1 On That Which Is Not Author(s): Samuel C. Wheeler Source: Synthese, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jun., 1979), pp Published by: Springer Stable URL: Accessed: 25/04/ :16 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact Springer is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Synthese.
2 SAMUEL C. WHEELER ON THAT WHICH IS NOT This paper presents arguments that, very probably, none of the ordinary 'middle-sized' objects of the 'given' world exist. In parti cular, there are no persons, as ordinarily conceived, nor, perforce, any psychological states of them. Since this may conflict with what seems to be thought, the way will be prepared by a sketch of the main presuppositions of the theory of reference which lies behind the general argument that all such counter-common sense claims must be false. The point of the long digression is to begin to destroy the rational grounds for resistance to the sorites1 arguments which est ablish the main point. After presenting the sorites arguments, a brief criticism of ways of avoiding the conclusion is presented. I. THE ARGUMENT THAT MOST OF WHAT MOST PEOPLE BELIEVE IS TRUE In this section I sketch two theories of reference, the second a modification of the first. I then show how the second theory of reference entails the conclusion that most 'ordinary' common-sense beliefs are true; that is, that common sense is for the most part correct and that what appears to conflict with it either doesn't actually or is false. A. Theory of Reference I: Frege-Russell Resemblance What, after all, is it for a term to apply? Our terms have as their extension whatever fits their sense. Reference is a function of sense. So, given that we are talking about anything when we are using a given term, what we are talking about when using that term is determined by the sense expressed by that term. The internal features of the concept determine its reference. If the term applies, then, by what it is to apply, the object we are talking about will have the important features that are built into the concept, i.e. will fit the sense of the term. (Imaginary quotation) This is the basic form of what I call 'the resemblance theory of reference'. Exactly how 'features' or 'senses' of concepts are con Synthese 41 (1979) /79/ $ Copyright? 1979 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.
3 156 SAMUEL C. WHEELER ceived and which features of concepts are part of the sense and so have to belong to the objects the terms apply to vary from version to version of this theory. Theory I has the weakness that it does not provide an empirical way of determining what the sense of a term is. What sense a term-for-a-person has, that is, might well be a private matter, even when the sense itself is an objective entity. The 'expression' relation between a word or thought-component and a particular sense is left to some kind of intuitive - insight we know what we mean, when it is our own word. More importantly, for our purposes, the basic form of the resemblance theory of reference does not give any guarantee that we are talking about anything at all. What is to prevent the natures out there from diverging in essence from the senses our terms express to such an extent that nothing fits our terms? Since the sense expressed by a word is, as it were, not clearly connected to what is outside when the term is used, nothing in principle prevents massive failure of reference. In short, the basic form of the resemblance theory of reference does not provide a rejoinder to skepticism or to metaphy sical revisionism. B. Theory la: Quine-Davidson and British Resemblance Theories This theory overcomes the above difficulties by getting something functionally analogous to sense into empirically available phenomena. I will briefly describe the Quine-Davidson version of this theory, and then argue that Wittgensteinian and 'ordinary language' philosophers presuppose virtually the same principles about how language con nects referentially to the world. Version a: Quine-Davidson2 If we are talking at all, what we are talking about is determined by what we say in which situations. Roughly, our occasion-sentences have a stimulus-meaning or an 'outside correlate' meaning. A language has been translated or radically interpreted as far as empirical data goes when the appropriate correlations between what is out there (for us) and the person's responses have been established. The reference of a term in an occasion sentence is constrained by these outside correlates. The constraint may not be sufficient to determine reference, but at least what there is to go on in hypothesizing
4 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 157 reference is given by the outside correlates, the empirical substitute for Fregean senses. All there is to the 'sense' of a term is manifested in these outside correlates, i.e. in a person's or a culture's dispositions to use that term. So, look for senses in the pattern of a person's or a culture's speech behavior. (Imaginary quotation) On this theory, given that a sentence is true if and only if what it is best translated or interpreted as obtains, most of what most people are inclined to say is true. (This holds in general, for Davidson; for observation sentences, for Quine.) That is, translation and inter pretation must, by the nature of reference, be 'charitable'. Given that thought is language-like insofar as the same requirements must be met for thought-tokens to refer, most of what most people in a culture think will be