Do artefacts exist?

Baylor philosopher Alex Pruss argues that they do not: “There are no artefacts, at least not in any metaphysically serious way.” After reading his whole post, I remain puzzled.

Clearly, we can say that artefacts “exist,” or that “there are artefacts,” if we’re talking existence in the sense of the existential quantifier.  I take it Pruss would not object to saying that there are chairs, if by that all one means is that something is a chair—or more formally: where ‘C’ stands for ‘…is a chair’, (x)Cx. In that case, we would have to admit chairs into our “ontology,” i.e. the universe of discourse over which we allow our logical quantifiers to range. The same would go, presumably, even for elusive and deceptive entities such as mirages. Is it not true, in the present sense, that there are mirages? But Pruss’ sense of ‘…exists’ is evidently weaker than that sense which would allow us to say that “mirages exist.” I’d like to hear more about that. I realize there’s a vast literature on this topic, as on virtually every other topic in philosophy, especially the more technical ones. But surely it would not take a lengthy perusal of the VL to get at what Pruss means. He can speak for himself, or perhaps a tiny selection from the VL would clarify what he’s getting at.

As is typical with me, I’m interested in this question because of the different implications that different answers would have in theology. For instance, I am endeavoring to give an account of transubstantiation according to which the sense of ‘substance’ in which bread and wine count as substances is to be specified partly by their being artefacts. If artefacts don’t exist, I can’t make that move.


16 Responses

  1. Perhaps he means “exist” in a substantial sense. Aristotle, famously, held that artifacts are mere heaps, and he appears also to have held that substantial being is the principal meaning of the term “being”, so there is a sense in which, for the Aristotelian, the “being” of non-substances is not at all like the being of substances.

    Do heaps “exist”? It might depend upon what you mean by the term, but I guess I don’t think you can gloss over it by just asserting that the word “exist” corresponds to the existential quantifier. Surely that move is thoroughly theory-laden. The heap that we name “chair” is “there” in some sense, but it wouldn’t follow, without begging the question, that chairs therefore exist.

  2. Scott:

    This just kicks the problem back a step. Why restrict ‘…exists’ to its “substantial sense,” and what does that sense mean?


  3. Sometimes, the claim that something exists can be redone more perspicuously as a claim that makes no reference to the entity that the claim said to exist, and the original claim holds in virtue of the redone claim. In those case, the existence claim is not metaphysically serious.

    For instance, the claim that there “is” vacuum in the bottle can be redone in a more metaphysically responsible way as the claim that the bottle is empty. The claim that there “is” a waltz right now in a room can be, roughly at least, explained by the claim that people are right now waltzing in the room. I think somewhere Aquinas says something like this; in some sense even nothing exists, because we can say that nothing is nothing.

    But a genuine existence claim we cannot be rid of in this way. Sure we can try to rephrase the claim that Socrates is in a room as the claim that the room is socratically occupied, say. However, the dependence goes the other way. What makes a room to be socratically occupied is that the Socrates is in the room. However, it is false that what makes people waltz is that a waltz is there being done by them. Their waltzing is prior in the order of explanation.

  4. Mike

    Well obviously I can’t speak for Alex–fortunately he’s already doing that himself–but one way to answer your question is to say that we aren’t restricting exists to the substantial sense, but merely making the substantial sense the controlling sense. The Aristotelian reason for doing so is the intuition that substances have natures, and that to be a kind of thing just is to be a certain nature. Is there such a thing as “the nature of a chair?” Possibly, if one has the right sort of metaphysics, but the Aristotelian intuition derives from the observation in the Physics that, if you plant a bed made out of wood you won’t be able to grow more beds from it, but rather trees. That is, the notion of “nature” in this sense is a notion of per se generation and being.

    Granted it’s not for everybody, but its one way of looking at the question of whether artifacts “exist” that isn’t merely arbitrary nominalism.

  5. Alex:

    That explanation certainly helps. What you’re doing is recasting, salvo sensu, into predicates certain words that function grammatically as names. Fair enough. That’s a long tradition which aids clarity.

    I’m wondering then, whether you’d say that only substances “exist in a metaphysically serious way.” I’m uneasy about saying that. We can certainly pick out substances by following the procedure you describe. But it seems to me that it would have to be possible, at least in principle, to pick out all and only substances by the procedure you describe, in order to be able to say that only substances “exist” in a sense beyond that of the existential quantifier. I’m not sure we can do that; and if even we could, we would not have ruled out saying that nothing else “exists” in any “serious” way.

