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Fine - A Counter-Example to Locke's Thesis
(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)
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This essay is a review of "Fine (Kit) - A Counter-Example To Locke's Thesis".
Author’s Abstract: Locke's thesis states that no two things of the same sort can be in the same place at the same time. The thesis has recently received extensive discussion, with some philosophers attempting to find arguments in its favour and others attempting to provide counter-examples. However, neither the arguments nor the counter-examples have been especially convincing; and it is my aim, in this short note, to present what I believe is a more convincing counter-example to the thesis.
Fine notes that those who disagree with Locke’s thesis include:-
… while those that support it include:-
- Why do I care about this paper? Would I be more comfortable, metaphysically speaking, if its conclusions were true or false? This paper was referenced in "Fine (Kit) - The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter", which I was reviewing1, and which argues that a physical thing and its matter are distinct, yet co-located. Fine, in a footnote, claims that bolder assertions are also true – namely that physical things of the same sort can be co-located, even necessarily so. I was hoping that this short paper would shed light on Fine’s commitments that might make the longer and more difficult paper easier to understand and assess. It is disappointing in this respect, because Fine doesn’t consider the linguistic arguments in favour of monism that are addressed at length in the later paper. It is, however, interesting in its own right. Ultimately, my concerns are to do with personal identity, and at the end of this discussion I consider some of the possible consequences the paper has for this area of research.
- In the paper presently under discussion, Fine wants to show that it is possible for two physical things of the same sort to be co-located. His example is of a pair of letters – epistles, not alphabetic characters – sent between a husband and wife. The outgoing letter is written on one side of the paper and the returning letter on the other.
- For some reason not explained, the writing is effected by scorch-marks rather than by pen and ink. Presumably the intent is not to modify the paper by the addition of extraneous matter – ink – that might lead to the quibble that as a result the returning letter was not the same physical thing as the outgoing letter. Alternatively, the complaint might be that the husband’s letter consists in the paper and his ink, while the wife’s consists in the paper and her ink (or, maybe, the husband’s ink is already part of the wife’s letter’s infrastructure by this stage – though this asymmetrical view is harder to maintain), and consequently that the two letters are non-coincident and non-identical. Using scorching may be an attempt to finesse this issue, and while scorching does modify the paper – by oxidising it – it is less obvious that any writer’s letter “exclusively owns” the additional oxygen bound to its side. So, while the physical thing changes following each inscripturation, it’s not so obviously arguable in the case of scorching that there are two partially overlapping but non-identical physical things at the end of the process.
- The critic could dig his heels in and say firstly that inscripturation necessarily modifies the physical structure of the paper, and secondly that a letter necessarily consists in the piece of paper plus or minus whatever matter has been added (in the normal case) or subtracted (in the case of incised writing) in the process of writing the letter.
- The first claim is probably true, and is important because we are talking about physical things. However,
- Modifying the physical structure does not necessarily involve adding or subtracting matter – it could involve a simple rearrangement (as is suggested later in this paper).
- Moreover, we might argue that we might still say something despite no change whatsoever to either the matter or the structure of the original letter, to the effect that “I have nothing to say”, “it’s over” or an open-ended set of possibilities based on past history. This would arise in case the husband’s letter is simply returned. The meaning of a letter is dependent on many factors external to it, and to the manner and context of its sending. What is not said can be as significant as what is said.
- Finally, it might even be possible to send a null (physical) letter. In The Poisoner (a French-language film set in post-war France – see Wikipedia: Marie Besnard for the real-life background) the accused, acquitted and now demised Madame Besnard bequeaths to Simone (a reporter) a letter that Simone hopes will explain all. Yet the envelope is empty, heightening the uncertainty about her guilt. This null letter conveys information – though whether it is a tacit admission of guilt (in that the final opportunity for self-exculpation has been let slip), or simple playfulness remains unclear and might depend on a tacit understanding between Madame Besnard and Simone. Note that while in this example it might claimed that the envelope is part of the letter, and thus that the letter is not null, the text is null.
- The second claim is not implausible, but does not apply in the case of inscripturation by rearrangement. But even if it is correct, there may be better objections to Fine’s example, based either on an alleged confusion of a letter as a physical thing and as a kind of universal, or on the notion of constitution. We will come back to these possibilities later.
