Tag Archives: social negotiation

Other Opinions #51 – Tolerance is not a Moral Precept


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

This one is a really interesting take on tolerating intolerance and that whole mess, and unpacks it in a way that makes a lot of sense, but also I think fails to line up with how tolerance is actually often used. I’ve seen people with both conservative and liberal viewpoints try to open up what are essentially peace talks in the current ongoing culture war around diversity, only to be shouted down in the name of not tolerating intolerance.

Liberals need to recognize that not every form of conservatism is a fundamental threat to their very existence (some are, sure, but it’s not exactly difficult to tell them apart), and conservatives need to stop whining about their viewpoints not being tolerated just because they’re unpopular right now.

Tolerance is a peace treaty, but peace requires minimal trust and good faith, both of which are sorely lacking.

I’m Back, I Swear

My previous post started with

Whoops, it’s been over a month since I finished my last post

and ended with

Hopefully the next update comes sooner!

Well that’s depressing. At least I managed to keep the gap down to under a year. Barely.

As it turns out, indulging in outrageous philosophical hand-waving has not proven a particularly motivating way to write. So let’s mostly ignore my “brief detour” on constructing the mind, and go back to the original question, which basically boiled down to answering the Cartesian challenge to Hume. Frankly, I don’t have an answer. Self-awareness is one of those things that I just don’t even know where to start with. So I’m going to ignore it (for now) and sketch out the rest of my solution in broad strokes anyways.

First a refresher: I’m still pretty sure the brain is an open, recursively modelling subsystem of reality. It does this by dealing in patterns and abstractions. If we ignore self-awareness, then a fairly solipsistic view presents itself: the concept of a person (in particular other people) is just a really handy abstraction we use to refer to a particular pattern that shows up in the world around us: biological matter arranged in the shape of a hominid with complex-to-the-point-of-unpredictable energy inputs and outputs.

Of course what exactly constitutes a person is subject to constant social negotiation (see, recently, the abortion debate). And identity is the same way. Social theorists (in particular feminists) have recognized for a while that gender is in effect a social construct. And while some broad strokes of identity may be genetically determined, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the details are also social constructs. I call you by a certain name because that’s the name everybody calls you, not because it’s some intrinsic property of the abstraction I think of as you.

Taking this back to personhood and identity, the concept of self and self-identity falls neatly out of analogy with what we’ve just discussed. The body in which my brain is located has all the same properties that abstract as person in the 3rd-party. This body must be a person too, and must by analogy also have an identity. That is me.

Throw in proprioception and other sensory input, and somehow that gives you self-awareness. Don’t ask me how.


My original post actually started with reference to Parfit and his teleportation cases so for completeness’s sake I’ll spell out those answers here as well: as with previous problems of abstraction, there is never any debate about what happens to the underlying reality in all those weird cases. The only debate is over what we call the resulting abstractions, and that is both arbitrary and subject to social negotiation.

Until next time!

edit: I realized after posting that the bit about Parfit at the end didn’t really spell out as much as I wanted to. To be perfectly blunt: identity is a socially negotiated abstraction. In the case that a teleporter mistakenly duplicates you, which one of the resulting people is really you will end up determined by which one people treat as you. There’s still no debate about the underlying atoms.

Abstract Identity through Social Interaction

Identity is a complicated subject, made more confusing by the numerous different meanings in numerous different fields where we use the term. In mathematics, the term identity already takes on several different uses, but fortunately those uses are already rigorously defined and relatively uncontroversial. In the social sciences (including psychology, etc.) identity is something entirely different, and the subject of ongoing debate and research. In philosophy, identity refers to yet a third concept. While all of these meanings bare some relation to one another, it’s not at all obvious that they’re actually identical, so the whole thing is a bit of a mess. (See what I did there with the word “identical”? Common usage is a whole other barrel of monkeys, as it usually is.) Fortunately, the Stanford Encyclopedia has an excellent and thorough overview of the subject. I strongly suggest you go read at least the introduction before continuing.

