Conventionalism

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This is the 60th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series.  The most recent posts covered the main views of personal identity and then turned to some more unorthodox accounts to handle some of the problems of personal identity, beginning in the last post with four-dimensionalism and its doctrine of temporal parts.

Another unorthodox view is conventionalism (sometimes called conceptualism, although some would want to reserve that term for something else). The basic idea behind conventionalism starts with something uncontroversial. Our language consists of a bunch of conventions. We use certain words to refer to certain things, and we adopt various conventions about when to apply certain terms, use certain tenses or grammatical constructions, and so on. Different governments and societies have different conventions about various matters, such as whether you drive on the left or right side of the road, whether it's appropriate to wear shoes in the house, or whether your leaders come to office by popular vote or some other method. In the case of language, however, these conventions don't determine what you should do but what your words mean. For example, the word 'quite' in British English can mean something opposite what it means in American English. In British English, you can apparently say something is "quite good" and mean that it's only a little good but not very good. I can't for the life of me hear that expression that way. In American English it means pretty much that it's very good. So the different linguistic conventions in the UK and in the US mean that the same expression in the mouths of different people can mean different things. That's uncontroversial, even if it's not something a lot of people think about every day. 

he conventionalist's controversial use of that phenomenon in the personal identity debate is to claim that our concept of person is like that, and it's like that even without one linguistic community, not when comparing two as my example did. The idea is that the meanings of our terms are determined by how we use them, and different societies could refer to different things by their terms. We haven't yet settled how the relevant terms are used in our society, and so our language hasn't settled what it is to say that a person has survived some massive change or which person remains when it's unclear, in these various science fiction cases that we don't normally think about. The reason is because we don't normally consider these cases. Our concept of a person is settled enough in ordinary cases, but we just haven't decided if we're going to consider the brain-recipient the same person as the one who had the original brain or the one whose body it went into. We haven't settled whether someone survives a Star Trek transporter. We haven't settled whether I'm still alive if my brain gets destroyed and my body kept alive artificially.

To be clear about what's required here, this isn't just saying that the word 'person' is unsettled. This is much more radical. On this view, it isn't even clear what prounouns like 'I' or 'she' refer to to or whether it's true to say that I will survive a certain procedure even given that we're entirely in agreement about the facts of what takes place. According to conventionalism, there is no right answer to such questions. I've seen the view described in such a way that would allow for the U.S. Supreme Court to make some decision deciding who is married to whom, who is responsible for whose crimes and whose children, who owns whose property and so on for some of these disputed matters, and that would settle the question, but it's not necessarily that simple. The Supreme Court's opinions would certainly be a factor in what determines the meaning of the relevant terms. But ordinary people's opinions would have a large part in it, since it's their usage of terms that settles what language does mean in cases where it is settled. If a Supreme Court decision led people to stop using language in certain ways and start using it in other ways, but that sort of thing doesn't always happen. Consider what happened when our best scientific experts on planetary classification declared Pluto not a planet. Virtually no one would go along with it. In that case, the word 'planet' simply became ambiguous, as is the case with 'fruit' (tomatoes are fruit according to biologists' classifications but not according to nutritionists' or horticulturists', and most people's usage fits with the latter two more than the first.

A psychological view says I continue if my personality continues. If my mind gets wiped and my brain is reprogrammed with new memories and a new personality, then I stop existing and someone else continues in my body. On the bodily view, I'm still there but think I'm someone else. A conventionalist can say that there's no fact of the matter. If I anticipate having this happen to me, I can wonder whether it would be self-interested or altruistic take some pain medication to cut down on the post-operative headache, given that I don't know if I'll be the one occupying this body after the procedure. Can matters of how we use our language settle whether it's self-interested or altruistic? They can settle what words mean, but are words like 'self' so undefined that there is simply no fact about whose self it is afterward? That's exactly what the conventionalist is saying, and it's a pretty hard bite to swallow for some people. Conventionalism dismisses the problems of personal identity by simply saying that there's no right answer. It's not that there's no such thing as a continuing person. I'll turn to that view in the next post. It's that there's simply no truth about which person is the same one as the earlier one. And if we change how we think and speak, there could come to be such an answer, but right now there's no fact of the matter.

I think the best alternative to conventionalism comes from recognizing that we often have false beliefs or differing opinions from others around us about difficult matters, and it doesn't stop our words from having a definitive meaning. And some concepts re particularly good candidates for reference because they are especially natural sorts of things to refer to. In science, we often get things wrong and later discover it and then continue using the same term we always did. Atoms were supposed to be indivisible, but we didn't stop calling them atoms when we found out that the things we were calling atoms were divisible. We could still refer to those things by calling them atoms. Something similar happened with heat when we realized there isn't some substance (being called caloric) that explains why things are warmer. We stopped talking about caloric, but we didn't stop talking about heat. That's because, in both cases, there was a natural-enough entity that our terms were able to latch on to, even if some of what we believed about those entities was wrong. Is there a natural-enough entity for terms like 'me' and 'same person' to latch on to, even if people have competing intuitions on the science fiction personal identity cases? There certainly is if dualism is true. It's less so with the other candidates, such as continued psychological continuity (an inherently vague notion) and continued biological continuity or brain continuity (a less-vague notion than psychological continuity but certainly not less vague than dualist minds). I suspect a lot of intuitions about whether our concepts are settled enough will depend on whether you think there's a natural-enough candidate for personal identity that closely-enough matches our concept or competing concepts of personhood and selfhood.

The next post will look at another unconventional approach, nihilism, which is really more like a cluster of related views that deny the existence or persistence of something-or-other (but the different views do it differently).

2 Comments

Would this by any chance be related to Wittgenstein's work on words and definitions? It seems to me he makes a similar point.

What is a game? Well it doesn't matter, we know what it means when we use it, and a whole bunch of different things can be games while meeting different and even conflicting criteria. At least thats my understanding of his view, as it may be relevant to this.

Wittgenstein is talking about not having necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to a certain concept. Games are held together in the same category not because there is some list of features that all games and only games have but because there's sufficient family resemblance among games that we can classify them together.

You can think that and think that other categories are not like that but do have necessary and sufficient conditions. Or you can think everything is the way he saw games.

What's going on here is a more general question about how things get their criteria of membership (whether it's family resemblance, necessary and sufficient conditions, or something else). Conventionalism is relying on the fact that which categories we refer to with our language and latch on to with our thoughts depends on choices we make, whether deliberately or unconscious. Sometimes there are more natural candidates for reference, such as when we're talking about natural kinds like atoms and electrons, and sometimes there less-natural criteria, such as our category of a game. If the history of science had gone differently, presumably we still would have ended up eventually being able to distinguish atoms, electrons, protons, and so on. But if the history of game-categorization had gone differently, what counts as a game might have been very different. Conventionalists are saying (1) that personhood and being me is more like games than atoms and (2) that our conventions haven't even settled the facts about it yet.

There clearly are things like that. One of the major theses of my own work is that race is like that (but not enough to say there's no such thing, just that it's highly sensitive to changes in context and the intentions and expectations of conversation participants and social interactions, including the wider facts about the social background). But it's pretty revisionist to our notion of ourselves to think who I am is like that. That's why conventionalism is so radical a view.

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