Intrinsic character?

Ed Feser finds some sticks in Nietzsche with which to beat the liberalism of New Atheists.  I was more interested in some of Nietzsche's comments on science.  Following some animadversions on the etymology of the term 'law of nature' Ed summarises,
A major theme of The Will to Power’s treatment of science is the idea that, despite having largely stripped from our notion of nature that which reflects the contingent perspective of the observer, physics still -- insofar as it rests on sensory evidence -- inevitably reflects that perspective to some extent.  Of course, to remedy this, physics tries to frame its description of nature in the abstract language of mathematics.  But Nietzsche anticipates Bertrand Russell’s theme (to which I have often called attention) that insofar as physics gives us only knowledge of the physical world’s mathematical structure, it does not give us knowledge of the intrinsic character of that which has that structure, and thus actually tells us relatively little about objective reality.
He concludes that one would be
hopelessly naïve in supposing that [] and that science gives us much in the way of objective knowledge.
This I find puzzling.  What does Ed mean by the 'intrinsic character' of, presumably, the physical world, and what does he think possessing knowledge of this would be like?  There is a clue in a Nietzsche quote:
The calculability of the world, the expressibility of all events in formulas -- is this really "comprehension"? How much of a piece of music has been understood when that in it which is calculable and can be reduced to formulas has been reckoned up?
The performance of a piece of music can be a complex business, as can our response to it.  Maybe there's not much more to comprehend in an electron other than its mass, charge, and spin?  Nietzsche and Ed seem to think that there is:  that the world might be knowable in a way analogous to the way a piece of music or perhaps a person can be known.  A rather romantic idea, I think.

Nietzsche also says,
It is an illusion that something is known when we possess a mathematical formula for an event: it is only designated, described; nothing more!

Mechanistic theory can… only describe processes, not explain them.
Perhaps, in the end, description is all we can achieve, in any domain.  I could be content with that.


Max Black exists!

No, not the philosopher.   Bill V. is fond of demonstrating his notion of 'singular existence' by reference to one of his cats.  'Max exists!' he exclaims, and his readers can imagine the accompanying thump on the table.  I've said many times now that this statement is true but uninformative, given that Bill must already have told us 'I have a cat named 'Max Black'', or some such.  I guess it behoves me to explain why our language has such constructions.  For if we think that language evolves by the elimination of the uninformative and the redundant, then surely such locutions should vanish?

Firstly, a singular existential claim like 'Max exists!' serves to emphasise and reinforce a general existence claim.  If Bill informs me that he has a cat called 'Max', that Max is such-and-such and has done so-and-so, and I am looking somewhat quizzical, Bill may say 'But Max really exists!' in order to urge on me the truth of what he is telling me. 

A second use for the singular existential occurs when knowledge by description turns into knowledge by acquaintance.  I know Max only by the descriptions Bill writes in his blog.  All knowledge from description is held but tentatively, at least at first.  We all know that what we read in the papers and what people tell us can be false, wilfully or mistakenly.  If I were to travel to Arizona and meet Max in the flesh I would come to know him by acquaintance.  I might well exclaim 'So Max really exists!'  Though I have no doubt that what Bill has told us about Max is true, nevertheless I am reassured when knowledge by description is confirmed by acquaintance.  Being the co-operative social creatures that we are this phenomenon lies deep in our psychology.  We are obliged to rely on information from others but are aware that we can be deceived.  So we are constantly on our guard.

Univocity of 'exists(s)'?

Bill is much exercised by an argument of Peter van Inwagen that he summarises thus:
a. Number-words are univocal.
b. 'Exist(s)' is a number-word.
Therefore
c. 'Exist(s)' is univocal.
He explains that
(b) captures the Fregean claim that ". . . existence is analogous to number. Affirmation of existence is in fact nothing but denial of the number nought." (Foundations of Arithmetic, p. 65)
He goes on,
Consider my cat Max Black. I exclaim, 'Max exists!' My exclamation expresses a truth. Contrast the singular 'Max exists' with the general 'Cats exist.' I agree with van Inwagen that the general 'Cats exist' is equivalent to 'The number of cats is one or more.' But it is perfectly plain that the singular 'Max exists' is not equivalent to 'The number of Max is one or more.' For the right-hand-side of the equivalence is nonsense, hence necessarily neither true nor false.
So Bill thinks that 'exist(s)' in 'Max exists' has a different meaning to 'exist' in 'Cats exist', and he denies PVI's univocity claim.  After some more argumentation he concludes,
So if you want to maintain the univocity of 'exist(s)' across general and singular existentials, you must either conflate the 'is' of identity' with the 'is' of predication, or embrace haecceity properties.
Bill has always maintained that there is an important distinction to be drawn between what he calls 'singular existence', exemplified by such as 'Max exists', and 'general existence', as in 'Cats exist'.   For all the ten years or so I have been reading him I have yet to understand what he is getting at.  For suppose that Bill's cat Max is the only cat there is. Then Max is our 'witness' that there is at least one cat. That Max exists shows that cats exist.  And if cats exist then there is at least one cat, in this case exactly one, and Bill has chosen to call him 'Max'.  I can't see how the verb 'to exist' is being used differently in the two cases.

Unfortunately, PVI's argument weighing in on the side of this univocity thesis gives Bill a hostage.  For it allows him to come up with 'the number of Max is one or more' as a paraphrase of 'Max exists'.  Besides being ungrammatical English, Bill can argue that any attempt to make sense of this leads to unacceptable conclusions.  So PVI has scored an own-goal.

I argue for the univocity thesis as follows.  Observe what Bill says,
Consider my cat Max Black. I exclaim, 'Max exists!'
He says that his exclamation expresses a truth.  Indeed it does.  We can see it's true because his first sentence, which is actually imperative, tells us that Bill has a cat whom he calls 'Max'.  In other words, some cat, in fact the one Bill calls 'Max', exists.  Bill's exclamation merely confirms, or emphasises, what we know already, namely, that there is a cat and that Bill calls him 'Max'.  But this is a general existential claim. The singular claim 'Max exists' is really a disguised general claim.  I say that all existential claims are in fact general and the question of univocity does not arise.

Deducing John McCain?

In the course of Bill's recent discussion on the Univocity of 'Exist(s)', I recalled a much earlier posting where a lack of what we might call 'logical hygiene' leads to much confusion.  This is especially evident in the comments.  Bill offers the following conundrum:
1. (x)(x = x) (Principle of Identity)
Therefore
2. John McCain = John McCain (From 1 by Universal Instantiation)
Therefore
3. (Ex)(x = John McCain) (From 2 by Existential Generalization)
Therefore
4. John McCain exists. (From 3 by translation into ordinary idiom)
Correctly, in my view, Bill identifies the trouble in the move from (1) to (2), though he tables a couple of other panaceas that he says are 'essentially equivalent'.  He says that we need a supplementary premise, namely,
1.5 'John McCain' refers to something that exists.
I would not put it quite that way myself.  The notion of 'reference' is a big topic that we have discussed endlessly at Maverick Philosopher, and the 'something that exists' seems to leave open the possibility that there might be something that doesn't exist, and we will be on the road to Meinongia.  So for simplicity I prefer to replace Bill's (1.5) with my own variant,
DB. There is something named 'John McCain'.
I call this the mention before use rule for proper names. This is just as effective as Bill's proposal for removing the rabbit out of a hat result that the existence of the contingent John McCain 'is validly deducible from an a priori knowable necessary truth of logic', as Bill puts it.  But in this response to my suggestion, Bill seems to reject the idea, saying that I 'seem to be denying the very possibility of coherent fictional discourse' and that he doesn't see the need for my brand of logical hygiene.  We await with interest.

