Concepts, Essentialism, and Nominalism …

So, Jonathan MS Pearce over a “A Tippling Philosopher” has continued to wrangle over issues about when something becomes a human being in this post, which is his last response to Clinton Wilcox. While it’s been an important theme in the series and in a lot of his other posts, this one pretty much takes it on directly, and so leaves me a fair bit to say about things.

I’m going to skip his discussion of specific religious positions, because the only reason they can be considered at all reasonable is because of his claim that they are not exhaustive and not all religious people hold them. However, I will briefly discuss his brief arguments against the idea of a soul:

I have presented, over time, many arguments against these positions. For example, the ensoulment claim suffers from arguments from IVF and monozygotic twins, which can develop weeks after an ovum becomes fertilised. For any given IVF treatment implantation, there are often some dozen or so fertilised eggs in vitro. Where are the souls? And when a zygote splits weeks after supposed ensoulment into two, what happens?

So on and so forth. There are other arguments, not least a demand for the evidence for this, and the mind-body causality issue.

The problem with these is that they might have issues for a Cartesian Dualist, addressing the issues purely philosophically. At the very least, dualists like that — of which I’m pretty much one — would want to think about them carefully and come up with some way for how they would work. However, Pearce is aiming these objections at religious concepts of the soul, and religious concepts of the soul have little problems with them because souls are not being granted by impersonal natural processes, but instead by the intelligent agency of God. Given that, it’s easy to find solutions to pretty much all of these questions except for the evidence one. For the IVF case, God can easily implant the soul directly when it is implanted. For the zygote, God can implant the soul to the new zygote when it splits. And if God says that the mind can impact the body through causation, then it can. When dealing with a purportedly omniscient and omnipotent God who is responsible for souls, these sorts of objections are nothing more than trick plays, attempting to get the religious believer to take it on with a scientific rather than theological mindset, so that they don’t see how, from their perspective, these are actually questions at all.

Yes, there are issues of evidence, but speaking as a Cartesian Dualist there are enough odd things about mind and mind-body interactions that one can’t rule it out.

But, anyway, onto the deeper philosophical issues:

Essentialism essentially (intended…) is a form of realism that states that there are properties about a human that are necessarily attributed to an entity. In this case “human being” is a very real concept that exists outside of human minds and this entity necessarily and absolutely has a core set of properties that allow it to be identified as “human being” (or “human”).

This is an issue that I ran into with Coel when talking about morality. It seems to be insisting that either what we have are subjective concepts, or else we need concepts to be “real”, as in real entities floating around somewhere to give it its objectivity. Platonic Forms — referenced later in the post — are the obvious examples of this. But it seems to me that we don’t need there to be real things floating around out there to get the sort of objectivity that we want, which is that there is a right answer that if we understood the concepts well enough we would all come to understand and agree with if we weren’t being irrational. Take “2+2=4”. We don’t need to have those numbers floating around out there to say that in base 10, that statement is always true. If we understand what 2, 4, + and = mean, we can easily see that this must be true. And if everyone in the universe believed that “2+2=5”, they would be wrong. Or else they are talking about something else, and so are using at least one of 2, 4, + or = to refer to a different concept. So either they are wrong, or are referring to other concepts where we could still evaluate whether by the concepts they are actually referring to they are right or wrong. And we can do all that without needed there to be any real objects out there.

I referred to these when talking to Coel as “conceptual truths”. And it seems to me that what we’re talking about here are precisely these sorts of things.

We love to use categories. That’s a blue flower, that’s a red car, that’s an adult, that’s a child. It’s how we navigate reality in a practical sense – it provides our conceptual map. However, you shouldn’t confuse the map with the terrain. Essentially (there it is again), we make up labels to represent a number of different properties. A cat has these properties, a dog these. Red has these properties, blue these. Often we agree on this labelling, but sometimes we don’t. What constitutes a hero? A chair? Is a tree stump a chair?

Except we don’t really do that. Or, rather, sometimes we do that, but only for things that are unimportant and generally subjective. But what we are always grasping for when we do this is, in fact, some sort of concept that we can fit these things into. When we talk about a chair, we have a concept in mind. We may loosely, at times, refer to a tree stump as a chair if we sit on it or, more likely, if we create a situation where the tree stump is fulfilling the role of a chair in a more or less permanent situation. So if we are cutting trees down and decide to sit on a stump to each lunch, we are likely to use the term “chair” to refer to the stump in a very loose and mostly humourous manner. We don’t really think that it’s a chair. If, however, we were setting up a clearing for some sort of event and deliberately cut down trees to provide stumps to provide seating, then we’d be far more likely to refer to those as “chairs”. This indicates that we aren’t just applying labels to things that merely provide a function, but are instead grasping for a concept that has essential properties. The closer the stump is to having those properties, the more likely we are to seriously consider it a chair.

