May 09, 2007

Essential but Contingent Properties

My continued existence depends on lots of things. It depends on my breathing oxygen. It depends on food, water, and my not getting run over by a bus. We might say that these things are essential for my existence, since I would not exist without them. Moreover, my relation to other people may be essential to my existence. If it weren't for my uncle Mike and his power and influence in the "family", my enemies would have iced me by now. These enemies still wait in the wings. If anything were to happen to Uncle Mike, I'd be a gonner. One other example is from Paul McCartney, who wrote, "I won't live in a world without love". There are many contingent features of the world without which one would not exist.

In philosophical circles, by contrast, we require that any essential property of a thing be a necessary property of the thing. We say that something is an essential property of x iff x has the property in every possible world in which x exists. But 'essence' is said in less strict ways in the vernacular. If the doctors need to operate immediately in order to save your life, then time literally is of the essence. This suggests that the philosophical account of essence is too strong to capture ordinary use. I noted in the previous post that Berit and I agree with Fine that the strict philosophical account is too weak, for the reason that on that account any necessity is an essential property of everything. I believe that the alternative account, proposed in the last post, handles both problems nicely. The account was this:

(1) x is essentially F iff if nothing were F then x wouldn't exist,

or semantically,

(2) all the closest worlds (whether possible or impossible) where nothing is F are worlds where x doesn't exist.

Thanks to Mike Almeida, who pointed to an objection to this account (in the comments thread of the previous post). His worry boils down to this: it follows from (2) that some essential properties are contingent properties. However, as Mike has inspired me to argue here, I think this is a virtue of the account, and not an objection. The account expressed by (2) handles both the strict philosophical, and a predominant ordinary, use of 'essence'.

The key is to note that the closeness relation widens or narrows with the conversational context; the closest worlds are ones that preserve the highest proportion of the relevant background facts at the actual world. In the typical strict philosophical context where essential properties (for whatever reason) are expected to be necessary properties, the relevant background facts are the facts about what is metaphysically possible. So, the closest worlds will be all the metaphysically possible worlds. (The exceptions are philosophical contexts in which impossibilities are sincerely entertained. See previous post.) In the ordinary, non-philosophical, contexts alluded to at the beginning of this post, the relevant background facts include, for instance, that McCartney was suicidal after the loss of a girlfriend. Hence, the closest worlds without love are worlds where McCartney kills himself. Therefore, if there were no love, McCarney would cease to exist. By (2), it follows that being loved is essential to McCartney's existence. Or consider that the background facts include that I just don't run from, or rat out, other mobsters (because I'm just that brand of Sicilian American wise guy). Then the closest worlds without protection from Uncle Mike are worlds where I'm dead meat. Yes, I could go into hiding or witness protection, but then I would no longer be the wise guy that I am. So, by the above account, it is essential to what I am that I am protected by Uncle Mike.

In sum, the traditional account of essence (in terms of what properties a thing has in every metaphysically possible world in which it exists) is both too strong and too weak. Account (2) seems to take care of these problems.

11 comments:

Felipe said...

The following sort of case makes me worry that your account doesn't capture the essence of essential propertyhood:

Suppose there are two Anselmian (or quasi-Anselmian) necessary beings, Pinky and WInky. Although It's not constitutive of Pinky that he have a pink after-image throughout his existence, it is constitutive of Pinky that he has an aching desire to have one. And as it turns out, it's constitutive of Winky that he satisfies all the harmless desires of Pinky (because, say, it's constitutive of Winky that he's essentially loving, and since PInky is Winky's beloved, he inevitably satisfies all his harmless desires).

In this case, then, it seems that Pinky and the pink after-image exists in all the close worlds, and yet the after-image is not essential to Pinky.

Joe said...

Nice example Felipe! I think that I would want to handle it in the same way that Berit and I handle other necessary but non-essential properties. First a diversion.

Impossible worlds (with the exception of the trivial world where everything is true) are maximal non-deductively closed sets of sentences. They are closer or farther from the base-world depending on how much they have in common with the base-world background facts held fixed in the conversational context. There is much more to think about regarding the closeness metric for impossible world, but that's all we need here.

