Or, really, any line of reasoning that seems to ideologically commit us to some sort of ontology that we have no clear-and-substantive relation with? This book from the Cambridge University Press mentions differentiating trivially and nontrivially existent pure numbers (and this arxiv.org essay uses the same phrase, albeit with a perhaps different attached sense). On the other hand, such an option does not appear to be pursued in the SEP article on existence per se, although one might stretch the Meinongian distinction between being and existence in such a manner.

C.f. §4.2 of the SEP entry on quantification:

Quine (1948) explicitly characterizes ontology as an attempt to answer the question “what is there?” As he observed, the question may seem deceptively simple, since it may be answered in a word: “everything”. The problem with this answer is that it is largely uninformative. All parties agree that everything is something, but there is still plenty of room of disagreement as to what kinds of objects are there.

Questions for which the answers are absolutely unrestricted are of the kind we elsewise seem to use the word "trivial" to refer to (e.g. trivialism itself is the doctrine that every proposition is true). And so then Quine might be parsed as thinking that existence, as such, is by the by a trivial matter. (He had various issues with modal discourse, so perhaps he really did think modality as a whole is a trivial set of conditions.) I mean, we could rephrase Quine like so:

"What is possible?" "Why, everything."

And it has been said time and again in discussions of omnipotence, for example, that if incoherent descriptions cancel out their intended content, then they do not possibly refer to any integrated descriptum, and so whenever, "Everything," possibly refers, it refers to something itself possible as such: so that possibility as much as, or perhaps even moreso than, actuality is trivialized.

Supposing that a notion of trivial ontology is already current in the literature, does this allow us to move rapidly to a concept of nontrivial ontology, whereby e.g. ontological arguments are undermined insofar as they conflate trivial and nontrivial actuality? I'm not quite sure about this option, appealing as it is, because I'm also unsure how far apart the analytic/synthetic distinction is from the trivial/nontrivial one, and Kant, then, squarely places existential claims on the synthetical, and hence perhaps exactly nontrivial, side of these distinctions.

EDIT: by mentioning trivialism, I did not mean to be arguing for trivialism, but I was using it as an example of how we define triviality in terms of unrestricted options for answers. We often define triviality in terms of things like generic identity, e.g. a trivial elementary embedding is one where j(X) = X, for all X. But then c.f. Frege's universal number: the number of things obeying the law of identity (again, "everything"). My concern with Quine's, "Everything exists," is that this seems to make existence trivial in that, "Some things don't exist," is then always false, and existence is made into something that applies to everything without distinction.

Or then we might think over the difference between the phrase "possible worlds" and the phrase "accessible worlds":

Every world is possible (unless there are impossible worlds, although then we might speak of those as externally possible nevertheless), but not every world is accessible. In fact, the accessibility relation should not be stated "just like that" but always with a qualification like "X is accessible from Y" (by contrast, we could write "X is possible" without reference to any Y).

Similarly, letting ○ and ◊ be actuality and possibility, the inference ◊A → ○◊A is a trivial inference, hence indicates a trivial kind of actuality (I would suppose). Then, against Plantinga's ontological argument, we might say, "It is true that God is actual in all possible worlds, including ours, but this is only insofar as we speak of trivial actuality; substantive actuality is lacking, for God's own world is not accessible from any other possible world" (because divine eternity is not something that creatures are supposed to be able to directly participate in, but there is always to be a gulf between us and It, supposedly).

  • "line of reasoning to ideologically commit us to some ontology we have no clear-and-substantive relation with". Do we ever have no clear-and-substantive relation to some ontology? I think that's my issue here. For platonic mathematical objects they might appear without substantive relation at first. But there are believable responses that have at least some substantivity (imo), indispensability and epistemic happenstance. The former, it's part of our best theories, the latter, Balaguer and Beall, "Any mathematical entity that can exist does exist" entailments.net/papers/fbplatonism.pdf
    – J Kusin
    Jul 14 at 5:58
  • And to avoid Quine's everything exists ontology, which does seem less substantive than indispensability, perhaps we can borrow from Eleatic monism and its wisdom against confusing non-being with being. Such as, non-being can't be spoken about. We can't find/quantify something which doesn't exist, in agreement with Quine, and that's all we can say. Yet, I'm not sure I would call that "everything exists", example Parmenides didn't think being is infinite. Meinongianism seems substantive. Kind of a jaunted response but I don't think I can answer fully.
    – J Kusin
    Jul 14 at 6:28
  • @JKusin I'd probably have to have degrees or ranges of triviality/nontriviality, incl. a vague boundary "somewhere." And/or an inherently underdeterminate quantifier, something like "not zero" but which doesn't automatically mean "at least one" (perhaps, like Kantian ding an sich, there might be things such that we can't know if they have some internal property that necessitates a baseline plurality of them or if it would be possible for one of them to exist on its own (e.g., it seems as though, if numbers exist at all, there can't be just one of them)). Jul 14 at 6:50
  • I envision this rejoinder to Descartes (if not Anselm): "I grant that God necessarily exists, but I do not grant that the 'proof' of this is such as to prove more than trivial necessity and then trivial actuality." The Anselmian will want to say, "Ah, but it is greater to exist nontrivially than merely trivially," but then here we would press the Kantian response, that consciousness of nontrivial existence can't be illuminated by generalized discursion but must be accompanied by tangible omnipresence (although then we might part with Kant in claiming to have disproven God's existence as such). Jul 14 at 6:55
  • 1
    @ScottRowe I used a subscript typeface program to do "existence_trivial" and "existence_nontrivial" there. It displays the lettering, kind off-kilter, on my browser; but it's showing up as boxes on yours? It might be one of those Unicode kind of gap problems... Jul 14 at 23:53

