• The “I”, personhood and abstract objects

    I have talked about abstract objects many times before, such as here. It is a fundamental area to almost everything in philosophy and is not debated nearly enough. We had a Tippling Philosophers’ debate in the pub last night about the ‘I’ and personhood, which came down to whether they really existed as concepts or not. I actually deny the continuous ‘I’.


    We had a really good discussion at TPs, talking about what the ‘I’ is that experiences and whether it persists over time, what it entails etc etc.

    Anyway, I talked about how the discussion depended upon abstracts and whether they exist or not. This is what I said on email:

    Twas a good night. Some fascinating discussion to be had…

    Guy, on nominalism vs realism (whether abstract objects exist outside of our brains), I have written a sort of beginner’s guide here, based on the famous philpapers survey question:


    It is important in the world of maths. I have just edited a book by a mathematician looking at this exact thing, such that maths is a DESCRIPTION of reality, rather than prescribing it. Numbers don’t ‘exist’ out there, but are our mental abstracta, and we should not confuse the map with the terrain.


    Given that personhood is an abstract label ascribed to x or y properties, is that relationship really real? The fact that we all disagree on what constitutes personhood, or a hero, or anything, evidences the notion that these labels are merely conceptual, and exist nowhere but in our heads.

    On personhood, we talked a little about Dennett:

    1. Persons are rational beings
    2. Persons are beings to which states of consciousness are attributed, or to which psychological or mental or intentional predicates are ascribed.
    3. Whether something counts as a person depends in some way on an attitude taken toward it, a stance adopted with respect to it.
    4. The object toward which this personal stance is taken must be capable of reciprocating in some way.
    5. Persons must be capable of verbal communication.
    6. Persons are distinguishable from other entities by being conscious in some special way: there is a way in which we are conscious in which no other species is conscious. Sometimes this is identified as self-consciousness of one sort or another.

    I think these are taken from his riginal 1976 chapter found here:


    Fascinatingly, there are cross-cultural and temporal differences as to how personhood is perceived. Guy, this runs contrary to your ‘walks like a duck’ thesis, since there are many different ideas of the duck, it seems!

    “Personhood continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion,fetal rights and reproductive rights, in animal rights activism, as well as in debates about corporate personhood.[2]

    Processes through which personhood is recognized vary cross-culturally, demonstrating that notions of personhood are not universal. Anthropologist Beth Conklin has shown how personhood is tied to social relations among the Wari’ people of RondôniaBrazil.[3] Bruce Knauft’s studies of the Gebusi people of Papua New Guinea depict a context in which individuals become persons incrementally, again through social relations.[4] Likewise, Jane C. Goodale has also examined the construction of personhood in Papua New Guinea.[5]


    All interesting stuff!

    Guy is a fellow TPer who is a recent addition to the group and with whom I have had some big discussions before about free will, naturalism, psychology and science. There has even been some poetry! Here is what Guy responded:

    Thank you Rob for chairing the meeting last night. Very stimulating. I’ve read the definitions of realism and nominalism given by Jonno on SIN. Not sure that I can see the relevance of it to the discussion last night. Would appreciate help making the link. I obviously don’t understand its applications nor Jonno’s zeal about its importance. Dennett’s list seems reasonably sensible and chimes with what most in our western tradition would assume about personhood. I remain unmoved from my grammatical argument i.e. that the moment a verb is uttered a person is implied and that grammatical persons derive from the fact of personhood which is something which is irreducible in some way. If it was reducible then utterance could not take place and all our discussions become meaningless or irrelevant. Got the impression this was close to Descartes last night – Cogito ergo sum or Sum ergo cogito. If I is not then thought can’t occur. The existence of I in a real sense is a condition of thought and debate. If you dissolve I you dissolve the validity of debate as debate is predicated on the assumption of a set of I’s. This really is like Heisenberg or even Schroedinger. Try to move a muscle to dissolve I and you dissolve your tongue (or kill the cat). The only response to this is acceptance of a set of conditions in which we live which are a given. Having made this acceptance the game of debate can begin. If you doubt the existence of the centre court no tennis will be played (sorry to labour the point).

