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Identity And Universals: A Conceptualist Approach to Logical, Metaphysical, and Epistemological Problems of Contemporary Identity Theory
Chapter 6, The Concept UNITY
by Carolyn Ray

Date: 11 Nov 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray

If, now, being and unity are the same and are one thing in the sense that they are implied in one another as principle and cause are, not in the sense that they are explained by the same definition (though it makes no difference even if we suppose them to be like that--in fact this would even strengthen our case); for 'one man' and 'man' are the same thing, and so are 'existent man' and 'man', and the doubling of the words in 'one man and one existent man' does not express anything different (it is clear that the two things are not separated either in coming to be or in ceasing to be); and similarly 'one existent man' adds nothing to 'existent man', so that it is obvious that the addition in these cases means the same thing, and unity is nothing apart from being; and if, further, the substance of each thing is one in no merely accidental way, and similarly is from its very nature something that is:--all this being so, there must be exactly as many species of being as of unity (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1003b24-34).

I have been speaking all along as if we all understand the same thing by the word 'unity.' Indeed, I think we do. The concept UNITY denotes the same fact, has the same referents, as the concept EXISTENCE, but with a slightly different emphasis. The Naive View on unity, as informed by a conceptualist theory of universals, is that there are distinct, separate metaphysical objects with boundaries.

Our evidence of this is edges, which are given in perception. We do not create the idea of edges conceptually: recall that infants, within hours of opening their eyes, will track a moving "object." My pet rats, when released from their cage, never attempt to dig up the carpet in the middle of the room; rather, they find their way to the edges of the room and attempt to dig up the carpet there (edges apparently mean "out" to them). This behavior is also displayed inside their cage; they never scratch or gnaw at parts of the cage that are not near the edge, and as soon as the edge of the door parts from the edge of the frame, they come tumbling out. When they are outside the cage and want to get back in, again they find the edges of the cage and show no interest in the sides of it; if the edge of the door is left at some slight distance from the frame, they grab the door by the edge with their hands and pull it open.

Edges are even more apparent, in a certain way, to our tactile receptors: Attempt to walk through a sliding glass patio door, and you will find its edges with various parts of your body. My rats can get two or more edges of a pen or a cookie inside their jaws; as soon as they realize this, they take off with the pilfered item. They distinguish food from my fingers; even chocolate icing and peanut butter do not confuse them into disrespecting the edge of my hand. They groom each other's fur with their teeth, yet never break the skin which constitutes their own edge. Their behavior is relevant to the explanation of the Naive View of unity, because it provides confirmation that the hypothesis that things have definite edges is not an arbitrary whim of mine. The rats, without concepts or propositions or the allegedly flawed human belief system, pick out exactly the same edges that I do. This fact makes me suspect that either my Naive View really does reflect the way reality is, or that my rats and I are deluded in exactly the same way.

What do edges have to do with unity and identity? The unity is inside the edges. That is how we, and other animals, find unities. And unities are some way--they have identity. UNITY and IDENTITY refer to the same fact, have the same referents.

However, identity theorists struggle with this idea, and the result is, of course, more puzzles. It may be instructive to look at some arguments against the validity of the concept UNITY so that we can better understand this concept by means of contrast with them. Daniel Kolak alerts us to the intractable problems with attempting to maintain a view like mine:

...Human beings, too, exist at different places at the same time, the places merely appear continuous: from the perspective of my electrons, I am a constellation extending across a vast empty space. How small do the gaps between spatially distinct, contemporaneously existing places in which I exist have to be to count as boundaries between persons rather than borders within one person?

Thus, one problem is that even a cursory analysis reveals that the types of border signified by spatially distinct simultaneously existing physiological bundles, by itself, cannot always be a delineating boundary between physiological bundles, let alone between persons (Kolak, "Metaphysics," p. 41).

Kolak takes this question, "how small do the gaps have to be" to be unanswerable by the Naive View. But the Naive View can answer him, by means of a thought experiment. Let us imagine that I have an illness and I am feeling a little warm. You bring me some medicine, but I am sleeping, so you leave the pills next to me on the bed sheet. An hour later, I am awakened by the sensation of the pills pressing into my flesh, and sporting a raging fever that would have been eased had you made me wake up for the medicine. Feeling guilty, you explain to the emergency room doctors that you thought it would be all right to just leave it near the apparent boundaries of my body. After all, my electrons extend well past the arbitrary boundary we draw at our skins--and naturally, the boundaries of the ibuprofen extend past their little brown skins too. Why the electrons did not mix in such a way as to reduce the fever is beyond you.