- Fine’s first example therefore purports to show that we can have two distinct physical things of the same sort – the husband’s letter and the wife’s letter – that occupy the same place at the same time. He gives the obvious reasons why this is the case for all four aspects of the claim. These are:-
- The two objects are of the same sort.
- They are coincident – at least at certain times.
- They are distinct.
- They are physical things.
- Drawing parallels with the distinctions between extreme, moderate and mild monists made in "Fine (Kit) - The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter", this example is analogous to a counter-example to the position exemplified by the extreme monist, who identifies “two” things if “they” coincide at any time or times (but does not insist that they have to do so at all times).
- Note, however, that monism is a view about a thing and its matter, not about co-located items of the same sort. Even so, the three-fold analogy is worth pursuing.
- Fine next considers a second case analogous to that rejected by the moderate monist who only makes the identification if the coincidence occurs at all times within a world, and where both exist in that world at all times where either does. This case is set up by two people simultaneously scorching their messages on different sides of a piece of parchment stopping a hole in a wall.
- Finally, Fine considers a third case analogous to those rejected by the mild monist, who only makes the identification if the coincidence occurs at all times within all possible worlds. This case involves writing two letters simultaneously in two languages (Prittle and Prattle) that happen to coincide as far as their written text is concerned (in this short letter) but diverge as far as their meaning is concerned. So, while there is only one act of writing, and only one written text, two letters with different meanings are written. Fine claims that at all times in all possible worlds we have two distinct physical objects of the same sort occupying the same place at all times at which either exists.
- So, what, if anything, is wrong with these examples? The extreme and moderate forms are essentially analogous, while the mild case requires additional special treatment.
- Problems with the extreme and moderate examples: we need to consider the four “pillars” of the argument – I don’t think there are any other points at which we might cavil.
- Same Sort: no problems that I can see. They are letters and LETTER is a sort.
- Coincidence: I think we can get round any of the problems alluded to above. We might, for instance, build our letters out of micro-Lego so that writing the letter just involves rearranging some surface pieces.
- Distinctness: here, we have to be clear on just what things are distinct, if they are indeed distinct. Qua physical object, we might argue that only one thing is present. Qua universal, there are two things present. While universals aren’t actually physically located anywhere, tokens of them can be. So, we might claim that a single physical thing is a token of two different universals. While there are two universals tokened, there is only one physical thing that tokens both. This explanation seems especially attractive in the mild monist example and leads on to the discussion in the following bullet. Alternatively, we might say that there is one physical thing present, which admittedly changes over time as physical things do, but that it constitutes first one letter, and then two letters. We might leave it open whether the letter that is constituted is itself a physical thing, but the usual position (eg. that of Lynne Rudder Baker) would be that it is a physical thing, and a distinct physical thing (though not of the same sort), but not something so distinct from the thing that constitutes it that we have to count two things.
- Physical things: a letter, and what counts as the same letter, is subject to ambiguity. Letters are both particulars and universals. Take St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This was once a physical letter written on papyrus. The original physical letter has long-since ceased to exist, but many copies (or copies of copies of ... copies) of it still exist. All of these are imperfect copies, no doubt. Some of the copies are now on computer disks and some very imperfect ones will be in peoples’ memories. To what does the term “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans” (or, for that matter, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet”) presently refer? Not, I would suggest, to some long-lost manuscript, or some particular copy of a definitive published edition, but to a virtual text, the precise contents of which is a bit fuzzy. Maybe there’s (at any time) a true text “in the light of the best current scholarship”, so that the logical letter can evolve over time (as the “standard text” changes), just as – though in a different way – the physical letter can evolve over time (by having another letter written on the back, by being used as a palimpsest, or simply by becoming tatty).
- Is this particular / universal distinction really relevant here? To demonstrate that we have two physical things in the same place at the same time, Fine asks to what would we point when asked where the first letter is, and where the second letter, and it would indeed be to the same physical thing. But if asked of a computer image, or a photograph, whether this is the first letter, we would have to agree (provided it was a true representation). Now, is this a right analogy? Is it the letter, or an image of the letter, or a copy of the letter that we point out when we point to some physical thing other than the physical thing on to which the author’s definitive text was first splurged out? That is, on seeing a true photocopy, and being asked whether it is the letter I wrote, should I reply yes or no? Does the question relate to the text or the thing?
