Monthly Archives: July 2014

Head in the Clouds: The Problem of Many

Now that we have seen the problem of Material Constitution and how it is, in effect, a problem of abstraction, we shall turn to the Problem of Many. Coincidentally, the problem of many is another one with which Peter Unger is closely involved — you may recall that I borrowed parts of his eliminativist solution to the problem of material constitution in my previous post.

In the problem of many we are asked to consider a cloud. From the ground, a cloud may have clean, sharply-delineated borders, but of course this is an illusion. When we look more closely, we realize that the cloud is made of many water droplets, and that what appeared at first to be a sharp border is in fact a fuzzy “trailing off” as the water droplets become gradually less dense.

The question then becomes, what is a cloud? If we simply define it as a collection of water droplets in the air then we have two problems. First, our definition is clearly too broad as effectively all air in our atmosphere contains some moisture. Second, and more troubling, is that we also seem to have an enormous number of clouds where there appears to be only one. After all, if I take only the left half of our cloud, that is itself a collection of water droplets, and thus a cloud in its own right. But this trick can be used to create a “cloud” for every possible subset of water droplets, which defies our understanding of clouds. Should we say that the main cloud is composed of millions of overlapping little clouds of every possible shape and size? That seems absurd.

As with material constitution, Unger’s solution is one from which I draw inspiration but do eventually deviate. Unger’s move was to claim that for certain conceptual reasons involving inconsistent definitions, there are no clouds. This, as the Stanford Encyclopedia article notes, is counter-intuitive, and I find Unger’s reasons for his conclusion rather confusing. At this point, my approach in the next few paragraphs should be obvious if you’ve read my previous posts (especially the most recent one on material constitution).

Once again, we are faced with a disagreement not about the nature of the underlying reality (which, for our purposes, can be talked about in terms of water droplets) but about how to define, delineate, conceptualize and refer to that reality. Unger is, in a sense, correct: there are no clouds in the fundamental underlying reality (just as there were no ships in our discussion of the Ship of Theseus). However, when I point in the sky and say “Look, a cloud” I am not talking nonsense; I am referring to the shared abstraction of a cloud, constructed via sociolinguistic negotiation.

In this view, there is one cloud and not millions simply because we all agree that there is only one cloud. If there were two cloud-shaped groups of water droplets very close to one another, it is entirely possible that one person would call them “two clouds” and another person would call them “one cloud with a very thin spot”. It would be wrong to assume that in this situation one of those people would be wrong and one would be right; wrong and right in that sense are a property only of facts about reality, not about our abstractions on top.

As long as you are consistent in your abstractions, you can have as many clouds as you want.

Material Constitution: A Problem of Abstraction

The first philosophical problem we will tackle is known as the problem of material constitution. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a wealth of information on all sorts of interesting philosophical problems, so expect to see it linked a lot in this section. Its article on material constitution is well worth reading: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/material-constitution/

The problem of material constitution can be demonstrated in a few different ways: one of my favourites is the story of the Ship of Theseus. In this story, the famous wooden Ship of Theseus is preserved in a museum. Over time, its boards wear out and are replaced until eventually not a single original board remains in the ship. Is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Taking the problem a step further, suppose someone has been collecting the worn-out boards, and when all the boards have been replaced, they construct a (substantially worn-down) ship out of the original boards. We now have two complete ships, both of which have some claim to the original identity of the Ship of Theseus. Which is the real one?

Skimming the Stanford entry, there are two popular solutions which seem to somehow fit within the framework I’ve layed out so far: Unger’s Eliminativism (section 4), and Carnap’s Deflationism (section 7). In effect, my solution is a synthesis of these two approaches.

Recall for a moment my third axiom: “There is some underlying consistent reality that is made up of things”. Also note the scientific reality of molecules and atoms etc. My fundamental claim follows naturally from these and is quite similar to Unger’s: properly speaking there is no such thing as a ship, there is only some collection of things in the underlying reality (the correct word is “atoms”, but it’s already been used for something else by physics!) that are arranged in a pattern we think of as a ship. To quote the Stanford article, “the most common reaction to this claim is an incredulous stare”, and here is where I am able to draw on Carnap’s Deflationism and my own work to go beyond Unger and provide a coherent answer.

When you say “but of course there are such things as ships” and I say “there is no such thing as a ship”, strictly speaking we are both right — we are using different meanings of the word is. The problem, as Carnap would argue, is only linguistic.

For this to make sense, recall way back to my post on Truth and Knowledge. We have now covered enough to realize that what I originally referred to as “Relative Truth” is nothing more than the set of abstractions we work with in our day-to-day life. Using these tools, we can see that when you say “but of course there are such things as ships” you are referring to the abstraction of a ship, the relative truth of the fact. The “ship” abstraction is one we both presumably share, so I am happy to grant your claim. However, when I say “there is no such thing as a ship” I am referring to the fundamental being of a ship, the absolute truth of the fact. Since ships are made up of molecules and atoms, there is no such thing that is, in itself, the ship, and so my claim is also correct.

To conclude, both Unger and Carnap were right, as far as it went; they each simply missed half the picture. In the Ship of Theseus, there is no conflict about what happens to the underlying reality (whether it consists of particles or something more exotic). The only question lies in what we call the resulting abstractions, and this is an issue because here there is no absolute truth to refer to; they are only abstractions, and abstractions are perpetually subject to the process of social negotiation.