Delusions of Scientific Literacy

19 November 2016

Science is reasoned analysis of — and theorizing about — empirical data. A scientific conclusion cannot be recognized as such unless one understands the science.

It might be imagined that one can recognize a conclusion as scientific without understanding the science, by recognizing the scientists as such. But the popular formula that science is what scientists do is vacuous when taken literally, and wrong in its usual interpretation. Someone can can have an institutional certification as having been trained to be a scientist, and have a paid position ostensibly as a scientist, and yet not be a scientist; for those who actually understand some scientific area, it is fairly easy to find historical examples or perhaps present cases.[1] To recognize a scientist as such one must recognize what he or she does as science, not the other way around.

Even if it is in some contexts reasonable to accept conclusions from such persons on the basis of their social standing, it is not scientific literacy to accept conclusions on that basis; it is simply trust in the social order.

The full understanding of a scientific expert isn’t always necessary to have a scientific understanding of the reasoning behind some of the broad conclusions of a scientific discipline. But in some cases of present controversy with significant policy implications, the dispute over the relevant conclusions turns upon issues of applied mathematics, and perhaps other things such as thermodynamics. No one can be scientifically literate in the areas of controversy without understanding that mathematics and so forth.

In many of the disputations amongst lay-persons over these issues, I observe people in at least one group who assert themselves to be scientifically literate, when they are no such thing, and to accept science, when they are not positioned to know whether what they are accepting is science. These are actually people who simply trust some part of the social order — typically, those state-funded institutions that declare themselves to engage in scientific research.

[1] It is certainly easy to find what lay-persons will acknowledge as examples. However, some of these ostensible examples are actually spurious.


14 November 2016

A few years ago, in the title of an entry discussing the implications for the world of the failing health of Hugo Chávez, I alluded to a motto that ends leave a beautiful corpse[1]. That entry considered an observed practice:

When a charismatic leader dies aburptly while still in power, his or her supporters quickly begin building a mythology of what would have been accomplished had he or she lived.

I drew attention to how this mythologizing bears upon social policy:

The mythological episode of such leadership is treated as having the same standing for purposes of comparison as does historical fact. When an opponent tries to construct an argument founded on logic and general fact against policies associated with that leader, supporters treat the mythology as if it is a disproof by counter-example. What’s really happening then is that Faith is being mistaken for empirical data.

While death significantly amplifies the power of the mythologizing of a leader who was not given full opportunity to effect the programmes that he or she chose, death isn’t essential for there to be some mythologizing; I noted that there was a developing narrative of what President Obama would have done had his party retained a majority in both chambers of Congress for the whole of his terms.

As it happens, charisma is also inessential, though it very much helps. And an odd substitute for direct charisma has been demonstrated. Barack Obama inflamed so much inverted narcissism on the part of his followers that a great many of them chose to treat his successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as if she were magnificent though she is signally lacking in charisma.

At the same time, her health is failing her, and had she been elected to the Presidency, she would not likely have served through a full term. There would have been an odd sort of race between how rapidly she did things that repelled those who had been her supporters, and when she left office. Depending upon the outcome of that race, she might have left a beautiful corpse.

But Ms Clinton has lost the race for Presidential Electors. Although a few of her supporters cling to an implausible hope that the Electoral College will not merely turn its back on the detestable Donald John Trump but will elect Clinton (as opposed to some Republican other than Trump), she will not be President. And the mythologizing is already under-way, even to the level of having Ms Clinton imagined as rather prettier than she is. [image of Kathryn McKinnon Berthold in the rôle of Hillary Rodham Clinton, singing 'Hallelujah']

One does not have to regard Mr Trump as even tolerable to resist the mythologizing and to see Ms Clinton for what she has been. She has repeatedly been one of the people causing the United States military to engage in the slaughter of innocent people, for stated goals that haven’t been obtained because they haven’t been obtainable. She has engaged in calculated support of domestic policies such as the War of Drugs and aggressive incarceration policies that have literally led to many thousands of deaths and to the ruin of many thousands of other lives. She and her husband have got rich exactly as brokers of political influence. She has privately spoken against some policies as corrosive while publicly supporting them — or vice versa — depending upon the expected flow of dollars and of votes. She has casually disregarded laws, in the expectation (thus far vindicated) that her connections will insulate her from being charged, let alone convicted.

If Ms Clinton is to be made into a beautiful corpse, it is rather fitting that this transformation be effected while she is undead.

