Do Groups Believe?

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse, 1928; Man Ray, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Max Morise

1. Introduction

We often refer to the beliefs of groups. We might say we think it’s a lovely day out, or that Americans believe democracy to be the best form of government. To what sorts of phenomena do we refer when speaking this way? In the context of belief, should words such as Americans and we be viewed as shorthand for summing up the individually held beliefs of a group’s members? Or, rather, do such words sometimes correctly refer to a group engaged, as a unified entity, in the collective activity of believing? If the latter is true, then it’s possible for a group to believe that p, while the individuals who constitute that group each believes that not-p. Call this sort of belief, in which a group literally has belief of its own, collective belief (while, for clarity’s sake, I’ll use group belief as a neutral term).

On my view, groups are not capable of collective belief. This distinguishes belief from many other sorts of activities. When Mary sings a C and Larry sings an E, for example, Mary and Larry collectively sing a major third, though neither individually sings a major third. Likewise, they might hug, cook dinner, or make the bed. Belief doesn’t seem to work this way: to correctly say that Mary and Larry believe their house is haunted, both must believe that proposition. Ascriptions to larger groups may afford some leeway in this regard, but still require that most members hold the group belief. Continue Reading


Rachel Dolezal: Race, Gender, Sex, and Social Group Membership

rachel-dolezalAnd now for the intriguing case of Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington NAACP leader who was born white but identifies and represents herself as black. This was working well for her — she’s been passing as black for years, apparently — until a few days ago, when her biological parents outed her. [Update: She announced her resignation as NAACP chapter president on 6/15/15.]

This controversial story has sparked important, hopefully long-enduring, discussions about the ramifications of race’s status as a social construct. If it is a social construct, some argue (often as a bluff-calling dig at Caitlyn Jenner supporters; more on that below), then Dolezal’s performance as a black woman should be respected as an authentic expression of the space she occupies in society.

But this is wrong. Even if race is a social construct (which it is; to see this: a white woman can have a black baby, but a black woman cannot have a white baby), this doesn’t mean that Dolezal’s self-identification as black must be honored. Society, through its collective activities, determines the conditions of race identification–i.e., creates the (very real) phenomenon to which we refer when we use the word race. She is not society. Continue Reading


Pulse: You Are a Series of Non-Repeating Events

gif-black-wallpaperI often find myself wondering with fascination about the role experience plays in shaping our conception of the world. Recently, I was inspired to think about repetition in this context. That is, we have a deep sense that there are repeating events. But such a thing must be true only in experience, given that any event is, in some way, distinct from all others. Put another way, any event is only identical to itself. At the same time, repetition often has great significance for us, a significance that seems to touch on something true about the world independent of human experience.

Here are some brief musings on the relation between ‘event repetition,’ experience, and our world-conception. What there is to be learned here, I’m not sure. Yet I find myself drawn to this line of inquiry, and do get a fuzzy sense that there is something to be gained from reflecting on it.* Perhaps a deeper investigation into event repetition — both perceptually experienced and not — could reveal useful tidbits for when dealing with bigger questions, such as those related to cognitive biases, social interaction (e.g., stereotyping), experience of ‘objects’ over time, cyclical brain-states (e.g., meditation, sleep), evolutionary psychology, personalized medicine, sense of self in the context of personal identity over time (more on this below, in Part II), and induction (experiment repeatability).

There are also moral implications to this that, I think, lend support to a particularist notion of morality: any moral event is only identical to itself. So, to know (or understand) that an event is wrong, is to know something about that particular event. This would be distinct from what I take to be a less useful (though still nice to have), general knowledge about broader categories of moral events, which have particular events as members. I’m saving that discussion for another day, however.

[*I began thinking about this topic after being asked to contribute to a newly founded magazine whose first issue was going to be broadly themed on ‘pulse.’ I drafted notes on two occasions, here presented as Parts I and II (neither of which was finalized, because the magazine folded before publication). Part I is a straightforward survey of the subject. Part II, written one morning while bleary-eyed and half-asleep, is stylized as a kind of letter inviting the reader to think of herself or himself as a series of non-identical, though significantly related, events — as a pulse.] Continue Reading


In Favor of Compositional Nihilism: A Response to the Organicism of van Inwagen

Ross & Dorr - Composition as a Fiction

How many objects are in the above box? I say three (the ‘particles’ named A, B, and C), which makes me a nihilist about composition. The universalist says seven: A, B, C, A+B, A+C, B+C, A+B+C. See Ross & Dorr’s “Composition as a Fiction” for further explanation.

