Writing Samples

Think Political Conventions Don’t Matter? Think Again.

Download in PDF format here. Original Charlotte Observer article from July 2012 can be found here.

With and incumbent guaranteed renomination will the Charlotte convention this summer matter?

Despite what many think, national political conventions craft a message and can have significant impact on elections and policy. Who can forget John McCain’s introduction of Sarah Palin in St. Paul on Sept. 3, 2008? It was, at first, in that bright moment, the game changer that Republicans were hoping for. Just a few weeks later, with non-answers to Katie Couric about books and court cases, that initial decision became a serious negative and Palin never recovered. The un-vetted way McCain made his VP decision, required to be timed for the convention, cost him and his party dearly.

Perhaps the most negative impact from a convention was on July 14, 1972, when nominee George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at 2 in the morning. Nobody at home was up to hear the speech on TV, and the Democratic Party was left with no unifying message. They never recovered. Loss of the usual “bounce” was one reason McGovern lost every state but Massachusetts.

Another convention event that had major impact was Bill Clinton’s July 1988 speech nominating Michael Dukakis. He spoke for 34 minutes that seemed like an hour. Bored, everybody broke into a din of talk over him. Delegates applauded the end of the speech – not its content. Tom Brokaw saw Clinton the next day and both shared verbal frowns; they both knew it was that bad. Many eventually grew to love President Clinton and his brilliance, but it took years for the future president to reestablish his reputation as a public speaker. Now he has no peer, proof one can learn.

The party convention platform offers opportunities for controversy and news stories. Republicans have a history of inserting opposition to women’s choice and cost themselves five points in the polls. When 99 percent of women use some form of contraception, opposition to it is hardly a winning issue regardless of party. Conversely, Democrats have routinely inserted gay rights issues into their platform. Until now, it has not mattered much, evidenced by the fact that 31 out of 31 states that have put the question of equal protection of sexual orientation to a popular vote have outright rejected the notion. Now, with President Barack Obama’s leadership position on the issue, polls are shifting. For the first time, a majority support gay marriage.

Everett Dirksen’s speech nominating Barry Goldwater (July 16, 1964) at the Republican convention in San Francisco reinvigorated the American conservative movement. Dirksen’s unique rhetorical masterpiece recast his party’s direction and launched their candidate’s nomination by calling for “Courage, conscience, competence, contribution.”

Obama’s acceptance speech in 2008 was played around the world, and his keynote address in 2004 was where he first established himself as a post-racial candidate who bridged demographic gaps and displayed masterful rhetorical style. In 2004, Obama lifted the delegates and Americans everywhere to their highest aspirations. The statement, “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America,” electrified the delegates and became the making of a president. He needs to do it again in Charlotte.

Convention location counts. The Democrats’ convention in the swing state of Colorado in 2008 made a difference in that state’s going for Obama. It’s certainly possible that holding the convention in Charlotte in 2012 will make a similar difference. The speeches and publicity for the Democrats’ point of view will get greater airing in the state during the convention.

Sometimes parties don’t learn how important a convention can be, and they suffer. The Republicans could be setting themselves up for another 1964 Goldwater-like “Extremism … is no vice … Moderation is no virtue!” moment in the current election year. This tactic helped lose the general election for Republicans in 1964, but is eerily similar to today’s tone, epitomized by Sen. Richard Mourdock’s, R-Ind., radical redefinition of bipartisanship: “Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

While conventions are by definition partisan, they also are patriotic events. Both parties want to improve the country. Before Charlotte and Tampa begin their rituals, one hopes the message of both is that governing is a public service, not a party loyalty test, and that compromise is not a dirty word. Whoever provides those messages at their convention and inspires, while all the world is watching, just might win the election.

Robert Weiner is a national Democratic strategist, was a spokesman in the Clinton White House, and has attended every Democratic Convention since 1972.  Jaime Ravenet is Senior Policy Analyst at Robert Weiner Associates.


A Short Response to Waxman and Lidz 2006: Verb Acquisition

Download the PDF version here.

IT WOULD PROVE TO BE BENEFICIAL TO LANGUAGE LEARNERS TO HAVE preference for one particular type of word over another to begin the process of language acquisition. One such possible difference is the functional difference between nouns and verbs. Most nouns do not have arguments, but contrarily, most verbs do. This would make nouns and noun phrases easier, less computationally complex models to build than verb complexes. So children should first show a preference to nouns in acquisition, and then noun phrase syntax, and then these nouns and NPs can readily become the arguments of verbs. Thus, verbs should be acquired via a syntactic process.