true as well.3 Version b: British It is somewhat difficult to pin down a 'British' theory of reference in a form acceptable to its practitioners, since so many of the philoso phers I have in mind, such as the later Wittgenstein,4 Austin,5 and Ryle6 tend to eschew theories in favor of detailed descriptions of the 'ordinary' use of our terms. Since they eschew theory, they eschew any technical use of 'refers' or 'applies', so that their 'theory of reference' can be called such only via locutions of indirect discourse. Their implicit views of language and its relation to the world, however, lead them to the most uncompromising defense of com mon sense. According to their conclusions, virtually every central belief 'built into' language by way of the judgements we learn in learning a language is true. So it is important for my purposes to bring their theory of reference into some kind of relation with theory la in its Quine-Davidson form. What further premise would yield a valid argument from the premise that a certain philosophical theory violates the rules for the use of a given term or concept or family of concepts to the conclusion that the philosophical theory is mistaken? I think that only a version of theory la will make this argument valid and that theory la is behind almost all dissolvings of problems and 'analyses of the grammar of in this tradition. To argue that theory la is behind every such analysis would require
5 158 SAMUEL C. WHEELER detailed analysis and argument for the case of each of the philoso phers in question. I think it is clear, though, that a theory of essen tially similar to Davidson's in 'On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme',7 is implicit in most such philosophers' work. The British theory, though, contains some modifications, and is complicated by a different conception of how strongly empirical sense determines reference. On the generalized 'British' theory, ignoring individual differences, concepts have a sense which is identified with their use, a complicated socialized and contextualized version of 'outside correlate meaning'. The use of a term is, roughly, given by the sort of situation in which the term is to be applied, according to the rules of the language. 'Correctness of application', which seems to be the general surrogate for truth, is determined by the rules of the language, which them selves seem to be a function of what most people in the language community say in paradigm situations. An application of a term is correct (i.e. a sentence is true) if and only if what is in fact the situation is in the set of situations where the term 'is to be used'. For reasons I do not fully understand, these philosophers differ from Quine and Davidson in not finding reasons to believe that there is 'slack' between use and reference. 'Rules', possibly by some subtle normative force, are sufficient alone to give determinate results as to what is being referred to. This might be regarded as a consequence of their strategy for avoiding the paradoxical results of an unrestricted application of the resemblance theory of reference. Suppose reference is strictly determined by sense, and sense is determined by what people say in what circumstances. Then, if it makes sense to apply this to an isolated individual, all, not most, of what this one-person culture says will be true. This is because there is always some extension, given by exactly the set of situations in which the person applies the term, which will, by the theory, be what the person means by the term. Since it is senseless that a person can be speaking truths when any alternative utterance he could make would also be a truth, it has to be denied that there can be one-person linguistic communities. Thus 'private languages' are declared to be impossible. That is, to apply the resemblance theory of reference to get the result that most of what most people say is true rather than that anything
6 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 159 that anyone could say is true, the unit of rule-discovery or inter pretation is made the culture as a whole. A culture as a whole generates rules by some kind of majority practice, so that error by individuals is possible. Since there can be no private language, and so no reference which is not everyone's reference, speculation about ontological relativity makes no sense. So 'aquiescence in the back ground language' is the only alternative that makes sense. On the 'British' theory, reading 'use' for 'sense', truth is a function of use, and so, reference is a function of use. Once again, the correlate of the sense of a term is brought out into the world, so that meaning or use determines correct application. Thus correct ap plication, over a culture as a whole, is guaranteed. On both versions of theory la, then, reference is still a function of sense. But sense is constrained, if not determined, by what is there in a situation in which the speaker is disposed to use a given term. Sense has its criterion, if not its being, in the outside world. Thus sense and reference are virtually correlative on theory la, at least in that each puts limits on the variation of the other. What distinguishes this theory from theory I is that what a person or culture means is determined by seeing what is true when an expression is used and making meaning correspond to what is the case. Then since reference is a function of sense, most of what a culture agrees on will turn out to be true by the very nature of what it is for a term with a given