Category Archives: Creativity

Creative Metaphysics and How To Count People

In doing metaphysics, understood broadly as an inquiry into what some sort of thing is, there are at least two approaches. One is to say, “well, I have this intuition about the way things are, and so here’s an argument to support it.” A lot of continuity of identity theory works this way. We say, “ok, I’m the same person now that I was last week and last year. How is that so?” And then we look for criteria of sameness.

Another approach is to say, “well, I have this intuition about how things are. I wonder if there’s another way to look at things?” This latter approach is a way of adding perspectives. It’s also the heart of discovery. If, for example, Copernicus had just kept adding epicycles, he’d have a much less interesting result. And if Heisenberg had just fudged some numbers to make sure that things were determinate all the way down, we’d be in a far less interesting world. Each had to give up on a common intuition, instead of working to find an argument to support it.

But I think in philosophy, since we’re not going to solve our problems by encountering some object in the world, it’s not exactly like discovery. That is, while observation of the stars and planets has ultimately made it pretty clear that the earth and the planets orbit the sun, there’s no observation which will tell us for sure if I’m the same person now that I was when I was five, or if I’d be the same person after undergoing fission or fusion. We just have to make a judgment on how we should apply terms like “same person” in these instances.

The approach that reaffirms our intuitions could be called “affirmation metaphysics:” I want to say that the person I see before me now is the same person I met forty years ago. So I need a sense of continuity of identity which allows me to apply “same person” to an entity who may bear no physical and few psychological traits in common with the being I met forty years ago.

The second approach is either “discovery metaphysics,” where I discover something about the world that I didn’t previously expect (“look, the earth orbits the sun!” “look, people don’t actually have selves!” “look, the world is merely a collection of phenomenal appearances!”) or “creative metaphysics.” The difference is whether I’m claiming that I’ve discovered this fact, or that I’ve produced a new way of conceptualizing things. Doing the latter is one of the most important tasks of philosophy; if there’s another way of looking at things, and that way is at least, or nearly as, well supported as the standard way, then we have a possibility of critiquing the standard way. So when Nietzsche reconceptualizes standard Christian notions of good and evil as “slave morality” and “master morality,” he provides a perspective that allows for a critique of those categories. Whether he discovered the truth about Christian morality, or simply shifted perspective in a way that presented a viable alternate interpretation, he still provides for a new way of looking , and a way that is not inherently incorrect (assuming it’s internally consistent and consistent with empirical facts). This is the heart of Nietzschean and, to some extent, Leibnizian, perspectivism, that is, the idea that we gain greater purchase on truth by acquiring the most possible correct ways of looking at something (though the thing we look at is not entirely consistent across perspectives; Nietzsche includes the morality of secular Europe as part of the “slave morality” that he’s critiquing, and he sees that as consistent with Christian ethics, whereas an older way of looking would have divided Christian ethics from secular, 19th century European ethics.)

An example: in “How To Count People,”* Mark Bajakian tries to write against the one-person-per-body view, doing some creative metaphysics. Centrally, his claim is that people with two-hemisphere brains (i.e. humans, and anyone else who has a brain structure like us) can and should be counted as two people at all points in time if at some point in time the two hemispheres are split and (as in the many thought experiments on this topic) placed into separate bodies  if they are the sorts of half-brains that could be split in two and still survive as two individuals (i.e. the kind of half-brains found in the thought experiments of Nagel and Williams.) Similarly, if two people are fused into a single thinking thing, that single thinking thing is actually still two people who are thinking the exact same thought at the same time (not just qualitatively the same thought; quantitatively the same).

Ok, I’m not sure I buy that. First of all, I’m not sure there is an answer to the question of how many people there are in fusion/fission cases, because our use of “people” and the way we count them developed in a world with no such cases, and the terms and concepts don’t come pre-packaged with ways to deal with that. So when facing such a case, we pretty much have to be creative.