Somehow, the very same pills, if placed inside that arbitrary skin-boundary, would have worked on my system. This is not a matter of my perception and the arbitrary way I draw my metaphysical boundaries; in the experiment, I perceived nothing and conceptualized nothing. Unless "metaphysical boundary" means simply "some ethereal something we humans can never understand, but definitely unlike the physical boundary that we can perceive," then this thought experiment emphasizes the metaphysical importance of the edge I call "my skin."

But what about the psychological boundary? It does seem to be a very squishy thing, especially if one is inclined to think of persons as separate from their bodies. Let us engage in a different thought experiment. Certainly it is persons, not human bodies, who study for tests. Suppose that my roommate and I take a course together, and there is a big exam in the morning. I glance at my unopened books, and notice that my roommate is already studying. Hours later, my roommate discovers me immersed in Pride and Prejudice, and exclaims, "We have an exam tomorrow!" And I say, "But you are already studying for it, so there's no point in my studying for it too--or do you subscribe to that outmoded theory of metaphysical boundaries between persons?"

With my imaginary cases under our belts, we can perhaps take a more sober perspective on such comments as this one:

since our ordinary intuitions are suspect, we cannot always answer the personal identity question because the more fundamental question--how we draw boundaries between persons (or, which borders those boundaries consist in)--on which the personal identity question is based, is unfixed by the way the world is (Kolak, ibid, p. 44 [emphasis Kolak's]).

There were plenty of times in graduate school when I wished that someone else could study while I read novels, but the physiological and psychological boundaries were relentless. Either my arbitrary conceptual scheme overcame that very strong desire, or the boundaries between persons are fixed by the way the world is.

The problem with Kolak's argument is that it commits the fallacy of composition, which means that it turns in part on the false implicit premise that whatever is true of the parts of a whole is true of the whole as well. He proceeds from the fact that events are happening to the atoms or collection of atoms which go to make up human bodies, to the conclusion that those events are happening to the bodies or to the persons. Namely, since the molecules of my body are drifting off into space, my body extends past my skin and so do I.

The argument also turns on the claim that, after my molecules leave the group that make up my body, they are still "my" molecules. He justifies this claim by asking us to shift our focus from the perceptual level to the level of electrons, where the edges of human bodies are not so clear. The problem with this claim is that, at the level of electrons, there are no human bodies. There are only particles--perhaps they have edges (I could not say), but if they do, they are not my edges. In other words, he says he wants us to shift our focus, but he counts on us not shifting it but rather including the new focus right along side the first. In other words, he counts on us equivocating on the word 'body' such that it means both 'unit at the perceptual level' and 'cluster of atoms.' There is nothing wrong with such a shift in focus, unless the conclusion of the argument cannot be reached without an equivocation.

Let us briefly consider a number of other attempts to deny the fact of unity and the idea that persons are unities with definite boundaries.

1. "Given the ephemeral nature of our physiological and psychological borders, our identities are not intrinsically fixed"(Kolak, ibid, p. 43). It is not clear what a psychological border could be, other than that I am aware of what is going on in here, and I am not aware of what is going on in there. I do not know whether one would want to call this a metaphysical border. However, "in here" is always limited to the border that I contend is metaphysical: the border of my body. That is why, if I do not sit my body down in front of my open books, my psychology is not affected by their contents. That is also why I cannot be aware of other people's perceptions and thoughts. I consider myself to be a unity in virtue of the fact that I am separate from other entities in this way.

2. Things we normally think of as unities can divide. So they are not really unities. The standard examples of divisible "unities" are pebbles, split-brain patients, and multiple personality. We have already attended at length to the latter two. What about pebbles? According the Kolak, the fact that something can divide proves that there was no reason to think of the thing as a unity in the first place. By 'divisible' I take it that he means 'can be divided into more than one thing of the same kind as the original.' A pebble can be divided, and we would probably call the results "pebbles." But very many of the things that give rise to the concept UNITY are divisible. Kolak must therefore be referring to the referents of the concept DIVISIBLE, which is a smaller class of the concept UNITY.

3. Our conceptual scheme could have been some other way, and then we would not draw our boundaries where we do. So our boundaries may or may not be metaphysical; it all depends on how we look at it. Consider a pebble that is black on one side, white on the other. In Kolak's words:

what matters in identity cannot be stripped from what matters to us....someone could decide, instead, that there are two pebbles on my desk, one black and one white, whose borders are so close that the forces of their outer atoms "glue" them together so as to create the (false) perception of one pebble. Whether we count "one" or "two" depends in part on which physical borders we view as significant in drawing the metaphysical boundaries of physical bundles. To us for whom color boundaries don't matter, there is only one pebble....But there would be nothing wrong with someone from another society...counting, instead, "two pebbles." His counting and our counting do not describe different sets of facts but merely apply to the same facts--to the same physical borders--different levels of metaphysical significance (Kolak, ibid, p. 42 [emphasis Kolak's]).