So go to the closest impossible worlds where the necessary pink after-image doesn't exist. Presumably these are impossible worlds where Winky (the metaphysically necessary being) doesn't exist. Such an impossible world with Pinky in it is closer than such a world without Pinky in it. In sum, since some of the closest (impossible) worlds without the pink after-image are worlds where Pinky exists, the relevant counterfactual is false. Hence the pink after-image is not essential to Pinky after all.

Notice, by contrast, that the standard account (according to which a property is essential to Pinky iff Pinky has it in every world in which she exists) can't explain why the after-image is not essential to Pinky.

impossible worlds most like Pinky and Winky's but where there

Felipe Leon said...

Joe,

I need to think about it some more, but your account is very intriguing!

Best,

Felipe

Mike said...

Hi Joe,

I'm not sure what would count as a counterintuitive consequence of this analysis of essential properties. But notice that it has the odd consequence that I essentially continue to exist, since had nothing continued to exist, then of course I would not exist. Of course it is uncontroversial that I die at some time. Let t be the dreaded instant at which I die. Put these together and we get (i) I essentially continue to exist at t and (ii) I die at t. When the physician declares me dead, be sure to reassure my friends that I essentially continue to exist! That's one hell of a metaphysical result from an analysis of essential properties.
But there's more. I can run an ontological argument on myself, since I have the essential property of existing. Had nothing existed, then I certainly would not exist, so I essentially exist. I am essentially immortal, too. Go to the closest world in which nothing fails to die at some arbitrary time t. In that world I do not exist at t. But then I have the essential property of failing to die at any arbitrary time t. I'm essentially immortal! All good news, of course!

Mike said...

Joe,

There's a contradiction forthcoming. Suppose it is true that I am killed by Smith.

P. I have the property of being killed by Smith

Now consider the proposition,

P'. I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith.

Proof that P' is true.
1. I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith iff. were nothing not killed by Smith then I would not exist.

Go to the closest world(s) to ours at which nothing is not killed by Smith (or, everything is killed by Smith). It is true there that I do not exist. So,

3. It is true that had nothing not been killed by Smith, then I would not exist.

4. Therefore I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith.

!@# Contradiction

By (P') I am killed by Smith and by (4) I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith.

Joe said...

Thanks Mike,
Notice that you haven't actually derived a formal contradiction. I hesitate to fill in your implicit assumptions. But we have some reason to be suspicious of them, whatever they are. Let's suppose that Mike was killed. Then Mike is dead, even though Mike is essentially not dead. I'm committed to this, but so is somebody with a the more familiar theory of essence. That said, I don't think that our natural language commitment to this conjunction entails a contradiction.

Mike said...

Joe, I wonder what could be suspicious? Let's see.

1. I have the property of being killed by Smith. Assumption.

2. I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith iff. were nothing not killed by Smith then I would not exist. (by analysis of essential properties)

3. Were nothing not killed by Smith then I would not exist. (all of the closest worlds in which Smith kills everything, I don't exist)

4. I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith. (from 2 and 3)

5. If I have the essential property of not being killed by Smith, then it is not the case that I have the property of being killed by Smith. (Trivial: if I in fact have the property K then having ~K is not essential to me)

6. It is not the case that I have the property of not being killed by Smith. (by 4, 5)

7. I have the property of being killed by Smith and it is not the case that I have the property of being killed by Smith (by 6 and 1, !@#).

What should we be worried about here? I don't know where the worry is.

Mike said...

Ugh! Sorry. (6) is this.

6. It is not the case that I have the property of being killed by Smith. (by 4, 5)

Joe Salerno said...

I'll read your new comments more carefully soon, Mike. Now I have to get out of town. But one quick thing I notice is that your discussion is driven by 'x in fact has P as an essential property', which is different from 'P is essential for x'. The former, but not the latter, entails that x exists (among other things).

Mike said...

But one quick thing I notice is that your discussion is driven by 'x in fact has P as an essential property', which is different from 'P is essential for x'. The former, but not the latter, entails that x exists (among other things).

I can't find where I say 'x in fact has P as an essential property'. I do say that I in fact have the property of being killed by Smith, which I do, since Smith killed me. But the entire argument would work with 'I was killed by Smith'. Anyway, let me know where I should be worried.

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