|Today’s colloquium paper is “How to be Omnipresent” by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. Dr. Cowling received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He has published papers on a variety of topics in metaphysics, and his first monograph, Abstract Entities (Routledge) is scheduled to be released on March 1. It’s available for pre-order now!|
How to be Omnipresent
Sam Cowling and Wesley D. Cray
Thanks to Kenny Pearce and everyone else here at the Prosblogion. We are Sam Cowling (Denison University; email@example.com) and Wesley Cray (Texas Christian University; firstname.lastname@example.org), and we’re excited to be a part of the new Prosbloglion Virtual Colloquium series. Today, we’re presenting the penultimate draft of our paper, “How to Be Omnipresent,” which we’re happy to say is forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly.
Though the topic of omnipresence itself is perhaps one most naturally located within philosophy of religion, we hope that the paper is of interest to metaphysicians more generally—especially those who are invested in questions about occupation and location. We also think it has the potential to lead into neat discussions about abstract entities. And even among philosophers of religion, we hope that the paper will be of interest to those working outside of the constraints of philosophy of Western, monotheistic religion. Discussions of omnipresence do, of course, show up in other religious traditions—and we take it to be a virtue of our account that it stretches across (and even outside of) traditions, rather than remaining bound to any particular tradition.
Anyway, we develop and defend a new account of omnipresence, which, we argue, is preferable to more familiar views, such as the Occupation View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it occupies every region) and the Dependence View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it can exert its will or power at every region). Our view, which we call the Existential View, takes an entity to be omnipresent iff it exists at every region.
Consider a version of necessitism along the lines of the views endorsed by Williamson and Linsky & Zalta. On such a view, the stock of entities is modally invariant, with all entities existing at all worlds. Despite enjoying necessary existence, (many or most) entities are only contingently concrete. When not concrete, they exist as abstract entities. We take it that these entities occupy regions only while concrete. For any world w, they still exist at w while abstract, even though they don’t occupy any region at w. So, the existence facts are separable from the occupation facts. We can make parallel comments and observations about the temporal case, looking to versions of permanentism.
In developing the Existential View, we repurpose the machinery of necessitism and permanentism and explore a spatial analog. If necessitism and permanentism are coherent—and we think they are—then, again, existence facts are separable from occupation facts. Now, just apply that to the spatial case: an entity might exist at a spatial (or spatiotemporal) region without occupying that region. An omnipresent entity is just an entity that exists at all regions, regardless of which regions, if any, it occupies.
On necessitism and permanentism, the stock of all entities is modally or temporally invariant, respectively. We don’t want to go that far in the spatial case. Instead, we take omnipresence to be a metaphysically distinctive feature, rather than one enjoyed by all entities. In fact, we take it to be an open question whether any entity actually enjoys omnipresence in the sense we develop. But we do think that it is metaphysically possible that an entity be omnipresent, and, by our lights, it’s good to have a account of what that means.
We call our view the Existential View because we tie existence to quantification, a la Quine. We might say that an entity exists at a world iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that world. Likewise, we might say that an entity exists at a time iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that time. By extension, we find it natural to go on to say that an entity exists at a region iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that region. To be omnipresent, then, is to be within the scope of the existential quantifier, regardless of regional restriction.
The biconditionals above are certainly not meant to offer reductive analyses. We leave it as an open question whether existence-at-a–world/time/region is something that can be reduced to more basic notions or whether it itself should be taken as basic. But even if we opt for the latter approach, the Existential View is still informative: an entity’s status as omnipresent depends, not on facts about its power or on facts about which regions it occupies, but on facts about where it exists. Omnipresent entities exist everywhere, even if they have no power or will or no regions that they occupy.
So, that’s the idea. In the paper, we go into more detail in developing the account, and give reasons why one might prefer it over the Occupation and Dependence Views. We also defend against a few objections. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity to try to defend it against a few more in the comments section here. We’re looking forward to the discussion!
The complete paper is available here. Discussion welcome below!
According to Leibniz, any answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ must bottom out in “a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to ‘carry the reason for its existence within itself?’ What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl Conee’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is devoted to arguing that no broadly Anselmian argument for the impossibility of the non-existence of God can succeed. Its relevance to the theme of the volume is not spelled out, but I take it that the above issues are in the background: Anselm’s argument purports to derive a contradiction from the supposition that there is no God. If the argument succeeded, it would thus amount to a defense of the existence of a necessary being, just the sort of regress-stopping being wanted for certain answers to the puzzle of existence.
