackles this topic. Defending and wielding Bradley’s regress argument against relations, he claims that the ground cannot be a brute fact or a constituent within a fact, e.g., the relation of exemplification, a non-relational nexus of exemplification, a certain subclass of universals. A recurring argument against constituent grounds amount to the claim that there is a difference between a’s being F and the set or mereological sum a +Fness+? (a relation, a nexus, some other constituent), and that difference cannot be accounted for by a further constituent within the state of affairs without a vicious regress or some other problem following. Thus, the unifier of a contingent individual must be an external unifier, one that is not a constituent of that individual.
In the final chapter, Vallicella’s task is to inquire into the attributes of the external unifier with respect to those features relevant to the nature of existence. He argues that the external unifier must be one and not many on the grounds that since all facts have facthood in common, the ground must be common. This seems to be a weak argument. It works in contexts that argue for an internal unifier such as a universal, but not for an external unifier. This can be seen by focusing on one Vallicella’s examples of an external unifier, viz., a hand that unifies a fistful of pencils into an actual unity (pp. 242-243). If we take a fistful of pennies unified by a hand such that both unities have facthood in common, this is insufficient to argue that it must be the same hand that unifies both facts. Still, I suppose simplicity considerations could fill the gap here.
In any case, Vallicella goes on to argue that the external unifier avoids Bradley’s regress, it cannot be inert but active and, thus, must be a mind to be able actually to hold contingent constituents into a unity, and that it must be a necessary mind, one that has a different mode of existence from that of contingent unities. He also offers a nice cosmological argument for a de re necessarily existent unifier from the mere possibility of the existence of contingent beings (since such a possibility P exists in every possible world, it is actualizable in all worlds, and this can be so only if the unifier exists in all worlds).
Vallicella’s book is incredibly rich, learned and rewarding. Even in areas where I disagree with him, I usually feel a great deal of pressure to re-examine my own views in light of his careful and hard-hitting defense of alternatives. And reading this book would be a good antidote to anyone like David Papineau or the Churchlands who claim that advocates of first-philosophy are plagued with Cartesian anxiety and the quest for incorrigible foundations to knowledge. Vallicella has no such anxiety, but those who eschew first-philosophy may have some of their own if they read this book.
J. P. Moreland
Talbot School of Theology, Biola University (word count 2750)