    Were I pressed I’d begin my list of what personhood is as below. I’d also suggest that society assumes most of this in many forums – the legal, the social etc. I’d go on to say that these “properties” are derived from the general experience of most people (or persons!), most of whom would agree on them. I accept that the Watusi tribe of the Upper Amazon may have a different view. I’d say that the list below is the fullness of personhood or its potential fulfilled. I’d also suggest that this is a sane view, although I’m sure that word will cause a few misgivings!

    I has unique identity of which it is aware

    I is morally responsible and accountable

    I is aware of myself and my condition in a detached self-conscious way which animals don’t do (this allows humour and art)

    I is aware of the mortality of myself

    So I need to show that the nominalism debate is key to the debate about the I and personhood. That should be pretty straightforward, I hope.

    Most everything in philosophy is about abstract ideas. In this case, Guy (and everyone else) were talking about personhood, amongst other things. The claim was that a person is labelled such if they had, say, X and Y properties. This claim, that personhood has such properties, relies on this abstract idea of personhood. Personhood is an abstract label ascribed to certain properties. For example, Guy claims that they are X and Y, someone else A and B. The idea of this is that if anyone is true, this relationship, this abstract idea must truthfully and really exist mind independently. That is the definition of objective.

    So what this means is that an abstract idea must have mind independent ontology. It must have existence outside of conceiving brains.

    Our  brains conceive of all sorts of things. We have agreed, amongst us, through language, that certain properties constitute a table. But other cultures, animals, aliens, would not ascribe those properties to that idea or label.

    Take morality. The properties we ascribe to good have changed over time, and differ from culture to culture. We often agree on a lot because our brains, desires and experiences are very similar. But just because we have developed language to describe these ideas doesn’t mean they poof into mind independent existence. Their ontology still exists entirely in our brains or conceptions.

    This idea that abstract ideas are conceptual is called conceptual nominalism. The idea that they are somehow real, or ontic, in a mind independent sense, is called (Platonic) realism.

    This can really well be explained by looking at the abstract concept of a species. As I have written elsewhere:

    Many apologists attack evolution, and attack the notion that species can evolve into new species, and that there is no transitional fossil evidence for X, Y and Z. However, what they do not realise is that there is no such thing as a species (in a manner of speaking). Objectively, such an idea does not exist. ‘Species’ is a label that we humans have attached to groups of organisms that we see common characteristics between. We also tend to attach arbitrary rules to them too, such as they cannot interbreed with another species, otherwise they are effectively the same species etc. What this labelling does is give a false impression that a) species are static; and b) that these labels define these organisms whether humans exist or not. These labels are human constructs – that is all. Every organism is constantly shifting its genetic blueprint.

    We can see this with age. We label something ‘adult’ just like we do ‘personhood’. But what makes someone an adult and not a child? Does something magic happen from one second to the next on the stroke of midnight on the 18th birthday? Of course not. And each individual person is different. The idea of an adult is a conceptual construct which does not exist without human minds to conceive it. Just like personhood. And table. We can take one molecule, leg, two legs off of the table and we might all disagree on whether that thing still qualifies as the abstract idea of the table.

    Language serves to describe this process, and to describe these ideas and concepts. It does not prescribe them, and it certainly does not poof ideas into ontic existence.

    What is interesting is that Guy was nominalistic about aesthetics when we discussed it (and I very much agreed with him there, for this very reason). Therefore, there might be a double standard by rejecting nominalism in this other context.

    In conclusion, personhood is a human, conceptual construction which we attempt to define into existence with language. It is not, however, real or ontic in a mind independent sense. The best we can do is perhaps agree on what those conditions are. Consensus, though, does not make something pop into existence, or make something true. It provides, here, a pragmatic way of seeing the world. If all of us disagreed on every abstract object, there would be chaos. We create dictionaries to attempt to define these ideas, but even these change over time, drop out of fashion, and new ideas and concepts pop into usage (selfies) and some self-appointed arbiters of language define these abstract labels as being used enough to go into a dictionary (they actually use statistics to help there).



    Category: FeaturedPhilosophy


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • Void Walker

      I’m sorry, this is WAY off topic. It’s just so damn funny. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yis7GzlXNM

    • Luke Breuer

      5. Persons must be capable of verbal communication.

      Umm, so mute people are screwed? How about instead, we strike the ‘verbal’?