meaning to be true of an object. Now, given the above picture of language and thought and its relation to the world, there is a standard reply to philosophical doctrines which challenge widely held beliefs in great numbers: 'You're misusing language'. Alternatively, 'You're misinterpreting the truth-conditions of this predicate/construction for English speakers.' If theory la is true, the revisionary metaphysician and the skeptical epistemologist must be misusing or mis-paraphrasing language because, by the nature of the case, most of our beliefs must be true. Thus arguments which conclude that we are mostly wrong in a whole area of belief are, provably, invalid or unsound. How they go wrong according to this theory of reference may take subtle and skillful analysis; the conclusion that they are wrong is foregone. Such refutations include paradigm case arguments, arguments about how a
7 160 SAMUEL C. WHEELER concept is learned, arguments about when we say a person has a concept, analyses of suspect arguments in terms of 'extending a concept beyond its range of use', arguments against the very idea of a conceptual scheme, and many others. Attacks on common sense based on supposed inconsistencies be tween science and common sense are similarly treated by adherents of theory la. Since our ordinary beliefs can't be radically wrong, we just have alternative descriptions, different families of predicates with their associated application-constraints, or different purposes for different equally correct predicate-systems. II. THE DEATH OF THE RESEMBLANCE THEORY OF MIND-WORLD RELATIONS Kripke8 and Putnam9 have shown that the above theory of how language links up to the world does not coincide with our ordinary use of terms such as 'refer', 'about', 'names', 'discussed', etc. Theory la, then, is self-contradictory. That is, the theory that says that our 'use' of a term determines its meaning is not the theory of meaning and reference that the use of our idioms of reference embodies. A 'use' analysis of our referential concepts shows that use is not meaning. So reference is not a function of sense, in general, accord ing to the theory that it is. I should explain how Kripke's and Putnam's demonstrations work. Consider the intuition we have about what we would say in situations in which it turned out that, for instance, we had accepted the sentence 'Aristotle was a Megarian philosopher who proposed the paradox of the heap and invented other fallacies'. In the appropriate circum stances, we would say we had a false belief about Aristotle. This is a manifestation of our use of 'about' or of the sense of 'about'. Intuitions about what we think is the case in such situations are intuitions about what we 'would say' in such situations. By most theories of reference, such intuitions are the basic data for a theory of the sense of the term 'about'. Analogous remarks apply to the other referential terms Kripke and Putnam discuss. By the resemblance theory of reference, the relation of aboutness and the other referen tial relations must be whatever sets of ordered pairs accord with these
8 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 161 dispositions to apply referential terms. But any such relations contain ordered pairs of terms and entities such that the sense of the term doesn't fit the entity as well as it fits some other entity. The relations the resemblance theory of reference assigns to referential notions contain pairs of concepts and entities the resemblance theory would not predict. Thus a 'use' analysis of reference shows that use does not determine reference. Some remarks are in order about the scope of these results. Kripke, by examples such as the Aristotle example, has shown that the resemblance theory is false for proper names. Putnam, by his 'Twin Earth' examples10 and others, has shown that Theory I and la are false of natural kind terms, such as 'water', 'cat', etc. His arguments seem to apply to any property-words which pick out what we regard as real properties. Whenever we have a case of a term such that we hold that its correct application is not a matter of our decision but rather of how things are, we have a case in which our intuitions are in disagreement with the resemblance theory of reference. Kripke's and Putnam's results may not directly apply to terms for which our intuitions are that whatever our society chooses to say is correct. Terms such as 'is married', 'is a bachelor', 'was duly elected' seem to designate properties for which the resemblance theory is correct, if they designate properties at all. In such cases, there is, intuitively, no possibly recalcitrant objective fact to pose a danger of making most of our applications of a term mistaken. This is because, prima facie, it is our agreement on what to say that 'defines' these terms. Kripke's and Putnam's results fail to apply, if at all, then, only in cases of properties which are social artifacts, properties whose being is social. Even for properties which seem to be social artifacts, the resem blance theory may not be correct. Putnam uses the example of 'pediatrician',11 which does not seem to name a natural kind, but rather a kind of socially defined occupation. 'Pediatrician', though, does seem to have come to rigidly designate a group of people. Thus it could turn out that pediatricians are not doctors, if pediatricians all turn out to be Martian spies and to have just made a pretense of rendering medical aid, while in fact shipping little children to Martian forced labor camps.