If Bajakian thinks he’s discovered the truth about this, I think he’s mistaken; I think he’s putting forward a proposal for how we should count people. He certainly has an argument for it, but ultimately what he’s proposing is a convention for person counting. He thinks that this convention will solve a lot of conceptual problems (we don’t have the problem that occurs when, in a fission case, we are forced to say that the pre-fission person doesn’t exist anymore because he can’t be identical with either of his post-fission descendants since they are not identical with each other). But it’s not without its own problems: under Bajakian’s proposal, we have to say that some person who is exactly like any other single person is in fact two people because ultimately this person will undergo fission.

But here’s the interesting thing about that problem: it’s only a problem because that’s not the way we’ve been doing it. That is, it’s simply goes against an existing convention. Philosophers might say that it violates an intuition “we” have been doing it, with the “we” fairly loosely defined. Maybe “we” means “most people on earth,” or “people who share our culture,” or some such. But we (whoever this “we” is) could certainly imagine people who don’t count people the way we do, and if we could imagine a highly functioning society that counts differently, it’s not clear that we can come up with a strong metaphysical (much less empirical) reason that they’re wrong.

So if there is a people (and I think there might be) who counts someone as one person up to a certain point in time, and another after that point (this might be the case in cultures that have rites-of-passage to adulthood, for example, so that a person has a connection to, but is seen as importantly a different person from, his or her pre-rite-of-passage self), can we say they are wrong? In other words, what might be gained from something like Bakajian’s proposal, or learning about another culture that counts differently, or even reading, say, a novel that describes such a people, is that we can learn that our own method of counting is at least in part conventional. It might be bounded by certain natural limitations, but it’s probably not as absolute and fixed as it would seem. And simply appealing to an intuition about how to count people might count as no more than appealing to a cultural prejudice or a traditional way of doing things.

Bajakian, Mark, “How to Count People,” Philosical Studies (2011) 154:185–204

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Continuity, Essence, Sex-change and Other Changes

In my metaphysics class today we were discussing Aristotle and I was explaining the idea of accidental and essential changes. One student asked, “what if something has two distinct functions, could the same change be accidental with regard to one function and essential with regard to the other?”

First, I applauded the student for creative thinking (see this post.) Then, taking off from this I gave the example of a wheeled office chair that was used by children as a continuing prop in a game of monster: the chair played the role of the monster, and they would run from it, sneak up on it, roll it towards each other and scream, etc.

A cigarette is accidentally dropped on the seat of the chair, and the seat burns away, but the rest of the chair is largely unharmed. It can no longer be used as a chair, so there’s been an essential change: in a sense, it’s no longer a chair. But it’s only an accidental change in its role as monster. It still rolls and it looks enough the same that it can still serve its role

So it’s had an accidental change on one interpretation of the object, and an essential change on another. It’d be easy enough to think of other cases like this. There’s a kitchen knife that I use as a screwdriver. It’s tip breaks off so that it will no longer fit into a screw slot, but it’s still a perfectly good kitchen knife. I have a TV/radio. The screen burns out, so it’s essentially not a TV anymore, but the speakers still work so it’s a perfectly good radio (note to young people: there used to be these objects that were combination TV/radios). Or, it’s still a perfectly good TV for my blind roommate, but I no longer get much pleasure out of it as a tv. So it’s essentially not a sighted person’s TV, but it has undergone no essential change for a blind person.

I was thinking this is similar to the question of continuity of identity. Sometimes we need to know the specific function for which the continuity question is being asked.

The example that came to me was a sex change operation. Joe is married to Keisha. Joe gets a sex change and becomes Josephine. Josephine is still liable for Joe’s crimes and debts, but Keisha could quite rightly say “Josephine is not the man I married!” This is doubly true: Josephine is not in fact a man. For Keisha’s purposes, Joe has undergone an essential change and ceased to be, because it was essential for Keisha that Joe be a man. Joe the man is gone. And as a result, Keisha is within her rights to say, “I am not married to that person! [actually, in some parts of the U.S., the sex change does nullify the marriage, though Keisha could say this anywhere, and could probably get the marriage annulled] That person is not Joe!” There some elision here between “man” and “person,” but from Keisha’s perspective, part of the essence of the person she married was that he was a man. In changing that, Joe/Josephine changed an essential characteristic of the person Keisha loved.