[1] In full, the motto is Live fast; die young; leave a beautiful corpse. It is an elaboration of an earlier motto of live fast and die young. A popular variant is Live fast; die young; leave a good-looking corpse.

Social Consequences of Speciation

12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don’t know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it’s associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

A Matter of Interest

23 October 2016

Eugen Ritter von Böhm-Bawerk, an important economist of the second generation of the Austrian School, produced a theory of interest rates based upon the interplay of time-preference with the significance of time in production. (Previous theories had either looked towards just the one or towards just the other, or sought explanation in terms of social power.) This theory was adopted by Knut Wicksell and by Irving Fisher. Fisher translated most of the theory into neo-classical, mathematical terms. Hans Mayer provided one important element that Fisher had missed. I was exposed to this neo-classical translation by J[ames] Huston McCulloch in an undergraduate course on money and banking.

Years later, towards creäting a fuller explanation, I played with relaxing some of the assumptions. And some time after that, I wrote a paper for a graduate class in which I extended Fisher’s two-period model to handle continuous time (by way of a space of ℵ1 dimensions). I’ve occasionally thought to write-up that aforementioned fuller explanation, but mostly been put-off by the task of generating the involved graphs to my satisfaction.

Recently, I was sufficiently moved to begin that project. I wasn’t imagining doing anything much other than fleshing-out a translation previously effected by others, so I was considering publishing the exposition as a webpage, or as a .pdf.

But, as I’ve labored it, trying to be clear and correct and reasonably complete, I’ve seen how to talk about some old disagreements amongst economists that I don’t know were ever properly settled — perhaps these quarrels were not even properly understood by any of the major disputants, who each may have been talking past the others. So I may steer towards producing something that I can submit to an academic journal. (The unhappy part of doing that would be identifying and reviewing the literature of the conflict, with which I currently have only second-hand familiarity.)

Perhaps I’ll produce both something along the lines that I’d originally intended, and a paper for a journal.

Madding Crowds

19 October 2016

[An earlier version of this entry was posted to Facebook on 30 September.]

A bad leader whose leadership is accepted with little resistance is more frightening than a bad leader whose leadership is accepted grudgingly, and who knows that the acceptance is reluctant.

A sense that Trump would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Clinton who might otherwise have voted for him; a sense that Clinton would have the freer hand will make some people vote for Trump who might otherwise have voted for her. Where these particular calculations are concerned, Clinton has an actual advantage in there being a present Republican majority in both chambers of Congress, because it is expected that Congress would frustrate Clinton more than it would thwart Trump.

But a bad leader is more frightening if he or she has many loyal followers even if these followers are outside of government. The composition of the Congress could change in the upcoming election or in one to follow; and, even if it did not, a President with greater popular support can accomplish more than otherwise, even without his or her party in the majority in either chamber.

Thus, the failure of the vast majority of the most vocal supporters of each of these two candidates truthfully to acknowledge their candidate for what he or she is makes each candidate far more scary to those who are undecided or weakly decided.

Almost no one who is now undecided or weakly decided thinks that either Clinton or Trump is merely not perfect; the voters most likely to be moved see both Clinton and Trump as awful people, and see this with good reason. To be less scared of these candidates, these voters need to read and to hear acknowledgments, from supporters, of just how flawed their own candidates are. (Becoming still more scared of one candidate is not at all the same thing as becoming less scared of the other, though indeed an increase in fear of one could strengthen support for the other.)

Were these supporters more rational, they would change their pitch. But, psychologically, they cannot. Some of them are simply swept-up in the urges of inverted narcissism;[1] and, more generally, supporters cannot admit the truth to others without to some extent recognizing the truth and acknowledging it to themselves. The world would have to be faced as a bleaker and more uncertain place.

[1] Inverted narcissism (popularly confused with covert narcissism, a markèdly different condition) is the felt need to treat some individual as magnificent, even if careful consideration would show him or her not to be so. The inverted narcissist is thus a sort of complement to the narcissist, supplying the admiration that the narcissist needs for comfort. Inverted narcissism plays a hugely important rôle in politics.

On the Meaning of Racism

3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

Accuracy, Exactitude, and Precision

5 September 2016

Dictionaries and thesauri often treat accuracy and precision as synonymous, or as nearly so. But the words accuracy and precision and their coördinates[1] are each most strongly associated with a distinct and important notion. The word exactitude (often treated as synonymous with the previous two) and coördinates are most strongly associated with something rather like the combined sense of those other two, but with a notable difference.