Reference: do we agree?

Bill offers us some distinctions for our consideration.

A. Referring terms versus non-referring terms. 'London' is presumably a referring term as is 'Scollay Square.' 'And,' 'or' and other logical words are presumably not referring terms. Surely not every bit of language plays a referential role. Some terms are syncategorematical or synsemantic.

OK.

B. Purported reference versus successful reference. Asserting 'Scollay Square is in Boston,' I purport to refer to Scollay Square. But I fail: the square no longer exists. But if I say 'Trafalgar Square is in London,' I succeed in referring to Trafalgar Square.

I think there is room for some notion of unsuccessful reference but it isn't what Bill is getting at here.  If I say to you out of the blue, 'I am having dinner with Jane tonight', and you have no idea who Jane is because I haven't introduced the name 'Jane' into the conversation, then I think I have made an unsuccessful reference (or maybe no reference at all).  But Scollay Square was a well-known square that used to be in Boston, so the name 'Scollay Square' hardly fails to refer in this sense. 

C. Guaranteed successful reference versus contingent successful reference. It is not obvious that the first-personal singular pronoun is a referring term. Elizabeth Anscombe, following Wittgenstein, denies that it is. But I say that 'I' is a referring term. Suppose it is. Then it is guaranteed against reference failure: a correct use of 'I' cannot fail to have a referent and it cannot fail to have the right referent. The cooperation of the world is not needed for success in this instance. If I try to make a reference using 'I' I will succeed every time. But the cooperation of the world is needed for successful reference via proper names such as 'Scollay Square.' If I try to make a reference using a proper name I can fail if the name has no (existing) bearer, or if I get hold of the wrong (existing) bearer.

Consider: 'I am Ozymandias, King of Kings.  Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair.'  Is this a case of guaranteed successful reference?

D. Reference versus referents. The referent of a term is not to be confused with its reference. 'Scollay Square' is a referring term and it has a reference, but it has no referent. Not all reference is successful reference.

I don't get the distinction Bill is making here.

E. Mental reference versus linguistic reference. Necessarily, to think is to think of or about. Thinking is object-directed. Thinking is essentially and intrinsically referential. It can occur wordlessly. It is arguably at the basis of all reference, including reference via language. Just as guns don't kill people, but people kill people using guns; words don't refer to things, but people refer to things using words.

Agree with the last clause.  Disagree with the rest, which I think is back to front.

F. Extralinguistic versus purely intralinguistic reference. Consider the following sentence from a piece of pure fiction: 'Tom's wife left him.' The antecedent of the pronoun 'him' is Tom.' This back reference is purely intralinguistic. It is plausible to maintain that the only reference exhibited by 'him' is back reference, and that 'him' does not pick up the extralinguistic reference of 'Tom,' there being no such reference to pick up. Then we would have case of purely intralinguistic reference.

Yes, but 'Tom' could be an intra-linguistic back reference to the indefinite 'a chap' in 'I met a chap called Tom in the pub last night.  Tom's wife has left him'.  And this could all be made up.  Then what?  We need to clarify what extra-linguistic reference is.

G. Extralinguistic per se reference versus extralinguistic per alium reference. 'Max' names (is the name of) one of my two black cats; 'Manny' names (is the name of) the other. These are cases of extralinguistic per se reference. But 'he' in the following sentence, while it refers extralinguistically, refers per alium, 'through another':
Max is sick because he ate too much.
The extralinguistic reference of the pronoun piggy-backs on the the extralinguistic reference of its antecedent. The pronoun has no extralinguistic referential contribution of its own to make.

Leave out 'extralinguistic' and it still makes sense.  'Max' links back to the indefinite 'one of my cats' in the second sentence where the name is introduced.

H. Grammatical pronouns can function pronominally, indexically, and quantificationally. Consider first a sentence featuring a pronoun that has an antecedent:
Peter always calls before he visits.
In this sentence, 'Peter' is the antecedent of the third-person singular pronoun 'he.' It is worth noting that an antecedent needn't come before the term for which it is the antecedent:
After he got home, Peter poured himself a drink.
In this sentence 'Peter' is the antecedent of 'he' despite occurring after 'he' in the order of reading. The antecedency is referential rather than temporal. In both of these cases, the reference of 'he' is supplied by the antecedent. The burden of reference is borne by the antecedent. So there is a clear sense in which the reference of 'he' in both cases is not direct, but mediated by the antecedent. The antecedent is referentially prior to to the pronoun for which it is the antecedent. But suppose I point to Peter and say
He smokes cigarettes.
This is an indexical use of 'he.' Part of what makes it an indexical use is that its reference depends on the context of utterance: I utter a token of 'he' while pointing at Peter, or nodding in his direction. Another part of what makes it an indexical is that it refers directly, not just in the sense that the reference is not routed through a description or sense associated with the use of the pronoun, but also in that there is no need for an antecedent to secure the reference. Now suppose I say
I smoke cigars.
This use of 'I' is clearly indexical, although it is a purely indexical (D. Kaplan) inasmuch as there is no need for a demonstration: I don't need to point to myself when I say 'I smoke cigars.' And like the immediately preceding example, there is no need for an antecedent to nail down the reference of 'I.' Not every pronoun needs an antecedent to do a referential job.

In fact, it seems that no indexical expression, used indexically, has or could have an antecedent. Hector-Neri Castaneda puts it like this:
Whether in oratio recta or in oratio obliqua, (genuine) indicators have no antecedents. ("Indicators and Quasi-Indicators" reprinted in The Phenomeno-Logic of the I, p. 67)
For a quantificational use of a grammatical pronoun, consider
He who hesitates is lost.
(One can imagine Yogi Berra asking, 'You mean Peter?') Clearly, 'he' does not function here pronominally -- there is no antecedent -- not does it function indexically. It functions like the bound variable in
For any person x, if x hesitates, then x is lost.
I am tempted to say that indexical uses have implicit antecedents.  If Bill points to Peter in my presence and says, 'This is Peter. He smokes', then I can perform for myself the introduction, 'There is a man called Peter'. More needs to be said on this.

I. Reference via names, via definite descriptions, via indefinite descriptions. 'Socrates,' 'the wisest Greek philosopher,' 'a famous Greek philosopher of antiquity.' Do they all refer? Or only the first two? Or only the first?

As words none of them refers in Bill's 'extralinguistic' sense.  But I think Bill's distinction between words and uses of words may be useful.  For we could say that Bill refers to Socrates by using these words in certain contexts. I'd like to see this idea developed more.  The key point is that BIll's 'extra-linguistic reference' is something that we can achieve by using words in the real world.  It's not something inherent in the words themselves.

J. Successful reference to the nonexistent versus failed reference to the existent. Does 'Pegasus' fail to refer to something that exists or succeed in referring to what does not exist? Meinongian semantics cannot be dismissed out of hand!

I reject Bill's notion of 'successful/failed reference' and hence the question too.

