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  • Writer's pictureJude

Metaphysics: “Blue Unicorns don’t exist”

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

In saying “Blue unicorns don’t exist” we are suggesting, inconspicuous existence, there is no exemplification of blue unicorns. In reply to this statement: “Of course they don’t exist.” would typically be the response which intends to be factual. In a Metaphysical sense, we are implying much more than a lack of representation when we describe something, especially in relation to its existence. W.V. Quine investigates the meaning behind such claims in his article “On what there is”. Immediately Quine addresses the ontological problem, which he puts into simplicity via question, “What is there?” he states the answer is “Everything” and everyone would accept this answer. However it’s circular to say there is what there is. Hereafter Quine notes there are disagreements over cases, such as “Blue unicorns don’t exist”, and this issue has been existent throughout history. In this essay, utilising Quine’s thoughts from his article, I’m going to analyse what his response would be to the statement “Blue unicorns don’t exist”.

For the sake of brevity I’ll refer to the “Blue unicorns don’t exist” statement as BU, adding is to indicate it exists and is not to say it does not. If Quine was present when the BU statement was proposed for consideration he would examine it metaphysically. To metaphysicians statements like these aren’t answered through agreement or disagreement, even if the statement is evidently false. The setup, literal complexity of meaning, reference, implications of existence and the logic behind them offers a much more stimulating debate. More importantly, in Philosophy, some theories may appear ludicrous at first perusal. Nevertheless many cannot disprove statements or theories that radiate absurdity – such as McTaggart’s argument for the unreality of time, where he argued our perception of time is merely ideal. Or the Cosmological argument, an argument which would dissatisfy atheists. Philosophers, such as Quine, tackle such questions and, in my view, produce intelligible theories after analysing others. In his article Quine creates artificial Philosophers to argue against the notion that Pegasus exists. Instead of using his examples I’ll play the role of the Philosopher proposing BU is.

Pretend I state – BU is, Quine would respond avoiding using the word BU as he would fall into a fallacy by doing so. The fallacy lies within the spatio-temporal connotations of the word BU, which means something belongs within space and time. In this case, BU. Anything within space and time is considered to exist. If Quine said BU is not in response I could point out the fact he’s agreeing with me through this fallacy. Instead it’s easier for Quine to point out there’s no examples of this, without using the word BU’s as that implies it’s spatio-temporal. This is correct, there are no representations of BU’s in our World so BU’s don’t necessarily exist within space and time. However, in a metaphysical sense, this notion is apparent within our minds hence I claim it exists within them. If BU’s didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be referring to anything when we say the words BU. For this reason it’s illogical to claim it does not exist, hence BU is. This is the Platonic riddle of nonbeing first suggested in the Platonic dialogue Sophist, entitled by Quine as “Plato’s beard”. This riddle claims nonbeing must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that there is not?

To disprove this theory, Quine calls it an elementary confusion. He uses the example of a Parthenon and a Parthenon idea. The Parthenon is apparent, physical – the Parthenon idea is invisible and mental. Yet they both represent the same entity and through it prove its existence. In comparison to BU’s, there is not a BU but there’s a BU idea. I can only prove the existence of BU ideas, maybe through the use of Plato’s beard, but it’s crucial to have both to claim existence in this case to appease Quine. Quine asserts that in order to find a physical representation of BU pressure would encourage the acceptance of any counterfeit example just to strengthen our argument. In this case, we could get a horse and dye its hair blue. Through the use of plastic surgery we can attach a horn to its forehead. This matches the suggested properties of a BU’s idea. Nevertheless in reality that would just be a blue dyed horse with an attached horn. It’s safe to say Quine has shown BU is not. Quine’s second artificial Philosopher takes an alternative approach to prove the existence of Pegasus. Altering our approach we form a new statement to support BU’s.

The word existence is very susceptible to criticism, in the previous theory the dismissal of BU is occurred since the lack of exemplification physically shows it does not. Instead of using the word existence, the new statement I shall offer is “BU’s are a unactualized possibility”. There are two subclasses to being: actual entities, entities which are actual in the real world and merely possible entities, entities which are possible and intelligible but are non-actual in the real World. BU’s are merely possible entities. Quine realises the formulation of this statement aims to avoid critique by avoiding using the word existence. I’ve already stated BU’s don’t exist they just remain a possibility, so Quine must take another route to criticise this new suggestion. He raises a point that addresses the notion of possibilities. How do we differentiate between possibilities? He claims that the modalities should be limited to whole statements. E.g. instead of saying “there is a possible BU” we should state “possibly, there’s a BU”

Quine has another objection in the form of an example. He suggest the notion of a round square cupola on top of Berkley College. Of course, this is not a unactualized possibility as it’s impossible to have an object that’s round and at the same time square. We are faced with another dilemma. Either way we fall victim to fallacy, accepting the notion of a round square as an actualized possibility is wrong, as stated a round square is impossible, whilst refuting it would raise the point why refuse an unactualized possibility in one instance but accept another. They both, as unactualized possibilities, aren’t exemplified. In doing so we would suggest some unactualized possibilities are more possible than others. E.g. a BU is more possible than a round square cupola because there are similar things exemplified. Such as a horse, blueness and horns. Instead of advocating this I shall refute this trap of contradiction by stating a “round square cupola” is meaningless. Quine states, that in this case, describing contradictions as meaningless dismisses the possibility of devising an appropriate test of what is meaningful and what is not. In stating that contradiction is meaningless we’ve followed the same path as many, although what’s maintained is not similar. This is Russell’s Theory of Descriptions.