Recall that Anselm’s general strategy is to argue that the Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) must exist because existence is greater than non-existence. If the GCB did not exist, then it would be possible to conceive of a being, GCB+, who was just like GCB except that GCB+ exists. This would make GCB+ greater than GCB, but of course it is by definition impossible to conceive a being greater than GCB, so the supposition that GCB does not exist yields a contradiction.
According to Conee, the mistake in the argument is a confusion between the level of greatness a being must have in order to satisfy a certain conception and the level of greatness a being satisfying a particular concept actually has. Thus the concept unicorn requires more greatness than the concept horse, but the things satisfying the concept horse are greater than the things satisfying the concept unicorn because the latter are merely imaginary. When we conceive of a GCB, this conception requires more greatness than any other possible conception, but it does not follow from this that some other conception is not satisfied by greater things, if the latter conception (e.g., horse) has real instances and the GCB is merely imaginary.
Conee’s objection is reminiscent of two memorable remarks of Kant’s on this topic:
To posit a triangle and cancel its three angles is contradictory; but to cancel the triangle together with its three angles is not a contradiction (A594/B622).
A hundred actual dollars do not contain the least bit more than a hundred [merely] possible ones (A599/B627).
The general idea here is sometimes called the ‘conditionalizing strategy.’ The idea is that the concept or definition of a GCB tells us what has to be true of something in order for it to be a GCB. Even if we build existence into the concept or definition, the only result we get is that in order for anything to be a GCB, that thing must exist, but this is totally uninteresting, since it is also true that in order for anything to be a triangle, that thing must exist.
What Conee wants to show is that ‘an optimal version of Anselm’s argument’ falls to this sort of objection. In order to count as a ‘version of Anselm’s argument’ Conee says, an argument must proceed from the conception of a GCB to the absurdity of denying the GCB’s existing via the assumption that “existence mak[es] a positive difference toward … greatness” (115-116). Thus, although Conee talks in the notes about the prospects for an argument that talks about necessary existence, he does not address modal ontological arguments in detail.
Can an argument which is Anselmian in this sense escape the conditionalizing strategy? With the help of some controversial assumptions, I think it can. Here is an argument that the Fool cannot coherently say (affirm) in his heart that there is no God:
- If one cannot coherently conceive of x as F, then one cannot coherently affirm that x is F.
- Beings conceived of as real are conceived of as being greater than beings conceived of as merely imaginary/fictional.
- It is possible to conceive of a GCB as real.
- One cannot coherently conceive of a GCB as merely imaginary/fictional. (If one did, then either one would conceive the GCB as both real and merely imaginary/fictional, which is a contradiction, or else it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than the GCB, namely, a real being that is just like the GCB.)
- One cannot coherently affirm that a GCB is merely imaginary/fictional.
Conee discusses Meinongian and anti-Meinongian versions of the argument, but I think this version, which appeals to imaginary/fictional objects, but not non-existent objects, is more faithful to Anselm, since Anselm talks about ‘existing in the understanding.’ Presumably objects that exist in the understanding exist.
What the Fool denies, on this reading, is that God is real. He thinks that God is a mere fiction, an imaginary being. (Atheists cannot very well deny that there is a character called ‘God’ in a great many stories.) This helps the argument to escape Hume’s objection that whenever we conceive of anything we always conceive of it as existing, for there seems to be a significant difference between how I conceive of Abraham Lincoln and how I conceive of Sherlock Holmes: I conceive of Lincoln as a real historical person, and Holmes as a fictional character. It is plausible to suppose that this is really part of the content of my conception.
I see two main weaknesses for this argument. First, one could question whether, by conceiving of something as real, we actually conceive of it as being greater than if we conceive of it as merely fictional/imaginary. Perhaps unicorns are still conceived as greater than horses, even when I explicitly include the fictionality of unicorns in my conception. Second, there are tricky issues here about the very nature of fictions. For instance, according to the fiction about Holmes, Holmes is a real (i.e. non-fictional) detective. Now, perhaps the right thing to say about this is that, when engaging imaginatively with the fiction, the reader conceives of Holmes as real, but the reader (who knows she is reading fiction) does not affirm this conception. The conception she affirms is the conception of Holmes as fictional.
These are tricky issues. In any event, the argument I have given is, I submit, superior to the one Conee calls the ‘Optimal Anselmian Argument,’ at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)