9 162 SAMUEL C. WHEELER From a realistic point of view, the resemblance theory claims that all property-terms have reference in the way that 'bachelor' and 'duly elected' appear to have reference, i.e. by socially deciding an exten sion. Only on an idealistic conception of the world, though, could it be claimed that all of our terms for kinds and properties are social artifacts. On a realistic view, there is a world out there which can deviate from our conceptions of it, so that the content of a conception doesn't determine its object. Even if the resemblance theory is right for sentences using social artifact terms, though, we don't get the result that truths about the world are guaranteed. Every artifact-term seems to require in its definition some reference to intuitively real kinds, such as 'bachelor =df unmarried male person'. Thus there is no guarantee that most particular universally agreed on applications of the term are true. 'Person' is a natural kind term, so that the theory embodied in that concept may not be true. So it may be guaranteed that most widely agreed-on sentences of the form, 'If A is a male person, then he is a bachelor' are true, given that 'married' is a socially defined term known not to apply to A. But it will not be guaranteed in any social way that most agreed-on sentences of the form, 'A is a bachelor' are true. If we are wrong about what it takes to be a person, it could turn out that most of the things we all agree in calling bachelors are not. If, for instance, a thing has to have a soul to be a person, even though our concept involves no such thing, none of our paradigm bachelors will be bachelors if none of them have souls. The hypothetical beliefs involving social artifact terms may be guaranteed to be mostly true by a 'use' analysis, but claims about how the world really is with respect to such properties get no such guarantee. Only on the view that all terms are social artifacts will any facts about the world follow from universal beliefs. Kripke's and Putnam's results, then, show that in no case can there be an argument that reference is a function of sense. No replacement theory is established by Kripke's and Putnam's results, however; only the negative result that the resemblance theory is wrong. It is true that the content of our referential concepts seems to embody a kind of causal theory of reference where the caused items are mentalistic and intentional items. Furthermore, various social phenomena seem,
10 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 163 intuitively, to be built into real reference as conditions in this causal relation. But apart from a resemblance theory of reference, we have no compelling reason to conclude that therefore reference is some kind of causal relation. We certainly have little reason to give our theory of reference the complexities that accommodating our varied intuitions about what refers to what, when, would entail.12 An apparently unnoticed consequence of Kripke's and Putnam's results is that the invulnerability of the purported truth of the ordinary views of men is destroyed. If a concept's reference is not determined by making its content both determine reference and be determined by whatever is out there when we use it, then a concept amounts to a theory which may be radically mistaken. 'Criterial' features of a concept may be mostly false of what the concept is true of. Conceptual analysis will be merely that, with no very clear consequences for what is the case. If the replacement theory for the resemblance theory is some causal account, by now familiar stories are available in which there is radical misinformation 'built into' the concepts, intuitions, and beliefs of a society. Furthermore, what can be true of one concept can be true of most of our concepts. On the causal alternative again, where the referent of a general term is the kind of which the causal sources of our concept are members, we could have a situation where all special analytic contents of concepts were empirically false. Apart from a resem blance theory of reference, we can be talking about the real world and getting it all wrong. If the resemblance theory is wrong, there is nothing impossible about truly massive error. A more poignant possibility is that our terms may not refer to anything. On a causal theory, if there is in fact no kind out there to which all or most baptism cases belong, then we are talking about nothing with that concept. Similarly with singular terms for fictional entities. If what 'reference' refers to turns out not to be very often instantiated, most of our terms will fail of reference. Whether or not a causal theory correctly describes the essence of reference, if there is such a thing, the fact that the resemblance theory is wrong eliminates the major arguments that massive error is impossible. Massive error, of course, will need to be supported by arguments from a better-off standpoint than common sense. The fact
