Monday, July 16, 2012

Accounting for the truth of 'Santa Claus does not exist'

To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Accounting for the truth of 'Santa Claus does not exist'
Date: 17 January 2008 12:49

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 8 January, with your University of London Logic essay in response to the question, 'Is there a satisfactory account of the truth of the sentence "Santa Claus does not exist"?'

Your admiration for Naive Metaphysics puts you in a very small and exclusive club. The book was written by a 'Geoffrey Klempner' who no longer exists. I admire the work too, but the author and I are two different people.

About this essay: my first reaction was to wonder how much of this you would be able to reproduce if the question came up in an exam. It is an excellent piece of work.

But my job is to disagree, if I can.

I haven't studied much of Meinong but I like his theory, perhaps with a positive spin of my own. (If you can get to see a copy, Edo Pivcevic 'The Concept of Reality' Duckworth develops this spin into a full-blown theory.)

The idea that one is being objectionably 'Platonist' by admitting mythical entities, fictional entities, etc. just seems to me wrong. There are objections to Platonism but this has nothing to do with it. Any object or thing you can make true statements about about exists. I think you hold this too, although you come up with a complicated story of two different kinds of 'intentions' etc. etc.

I don't see that this is necessary.

First, the fallacy imputed to Meinong (wrongly, I would guess, since Meinong was not a fool) regarding the meaning of the statement, 'Santa Claus does not exist'. We are assuming that there is only one kind of existence - namely, if you can make a true statement about a, then a exists.

When I say that SC does not exist, I am not making a statement about SC the mythical individual but rather a negative existential statement, quantifying over spatio-temporal particulars.

Similarly, 'There is no Green Gertha,' could be used in an appropriate context to make a negative existential statement, quantifying over mythical individuals. (Imagine that you falsely believe a story you read on the internet and I am setting you straight.)

(Yes, I agree that we usually use 'exists' to imply that the domain is that of spatio-temporal particulars but that is just a pragmatic feature of language. Perhaps in a Meinongian spirit one would wish for another term -- such as 'subsists' -- to signal that one has shifted the domain from the default one.)

I kind-of like Kripke's account of initial baptism and preservation of the chain of reference, and think that neither Dummett's nor Searle's criticisms are sufficient to refute the theory. Gareth Evans was finally persuaded of the 'tape recorder' point -- which tells against his earlier version of the 'causal theory' -- but I would question whether he was right about this.

It is about intentions, and nothing but intentions. Kripke fully accepts this. His theory is that when I use a name I *intend* to use it with the same reference as the person from whom I acquired the use of the name used it.

The argument is over whether such kinds of intentions can be successful, in the case where it there is no decision procedure which can be applied which yields the answer, yes or no. This is standard Dummett territory. In order to see this as a criticism one has to accept Dummett's strictures against a 'realist theory of meaning'. As you will discover in NM, I don't accept that the debate between the realist and anti-realist has anything to do with theories of meaning. Dummett is on the wrong track, period.

But (this is a big but) I also would not accept that there ultimately is a correct or incorrect 'theory' here. We can (and I would argue do) intend things Kripke's way but we can also have different intentions, which would be explained in terms of the cluster of descriptions theory. It all depends on the particular case. And many cases will indeed be undecidable. Philosophers of language are on soft ground; there is no 'fact of the matter', only a range of alternative interpretations.

That is why I would favour the approach which starts with the standard Davidsonian setup, asking what are the kinds of considerations that a radical translator would appeal to. They are many and varied, and depend crucially on the context in which the radical translation is carried out (as Putnam says, 'explanation is relative to interest'). McDowell's 'On the Sense and Reference of a Proper Name' would seem to be saying something along similar lines, but I am not claiming to expound McDowell.

You can deduce a lot from the choice of example. Santa Claus is a good example for massaging one's intuitions in favour of Searle. Imagine the newspaper headlines, 'Santa Claus does exist!' and the various possible scenarios which would prompt this. Other examples are more favourable to Kripke. A thousand years from now, I would wish it to be the case that when people talk of GK they mean the son of Paul and Edith Klempner and not the individual who satisfies some cluster of descriptions, who might either be the person writing these words or someone else. (I leave it to you to work out how to reconcile this with my earlier remark about GK.)

Finally, the proffered formal theory. I'm not a good person to comment on this, as I generally don't like formal theories when offered as 'solutions' to philosophical problems. Any deviation from classical logic and semantics requires a very strong argument and I don't think that such a deviation is warranted in the present case. But that's just my prejudiced view. Don't let it put you off, if formal semantics appeal to you.

All the best,

Geoffrey