When we say that a specification is precise, we do not necessarily mean that it were correct when judged against the underlying objectives. We may merely mean that it were given with considerable explicit or implicit detail. If I tell you that a musical show will begin at 8:15:03 PM, then I am being precise (indeed, surprisingly so). But the show may begin at some other time; in fact, it may never have been planned to begin at that stated time; I can be both precise and wrong.

If your friend tells you that the show will begin shortly after 9 PM, then she may be accurate, though she was far less precise than I.[2] The word accuracy and coördinates are associated with closeness to the truth; and, in everyday discourse, she might be said to be more accurate were she to be more precise while remaining within the range implied by shortly after 9 PM. But the word is also associated with encompassing the truth; if the precision seemed to narrow the range of possibilities in a way that excluded what proved to be the truth, then she might be regarded a having become less accurate. (If one is told that the show is to begin at 9:15 PM, but it begins at 9:05 PM, then one might feel more misled than had one been less precisely told shortly after 9 PM.)

(Note that it would be seen as self-contradiction to say that someone were accurately wrong, though we sometimes encounter the phrase precisely wrong. The latter carries with it the sense — usually hyperbolic — that the someone had managed to be so wrong that even the slightest deviation from what he or she had said or done would be an improvement.)

Although some people might jocularly, eristically, or sophistically pretend that one truth were somehow truer than another, any meaningful proposition is either simply true or simply false (though which may be unknown and there are degrees of plausibility). If Tom and Dick each go to the store, then it is true that one of them has gone to the store. It is not closer to the truth that two of them have gone to the store. It might be said that it were more accurate that two of them have gone to the store, but this seems to imply that it is truer that two went than that one went, and this implication is false. Fortunately, we have a word and coördinates that can carry with them a particular sense of accuracy and precision, with exclusion. These words are exact, exactly, and exactitude.[3] It is true that one person has gone to the store, but it is not true that exactly one person has gone to the store.[4]

(The expression exactly wrong is usually in hyperbolic contrast with exactly right, but is sometimes applied elliptically, when there is believed to be exactly one way in which to have been wrong.)

Even if one is not greatly concerned with rigor, these distinctions can be important. Asking members of an audience to be more accurate when one wants them to be more precise may inadvertently suggest to the audience that one thinks them to have been untruthful! Typically, risking that inference brings no benefit. It would then be better to ask them to be more precise or more exact.[5] The latter may work best with the passive-aggressive or with the autistic, who might otherwise be more precise while less accurate.

[1] The coördinates of a word are simply the other parts of speech built of the same root and carrying the same general sense adapted to a different grammatical rôle. For example, the adjective accurate and the adverb accurately are coördinate with the abstract noun accuracy.

[2] In discussions of computer science, the everyday distinction between accuracy and precision is made more emphatic, because the mathematics of computing is discrete, and limitations in detail have important implications. For example, ordinary floating-point encoding imperfectly represents numbers such as 1/10. That’s why calculators and computers so often seem to add or to subtract tiny fractions to or from the ends of numbers. Number-crunching scientist who do not themselves recognize this issue have generated spurious results by proceeding as if computers have unlimited precision, and thus by mistaking artefacts of limited precision for something meaningful within the data. I strongly suspect that a major reason that so many reported econometric results were not subsequently found by other researchers poring over the very same data was that the original researchers (or, sometimes, the later researchers!) were not taking into account the implications of limited precision.

[3] The words just and only can carry the same meaning, but often bring normative implications.

[4] In mathematics, x translates to for some x, while ∃!x translates to for exactly one x.

[5] Asking a person to be more just or more only would almost surely provoke bafflement.

Styling Programs

3 September 2016

Just as in a natural language there are issues of style on top of those of grammar, of orthography, and of syntax, there are issues of style in computer languages.

For example, in some languages, var = 3 sets var to 3, while var == 3 tests whether var is (already) equal to 3. Omit an = in a test, and the test accidentally becomes an assignment; many programs silently fail as a result of such an omission. But adopt the style of always putting any constant on the left side of the test (eg, 3 == var) and the error (eg, 3 = var, which attempts to set 3 to something) is noticed as soon as the compiler or interpetter reaches it. (There are compilers, interpretters, and separate utilities that will spot possible instances of errors of this sort. It’s good to use tools with these features, but best not to be dependent upon them; and one doesn’t want the notice of a genuine error to be lost in a sea of largely spurious warnings.)