11 164 SAMUEL C. WHEELER that we seem to make massive errors will have to be given an account from that standpoint. I argue in the following section that this last possibility, that most of our terms for objects don't refer, is in fact the case. I believe that our errors and the apparent paradoxes that arise from this 'vanishing of objects' can be explained in terms of a theory that recognizes at most the micro-particles of physics and certain complexes of them as genuine objects. This is not a skeptical claim. I am not saying that we are as likely as not to be wrong about the existence of and features of ordinary objects. I argue that we are very probably in fact mistaken and that there are no such things. III. SORITES ARGUMENTS Sorites arguments are generally regarded as sophisms or puzzles. I think the reason they have been so regarded is that by the resem blance theory of reference, their conclusions are demonstrably false. The resemblance theory is not the primary motivation for rejecting sorites arguments, but it is the main reason. The main motivation, I believe, is irrational nostalgia. With the death of the resemblance theory of reference, I think it is clear that sorites arguments are sound, for the most part. I use sorites arguments to make intuitive what I think is plausible on other grounds. I think that to be objectively real requires having an essence. For an object to have an essence is for there to be objective necessities true of it, that is, natural laws. There appear to be very good laws about micro-particles while the laws about medium-sized objects are very poor, so full of ceteris paribus clauses as to be mere rules of thumb. Since there seems to be little hope of a reduction of medium-sized object kinds to complexes of micro-particle kinds, there can either be two unrelated systems of objective kinds or the objects with the worse laws must go. For reasons I have explained elsewhere,131 think the medium-sized objects must go. I begin with a pair of premises: (a) If a putative property is a real property, then it is a matter of fact whether an object has that property or lacks it. (b) Whether a purported object exists or not is a matter of fact. A purported object either exists or doesn't exist.
12 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 165 I take these to be basic 'realistic' principles of ontology, which state what it is to be and to have a property. There are two general kinds of sorites arguments relevant to my purposes in this section which I will present in turn. A. Property-type Sorites Arguments No person who is not tall can become tall by growing one micron. By premise (a) though, at every micron-point in the growth of a person he either has the property of being a tall person or lacks it. Unless a single micron can make the difference between having this property and lacking it, no person can become a tall person by continuous growth. Since we are very sure that any precise borderline between having this purported property and lacking it is absolutely arbitrary, it seems clear that there is no property of being a tall person. Since it is up to us, it is not a matter of any fact about the world. Since there is no property, nothing has it. There are no tall persons. There are, of course, in the range of cases where the question seems to arise, an infinity of properties of the form 'is n meters in height' where n is a positive real number. What has been shown is that no set of such properties constitutes the property of being a tall person. So there are no tall persons. It doesn't help to have three or more truth-values or to decide that 'neither tall nor not tall' is a middle category. The same fuzziness that obtains between 'true' and 'false' and between 'tall' and 'not tall' will occur between any two adjacent truth-values and between any two adjacent categories along the dimension. And this fuzziness shows that there is no property there, if we are right that no precise borderline is correct. (Sophisticated versions of alternative logics are briefly dealt with in the next section.) All that is possibly real in such cases would be a relation on a dimension. In the case of a predicate such as 'bald', such a relation is probably not even there. That there is such a relation would depend on some kind of ratio of hairs to surface normally hairy combined with considerations about distribution. Several such relations might preserve transitivity, conform to our intuitions roughly, and give different orderings of pairs of men. No relation would be selected by