Of course, from Josephine’s perspective, it’s probably the case that she now better embodies an internal essence that she always felt. I think there’s a lot to be said about that: that Josephine’s new bodily form is a better expression of her self than her old form.

So this may require some teasing apart of  “person,” “self,” and “man.” But at the same time, I think it’s not unfair to say, without providing technical and stipulative definitions of these terms, that Keisha is not wrong when she says, “that’s not the person I married,” and Josephine is not wrong when she says, “I’m the same person I always was,” they’re just interested in different senses of continuity of identity. For Keisha, Joe’s identity included being a man. For Joe, it did not. And we can’t simply say that Joe is right because it’s his identity; sometimes we have to accept, as in criminal law, that our sense of ourselves is not the key to who we are. I might think myself a hero for having shot someone, but if the law finds that I’m a criminal, my point of view may not matter (I can be delusional, or have a very different ethical perspective than the law, etc.).

Again, this comes back to first- and third-person accounts of identity, and I want to give some weight to social identity, or identity-in-relation to others. And I definitely want to give weight to the spouse who says, “that’s not the person I married,” in this case and in many other cases not involving anything like a sex-change, but rather strong shifts in values or personality, because someone’s personhood can change in ways so radical that we cease to accept them as the same, and this can be a justified move.

The Creative Aspect of Thinking About Stuff

One of the things that most attracts me to philosophical discourse is the special kind of creativity needed to engage in it.

It’s possible, of course, to simply digest some theory and then apply it to whatever one encounters. This requires at best minimal creativity. If I have learned a good deal about, say, utilitarianism, I can look at many problems from a utilitarian perspective and see if there is some failure to apply utilitarian principles in current approaches, or show how utilitarians would deal with this problem.

We see much the same thing in say, for example, philosophers writing about what Nietzsche would think of some particular artwork, or how Kant would respond to a particular political problem, or simply applying the terms and concepts of some particular critical theory to a critique of a popular film or TV series.

But the creativity I’m interested in involves not simply applying a theory.

One instance of it comes about in counter-examples. Although it became an industry in itself, and ultimately the formula got a bit easier, there’s something particularly creative about Gettier cases. To look at a standard definition, “knowledge is justified true belief,” and then to invent a story where someone has a justified, true belief that is not knowledge, requires a narrative sense of creativity as well as an analytic skill.

Parfit’s teletransporter, Williams’ split minds, Nagel asking what it is like to be a bat, all of these are examples of the sort of fiction-writing skills needed in certain areas of philosophy. Sartre made a career out of this sort of thing; Being and Nothingness is something like a collection of philosophical fictions, imaginary cases that bring out some essential elements of existentialist thought.

I think this creativity can be taught, as well.

In my critical thinking classes, I present the following to the students:

A study has shown that beer drinkers are significantly more prone to lung cancer than wine drinkers, even when the population samples are controlled for smoking (this is from an actual study I recall reading about in Slate some years ago.) Therefore, beer drinking contributes to lung cancer.

Then I ask them: is the conclusion reasonable? At first, some agree, but then they start to come up with alternative hypothesis. Maybe beer drinkers are more likely to work in factories with malignant air, whereas wine drinkers work in offices. Maybe beer drinkers hang around in bars where people smoke, whereas wine drinkers are in restaurants. Maybe beer drinkers are poorer and live in neighborhoods that are closer to toxic dumps, pollutants, etc.

Obviously, none of these possibilities are given in the short description. They have to be invented by the students. This is not analysis, then, but creative writing of a sort.

The more I do this sort of exercise with my students, the quicker they are to come up with original hypotheses on their own.

Philosophy, and thought, in general, requires some degree of creativity. And creativity is a skill that can be practiced. My concern is that in teaching theories and positions we be careful not to let our students think that philosophy is the process of applying these theories, or saying what Philosopher X would have said about some topic, but that we show them the creative process of thought, and, with any luck, goad them in the direction of trying out that creativity.