K. Speaker's reference versus semantic reference. 'The man in the corner drinking champagne is the new dean.' Suppose there is exactly one man in the corner drinking water out of a champagne glass. Has the speaker of the mentioned sentence succeeded in referring to the man in the corner? Presumably yes despite the man's not satisfying the definite description in subject position. Here speaker's reference and semantic reference come apart. This connects up with distinction (E) above. 

I think it connects up with (I).

Purely Fictional Objects

It looks as if Bill's musings on 'same God' have led him back to What Problem Does Literary Fiction Pose?,
a reworking of an earlier post that we have already discussed.  He offers the following aporia:
  1. Purely fictional objects do not exist.
  2. There are true  sentences about purely fictional objects, e.g., 'Sherlock Holmes is a detective' and 'Sherlock Holmes is purely fictional.'
  3. If a sentence of the form Fa is true, then there exists an x such that 'a' refers to x.
For me, alarm bells were ringing before I reached (3). If we conjoin (1) and (2) we get
There are no PFOs yet there are true sentences about them,
and we should ask what the them refers to. Compare with
There are no leprechauns but there are true sentences about them.
So we can reject (1) and (2) without worrying too deeply about what it means to be a PFO.  I have claimed earlier that 'purely fictional', like 'mythological', 'past', 'intentional', and others, are not adjectives in the ordinary sense.

The Same God?

Bill has been running a series of posts recently asking whether the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim gods are the same god, whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe in or worship the same god, and so on.  Earliest post here and work forward.

Bill seems to think the answer depends on one's theory of reference, and in particular on a notion of 'successful (or otherwise) reference'.  I'm not so sure.

This has been a large discussion ranging over multiple postings and indeed websites, so I may well have overlooked something.  But all contributors so far seem to be using the phrase 'the same X' as if it were transparent and unproblematic.  If only it were so.  It seems to me that 'the same X' is ambiguous between what we might call a 'de re' sense and a 'de dicto' sense.  If I say,
It looks identical but this is not the same car as the one involved in the accident,
then I'm clearly using the de re sense.  There are two distinct individuals in play.  If I say,
He wasn't the same man after the accident, 
then I'm using the de dicto sense.   There is just one individual in play but two distinct descriptions or conceptions of it.

Everyone agrees that the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim conceptions of God/Yahweh/Allah are divergent, so they cannot be the same, de dicto.  Could they be the same in the de re sense?  This seems to be where the concerns with reference come in.  But I think the answer here is quite simple. If the founding scriptures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are true, then God, Yahweh, and Allah are different names for the one god.  If, in particular, there is a unique creator of the world, called God by Christians, Yahweh by Jews, and Allah by Muslims, then these names refer to a single individual.  This much seems inescapable.  But these are big ifs.

And no theorising about reference in sight, to boot.

James Dean

  1. James Dean no longer exists.
  2. Somebody no longer exists.
  3. There is somebody who no longer exists.
  4. There exists somebody who no longer exists.
  5. There exists x such that x does not exist.
(1) is undoubtedly true.  Each statement seems to follow from its predecessor.  But (5) can't be right.  Where do we go wrong?

God and the world

Bill has been discussing the relation, if it is one, between God and the world.  He offers Gilson's account in terms of 'participation'.  But he finds it problematic.  He says,
I exist, but contingently. My Being is not my own, but received from another, from God, who is Being itself. So my Being is God's Being. But I am not God or anything else. So I have my own Being that distinguishes me numerically from everything else. So I am and am not that in which I participate.

Gilson does not show a convincing way around this contradiction.
Somewhat to my surprise, I don't find this problematic at all.  Suppose a wave could speak. It might say,
I exist, but contingently.  My Waviness is not my own, but received from another, from Ocean, who is Waviness itself.  So my Waviness is Ocean's Waviness.  But I am not Ocean or anything else.  So I have my own Waviness that distinguishes me numerically from everything else.  So I am and am not that in which I participate.
There is a reading of the wave's speech that makes it utterly unproblematic and indeed obvious and could not be otherwise.  And to this extent Bill's 'contradiction' is unproblematic too.  But we mustn't read it too literally.  There is a temptation to see Waviness as an entity in itself.  Especially as it may be 'received from another', as a gift, as it were.  And also because it supposedly 'distinguishes me numerically from everything else'.  If Bill's version is contradictory I say it is so to the extent that it hypostasises Being.  This is where Bill and I part company.  For I can't see Being as a gift or distinguishing principle.  Without Being I am nothing so to whom is the gift?  Likewise, in what sense was I undistinguished from all else before Being was granted me?  I can give an answer to these questions, but pace Bill's intentions in writing this piece, it's a profoundly materialistic one.


On Rossian physical indeterminacy

Further to understanding what Ross(*) means by 'the indeterminacy of the physical'.  Here is the operation table of a three-bit wide adder.  I have arbitrarily labelled the inputs and outputs.

abcdefghi
aidbdfcdag
bdddddddbd
cbdddgddcd
dddddddddd
efdgdaibec
fcdddigdfb
gddddbddgd
habcdefghi
igdadcbdid

This does not, prima facie, look like addition.  However, symmetry about the main diagonal shows that ⊕ is commutative.  Much laborious checking reveals that ⊕ is also associative.  More obviously, the element h under ⊕ behaves as an identity element:  h⊕x=x and x⊕h=x, for every x.  Further, the element d under ⊕ acts as an absorbing element: d⊕x=d and x⊕d=d, for every x.   Reordering the table with h first and d last gives us this table.

h a b c e f g i d
h
h a b c e f g i d
a
a i d b f c d g d
b
b d d d d d d d d
c
c b d d g d d d d
e
e f d g a i b c d
f
f c d d i g d b d
g
g d d d b d d d d
i
i g d d c b d d d
d
d d d d d d d d d

Perhaps the next thing to note is that the element d crops up a good deal.  Why this is will emerge shortly.  But note that, in combination under ⊕ with the other elements, h produces one d, e produces two ds, a three ds, f four ds, i five ds, c six ds, g seven ds, and b eight ds.  Re-arranging the table in order of increasing 'd-productivity' gives us the following.

h e a f i c g b d
h
h e a f i c g b d
e
e a f i c g b d d
a
a f i c g b d d d
f
f i c g b d d d d
i
i c g b d d d d d
c
c g b d d d d d d
g
g b d d d d d d d
b
b d d d d d d d d
d
d d d d d d d d d

Some structure is starting to emerge.  Note now that
a=e⊕e,
a⊕e=e⊕e⊕e=f,
f⊕e=e⊕e⊕e⊕e=i,
i⊕e=e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e=c.
c⊕e=e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e=g,
g⊕e=e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e=b,
b⊕e=e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e⊕e,
so we might relabel a as 2e, f as 3e, i as 4e, and so on. We can also relabel h as Z, e as 1U, and d as ⟂.  This gives us a final version of the combination table for ⊕ as this:

 ⊕ Z 1U 2U 3U 4U 5U 6U 7U
Z
Z 1U 2U 3U 4U 5U 6U 7U
1U 1U 2U 3U 4U 5U 6U 7U
2U
2U 3U 4U 5U 6U 7U
3U
3U 4U 5U 6U 7U
4U
4U 5U 6U 7U
5U
5U 6U 7U
6U
6U 7U
7U
7U


We can see now that the table is generated by the elements Z and 1U.  Any non-Z element can be reached by combining a number of 1Us with ⊕, and in general, nU⊕mU=(n+m)U, unless n+m >7, in which case the result is ⟂.    Compare now the table for ⊕ with that of addition, +, shown below.