Someone could certainly use the sound of our word 'two' in this way. We would assume that, in his society, the integers were named 'zero,' 'two,' 'three,' etc. If this is what a difference in metaphysical significance is, then it nothing more than a difference in words. But let us take his society seriously for a moment. What would it be like to live according, not to the metaphysical boundaries, but according to the color boundaries?

At first, such a life does not seem too hard to imagine. Color boundaries are very, very important to us, for many purposes, one of which is drawing metaphysical boundaries. They are often a good first guide to drawing metaphysical boundaries in a quick and dirty way. When driving in traffic, color boundaries are usually the first ones obvious to us. They are good enough for avoiding an accident when it is not important whether the shape in the road is one white car or two. Could life always be like this? Suppose I am shopping for a large family car. The salesperson points to a white shape in the far lot, but I am nearsighted and all I see is a large white shape approximately the size of a station wagon. It matters a great deal whether that shape is one car or two. Closer examination is required, because I want to make sure I do not sign an invoice for a compact car that happens to be sitting next to another compact car of the same color. But this is not what Kolak has in mind.

Kolak seems to think that it would be possible for people to live according to color boundaries to the exclusion of metaphysical boundaries. If they simply used them as a rough and immediate guide, there would be no difference in the way our societies thought about things. In his terms, the color boundaries would be the metaphysical boundaries, because metaphysical boundaries are not really features of the world but are rather arbitrary conventions. Thus, to be consistent, these people would ignore what we call metaphysical boundaries. We could not expect this race to enjoy a prolonged existence. We must admit that there would be boundaries they simply would have to acknowledge, on pain of starvation and death. To help their children to avoid bears, they would tell their children, "Stay away from the brown!" But with bears, poisonous fungus and rotted vegetables they would lump deer, tree trunks, fallen logs, some birds--and, of course, pebbles. "Go pick us some green!" they would suggest to their children, who would come back with handfuls of clover, poison ivy, corn husks, and elm leaves, all of which even the most discriminating color-seer would have trouble distinguishing on the basis of color. More terms for browns and greens would not answer, because these things cannot be distinguished on the basis of color alone. If they wanted to eat and not be eaten, they would eventually have to start acknowledging the sizes of the animals, the shapes of the leaves, and the fact that animals move while plants and rocks do not. In other words, they would have drawn their metaphysical boundaries arbitrarily, and metaphysical reality would punish them for it.

But perhaps Kolak means that color boundaries are, to this race, as important as, but not more important than, the metaphysical boundaries, which of course they must acknowledge. So they would count more than one "unity" where we claim to see only one. And all this says is that they draw their boundaries around the same things that we call metaphysical unities, only they emphasize color lines to the extent that they count things differently. But then it must frequently happen that the villagers say to the children, "We need ten logs for the cooking fire tonight," whereupn the children make things easy on themselves by bringing back a single log that exhibits ten colors on its outer surface due to various blackened knots, patches of wetness, stripped-off bark, and smears.

Perhaps we, as conceptual beings capable of perverting our own conceptual faculties, could eventually talk ourselves into considering color boundaries to always have metaphysical significance. But could my pet rats do so? What prejudice do they have in mind when they bite down on a peanut rather than on the fingers between which I hold it? They certainly do not use word the 'finger' and 'peanut' with any metaphysical significance; they do not use them at all, and yet their behavior seems to accord significance to what we humans pick out as the respective boundaries of the peanut and of my fingers (where 'significance' for them means 'bite this, not that'). Kolak has reversed cause and effect. The metaphysical significance comes from the interaction of the conscious subject with the metaphysical boundary, and that boundary we (and the rats) perceive in the form of a physical edge. Rats simply act in accordance with such edges, without, I presume, conceptualizing them and giving names to the unities they delineate. We conceptualize the edges and name the unities within them. When we do not understand this process, or when we reverse the cause and the effect, we begin to suspect that we just made the whole thing up.

Kolak is actually struggling with an important distinction, but he does not have the tools to handle it. He is trying to say that our concepts are not intrinsic: concepts and their names are not given in reality. Rather, they are created by a conscious subject whose perceptual apparatus allow it to attend to and measure certain features and to sort beings into classes for some specific purpose. Because he does not understand the difference between 'not intrinsic' and 'arbitrary,' Kolak thinks that our concepts are probably arbitrary, and might just as well be arbitrary. The view of universals informing this attitude is full-blown extreme nominalism. But it will not work in the end. In denying unity, one denies identity. In denying either, one denies existence. And that leads to no end of trouble.

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