Studies have shown that accuracy at guessing what is going on in a picture increases as syntactic information about that picture increases. Nouns can be identified without this extra syntactic information. Verb acquisition seems to be the result of, studies say, acquisition of causal relationships between agents and patients. For instance, when children are shown picture sequences which do not indicate causality, such as a girl next to a ball, then a picture which shows the ball bouncing, but no picture showing the girl bouncing the ball, and a novel term is used to describe these scenes, then those children do not show any preference for any choices when asked to identify the event described by the novel word. However, when they are shown un-accusative sequences that do describe causality, they immediately locate the novel term in a test.

 Thus, syntactic knowledge is at least a guide for semantic understanding. What are the constraints on this knowledge? Cross-linguistic data can help evince such constraints, as cross linguistic data expands the observations beyond the possible set of syntactic structures of just one language, and thus in principle covers more ground, so to speak, of what syntax can do in language and knowledge acquisition. Interestingly, hypotheses in this subfield border on the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis: “Moreover, to the extent that a property of verb meaning or linkage can vary cross-linguistically, we expect to find that property to be highly sensitive to aspects of the linguistic environment, since it will depend not on principled constraints from the learner, but on the observation of the particular language being learned (the linguistic input).” (Waxman & Lidz 2006, p323).

This clearly reaches into the realm of semantic versus syntactic argument structure. There have been generalized observations about kinds of knowledge that seems to be derived universally and do not vary widely across languages, versus aspects of language that seem vary quite widely cross-linguistically. Children, in studies, appear to rely on syntactic structures for the creation of semantic content when novel “verb-sentence pairing” is possible in principle, but not necessarily possible in their own language (in this study, English).

I have to pose this question at this point: Isn’t it more likely that we can better understand the nature of language, and be extension language acquisition, by testing the boundaries of normal linguistic behavior rather than the norms?

There’s something to be said for the norms, even in this paradigm. But the point is that there can be no reasonable doubt that the language faculty is rule-based and part of a learning system. The exact rules of one such exact system seem to be less important than the universals in which all language can take place. In other words, what can we learn about language from the children in this study who do not gather knowledge syntactically? Will they eventually? Were they a statistical hiccup? Or are they, hypothetically, more likely to become autistic? And why isn’t anyone looking at this?


Why do Conservatives Vote Against their own Interests?

Download PDF version here. Originally published 1/26/2012 in the Michigan Chronicle

By Robert Weiner and Jaime Ravenet

Michigan Congressman John Conyers raised an interesting question in a conversation the other day: “Why do conservatives vote against their own interests?” If we can answer this, we might reach the common ground to solve the country’s economic, debt, and growing income disparity issues.  

 Let’s get this much out of the way: conservatives do vote against their own interests. Pundits on the right may try to undermine Conyers’ question as being couched in terms that favor the Democratic Congressman’s side of the aisle, but deflecting the question this way inevitably means explaining away historical facts. Under Democratic presidents since 1930 who pursued agendas emphasizing people programs and resisting tax breaks for the wealthy while pressing tax breaks for middle and lower incomes, the average GDP increased by 5.4%, compared to a 1.6% average GDP increase during the presidencies of their Republican counterparts.  The Republicans have all moved to cut taxes on the “job creators” (aka, the wealthiest Americans).  

A data timeline by the Commerce Department and Office of Management and Budget shows that business and the economy have boomed under Democratic presidents, but busted under Republicans.  The data counters the Republicans’ claims that the rich tax cuts ever really “trickle down” or are good for business.  However, greater GDP under pro-growth and people programs has translated to greater financial security for the average American —  i.e. consumers. Votes for a tax-cutting Republicans since 1930 actually, by historical record, were votes against businesses’ financial security. So the question stands: why do conservatives vote against themselves?

Perceived self interest seems to be the reason: the desire to get money from greater tax cuts if already wealthy (and if not wealthy, belief in the illusion Republicans sell that one will become wealthy quicker or make one’s company do more business by the policy). The more accurate legacy of the Republicans tax-cutting agenda is smaller paychecks for the average American.

Conservatives’ campaigns, when candidates can take time away from attacking each other, boil down to little more than incessant repetition of vague promises to resurrect the American Dream. They sell the Dream with pure rhetoric, beating voters over the head with taxcutting. Recent studies from both at home and abroad detail a disturbing trend: it is now harder to transcend class in the U.S. than in our Western European counterparts like England, Denmark, and Sweden. We no longer lead in the American dream of upward mobility—and we’ve done it to ourselves. There is a ever-growing “mobility gap” in the U.S. keeping poor people from being able to rise into higher economic classes while keeping the wealthiest of Americans more financially secure than before. For the first time in generations, It is actually easier for people at the lowest income levels in those countries, which conservatives keep attacking in the debates as “socialist”, to rise through the economic ranks than it is for comparable Americans.