+ 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ...
0 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ...
1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ...
2
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 ...
3 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ...
4 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 ...
5 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 ...
6 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 ...
7 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 ...
: : : : : : : : :
But for a relabelling of the elements the tables are identical in the top left corner.  There are, however, two significant differences between them,
  • the ⊕ table is finite whereas the + table is infinite, as indicated by the ellipses,
  • the ⊕ table contains mysterious ⟂ entries in certain places.
It should be clear that ⟂ is the adder's signal that it can't give an answer because the correct result requires more than the adder's three bits for its encoding.  This is the equivalent of the human calculator running out of paper while doing a sum.  That the + table is infinite may be the source of Ross's notion of indeterminacy.  For it would seem that the ⊕ table could be extended in infinitely many ways that are not compatible with +.  There appears to be an unanswerable question, Which of these extensions is the ⊕ table 'really' a small part of?      




(*)  Immaterial Aspects of Thought, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 89, No. 3, (Mar., 1992), pp. 136-150 (available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2026790)

Do you believe in magic?

At dangerous idea Victor Reppert recently published a short piece entitled Do you believe in magic?  There followed a lengthy comment thread, much of it the lazy slagging off that VR lets his commenters get away with.  Here is the original post followed by a comment I made and the responses it drew.

VR's original post
I don't believe that reason could arise from nonreason, therefore I think that reason is at the foundation of the universe. According to the naturalistic view, the normative arises from the nonnormative, the logical arises from the nonlogical, the universe exists without an explanation for its existence even though it looks contingent as all heck, the universe was finely tuned for intelligent life, purposes arise where none existed before, consciousness comes from a lack of consciousness. The very foundations of science don't even seem possible in the irrational universe that atheists believe in. Even the very fact that our thoughts are about something else is something that can't be captured by basic physics. It has always seemed to me that the atheists, not the theists, are the ones who believe in magic.
DB said
If magic is the intervention into the world of powers that lay outside it, then theists, on the whole, do seem to believe in magic. On the other hand, the gist of Victor's piece is that atheists, like Lewis Carroll's White Queen, believe in impossibilities. Are both claims true?

I can't speak for the theists on the issue of magic. But some of Victor's impossibilities are more tractable than others. Certainly, intentionality, normativity, purpose, and reason aren't present in the entities of basic physics. But what about the entities of biology? There are the beginnings of naturalistic accounts of how all four can arise in living things. Considering just reason, how do we explain that different people can reason their way to radically divergent conclusions? The Christian theist, I think, might say that reason is present in God at the foundation of the universe, but that in humans it is a weak reed on account of the fall. The naturalist will say that reason is something cobbled together by evolution that gives us an advantage in dealing with the quotidian problems of life. On metaphysical questions it's maybe not so reliable. This has implications for other of Victor's impossibilities which are less tractable. Questions as to the origin of the universe, its apparent fine-tuning, and the origins of life, present formidable problems to the naturalist, and perhaps to reason itself.

Modes of being?

In Merely Intentional Objects and the 'Existential Fallacy' of December 2013 Bill lays out his stall with regard to the intentionality puzzle in response to criticism from Ed Ockham.  It's the clearest exposition of his view to date.  It's a lengthy piece and I won't reproduce it in full.  But Bill's solution fails.  Here is why.

Early in the piece Bill characterises Ed's 'robust sense of reality' thus,
(C1) For any x, x exists iff x is both extramental and extralinguistic.

This is not intended as a definition of 'x exists' but as a clarification of how Ed is using 'exists' and cognates. We could call (C1) the Independence Criterion: the existent is independent of (finite) mind and language.
He ends by saying that he regards the following as consistent:
a. Tom is thinking of a unicorn
b. Unicorns do not exist in the (C1)-sense.
c. Tom's mental state is object-directed; it is an intentional state.
d. The object of Tom's mental state does not (C1)-exist.
e. The merely intentional object is not nothing.
f. The merely intentional object enjoys intentional existence, a distinct mode of existence different from (C1)-existence.
Very neat.  But let's apply it to the 'Sally wants a baby' case.   As Bill says earlier in the piece,
In the normal case, when a woman wants a baby, what she wants is not some particular baby already in the world; what she wants is motherhood: she wants to be the receptacle through which a new baby comes into existence.
So, at the time of her wanting, the object of Sally's wanting does not (C1)-exist.  Being an object of an intentional state, presumably it enjoys intentional existence.    But what Sally wants is a real flesh-and-blood baby that C1-exists, not some simulacrum in some barely understood realm of existence.  Note the similarity between this argument and the familiar arguments that reject psychologistic solutions to the puzzle. 

Bill's solution fails for the usual reason that Ed Ockham points out every time.  Things start to go wrong as soon as Bill exports the object of Tom's thinking, Sally's wanting, etc, out of its intentional context and makes it the subject of some predication.  Step (d) in the above.  In fact, Bill rather spectacularly begs the question against Ed in the course of his rebuttal:
Ed's complaint may be that I am committing the Existential Fallacy by engaging in existentially loaded exportation. Well, let's see. One thing is clear: if Tom is thinking about a unicorn, then he is thinking about something, not nothing. He has a more or less definite object before his mind. That object is not nothing; so it is something. This is a phenomenological datum that every theory must cater to or accommodate. To think about a unicorn is not to think about a flying horse or about the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. This object is the object of the mental intention, or, the intentional object. It may or may not exist in reality apart from the mental acts trained upon it. So one cannot infer the extramental existence of intentional object O from O's being an intentional object.
Sadly, the very first sentence in the above paragraph that makes this false move, Bill regards as expressing a phenomenological given.  One can't be confident that any entente can be reached on this topic.

An observant reader will notice that I make exactly this move in my little argument above about Sally's baby, and may be inclined to think that I'm not observing my own strictures.  But all I'm doing is taking Bill's position, making the moves that he allows, and showing that we arrive at a contradiction.  This demonstrates that Bill's view is incoherent.  Diagnosis: Treating the grammatical object of an intentional sentence as an existent of any kind or of any mode of being leads to disaster. 

What I find hard to understand is how Bill can give a perfectly adequate account (quoted above) of what 'Sally wants a baby' means and yet still find it necessary to invoke the rigmarole of 'modes of being'.  But perhaps I shouldn't put words in his mouth.

Intentional objects and Meinongian objects

I have been puzzling for some time over Bill's talk about 'intentional objects' and also about these mysterious 'Meinongian objects' (some of) which are jenseits von Sein und Nichtsein, 'beyond being and nonbeing'.  This piece is my attempt to make some sense of it all.  It will not be an argument.  Argument is impossible when it's not clear how words are being used.  It just leads to the jungle.  I will simply give an interpretation of the terms that are used that I claim is self-consistent.  Readers can judge for themselves whether it reflects reality.

