Truth-in, Truth-at, and Just Plain Truth

By | March 29, 2015

This post continues a series on issues related to truth. In previous posts I have looked at (a) the correspondence theory of truth and its relation to truthmaking, (b) disquotation principles, and (c) the conflict between correspondence and disquotation principles, to the detriment of the latter.

In this post I want to look at a distinction introduced by philosopher Robert Adams in an important article called “Actualism and Thisness” (A&T). The distinction is between truth-at and truth-in and just plain truth, or truth simpliciter.

Adams’ occasion for introducing this distinction is to address a metaphysical debate about the nature of singular propositions in relation to logically possible worlds. According to a view known as actualism, which Adams endorses, “there are no things that do not exist in the actual world” (A&T, p. 7). In other words, possibilities, in so far as they are real, are ontologically dependent on actualities. There are no self-subsisting possibilities.

Adams is not only an actualist, but a serious actualist. This is the view that properties and relations, in additional to possibilities, are ontologically dependent on actualities. In other words, there are no self-subsisting properties or relations. All properties are properties of actually existing things. All relations are relations among actually existing things. This point is often put by saying that properties and relations are “existence entailing”.

Actualism and singular propositions

singular proposition is a proposition that refers to or denotes specific individuals, either by way of a definite description (e.g., <The first man to walk on the moon died in 2012>) or by naming (e.g., <Neil Armstrong died in 2012>). There is nothing metaphysically problematic about singular propositions when the individuals referred to are, like Neil Armstrong, actual individuals, individuals that either have existedcurrently exist, or timelessly exist. But given actualism and serious actualism (hereafter I will refer to both simply as “actualism”) the status of singular propositions about individuals that do not and never have existed is very problematic.

Consider, for example, <The present king of France is bald> and <King Louis XXV of France is bald>. There is no past, present, or timeless individual who is the present king of France or who is named King Louis XXV. By actualism, there is no merely possible individual for these propositions to refer to. And by serious actualism it is impossible to even refer to non-existent individuals or to predicate properties like baldness, regality, or even their contraries to such. Based on such considerations, Adams argues that actualism entails that “there are no singular propositions about non-actual individuals” (A&T, p. 7).

I agree with Adams in affirming both actualism and serious actualism, and I am tempted to agree with him in affirming that there are no singular propositions about non-actual individuals, though I would nuance this by setting the definite description cases aside. If Adams is right, then neither <The present king of France is bald> nor<King Louis XXV of France is bald> expresses a proposition, and therefore neither is capable of being either true or false for the same reason that, as I noted in my previous post, <The slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe> does not express a proposition. Namely, the sentences enclosed in angle brackets fail to carry a definite sense. But on a Russellian analysis of definite descriptions, which I am inclined to accept, <The present king of France is bald> does have a definite sense (and is false). More generally, singular propositions involving definite descriptions don’t acquire their sense in the same way that singular propositions about named individuals do. In the former case reference is routed through the general description of a role that only allows one occupant. As a general description it doesn’t single out a fully specified individual like naming does, and that’s why at different points in time, “the present king of France” could have referred to Louis I, Louis II, Louis III, etc.

If we set singular propositions involving definite descriptions aside and focus on those involving named individuals, and if we make explicit that by “non-actual individuals” we mean individuals that do not and never have existed, then Adams’ thesis becomes

  1. There are no singular propositions about named individuals that do not and never have existed.

The truth-in / truth-at distinction

Consider now this singular proposition:

  1. <Robert Adams has never existed>

Since Adams is an actual individual, there is no problem with affirming the existence of this proposition. Moreover, we can say confidently that (2) is false. It is false simpliciter and false in that logically possible “world story” (Adams’ preferred term for possible world) which correctly describes the actual world. Let’s call this world story Alpha.

But still there must be a sense in which propositions like (2) could have been true since, after all, Adams is not a necessarily existent being (as he himself would admit). What if history had been different such that Adams was never conceived? In that case, a different world story, call it Beta, would have correctly described the actual world.

But according to (1), in Beta, (2) wouldn’t even exist and so couldn’t be either true or false. Does (1) imply, then, that there are no logically possible world stories in which (2) is true? And, if so, how is that consistent with the contingency of Adams’ existence?