The specifications of some computer languages, especially of those that are older, significantly limit the lengths of names and of labels; but it’s otherwise stylistically best to chose names and labels that clearly identify the nature of whatever is named or labelled. Transparent names and labels then function as integrated documentation. One identifies a lazy or thoughtless programmer by the needless use of opaque names and labels. In Java, the stylistic convention is to name things in ways that clearly identify them; and the convention is to camel-case the names of variables, methods, and classes (eg, countOfBadBits); other languages also allow names to be clearly identifying, but the convention is to separate naming words with underscores (eg, count_of_bad_bits). One uses the naming convention that prevails amongst programmers of that language, so as not to throw-off other programmers who have to deal with the code; it is literally uncivil[1] to use the convention prevailing amongst programmers of one language when writing code in a language where a different convention prevails. (Had it been up to me, then we’d use a different naming style in Java; but it wasn’t up to me and I abide by the prevailing convention.)

Many languages end statements with ;. When I helped other students debug SAS programs, I found that the error that they most often made was to omit that semicolon. Sometimes the program wouldn’t compile, but sometimes it would compile and silently do something unintended. So I told them to put a space just before the semicolon. The program would still compile just fine if otherwise properly done; but, with all the semicolons visually floating instead of being up against something else, an omission would more easily be spotted. I don’t myself use this style for every language in which it would work, but I adopt it for languages in which I notice myself or others omitting the semicolon.

(I was reminded of the general issue of coding style when working on some code written in Python, and wondering whether to put a space before each semicolon.)

[1] Civility is not conterminous with pleasantry; but, rather, a matter of behaving to avoid and to resolve conflict in interaction with other persons.

Location and Identity; of Angels and Pins and Important Things

27 August 2016

Most or all of us have heard or read of the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This question was introduced to satirize and to dismiss a problem that challenged scholastic philosophers, namely Given that there are things that do not have body but do have location, can two or more of these things occupy the same location at the same time? Now, we might labor the idea of body; but suffice it to say that it were presumed that things with body could not simultaneously occupy the exact same location, but that there were things of another class that could occupy the exact same location as could a thing with body. The question then was whether they could occupy the same location as other things of their own class.

One of the ways in which this puzzle had bearing was on attempts to understand the nature of devils (fallen angels) and how they might interact with ordinary people. The question thus actually had bearing on the witchcraft mania.

But another way in which this question had bearing was in consideration of how we distinguish one thing from another, perceptually and conceptually. In theory, two things might be identical except for location, but the distinct locations perhaps permit us to discern that there are two things, rather than one. And, if the location of an object at any one time is unique to that object, one can combine a description that might fit many other things with that location to identify a singular object, and thus to have an intrinsically singular corresponding concept, as opposed to a concept that might fit more than one thing.

That perhaps seems perfectly sound, but I don’t understand space as other than a structure of relationships. For example, when a physicist asserts that objects of mass warp space increasingly with that mass, I take this to be no more or less than a claim that objects of larger or smaller mass have different spatial relationships with things, and cause other things to have different spatial relationships each with others. (The latter implies that a spatial relationship involving the object of mass underlies the spatial relationships amongst the things other than that object.) When we attempt to distinguish objects based upon location, which is a matter of relationships amongst objects, remarkable considerations arise.

First imagine a very small universe, having just one body in it. A universe is not small by virtue of one hitting a wall after travelling some distance; it is small by virtue of having a non-Euclidean geometry, such that after a relatively short amount of travel one finds oneself back where one started. As light travelled from the object, it would eventually find its way back to the object. If one could somehow see, as if within this universe, and looked in various directions, with sufficiently strong vision, one might see the object, seemingly off in the distance, even if the view began as if one were standing right at or on the object. Seemingly beyond the object, one might see the object yet again, and so forth. That’s the experience in one sort of universe. Now imagine an infinitely large universe, as if built by tiling duplicate sectors, in which there were infinitely many objects, positioned to given the same experience as in the first universe.