To think of a thing is to exercise an idea of a thing.  An idea of a thing is a set of properties (or predicates?).  To exercise an idea is to entertain, for some or all the properties or predicates in the idea, the proposition that the thing has that property or satisfies that predicate.   The propositions so entertained form the content of the thought.  The idea of a thing is thus a description or specification.  There is no requirement that there be an entity that satisfies the description or specification, nor indeed that there could be.  If there is such an entity, then the idea will be incomplete in that it can be extended with further properties/predicates that the entity has or satisfies.  If there is not, then we may say that the idea is uninstantiated, or is not realised, or has no being.  Thus an idea of a thing may exist yet have no being, in this sense of have being. If the properties/predicates are inconsistent with one another, or inconsistent with some assumed set of 'background' propositions that we accept as true, then the idea is impossible---it cannot be realised.  Note that, strictly, we must say that the idea of the thing is impossible, not the thing itself, just as we say the idea is incomplete, and not the thing itself.  The latter locutions, as I hope I have shown elsewhere, lead to dreadful tangles.  Note also that the idea of a thing does not do duty for the thing itself.  If Jack wants a sloop then he wants a sloop and not the idea of a sloop.  Yet the idea of a sloop must be inherent in his wanting:  he must have some idea of what he wants.  Perhaps this is how we should see Brentano's point that one cannot simply think or want, but must think of something or want something.  Such intentional states necessarily involve an idea or conception of the thing thought about or wanted.

I reject all talk of 'intentional objects', precisely because it leads to the aporias which Bill has so ably presented over the years.  Fortunately, everything which needs to be said can be said in ordinary language without using this phrase.  Intentional objects can be 'translated away' without loss.  For example, in The Aporetics of the Intentional Object, Part I, Bill at one point says,
So when Tom thinks of a mermaid, a mermaid is his intentional object. For it is that to which his thought is directed.
What purpose is served by the underlined clauses?  Is this an attempt to elaborate upon or explain 'thinking of a mermaid' in terms of a new theoretical construct?  If so, this is like explaining combustion in terms of phlogiston or the advance of the perihelion of Mercury in terms of the planet Vulcan.  If a conception leads to contradictions then it can't be instantiated.  Do we then have a use for it? We must, perhaps reluctantly, put it to one side and start again, just as we do with the concept 'rational square root of two'.  But Bill would say that I am rejecting what he takes to be 'datanic'.  For Bill, when he thinks about his blue coffee cup, there really is an object 'before his mind', just as there is a coffee mug before my eyes and hands (no scare quotes) right now.  Why do we differ so greatly on this?  This is a matter of psychology rather than logic, I think.   Possibly another post.

We now have the apparatus we need to dissolve all the aporias under Bill's Intentionality and Meinong Matters categories.  This is a bold claim, and I have no general argument for it.  All I can do is show how it can be done, instance by instance.  Here, for example, is a post from November 2013 entitled Imagining X as Real versus Imagining X as Unreal and a Puzzle of Actualization.
Peter and I discussed the following over Sunday breakfast.

1. Suppose I want a table, but there is no existing table that I want: I want a table with special features that no existing table possesses. So I decide to build a table with these features. My planning involves imagining a table having certain properties. It is rectangular, but not square, etc. How does this differ from imagining a table that I describe in a work of fiction? Suppose the two tables have all the same properties. We also assume that the properties form a logically consistent set. What is the difference between imagining a table I intend to build and imagining a table that I do not intend to build but intend merely to describe as part of the fictional furniture in a short story?

2. In the first case I imagine the table as real; in the second as fictional. Note that to imagine a table as real is not the same as imagining a real table, though that too occurs. Suppose I remember seeing Peter's nondescript writing table. To remember a table is not to imagine one; nonetheless I can imagine refurbishing Peter's table by stripping it, sanding it, and refinishing it. The imagined result of those operations is not a purely imagined object, any more than a piece of fiction I write in which Peter's table makes an appearance features a purely fictional table.

3. The two tables I am concerned with, however are both nonexistent. In both cases there is a merely intentional object before my mind. And in both cases the constitutive properties are the same. Moreover, the two are categorially the same: both are physical objects, and more specifically artifacts. Obviously, when I imagine a table, I am not imagining a nonphysical object or a natural physical object like a tree. So there is a clear sense in which what I am imagining is in both cases a physical object, albeit a nonexistent/not-yet-existent physical object.

4. So what distinguishes the two objects? Roman Ingarden maintains that they differ in "ontic character." In the first case, the ontic character is intended as real. In the second, intended as fictional. (The Literary Work of Art, p. 119).

5. Now I have already argued that purely fictional objects are impossible objects: they cannot be actualized, even if the constitutive properties form a logically consistent set. We can now say that the broadly logical impossibility of purely fictional objects is grounded in their ontic character of being intended as fictional. The table imagined as real, however, is possible due to its ontic character of being intended as real despite being otherwise indistinguishable from the table imagined as fictional.

6. Now here is the puzzle of actualization formulated as an aporetic triad
a. Every incomplete object is impossible.
b. The table imagined as real is an incomplete object.
c. The table imagined as real is possible, i.e. actualizable.
The limbs are collectively inconsistent, but each is very plausible. At an impasse again.
I have underlined the pseudo-concept terms that we need to translate out.  I gave up at the triad itself and underlined everything.   The first thing to say is that here we have just a single idea for a table.  Bill concedes this in para (1) where he says 'the two tables have all the same properties' and in para (3) where he says 'in both cases the constitutive properties are the same'. The two cases differ in Bill's attitude to the idea.  On the one hand he sees the idea as a specification that he wants to realise by suitably machining and assembling pieces of wood to make a table that conforms to his concept.  On the other hand he sees the idea as a description that he will transcribe or elaborate into sentences to be included in his next work of fiction.  Bill says he can 'imagine the table as real' or 'imagine the table as fictional'.  This is not exactly ordinary English.  If we take these phrases literally as attributing properties of 'realness' and 'fictionality' to the table, then Bill cannot fail to imagine the former and must fail to imagine the latter.  For 'realness' is one of those vacuous pseudo-properties like 'existence' that a table cannot fail to possess, and to ascribe 'fictionality' to a table, rather than a work of literature, for example, is a category mistake.  What we have to take Bill to mean is that he can imagine both the process and result of realising his design in wood, and also both the process and result of transcribing his idea into sentences.  How are we to render Bill's triad?  I suggest something like this:
  1. Every idea is incomplete; no object is incomplete.
  2. The idea of the table is incomplete; it can be extended with further properties.
  3. If consistent within itself, and consistent with true background assumptions as to what is possible, then the idea of the table is realisable.
I see no inconsistencies within this.

But what is thinking?

Here, with comments, is Bill's recent piece Do You Think Matter Thinks?.

If matter could think, then matter would not be matter as currently understood.
Alternatively, thinking would not be thinking as currently understood.  One man's modus ponens... 
Can abstracta think?  Sets count as abstracta.  Can a  set think?  Could the set of primes contemplate itself and think the thought,  I am a set, and each of my members is a prime number?  Given what we know sets to be from set theory, sets cannot think. It is the same with matter.  Given what we know or believe matter to be from current physics, matter cannot think.  To think is to think about something, and it is this aboutness or intentionality that proves embarrassing for materialism.  I have expatiated on this over many, many posts and I won't repeat myself here.  (Here is a characteristic post.)  Please remind yourself of the obvious: physics is not materialism.  Physics is science; materialism is philosophy.
Thinking involves change but sets, being abstracta, cannot change.  Ergo, sets cannot think.  Given what we believe thinking to be from current philosophy, matter cannot think.   But it clearly does.  We are prime examples.  So we need to rethink our thinking about thinking.
But couldn't matter have occult powers, powers presently hidden from our best physics, including the power to think?  Well, could sets have occult powers that a more penetrating set theory would lay bare?  Should we pin our hopes on future set theory? Obviously not.  Why not?  Because it makes no sense to think of sets as subjects of intentional states. We know a priori that the set of primes cannot lust after the  set of evens.  It is impossible in a very strong sense: it is broadly logically impossible. 