    One might want to adapt Chisholm’s notion of “ontological parasites,” as Jim Ross has, in such a way that reified non-substances fall into various species of that genus. That’s what Aristotle did in the Categories. But even though he lacked the use of the existential quantifier, he didn’t say or want to say that only substances exist.

    BTW, what would you say about bread and wine? They are dead plants, or rather fruits of dead plants, to which we’ve done things. If they aren’t substances, then what sense does it make to speak of their being transubstantiated?


  6. Scott:

    …one way to answer your question is to say that we aren’t restricting exists to the substantial sense, but merely making the substantial sense the controlling sense. The Aristotelian reason for doing so is the intuition that substances have natures, and that to be a kind of thing just is to be a certain nature.

    OK then. Let’s suppose that whatever can truly be said to exist, in the sense of ‘…exists’ expressed by the existential quantifier, is either a substance, inherent in a substance, or somehow and otherwise derivative from a substance. That would be good Aristotelianism, of course. Is that what it means to say that only substances “exist in any metaphysically serious way?”


  7. Mike,

    Well, I think that’s what the Aristotelian would say we mean when we say only substances exist in any metaphysically serious way. On that kind of an account it is of course permissible to say that things such as properties “exist”, but their existence is entirely derivative from (or parasitic on) the existence of substances. This doctrine has both an ontological and a linguistic aspect: to say that substances exist in the primary sense of the term is to say that being, as such, for substances, is the principal sort of being that there is in the world, and all non-substantial entities have being only to the extent that they are related in some way to some substance; and it also means that when we talk about anything “being” or “existing” we presuppose that the meaning of such terms can only be fully made sense of in the context of what it means for a substance to be the thing that it is.

  8. Fair enough, Scott. The questions now are: What is a substance? Are there different but analogically related senses of the term in philosophy? If not, why not? If so, what are they? And what difference does this make to theology?

    You know what I’m getting at. It’s the same as my questions to Alex:

    …what would you say about bread and wine? They are dead plants, or rather fruits of dead plants, to which we’ve done things for the sake of consumption. If they aren’t substances, then what sense does it make to speak of their being transubstantiated?


  9. I’m reading T. Torrance’s Space, Time & Incarnation and his discussion of the patristic displacement of the Aristotelian receptacle theory of space strikes me as somehow pertinent to this discussion. On the receptacle theory, objects occupy an absolute infinite void; indeed, the only grounds for objects’ intelligibility, is that they are contained in the same manifold as we are, and that they are volumetrically comprehensible. The Fathers, of course, rejected this view, since it would subvert the Father’s inherent rationality to the volumetric limitations of material space and finite time (p. 23). In its place they argued for a relational sense of space and time, in which those two planes are horizontal axes intersected freely by the divine vertical axis. As such, they are differential, and not absolute, concepts. This was much more like the Stoic view of an agent or an object “making room” for itself in the midst of other spatial objects, although without the pantheism of the Stoics.

    The reason I bring all this up, is because something about the notion of a sector of space “containing” a substance, and the attendant notion that this “substantial occupancy” undermines the reality of other kinds of existents, strikes me as sub-patristic and indeed all too Aristotelian. Or perhaps it’s sub-patristic and not Aristotelian enough, under a different aspect. Too Aristotelian because it suggests objects only truly exist IN space, which is somehow just “there” absolutely. Not Aristotelian enough because I’m not sure how it squares with hylomorphism as well as I think it ought. Meaning: the way we “use” hylomorphism in our daily lives, is to dematerialize whatever we can for purposes we desire. This block of wood (this hyle!) is, poof, now a chair because I apply a formal agency which dematerializes it sheer-woodness into a real chair. And it can be rematerialized, as in a fire, or in a bar fight.

    Interestingly, as well, I think it can be transmaterialized: this chair is now, upside down and pink, a work of art… or a road hazard sign… or a child’s toy. It is indeed a bit like magic. We don’t sheerly construct anything we want, since there are material limits to how we can use certain objects, as well as there being formal limits to our power as formal agents (e..g, we cannot say that monstrous heap of flying spaghetti is in fact God, since the attributes of a monstrous flying heap of noodles completely lacks formal equivalency with what God means and is).