Pearce is correct that our common view of the concept “chair” can be pretty vague, like most folk concepts. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an essential concept of chair. At worst, all it means is that philosophy, for good reason, hasn’t been too concerned with shaking out the details of this concept. This is not going to be the case for a concept like person.

You reach eighteen years of age. You are able to vote. You are now classed as an adult. You are allowed to buy alcoholic drinks (in the UK). But there is barely any discernible difference in you, as a person, physically and mentally, from 17 years, 364 days, 11 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds, and you 1 second later.

However, we decide to define that second change at midnight as differentiating the two yous and seeing you move from child (adolescent) to adult. These categories are arbitrary in where we exactly draw the line. Some countries choose sixteen, some younger, some older. These are conceptual constructs that allow us to navigate about a continuum of time. You can look at a five-year-old and the same person at twenty-eight and clearly see a difference. But that five-year-old and the same person one second later? There is no discernible difference.

Yes, those definitions are arbitrary … but this won’t be a surprise to anyone because we fully admit that, yes, they are arbitrary. But they aren’t completely arbitrary either. What we need to do is eliminate those cases where people aren’t physically, emotionally and/or mentally prepared to do those things. So what we are trying to do is select a time when most people are, at least, ready to do them. Yes, there are people who are ready before that point, and there are people who won’t be ready until long after that point. But at that point, most people are ready for it in the ways that count. That’s why we pick it.

Pearce appeals a lot to the Sorites Paradox, but this is instead a really good example of it and how we address it. There are ages where we know that they won’t be ready for it. And there are ages where we are quite sure that everyone would be ready for it. What we can’t determine — mostly because everyone is different — is exactly when even an individual person is actually fully ready. It’s difficult to find that exact moment when they are ready (if one even exists). So we pick a time where, as I noted, mostly people are in fact ready and use that as our dividing line. What we don’t do, as Pearce often uses the Sorites Paradox to argue for, is throw our hands in the air and say that there is no real meaning to the laws and it’s all just arbitrary. Again, we know what’s a heap and we know what isn’t a heap. That’s the core of the paradox. So we solve it by taking a case that is clear and making that the de facto dividing line. We may have heaps before that, but it’s clear that we have a heap by that point. The same thing applies to drinking laws and the like: there may be instances where someone is ready before that point, but it’s clear that most people are ready before that point.

So even though these things are arbitrary, there’s still an objective criteria that we are grasping for.

Speciation is exactly the same. There is no real time where a population of organisms actually transforms into a new species. Because species is a human conceptual construct that does not exist objectively. We name things homo sapiens sapiens but cannot define exactly where speciation occurred. In one sense, it does not occur. In another, if you look at vastly different places on the continuum, it does (at least in our minds).

But, again, while we may not be able to identify the first homo sapiens sapiens, we can pretty much say that those that exist today a clear cases of it. Thus, we at least have cases that we can point to if someone asks about that species, just as we can point to clear heaps if someone asks about them.

In philosophy, there is a position called (conceptual) nominalism, which is set against (Platonic) realism. This conceptual nominalism, as I adhere to, denies in some (or all) cases the existence of abstracts. These categories we invent don’t exist (a word that itself needs clear defining), at least not outside of our heads. Thus species do not exist as objective categories. We invent them, but if all people who knew about species suddenly died and information about them was lost, then so too would be lost the concept and categorisation.

This is the precise issue I identified above: we don’t care if they really “exist” or not outside of our heads. We care about whether there is really a right answer about them or not. Pearce — and many others — conflate the two, mostly from mistakes about the insistence that it has to exist “outside of our heads”. The rejection of subjectivism simply means rejecting the idea that the right answer can only be determined by referring to what is inside someone’s head. It doesn’t mean insisting that the things really must exist outside of it. If someone declares a single grain of sand a heap, they are wrong, no matter what the Sorites Paradox says.

This carries on into his oft-cited example of the text shifting from red to blue. We have a clear case of red at the top, and a clear case of blue at the bottom. In-between, it isn’t clear when it changes from red to purple to blue. But we still have clear cases of red and blue and even purple. If someone insists that the top text is really blue, or someone insists that we can’t know what red is because in the middle things are a bit vague and the lines are a bit blurry, they are clearly wrong. Pearce’s argument relies on us accepting that we can’t actually know what red is, but as noted even in his example we can point to the top of the text and say “That!”.

