NoR 2.3c: That, redux.

This is one of a series of posts setting out my work on the Nature of Representation. You can view the whole series by following this link

Let me recap the take-home messages of the last two posts.

  1. If Dickie is right about the architecture of demonstrative thought we can derive (something like) the result that the demonstrative “that” refers to an object at the far end of the perceptual link associated with the demonstrative concept.
  2. The proximal reason why the demonstrative will denote that object is that it uniquely makes the resulting belief-management practices associated with the demonstrative justified (here Dickie would agree).
  3. The underlying reason why justification-maximization has this role, in my account, is radical interpretation as a general story about reference-fixing.
  4. As with earlier such derivations, my account is caveated—we are assuming that to make the subject overall most rational involves, inter alia, making the particular structures associated with demonstratives most justified.
  5. Though radical interpretation at the global level is intended as a reductive story about content, there is no obligation to provide a local story about demonstratives in particular that is “reductive” in form, and we have not done so here. Rather, we have concentrated on how the the patterns in the way that reference is fixed identified by other theorists can be predicted and explained by radical interpretation.
  6. I’ve discussed some worries one might have about the extent to which the “bare” demonstrative architecture really locks on to a determinate reference. In particular, I pressed some concerns about “unnatural” objects that overlap in various ways with the “natural unity” at the end of a perceptual link. But, I argued, if bare demonstratives do turn out to be indeterminate in reference between this localized range of referents, that wouldn’t be either intuitively repugnant or theoretically damaging, since the bare demonstrative (now perhaps recast as a plural) can still play an anchoring role.

I want to finish by considering point 6 one last time. I said in the previous post that I wouldn’t be distraught if bare demonstratives turned out to be plural, or somewhat indeterminate in reference. But perhaps others would be distraught. So I want to survey the options, and whether securing determinacy for bare demonstratives would motivate a shift away from radical interpretation.

Here is one proposal: that among a range of candidate interpretations of Sally scoring equally well on “charity” (i.e. making her substantively rational) the correct one is that which assigns the most natural referents to concepts, overall. Woody the tree is a “real object” or a “material substance”, a natural unity that contrasts with Woody’s outer shell or the fusion of Woody and a bug living on his surface. David Lewis is often taken to propose something similar when it comes to assigning properties as the denotation of predicates. Ted Sider has argued for a generalization of this idea to terms in other syntactic categories.

Here is another proposal: Woody is the causal source of the beliefs that are filed away with the demonstrative concept. The shell or fusion, though they massively overlap Woody, and share his macroscopically observable properties, don’t enter into such relations (we’ll assume). So if we build a causal theory of reference, or even a constraint added to radical interpretation, that demonstratives should denote the dominant causal source of the (canonical) information in the associated file, then we get the result that the demonstrative picks out Woody.

These are two ways of securing determinate reference that do not fit with my story about radical interpretation. The first could, just about, be forced into my model. If we could make the case, in general, that one person is more substantively rational than another to the extent that her beliefs are more natural, then this sort of constraint would fall out. Sider, for one, argues that theories are better the more natural they are (the more they are framed in terms of concepts that “carve nature at its joints”, and perhaps the same goes for entire psychologies. Perhaps this could even be held to be part of justification-maximization, if the most justified body of beliefs to have is the one that is best not just by being reliable, based on evidence etc, but also reflective of the joints of nature in Sider’s sense. It’s an intriguing idea, and would fit into the remit of “first-order normative assumptions” that can be consistently and interestingly combined with radical interpretation. But this is not something I myself want to endorse.

Sticking a causal side-constraint into radical interpretation, on the other hand, would go entirely against the spirit of the programme. I would happy to see a causal pattern like this emerge as a prediction of radical interpretation, but that should be a consequence of the sort of derivation we’ve been looking at, not one of the explanatory premises. (I will be critizing the idea of monstrous metaphysics of representation obtaining by combining side constraints with radical interpretation later—but whether this is a feasible metaphysics or not, it is not my metaphysics).

If these are off the table, how might determinate reference be secured?

First idea: deny the problematic objects exist. If there is no such thing as Woody’s outer shell, or the fusion of Woody and a random microscopic bug, we’re okay. That is a way to go that I anticipate some readers will already favour. But I want to keep on board those who accept a more abundant ontology, so I will set it aside and continue to look at options.

Second idea: we might argue that the unnatural objects would not make the belief-forming practices of the bare demonstrative ones that result in justified beliefs. I already endorsed this strategy to rule out Strawsonian twins and temporal slices of our target. We could try taking it further. For example, if the microscopic bug wanders off the tree to find another home, Woody+bug will end up as a scattered object, but beliefs formed through the perceptual link will continue to attribute the property of being contained within a certain confined region. So we might start building a case that the relevant mechanisms justify beliefs about Woody’s location, but not Woody+bug.