Initially I will limit myself specifically to the questions of personally identity, paying specific attention to that concept applied over time, and to the interesting cloning and teleportation cases raised by Derek Parfit. If you’ve read and understood my previous posts, you will likely be able to predict my approach to this problem: it involves applying my theories of abstraction and social negotiation. In this case the end result is very close to that of David Hume, and my primary contribution is to provide a coherent and intuitive way of arriving at what is an apparently absurd conclusion.

The first and most important question is what, exactly, is personal identity? If we can answer this question in a thorough and satisfying way, then the vast majority of the related questions should be answerable relatively trivially. Hume argued that there is basically no such thing — we are just a bundle of sensations from one moment to the next, without any real existing thing to call the self. This view has been relatively widely ignored (as much as anything written by Hume, at any rate) as generally counter-intuitive. There seems to be obviously some thing that I can refer to as myself; the fact that nobody can agree if that thing is my mind, my soul, my body, or some other thing is irrelevant, there’s clearly something.

Fortunately, viewing the world through the lens of abstractions provides a simple way around this confusion. As with basically everything else, the self is an abstraction on top of the lower-level things that make up reality. This is still, unfortunately, relatively counter-intuitive. At the very least it has to be able to answer the challenge of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (roughly “I think therefore I am”). If the self is purely an abstraction, then what is doing the thinking about the abstraction? It does not seem reasonable that an abstraction is itself capable of thought — after all, an abstraction is just a mental construct to help us reason, it doesn’t actually exist in the necessary way to be capable of thought.


I wrote the above prelude about three weeks ago, then sat down to work through my solution again and got bogged down in a numerous complexities and details (my initial response to the Cartesian challenge was a bit of a cheat, and it took me a while to recognize that). I think I finally have a coherent solution, but it’s no longer as simple as I’d like and is still frankly a bit half-baked, even for me. I ended up drawing a lot on artificial intelligence as an analogy.

So, uh, *cough*, that leaves us in a bit of an interesting situation with respect to this blog, since it’s the first time I get to depart from my “planned” topics which I’d already more-or-less worked out in advance, and start throwing about wild ideas to see what sticks. This topic is already long, so it’s definitely going to be split across multiple posts. For now, I’ll leave you with an explicit statement of my conclusion, which hasn’t changed much: living beings, like all other macroscopic objects, are abstractions. This includes oneself. The experiential property (that sense of being there “watching” things happen) is an emergent property due to the complex reflexive interactions of various conscious and subconscious components of the brain. Identity (as much as it is distinct from consciousness proper) is something we apply to others first via socially negotiation and then develop for ourselves via analogy with the identities we have for others.

I realize that’s kinda messy, but this exploratory guesswork is the best part of philosophy. Onwards!

Conventional Language: A Problem of Social Negotiation

The philosophy of language is an extremely broad field covering a number of interesting problems. Unfortunately the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not appear to have an umbrella article on the topic, but the Wikipedia entry is fairly decent.

The SEP does, however, have an article on Conventions of Language, especially on how convention (effectively what I’ve been calling social negotiation) generates meaning. The Lewisian and Gricean accounts in that article provide an interesting “base” to build upon, which I will do by responding to some of the objections given in that article (and modifying them as I see fit along the way).

Sentences, Words, and the Components of Meaning (Stanford Section 7.2.2)

One such objection is on the relations of sentences to words, and how previously-unspoken sentences can have meaning since there must be no convention behind them (given that they’ve never before been spoken). This objection neatly knocks down the sentence-based accounts of Lewis and Grice, and appealing to just sentences-as-composed of words has its own serious problems. The underlying problem is that the unit of meaning is itself fuzzy.

Consider idiom: there is a Polish expression which roughly translates as “not my circus, not my monkey” and means, more generally “not my problem”. Here we have a phrase whose words would seem to mean one thing, but whose actual meaning is something else. Both meanings are valid, and both are due to social negotiation; it is simply that the conventional sentence meaning overrides the conventional word meaning for those who hear it (except in the context, of course, where an actual circus and monkey are present!).