A few Republicans have discussed this concern. Jason DePaul’s New York Times article “Harder for Americans to Rise form Lower Rungs” quotes Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum saying that moving “up into the middle income is actually greater, the mobility in Europe, than it is in America.” While both sides of any debate assume they are working with all the facts, conservatives are more likely to point fingers at President Obama than to address the fact that their tax-cutting programs amount to corporate welfare. The tax-cutting recipe doesn’t make for a better economic tomorrow, and the candidates blatantly ignore not only this historical fact but also the reality that many Americans face every day: as Bill Clinton says in his new book, Back to Work, the outcome of three decades of conservative fiscal policies focused on cutting taxes and deregulating industry have left voters facing high unemployment while executives collect six and seven figure bonuses.  The top 1% in America have increased their income 18-fold  over the last 30 years while the rest of the country stayed stagnant.  

The U.S. Government Accounting Office reported that tax policy favoring the rich has helped cause the income disparity and the highest poverty numbers since the Great Depression. The Koch brothers have been exposed as major funders of the “grassroots” Tea Party movement. When conservatives cut taxes on corporate bosses and defund social programs, they are lining the pockets of their corporate sponsors and lying to the American people. The very very rich get richer and everybody else – including the overwhelming majority of conservatives— get poorer, yet conservative politicians somehow gain from that.

Conservatives campaign on promises of restoring the American Dream, but they incontrovertibly favor the interests of top corporate executives over voters under them – almost everyone else— on the economic ladder. They ignore the facts concerning whom their policies actually benefit, and in the end, their policies diminish overall economic mobility. When conservatives talk about “focusing on the family”, what they really mean is they want you to worry about your family to deflect the economic issues that they are not solving and in fact are making worse. If you are preoccupied with your empty wallet, you are less likely to notice their sponsors’ bulging pockets. 

Robert Weiner, Washington, DC, is a former White House spokesman and communications director for House Government Operations Committee and Chief of Staff of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Weiner recently keynoted at “Obama and Christian Loyalty,” a national conference on faith and governance at Wayne State University Law School. Jaime Ravenet, Washington DC, is a graduate of University of Maryland College Park and is Senior Economic Policy Analyst and Policy Researcher at Robert Weiner Associates.


De Re Modality and Lewisʼ Modal Realism: The Case For Vague Objects

Download the PDF version here. Originally published in Prometheus on 12/31/2009. 

Abstract

In this paper, I examine David Lewisʼ treatment of vagueness as a problem of “semantic indecision” and conclude that this position on vagueness is inconsistent with the metaphysics of his theory of modal realism, with specific regard for counterparthood and the counterpart relation. To reach this conclusion, I employ a thought experiment in which an exact counterpart of Lewis is subjected to a series of possible worlds treatments designed to satisfy Lewisʼ criteria for counterparthood, as well as to test the limits of semantic treatments of higher-order vagueness. In doing this, I find that Lewisʼ suggestions for dealing with vagueness fails to pick out counterparts at several points in this series, even when given a satisfactorily precisified set of criteria for the qua relation. Rather than a clear candidate for counterparthood, one encounters instead a problem of infinite regression that could destabilize the whole project of Lewisian de re modal realism. I conclude by noting that accepting metaphysical vagueness into the Lewisian theory of modal realism changes nothing in the overall theory, and may in fact be the only way to save the theory from its problem of infinite regression.

I. Background

The sentence “All bachelors are unmarried.” and the sentence “The author of this paper is typing on a computer.” are both true. However, these two sentences are not true in the same way. To understand how they are different, let us examine how each sentence can be considered true. In the first example, truth appears to be a function of the meaning of the word “bachelor” in relation to the rest of the sentence. This is because the first example states a specific and important property of the concept of being a bachelor. It is almost a kind of definition, and its truth is derived from the relationship between its form (what kind of sentence it is) and its semantic content (what the sentence means). The first example sentence demonstrates that the relationship between the form and the content of a sentence is one way to measure the truth of a sentence. The second example presents an exception to this rule. The form of the second example sentence does not follow the pattern of the first, yet (much to the authorʼs chagrin as I watch the clock) it is still true.