Of course, there is a big difference between sets and brains.  We know enough about sets to know a priori that sets cannot think.  But perhaps we don't yet know enough about the human brain. So I don't dogmatically claim that matter could not have occult or hidden powers.  Maybe the meat between my ears does have the power to think.  But then that meat is not matter in any sense we currently understand.  And that is my point.  You can posit occult powers if you like, and pin your hopes on a future science that will lay them bare; but then you are going well beyond the empirical evidence and engaging in high-flying speculations that ought to seem unseemly to hard-headed empiricistic and scientistic types.
If the meat between our ears has the power to think then maybe thinking is not thinking in whatever sense we currently understand it.   We should look for a better understanding of thinking rather than for occult powers in matter  That's my point.  Sorry to labour it.
Such types are known to complain about spook stuff and ghosts-in-machines.  But to impute occult powers, powers beyond our ken, to brain matter does not seem to be much of an improvement.  For that is a sort of dualism too.  There are the properties and powers we know about, and the properties and powers we know nothing about but posit to avoid the absurdities of identity materialism and eliminativism.  There is also the dualism of imagining that matter when organized into human brains is toto caelo different from ordinary hunks of matter.  There is also a dualism within the brain as between those parts of it that are presumably thinking and feeling and those other parts that perform more mundane functions.  Why are some brain states mental and others not?  Think about it.  (I have a detailed post on this but I don't have time to find it.)
I suppose, like Bill, that there could be further powers inherent in matter as yet unknown to science.  But I prefer to work within our present understanding of matter.  That means that we have to reconceptualise the mental.  And this is proper work for philosophy. 
One might ask, Is there a dualism between those parts of a car engine that are propelling the car and those other parts that perform more mundane functions?  
The materialist operates with a conception of matter tied to current physics.  On that conception of matter, it is simply unintelligible to to say that brains feel or think.  If he nonetheless ascribes mental powers to matter, then he abandons materialism for something closer to panpsychism. 
But we could also say that the antimaterialist operates with a conception of thinking tied to late nineteenth century philosophical phenomenology, and on that conception of thinking it is simply unintelligible to say that brains think or feel.
It is worth noting that the reverent gushing of the neuro-scientistic types over the incredible complexity (pound the lectern!)  of the brain does absolutely nothing to reduce the unintelligibility of the notion that it is brains or parts of brains that are the subjects of intentional and qualitative mental states.  For it is unintelligible how ramping up complexity can trigger a metabasis eis allo genos, a shift into another genus. Are you telling me that meat that means is just meat that is more complex than ordinary meat?  You might as well say that the leap from unmeaning meat to meaning meat is a miracle.  Some speak of 'emergence.'  But that word merely papers over the difficulty, labeling the problem without solving it.  Do you materialists believe in miracle meat or mystery meat?  Do you believe in magic? In a young girl's brain?
Of course, greater complexity pure and simple cannot be the whole story.  The organisation of matter is clearly significant.  The contrast between a single-celled living organism and a similar quantity of inert matter is one primarily of structure, though that structure will possess some minimal level of complexity also.  Does this count as a shift into another genus?  If so, does that mean we must accept a fundamental duality of the living and the non-living, just as we are asked to accept a duality of the mental and the material?  Better to say that living is what suitably organised matter can do.  Likewise thinking.  Which is mysterious.

The phenomenology of phenomenology

Here is another quote from Bill's  More on Ficta and Impossibilia on which I have commented before.
And, as a matter of method, we must begin with the phenomenology of the situation. Suppose I write a two-sentence novel:
It was a dark and rainy night. Shakey Jake, life-long insomniac, deciding he needed a nightcap, grabbed his flashlight and his raincoat and headed for the Glass Crutch bar and grill, a local watering hole a half a mile from his house. 
Now I couldn't have written that, and you can't understand it, without thinking about various intentional objects that do not exist. Am I saying that there exist objects that do not exist? No, that would be a contradiction. Nor am I committed to saying that there are objects that have mind-independent being but not existence. Furthermore, I am not committed to Meinong's doctrine of Aussersein.

All I am doing is holding fast to a phenomenological datum: when I create a fictional character as I just did when I created Shakey Jake the insomniac, I bring before my mind an intentional object. (The act-object schema strikes me as having pretty good phenomenological credentials, unlike the adverbial schema.) What can we say about this merely intentional object? First, it is no part of the acts through which I think it. My acts of thinking exist in reality, but Shakey Jake does not exist in reality. (This point goes back to Twardowski.) When I think about Hamlet or Don Quixote or Shakey Jake, I am not thinking about my own mind or any state of my mind. I am not thinking about anything real. But it doesn't follow that I am not thinking of anything.

If Ed denies that there are merely intentional objects, then he is denying what is phenomenologically evident. I take my stand on the terra firma of phenomenological givenness.  So for now, and to get on with it, I simply dismiss Ed's objection. To pursue it further would involve us a in a metaphilosophical discussion of the role of phenomenological appeals in philosophical inquiry.
Let me start at the end.  I too do not wish to engage in a discussion,  no doubt at an exceedingly abstract level, on the role of phenomenological appeals.  Nevertheless, we can usefully discuss aspects of the language in which the phenomenology is expressed.  There is an immediate problem here.  My phenomenological experience is not out in the open so that others can correct the language I use to describe it.  This problem is so acute that it's hard to understand how we can possibly have a common phenomenological terminology.  Yet there does seem to be basic language that we all can use.  We talk of 'thinking about something' or of one's 'idea of something'.  But this doesn't go very deep.  Is it possible to say any more about what thinking about Shakey Jake is like or what my idea of Shakey consists of?  I find I cannot get beyond regarding my thinking about Shakey as merely rehearsing sentences about him.  Likewise my idea of him consists of a set of predicates I take to be true of him.  Bill, however, says that understanding his story amounts to 'having before one's mind an intentional object'.   This is not the sort of thing an ordinary person would say.  Where does the terminology come from?   Well, it seems to come to us from Brentano, Husserl, and their successors.  But the problems it gives rise to are daunting.  Jungly, even.   If the 'intentional object' was a scientific hypothesis it would have been abandoned long ago as unworkable.  But what to me seems a theoretical construct of dubious value has been so internalised by Bill that it has become the natural way of expressing his experience.  For Bill it is 'evident' and 'given'.  This needs explanation.

The end of existence?