I declared that a universe had just one object; I declared that a universe had infinitely many objects. I don’t actually believe that the apparently second universe is intrinsically distinct from the first. I think that we may conceptualize the first universe as the second, and vice versa, and that the count of objects is an artefact of our conceptualization. Of course, if there were no more than indiscernible differences amongst what seemed to be infinitely many objects, then I might claim that there were no practical differences from a universe of one object; but I here make the stronger claim that, if there are no differences beyond perhaps whatever is captured by the two given descriptions of location, then these descriptions are each of the same universe. It would simply beg the question to insist that one universe is different from the other in that one were finite but configured so that it seemed infinitely repeating, while the other truly were infinite and repeating. Granted that viewing as if within the universe seems to locate a means of viewing close to one object. (One might even imagine oneself invisibly located as an additional object in the universe.) But how is the location of that means near one object distinct from its location near all of them? (How is oneself’s being located in the universe near one object distinct from the location of a perfect duplicate of oneself being near each of them?)

In a universe more like our own, if we had what seemed to be two otherwise indistinguishable objects at different locations, there would be other discernible objects that seemed to support a distinction. What we might regard as one object would be near to various other objects, and far from still others. Likewise for what we might regard as a different object, with a distinct set of things.

Let’s mentally step away from that scenario for a bit, and return to the scholastic problem of things that do not have body but do have location. If two of these things are otherwise indistinguishable, and if they can occupy the same location at the same time, then ex hypothesi there is no way to distinguish one from another when they do occupy the same location. (The space occupied might be different when both moved into it — for example, it might become less translucent — but that doesn’t mean that we can distinguish one of two things from another. And if the properties of these things are not in some sense additive or subtractive, but combine according to inclusive disjunction — that is to say that the attribute is either there or not, but has no further possible ordering to it — then we cannot tell how just many of these things are there by discernment of these properties.)

But, when they occupy the same location, I ask whether there are in fact two things. What would be the difference of two such things coming to occupy one location from two otherwise identical things coming to be one thing at one location? Perhaps what seemed one thing might again become two, but that wouldn’t prove that they had remained distinct at the one location. Perhaps one thing might have become three, each just like the two from which the one had been formed. My experience (and, as I believe, yours) is that this has never happened. But I know of no logic that prevents it from happening; it merely violates my present best guess of the physical laws (which entail principles of conservation). If what seemd to be two things came together and seemed to be one, and then that one thing seemed to become three, some person might guess that what had earlier seemed to be two things were atually three things, two already in combination. But if all the attributes combined in conformance with inclusive disjunction, then in what sense would that be different from just what had seemed to happen?

If we accept that two otherwise indistinguishable things become one thing when they occupy one location, does that thing continue to exist should it become two things? Is it one of the two things? both of the two things? each of the two things? Is the proper answer different when the two things are indistinguishable except for location from what was one thing?

(If we are transporting some very great criminal by paddy wagon and, upon arrival, find three persons, each indistiguishable from the person whom we tossed into the wagon, and each insisting that he is just that person, do we treat each of them as that person, or charge each with no more than abetting an escape, on the theory that it is most likely of any given one of them that he is not that person? This problem might be primarily epistemological — so that one of the three suspects is our original perpetrator even if we shall never know whom — but that’s bad enough; and we can make it still more fundamental if we allow for teleportation and for matter duplication.)

Let’s mentally step back to the scenario of two otherwise indistinguishable objects at different locations in a universe rather like our own. Are these actually two objects, or one object that is bi-located, or one object in one location that appears as two locations because of a strangeness of space? Do these three descriptions actually distinguish different realities? If we mark one of these apparently two objects and see an identical mark appear on the other, do we regard it as the same object, or as two objects such that one is some sort of sympathy with the other? If we mark what seems one object and a mark does not appear on the other, do we regard this as proof that there were never one bilocated object nor a weirdness of space, or do we interpret this case as of one object becoming two distinct objects (with an end to the bilocation or with an adjustment of space), perhaps exactly as a a result of our action? (The classic formulation of Ockham’s Razor is entia non sunt multiplicanda præter necessitatem. If we posit that there were always two objects, are we conforming to that prescription?)

Because space need not be as Euclid had insightfully assumed and as Platon and Kant had thoughtlessly presumed, we can interpret any case where we have what otherwise must be a single thing simulatenously occupying multiple locations as in fact that single thing in one location. The practical cost, however, is that we are compelled to identify locations by the things occupying them (and not merely by the things about them); but we had set-out to identify things by the locations that they occupied!