Adams responds to questions like this by distinguishing between truth-in and truth-at. In terms of this distinction, (2) is true-at-Beta, but it is not true-in-Beta. A proposition is true-in-a-world (or in a given domain) just in case it would be true simpliciter were that world actual. And since truth simpliciter requires that a truthbearer exist and correspond to a truthmaker (as I explained in my previous post), it follows that a proposition is true-in-a-world if and only if, if that world were actual, the proposition would both exist and correctly describe the world. Thus, if Beta were the actual world and not Alpha, then (2) would not be true-in-Beta because (given (1)) it would not exist in Beta. But it would, says Adams, be true-at-Beta. Any proposition that is true-in-a-world is also true-at-that-world, but the converse does not hold for a proposition is true-at-a-world (or at a given domain) just in case it correctly describes that world, whether or not the proposition would exist if that world were actual. Since (2) correctly describes Beta, it is true-at-Beta. But it is not true-in-Beta and it would not be true simpliciter if Beta were actual.

The notion of truth-at-a-world gives us a way of talking about non-actual possibilities in a manner consistent with actualism without begging ontological questions (like presupposing that there are abstract ‘individual essences’ or haecceities for all possible individuals). In the case of (2) and Beta, it allows us to use semantic resources from Alpha (where ‘Robert Adams’ is a referring expression) to describe worlds, like Beta, where some of those semantic resources may be unavailable.

3 thoughts on “Truth-in, Truth-at, and Just Plain Truth

  1. Tom

    Sounds like Adams just attributes a kind of actualism to propositions; that is, he holds props to have some aspect of their reference in the actual world to which they either correspond or not. If a prop doesn’t explicitly or implicitly reference or attribute its claim to the actual world, it’s not a prop. I might be missing the mark, but in the end what would Adams feel is at stake? I mean, if we took as a proposition that qualified as either true or false, how have we violated actualism? Seems to me that an actualist could be semantically generous in admitting as propositions claims about non-actual individuals without violating or risking an actualist metaphysics. Looks to me like where we want our metaphysics to shape our semantics is in how we view truth and falsity of props and not in dismissing otherwise perfectly meaningful claims as non-propositions. Just view them as false if they describe non-actual individuals rather than as non-propositions just because they’re not proper bearers of truth-value.

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Hi Tom. Thanks for the comment.

      Tom: “If we took as a proposition that qualified as either true or false, how have we violated actualism?”

      Alan: We haven’t. For a proposition to qualify as true or false it must exist and be a proposition, but it is not clear (given actualism) how singular propositions about non-actual, named individuals can even exist or qualify as propositions.

      Tom: Looks to me like where we want our metaphysics to shape our semantics is in how we view truth and falsity of props and not in dismissing otherwise perfectly meaningful claims as non-propositions.

      Alan: I think Adams would deny that either he or actualism requires “dismissing otherwise perfectly meaningful claims as non-propositions” if they don’t have adequate foundation in the actual world. I think he would say, rather, that the claims in question are not, in fact, “perfectly meaningful”.

      Suppose, for example, that we try to express a claim about a completely unreal individual, call him Mr. X. I say, “Mr. X is bald”. You say, what do you mean? Who’s ‘Mr. X’? I say, some individual in a non-actual possible world. You say, which individual? I say, “Hard to say. I can’t point him out. I don’t have any direct access to or acquaintance with this individual. All I can do is try to describe him in a way that ensures uniqueness.” You say, “But you haven’t even done that. ‘Is bald’ is a perfectly general description. You must be thinking of a more-or-less general *type* of individual, not a singular individual.”

      The point is, securing reference to individuals in the actual world is comparatively easy. We can point to them or at least imagine God pointing to them. But when it comes to non-actual individuals there isn’t anything there for us or even God to point to. We could try to get around this by positing (a la Plantinga) an elaborate ontology of abstract world-indexed individual essences. We might suppose, with Plantinga, that all such essences “exist” (thus satisfying actualism), but that only some of them “obtain” (i.e., are instantiated). But this ontology presupposes an alethically settled future. It presupposes, for example, that it is part of my individual essence whether I freely do A or not-A at time T in world W. Molinists might be comfortable with that sort of ontology (indeed, their theory probably requires such an ontology), but I don’t think open futurists can be comfortable with it. Moreover, it suggests a kind of fatalism.

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