In his impressive book, Material Beings, Peter van Inwagen argues in favor of an organicist theory of composition, in which the only things that count as composites are living organisms. This is to say, then, that mugs, tables, automobiles, stones, and other (non-living) things we usually take to be objects don’t actually exist; instead, the only things that exist are simples (i.e., non-composite, and thus part-less, indivisible particles) and organisms. In this paper, I intend to challenge this line of thinking, and will argue instead in favor of compositional nihilism (a.k.a., ‘mereological nihilism’), a view in which the only things that have objective existence, strictly speaking, are simples. On this view, organisms exist no more than do artifacts, heavenly bodies, or anything else that is not a simple.

I will focus especially on van Inwagen’s foundational claim that at least one composite exists: the self-reflective, thinking human being. This claim arises out of the inconceivability of thinking being a cooperative activity among a non-composite collection of particles — particularly if those particles have a unified experience such that leads to the thought, “I exist.” Before addressing van Inwagen’s position, I will first explain what I mean by ‘compositional nihilism.’ Continue Reading


Exploding the Metaphor

Painting by Don Van Vliet

(title unknown) by Don Van Vliet

One of the most irritating argumentative tactics I can think of is when an interlocutor concocts a metaphor of limited reach, and then, in an ad hoc effort to save face, explodes the metaphor (as I call it) by over-straining it. The result is an elaborate reductio ad absurdum of the interlocutor’s own making.

The best way to defuse this rhetorical device is to call the exploder’s bluff. For instance:

Jack: “Lots of music doesn’t work because it lacks a good solid framework to hold it together. Music is like architecture. You have to construct a sturdy framework, then you can proceed to build the building.”

Margie: “Ok… That’s a nice metaphor, but not all music has to be that way. I mean, music isn’t really like architecture. The physical laws that hold up a building, and thus impose certain restrictions on architects and engineers, don’t apply to music.” Continue Reading


In Defense of Sensitivity: Nozick, Kripke, and Predicate Exclusivity

In his book, Philosophical Explanations, in the chapter “Knowledge and Skepticism,” Robert Nozick endeavors to construct a set of conditions that are jointly sufficient for knowledge. Let’s call this the ‘truth-tracking’ account of knowledge. Truth-tracking is meant to deal with a range of hard epistemological cases, including Gettier-style problems and Brain-in-the-Vat-style skeptical arguments. In this paper, I aim to show that, while Nozick’s truth-tracking account doesn’t succeed as a whole (largely for reasons noted by Saul Kripke), the driving intuition of Nozick’s account may still be relevant – or even necessary – for any good theory of knowledge. I will refer to this driving intuition as ‘Sensitivity.’ What I mean by this term will become clearer as we go along.

PART I: Truth-tracking Explained

Nozick begins his project by taking for granted the usual first two conditions for knowledge: (1) p is true; (2) S believes that p. I’ll take these for granted as well. To these he adds a third condition, the subjunctive conditional: (3) If p weren’t true, S wouldn’t believe that p. We may also express this in Lewisian language as ~p□→~(SBp).[1. Nozick expresses it as: not-→ not-(S believes that p) (page 172).] I will, however, avoid such formalisms, because I want to be semantically clear about what I’m referring to. Nozick also uses ‘possible worlds’ semantics to express (3), though is not committed to such expressions.[2. “I do not mean to endorse any particular possible-world account of subjunctives, nor am I committed to this type of account” (page 174).] I will make use of these. For example, S’s belief should be counterfactually sensitive so that, in the closest worlds where not-p, S wouldn’t mistakenly believe that p. Note that (3) is the heart of Sensitivity, though it doesn’t capture the whole truth-tracking account. To develop that, let’s apply our conditions thus far to some classic hard cases. Continue Reading


Is Suicide Possible?

Vincent van Gogh - At Eternity's Gate

Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate) (1890), Vincent van Gogh

Is suicide really possible? By ‘suicide,’ I mean the intentional taking of one’s own life, which is the standard understanding of the word, but I also mean something slightly deeper than that. I mean it in a sense in which the person chooses death, not because it’s the only option she or he sees, but because she or he prefers it to life. Allow me to illustrate with a familiar scene.

A man stands before the frame of an open window, looking down from several stories up. He was driven there by the smoke and flames of a fire that continues to rage towards him. He must choose: fall or fire? The choice soon becomes obvious, but, of course, there is no real choice here.