    How I see this applying to the Eucharist and artefacts is thus: once the epiclesis formally, and indeed supernaturally, transmaterializes the bread and wine into the mere accidents of those things as inhering in the Person of Jesus Christ, they are eo ipso transubstantiated into the Body and Blood. The bread and wine are artefacts “there” FOR the Body and Blood, but not simply “there” in an absolute mereological space. The Eucharist is an act of formal agency on the part of God Almighty; once He wills the gifts to become the Body and Blood, their humble status as artefacts (since they are not properly food to be eaten, nor the actual Blessed Sacrament) is substantially “promoted”.

  10. I don’t know that I would say that only substances exist in a metaphysically serious way. It’s a tough question, and would require subtler study of the “in virtue of” in my comment (and in today’s post on my blog).

    Argument for the claim that accidents don’t exist in a metaphysically serious way: Consider x’s accident of being circular. Then we can explain “the accident of circularity exists (in x)” in terms of the fact that x is circular. If so, then the accident of circularity does not exist in a metaphysically serious way.

    However, one might object to the argument as follows: what makes x be circular is the inherence of circularity in x. If one accepts this, then the way is open for holding the circularity to have metaphysically serious existence.

    Taking the first view leads to a form of nominalism (in the modern sense). Taking the second view is much more Thomistic. Moreover, if one thinks it is Catholic dogma that the accidents of bread and wine survive transubstantiation, then the second view is required. However, Trent only said the species (=appearances) of bread and wine survive transubstantiation. The most common philosophical exposition of this is to identify the species with accidents, and there are some magisterial statements that support this identification. But I have not myself made a sufficient study of the weight of these statements to be able to state definitively that it is Catholic dogma that the accidents survive transubstantiation. (It seems unsafe to deny it, though.)

  11. Dr. Pruss,

    Are you saying then that Luther’s notion of Consubstantiation may well be valid?

  12. Consubstantiation is heretical, since it holds that the bread and wine continue to exist. The view I left open in my comment was the view that the accidents of bread and wine either cease to exist, or have never existed, but there continue to be (probably in a metaphysically non-weighty sense of “be”) appearances of bread and wine.

  13. Dr. Pruss:

    1. How do appearances of bread and wine differ in your line of argumentation from accidents, as traditionally understood?

    2. Would their non-weighty “be-ness” for you mean they are existentially dependent on a formal, as opposed to merely nominal/ verbal/ phenomenological, relation to the substance in which they appear?


  14. One way for the appearances to be in a non-weighty way is for God just to ensure that photons miraculously bounce back as if there was bread there, and so on. In other words, God can miraculously produce the effects that bread would have produced. Is this a satisfactory account? Perhaps not.

    An account I like, but which may not cohere with my developing view of the nature of time, is that the pastly existing bread and wine continue to have effects (cf. how some people would say that we see pastly existing stars, since light takes a long time to travel from them).

  15. I know of no set of premises, the conclusion of which is that chairs and tables don’t exist, for which each premise in that set is as certain or more certain to me than my starting belief that chairs and tables do exist.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  16. Dr. Pruss,

    I don’t think we can express things that scientifically; at least, not at the moment.

    Albeit, from a rudimentary Chemistry viewpoint, I can relate (in a certain sense) to what you’re saying with respect to how a thing can shift from one element to another by a shuffling of electrons; however, it ceases altogether to be that element once it turns into the new element as a result of such shuffling.

    There is another sense, for instance, when reactants in a chemical reaction undergoes change into the resulting new products.

    Putting aside thermodynamic and kinetic arguments for the reaction, there are the intermediates that aren’t exactly the reactants nor the products; but, in admittedly overly simplistic terms, an ‘appearance’ of both.

    Although, that, on the other hand, would mistakenly lead to the wrong impression due to an equally flawed analogy as the first.

    Which is why I prefer the rather basic analogy of a “red car” where red, being simply the ‘appearance’ of the thing although by itself is nothing apart from the car.

    Previously, I used to say that the ‘red’ was accidental to the thing, car — an analogy I used to utilize when discussing Transubstantiation; now, I’ve come to learn something entirely different, which I am thankful to you et al. on this blog!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: