Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pushing language too far

Quantum Mechanics has borne much fruit. Is this fruit poisonous? Probably not. But is the total weight of the fruit borne by Quantum Mechanics even or odd when rounded to the nearest pound? Unlike the question whether the fruit is poisonous, the question about whether the weight is even or odd is just silly—it pushes the metaphor too far, in the sense that there is no natural meaning in the metaphor to be assigned to any answer to it.

The formation rules for meaningful metaphorical discourse do not have unrestricted compositionality. While "The fruit borne by Quantum Mechanics is sometimes bitter" is probably meaningful, "The fruit borne by Quantum Mechanics is sometimes elongated" has no meaning unless we choose to assign one to it. The latter sentence takes the metaphor too far.

A sign of metaphor being pushed too far is that classical logic has the appearance of failing. It appears to be neither true that the fruit of Quantum Mechanics is sometimes elongated nor that the fruit of Quantum Mechanics is never elongated, contrary to bivalence. To ask which is the case is to be silly. The same apparent failure of classical logic can occur when we make too involved inferences from a metaphorical claim, for instance when we conclude that Quantum Mechanics is partly made of carbon atoms, because only plants bear fruit and all plants are partly made of carbon atoms.

Here is a different kind of metaphor (I heard this metaphor—though I don't remember if it was identified as a metaphor—in discussion at INPC): The average plumber has 2.3 children. Let's press on. Stipulate, no doubt contrary to fact, that exactly half of all plumbers are male and exactly half of all plumbers are female. So, is the average plumber male? No. Is the average plumber female? No. Is the average plumber human? Certainly (supposing there are no alien plumbers). So, the average plumber is a human who is neither male nor female. Now, maybe there are such rare humans (this is a difficult question about the metaphysics of sex), but since by stipulation none of them are plumbers, surely the average plumber isn't one of them. Wondering about this bit of weirdness is, however, silly. It is taking the metaphor of the average plumber too far. Once we start saying that the average plumber is a human who is neither male nor female, we take our metaphor beyond the narrow region of the space of sentences where it makes sense.

Now, some metaphysicians, including me, think that in an important sense there are no tables or chairs. There are only particles or fields arranged tablewise or chairwise. It is a tough problem for these metaphysicians to defend their own use of ordinary language about tables and chairs—their saying things like "There are ten chairs in the room."

I think our ordinary language about artifacts has some things in common with metaphorical language. Take something like the question of how much of the wood of the table you can replace, and in how large chunks, while maintaining the same table? I think one can have a sense of discomfort with the question. After enough fast replacement of wood, one is tempted both to deny that one has the same table and to deny that one has a distinct table. The question seems to be a matter for our decision—much as it is a question for our decision whether we count last year's average plumber, with his/her/its 2.29 children, as the same individual as this year's average plumber with his/her/its 2.30. In the plumber case, the decision is a decision what to understand identity across time in the metaphor as standing for (maybe by saying that the average plumber is the same last year as this year we want to metaphorically signal that there was no en masse replacement of plumbers). And, I think, the ordinary folk think there is something a bit humorous and unserious about pressing the question whether after the replacement we have the same table, just as they would in the plumber case.

These things suggest that when we ask whether we have the same table, we can be pushing language too far, just as we sometimes do in metaphorical cases. And this, in turn, suggests that we should not take "There is a table here" at face value.

I will stop short of saying that our ordinary language of tables and chairs is literally metaphorical, that "their existence is metaphorical". Instead I'd like to say that our ordinary language of tables and chairs behaves in certain important respects metaphorically. Among these respects is that we should not expect arbitrary compositions of such language to be meaningful, and we should not expect to have classical logic hold on the surface level.

I actually think classical logic holds even in cases of metaphor. But it holds not at the linguistic level, but at the level of the propositions expressed by the metaphorical claims. "The average plumber has 2.3 children" expresses the same proposition as some sentence like "The average of the numbers of children had by plumbers is 2.3", and the latter sentence better reflects the logical structure of the proposition.


Heath White said...

My metaphysical intuitions, such as they are, are diametrically opposed. I am most firmly convinced that there are one desk and three chairs in my office, and I will give up pretty much anything else before I give up that. Likewise that I own one cat, no matter how you count the loose hairs.

I suppose my view of language is that “metaphor” is the fundamental phenomenon—virtually every new term invented is a form of metaphor—and literal speech is a peculiarly sedimented and dessicated form of metaphor. Classical logic requires the artificial imposition of sharp boundaries on the world and language, and to really make it apply we have to resort to mythical entities, i.e. propositions.

This bears on the first of the intuitions mentioned in your previous post, that there is no vagueness at the “fundamental” level. Why not? My feeling is that there is obviously vagueness at the non-fundamental level, thus classical logic gets us into tangles; the conviction that there is some other, fundamental level where there are no tangles, and that the language we ordinarily use is a species of (impossible) fiction, is a product of the faith in classical logic. (Maybe “no vagueness at the fundamental level” is the opiate of the philosophers; it makes this vague macro world more bearable.)