    • Luke Breuer

      To what extent does the failure to have a “continuous ‘I'” result in something suspiciously reincarnation-like? That is, suppose that every time you go to sleep, a different person awakes in the same body. That sounds suspiciously like some versions of reincarnation. That is, the pattern seems to match up. There is a different ‘I’, but some kind of continuity. What, precisely is that continuity? Physicality seems all that remains.

      I really enjoyed this post, and will have to re-read it several times. My intuition is that you are taking nominalism more seriously than most nominalists—you are chasing it to its logical conclusions in ways that others would fear to, or aren’t smart enough to. But hey, that’s just an intuition. I disagree with you on this matter in the strongest of terms, but that’s because I’m a realist. :-p I [try to] appreciate logical consistency anywhere I find it.

      P.S. Have you read any Barfield or Steiner, on “the evolution of consciousness”?

      • Thanks Luke. I appreciate the sentiments here because I do work hard to make sure my worldview is utterly and universally consistent, internally. It needs to fit like a jigsaw, and I can genuinely say it does.

        I am not afraid to follow the evidence, philosophical and empirical, to its natural conclusion. Whether it be free will or morality, I will take uncomfortable positions.

        eg, I think, and it does depend on how you define these terms, that in many ways I am a moral nihilist, or error theorist, even. But many others feel threatened by admitting this, as if it means they must not be able to decry raping babies.

        I think the goal is to have a bottom up worldview, where you establish the building bricks and see what building arises. I think top down approaches are dangerous, and I think this is what many people, particularly theists, do. They start with a conclusion, and massage evidence to fit. I will happily throw out conclusions, as I have done many times in the past, if that is where the path leads.

        Nominalis, since it defines what the building bricks of philosophy are made of, is crucial to every other argument. Just like without free will, the common understanding of God is fundamentally nonsensical, without being able to establish the objective ontology of abstracts and universals, so things like morality, aesthetics and maths are affected.

        • Luke Breuer

          What if it’s turtles all the way down, and every time you think you’ve found the foundation, you’re just deluding yourself? I’m reminded of physicists at the end of the nineteenth century as described by Albert Michelson (not all agreed, more sources). It seems like it’s actually better to connect most strongly to the stuff (‘representations’) that you’ve tested most thoroughly, not to low-level ontologies which have major problems (e.g. the disconnect between QFT and GR—between discrete and continuous).

          • I guess all that needs to be said here is that I feel my worldview is internally and externally coherent. There is nothing nagging at me to say, ‘this doesn’t feel right’ or ‘this piece doesn’t fit with my answer to that piece’ and so on.

            • Luke Breuer

              Hmmm. Have you thought about how quantum nonlocality fits in with your philosophy? That seems like a candidate for real universals, or if not universals, something not quite nominalism. :-p

            • I am not qualified enough to talk much about nonlocality or physical realism in the context of quantum etc…

            • Luke Breuer

              In that case, I would highly suggest reading Bernard d’Espagnat’s On Physics and Philosophy. One of his big contentions is that philosophy must be updated by our current knowledge of quantum physics. The ontology upon which you base your philosophy might need some major updating. And if it does, I think might put into question your unyielding foundationalism.

            • John Grove

              I fail to see how our inability to locate an electron position has anything to do with neurological functioning of the brain and the consequences that has on our ability to choose without uncontrollable causation.

              Moreover, the Uncertainty Principle has less to do with the determinism of subatomic particles and more to do with the limitations of our ability to locate one of the smallest and fastest particles in the universe.

            • Luke Breuer

              This comment stuck out at me. Do you think:

                   (1) intentionality is not ontic
                   (2) matter–energy can exhibit intentionality
                   (3) intentionality emerges


              P.S. Just to make sure you see it, I think you’ll like this comment.

        • Luke Breuer

          Thanks Luke. I appreciate the sentiments here because I do work hard to make sure my worldview is utterly and universally consistent, internally. It needs to fit like a jigsaw, and I can genuinely say it does.

          You are welcome! You probably know that I give praise very sparingly. :-|

      • Oh, and no, I know not of those two.

        HOwever, have you read of Mead?

        You will find this synopsis fascinating:


        The self as an emergent thing from social interaction.