How do they know which entities “exist” and which are just human constructions? (i.e., I can invent forqwiblex – does this now exist objectively with set essential properties?)

Well, you’d have to tell me what that word refers to. Pearce here invents a word, not a concept or an entity.

Who gets to decide and arbitrate these categorisations?

Well, I think that philosophy is primarily in the business of conceptual analysis, so they’d be the right field to do that just like science is the right field to look at explicitly physical objects.

What happens at the “edges” of these categorisations?

We have ways to work that out and deal with that.

What happens when instantiations of these essences cease to exist or come into existence?

Under both the pure essentialist model and mine, nothing. For the essentialist, the entities exist independently of their instantiations and so aren’t impacted when the things participating in them go away. For me, all it means is that since we are using the concept that we know about to, in fact, identify what is or is not an instance of the concept, when it goes away it … merely goes away and we use one instance that we had identified.

What happens when these instantiations start to cease/begin to exist? (i.e, around the “edges”)

Actually, for the essentialists they would change, not cease and begin to exist. For me, it’s the same thing, only more explicit because the properties would be changing forcing a reclassification.

I don’t see these questions as being all that problematic for either of the positions, the one he is directly attacking or my alternative.

The simple evidence of the world around us supports conceptual nominalism over essentialism. Most everything exists on continua, and we argue about definitions and categorisations of everything. From morality to language, we argue. There is, descriptively speaking, inarguable subjectivity. The fact that morality broadly changes around the world and that we can see it in evolved forms throughout the animal world points towards this being a construct of the natural world and not some objectively existing Platonic form.

Well, continua aren’t an issue for even pure essentialism, and certainly aren’t an issue for my view. That people disagree on concepts doesn’t really mean much because people can be wrong. As an example, I had a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book as a child where you are trapped inside a video game, and if you lose you are trapped in a kind of prison with the other losers. They are arguing over whether “2+2=4”. Does the fact that they are arguing over it mean that the truth of “2+2=4” is subjective and there is no real answer. And in order to argue that we can see morality in the animal world suggests that Pearce has an idea of what he is talking about when he talks about morality, so that he can tell when it exists in an animal species and when it doesn’t. If it’s just a subjective label, then he can’t say that it exists in them. All he can say is that by his label they have it. This will have rather large consequences for his view of personhood if he wants to consider that a valid move.

What these labels require are properties to be attached to. Because there is no objective fact that a given label applies to a particular set of properties, we need to agree on what ones attach to which properties, and agree by consensus. When we agree, we write dictionaries and encyclopedias codifying that agreement.

Does Pearce have any evidence that this, in fact, actually happens in the real world? Because what we tend to do at the folk level when it comes to concepts is to point at things — either physically or with a list of properties or more often instances — and then encode what they have in common with each other and differ from other things in dictionaries and encyclopedias. We are always labeling something, and not just coming up with labels willy-nilly, or on the basis of some random set of “properties”.

But these things change. The Second Law of Thermodynamics has adapted to the needs of scientists …

If this is actually true, then this has grave ramifications for the Evolution/Creationism debate and science in general.

Remember, may Creationists argue that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The reply from scientists has been — not unreasonably — that they misunderstand the Second Law and its implications. But this presumes that scientists are appealing to a set law with set implications. If they are instead defining it on the basis of what makes their life easier, then any such changes can be challenged. More importantly, Creationists can easily decide to define the problematic parts out of it and use it to try to refute evolution. Heck, they can even decide to redefine evolution so that it supports their argument. Without some kind of objective criteria to say that the definition is right or wrong, how can anyone criticize them for defining it as they see fit?

It also means that people in the folk views should not, in fact, actually care about the scientific definitions. When we considered them natural kinds, then we had to accept the scientific definition, but not anymore. So the argument made by many atheists that God was wrong to call whales fish when they are “really” mammals goes away. There is no reason for the Bible — which is not a scientific text — to use the scientific notion of “whale” if it is more convenient for it to call them “fish” instead. To use a non-religious example, remember the kerfuffle a few years ago when scientists decided that Pluto was not a planet? Unless science is discovering natural kinds, there is no reason for the folk to accept that change. They can be free to maintain that Pluto really is a planet and so the number of planets in the solar system did not change. In the scientific view, if they agreed to that, it wouldn’t, but in the folk view it didn’t have to.

I’m not sure that Pearce is considering all the implications of his view.

…and the word “literally” is now a contranym whose meanings also include metaphorically, the opposite to what it traditionally means. “He was literally on fire on the football pitch” has become such a common use of the word such that it can now, according to some dictionaries, be used to mean the opposite of itself.