I'm tempted to make this the last comment I write on Bill's existence posts.  His latest, What the Meinongian Means by 'Has Being' and 'Lacks Being', promises much but delivers nothing new, as far as I can see.   Bill has been reviewing Peter van Inwagen and he hangs this piece on remarks he finds in PVI's  Existence, Ontological Commitment, and Fictional Entities.  PVI says that he doesn't understand what a Meinongian might mean by the phrases has being and lacks being.  Bill puts PVI's incomprehension down to his adherence to the so-called 'thin', 'Quinean', or 'Fressellian' so-called 'theory of existence', and treats us to another exposition of its inadequacies.  This is a pity.  It would have been nice if Bill had told us what he thinks Meinongians mean by a statement such as
M. Some items have no being.
Instead he tells us that he rejects (M) on the grounds that he holds that everything exists.  This, surely, is to conflate the somewhat weaselly term 'item' with 'thing' and 'has being' with 'exists'.  This is not a million miles from PVI's position, which finds (M) to be contradictory, hence false, or so it seems to me!  My own view is that we can make sense of (M) and see that it is true, but we have to draw distinctions between 'item' and 'thing' and between 'has being' and 'exists'.  More on this later, if I can get my thinking clear.

The essence of the 'thin theory' is that nothing of interest can be said about 'existence'.  I'm afraid that over the ten years or so that I've been following his postings on this topic, Bill has said nothing to persuade me otherwise.

Heidegger and Carnap

Bill has a recent post in which he defends Heidegger's metaphysics against Carnap's deflationary pinpricks.  He starts with the celebrated ex nihilo, nihil fit, 'Out of nothing, nothing comes.'  Carnap's contention is that 'nothing' is not a name but rather a bit of special logical syntax, which can be expanded into quantification and negation.   Thus 'nothing comes' means 'not something comes'.  More formally, ~∃x. x comes, which is equivalent to ∀x. ~x comes.  Bill (and Heidegger) accept that the second 'nothing' in  ex nihilo, nihil fit does indeed succumb to this treatment.  The problem comes with the first 'nothing'.  Let's read our sentence as 'If nothing exists, then nothing can arise'.   Bill's case is that 'nothing exists' is perfectly meaningful but cannot be reparsed into negation and quantification à la Carnap.  This leaves a 'substantive' use of 'nothing' from which Heidegger can launch his metaphysical balloon.

My problem with this is that I'm not sure that Carnap's procedure applies even to the second 'nothing'.  The sense of 'comes' here is not that of 'nobody comes to my parties', but rather of 'becomes' or 'will exist'.  So the sense of the consequent is that of the antecedent, but in the future tense. Hence, if Carnap does not apply to the antecedent, as Bill insists, then I don't see how it does apply to the consequent.

Does this give Heidegger permission to cast off or must he remain tethered?  The latter, I think.  For if we can allow ourselves an elementary notion of counting in our Carnapian 'logically correct language' then we can translate  'nothing exists'  as 'there are zero things' and 'something exists' as 'there is at least one thing'.  The supposedly 'substantive' term 'nothing' once more disappears into the logic, or, rather, the arithmetic.

I have two further minor comments on Bill's piece.  He says,
And I suggested that 'nothing' could name the total absence of all beings. If this total absence is a possibility, as it would be if every being is a contingent being, then Nothing (das Nichts) would have some 'reality,' if only the reality of a mere possibility.
Does it follow from a universal contingency that nothingness is a possibility?  It's certainly a conceivability.  However, the world might be such that there has to be something even though it is contingent which thing that something is.  Think of a Max Black world consisting of a single metal sphere.  But that sphere could be iron, zinc, copper, etc.
Thus when I assert that nothing is in my pocket, I presuppose that things exist and the content of my assertion is that no one of these existing things is in my pocket.
We don't have to presuppose this.  We could be just saying that there are zero things in our pocket. An appeal to counting, in other words.  Or, better, perhaps, to 'taking away'. Zero is a relatively late invention. 

Plutocats

Some cat is fat.
Of the cats, one is fat.
Of the cats, there is one that is fat.
Of the cats, there exists one that is fat.
Of the cats, there exists a fat one.
There exists a fat cat.

Nietzsche and the New Atheists

[Here. Reproduced in full with my highlighting in yellow and interpolations in cyan

The following quotation from a very interesting Guardian piece by John Gray entitled What Scares the New Atheists (HT: Karl White):
[1] The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. [2] This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. [3]The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. [4] It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. [5] The question is which morality an atheist should serve.
Five sentences, five comments.

1. Yes.
2. Granted, the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. But this is consistent with their racism having other sources as well.  So it doesn't follow that it is an "unlikely tale" that the Nazis drew inspiration from Nietzsche.  I say it is very likely.  See Nietzsche and Nationalism Socialism.
3.  Spot on!
4.  Agreed, atheists can be moral.  Indeed, some atheists are more moral that some theists — even when the moral code is the Decalogue minus the commandments that mention God.  The question whether an atheist can be moral, however, is ambiguous.  While it is clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of satisfying moral demands, it is not clear that an atheist can be moral in the sense of recognizing moral demands in the first place.

One can have this doubt only if one believes that the source of moral demands is God. But one can feel the pull of the moral law within without belief in God, I think.

5.  Before one can ask which morality an atheist should serve, there is a logically prior question that needs asking and answering, one that Gray glides right past, namely,
Q. Is there any morality, any moral code, that an atheist would be justified in adhering to and justified in demanding that others adhere to?
Why must we justify ourselves? Justification is for wusses, as Nietzsche might have said. Did our parents need to justify their opposition to the gentleman below? Our justification is our success. But not in the sense of 'Might is right'.  Rather in the sense of 'It works!'

Hitler-next-to-a-bust-of-nietzscheIf  a negative answer is given to (Q), then Gray's question lapses.
Most of us in the West, atheists and theists alike, do agree on a minimal moral code.  Don't we all object to child molestation, wanton killing of human beings, rape, theft,  lying, financial swindling, extortion,  and arson?   And in objecting to these actions, we mean our objections to be more than merely subjectively valid. When our property is stolen or a neighbor murdered, we consider that an objective wrong has been done. And when the murderer is apprehended, tried, and convicted we judge that something objectively right has been done.  But if an innocent person is falsely accused and convicted, we judge that something objectively wrong has been done.  Let's not worry about the details or the special cases: killing in self-defense, abortion, etc.  Surely, in the West at least, there is some moral common ground that most atheists and theists, liberals and conservatives stand upon.  For example, most of us agree that snuffing out the life of an adult, non-comatose, healthy human being for entertainment purposes is objectively wrong.
What (Q) asks about is the foundation or basis of the agreed-upon objectively binding moral code. This is not a sociological or any kind of empirical question. Nor is it a question in normative ethics. The question is not what we ought to do and leave undone, for we are assuming that we already have a rough answer to that. The question is meta-ethical: what does morality rest on, if on anything?
There are different theories. Some will say that morality requires a supernatural foundation, others that a natural foundation suffices.  I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality.

Well, just what is the objective/subjective status of our moral judgements?  They are clearly not objective in the same way that a weighing machine gives an objective assessment of someone's mass.  And yet they are not so subjective as one's taste in music, say.  They are subjective to the extent that they seem essentially to depend on us, yet objective to the extent that we feel that there are norms to be observed. 