But since we’re dealing with unnatural objects, one might now be worried about the object which coincides with Woody+bug while the bug is upon Woody, but which coincides with Woody at other times. And we extend this over counterfactual situations too: the counterparts of Woody+bug will include the bug when its counterpart is microscopic and attached to Woody, and not include it otherwise. Perhaps more readers this time will be prepared to say that such a thing does not exist. I myself am sceptical that specified counterpart relations accurately pick out the de re modal facts about the object. But there are those whose abundant ontology includes not just unnatural objects, but objects with unnatural essences (cf. McGonigal and Hawthorne). A similar dialectic can be traced for our other candidate: Woody’s outer shell.

Third idea: What’s striking about perceptual demonstratives is their closeness to immediate interaction with the world. That insight is reflected in the central role, in Dickie’s account, of the perceptual link that structures bodies of demonstrative belief. But there’s another way in which they’re close to the world: our most basic actions change the properties of objects in our immediate environment. It’s  plausible that the intentions that guide these actions are structured by demonstrative identification of those objects we most directly manipulate in action. It’s interesting that this agential link between the states of mind and an object plays no role in Dickie’s story. If (as one would expect in our actual case) the Janus-faced role of demonstratives in perception and action cohere, and the perceptual link already suffices to fix reference, then there’s no concern: the partial story suffices for explanatory purposes. But if the partial story leaves us open to underdetermination, we might want to revisit the issue. I won’t develop this in detail, for reasons of space (and because it would be pretty speculative). But I do think that the upshot will be that the kind of objects that are of concern won’t only need to share observable properties with Woody, they’ll have to share manipulable properties with Woody: those properties that we can directly change about him. That might help us here! We might not be able to observe the region of space that Woody occupies, which is why Woody’s outer shell was still in the mix as a candidate referent. But arguably (by chopping and gouging) we can change facts about what region he occupies. I can’t see this line will help that much with the bug bug, but it can do some work for us.

Final idea, and the one I think gets maximum effect from the most minimal theoretical assumptions. Consider again the derivations we’ve given. Our assumption has been that the correct interpretation overall is justification-maximizing with respect to the belief-forming and management practices that Dickie picks out for demonstratives. But that doesn’t entail that any interpretation which is justification maximizing in that particular way is correct. It could be that other ways in which the demonstratives figures in our cognitive economy also matters for reference-determination, breaking the ties left by the bare demonstrative structure alone. For example, we might “presuppose” that d is a natural object in later belief formation, for example, in characterizing a natural kind by bare demonstrative identification of exemplars and foils: “the property shared by that and that and that but not that”. Downstream belief forming practices like this will succeed in picking out natural kinds only if the referents of the demonstratives pick out exemplars that fall under natural kinds in the first place. Justification-maximization will then favour interpreting the bare demonstrative as picking out naturally unified item insofar as it falls under a natural kind, over others. Note well that it may be that such practices are attached to some demonstrative files and not others, so this might give a nuanced grip on how we sometimes secure determinate reference to natural unities, without entailing that we can only demonstratively refer to such things. And note also that this doesn’t require that we “have in mind” and attach to the demonstrative some disambiguating sortal (though this is thing that could happen in some cases, and would move us to a discussion of complex demonstrative thought).

The overall upshot: I wouldn’t be too worried if it turned out that bare demonstrative thought a la Dickie turned out to be indeterminate in various respects. I personally wouldn’t be moved to introduce some kind of causal or naturalness-based constraint on interpretation just to secure determinacy. But further, I think that working within the radical interpretation framework there are many routes by which determinacy of reference to natural unities could be established. And if this were the rule (e.g. our agent had a cognitive architecture which always presupposed that bare demonstratives picked out things falling under natural kinds) then we might derive from within the system the sort of generalizations about reference-fixing that others are tempted to introduce as unexplained explainers—e.g. a referential bias towards natural referents, or to the entity with is the causal source of the information received in perception.

Having spent this post advertising ways of securing determinacy, I want to finish by flagging again an underdetermination threat that nothing here speaks to. This is the threat posed by permuted interpretations. Take a permutation of the universe, p. Let p(a) be the image, under the permutation, of a. Let p(F) be the property that applies to something iff that thing is the image, under p, of some object that is F. Notice that necessarily, a is F iff p(a) is p(F). Original and permuted interpretation agree on the truth-conditions of every atomic thought. It turns out that they will agree on the truth-conditions of every thought.

On the permuted interpretation, a bare demonstrative based on a perceptual link to Woody denotes not Woody, but the image of Woody under the permutation, which may be anything (a small furry creature from Alpha Centauri, perhaps). Such permuted interpretations are not among those we’ve been considering at all in the last three posts, since we always took for granted the referential relations between general concepts and observable properties that figure in Dickie’s description of the way demonstratives operate—and permuted interpretations attribute a different reference to those concepts. I think we will get insight into what’s wrong with such permuted interpretations (why they are disfavoured by radical interpretation) not by saying more about demonstratives, but by considering the analogous questions about general concepts.


Comments are closed.