Let’s say that we have an object in a strange space, so that it is effectively bilocated, and we point to it and say this. Assuming that we don’t also say not that, pointing to the other apparent location, is there any problem? It is one thing to incorporate mistaking of one thing for two into an assertion; another simply not to recognize some of the characteristics of that one thing. (There is a problem if Selina Kyle cries I am in love with Bruce Wayne, not with the Batman! but there would have been no such problem had she simply declared I am in love with Bruce Wayne!)

But if the case of two otherwise identical but differently located objects (perhaps each in perfect sympathy with the other) and the case of one apparently bilocated object are really just different descriptions of the same situation, then the applicability of not that — and number more generally — seems in some cases to be an artefact of the descriptive framework. Especially in the context of such implications, some people will insist that one of these descriptions must surely be mistaken, even if as a practical matter we cannot tell which. (Some people will further insist that the description that conforms to simpler spatial relations (that of two objects in perfect sympathy) is the one that is more likely correct; other people will insist that the description that requires fewer objects (that of a bilocated object) is more likely correct.) However, the apparent contradiction isn’t internal to either description, and each description may be translated into the other. That one of them is right doesn’t make the other wrong.

If I cannot point to something and say this and thereby distinguish it not merely from everything not there but from everything not it, then how can I have an intrinsically singular concept? To baldly incorporate singularity into a concept is just question-begging. (One ought not to say that two spheres are exactly alike except just in-so-far as one is unique, or is uniquely unique.)

Where, then, is singularity to be found? I think that it is to be found in experience, literally. The raw stuff of experience is sensation and sense-perception, not conception. (We may have concepts of sensations, but sensations are not themselves concepts; we may have concepts of sense-perceptions, but sense-perceptions are not themselves concepts.) Percepts and concepts are constructed to explain sensation and sense-perception. Those percepts and concepts may be perfectly accurate, but they are not intrinsically singular except to the extent that we associate them with sensation or with sense-perception. That is to say, for example, that we have a cluster of sensation or of sense-perception, and we have or build a concept of something by which to explain it, which concept is not singular except in-so-far as we implicitly or explicitly add to it the attribute of causing that particular cluster. And, if we do that, then we must in such case commit to a concept that does not allow co-location of otherwise identical things. That is not to say that we forbid co-location in general; but that singular concepts cannot be fitted to such co-located things. (It is probably a very bad idea to construct an explanatory model that employs co-location of otherwise identical things all of whose attributes combine in accordance with inclusive disjunction.)

In any case, the alternatives to exploring such considerations are dogmatism and nihilism. There is nothing intrinsically practical about dogmatism nor about nihilism, which stand in the way of our understanding the universe as deeply as we might and of our helping those who lose (or never find) their ways in their own attempts to understand the world. The scholastics who worried about the relationship of location to identity during what have come to be dismissed as the Dark Ages were concerned with foundational questions of what we ought to practice. It is fine to jest about their efforts only if the joke does not hide the truth.

With It

28 July 2016

I’m not a great fan of Star Trek, for reasons that I won’t labor here; but at times it provides useful cultural references.

Various people have drawn a comparison between the Clinton campaign and the Borg, prompting me to put together this logo [image combining modified Hillary Clinton logo with Borg announcement] And then to make stickers and magnets with it available at CafePress. Presumably anyone voluntarily displaying one of these magnets or stickers would be doing so ironically.

(For what little it’s worth, I endorse no candidate, and still will not be voting for the least of the n evils.)

Up-Date (2016:07/29): Resistance is difficult. Yester-day after-noon, I received notice from CafePress that my graphic was being investigated as a possible violation of intellectual property. This charge is absurd, in that the Clinton logo and slogan are too simple to be copyrighted and no trademark protection has been attempted; likewise for the Borg reference. And, even if the Clinton logo and slogan were intellectual property, none-the-less my use of these elements would constitute fair use. (Though it must be admitted that, since I am not satirizing the Borg, if there were intellectual property there then my use would be more questionable.)

While the image is under investigation, the items on which it was to be placed are unavailable. A decision is supposed to come within 48 hours of the announcement. Of course, someone at CafePress may make a partisan call; such actions have become commonplace. In that case, I will look for a different service through which to get things produced.

Up-Date (2016:07/29): Resistance continues. CafePress simply chose to misrepresent the design as in violation of their stated content policy. So, as I said that I would, I’ve begun migrating to alternative vendors. I will also be billing CafePress for my labor.