        • Luke Breuer

          Heh, a sociologist studying my wife’s biochemistry/biophysics lab first introduced me to the “social construction of the self”, which I found intuitively obvious upon very little reflection. I am, however, a bit acquainted with Schopenhauer’s development of genius, and I wonder if you’ve dealt with that at all—it seems like society sometimes doesn’t completely explain the development of the self, and maybe genes don’t, either. I’ve read about this here and there by reading Peter Berger; I haven’t read any Mead, yet.

          Owen Barfield claims that the only way to have evolution by transformation instead substitution is that if something stays the same between ‘before’ and ‘after’—if there exists an invariant. This, of course, makes me think of Parmenides vs. Heraclitus. First we see change, then we see an invariant underneath the change, then we see change in the invariant (e.g. broken symmetries in physics), etc. What if it’s turtles all the way down, alternating between stuff that changes and an invariant that captures that change almost perfectly? (Our error, incidentally, would be to assume that the picture of the thing is the thing—that the invariant captures the change perfectly.)

          Barfield doesn’t use the word ‘invariant’; he uses the term ‘[immaterial] spirit’. It seems awfully like a universal—an ontic one! I highly suggest Barfield’s Unancestral Voice. He was an Inkling and was a mentor and buddy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. He’s probably worth reading just for that purpose—once you read him (including his Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry), you’ll see how his thoughts show up in Lewis and Tolkien. Unancestral Voice connects pretty explicitly to chapter one of The Silmarillion, for example.

          P.S. Barfield talks about minds individuating, which is a kind of emergence—from a single mind though, not non-mind.

          • The only invariant I can see is the genetic code of the individual.

            • Luke Breuer

              Ehhh, there are possibly deeper invariants. For example, if all time-evolution of quantum state is unitary (and so far we think it is), then information is strictly conserved. That means that the universe itself is a giant invariant, unless new information is coming into existence (e.g. via a growing block universe). In that case, we could ask whether there’s a way to separate out that giant, universe-invariant (we could call it ‘Brahman’) into smaller invariants that are sufficiently independent.

        • Luke Breuer

          From Barfield’s Unancestral Voice:

          It is only through repeated earth-lives that mind could gradually, and as an historical process, become more and more individualized, that is to say, could gradually emerge from the spirit which gave birth to it and from the nature which it is learning to contemplate from without instead of merely participating from within. From that contemplation it derives its separate existence, and from that participation its continuous existence; and therefore the condition of its being is that these two states shall rhythmically alternate. (138)

          The word ‘participation’ is a tricky one I don’t yet fully grasp—Barfield defines it more fully in Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, but I’m still struggling. It might be true to say that you can ‘participate’ an invariant, and by so participating, maintain a continuous identity.

          • More importantly, what does spirit mean?

            • Luke Breuer

              It might be precisely the thing that makes ‘I’ continuous. :-p More than that, I cannot yet say. Perhaps I will be able to say more later, especially with your “discontinuous ‘I'” as a foil!

            • Without being able to pin any properties on it, it is superfluous and meaningless, really.

            • Luke Breuer

              It seems difficult to maintain that the thing that makes the ‘I’ continuous would be “superfluous and meaningless”.

            • Luke Breuer

              This comment is eating away at me. Could you say a bit more on this stance you hold? I don’t even know how to search for it. Something tells me it’s the difference between bundle theory and essentialism, but I don’t even understand those terms well, so I’m mostly just intuiting “possibly relevant terms”.

            • You posit a spirit here. And then claim that it could maintain the continuous I. But you can not make any claim over and above that – you can hardly say.

              This, to me, is meaningless. You are unable to ascribe to this thing any properties, observable, or inferred or deduced. You assert it could do X, but can provide no evidence for this, or any good reason.

              Since you can ascribe no properties, the only other thing with no properties is… nothing.

              What you claim of the spirit is pretty much synonymous with nothing, or thereabouts.

              So, to me, the claim is meaningless and superfluous.

            • Luke Breuer

              So essentially, if the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, then the whole is redundant and we should just talk about the parts?

            • You seem to be unable to define the whole, or the parts. You have given no properties of either, apart from claiming that one property might be X with nothing more than mere assertion of couldness.