So what does it mean to say that the two sentences are true in different ways? In this case, it means that they arrive at being true by taking two different routes. The first example must always be true; the word “bachelor” carries somewhere in its meaning the idea of being unmarried, and the property of being unmarried is a definitive property of the word “bachelor”. The second example need not be, but by all respects still is, true. Truths that must be true, like the first example, are called necessary truths. This means that there is some quality of the words of the sentence or the things being discussed by the words in that sentence which requires the sentence to be true. The second example illustrates what is called a contingent truth. Contingent truths are not true in virtue of structure or meaning per se, but rather are true with regard to a given situation. Another way to put this is to say that there is no quality about me that would require, as a matter of necessity, that I be sitting at my desk writing this paper. I could just as easily be sleeping, or going for a walk, or touring the country with my world famous band instead. ! Hypothetical statements like the one above, which gives some examples of ways in which my life might have been different, are called “counterfactuals”. Counterfactuals are just what they sound like: statements that consider cases in which the facts are contrary to the way things actually are. Often stated in the form of conditionals (“If X then Y”), counterfactuals are aimed at examining the ways in which the world could (and could not) be different by positing alternate situations for conceptual analyses. Take the statement “If I werenʼt writing this paper, I would be asleep right now” as an example. The purpose is to assert that under specific circumstances that are contrary to the actual ones (“If I werenʼt writing this paper,”), a different set of statements about the world would turn out to be true, and I would be in bed.

What counterfactuals illustrate is called “modality”, or the measure of necessary or contingency. It would seem that in order to be able to evaluate modality correctly, and in doing so evaluate the truth-value of the sentence in question, there must be some properties, or kinds of properties, of the thing being discussed that remain true about that thing across all counterfactual statements. Here, I must bring up another distinction, one concerning interpretations of things about which the modalilty is in question. With regard to modality, there are two ways to gloss a given sentence. One such way is called a de re reading (from the Latin for ʻof the thingʼ). The other reading is a de dicto reading (meaning ʻof the wordʼ). De re readings of sentences are concerned with the modality of the actual physical thing(s) referred to by the terms of a sentence. De dicto readings are concerned with the modality of the words of the examined sentence itself. This differentiation is relevant to the ways by which the truth-value of a given sentence can be evaluated as necessary or contingent. To illustrate the difference between a de re and a de dicto reading, examine the sentence “The President of the United States could be a woman.” Under a de dicto reading, this sentence means that it is possible for a woman to become the President of the United States. Under a de re reading, this sentence means that the legal status of Barack Obamaʼs marriage is in serious jeopardy under current law.

In contemporary analytic philosophy, the truth-values regarding the modal properties of a sentence are often evaluated in terms of “possible worlds”. Though there is significant disagreement about the nature of these worlds, such as when it is appropriate to assign de re or de dicto readings to statements made about them, it must be the case that possible worlds are at minimum conceptual spaces in which one can run thought experiments to determine the necessity of a truth-value of a sentence. The classic examples used to illustrate this are “Aristotle is Aristotle” and “Aristotle is the teacher of Alexander”. Under a de re reading, it is simple to see that the first statement must always be true, because if there is an “Aristotle” about whom this statement can be made, then that Aristotle must be self-identical. However, there is no quality about such an Aristotle that necessitates that he be “the teacher of Alexander”. Rather, this is something that happened to be the case only as a matter of course and not as a matter of the things involved those circumstances.

Note the inherent import here of a robust idea of identity. When employing possible worlds as a measure of modal properties, especially under a de re reading, identity is assumed as a most basic property. Generally, identity can be understood with the following two premises: (1) All things are self-identical and (2) no two things are identical to each other in all ways. Identity is a philosophical issue unto itself, however due to the limited scope of this paper it must suffice to say that identity is the metaphysical property of self-sameness. As such, an issue like metaphysical vagueness would appear to be an important area to explore when discussing de re modality, if only because in any dialogue that takes as its subject the modal properties of things must start first with an understanding of the thing about which modal properties are to be discussed. If one is to understand how a thing could have been different, as well as how it could not have been different, then one must first encounter that thingʼs identity. In this paper, I will contrast David Lewisʼ treatment of de re modality (Lewisian modal realism) against that of another philosopher, Saul Kripke. I argue that modal realism necessarily admits of metaphysical vagueness, and until that theory is modified to accept this fact, modal realism is not a feasible theory of modality.

II. De Re and Vagueness

Saul Kripke explores de re interpretations in his work Naming and Necessity. In this lecture series, Kripke abandons the skepticism of his predecessors such as Quine about de re readings. He argues that rigid designators, which are terms that pick out the same thing across all possible worlds (where that thing exists), are the appropriate means of evaluating claims de re. Examples of rigid designators are names, numbers, and natural kind terms such as “water” or “gold”. Under this treatment, possible worlds need be nothing more than hypothetical scenarios run in oneʼs mind. For Kripke, to exist is to be the extension of a term.

