I was inspired by this question, and in particular this section of user259242's answer:

Type identity physicalism says mental states are identical with brain states. Eliminativism on the other hand states that mental states don't exist at all.

Isn't this just a word game? Does it really matter whether we say "Super-Man is identical to Clark Kent" or whether we say "Super-Man doesn't really exist, only Clark Kent does"?

You describe with dazzling precision the exact difference between the two positions. And so you ask a further question (I take it to be the real question): Isn't this a word game?. I suppose that it is, in the same way that the statements "the Earth is round" and "the Earth is flat" differ only as part of a mere 'word-game', if that refers simply to the fact that 'round' and 'flat' are words.

While I understand the point, I'm struggling with the idea that the Superman question is as much a semantic argument as the flat earth. What we mean when we say the earth is round is that it fits a set of criteria, e.g. if you measure the distance between two points, the path along a certain arc is shorter than a straight line. We can define roundness completely in terms of observations you can make about the object in question. However, it doesn't seem possible to observe that something exists. In particular, two people can make the same observations about an object and then proceed to disagree about whether it exists. How could it be that what the two people disagree about is not simply the meaning of the word "exist"?

Consider a question like, "Does Santa Claus exist?" My personal inclination is to be kind of a pluralist, and say that there is some sense in which Santa does not exist, but also a sense in which he does exist (as a fictional character). These two options do not seem to me like metaphysical statements, but rather describing the same situation in two different ways using two different meanings of the word "exist".

If my question seems rambling or it's unclear what I'm asking, it's because I feel profoundly confused on this point.

  • There is a difference between a "word-game" and what Wittgenstein calls a "language game". If there is relevance testing involved, and people compete to be 'right' about something, you have moved from a 'word-game" to a "language game". The word 'round' has much more testability than the word 'exists', even though it is just a linguistic convention and we can say something is or is not 'round enough' to be 'round'. After all, we cannot identify many things we are sure do or do not exist. We might just always be looking in the wrong places. So there is semantics, and there is semantics. – jobermark Feb 3 '16 at 19:43
  • (This is in the sense that the purpose of philosophy (in one framing of Wittgenstein's) is to stop cheating at language games but still leave reality exactly as it is.) – jobermark Feb 3 '16 at 19:49
  • @jobermark What is meant by "cheating at language games"? – Era Feb 3 '16 at 19:55
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    A wide range of things. If you check out something like the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein's main contributions to historical arguments is to dissolve them by identifying where different people are interpreting the same things in different ways, and pretending otherwise. Framing this kind of thing as a 'game' different camps are competing for different amendments to the 'rules', usually while both evade reality testing. – jobermark Feb 3 '16 at 20:03
  • I guess my point is that yes, most of philosophy is semantics. But we are language-based social animals and semantics is the primary component of life. So dismissing a philosophical argument as 'semantics' does not accomplish anything unless you build the clarity that allows the semantic disconnect between the parties to go away. (If I am going to write a three -paragraph comment, I sould write an answer, so these may disappear.) – jobermark Feb 3 '16 at 20:09

Some philosophers (which are called realists) hold that some questions about existence are not merely semantic. They might point to, for example, "natural rights" as a thing that really exists independent of language or an individual or society's concepts. For realists, this distinction is not a matter of semantics - it allows one to say that such-and-such an action is wrong because it violates "natural rights."

Some of these questions, as you point out correctly, get into different sorts of existence: whether something exists in fiction, presently, historically, in the future, etc., are all different senses of what it means for something "to exist."

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