Friday, June 18, 2010

Radical Essentiality of Origins and a crazy theory of names

Radical Essentiality of Origins (REO) is the thesis that the complete origins of an entity x are necessary and sufficient to the identity of x. In other words, for any x, if D is a complete description of the origins of x (all the history prior to x, as well as x's initial state), then necessarily something is an x if and only if it has D. In other words, according to REO, origins function like haecceities.

REO has a number of benefits. It reduces the number of brute facts (one doesn't have to explain why I exist instead of someone just like me), it reduces transworld identity facts to REO and diachronic identity, it explains how God knows whom he will create, and so on. It has one cost: it reduces the number of possibilities, eliminating apparent possibilities that people might think are real (like the possibility that I might have lived your life, or had a slightly different causal origin, or that there be two indiscernibles). Moreover, Kripke's quantified modal logic has the deficiency that it has no room for names; but if REO is true, names aren't needed, as we can just use definite descriptions, pace Kripke.

Here's something really crazy you can do with REO. You can rescue something like the definite description theory of names. You say: a name functions as an abbreviation (in a broad sense—I will say a bit more) for a definite description in terms of origins. Thus, "Socrates" abbreviates: "The son of Phaenarete and Sophroniscus, grandson of ..., conceived at ..."

An apparent problem is that it seems that to grasp an abbreviation, you must grasp what it is an abbreviation for. But that may well be false. One can have the concept of the U.N. or of a someone's being a POW without knowing what the abbreviations stand for. (We could explain this datum by saying that there are in fact two words "POW"—one is an abbreviation and the other is a word in the idiolect of those who don't know it's an abbreviation. But the proposal that one can understand an abbreviation without knowing what it stands for is simpler.)

Maybe, though, some user of the abbreviation has to know what it's an abbreviation for. But suppose that Sally wrote down on a piece of paper some definite description, and sealed the piece in an envelope. Then she told me some facts about what satisfies the description, without telling me the description. Maybe it's a riddle and I'm supposed to guess what the description is. So I say: "Let 'D' abbreviate that definite description." I can then use "D" grammatically as a definite description. For instance, if Sally's hints imply that the description isn't (even de facto) rigid, then I can say: "D might not have been D." So I can use "D" in my language. Now, there is a question whether such use is sufficient for counting as grasp. It either does or does not. If it does, then there is no objection to the REO account of names—we just suppose that names function as abbreviations for definite descriptions of the origins, but we don't know what these definite descriptions are. But if it is not sufficient for counting as grasp, we can still say the same thing about how names function. We just have to say that we don't grasp names, though we are able to use them. Maybe only God grasps my name. Or, perhaps, the better thing to do is to distinguish different kinds of grasp. We have a sufficient grasp of a name to use it.

I don't know how this can be extended to fictional names. But Kripke's account of names has that problem, too.

A problem with this theory of names is that there isn't a unique definite description of origins. Conjuncts can be re-ordered, etc. I think to some people this isn't going to be a great cost—maybe a name is an ambiguous definite description (i.e., it's ambiguous which definite description it is), but the ambiguity does not affect extension in any possible world. (Then, maybe a fictional name is an ambiguous definite description where the ambiguity does affect extension?) I don't like that. Another problem this is that I actually think "Tully" and "Cicero" mean different things. To me, this is a very strong, maybe fatal, objection to the crazy REO-based theory of names. But it is a standard view that "Tully" and "Cicero" have the same sense, so to others this won't be much of an objection.

Enough fun for now.


Andrew said...

A possible worry for the REO:
Consider the actual world right now, at say time t. Now consider a possible world, W1, which is indistinguishable from the actual world at t, other than the fact that the beings in w1 came into existence at t-1. It seems possible that I exist in both w1 and the actual world, but I have different origins in each possible world, even though in w1 everyone justifiedly believes I have the same origin as I do in the actual world.

If the advocate of REO can dodge this worry, I think with a little more time and some scotch something can be worked up, maybe.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The advocate of REO denies the possibility of the same beings being in both worlds, since obviously they have different origins there.

I don't find it that plausible to suppose that it's possible for me to have come into existence five minutes ago. What would have made that being be me?

Andrew said...

I guess I am concerned with (or rather, confused about) the following: What facts would the advocate of REO say constitute the complete description of the origin of x?

Does it merely have to do with the sperm and egg that actual constitute me? Or, that I am the child of John and Linda? Or that I am the youngest of 3 children of John and Linda?

It seems that I could have been conceived on a different day (or even a second later) than I actually was. And, it seems possible (perhaps less possible than the former) that I could have been an only child, given that I am actually the youngest of 3. Would these be genuine possibilities for the advocate of REO?
I guess I am worried that REO rules out possibilities that seem harmless and rather plausible.

I guess I have intuitions that there are certain de re contingencies that I would not want to be ruled out by REO. But then again, I have never given this a whole lot of thought.

Alexander R Pruss said...

REO probably does rule out the possibility of having been an only child if one has older siblings. It even seems to rule out the possibility of one's having existed had Napoleon had one more hair on his head when he died.

For the simplest thing here is just to say: everything in the causal history counts. (So, basically, everything in the backwards light-cone of the conception counts.) That's part of the "R" in "REO".

Anything less than everything in the causal history, and we are apt to have problems figuring out what is to be included and what isn't.