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#279 Is Having Properties a Criterion for Existence?

August 19, 2012

Dear Dr. Craig,

In your most recent post, you wrote, "I'm inclined to say that ... properties don't really exist."

However, if the having of properties is a necessary criteria for being, then it follows that:

1. If something exists, it has one or more properties.

2. If God exists, He has one or more properties.

3. Properties do not exist.

4. God has no properties.

5. God does not exist.

Of course, I don't accept the premise that properties do not exist, so I wouldn't arrive at atheism. But since you deny the existence of properties, aren't you denying the existence of God? In fact, you'd be denying the existence of all things, which is an absurdity, for surely you must exist to deny anything else.

So I can only conclude that your idea of existence doesn't require the having of properties. If that's so, what criteria constitutes existence?

Furthermore, I hope you have a better answer than to just say that properties are "useful fictions". I fail to see how a fictitious something or other can constitute a criteria for existence. One may as well appeal to a "blark" as a criteria for existence. My intent is not to be snarky, because I have the utmost respect for you and your work. However, I find your denial of properties as highly problematic. It appears more reasonable to accept the reality of properties, but to redefine them, if necessary, in a way that doesn't appeal to platonism.

Finally, I realize that the having of properties as a criteria for existence raises a problem of infinite regress (if a property exists, does IT have a property? And does its property have a property, ad infinitum?), but it seems any criteria we suggest will fall prey to the problem of self-reference.


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Dr. craig’s response


The answer to your question, Frank, depends on how metaphysically serious you are in talking about properties. At the metaphysically light level of ordinary discourse, of course things have properties. I have the properties of being a certain weight, of being married, of being Caucasian, of being a certain age, etc. Property talk in this light sense is just another way of saying that I weigh a certain amount, that I am married, that I am Caucasian, etc. This sort of talk should not be invested with metaphysical significance. That this is so is evident from the fact that even things that don’t exist (except, again, in a metaphysically light sense!) also can be said to have properties. For example, the hole in my shirt has the properties of having a certain diameter and a certain location; but I don’t think that in addition to my shirt, there is another entity, namely, the hole. Wednesday has the property of being between Tuesday and Thursday, but I don’t think that a socially-constructed reality like Wednesdays really exist. Ordinary property talk is just a façon de parler from which we shouldn’t draw grandiose metaphysical conclusions.

But suppose that one day in the metaphysics seminar, someone presses you, “Oh, so you believe that properties really exist! So tell me, how do these causally effete objects existing beyond space and time make any difference to us?” Suddenly, you may want to back away from your talk about properties or explain that such talk is not to be taken metaphysically seriously.

The famous philosopher Rudolf Carnap made a fundamental distinction here that many have found helpful. Carnap distinguished between what he called “internal questions,” that is to say, questions about the existence of certain entities asked within a given linguistic framework, and “external questions,” that is, questions concerning the existence of those entities posed from a vantage point outside that framework.[1] Carnap illustrates his distinction by appeal to what he calls the “thing” linguistic framework. Once we have adopted the thing-language of a spatio-temporally ordered system of observable things, we can meaningfully raise internal questions like “How many things are there on my desk?” or “Is the Moon a thing?” Such internal questions are to be distinguished from the external question of the reality of things. Someone who rejects the thing-framework may choose a framework in which one speaks, not of things, but of events or merely sense data.

Carnap also applies his distinction to linguistic frameworks involving terminology for abstract objects like numbers, propositions, and properties. Consider, for example, the linguistic framework of mathematics. Inside that framework, it would be absurd to deny that there is an even number equal to 2+2. But when the metaphysician asks, “Are there numbers?” he is asking an external question, not an internal question.

So consider the linguistic framework of property talk. Once one has adopted such property-talk, answering the question of whether I have the property of weighing 160 lbs. is just a matter of stepping on the scale. Such internal property talk doesn’t commit one concerning the external question of whether properties exist.

Now with that distinction in mind, consider your argument. The problem is that it vacillates between talking about properties from an internal perspective and talking about properties from an external perspective. With respect to your first premiss

1. If something exists, it has one or more properties.

I’d agree when speaking within the linguistic framework of property talk. But then in premiss (3)

3. Properties do not exist.

you’ve switched to metaphysically heavy talk from a standpoint outside the framework! From that external vantage point, the first premiss is not true.[2] Things do not have properties because there are no such things as properties. Obviously, that doesn’t imply, e.g., that it is false that I weigh 160 lbs., am married, am Caucasian, etc.

Then in premiss (4)

4. God has no properties.

you revert to speaking within the linguistic framework of property-talk. For from an external perspective (4) is unobjectionable. God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and all the rest without standing in some mysterious exemplification relation to abstract objects beyond space and time that serve somehow to make Him the way He is.

I suppose that this is just a roundabout way of saying that your argument seems to be guilty of the fallacy of equivocation.

So what is the criterion of existence? Notice that one needn’t have an answer to this question to see where your argument goes wrong. But the Concretist—that is, someone who believes that only concrete objects exist—has a ready answer to your question. Since what serves to distinguish abstract objects from concrete objects in the view of most philosophers is that abstract objects are essentially causally impotent, it follows that causal potency is the criterion of what exists. This provides us with a perspicuous criterion for what exists that does not involve any problems of self-reference, so far as I can see.

Now if you want to re-define properties in such a way that they are not abstract objects, you’re welcome to do so. It’s platonism that I find theologically objectionable. But then you’ll need to face the philosophical objections of thinkers like my colleague J. P. Moreland to all such empiricist construals of properties.[3]

  • [1]

    Rudolf Carnap, “Meaning and Necessity:” A Study in Semantics and Modal Logic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 206. As a Verificationist, Carnap thought that external questions are meaningless, but contemporary philosophers who find his distinction helpful part company with him on that score. Such metaphysical questions are both meaningful and important.

  • [2]

    In fact, from an external vantage point, I’d say that the converse of (1) is true:

    1´. If something has one or more properties, then that thing exists.

    That is why I am not a neo-Meinongian (from the Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong). Neo-Meinongians believe that non-entities have properties, which strikes me as metaphysically absurd. The view that only existent things have properties is called “serious actualism.” Of course, I think that the antecedent of (1´) is false, so that having properties is a sufficient but not a necessary condition of existence.


  • [3]

    J. P. Moreland, Universals, Central Problems of Philosophy (Chesham, England: Acumen, 2001).

- William Lane Craig