            • Luke Breuer

              Could you just answer my question directly? It makes sense to me that there is no whole if it is not somehow ‘bigger’ than the parts. Stated differently, if my attempt to connect a bunch of parts into a ‘whole’ doesn’t give me any new insight, then my ‘whole’ is just an arbitrary collection of parts and I was silly to think they all went together. So I think I’m attempting to agree with you.

            • Luke Breuer

              Is not a person’s character properties of his/her ‘spirit’? Doesn’t a person’s character represent something continuous?

            • Depends how you define spirit.

              Character can be dependable. It can also change. Mine has certainly changes in many ways, yet is similar in others.

              The question might better be, what makes the similar bits remain similar?

              ie, is it your genetic blueprint that gives a sense of continuity?

              My guess s that it is this (which thus defines your character) together with memory. Both can be bastardised.

            • Luke Breuer

              Character can indeed change. But reality could also be in a false vacuum and POOF away at any second. So it seems like even though there is the possibility of great discontinuity, that oughtn’t dissuade us from working with something relatively continuous. What do you think?

              I guess another way of getting at this issue is to ask whether you are becoming more and more like someone. For example, does the following equation converge?

                   (1) lim(character(t)) as t → ∞

              If there is convergence, then it seems to make sense to talk about what the limit converges to, and the ‘thing’ it is converging to would appear to be a candidate for identity/spirit.

            • Luke Breuer

              What properties can you pin on causal laws of nature? I’ve been reading a bit about causation; I wonder if it abides by your insistence, here. I will note that existence is generally not taken to be a property, although necessary existence is.

              Aristotle had the soul being the causal power behind the animal and the human. It’s not clear that the soul has any properties in this context. But surely you’ve thought much more about precisely what you mean by “pin any properties on it”.

            • Well, to have the term “causal laws of nature” you must be able to assign labels which represent properties, otherwise you cannot assign the label of “causal laws of nature” as opposed to “foshnosnslsknd” or cheese sandwich.

              Now what properties causal laws of nature have is a massive question, over and above what it means.

              One must define causal, laws and nature, and these might be arguable or even nebulous.

              I am interested in laws as a term because, to me, laws are not prescriptive but descriptive. But then what is the mechanism which undergirds regularity of property or nature? These are mindbending but really fundamental questions.

            • Luke Breuer

              I am interested in laws as a term because, to me, laws are not prescriptive but descriptive. But then what is the mechanism which undergirds regularity of property or nature? These are mindbending but really fundamental questions.

              That’s what makes me question whether your “pin any properties on it” makes sense. What properties do we pin on the true, causal powers? It seems more that the results of the causes are their ‘properties’. What positing causality seems to do is describe some sort of regularity. I don’t mean regularity theory (I’m reading Rom Harré’s Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity), but I do mean some way to “collect instances”. It’s my understanding that some folks want to say that universals are the causal powers, but I’ve only been briefly exposed to that (via Evan Fales’ Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles).

              There’s a strand I’m actively investigating in Christianity, whereby one’s identity is what one gives. A causal claim is even made here in Mk 4:24–25; it indicates a kind of amplification effect to giving of self. I’m reminded of the sign in the Oracle’s kitchen in The Matrix: “Temet nosce.”—”know thyself”. Well, how is this done? One way is to give to others and see what they make of it. Under this paradigm, why not describe a ‘soul’ as the causal power, with what is given, the ‘properties’ of the soul? (Recall that Aristotle spoke of ‘soul’ in this way; there’s no need to go to Christianity, at least not yet.)

            • Luke Breuer

              Have you read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self? That seems like it might be required reading if you’re really interested in the construction of identity. I found it myself when trying to investigate your “discontinuous ‘I'”.

            • I hardly need to with that immense wiki synopsis!

            • Luke Breuer

              Oh, I still suggest it. The book is just fantastic, and I’m saying this as not a philosopher or psychologist—that is, Taylor doesn’t use unnecessary terminology.