13 166 SAMUEL C. WHEELER our intuitions as clearly the relation that 'balder than' denotes. So 'balder than' unlike 'taller than', may not even denote a relation. Property-type sorites arguments can be extended to substance terms and count-nouns, as long as there seem to be 'defining proper ties' which are fuzzy and for which borderlines are intuitively arbi trary. To show that there are no rational agents, imagine an entity becoming gradually less rational, believing fewer and fewer truths, making sounds which are harder and harder to translate without attributing inexplicable error, and behaving in ways that become more and more difficult to rationalize. Analyses of agenthood in terms of success with intentional explanation or interpretation, such as Den nett's14 lend themselves to a sorites-type evaporation of 'agent' as a substance-determiner. In the case of paradigm property-continua such as 'tall person', I have argued elsewhere15 that we are sure that no place in which a line is drawn is objectively right, and have explained this as confidence that no laws of nature apply above any cutoff point which do not apply below. This amounts to confidence that there is no real cutoff point in the nature of things. With persons, our confidence that it does not matter objectively what one says is less clear, since a lot hangs on whether an entity is called a person. On reflection though, the property-sorites argument should con vince one that the only objects that exist are ones with a precise essence. Only precise essence can constitute the being of a genuine logical subject or of real properties of logical subjects. And objects with precise essences seem to exclude persons, tables, chairs, etc. It seems very implausible that, at a certain point in the elimination of the essential 'property' of such objects some drastic change should take place which made one of those objects an objectively distinct entity, where what kind of thing it was changed. The problem with generalizing property-sorites arguments is that we have to construct dimensions for putative essential 'properties' and have to have some grounds for thinking that we have the right essential properties. Since the resemblance theory of reference is wrong, however, the features that we take to be essential may well not be. It could turn out, that is, that something very unimportant to our concept of person is in fact essential to the nature of persons.
14 ON THAT WHICH IS NOT 167 B. Ungefs Sorites Arguments A more easily generalizable sorites argument, due to Peter Unger,16 is the composition/decomposition sorites. This consists of taking a putative object such as a table and extracting in the most favorable 'table-preserving' way one atom at a time. (In this kind of sorites, such extraction is assumed to be physically possible.) Surely one atom cannot make the difference between a table being there and there not being a table there. But equally clearly, there are no 0-atom tables. So there are no tables. The only principle this argument needs is premise (b) that every 'object' either exists or not, after each diminution. The argument has the form: If there are tables, then if losing an atom most favorably preserves tablehood, then there are 0-atom tables. But there are no 0-atom tables and removing a single atom would preserve tablehood. So there are no tables. Tables are not beings. Such arguments can be interpreted as showing that where there seems to be thought to be a table, there is at most a complex of atoms. A sequence of complexes of smaller and smaller size is analogous to the dimension on which 'taller than' is defined. In this case also, there is no subset of that sequence which is the object of common sense, though there may be a definable artificial complex object at each point up to the last in the diminution. That there is even a single relation 'is more tabloid than' along this sequence is questionable, since many 'acceptable' relations could be defined. In the case of persons, Unger's argument starts with brains, since almost everyone would say that after a brain-transplant, he has a new body, not a new brain. So, keeping the brain in the right sort of nutrient bath, the extraction without replacement proceeds. Now, the nutrient bath itself would not be considered to be part of the person and neither would further life-support systems that might have to be attached to the person as the decomposition progressed. When we are eventually down to one atom, most people would agree that there is no person there. And most prople would agree that a single atom's addition cannot turn a non-person into a person. A composition version of the same argument comes up in disputes about abortion. If a fertilized egg is not a person but a thirty year old is, then during
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