Timothy Williamson on Necessary Existents

In the discussion of my post I Necessarily Exist Jason Zari pointed out Timothy Williamson’s paper Necessary Existants as a way of explaining how he was led to questions about logic and the proof of necessary existence. I had never read the Williamson paper and I made some comments/responses to his argument that I would be curious to know what people thought about, so I reproduce them here.

Hey thanks forthe link to the Williamson paper…I read through it and while I think that his argument depends on a lot of very questionable assuptions (my mind is not one of the open ones that he has written the paper for :)) I now better see where you were comming from…

A couple of thoughts…It seems to me that Kripke’s version of modal logic avoids the argument that he gives in the begining of the paper. So let’s look at it real fast

(1) Necessarily, if I do not exist then the proposition that I do not exist is true.
(2) Necessarily, if the proposition that I do not exist is true then the proposition that I do
not exist exists.
(3) Necessarily, if the proposition that I do not exist exists then I exist.
(4) Necessarily, if I do not exist then I exist.

Switching from proof-theoretic talk lto model-theoretic talk, we can see that there is a model where (1)-(3) are true but do not entail (4) and so do not entail that I necessarily exist…Let the domain be the actual world and let ‘JZ” name you. So (2), and (3) are true at the actual world (in virtue of your acceptance of Russellian propositions and I am not challenging that (though I might) since the actual world contains you and so contains propositions about you.

The question then is ‘how is the proposition that JZ does not exist get to be true’? How is (1) true at the actual world? It is true just in case there is a possible world where you don’t exist (that is we adopt the Kripkean notion that a proposition is true at a world if there is some world where it is true. That would make (1) true in the actual world just in case there is some possible world where you do not exist, and we agreed earlier that there is such a possible world (trivially, the empty world). So (1)-(3) are true but in a model where we do not get the result that ‘if you exist then you don’t exist’

Now though Williams doesn’t mention Kripke by name, I take it that he is addressing this sort of move when he says the following.

It is sometimes said that a proposition can be true of a possible world without being true in that world. We can express propositions in one world about another world. Thus a proposition might be true of a possible world without existing in that world. But this idea does not address the case for (2+) [’Necessarily, if the proposition that P is true then the proposition that P exists’], for (2+) does not say that the proposition exists in any possible world of which it is true. We could paraphrase (2+) thus: for any possible world w, if the proposition that P would have been true if w had obtained, then the proposition that P would have existed if w had obtained. We can abbreviate that by saying that for any possible world w, if the proposition is true in w then the proposition exists in w. The antecedent concerns truth in w, not truth of w, so the distinction poses no threat to (2+).

but this doesn’t really address the Kripke move. Kripke says that a proposition is true in a world if it is true at some possible world. So the proposition that you do not exist is true at the actual world because it is true at (or ‘of’ if you prefer) some world. So it is true in this world and you exist in this world. We can agree with everything that he says except the bit about how the distinction poses no threat. It is true in w (the actual world) in virtue of it being true of some possible world.

He goes on to consider whether this distinction poses a problem for premise (1), which I will skip since the above seems enough to get by the argument (you may argue that I assume a negative answer to the next challenge, but if so, then I will give the argument against it)…what about his general problem with the distinction? The argument from failure to grasp contingency? He says,

Consider the contingently true proposition that Blair was Prime Minister in 2000. It is supposed to be true of the actual world @ and false of some other possible world w. On the model, the sentence contains a tacit variable; if @ is assigned to the variable, a truth results, if w is assigned, a falsehood. But that does not make the resulting propositions contingent. There is genuine contingency in how things are only if, once values have been assigned to all variables, the resulting proposition could still have differed in truth-value. It is not contingent that Blair was Prime Minister in 2000 in @ and that he was not Prime Minister in 2000 in w. What is contingent is simply that Blair was Prime Minister in 2000. Its contingency requires it not to have a variable waiting to be assigned a world. The reply ‘But contingency just is variation in truth-value with variation in the value of the world variable’ betrays a failure to grasp what contingency is.

Well right off the bat he has misrepresented the position since he says that the proposition is true of the actual world. Rather it is that the proposition is true in the actual world because it is true at/of some possible world…so I of course agree that what is contingent is the proposition that Blaire was Prime Minister in 2000…that proposition is true in the actual world and contingent because it is possible that it could have been false (though not expressible on your and Williams’ view) in the actual world…

Finally the business about the ‘illusion’ of a distinction doesn’t seem to me to work either. He says.

There is the illusion of a distinction between truth in a world and truth of a world for propositions because we appear to be able to model such a distinction on a corresponding distinction for utterances, forgetting that the presence of the latter depends on the absence of the former.

What he means by that last bit is that the intuitive claim about utterances (i.e. that the utterance ‘there are no utterances’ is true in this world because it is true of some wold) depends on our having the notion of truth in a world for propositons. As he says,

The utterance need not exist in that world in order to be true of it because the proposition which it expresses in this world exists in that one. We need not carry the utterance across from this world to that one precisely because we can carry the proposition across instead.

But this is nothing more than question begging…why isn’t the proposition that the utterance expresses true in this world because it is true of some world, just like the utterance? So, anyways, all of this is along winded way of saying that you don’t need to adopt your paraphrase as a way of avoiding the argument if one accepts Kripke semantics for modal languages like I do…

But of course the argument of the post, and the one you mention, is meant to show that this is not good enough, one also needs to jettison the idea that our semantics inculedes singular terms. Williamson explicity appeals to singular terms in his defense of premise (3)…it is that defense which my argument is aimed at…

…except there is this very odd phenomenon that for me showing that logic leads to the claim that I necessarily exist is reason to think that we have got something wrong, while for him it shows that he necessarily exists!!

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