Earlier, Pearce accused his opponents of confusing the map for the terrain, but there can’t be a clearer example of doing that than here. Pearce is conflating the word with the concept and so insisting, to make his point, that the concept of “literally” now includes both meanings. This is false. Instead, the word now refers to two different concepts, that in some sense have opposite connotations. But we can clearly identify when the word “literally” is being used to refer to its original concept, and when it is being used to refer to the weaker one, so we can identify the concepts themselves in their usage. Further evidence of this is that this is a peculiarity of English, but other languages would not have this issues. So that the word now means both things says nothing about the concepts themselves, and that’s what Pearce needs to get at to make his case.

Also, if sports announcers are using “literally on fire” to refer to anything other than the person being on fire, then I would accuse them of using the grammar incorrectly. The reason is that using “literally” there adds nothing and leaves there being no way to express the original concept should it happen, and they have long found other ways to emphasize skill that are less confusing. And, after all, languages and grammar are primarily about communication.

Personhood is the same. It means whatever we agree it to mean.

So if we return to Wilcox and the original discussion how, under Pearce’s view, does he propose we come to an agreement on it? How can we ever in any way argue to a conclusion if the label is just whatever we want it to mean? Given the abortion debate, it looks like it’s going to come down to whomever has sufficient power or influence to force those who disagree to agree with them … or at least pretend if they do. And if that’s not the approach, can Pearce say anything about the term if someone disagrees with him? Because Wilcox and the poster before him, at least, clearly disagree.

It seems to me that conceptual nominalism results in an inability to deal with any disagreement, as that should trump any agreement or consensus. This is not surprising, considering that Pearce referred to morality as this sort of thing and this is the precise result we see if we accept subjectivist views about morality.

Can we find agreement? Undoubtedly not, because it is wrapped up with so many other things such as abortion, euthanasia, the afterlife and other ideas that have such strong cultural, religious and contextual draw that means you cannot separate it from these other frameworks in which it is set. Thus to objectively (as in neutrally) assess its meaning is almost impossible for many people.

In this way, and for the point of this, I don’t need to establish what personhood actually constitutes (for me) here.

The problem with this move is that then personhood cannot be used as an argument by anyone for anything, not just the abortion debate.

In short, essentialism struggles to solve the problems of personhood. If personhood or human being required 10 different characteristics or properties, what happens when one or more property is lacking or not in full existence?

Neither view — or the Thomist view that he references before this quote — are required to have such a simplistic notion of a concept. It can be defined by function or we can assemble various combinations to define the concept. It also ignores that the original post had a definition that include all the properties necessary for his view of personhood — or, rather, individual rights — in the blastocyst itself. The problem was not that that definition left them out. The problem was that Pearce didn’t like that definition because it included them. So essentially Pearce leaves out the definitions because he doesn’t like their implications. If he had a solid conceptual argument — like odd implications — then he’d have a case for arguing against them. Since he precludes the existence of such arguments, then it’s just that he doesn’t like them. Well, others don’t like the definitions that exclude them. Under Pearce’s view, this can never be resolved in any objective or rational way, which begs the question of how these things should be resolved.

Therefore, for me, the abortion argument is not solved easily by personhood arguments. It suffices to say that embryos most certainly don’t have personhood. And essentialism fails for all the reasons I have so often discussed.

The problem is that he can’t say that embryos most certainly don’t have personhood in any way that matters unless some sort of essentialism is true, as people strongly disagree with that and he admits that his definition (which was given above this but that I didn’t reference) is just his (and is quite controversial). So unless his last sentence is false, his second sentence is irrelevant. And he’d need to argue for why we shouldn’t appeal to personhood arguments, and by his own logic those who came up with definitions of personhood that settled it clearly one way or another would be able to solve the argument quite easily. So he needs to rely on his argument that all of these are simply subjective and meaningless … but then, again, it becomes hard to see how we could settle this debate — or any number of other ones — in any rational way whatsoever.

But, for moral reasons, I don’t want chronically and fundamentally disabled people, infants and children to be killed under the belief that they are no more valuable than rocks or planks, or some such similar claim. I don’t want this argument to be used as ammunition to justify that. I have a whole load of other moral philosophy to add, and politics, and science. If I desire the world to be a certain way, then I set rules of thumb. Morality is, for me, goal-oriented. You need to set out what sort of world you want, first.

But if all of these concepts are just consensus-driven labels, what philosophy can he add that would matter? What science can he add given that even scientific concepts need not entail outside of the consensus of science? And the politics added can only be the politics of force and influence, because anything else would require rational argument which would require concepts that are correct or incorrect, which he effectively denies we have. So by his own position, this is not at all promising.