I also question the notion of “fundamentality” which shows up in the second intuition, that humans are fundamental entities. This seems to have two roles. (1) Fundamental entities are not composed of anything. But even on Thomist grounds this strikes me as wrong, we are bodies+souls. (2) Fundamental entities are the only things there are or could be. I mean: you want to say that, strictly speaking, there are no tables and chairs. If I understand you right, this is not a synthetic proposition; there aren’t any because the predicates ‘table’ and ‘chair’ allow for vagueness, and there can’t be any vague entities. I am inclined to say, rather, that humans are evaluatively “fundamental”, i.e. really important, but that nothing follows about their metaphysical composition.

Two concluding points. First, the aspect of classical logic that strikes me as problematic is the sharp edges of predicates, and the correlative insistence that every statement is determinately true or false. (Some related issues about determinate reference, and unrestricted quantification, too.) I am not particularly sympathetic to non-standard rules of inference or multiple truth values. Second, metaphysics always struck me as one of the weirder branches of analytic philosophy; that is why I never studied it closely and that, perhaps, is why I am no good at it. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Quick response to one thing: "Fundamental entities are not composed of anything. But even on Thomist grounds this strikes me as wrong, we are bodies+souls"

I think the Thomist can say that a fundamental entity x is not composed of parts that are explanatorily prior to x. And neither the body nor the soul is explanatorily prior to the person, but rather the person is explanatorily prior to them.

Alexander R Pruss said...


At one level, we mainly agree on logic and language and propositions. Yes, almost all of our language is metaphorical. Yes, classical logic applied to the sentences of our language imposes a sharpness that isn't there.

But we have different recommendations based on that. I say: Go with propositions and take classical logic to be a great discovery of some of the structure of and interrelation between propositions (and hence, derivatively, of those parts of language that correspond to the propositions in a fairly natural way). And you say: Go with language.

Heath White said...


Yes, I think your diagnosis is right. Wittgenstein is a big influence on me here. If you care, see e.g. PI 69, 88, 89, 91, 94, 96-104, 132, and especially 81 and 107.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the theist, and maybe only the theist, gets to have some hope of getting past these Wittgensteinian issues and maintaining a straight-laced logic. :-) This remark is in the same spirit as my post on epistemicism.

Heath White said...

I think this view (exactness at the fundamental level, fueled by theism) has the following puzzle.

If our thoughts are given us by God, who has perfectly precise thoughts or at least lays down rules for them, then perhaps there is a fact of the matter about which piles of sand are heaps. Likewise, I would think, there is a fact of the matter about which entities are chairs. So one should not say that, strictly speaking, there are no chairs: it’s just somewhat mysterious what a chair is.

But further, perhaps there is a fact of the matter about whether the fruit of QM is sometimes elongated. Perhaps God has just not deigned to inform us of the boundaries of ‘elongated’ as applied to the fruit of QM. (Or the precise boundaries of ‘fruit’.)

Now, that probably sounds crazy. One way to get out of it is to say that there is a strict (not vague!) distinction between literal and metaphorical language, and God’s thoughts are all strictly literal. Metaphors, then, and logically related phenomena like ‘chair’ and ‘heap’, are our own human creation; perhaps they’re so squirrely because of our imperfections. This idea faces the problem that people speak and think in metaphorical terms all the time, indeed much more so than in strictly literal terms. That makes it hard to defend the idea that God gives us our language (the one we actually use) in any significant sense.

David Parker said...

This is interesting because I've heard an objection to shipwise planks that runs like this: there must be something more to the ship than its constituents because the ship can float while the same planks (rearranged unshipwise) might not float.

I suppose the same thing can be said the the solidity of the table. It reduces causally to whatever molecular stuff is going on there...but does it reduce ontologically? It sounds like you think that it does (or at least we should address it at the right level when we need certain levels of precision).

Hmm I suppose the same thing can be said about mental properties and whether or not cognitive neurosci. is the proper level of description for certain mental phen.

Sorry I'm all over the place. But this post has my brain going!

Alexander R Pruss said...


Theistic epistemicism does not say that every noise you could utter in fact has a meaning. Rather, it says that if a noise has meaning, then it has a fully precisely meaning. So it's quite compatible with "Some of the fruit of QM is elongated" and "This is the same table as before the tabletop was replaced" having no meaning.

But it is a nice point that the epistemicism is also compatible with "Some of the fruit of QM is elongated" and "This is the same table as before the tabletop was replaced" having a meaning. (Actually, given theism, there are two ways that there could be fully sharp identity conditions for tables: (a) God could make our words be fully sharp; or (b) God could, by his power over being, control when tables go in and out of existence.)

So maybe the way to make your point is this: Once one adopts theistic epistemicism, then my reasons against taking language about ordinary objects at face value are no longer compelling. I am not sure. I think it may be true of some of my reasons. But others, I think, remain.

