Thursday, June 05, 2008

Stuff (and this and that)

Kripke (Naming and Necessity) described how "water" means H2O because people once indicated the liquid form of H2O and said something like "that stuff," so that (via a causal chain) we now mean by "water" what they meant by it. But if so, then had some weird spacetime wormhole (or something) substituted that bit of water for XYZ briefly, just before they said "that stuff," then we would have been misusing "water" ever since (and obviously we have not, whereas it's not so obvious that such a substitution could not have been).
......Furthermore their folk metaphysics may not have been much like ours, way back then (instead of our chemistry, something like alchemy maybe), so why would "that stuff" have meant H2O then? Indeed, what stops us referring, with our "water," to H2O in any of its fluid phases (the liquid phase is largely H+ and OH- ions anyway), or to any similar mixture of hydrogen and oxygen (similarly) or of nucleons and electrons, or to just the oxygen or just the nucleons, or (conversely) to impurities in the water as well as the H2O (as we may well do ordinarily), and so on?
......Presumably we all presume some (similar) folky metaphysics, so that our "that"s are intimately (if subconsciously) associated with something like a description (if an indescribable one) in our heads. Furthermore, once we've separated out such descriptivistic content, there might not be anything externalistic left over.
......Even if the reference of "water" is fixed from day to day, by our thinking "that stuff" while thinking of some actual water, the substance underlying H2O might be a different one on different days (e.g. as subatomic strings randomly pointed in different directions, or something), and we would not then mean, by "water," different substances on different days. If the underlying variation made no observable difference, it would be like there was (as presumably there is) no variation; the stuff referred to would be the constant chemical (defined by its chemical description, and hence via the meaning of "chemical"). And if it did make a difference then descriptivistic content would again determine which stuff we were referring to (cf. normal versus heavy water).
......Furthermore, while there may seem to be an externalistic element with the "that" of "that stuff," there would surely be (after all the descriptivisitic stuff) an internalistic "this," because only a reference to this Actuality (containing both that stuff and us) would be able to lack descriptivistic content.
......There is therefore (for a frivolous consequence) surprisingly little incoherence between Biblical literalism and modern science; e.g. when originally creating water (not just below but also above the starry firmament) God would have had some description (some range of relational roles or whatever) in mind, but such details as the underlying substances (e.g. the particles that comprise the H and the O nowadays) might quite naturally have varied as the more crucial (e.g. moral and psychological) matters were settled.


Jeff said...

It seems to me that we only name things when there is some sort of need for differntiation. There are a variety of reasons we might explicitly say "I'm going to call certain X's Y" and similarly, a variety of reasons why we might not make a formal announcement but still begin a process of calling certain X's Y. But generally speaking, we'd have some sort of rhyme or reason to do. (Otherwise, why not continue to call them 'x'.?)
For example, we once called two kids born at the time twins. When we discovered that there were actually important differences between twins, that some were identical and that some were fraternal, then we introduced the terms "identical" and "fraternal".. but there are only certain contexts where we care about the distinction and therefore only certain contexts where we'd invoke the term.
For example, I might say "That's my best friends twin brother" because whether or not they are fraternal or identical is quite irrelevant to this sort-of claim.

It seems to me it's the same deal with water. Og the caveman noticed that there was something good to drink and associated it with certain sounds. In some form, this same sound descends to me. Though I might know that water is 2 atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen all bonded together, I generally say "I want some water" not "I want some H20 because I'm noticing the same features that Og the caveman noticed when he first named it water... When I'm thirsted, I'm less interested in the chemist's observations about it's consituent elements.
Is there a parallel here: my wife calls me by my first name because I fuffill certain roles to her... My offspring call me "dad" and my students call me "Mr. Campbell" I continue to be the same person but each is interested in my fufillment of different roles.
It seems to me that when things appear a certain way, we often hold on to this appearance despite our knowledge of it's real essence. I still think of physical objects as "solid" despite my awareness that they are mostly empty space.

I wonder if you'd expand on the biblical literalism statement... Are you suggested that water wasn't h20 when God first invented it? Is the idea that God could have used a variety of different combinations to create our sense-experiences of H20, and that just because our current scientific experiences of water reviel it to be composed of Hydrogen and Water, that there maybe was some old substance (call it water-prime) that seemed identical to water but was actually composed of something else?
It actually seems like you've verging on some of the midevil understandings of holy communion and how the wafer and the wine were also Jesus' blood and flesh.
If our senses our deceptive enough to admit a variety of possible things could have seemed like water, is there any good reason to assume that this circumstance has changed? Wouldn't it be equally reasonable to assume that what we think of as water continues to be a variety of different substances all of which we apprehend identically? I guess a different way to ask this question:
Assuming the gulf that you seem to be positing between things' true nature and our sensations of them, is there any reason to suppose that scientific understanding is actually giving us a more accurate picture? Given that the scientific understandings are all rooted in the same sense-data that the original inaccurate concepts were, is the scientific understanding (that, for example water is H20) any more accurate?