The Kripkean treatment of de re modality is what is called “ersatz” modality (ersatz meaning substitution) and is semantic in nature. This is to say that Kripkean possible worlds are constructs of meaning located in the mind, and are intended to exemplify counterfactual possibilities about actually extant things. Kripke does not assert that using possible worlds to evaluate modal claims has any ontological implications. As such, a Kripkean treatment de re allows for the existence of “transworld identity” which means that the singular identity of a thing being discussed can be distributed over all possible worlds. Another way to put this is to say that for Kripke, the “Aristotle” in any of the worlds in which Aristotle was not the teacher of Alexander is self- identical to the Aristotle in this world.

David Lewis accepted the premise of possible worlds re-introduced to analytic philosophy by Kripke. The function of possible worlds for Lewis is almost exactly the same as for Kripke; they measure the necessity of a claim. However, according to Lewis, possible worlds are real physical places—as real as our own world—in which real things exist. This is Lewisian modal realism. As Lewis discusses at great length in On The Plurality of Worlds, there are innumerable such real worlds, and the inhabitants of these worlds are the subjects of the counterfactual conditionals that possible world scenarios evaluate. Among other things, Lewis asserts that counterfactuals are evaluated by means of a relation of counterparts in possible worlds to things in the actual world. This means that when we say something could have been different in any way from the way it actually is (for example, to say that I might have been a concert violinist instead of a philosopher) is to say that there is some possible world in which the counterpart of that thing actually is that way (my counterpart is a concert violinist in some possible world).

In §4 of his book, Lewis argues that possible worlds are spatiotemporally isolated from each other. He also argues that spatiotemporal location is a necessary property of identity, and that the criteria of identity can only be sufficiently met by sharing exactly all the same qualities, including spatiotemporal location. From these two premises arise the need for the counterpart relation to take the place of transworld identity, because identity can only be granted to objects that are at least spatiotemporally identical, and also because in Lewisʼ theory individuals in different possible worlds are separated and thus anything in one world is spatiotemporally isolated from anything in another. What will eventually run Lewis aground here remains unproblematic for Kripke because Kripkeʼs specific theory of possible worlds has no ontological implications and all he needs to grant identity is that a termʼs extension be the same across all possible worlds. However, for Lewis it is clear that it is not possible to grant identities across possible worlds because their referents differ in spatiotemporal location, so he must create some new theory to take its place.

The counterpart relation is the theory that Lewis proposes for this purpose. It is the basis for being able to assess counterfactuals in Lewisʼ account. The counterpart relation is one of “relevant similarity”, or comparative similarity of desired properties between token-specific candidates for counterparts across possible worlds. That which makes an individual in another world a counterpart of an individual in the actual world is an overall comparison of similarity among all possible candidates in any given possible world. Counterparts are only counterparts to each other in virtue of a given “qua relation.” For example, if a counterfactual involving having a certain number of hairs on oneʼs head is being discussed, the proper way to assign counterparthood would be to say that person X in World 1 (W1) is a counterpart of person Y in W2 qua Xʼs and Yʼs number of head-hairs. Thus, one person can be a viable candidate for the counterpart of another person if and only if those two people, as Lewis states, “closely resemble [each other] in important aspects.”

There is no room in Kripkeʼs ersatz treatment of possible worlds for vagueness to arise as an issue. In virtue of the fact that there are no ontological assertions made by ersatz possible worlds, there can be no ontological vagueness. Furthermore, because rigid designators grant identity across possible worlds and the fact that to have an extension, as far as Kripke is concerned, is to exist, there can only be semantic vagueness in the evaluations of modal claims.

This is not the case for Lewisʼ theory of modal realism, though. Modal realism is a large and complex theory that leaves much room in which the problems of vagueness might take hold. Notably, however, Lewis famously decries the whole project of metaphysical vagueness:

"The only intelligible account of vagueness locates it in our thought and language. The reason it’s vague where the outback begins is not that there’s this thing, the outback, with imprecise borders; rather there are many things, with different borders, and nobody has been fool enough to try to enforce a choice of one of them as the official referent of the word `outback.’ Vagueness is semantic indecision," (Lewis 1986, 212).

Many such quotes fill the pages of On The Plurality of Worlds. The idea is always the same: the world is not vague, but rather it is our representations of the world, our words, that are. That David Lewis, the famous metaphysician, is so vehemently opposed to metaphysical vagueness is a bit shocking at first. Why should someone so deeply involved in metaphysics, especially someone whose project is specifically a refutation of a larger semantic theory, seek the solution to the problem of vagueness in a semantic theory? If nothing else, this is strikingly counterintuitive.