Or one can put it like this: Once one adopts the kind of anti-compositional anti-literalistic view of language that I am drawn to, there is no longer any need for epistemicism. And that may well be the case.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I am not sure how the ship case works. It's not the planks' individual ability to float the explains the ship's floating, but the complex interaction between the planks, their joints and the water that explains the ship's floating.

"Hmm I suppose the same thing can be said about mental properties and whether or not cognitive neurosci"

I want to resist this in the mental case, partly because I think I am the fundamental entity there, not bits of my brain.

Heath White said...


Yes, I like the way you put it. I was thinking last night that there are two different ways of defending the honor of classical logic: one is the ordinary-language nihilism of "there are no tables" and the other is epistemicism "we don't know precisely what tables are." There's no real reason to have both.

David Parker said...

Presumably, the arrangement of planks brings something into being with causal powers that the planks themselves didn't have (the ship can float). But if we think more precisely about it, it seems that what we really have is a ship-wise arrangement of planks that is conducive to a certain causal relation with water called "floating."

Of course, with consciousness this brings up an interesting point (I'm a theist, but just thinking like John Searle here for a minute). If the reason we are to suppose that the mind can't just be brainstates is that the mind has certain properties that brain states don't have (consciousness, qualia, etc.)...wouldn't the same reply work here as well? That's a bad argument because really what we have are the brain-wise arrangement of neural networks which are conducive to a certain causal relation we call "consciousness."

I probably just don't understand some of Searle's arguments against materialism. But I'm thinking that the problems with language you are discussing play a role.

(My understanding of Searle here is he agrees that all mental features reduce causally to whatever is in the basement, but he maintains that they don't reduce ontologically.)

David Balcarras said...

Alex, it seems to me there are three things you seem to advocate that seem in tension with one another. Here you agree that tables and chairs and such are really just particles and fields arranged tablewise or chairwise. I assume you'd hold the same view about human bodies. But, you claim that persons are fundamental entities, and I remember in an old post you emphasized the importance of the body to constituting a person, agreeing with Wittgenstein that "The human body is the best picture of the human soul." Do you still agree with this? How can persons (in some way) be their bodies if persons are fundamental and their bodies are not?

Alexander R Pruss said...

David Parker:

One could say that about the mental, but then one would have to say that in the strict sense one doesn't exist. There just are neurons arranged youwise. And any view according to which I don't exist is going to be unpopular with me. :-)

David Balcarras:

"Here you agree that tables and chairs and such are really just particles and fields arranged tablewise or chairwise. I assume you'd hold the same view about human bodies."

No, I don't hold this view about human bodies. The human body exists in virtue of the person being there, not in virtue of the particles and fields.

Living things are special. :-)

Dianelos Georgoudis said...


I tend to agree that all language is metaphorical, after all all concepts refer to something or other. I also tend to agree that metaphors, and thus language, can sometimes go too far. I wonder sometimes whether the philosophical propensity of building technical language on top of technical language, and distinctions on top of distinctions, is not such a case of pushing language too far.

I think it’s useful to apply the following reality check. Before even wondering whether an idea is true or not, consider what the relevance of that idea is. What change would it make to me if that idea is true or not? If it is not clear what that change might be then, I say, it’s not worth one’s while to think about whether that idea is true or not. So, for example, perhaps there is some relevance to the idea of quantum mechanics being an elongated fruit, but unless one sees what that relevance is it’s not worth thinking about it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This reality check looks like it can be useful (though it is fallible), thanks!

However, I doubt that all language could be metaphorical, without some regress or circularity. Think of the first bit of language ever used. How could that be metaphorical?

Perhaps all you're saying is that the metaphorical-literal distinction is bogus. Then you can also say that all language is literal. :-) I am friendly to that suggestion.

Note, too, that one might want to distinguish between such modes of apparently non-literal speech as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, etc.

Michael said...

"If some arrangement of some particles is identical to me,
Pray tell just what arrangement of which paricles I might be."

My Inventory of particles might at any time be any of an infinite (or at least really big) number.

The Arrangements of those Inventories might be any of an infinite (or really big) number.

The possible Arrangements of possible Inventories alleged to be sufficient for my existence will surely overlap those of my identical twin, and lots more people beyond that (including myself at 10 years old...imagine those assembled now beside me).

So any Arrangement of any Inventory of particles could not possibly be me (without being, impossibly, all those others as well).

Ergo, whatever I am, I'm no Arrangement of Particles.

Michael said...

Take two:

Take any of the Arrangements of Particles I might allegedly be. Each is distinct from the others. Ergo, I am not any one of them. Identity is necessary.

Michael said...

Take three:

Maybe you're worried this is too much of a snapshot, a moment of time, an arrangement slice. So stretch them over time, call these sequences of possible Arrangements of possible Inventories over time "Movies". The number of Movies I might allegedly be identical with will also be infinite (or really big), and none is identical with any of the others. Ergo, I'm no sequence of Arrangements, no "Movie" either.

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