Quine claims the riddle, Plato’s beard, is tangled and due to its inconveniences he attempts to counter it. Russell’s theory shows how we might meaningfully use seeming names, such as BU, without supposing that the entities exist. His theory approaches statements such as Quine’s proposed and unintelligible claim of their being “a round square cupola on Berkley College.” Utilising Russell’s theory the approach would be “Something is round and is square and is a cupola on Berkley College” To apply this to BU is we would have to avoid using a spatio-temporal connotation, like BU, and only describe it. To describe BU is: “Something is blue with a horn and is horse” or BU is not: “There is no unique thing that’s blue in colour, has a horn and is a horse” The meaningfulness of sentences Russell’s theory applies to doesn’t suggest the existence of such an entity it illustrates. For these reasons, Quine would believe he has successful disproven the existence of BU without falling into fallacy.

In ontological statements naming implies existence. Instead of avoiding using them to counter statements Quine endeavours to disprove them. He states there’s delusion between meaning and naming. The meaningfulness of a statement containing a singular term suggests the existence of an entity. E.g. like the BU statement. Quine uses an example from Frege based on the phrases “Evening Star” and “Morning Star”. The Evening Star is the name of a large spherical object that travels through space. In distance it’s millions of miles away. The Morning Star also describes such a thing, this was probably established by a Babylonian. This raises a confusion as these phrases cannot have the same meaning otherwise it could be thought they’re the same thing. In stating BU is, and maintaining the meaningfulness of that statement proves it’s true, I’ve fallen into this error of confusing meaning with naming. In confusing the meaning of BU with reference to an actual BU, Quine asserts there was no caution in this claim that would have encouraged us to deduce the difference between meaning and reference. We may have an idea of a BU, like the blue horse with a horn, nonetheless, as shown through Quine’s “round square cupola” objection there must be an example of this so reference can be demonstrated. Due to these obvious Quine states that we shouldn’t hypothesise meanings as entities.

In conclusion of, what I believe, Quine’s response to the statement “Blue unicorns don’t exist” is Socratic. It’s Socratic in a sense he uses a similar method of inquiry, although not in dialogue, to Socrates’. Socrates strived to disprove the first question or statement within an argument. After successfully doing so he tackled other possibilities or alternatives suggested by others but mostly by himself to also disprove them so no other questions are raised. There is a refutation by Jim Macdonald, a critic of Philosophical works, who highlights a problem with his argument is his understanding of Plato’s beard.

Macdonald believes Quines argument is sufficient in some ways but insufficient in others. He states Quine misses the point Plato had in mind by not acknowledging, I quote: “the mode by which we determine one descriptive phrase has a true value from that which has a false value” therefore his critique of Plato is incorrect. He’s insinuating that description of something, such as a BU, has a true value and it stems from the falseness. Revisiting the beginning of the theory, Quine thought he refutes Plato’s beard but if we look at the Platonic dialogue it suggests a different notion than what Quine argues against. Quine misinterpreted Plato’s words “that which is not in some sense must be” He attempted to disprove Plato’s beard through the Parthenon example, which tried to suggest something that’s possible within reality and possible in the mind is more plausible than something that just resides in the mind. Plato didn’t suggest the existence of anything physically within the Sophist, he just maintained that it exists somewhere. This is similar to Anselm’s ontological argument as they both suggest the possibility of something in reality and the mind is greater than just the mind.

However, Anselm’s ontological argument can also be deemed to be similar to Plato’s beard because he states the thought of God within the mind is evident amongst us all. Conspicuously we can’t see God, so if we applied him to Quine’s Parthenon example we might even state that God doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, we can acknowledge the existence of God or anything for that matter – hence to Plato in some sense the idea is apparent.

Quine also didn’t refer to the objection Plato presented against the use of “not” or prefixes like “non” as meaning the same as “contrary” or “opposite”. Macdonald uses an example of going home to see nobody is present. He states we wouldn’t think of nobody as an entity and argue against its existence. According to Plato, the home is simply different from it would be if people were present. In place of the faux Philosophers we maintained that claiming something doesn’t exist suggests it still exists, trying to lure Quine into a fallacy. Macdonald states Plato rather insists that which is not, merely exists relative to an actual state of affairs.

For instance, if I stated there are no BU in my living room, this doesn’t mean I’m suggesting entities called BU. In stating this I’m suggesting my living room is different from BU. We can have an understanding of BU if it’s presented in an intelligible way. In this we aren’t suggesting the existence of BU, but just the idea.

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