Much like others who found vagueness to be a problem of language and not of the world, Lewis seeks to eliminate vagueness by precisifying problematic language:

"If a sentence is true over an entire range, true no matter how we draw the line, surely we are entitled to treat it as simply true. But also we treat a sentence more or less as simply true, if it is true over a large enough part of the range of delineations of its vagueness. (For short: if it is true enough)" (Lewis 1983, 244) 

Here Lewisʼ position on how to deal with problems of vagueness is clear. Because vagueness is “semantic indecision,” the proper manner by which it should be dealt with is to look at the way sentences admit of vagueness and re-evaluate how they are interpreted. Vague sentences are “true enough” to be considered true when they are true over some sufficient range (the “large enough part of the range”) of precisifications. Lewis avoids dealing with the question of what counts as “true enough” by calling this itself a vague matter. This is for Lewis, however, not an important enough issue to pursue, as is evidenced in the next paragraph of the text:

When is a sentence “true enough”? Which are the large parts of the delineations of its vagueness? This itself is a vague matter. More important for our purposes, it is something that depends on context. What is true enough on one occasion is not true enough on another. The standards of precisions in force are different from one conversation to another (Lewis 1983, 244-245).

One should assume, at risk of otherwise creating a straw man argument, that Lewis expects his own semantic prescription for handling vagueness should be sufficient to explain away the vagueness he himself admits is inherent in how he tells us to handle such problems. However, in at least one case, Lewisʼ account is not a sufficient method of explaining away vagueness as semantic indecision.

Consider the following scenario: there is a series of possible worlds in which at one end there is one and only one possible counterpart of Lewis, and he is a spitting image of Lewis in every single possible relevant manner. At the other end of the series, there is a world populated entirely by just one single rooster. This set-up is consistent with how Lewis assumes possible worlds work. Now, assign to this series, in the search for counterparts, the highly precisified set of criteria for counterparthood that is exactly and only the breadth of wingspan and the volume of caw. Lewis would acknowledge that his spitting image meets all the relevant criteria to be his counterpart. He would agree as well that he is not a counterpart of the rooster at the far end of this sequence, being that he meets no relevant criteria for being its counterpart and thus is not, in any way, a viable candidate of counterparthood.

If one observes the series of worlds that starts in the world of the lonely rooster and ends in the world in which there is an exact duplicate of Lewis illustrates a possible worlds sequence of a Lewis/rooster chimera that runs in reverse. Actual-world Lewis would admit that there is one world in this series in which the counterpart relation ceases to be sufficient enough under the relevant criteria for the thing in that world to count as a counterpart of the rooster. By extension, in virtue of the nature of the relevant criteria of this sequence, it is logically true (assuming that counterparthood is cardinal) that there is also some point in this sequence at which the Lewis/rooster chimera ceases to meet any relevant criteria for Lewis-counterparthood.

The problem that Lewis is forced to acknowledge, by his own justification of the counterpart relation, is that there remain penumbral cases of counterparthood in this series. Specifically, there are at least some worlds in which it is indeterminate whether or not the most Lewis-like thing in that world can be rightly called a counterpart of Lewis qua the relevant criteria, but are still, definitely, the counterparts of other non-Lewis counterparts in the series qua those same criteria. Every case in this series in which the chimera is more like a non- counterpart of Lewis, but is still a Lewis/rooster chimera, yields an indeterminate counterpart relation for Lewis. Each further attempt to create more precise semantic boundaries for vague predicates such as “is a counterpart of Lewis” serves only to shift the problem up by one degree of order; there is no way in Lewisʼ treatment of vagueness for there to be enough precisification to eliminate vagueness as a problem of semantics alone.

III. Saving Modal Realism

The basic premises Lewis works from are as follows*:

  1. The world is made of material things,
  2. Modal realism is true,
  3. All possible worlds are spatiotemporally and causally isolated,
  4. Spatiotemporal location is a necessary quality of identity,
  5. Counterpart theory is the means of measuring counterfactuals across spatiotemporally isolated worlds,
  6. Vagueness is semantic in nature.

My thought-experiment shows that modal realism is philosophically unsound if Lewis accepts a theory that uses counterpart theory and eschews metaphysical vagueness, because his prescribed semantic treatment of vagueness results in an infinite regression. However, the counterpart relation is essential to Lewisʼ modal realism, and thus cannot be given up without losing the larger theory. It is the only way he can account for being able to assess counterfactuals. In the above example, I have shown that even under Lewisʼ strict semantic treatment of vagueness, there no precise cut off point at which a thing in the example series is still be enough like Lewis that, were there no other Lewis-like things in its world, it could be determined whether or not that thing would still be Lewisʼ counterpart.