It is perfectly possible for some person to speak fluent Polish but be totally unaware of this idiom: given that it is syntactically valid and composed only of known words, they would be able to assign a coherent meaning to it the first time they heard it, but the speaker would then be required to explain the convention in order to get their point across. However, if a circus and monkey were present, then our listener would be able to accurately construct the literal and intended meaning of the sentence without any additional explanation.

The point here is that the source of meanings is not specifically words, or sentences, or anything else. Meaning can be assigned to abstractions and speech-components of any size, and when we end up with multiple conflicting meanings at various layers of abstraction, we default to the “largest” (most abstract) unit unless context indicates otherwise.

Grammar and Radical Interpretation (Stanford Section 7.2.3)

Chomsky (further developed by Schiffer and others) argues that language is an internal process related to semantic and psychological properties bearing no special ties to social interaction or convention. This is a radically different tack, and not obviously wrong. It seems feasible, for example, for some person entirely isolated from any other being to develop and think in some new language. Where is the social negotiation in that?

Strictly speaking there isn’t any, but that simply makes the language entirely arbitrary. With no social interactions to bind the meanings and force conventions for practicality’s sake, the speaker is free to change it entirely at will. This makes the actual words and grammar used effectively meaningless, since the only association they actually have with the thought processes of the speaker is that speaker’s “speaker-meaning” (in the Gricean sense) at the time of utterance. If the speaker develops conventions regardless she is free to do so, but there “conventionality” is limited to the speaker’s habit, nothing more.

(Chomsky also does this bit about language as tacitly known grammatical rules, but I feel I effectively dealt with that tack in the previous section on multiple layers of meaning).

In a related way, Davidson points out that there are cases where we deviate from any conventional meaning (at any layer) and fall back to what he calls “radical interpretation” (effectively guessing based on context). Since we are capable of this radical interpretation at any time (when dealing with malapropisms, spoonerisms, etc), then in some sense language is independent of convention. I would argue that while radical interpretation is certainly communication, it is not actually language per se.

This redefinition is in some sense just a linguistic trick, but I believe it effectively answers the spirit of the argument: we are perfectly capable of communicating in some sense without language, though the process is laborious and error-prone. Just because we sometimes fall back on contextual clues when using language does not make those clues part of language itself, any more than falling back to a lower-level programming language for one part performance-critical piece of a program makes that lower-level language “part of” the principle language in use. They are simply different methods of communication that we are free to mix for our own convenience.

The Social Animal: Social Negotiation

(This post was supposed to go up last night. Oops.)

Over the last few posts we’ve talked about memes and culture and some of the interesting properties therein. This is the last post on that particular string; hopefully it is the one that ties them all together.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. We are constantly communicating with each other, sharing ideas and generating new ones. Most of us would find it intensely uncomfortable to spend even a single day with no outside contact. This heavy socialization is part of what makes memetics so interesting and so powerful; it is an integral part of how our human lives are structured.

The other side of that coin is the subtle realization of just how much of our lives is the result of that socialization. How many of our deeply-held ideas are socially constructed: are, in fact, memes. Let’s start with a big one: language. People already talk, in an unscientific sense, about language “evolving” as new words are coined and unused words die off. Scholars of language probably already know where this is going, but here it is anyways: any language is nothing more than a meme, or a collection of memes. These memes do evolve (for certain meanings of that word) through exactly the mechanisms we’ve already discussed in previous posts.

And because  this evolution is guided by human consciousness at least part of the time (for example, we can explicitly invent new words for new concepts), that makes this evolution also an exercise in negotiation. People try out new ideas, adopt parts they like and discard parts they don’t. They often then use these parts to synthesize a new idea, and broadcast that back into their social group. This is evolution, but the broader pattern resembles negotiation. The entire process could equally be described in terms of offers, counter-offers, compromises, etc.

I find this duality fascinating. Our ideas, our language, our culture have not just evolved the way they are;  they are the result of hundreds (or thousands) of years of social negotiation.

If you want to change the world, you may have to compromise with it along the way.