Monday, March 14, 2005

Is New Jersey an Artifact? or Worldmaking? No Way!

We are makers. We make some things physically, other things conceptually. If I hanker after an ‘early undergraduate’ bookshelf, I fabricate it from bricks and boards. But I also make poems, puns, blog posts, and taxonomies. We undoubtedly have the power to make, and very considerable powers when we work in concert with intelligent others; but how far does this power extend?

Some say that it extends unto our being worldmakers. They think the whole world and everything in it is a conceptual fabrication both as to existence and as to essence. I find this sort of conceptual idealism preposterous. The world may be a divine artifact, but it certainly is no human artifact. (I speculate that it is because of the Death of God in Nietzsche’s sense that some philosophers recently have been toying with the wacky idea that we can take over a considerable range of divine tasks. But I won’t develop this speculation here.)

Consider the question whether New Jersey is an artifact. The example is from Robert Schwartz ("I am Going to Make You a Star," Midwest Studies in Philosophy XI (1987), pp. 427-439, p. 431 f.) Schwartz holds that "the world is a product of our conceptualizations. . . ." (427) If so, then New Jersey is a conceptual artifact. Consider

1. New Jersey is on the Atlantic.

As Schwartz points out, there is a sense in which the state of New Jersey is an artifact of legislative and other decisions by human beings. Had there been no human beings, there would have been no state of NJ, and had our forefathers decided differently (by drawing boundaries differently, etc.) then NJ would have had different properties than we presently take it to have. Obviously, the number of coal deposits, forests, lakes, etc. in the state of NJ depends on what the boundaries are. So it looks as if NJ is a conceptual fabrication both in its existence and in its properties.

But surely Schwartz makes things too easy for himself here. What we normally intend by (1) is something like

1*. The land mass denoted by ‘New Jersey’ abuts the Atlantic Ocean.

That is, when we assert (1) we have in mind the land mass, not the political entity. The former is not identical to the latter for the simple reason that the former can exist whether or not the latter exists. (Just ask the Indians whose ancestors were native to the region.). Now could it be true of the land mass that it is a conceptual fabrication?

Granted, the political entity exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. No people, no polis. But it is not the case that the corresponding land mass exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. It does no good to point out that the word ‘land mass,’ the concept land mass, the units of measure (square miles, etc.) used to measure the land mass derive from us. I’m talking about the land itself, the topsoil, the subsoil, all the way down to the center of the earth. The existence of that chunk of land, pace Schwartz, is a state of affairs "untinged by cognitive intervention."(433) That chunk of land in no way depends on us for its existence. And the same goes for some of its properties. Of course, its being cultivated depends on us. But not so for the antecedent fertility of the land which allows its being cultivated so as to produce crops.

Schwartz tells us that "the facts about New Jersey are dependent on our activities of categorization and classification." (433). In one sense, this is trivially true. For facts about are just true propositions. For example, the fact that X exists is just the true proposition that X exists. And if you think of a proposition as a mental entity, then indeed the facts about NJ depend on minds and their conceptual activities. Aboutness (intentionality) gets into the world through minds.

But there is a distinction between facts that and facts about on the one hand, and truth-making facts on the other. The fact of the earth’s being spheroid, for example, is not a representational structure. It is not about anything. It is rather that which makes-true the proposition expressed by ‘The earth is spheroid.’

Now consider that we are categorizers and conceptualizers. Is my being a conceptualizer a product of someone’s conceptualization? If yes, then whose? Do I conceptualize myself as a conceptualizer, thereby creating my being a conceptualizer? Or would you prefer a vicious infinite regress: A’s being a conceptualizer derives from B’s conceptualizing A as a conceptualizer, et cetera?

It gets worse when we consider my existence. Does my existence derive from someone’s acts of conceptualizing? Do I ‘bootstrap’ my way into existence by conceptualizing myself as existent? Not even God could bootstrap himself into existence: Causa sui need not be interpreted to mean that God causes himself to exist; it is more plausibly taken to mean that God is not caused by another. And if God is not up to the task, then surely your humble correspondent isn’t either. Or would you rather bite into another vicious infinite regress?

If you say that we conceptualizers just exist, then you have an excellent counterexample to the claim that the world "is a product of our conceptualizations." (427) Or do you prefer to say that the world depends on us, but that we are not in the world?

More absurdities unmasked later. This post was inspired by a comment by Peter Wizenberg on a post of mine over at Right Reason.