Meeting all of Lewisʼ criteria for hyper-precisification of the relevant criteria fails to eliminate vagueness of the counterpart relation in the above example. I submit that this is the case because the notion of counterparthood and the counterpart relation are based in comparative overall similarity. The problem with such evaluations is that the terms of these evaluations are themselves vague predicates. Thus, we enter an infinitely reiterating argument that fails to address the issue at hand (that being the location of vagueness as being in language or the world). It is a necessary consequence of precisely this is that Lewisʼ system does not function to evaluate modal properties with any hope of being other than accidentally correct. As such, Lewisʼ theory of modal realism with vagueness as a semantic problem is less than a sufficient account of de re modality.

However, I propose that if Lewis were to add to Premise 6 that vagueness can be semantic and metaphysical, he would no longer face an issue of infinite regression. Lewis argues against metaphysical vagueness because he conceives of identity as a most basic property, which he effectively argues to be unique self-sameness, and his argument against vague objects is based on the fact that he assumes there is a finite answer to the question “how many objects are in the world?” Lewis is correct to state that if vagueness is metaphysical, then it would be a fact of the world that there is no finite number of objects in the world. However, why should it be assumed that there is a finite number of objects in the world? I can think of no compelling reason to assume this to be the case, and Lewis certainly fails to give a sufficient account supporting his personal predilection for there being a finite number of things in the world. At every opportunity, he fails to address the issue as he turns questions of metaphysical vagueness into questions of semantic vagueness.

For Lewis to accept vague objects, he is not required to give up any other part of modal realism. Revising Premise 6 as I have prescribed has no impact on the previous five premises. However, the real issue at hand here is that extending Premise 6 to acknowledge the existence of vague objects might be the only way for Lewisʼ modal realism to survive. Rather than supporting modal realism, his position on vagueness as a problem only of semantics actually undermines his project of modal realism. There is no sufficient argument provided as of yet that can semantically explain away problems of vagueness. The problem of infinite regression that Lewisʼ solution entails makes it unjustified and therefore philosophically unsatisfactory. The existence of vague objects is not only simply the more logical solution, but may possibly be the only way he can salvage modal realism from its problem of infinite regression.

Endnotes

*These, I mean to say, are implied by Lewisʼ arguments for and concerning modal realism and the counterpart relation. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does Lewis state these explicitly.

Works Cited

1. Kripke, Saul. Naming and Necessity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1972, ! 1980

2. Lewis, David. On The Plurality of Worlds. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing. 1986.

3. Lewis, David. “Counterparts of Persons and Their Bodies.” The Journal of Philosophy ! Vol. 68 (1971). 203-221.


Why the Referendum is Unethical

Download PDF version here.

Here is what happened to same-sex marriage in New Jersey last week: the state’s elected representatives followed the prescribed set of rules for drafting and enacting legislation, and in response Governor Christie exercised his veto power, killing the bill. Christie’s opposition to both samesex marriage and the bill that would have recognized it under state law paint us a vivid picture of the Governor’s beliefs. He believes that marriage equality “should not be decided by 121 people in the State House in Trenton,” and that the government should “let the people of New Jersey decide what’s right for the state.” He also believes that “Marriage should be between one man and one woman,” but he isn’t above being flexible where legal matters are concerned: “Let’s put it on the ballot, let’s let people decide.”

Notice that the Governor has avoided making any law-based arguments, choosing instead to defend his referendum only by appealing to his beliefs. Yet the legal status of same-sex marriage, not Christie’s beliefs about same-sex marriage, is what will be on the proposed ballot, so why is he talking about his beliefs instead of the law? Because he doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Instead of fulfilling the responsibilities of his office, he is trying to convince his constituents that his call for a referendum is “magnanimous,” when in fact it is guaranteed by New Jersey’s state constitution and has nothing to do with how he exercises his gubernatorial power.

Protecting a civil right is probably morally good, and it’s definitely better than working against protecting one. As James Madison said, “If a majority be united by a common interest the right of the minority will be insecure.” Madison’s words bore out all too clearly during the Civil Rights era. In taking up marriage equality legislation, the New Jersey legislature recognized that marriage equality is a matter of civil rights. By contrast, choosing the referendum means choosing to subject civil rights to popular opinion. New Jersey’s senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D) pointed out that women’s suffrage failed the popular vote by a 2-to-1 margin. While this is galling, it shouldn’t be surprising; referenda that limit or reduce civil rights pass often and with very strong popular support.

The populist nature of the referendum defines ‘what’s right for the state’ as ‘what a simple majority of the people prefer.’ Preference for a referendum indicates Christie thinks rights are not endowed by “Man’s Creator” but instead are founded in opinion – true only if the majority says so. Christie is at odds with the fundamental historical justification for rights in the United States. I submit that if the Governor is genuinely concerned about the will of the people and the law of the land, then he should remove any mention of marriage and push for an amendment that grants the state legislature the power, in cases in which civil rights have been denied, revoked or neglected, to amend the constitution directly.