In terms of abortion, this line, for me, is the generally accepted line informed by science.

Pearce does not seem to realize that many pro-life positions insist on following the line informed by science and many pro-choice ones insist that there is no such line. So not only is this personal, it’s far more controversial than he seems to think.

Embryos do not have personhood (either objectively or subjectively for me). Thus the abortion debate is a case of agreeing what rights there are (autonomy and bodily rights for the mother) that we can meaningfully construct, arguing that they have greater value than the rights of a clump of cells or a developing embryo, and going from there.

By his own position, embryos cannot lack personhood objectively as there’s no objective definition of personhood to agree to. The same would apply to all rights and to value itself. So by his own position, all of these moves are invalidated.

The issue with Pearce’s conceptual nominalism, at least, is that if used consistently it would eliminate all rational debate and argument over these things. Pearce can only get away with it by only applying it in very specific situations and at least acting like an essentialist in others. But this is usually a sign that a subjectivist position is invalid. If you cannot use it universally without leading to it essentially defeating itself, then it can’t be right. And I think his view essentially defeats itself.

8 Responses to “Concepts, Essentialism, and Nominalism …”

  1. Tom Says:

    I always get irritated when nominalists support their views with examples like ‘chair’, ‘table’ or ‘language’. Everyone agrees that examples like these are products of human convention and have derived (rather than intrinsic) teleology or intentionality. They don’t show that all categories are like this.

    It seems incoherent as well. The claim is that concepts are derived from minds, i.e., a kind of useful fiction. Fine, but this seems to presuppose realism about the concept of ‘mind’ to work. Is ‘mind’ derived from the mind??

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Well, I would argue that conceptually they aren’t just products of human convention. The words used for them are, but for anything identifiable we have to have a concept that we can use to identify them, and that concept would at least be reinvented if we tried to identify them again.

      As for mind, they’d invent the concept of mind the same way, by a somewhat arbitrary collection of properties, one of which is the ability to create these fictions.

      • Tom Says:

        1. Well, okay, but let’s take the example of ‘chair’. Let’s say I use a tree stump as a chair. To call it a ‘chair’ involves final causation, insofar as a chair is for sitting. But it only has that property if I use if that way. What makes it a ‘chair’ isn’t intrinsic to the thing involved, but derived from human purposes.

        2. I don’t understand this at all. The claim is that these categories are human constructs created by the mind, but we’re going to then say that ‘mind’ is created by properties which include ‘the ability to create these fictions’? Kind of strange.

        I haven’t thought this out that throughly, but this whole point of view seems to me to potentially collapse into idealism….

      • verbosestoic Says:

        1) Well, I would argue that as soon as you say that you can identify a category of something, then you can identify a unique concept of it. And that concept isn’t strictly functional. For example, we know that there are other things that we can sit on or that are designed to be sat on that aren’t chairs, like seats in a car. And if someone tries to create a decorative chair that you can’t actually sit on, is it suddenly not a chair?

        Sussing out all the differences is tricky and there are some gray areas, but I’d argue that in principle we have to be able to do it or else we couldn’t have any ability to say with any real meaning that something is a chair or that it isn’t a chair.

        2) Their view is problematic, but in the normal way that it isn’t clear how they’d objectively segment out some properties as being completely mental or not. But given the ability to assign properties as they want. they can easily create a notion of mind that includes that ability and some others.

  2. jayman777 Says:

    The issue with Pearce’s conceptual nominalism, at least, is that if used consistently it would eliminate all rational debate and argument over these things. Pearce can only get away with it by only applying it in very specific situations and at least acting like an essentialist in others. But this is usually a sign that a subjectivist position is invalid. If you cannot use it universally without leading to it essentially defeating itself, then it can’t be right. And I think his view essentially defeats itself.

    That’s my basic conclusion regarding his position too. It’s entirely self defeating and undermines all of his positions if held consistently. It’s his go-to response to attack positions he does not hold but is nowhere to be found when he wants to support his own positions.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’ve pretty much found all subjectivist positions end up this way: there’s no right or wrong answers until they think they have a right answer or you have a wrong answer. Then at worst their answer is obvious, and at best they start carving out some sort of exceptions to deal with it.

  3. A Defense of Conceputalism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] the characteristics you still have the same concept.  I have talked a bit about nominalism before, in reference to Jonathan MS Pearce’s view.  So if I change the concept of tree in such a way that it isn’t compatible with what we […]

  4. A Defense of Conceputalism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] characteristics you still have the same concept.  I have talked a bit about nominalism before, in reference to Jonathan MS Pearce’s view.  So if I change the concept of tree in such a way that it isn’t compatible with what we […]

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