- Consider letters written by famous people. What the collector is after here is the autograph – that particular physical thing that the famous hand wrote on, together with the marks actually made. Different tokens in the author’s hand might be equally valuable, but a mere photocopy would not be. Alternatively, take Leibniz’s personal annotated copy of Locke’s Essay. The particular value of that physical book lies in it having Leibniz’s actual scribblings on it. A photocopy would not count, however interesting.
- So, objections based on type / token distinctions probably fail but, alternatively, could we say that a letter is a phase sortal of a piece of paper? Or, more accurately, that a token of a letter is a phase sortal of whatever physical medium expresses it? In that case, the one continuant physical thing is the piece of paper (or parchment, or assembly of micro-Lego), which undergoes various changes consistent with it remaining a piece of paper (or whatever) but which for periods of its existence has the property of being a letter or letters.
- Additional problems with the mild example: this is interesting, and whether we’re convinced by it depends on our modal intuitions. The example is convincing (subject to the above concerns about the metaphysical status of letters) just in case the closest worlds are those in which Prattle and Prattle stay divergent (as far as the text-string in the letters is concerned). What we want is that any world that contains the letter written in Prittle also contains the letter written in Prattle co-located. But why should the vocabulary and grammar of Prittle stay constant across these worlds? Or do we just say that those worlds in which Prittle and Prattle diverge from their real-world exemplars are worlds in which the original letters don’t exist. But then can’t we suggest a counterfactual like, “if the grammar of Prattle had been different, the Prattle-interpretation of this Prittle-letter wouldn’t have been so amusing”. In any case, Fine should have given some more justification for his claim.
- In the above, we must focus, as Fine does, on the necessary divergence. Fine doesn’t consider variations in Prittle and Prattle, but only considers the act of writing. He assumes that the four pillars of his general argument remain sound, namely sameness of sort, coincidence, distinctness and physicality, and that the only issues are to do with the necessary truth of these pillars. This is right, but which of the pillars is most at risk of modal divergence? He doesn’t discuss the first and fourth, as these don’t differ from the earlier examples. He focuses on the second – necessary coincidence. It is to be noted, though unremarked by Fine, that he gives up on scorching and allows ink to be used – presumably because there are now no available quibbles on the “coincidence” front due to ink-ownership claims since – as there is only one act of writing – both letters are necessarily written simultaneously using the same materials. He does discuss distinctness – they are distinct because they are in different languages – but he doesn’t discuss necessary distinctness. What would be a counter-example? I think this is where the argument breaks down. Can’t there be worlds in which Prittle and Prattle coincide (at least as far as the text of the letter is concerned) and consequently there’s only one letter?
- Could we modify the mild monist example in any way to improve it? This is not easy. Say we tried to do away with the possible divergent or convergent languages, for instance having the same English text that means different things to different people, in some indexical manner? For example, “Do what I told you to do last Friday”, where the action may be different. But is the meaning the same, and if it is the same, do we have distinct letters? I think we could argue that they are distinct, Yet even so, how would this state of affairs vary across possible worlds? The actions would not necessarily be different, so maybe this example doesn’t work either. But if the letters are different if their intended recipients are different (even if the instruction is the same), does the example stand up? But are the recipients necessarily different?
- What lessons can be learnt or parallels drawn from all this? I’m really interested in people, and personal identity, so what applications can be made? Here are some very brief pointers.
- Firstly, some views of persons effectively consider them as some form of tokened universal. This seems to be the view of those who think I would survive teletransportation where only information is transmitted. This view is probably consistent with the thought that I am an essentially physical being, and does not rely on substance dualism (indeed, it probably denies it); this is probably what the psychological view reduces to for the physicalist. Again, it is often said that I am defined by my psychology, and that anything appropriately psychologically continuous with me, or psychologically connected to me, is (identical to) me. This runs up against reduplication objections that cannot always be resolved by arbitrary “closest continuer” choices. The consequence of this may be that I am viewed as some sort of universal that may be multiply tokened, or maybe tokened to various degrees. Yet some tokens (like the autograph letter) are more important than others – in particular, the token (if any) in which my first-person perspective – my actual window on the world, not some qualitatively exactly similar one – persists.