But of course one could be an atheist without being a naturalist. One could hold that there are objective values, but no God, and that ethical prescriptions and proscriptions are axiologically grounded.  (N. Hartmann, for example.) But let's assume, with Nietzsche, that if you get rid of God, you get rid of the Platonic menagerie (to cop a phrase from Plantinga)  as well.  It needs arguing, but it is reasonable to hold that God and Platonica stand and fall together.  That is what Nietzsche would say and I think he would be right were he to say it.   (The death of God is not an insignificant 'event' like the falling to earth of a piece of space junk like Russell's celestial teapot.)  
No God, no objective morality binding for all.  Suppose that is the case.  Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his 'enlightened' liberal morality?  John Gray appreciates the difficulty:
Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. [. . .]  Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. To be sure, evangelical unbelievers adamantly deny that liberalism needs any support from theism. If they are philosophers, they will wheel out their rusty intellectual equipment and assert that those who think liberalism relies on ideas and beliefs inherited from religion are guilty of a genetic fallacy. Canonical liberal thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant may have been steeped in theism; but ideas are not falsified because they originate in errors. The far-reaching claims these thinkers have made for liberal values can be detached from their theistic beginnings; a liberal morality that applies to all human beings can be formulated without any mention of religion. Or so we are continually being told. The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism.
Really? Before Moses descended from Sinai did the children of Israel believe that theft, say, was acceptable?  I've no wish to justify 'liberal' morality outside theism.  For a start, Gray's article is by no means clear as to what is included under the heading 'liberal'.  But it seems to be an empirical fact that Bill's 'minimal moral code' adumbrated above is a human near-universal.  We should start there.

Gray is right.  Let me spell it out a bit.  
Consider equality.  As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically.  By no empirical measure are people equal.  And yet we are supposedly equal as persons.  This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment.  Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end.  A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit.  For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil.  A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person.  And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons.   Thus in his third formulation of the Categorical Imperative in his 1785 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.  (Grundlegung 429)
In connection with this supreme practical injunction, Kant distinguishes between price and dignity. (435)  "Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity."  Dignity is intrinsic moral worth.  Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite -- in that no price can be placed upon it -- and the same for all. 

Well, my apologies to Kant, of course, but do we really need to see each other as of infinite worth in order to observe a few common decencies?

These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form.  But what do these pieties have to do with reality?  Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?
Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure.  We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.)  We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents.  But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living 'Martian' animal).  And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious?  They are just highly complex physical systems.  Surely you won't say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value.  Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex?  And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of 'creation' because we happen to be these critters.
If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal.  What then is a person?  And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?

These are indeed lofty thoughts.  But to frame the issue in these terms is to beg the question against the atheist.  For we can be equal in dignity and rights and of infinite worth only in the eyes of God.  We value our loved ones above friends, friends above strangers, and even strangers well above the bloodier members of the species.  We would judge anyone who did otherwise as other-worldly if not inhuman.  Clearly, an atheistic conception of the foundations of morality must eschew talk of 'infinite worth'.

Now theism can answer these questions.   We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person.  We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father.  Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source.  We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.
But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above?  If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?

Why rule out purely prudential reasons? After all, if you believe there is a God and a soul and an afterlife, etc, then your reason for not enslaving me has a prudential element, surely?

Aristotle thought it natural that some men should be slaves.  We find this notion morally abhorrent. 

I would say we simply find it false.  Contra Nietzsche, there are no naturally-occurring slave-men.

But why should we if we reject the Judeo-Christian God?  "We just do."  But that's only because we are running on the fumes of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  What happens when the fumes run out? 

It is easy to see that it makes no sense, using terms strictly, to speak of anything or anybody as a creature if there is no creator. It is less easy to see, but equally true, that it makes no sense to try to hold on to notions such as that of the equality and dignity of persons after their metaphysical foundations in Christian theism have been undermined.

I agree.  The Kantian values make no sense outside theism.  We have to understand our moral capacities in an entirely different way.  As for 'running on fumes',  it remains an open question as to which came first: our innate moral sentiments, or the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Nevertheless, the atheist ought to be concerned that the tradition is a valuable reinforcer of natural sentiment and ought to be in no hurry to be rid of it.

So there you have the Nietzschean challenge to the New Atheists.  No God, then no justification for your liberal values! Pay attention, Sam.  Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won't face reality, so is liberalism.  The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it.  The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:
Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation - but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?

Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche    Go to Quote

What an extraordinarily one-sided vision of life!  Poor Nietzsche!  But where are these diamond-men?  We must take care not to invent them. 

More quotations on strength and weakness here.

Holes

In Holes and Their Mode of Being from August 2012 Bill says,
Consider a particular hole H in a piece of swiss cheese. H is not nothing. It has properties. It has, for example, a shape: it is circular. The circular hole has a definite radius, diameter, and circumference. It has a definite area equal to pi times the radius squared. If the piece of cheese is 1/16th of an inch thick, then the hole is a disk having a definite volume. H has a definite location relative to the edges of the piece of cheese and relative to the other holes. H has causal properties: it affects the texture and flexibility of the cheese and its resistance to the tooth. H is perceivable by the senses: you can see it and touch it. You touch a hole by putting a finger or other appendage into it and experiencing no resistance.
Hmmm.  There is something wrong with this, surely?  But what?  Bill then says,
Now if anything has properties, then it exists. H has properties; so H exists. 
But wait. What about r, the rational square root of two?  It's rational, and it squares to two.  So it has properties.  Does it exist?

Here is an earlier unpublished response to Bill's piece.  It was to be titled The metaphysics of absence.

Much of this is contestable, I think.  If there is a spade in my bucket then it seems I have two things.  If there is a hole in my bucket then it seems I have one thing with a certain geometry that probably makes it useless for carrying water. An incomplete bucket, perhaps, or a leaky bucket, or a holed bucket.
H is not nothing. It has properties. It has, for example, a shape: it is circular.
Alternatively, it's the local boundary of the cheese that's circular.
The circular hole has a definite radius, diameter, and circumference. It has a definite area equal to pi times the radius squared. If the piece of cheese is 1/16th of an inch thick, then the hole is a disk having a definite volume. H has a definite location relative to the edges of the piece of cheese and relative to the other holes.
This describes the geometry of some material that we can readily imagine being present but whose absence 'constitutes' the hole.  It's a little harder to describe the geometry of the hole in a torus or quoit.  Easier to say where the material is rather than where it isn't.  And if something is absent how do we measure its size?
H has causal properties: it affects the texture and flexibility of the cheese and its resistance to the tooth. 
Of course,  we find it convenient to talk of absences in the language of presences.  But this isn't really good enough.  It's a little like saying that if I weld three rods of steel into a triangle then the strength and rigidity of the triangle is somehow due to the empty space around it.
H is perceivable by the senses: you can see it and touch it. You touch a hole by putting a finger or other appendage into it and experiencing no resistance.  
A good criterion for there being nothing rather than something.
Now if anything has properties, then it exists. H has properties; so H exists. 
This looks like a metaphysical 'bridging' principle between language and reality.  It seems to be saying that there may be 'things' that have properties.  If so, these are the things that exist.  In contrast, presumably, there may be 'things' that do not have properties, and these won't exist.  This is a strange notion of thing.  'Imaginings' might be better.

Despite my title I don't want to think of holes as absences.  That way lie paradox and confusion.  This puzzle is part of the much bigger problem of how geometrical features and 'accidents' in general can be thought of as things or said to exist or depend.

Bill goes on to argue that the holes in his slice of Emmental have a different 'mode of existence' from the slice of cheese.  This seems to be building a metaphysical structure on a spongy foundation of decidedly debatable substantive commitments, but Bill says he has other examples besides holes, so we will have to wait and see.