Can We Think About Non-Existent Objects?

I am scheduled to record a conversation with Pete Mandik for Philosophy TV tomorrow on higher-order approaches to consciousness and in the course of preparing for it I was rereading Pete’s Unicorn paper where, among other things, Pete gives several arguments that we are in fact able to think about non-existent objects. I do not think that we can.

It may seem quite natural to think that the answer to the above question is ‘yes’. For instance, we think of Count Dracula, unicorns, Santa Claus, and many other examples of this kind. If we take ‘thinking about’ to involve having some kind of relationship with the thing that is thought about this can seem crazy. If I am thinking about Santa Claus, for instance, that would mean that there would have to be some object that I was related to and since Santa doesn’t exist the object would seem to be a very strange one indeed! What should we conclude from this? Should we conclude that ‘thinking about’ doesn’t really involve a relationship between the thinker and the thing thought about?

Suppose that one accepted some kind of causal-historical account of the reference of (at least some of) our concepts and that thinking about x means tokening a thought containing a mental representation of x with the approriate causal-historical connection to x. So, to rehearse a familiar picture, Some child is born, his parents say “let’s call him  ‘Saul Kripke'”, other people are told “this is Saul Kripke” and thereby acquire the ability to refer to this child. Over time this name propagates, like a chain, link by link to us. So that when I think about Saul Kripke I employ a thought token that traces a causal-historical route back to the initial “baptism”. If this were the case, and one thought that natural kind terms worked like this as well, one would end up denying that we think about non-existent objects. The concept UNICORN has as its reference whatever it is that actually turns out to have been “baptized”. This may turn out to be a deformed goat, a hallucination, or maybe an imaginative act on the part of a person, whatever it actually turns out to be is what we are thinking about when we think about unicorns and that thing exists. So too for Dracula, Santa Claus, Jackalopes, etc.

But what about when we think thoughts like ‘there are no square circles’? Aren’t we thinking about square circles? I don’t think we are. Rather I think we are having an existentially quantified thought to the effect that nothing is both square and circular at the same time. Aha! Aren’t existentially quantified statements that are actually false examples of thinking about non-existent objects? If I think that the present King of France is bald, and there is no present King of France, are not I thinking about a non-existent object? Of course not! What you are thinking is that there is someone or other who is the present King of France and that is just plain, ordinary, boring false. There is no non-existent object which is correctly described as the one you are thinking about.

But isn’t denying that we can think about non-existent objects self refuting? What have we been talking about this whole time if not whether or not there are any of this kind of thought! So denying that there are any just shows that we have been thinking about non-existent objects all along! The very thoughts about non-existent objects that we have been discussing. But this is too quick. This is again just another example of an existentially quantified statement. ‘There are no thoughts about non-existent objects’ is really just saying that thoughts about non-existent objects don’t exist but that does not thereby mean that I am thinking about some non-existent objects! And this is for just the same reason as above; there are no objects which can be correctly described as the ones that I am thinking about.

So I am inclined to deny that we can think about non-existent objects…I am not saying that everyone should but only that there is a reasonable view, one that we ought to accept for other reasons not gone into here, and which denies that we think about non-existent objects. What this has to do with consciousness and Pete’s unicorn argument I will save for tomorrow’s discussion.

8 thoughts on “Can We Think About Non-Existent Objects?

  1. Nice post, Richard. I need to think about it much more, but my first and second off-the-top-of-the-head reactions are these:
    (1) I think the crucial case here is the false existentially quantified thought. I wonder if we have a merely verbal dispute here about how to describe such thoughts in terms of aboutness.
    (2) Whatever the nature of the dispute, verbal or substantive, I wonder how best for either side to proceed without begging questions one way or another about the relationality of aboutness. To frame the question of negative existentials in terms of whether there is something that they are about seems in danger of begging the question in favor of an aboutness relation.

    Hmm, like I said, I need to think about it some more. Catch ya tomorrow!