2 Answers 2


Another nice question, Kristian. I am not convinced that bearing in mind the distinction between trivial and non-trivial is enough to cut through the Gordian knot of ontological controversy. I recommend instead that you consider the fact that the word 'exist' is hopelessly equivocal, and the possibility that many of the questions of ontology arise from that very vagueness. Does the Moon exist? Do Platonic solids exist? Clearly they do not all exist in the same sense. Kant's analytic/synthetic distinction is just one of many criteria that could be used to differentiate more clearly the blurred and overlapping senses of the word exist. I think it is folly to assume that all shades of 'existence' can be adequately represented in just two categories.

  • You're right, I wouldn't want "existence A" and "existence B" to be all there was to it; but I wonder if that difference would, on its own terms, be enough to deflect Meinongianism/Anselmianism(?). Or, then, how useful of an alternative to "existence as a quantifier" that the distinction would be (although then every relevant quantifier might be interposed with a relevant qualifier, in line with your observation about avoiding an oversimplistic dichotomy). Jul 14 at 14:08
  • That's a good clarification. I will need to stew on it! Best wishes. Jul 14 at 16:37
  • It exists if you can kick it. Otherwise, it is useful.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 14 at 22:04

Problem 1: Trivialism

Trivialism, similar to dialetheism, are sustained upon the assumption that everything can be false and true.

Such configuration of Logic is in fact possible, simply due to the principle of explosion, given that rational contradictions exist and are common, a trivial example being Kant's Antinomies of Pure Reason (which reads "metaphysical contradictions at the foundations of our understanding").

Trivialism is not approached from such perspective, but the principle of explosion is enough for trivialism to be valid. Anyway, there are multiple philosophical facts that sustain trivialism, the explosion approach being just one of many. Metaphysical Relativism can be another strong argument.

Remember that Logic is the formal expression of the rules of thinking. Thinking is what Reason does. What is the rule that provides Logic of consistency? Logic itself. Therefore, Logic is tautological, circular (cf. Russell). Having said that, it is important to remark that Reason does not strictly apply Logic. Individuals which logical issues are reflected in their behavior are less prone to survival (e.g. I want to live forever, then I bang my head on the wall: evidently, here's a logical issue that will lead me to death; in general, individual contradictions just decrease the probabilities of survival).

So, strictly, it can be proven that Logic is broken.

However, proving that Logic is broken does not provide any solution, and here's the core problem: a solution for what? What do we want to prove by removing Logic?

Logic becomes necessary by means of a teleological argument: it determines our existence. In simple words, Logic exists for us to survive. Some philosophers, like Russell, sustain that Logic is necessary to gather experience, that is, to live, that is, to survive. So, we pragmatically need the portion of Logic that is consistent, that holds as a consistent structure of truth. This point about this teleological sustain is debatable, but I personally consider the most valid so far.

Thus, we need Logic to survive. Logically, destroying Logic could lead us to perish. The answer to the question proving that Logic is broken provides a solution for what? is nothing, except pure metaphysical contemplation.

Though, here we are, with our broken system of Logic, still alive. That is the fact that removes Trivialism of any need for it.

In simple terms, Trivialism is self-destructive, starting from the fact that by definition, Trivialism forces itself to be (true and) false.

Problem 2: Ontology

The ontological discipline is viced of multiple problems. In simple words, anything that exists, exists in two contexts, as an object (e.g. the moon, with its weight with 22 zeros, including every atom in it), and as a subject (e.g. the moon, as a circle or a banana-like shape, related with obscurity, a clear sky, white light, etc.). I don't even mention Kant, for whom existence occurs in three contexts: Transcendental Aesthetic, Analytic, Dialectic, because clearly such approach is absolutely subjective and metaphysical (well, that was his goal), which destroys the possibility of an ontology of nature.

Ontology dismisses the possibility of the subject. Only in such case, things can exist per se, and an ontological argument can be formulated.

However, as soon as the subject is considered, pure ontology is not possible. How can a rainbow exist, if there's no a human physical body, located at a certain distance of a rain and the sun? How can it exist, if there would be no eyes and brain producing colors? How can it get the characteristic arc shape, if there's no human reason that recognizes it as an arc? This example might be a strong Meinongianist argument.

That's why ontology is usually not considered anymore as a consistent discipline in philosophy. This, in favor of epistemology (the approach that admits the subject and the object in the formation of knowledge), or even phenomenology. Personally, I see this is the key issue, expressed academically as the problem of ontological commitment. However, there are more issues: the problems of identity (everything changes permanently, how can something exist?), vagueness (language is imprecise), existence (what is the meaning of existence), universals (are even properties possible?), etc.

  • Animals and plants seem to get by ok without logic or reason. Stars are incredibly successful.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jul 14 at 22:07

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