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    • Luke Breuer

      @johnnyp76:disqus, I think you might like Daniels, Norman: Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons, The Monist Vol. 62, No. 3. 265–287 (citations). Among other things:

          Consider first the effect on scope. Suppose there is little continuity between a given criminal and his later self when he is caught and prosecuted for ‘his’ crime. Parfit suggests that our normal principle, which calls for punishing the criminal for his crimes, presupposes the identity of the person being punished and the person who committed the crime. But if identity is here diminished in degree, then the principle may apply to a lesser degree, or not at all if survival of the criminal ‘self’ is minimal. Accordingly, we might punish less severely, or not at all. The scope of a principle of punishment is thus restricted to cases in which it makes sense to claim we are punishing a person who is, to a significant degree, the same person as the criminal. (267)

      I wonder if there is discussion as to making promises and how likely the person making the promise will “sufficiently exist” at the time the promise is supposed to be fulfilled.

      • I think this is really interesting. I suppose that reality is unpragmatic, in a sense. What would possibly be the case is that if A committed X at time T1, then at T10 it becomes a case of remaining incarcerated if A10 is still likely to commit X at that new time. But this is very hard to know.

        • Luke Breuer

          Actually, the Christian doctrine of forgiveness might match this aspect of reality remarkably well. There is a question, though, of whether the causal aspect of the person is gone, or is somehow obscured. To use a Christian term: has there been repentance? Brain damage may be another option; I’ve seen a bit of conflicting research on this matter, so I say ‘may’ instead of ‘is’.

          Were this matter to be taken really seriously, we would have to do something to deal with people who make promises break them, and then become different people. One option is for society to absorb the cost: this is probably not a terrible way to look at grace and forgiveness. But what to do with those who are truly unrepentant? And might there be ways to give less power to those whose personalities are less stable? All this stuff is connected; attempting to deal with only a bit at a time is a recipe for disaster.

          By the way, do you have more suggested reading on the “discontinuous ‘I'”? Of all places, I came across it in Jacques Ellul’s The Political Illusion:

              This ephemerality has several aspects and several causes. A general symptom is the often heard formula: This does not commit me to anything. We know well that a political party’s program does not commit a man to anything. He can make promises, give his word, sign posters: tomorrow all will be forgotten, and only a few troublesome people will be disagreeable enough to recall the formulas. All these are nothing but weathercocks. If a man criticizes this, he is given the facile answer we know only too well: “What! You don’t’ take thought into account? And Change? You want to prevent man from changing? Or the times? You want to feel tied down by what you have said yesterday? This is a completely outmoded conception of man, contrary to scientific anthropology—don’t you know the personality is discontinuous! If you remind me of declarations I made yesterday on communism or some other subject, when I say the opposite today, you simply deny LIFE. Only the senile no longer move; you are just intellectually paralyzed.” (50–51)

          (Emphasis added.)

          There’s also Robert W. Rieber’s The Bifurcation of the Self, in which he talks about the importance of memory with stuff like dissociative identity disorder. But that deals more with fragmentation of the self, which is different from change.

          • So it is important to work out what of a person IS the continuous thread or properties which survive or continue temporally. The very idea is that we are not the SAME person, exactly, but is there varying degrees of similarity, where does this ‘live’, and how does it apply to contracts through time?

            • Luke Breuer

              You might find the following interesting:

              It bothered Aharonov as well. “I asked, what does God gain by playing dice?” he says. Aharonov accepted that a particle’s past does not contain enough information to fully predict its fate, but he wondered, if the information is not in its past, where could it be? After all, something must regulate the particle’s behavior. His answer—which seems inspired and insane in equal measure—was that we cannot perceive the information that controls the particle’s present behavior because it does not yet exist. (Back From the Future, 2)

              Perhaps people can be added to as time rolls forward. There are two ways to think of this:

                   (1) The person is being molded by an outside causal power.
                   (2) The additions are caused by the person’s ‘soul’.

              Can we distinguish between these? I’m not sure we can, other than pick interpretive schemes which prefer some kind of ‘continuity’. For example, is there some way to predict those future ‘bits’, that future information which apparently “does not yet exist”?

    • Tom Hilton

      “We can see this with age. We label something ‘adult’ just like we do ‘personhood’. But what makes someone an adult and not a child? Does something magic happen from one second to the next on the stroke of midnight on the 18th birthday? Of course not.”

      Yes but the difficulty in drawing boundaries doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference – any Northerner knows that.

      • Ha!

