Philosophy Porn and Other Things that Do Not Exist

Before we get to the philosophy porn, here are a few brief considerations in favor of the view (”VIEW”) that we represent things that do not exist.

Suppose that, contrary to VIEW, we do not mentally represent things that do not exist. A natural formulation of the negation of VIEW would be the following:

(~VIEW): There exists no mental representation such that it is a mental representation of something that doesn’t exist.

I assume that ~VIEW can be grasped in thought and this involves having a mental representation the content of which is the same as the content of ~VIEW. A natural question to raise about this suggestion is the following: what is such a mental representation a representation of?

A natural answer is that it is a mental representation of a certain kind of representation. Further, it represents instances of a certain kind of representation as not existing. So, the mental analog of ~VIEW is itself the sort of mental representation that it denies the existence of: a mental representation of things that do not exist. If true, (the mental version of) ~VIEW is self-defeating insofar as it turns out to be a representation of nothing at all, which, in turn, I take it, renders it, ~VIEW, meaningless.

However, I think it pretty clear that neither ~VIEW nor VIEW is meaningless. Therefore, ~VIEW is not true and VIEW is.

One kind of response one might attempt against VIEW is something that I’ll call the “combination response”. According to the combination response, the representation of inexistents like unicorns involves either a combination of representations of existing things or a representation of a combination of existing things. Either way of construing what it is that is combined, it involves at some level the representation of things that do exist. So, in the case of unicorns, the actually existing things referred to in the combination response will be horses and horns.

Whatever the merits of this combination view of the mental representation of inexistents, what I don’t see is how it suffices to defeat VIEW. Suppose we formulate the combination response as the view that one can think of some thing U say a unicorn only if one bears some relation E to some (existing) set S of (existing) properties P1 to Pn such that if P1 to Pn were coinstantiated, then U would exist. (This might be a kind of empiricism.) But it would entail neither that E is the representing relation nor that U is identical to S. Thus, I don’t see how it would entail that one can think about U only if U exists. In brief, the combination response says that having a thought entails the existence of something, however, it remains to be shown that when I have a so-called thought about something that doesn’t exist, what I’m really doing is having a thought about something that does exist.

And now, some philosophy porn:

Hyperbolic Colors

From left to right: color plate for generating hyperbolically colored after-images from Churchland’s “Chimerical Colors” in Cognitition and the Brain; 80gig video ipod; the best pen in the world; the latest draft of “Beware of the Unicorn: Consciousness as Being Represented and Other Things that Do Not Exist”.

3 Responses to “Philosophy Porn and Other Things that Do Not Exist”

  1. Jason Zarri says:

    Hi Pete. Interesting post you have here.

    My first reaction is to wonder what the meaning of the phrase “we represent something that does not exist” is. I can distinguish at least two readings. The first is that we represent some object x which, as a matter of fact, happens not to exist. The second reading is that some of our representations–which, given their status as representations, are contentful–happen to have no object/not to correspond to anything. To deny the second reading of VIEW does indeed seem absurd, both because it is self defeating and because it commits us to the existence of everything we represent. However, denying the first reading of view does not seem self defeating; in fact, it is *accepting* the first reading that strikes me as self defeating, for it seems to commit us to accepting that there are objects that don’t exist. In your final paragraph you say that the combination view doesn’t entail that E is the representation relation. I agree that it doesn’t, but mightn’t one reason for this be that there is no such thing as the representation relation? It seems to me there are two things you could say here: First, you could say we can be accurately said to represent nonexistent things because representation is not a relation, and hence it does not commit us to the existence of its relata. The second thing you could say is that representation is a relation when a representation has an object/corresponds to something, but not when it doesn’t. (This disjunctivist account seems a bit unnatural and ad hoc, but it at least has the merit of being consistent.) What I don’t think you can say is that representation is always a relation. If you say that, I think you’re commited to the existence of anything you represent, whether they are unicorns or golden mountains orsquare circles, because if a relation exists its terms must exist as well.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Thanks for your remarks, Jason. Please let me know if you think the following is too brief to adress the concerns you wanted to raise.

    I think you spell out the options nicely. The option I find most appealing is the one wherein representation is not a relation that would commit us to the existence of its relata. I’m happy to say simply, then, that this means representation is not a relation, since I’m happy to define relations in such a way that they support existential generalizations.

  3. [...] “Philosophy porn” February 14, 2007 at 1:03 pm by Michael Janairo Eventually, someone would have to think of this. (Thanks KR Blog) Posted in General, Related blogs | [...]