Perhaps all suicides are like this, but not always obviously so. Perhaps many so-called suicides result from a complex array of tiny, barely perceptible forces that, as they accumulate, inch their victim day by day closer to the moment in question. When that day comes, the victim, overwhelmed, blinded, and choked by the now massive firestorm that envelopes him, sees only one way out. Continue Reading


Time Travel and the Soul, Or How to Disprove God

Vesna Jovanovic - Orbits

Orbits by Vesna Jovanovic

If you want to disprove—or at least throw whatever the quantum tech industry’s equivalent of a monkey wrench is into—current conceptions of God and the soul, prove time travel. For time travel is not compatible with the notion of an indivisible soul, particularly if that soul is en route to an eternal afterlife of punishment or reward.

Imagine going back in time five minutes to face yourself. Would both of you have your soul? You might concoct some solution here—maybe about the soul actually dwelling outside the body and being somehow able to perform its metaphysical duties across time and space within multiple bodies simultaneously. After all, we go through one body after another in a lifetime, but the soul stays the same, and is what makes today’s me the same person as that bouncy little infant from decades past; many bodies, one soul.

This sort of ad hoc gerrymandering is what got us our present notion of the soul. Over the centuries, serious thinkers have relentlessly tweaked the idea in an attempt to accommodate changing conceptions of God, and in an effort to temper the ever-building discord between ancient theological frameworks and advancements in philosophy and science. Over time, the soul has gone from maybe (or maybe not) immortal, to definitely immortal (thanks, perhaps, to Egyptian influence), and has become the metaphysical (though ultimately unsatisfying) explanation for many of our most inscrutable observations about the human situation. Consciousness, bodily mobility, and personal identity among them.

But such ad-hocery won’t save the time traveler who’d like to posit the soul outside the body. Continue Reading


Democracy Doesn’t Exist

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis DavidThere’s been some controversy recently over a study out of Princeton suggesting that we in the U.S. live, not in a democracy, but rather in a system of ‘Economic Elite Domination’ (a.k.a, ‘plutocracy,’ though media reports favor the broader term ‘oligarchy’). Some have responded to this with a, “yeah, no surprise there.” I am among those. But there’s a more troubling story here, one that threatens the core concepts underlying our national identity: Democracy doesn’t exist.

I’m not just saying that democracy is merely a socially constructed concept or collection of concepts (that’s obviously true). Nor am I saying it’s merely impossible in practice, due to corruption or scarcity or what have you. What I am saying is that the concepts we take to be the constitutive elements of democracy are so incoherent and vague, they don’t compose anything — they don’t come together in a way such that the word ‘democracy’ picks something out in the world. There are no bones, or at least no skeletally adjoined ones, upon which to hang the flesh of our democratic aspirations. And so on.

‘Democracy,’ put simply, is a word used in reference to a confused, jumbled mass of incoherent ideas.

To fix this, we need to straighten out and align our concepts. Here are some of the problems in our way. I’m not attempting to solve these here, nor am I arguing for or against democracy in practice or as an ideal. That would be a much larger work.1 I will disclose, however, that I tend to favor a restricted form of democracy (a term I use, as most of us do, for lack of a better one) and, for what it’s worth, I tend to favor market socialism.

That said, here’s some of the stuff I think about — that gnaws at me — when confronted with the word ‘democracy.’

Continue Reading


Designer Babies: Reproduction Rights and (So-Called) Disability

Elisabeth Murrow by Vesna Jovanovic

Elisabeth Morrow by Vesna Jovanovic

Here’s an interesting case: A deaf couple decide they’d like to have a deaf baby, and manage to do so — twice, in fact — by enlisting a sperm donor with five generations of congenital deafness.

Did this couple do something wrong by — to paraphrase Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics — failing to reasonably maximize the advantages available to their children, thus setting limits on their children’s potential? Or did they do something right, or at least well within their ‘natural’ rights, by producing offspring most suited to the sociocultural context they know best, thus producing the circumstances most conducive to their being good parents? As one of the parents put it: “A hearing baby would be a blessing. A deaf baby would be a special blessing.”

The initial response that most of us have, it seems, is that these parents committed a moral misstep by shortchanging their children. I’m not so sure this is the correct response. Before coming to anything like a firm conclusion, here are ten challenges to which we’d need to subject our intuitions.
Continue Reading