Enigman said...

By "that stuff" we mean that (indicated) chemical, for good reasons; but in olden times they would have meant something else (by those words) even though water turned out to be liquid H2O. Had they known about XYZ (which is just like water, on some hypothetical planet just like ours, except chemically), they would have called it "water" too, and discovered that the chemistry of water varied from planet to planet.

People from the East are apparently more likely to think of XYZ as another kind of water. We take water to be liquid H2O because our folk metaphysics includes chemicals, but when we first learnt "water" we would probably have thought of XYZ as water too (not just as like water). Presumably chemicals have entered our folk metaphysics, whereas we are more inclined to interpret the objects of modern physics.

I don't know whether water was ever not H2O, my conclusion was just that even if we take "water" literally it might not refer to H2O. Heraclitus said that everything was water, but not that everything was liquid H2O. And while atheists note that whales are not fish, whales were fished for, so maybe whales are literally fish when "fish" occurs in older texts.

Kripke also said that unicorns were necessarily nonexistent because they are fictional. But while that is as he says, nonetheless from their mention in the Bible it might be deduced that "unicorn" referred to aurochs (contingently nonexistent) or rhinoceros (merely likely to become nonexistent) etc.

jeff said...

Is it really as formalized and systemitized as (I think) you are saying it is?
Do we actually have a consistent definition of water that crosses contexts and evolves steadily across time?
It just seems to me that everything is much more contextual. If somebody egineered a substance that was to my senses and experiences identical to water, I think in many contexts I would call it water, even if I knew it was egineered from something other than 2 Hydrogens and 1 Oxygen. The contexts in which I'd call it water are the contexts in which I'm concerned with its effects on me, my sensations, and experiences. If there were bottles of "real water" and "fake water" available in a fridge, I probably wouldn't differentiate between them if I couldn't tell the difference between them by tasting them.
On the other hand, in a chemistry class, it'd be much more important to differentiate, because in this context I am more concerned with the constituent molecules.

I guess I'm just not aware of referring to a "folk metaphysic" when I decide if I'm going to call it water or fake water. This doesn't disprove the existence of such a category in my mind.

An example from real life:
Rationally, I know that some fish are grown in "farms" and others are caught wild. I am not a sophisticated enough eater to be able to tell the difference. I can't taste, smell, or see a difference on my plate between the sources. If I were at a restaurant, I wouldn't refer to it as "wild salmon" or "farmed salmon" because I can't tell the difference. When I am within the context of eating I don't think of these as two seperate types of salmon. When I was told that some are grown and some are caught, I wasn't aware of refining my definition of salmon to include these two subtypes. I don't consider it more accurate to refer to them by their origins, etc.

If I was a cook and I knew that some people could tell the difference, or if I believed one method was much more just or responsible I might care where they come from, within my context as a cook.

It's concievable that somebody would even convince me that one type is better, or more socially responsible. But I'd draw a distinction. If I can't tell the difference based on taste, I am not differenteating based on my context as eater. If I rationally know the difference and choose one over the other, I am differenteating... but it's within the context of consumer.

I guess my bottom line is that whether "a" and "b" are counted as two objects in the same class depends almost entirely on the context of the classification system, what am I trying do by defining them and classifying them?

Enigman said...

Hi Jeff, you're right of course; and my clipped style is just due to my finding analytic philosophy of language hard to fathom. There are indeed contextual and other issues. Chemists tell us that glass is a liquid, but it is an ordinary solid too, of course (and tomatoes are fruit, while bananas are berries, and so forth).

I'm wondering why one means, by "that stuff," "that objective kind of matter" and not, say, "that power to wet things"? And when we think "that objective kind of matter," why we in the West mean "that chemical" and not, say, "that relatively permanent possibility of transparency and wetness"?

What did we have in mind (subconsciously) when we learnt "water" but had not yet got the concept of a chemical (rather than a particle-physical) property? It seems to me that our common sense must include some metaphysical categories, e.g. so that we can ask the question whose answer, chemists tell us, is "H2O." We seem to rely on such folky metaphysics for the forms of (and hence for) our thoughts.

It seems to me that, unless we have reason to think that such categories were, not just usually useful as we evolved, but were carving nature at its joints (e.g. because we have reason to think we were made in God's image)... then, as we wonder about modern physics and such, our questions will become meaningless (much as the positivists thought)...