        Well, of course this is a fuzzy logic. The problem is in labelling categories which are not clearly defined.

        In other words, if to be a Northerner is to have properties A-N, is one a Northerner without G? Or with A-N + X?

        The point is that the definition of Northerner is not ontic. It does not exist outside of human minds. Thus human minds are the things which decide the qualification of properties to labels. And we disagree.

        Or, the term Northerner, unless we ALL absolutely agree on all properties, and agree that lacking in just ONE of them invalidates the label ascription, then it is hard to argue such universalism to the label.

        • Tom Hilton

          “The point is that the definition of Northerner is not ontic.”

          …and presumably neither is ‘adult’. You cannot think adults and Northerners don’t exist? They are types of person.

          • The properties exist that may or may not pertain to that label as you or someone else may accept it exist.

            The bundled properties exist. But the label and thus idea of Northerner only exists in your head.

            This is the conceptual nominalism as mentioned above.

            Just by thinking something, do you think it into objective existence?

            If I define the label forqwiblex as containing X, Y, Z properties, does it suddenly exist? Or is that label something in my brain. The properties exist in some way outside of my brain, but the ascription of those properties to an abstract entity is my conceptual doing.

            • Tom Hilton

              In that case does anything exist? e.g. the table? or the apple?

              The apple has properties: it is 100mm diameter. it is juicy. it is red. These are labels in my head and might be labels in your head too. So the apple doesn’t exist?

            • The core properties exist as physical phenomena. They have ontic reality outside of our conceptual minds. The relata connecting those properties with labels and those labels themselves are conceptual.

              They are not universal (ie my concept of red and table might be different to yours, and a cat’s and an alien’s). Often we DO agree on things, but this is because our brains, experiences and learning are similar.

              Does that make sense?

            • Tom Hilton

              Thanks Jonathan. To be honest I feel like there’s a lot more jargon here compared to the level of insight. But maybe that’s because I’m missing something profound. What do you think ‘relata’ means? I’m not sure you’re using it the way I’d expect (i.e. the things which are related).

              I’m fine with the idea (my paraphrase) that the existence of our mental models (e.g. ‘adult’, or ‘apple’) doesn’t necessarily mean the models correlate with an objective reality. I’m also fine with the idea that we have different models in our heads. What I’m left confused about is that you seem to be saying ‘personhood’, ‘adult’, ‘table’ and ‘apple’ are all not objectively real BECAUSE of that lack of direct correlation? You can’t be saying that though?

              I’m not even an amateur philosopher. But hasn’t Descartes already said that (effectively) we don’t know if ‘apples’ really exist? But that doesn’t mean they don’t. And all I ultimately know is that ‘I’ exists and that ‘I experience apples’.


            • Hi,

              Yes it’s quite jargon-full, but then it has profound implications. eg if abstract objects do not exist objectively, what does this say of objective morality?

              Relata is the plural of relatum ((logic) one of the objects between which a relation is said to hold), the relationship often between a thing and an abstract idea, or a property and a thing.(ie here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-metaphysics/ (Metaphysics of Causation) and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/tropes/ (Trope Theory, etc.).)

              The properties of what any one of us ascribe to the term “personhood” might exist. The problem is, philosophers fundamentally disagree as to what those properties are. Dennett has given it a good go, and William Kane Craig tries to use those to see if God has personhood, but others disagree and so on.

              Tables are easy because we all generally agree what they are, and we see those things in front of us.

              Personhood is more difficult because it is itself an abstract term entailing a group of other abstract ideas. about which many people disagree. So, does personhood exist? Well, that would depend on its definition, and then upon whether the properties given in that definition exist.

              On your last point, that entirely depends on what your definition (again!) is of “know”. If that is “indubitably true that” or something similar, then that is only the case in cogito ergo sum. This is sometimes called Fallibilism: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallibil/#H7

              Other definitions of know would lead to other things outside of cogito being known.

              Hope this sort of helps?

            • Tom Hilton

              Thanks again Jonathan. I think I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said.

              I’ve thought for a while that if we conclude there is no person who is ‘God’, then we are likely to conclude there is no person who is ‘me’. So it is interesting to see these ideas coming from somebody like yourself.

              Back to the OP…I still think that ‘adults’ exist.

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