  2. I think this post is the living proof that philosophy (or some parts of it) has not moved one inch since Plato. Though I feel a sort of pastiche in the text, I cannot help thinking you are unaware of how boringly old and repeatedly answered these questions are.

    • I am all too aware of the boring history of this question going back at least to Parmenides but the point of this post was more to organize my own thoughts than it was to rehearse a well known history…as I thought I made clear in the post…and I can’t help thinking that your comment is rather symptomatic of discussion in the blogosphere: nothing helpful/interesting to say and the compulsion to say it…

  3. If i think there are no square circles, I’m
    a) failing to imagine a circle that is quare and
    b) imagining a circle and a square (in order to do a)
    no actually imagination of a square circle (well not without immense effort)

    If I imagine santaclause I am picturing the red and white dressed man from chilrens books that comes origionally from the cocacola add, who i have attributed the name “santa clause” whether I remember those links or not.

    But that aside, to me the whole debate seems to be a misformed question or just a verbal dispute.. nothing to see here…

  4. Our job as philosophers is to carve Nature at the joints. You are perfectly free to, for instance, declare that you have a theory of reference according to which one simply can’t refer to blue objects. Our everyday intuitions are wrong, according to your more precise technical definition of reference, and even though one might think that a thought about a red apple and a thought “about” a blue stapler are more or less the same sort of thing, this would not be the case. Only the thought about the apple was really a thought about anything. You can make this case, and defend it with a sufficiently complicated argument, and your argument might be entirely self-consistent. But why would I find it interesting, even as a philosopher? What truths or insights would it be likely to lead me to? Similarly, if a little kid says that she is thinking about Santa Claus, we better have a really good reason why our definition of “about” or “thought” means that her thought is an entirely different kind than her thoughts about her mother’s minivan. Whatever is interesting and worth investigating about thoughts or about reference is equally manifest in both.

    In general, I have an ax to grind with what I call Platonic theories of meaning: the idea that there is some cosmic Real Reference, and we as philosophers (or even as human beings) must figure out what it is. In particular, I object to
    the idea that there is some kind of connection between our reference and the object referred to – what I call invisible magic meaning rays. You, it seems, have managed to avoid explictly invoking invisible magic meaning rays by calling them “a causal-historical account” of reference. But this seems pretty tortured to me, unless you want to talk about reference as a sociological or psychological phenomenon, but not a philosophical one.

    There is something fascinating and deeply mysterious about thought, and about reference. This fascinating mystery, however, concerns what is between our ears. Attempts to externalize meaning, at least when we are doing serious philosophical investigation, only muddy the waters, and keep us from focusing on the real questions.

    -John Gregg

  5. Sounds like a case of what Quine said about Plato’s beard dulling Occam’s razor 😉 Can we think about non-existent objects? oh, my brain hurts! I think yes and no, depending on what the question really means. So, yes if you mean can we think about things that don’t exists as with the case of unicorns. If they’re non-existent how can we think about them? One way is through the creation of new, unique objects (or ideas) from a composite of things (or ideas) that exists (horse + horn= unicorn) paired with a word to designate new non-existent thing, and voila you’re thinking about non-existent things! Naming something doesn’t make it exists, but to deny something’s existence, that thing must first be named. And now you have a singular negative existential. As for your second point, when you say “But isn’t denying that we can think about non-existent objects self refuting?” Does thinking about non-existing objects (like the self-referential thoughts about thoughts above) and denying their existence paradoxically affirms their existence? I think Ockam’s razor is getting dull.

  6. Does this question even mean anything? I’m not sure that there’s anything inherently unique about thinking of one type of “object” versus the other.

    Suppose I try to imagine a television show. I share my thoughts with a friend, and to my amazement, I am told that there in fact exists a show with the exact characters, scenes, etc. that I spoke of. As far as I knew before I was informed, the show that I was thinking up did not exist — is omniscience, then, a requirement here?

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