- Secondly, persons may be considered as phase sortals of other things, such as human animals. On this view, in contrast to Baker’s Constitution View, there are not two substances overlapping – a person and a human animal – but one substance that possesses especially interesting properties at certain times, and is consequently worthy of special treatment, and at other times is a less interesting “mere human animal” for which (maybe) such special treatment is purely sentimental. The human being might qualify as a person only during phases of its existence, when it possesses the right psychology. In the case of the letters, there is one substance – the physical bit of paper (singed or not, variously inky, incised or rearranged) that for phases of its existence has the property of being a letter, and at some times has the property of being two letters simultaneously. Yet there is only one physical thing and not two coincident physical things. Can there be co-located persons? This is the view of those who believe Multiple Personality Disorder indicates two persons rather than a divided personality. We can see how this overlapping might take place for less significant phase sortals than PERSON – STUDENT for instance. A student might also be considered as a phase sortal of a human being. The Cambridge student might overlap temporally with the Birkbeck student. Yet there is only one substance – the human being, and not two or three overlapping substances. In particular, the Birkbeck student and the Cambridge student are not two distinct co-located physical things.
- Thirdly, Constitution. If the letter is constituted by the physical thing that “is” it, then that physical thing can constitute two letters simultaneously, yet without any co-location of multiple physical things. If the letter is thought of as being something over and above the thing that (presently constitutes it), maybe we have a parallel to Lynne Rudder Baker’s view of the constitution of human persons by their bodies. But Baker doesn’t think of persons as universals, but as essentially physical beings. Also, she wouldn’t allow for multiple realisation or multiple tokening. There can only be one physical thing (at a time) with my first person perspective (it is claimed; though how this is so, and how determined, is left unclear). Additionally, she has persons as ontologically distinct from the human animals that constitute them. Is this true of letters, or is a letter constituted by its paper and ink in a different way from that in which a person is said to be constituted by her body? Probably. What if the same letter can be constituted by different physical structures. For example (a) St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or (b) if the scorching set fire to the letter in Fine’s original example – is any replacement letter the same letter or a different one? There are obvious parallels in the case of personal identity with the claim that originally exercised Locke – that resurrection should make sense.
- Finally, necessary distinctness. Are there any parallels in the field of personal identity research to Fine’s necessary co-location of physical objects of the same sort? Indeed, we haven’t really considered whether there are any contingent co-locations for persons. Presumably this is the case on the psychological view of personal identity where we have multiple personality disorder. In that case, there are two persons physically co-located, though maybe they are only intermingled, depending on how their psychology is physically realised. I cannot see that such a case could ever be necessary.
- Conclusion: Do I think Fine’s examples stand up, and do I really care? I think I must reject the idea that two physical things of the same sort can be co-located. My rejection isn’t because I have any particular axe to grind, but because there are other ways of describing the situation that are more appealing.
- This is partly an aesthetic judgement, but is a response to a rather odd claim. If multiple things of the same sort can be co-located, then some of our usual mass-term notions go wrong, though maybe the count-term notions are unaffected.
- So, while we can carefully inspect the sheet of paper and determine that there are two letters present (just as we’d have to do when inspecting 5 sheets – there might be one or more letters present; we can only tell by careful inspection), if we ask how much the two letters weigh, and whether when we put both letters on the scales they weigh as much as the combined weight of each of the two letters weighed separately, we run into trouble.
- We should do everything we can in describing the situation to avoid such conundrums. So, we should choose one of the alternative descriptions – that we have one physical thing present, but that this one thing either tokens two other things, or constitutes two other things, or that these other things are phase sortals of that one physical thing.
- We then have to answer various questions about the metaphysical status of these other things. It is for this reason that I prefer the phase sortal approach, because there’s no temptation to think that we have multiple co-located substances, as in Baker’s Constitution View, or of confounding universals and particulars (on the token view).
- The examples that Fine gives are probably generalisable in some way to other artefacts whose identities are dependent on external factors. Statues are the usual favourite. It might be that a statue that had some iconic status in a culture is extracted from that culture and receives a completely different one in another. In that case, we have multiple co-located statues. We should take this case further – are statues tokened? Is Discobolos a universal, multiply tokened, or are all the statues (including the ancient Roman ones) mere copies of the Greek original.
- Or, take the case of symbols – maybe this is just the ultimately miniaturised version of Fine’s final example – for example, the use of the swastika in modern European and Indian cultures. How many physical symbols are present when I see, and hurriedly remove, a swastika from an Indian gift? We have only one physical thing, but that thing tokens two ideas, or constitutes two symbols. Alternatively, we can adopt the phase sortal approach. For certain periods of its existence it has certain interesting properties or relations that make us want to describe it in a special way, and maybe in multiple ways, even of the same category, at the same time.
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