Thursday, November 7, 2013

Essays on identity and events

To: Stuart B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on identity and events
Date: 27th January 2011 12:41

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your email of 14 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Metaphysics module, in response to the question, ''A statue and the lump fo clay of which it is made are two different objects existing at the same place and time.' Discuss', and your email of 23 January with your Metaphysics essay, 'Are events particulars?'

The statue and the lump of clay

This is a very well researched piece, in which you also get the chance to express your own judgement from a conceptualist perspective, as well as putting the case for common sense.

Reading through the various theories and proposals, I do get the strong impression that contemporary philosophy is burrowing ever deeper into scholasticism. I would despair of trying to explain to a beginning student in philosophy why on earth so much fuss should be made about the statue and the lump of clay.

Possibly, a stronger motivation could be derived from considering wider implications for other positions in metaphysics and ontology. Your responses to views you don't like are mostly along the lines of, 'this doesn't look very plausible to me'. I agree, but still the doubt remains about why one would feel the need to make what seem on the surface very implausible claims.

First, a niggle. You present Geach's 'relative identity' thesis last, as this is closest to your favoured account. In point of fact, Wiggins formulated his theory (originally in 'Identity and Spatio-temporal Continuity', later expanded in 'Sameness and Substance') as a riposte to Geach's claims about relative identity in 'Reference and Generality'.

You make the right response (if I am interpreting you correctly) however: that Geach's theory can be defended against Wiggins' charge that he violates Leibniz Law (which you mis-state, I'll get onto that in a minute) if we populate our 'universe of discourse' with the end result of all possible ways of distinguishing objects from one another. In Quine's terms, objects are the 'logical minima', the end result of distinguishing everything that can be distinguished. Relative identity is a device for getting along in the real world, where we don't need to analyse things down to the bone, and in that way, it is closer to common sense.

The idea that x can be the same F as y but not the same G as y (i.e. identity is relative to sortal) is one that Wiggins directly takes up: his 'constitution view' depends precisely on the claim that all spatio-temporal identity is identity under a covering sortal. I like Wiggins' view, perhaps because I 'grew up' on it, although I'm also happy to combine this with a Lewisian slackness (for want of a better term) which would allow that, e.g., a 'person' can be identified with a 'life history' (series of person-stages) so that, if it should happen in the future that I go into a person-duplicating machine and come out the other side as ten identical GK's, then, retrospectively, ten 'persons' were writing these very words to you, not one. A person is not a body, just as a statue is not a lump. (Your highway analogy helps: The piece of road I am driving down now is in fact ten different routes, depending on where I decide to turn off; the ten GK's are ten 'life histories in the making' which all began at the same point.)

With the appropriate sortals, everything is 'sorted'. No problem at all. As for common sense, if this really became a possibility we'd get used to it in time, we would learn a new way of speaking about 'persons'.

Off the top of my head, here's a possible 'common sense' defence of the claim in the essay title. Jack lends Jane a lump of clay, which Jane makes into a statue. Jack then asks Jane to give him back his lump of clay and Jane refuses because, 'the statue is mine, not yours'. Meanwhile, an astute warehouse foreman insists on charging Jack the statutory 10 Dollars a day for housing his lump of clay (for five days) and charging Jane 20 Dollars a day for housing her statue (for two days). Both must pay up or give up their ownership claims.

You stated Leibniz Law incorrectly, rendering your argument on page 1 logically invalid.

'Leibniz Law' (so-called): If a=b then (F)(Fa <-> Fb)

Identity of Indiscernibles: If (F)(Fa <-> Fb) then a=b

Statue is not identical to Lump because Statue has a property which Lump lacks, by modus tolens on Leibniz Law. The stronger claim of the Identity of Indiscernibles doesn't come into this argument at all. Your argument commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent.

Are events particulars?

I liked the emphasis here on Davidson's point that parsimony is not always conducive to clarity. Some metaphysical theories are just too parsimonious for their own good.

Possibly, one way to get clearer about this issue is to consider the difference between the role Occam's Razor plays in theory formation in science and the role it plays in philosophy. According to Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, the 'truth' of Occam's Razor reduces to the formula, 'If a sign is useless, it is meaningless.' In Philosophical Investigations the idea resurfaces, e.g. in the famous quote about the hypothesis which is a 'knob which turns, although nothing in the mechanism turns with it.'

This is the fear that drives the quest for ontological parsimony in metaphysics. Not that your theory will be less simple or elegant than its competitors; but that you will in fact be talking nonsense, erecting distinctions where no real differences exist in reality on which to base those distinctions.

From this perspective, I share your puzzlement about philosophers who want to reduce events to something else. Presumably, the idea is that if common sense talk of 'events' is only a convenience, a shorthand, then the aim of metaphysics must be to get down to the real 'workings' underneath the appearance of language, in order to see what is really going on there (e.g. Kim's property-exemplification theory).

A lot depends on how successful this reduction is. I would have liked to have seen your point about 'dynamism' expanded. If it really is true that theories like the exemplification theory lose dynamism, then they have not succeeded in establishing what they set out to accomplish -- unless the proponents are willing to reject intuitions about dynamism as somehow illusory. (Bergson would say that the anti-dynamists hold a false 'cinematographic' view of time, according to which temporal flow can be reduced to a temporal series of 'still images'.)

In referring to Terence Horgan's view, you might have mentioned that Davidson claims to have a knock-down logical refutation of the view that causal relations can be understood as a form of sentential connective. I guess that one reason why Horgan's proposal has resurfaced is justified qualms about the validity of Davidson's knock-down argument. (I am tempted to say that Davidson was just making a side-swipe here, and the main thrust of his argument is that postulating events clarifies and eases the project of developing an analysis of natural language idioms in first-order predicate logic.)

I've raised before the question whether the variability in event identification might be greater than that in the identification of spatio-temporal particulars: in a sense, we can be 'more' conceptualist about events than we can be about spatio-temporal particulars, their identification is more sensitive to different interests. So, even though events are rightly regarded as 'particulars', they are less fundamental than spatio-temporal particulars.

I should also mention here Strawson's argument in 'Individuals' (as I may have done before) for the necessary 'primacy' of spatio-temporal particulars: a 'conceptual scheme' in which events rather than spatio-temporal particulars were 'primary' could never get off the ground. (Strawson's implicit target here is Whitehead's theory -- there are still whole departments of philosophy in the US devoted to so-called 'process philosophy'.)

All the best,

Geoffrey