Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Anti-realism based on the origin and biology of language

This post is going to be on Swoyer's "Abstract Entities". After I read this article I came to the conclusion that I am an anti-realist on the issue of abstract entities. Lots of my arguing centers on language, so any comments from a philosophy of language perspective would be appreciated!

The first thing that plucked my anti-realism heartstring was on pg. 12 of the article where Swoyer starts describing the properties of different things. He says that:

A table: weighs six pounds, is brown, is a poor conductor of electricity, and is heavier than the chair.

Fair enough.

Then he goes on to say that WWI was: bloody, and fought mainly in Europe.

This seemed so weird to me. That an event could be bloody. I quickly decided that the term bloody was employed for convenience and the evoking of emotion rather than to actually be considered a true "property" unto itself of WWI. If you were to replace the term bloody with all the constituent facts about WWI which would make someone want to say "WWI was bloody" (for example: many people died in WWI, if someone looks at pictures from a WWI battlefield they will be disgusted, etc.), then you could eliminate the property of "bloody-ness" from the properties of WWI.

It would seem that assigning the term bloody to WWI is purely a result of our use of language to convey information quickly and efficiently to others. But isn't ALL language for the purpose of conveying information quickly (more quickly than demonstrating/showing the person you are communicating with what you are talking about) and efficiently? I think it is. I think that the only reason there are any properties or abstact entities is because language contains them for the purpose of approximating information and conveying it to others in a commonly accepted and agreed upon manner.

I do realize some of the implications of this view. Without relational properties, you could never say to someone"I see three flowers" (well you could, but you would have to realize that what you are saying is a mis-representation or warping of information). You would instead see a flower, and a flower, and a flower. "Three" is nowhere in the picture. In fact, I do not think that animals who do not use language have any concept of "properties". They just see what is in front of them.

Someone might argue that this is not true because we are born with the idea of propositions (we use abstract noises to represent what we want) before we ever learn language.

In response, I would remind these people that our brains have developed over millions of years of evolution and are actually physically hardwired to receive language. Just as our occipital lobe is ready to receive visual information before we ever open our eyes, our cognitive centers are hardwired for language. To take this even further, one could probably argue that it is because of this language hardware that we are so ready to believe abstract entities exist; we simply lack to physiology to imagine a world without them!

From here, all of the realist arguments Swoyer presents sort of fall apart. The fact that different languages can assert the same thing ceases to be a problem at all. Snow is white; Schnee ist weiss... great! These two people have just approximated something that they wish to tell a friend into a means of oral representations, the art of doing so (both presenting and interpreting oral representations) their physiology has nearly perfected over millions of years. No need to invent magical abstract properties when there is no need for them; law of parsimony and Ockham's razor sort of double team anybody of says otherwise.

The most ridiculous reason that Swoyer gives for the existence of abstract entities is on pg. 15 where he says "If there are no abstract objects, nothing that transcends the spatiotemporal causal order, then there may well be no transcendent values or standards (eg: no eternal moral properties) to ground practices and evaluations". What kind of bad philosophy is Swoyer suggesting here? That we do not rule out something (abstract entities) because we really really want there to be something more? Because then we would have to face up to some facts we do not want to be true?!

Again in the Numbers section, Swoyer presents some arguments for the existence of abstract things in math. I think that the language objection I gave earlier covers this as well, seeing as math is simply another form of language. The example with the three flowers is what I think best responds to those who would object to the language objection by saying that in math you do not approximate information (numbers are precise). No, you do no approximate natural numbers in math, but just because we use precise terms (one, two, three) to linguistically represent them does not mean that they are not part of our language hardwiring. They still have to play by the rules in order for us to convey them as information, and as such should not be considered a special case.

Swoyer also has a section where he outlines the five Desiderata which, if satisfied, make an argument all the more compelling. I believe that the anti-realist position based on the origins and biology of language which I have taken up can definitely meet all five desiderata. I am, however, going to stop this post here.

Professor Tillman, please let me know if this is adequate for a comment paper.


Wes McPherson said...

Hi Curtis,

I would be curious if the following analysis might hold some appeal to you. If we take:

1. This table has the property of weighing six pounds, the property of being brown, the property of being...

and look at it as roughly meaning:

2. Of this table it is true that it weighs six pounds, that it is brown, that it is...

or even:

3. Of this table, the sentence "This table weighs six pounds" is true of it, the sentence "This table is brown" is true of it, the sentence...


Dan said...

Hi Curtis, good post.

I'm not sure abstracta can be swept under the rug as easily as that though. You mentioned the WW1 example. Even if the term 'bloody' isn't used in the same way as you use it when describing an object with blood on it, I believe it still denotes a property. It's a complext property, the nature of which you described yourself, the property of involving lots of wounds and deaths and such. It's true you could eliminate 'bloodiness' from WW1, but it's not at all obvious from that fact that you could eliminate the properties it's meant to convey.
I don't think I'm being nit-picky here. We definitely use these words as an efficient way to convey information, but we are still talking about something.
Consider the three flowers. That's a distinct state of affairs than there being just one flower. Saying 'there's three flowers' as apposed to saying 'there's one flower' is an efficient way of describing two very different things, out there in the world, that has nothing to do with language. The abstracta don't come from our conveyance of this fact, they come from this fact itself.
To clearly see the picture, you can consider cases of efficient language use in which no abstracta are posited. Suppose you're talking about your friend Hubert Vanderfeld. You don't want to use this cumbersome name all through your conversation so you just use 'he' and 'his' in its place. We feel no pressure to posit entities corresponding to these terms (other than Hubert himself) because this really is just efficient laguage use. Using 'He' instead of 'Hubert' marks no difference out there in the world. Using 'Red', or 'three' or 'bloody' definitely does. There terms don't refer to atoms, they make a definite contribution in our description of the world.