After opting for the veto, Christie decided to call for an ombudsman, saying “Discrimination should not be tolerated and any complaint alleging a violation of a citizen’s right should be investigated and, if appropriate, remedied.” This does not mitigate the face that choosing a referendum over legislation in a question of civil rights is nothing short of discrimination, as it virtually guarantees that the right in question will be suppressed by the majority. If the Governor wishes to be held to his own standard, he should expect an investigation into his actions. Meanwhile, some polls indicate this may be the rare case and the majority might vote in favor of recognizing the civil right in question. This is irrelevant to Christie’s stance. Either way New Jersey’s citizens decide in favor of, Christie’s veto works against protecting a civil right. This is, and will always be, unethical.


Are Separate Productive & Comprehensive Representational Language Systems Feasible?

PDF available here.

In her 1994 paper, Zwitserlood argues for a kind of representational dualism according to which there are two separate computational-psychological systems responsible for the production and comprehension of language respectively. 

Zwitserlood does little to define some of her most important terms, and as such, it can be difficult to fully grasp what it might mean for the language faculty to have separate systems of lexical representations, and further, why those should be applied within the context of comprehension and production of language.

Representational monism and dualism are illustrated by the following diagrams:

Block (A) outlines a dualistic language system in which production and comprehension are the functions of two separate algorithms, which is to say that the “word forms” accessed in the execution of a comprehension task and the “word forms” accessed in the execution of a production task are fundamentally unrelated. Block (B) outlines the monist hypothesis: an algorithm according to which production and comprehension compute over the same bank of “word forms”. 

To support her dualist hypothesis, Zwitserlood demonstrates asymmetrical effects of image priming; it facilitates language production but inhibits language comprehension.Whether or not this asymmetry between comprehension/production supports there being a single shared system of representation support the monist or dualist thesis hinges crucially on the definition of “word forms”. 

Zwitserlood gives no direct definition, and as such the nature of the debate between word form monists and dualists is. However, a functional definition can be teased out of the rest of the theory. Zwitserlood employs the psycholinguistic use of “lemma”, a computational process that facilitates lexical decision making as “intermediate between the semantic level and the phonological level.” One can assume, then, that semantic representations are situated above “word forms” in these diagrams. Understood as such, when Zwitserlood offers the possibility of two separate kinds of “word forms” to be accessed in production and comprehension respectively, a second possible manner of interpretation emerges to counter the one above. By this second understanding, it is conceivable that the two “word forms” bubbles in block (A) are not necessarily different things, but rather different paths through the same store of data. Describing the processes in blocks (A) and (B) as a labyrinth with at least two different solutions, one for the entrance from the south wall,  and one for the entrance from the west wall.

It is not impossible to imagine that the different entrances to such a labyrinth could yield different results given, e.g., differences in proximity to the exit, degrees of difficulty to overcome the obstacles along either path, etc. And it is certainly possible to imagine a single person who has mastered the south-wall-entrance solution through many repeated journeys entering via the west wall for the first time, just to find herself suddenly disoriented, lacking fluency regarding the twists and turns she encounters on her trip through. 

The labyrinth metaphor explains Zwitserlood’s data and also accounts for the difference in production and comprehension in certain real life cases such as those of children who grew up in bilingual homes but were exposed exclusively to one of their two native languages outside of their home. This phenomenon has been called “kitchen Spanish” (though the specific language itself is irrelevant). 

Facilitation of production in a priming environment vs. inhibition of comprehension in a priming environment are both feasible in a case where there is one repository of “word forms” that each production and comprehension compute through and/or over, specifically when in such a model, 

  1. Production does not require access to the semantics via a productive function, but only through a comprehensive function, and
  2. The semantic values of terms are only retrieved after that word bank is computed through.

There would, in this case, be cross-signal noise that inhibits the function of comprehension but facilitates the function of production. So if, by two different banks of “word forms”, Zwitserlood is really describing a single location of lexical-phonotactic information computed-over by different functions, then the dualist hypothesis is entirely feasible. 

Consider the labyrinth metaphor again: if the south wall entrance is comparable to, let’s say, the productive forms of words, and the west wall entrance is comparable to the comprehensive lexical forms, and the solutions to the labyrinth correlate those forms to the processes of encoding and decoding of linguistic information respectively, that there can be maybe not so much two different “word form” banks per se, but still two different solutions to this puzzle, each of which handles the unique problems of that particular modality of  the language.