The Fallacy of Misplaced Vagueness

Blind Man’s Bluff
Francisco Goya, 1788

The Fallacy of Misplaced Vagueness

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead spotlighted a previously unrecognized mistake in reasoning: “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  It happens when we confuse an abstract concept for something concrete.

Medieval knights set out in quest of the holy grail.  It was a concrete thing, the silver cup from which Jesus drank at his last supper.  If you followed Whitehead, you might say that they were really looking for holiness, which is not a particular cup but a way of conducting oneself over time.  I doubt that the knights would’ve been happy to learn that they were committing the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, but you see what I mean.

Anyway this kind of fallacy, if that’s what it was, seems to have cropped up repeatedly in recent centuries.  Thus Einstein looked for the laws of nature, which he sometimes referred to as the way the mind of God works.  He was looking to fathom a definite thing, nature itself.  He hoped he had refuted quantum theory when he proved mathematically that, if it were true, the laws of nature – of causality in space and time – would be overthrown.

As it turned out, quantum theory could happily survive the overthrow of causality – of nature itself! — as Einstein understood it.  Take a pair of photons traveling in opposite directions.  The one goes east to the end of the galaxy and beyond.  The other travels west, a short distance, in the form of a wave (or ensemble of probabilities) till it gets measured or observed; then it collapses into one definite particle.  Instantly, the funny part happens: the other member of the pair of photons collapses into a particle too.  The immensities of space and time present no barrier to this twinned collapse, which is called “quantum entanglement.”

Where did external “nature” go, as the ensemble of things and events Einstein was trying to understand?  The only thing we know of that acts like quantum entanglement is thought.  I can think of Paris — and Paris be there as the object of my thought — instantaneously.  But thinking is something we do.  Nature (we and Einstein believed) was a vast other thing – outside ourselves. 

Is this another case of Whitehead’s fallacy of misplaced concreteness?  Here again, were we thinking that “nature and its laws” were out there — mistaking a mere abstraction for physis, nature — a concrete thing?

Money might be another example.  I’ve been reading a really good book about the history of money and modern finance: Money for Nothing by Thomas Levenson.  Turns out that great 17th and 18th-century thinkers like John Locke and Isaac Newton differed on the question of what imbues money with value.  Locke thought what was valuable about coins were the chunks of silver they were made of, because silver was valuable in itself! 

Newton’s experience was different.  He had been made Warden of the Mint where silver coins were produced.  The production was quite a labor, involving many men, plus horses to provide the horse power.  He was a very good and careful administrator and silver from his Mint was worth what it said on the face of the coin.  But there is more to economics than efficiency in problem-solving.  There is also human whim and wickedness.  Unscrupulous fellows would chip off bits of real silver for their own use, replacing it with disguised alloy.  Seeing that this debasement of the coin could not be stopped, Newton came to the conclusion that money was a medium of exchange, “mere opinion … worth what it could buy.”

Here again, value was thought to be a concrete thing and, by trial and error, finally dissolved into a network of transactions.

Meanwhile philosophy too, at least on its “analytic” side (which tends to favor the sciences), has seen a similar kind of dissolve of concrete things (atomic facts or discrete bits of empirical data) into innumerable complexes of practices in which speakers engage.

Is there no silver cup of knowledge — no holy grail?  Is there no thing?  If not, what were we seeking to know?

On the Victor Zammit blog of December 10th, I watched the video of a panel on Science and Nonlocality.  Participants included a professor of pathology and medicine, professors of cognitive neuroscience and of neurology and a couple of quantum physicists.  One of the quantum physicists, John Hagelin, brought up the subject whose dissolve I’ve been reporting here: the thing, the discrete object, and what a thing is “at the deep level.” 

Take the human body, Hagelin said.  At eye level, it’s a boundaried object in space.  My body is my body.  Yours is yours.  But go down to the cellular level; it’s already a “community of cells.”  Then get a little smaller, down to the biomolecular and then atomic level; then get even smaller, down to the quantum level.  There, Hagelin said, “nonlocality predominates.”  The smaller we go in scale, the more boundaries are extended out.  Until, at the smallest level, we find that “we’re not really individuals.”

So it’s beginning to appear from many sides.  Inanimate things are not definite.  Money’s not definite.  Reference in speech is not definite.  And organic beings aren’t definite either.  In Hagelin’s words, we’re not really individuals. 

Everyone is claiming to be happy about this.  They can’t wait to get all mystical and disappear into the Great Oneness.  But I won’t lie to you.  I don’t like it.  I can live without silver as the measure of value.  I can live without unbreakable atoms and atomic facts.  I can’t live without objects in space and events in time.  It’s a world I can’t picture.  Like Whitehead, I too have discovered a fallacy:

the fallacy of misplaced vagueness.

A good human life, as I understand it, takes place in a set of circumstances permitting one to learn who one is, what one wants and has as one’s purposes and projects.  Coping with reality, one finds reasons to retain those purposes or modify them to accommodate the lessons of experience.  Going along in this way, holding on to the connecting thread of memory, over time one gains a definite life story.  The novels of Dickens invited illustration because each phase of the plot could be pictured.  In our lives too, the lessons are frequent and sometimes dramatic.  The tests are real.  When we share them with friends, we try to give them the picture.

It’s true that you might see the same object or event differently than I do.  Your body is different.  Your circumstances have been different.  But a difference of vantage point doesn’t dissolve truth.  If we put my perspective and yours together, we have more truth, not less.  If I lie about what I have seen or done, we have less truth.  The same goes for you.  Either way, reality does not dissolve.  Our respective stories remain nonfiction.

The distinguished scientists on the Science and Nonlocality Conference seemed generally to welcome the dissolutions they were discussing.  They anticipated flipping the old question — how does consciousness evolve out of primordial matter? — to a new one: how does matter evolve out of primordial consciousness?  This could be a refreshing change, like the one that occurred centuries back, from the Ptolemaic-geocentric to the Copernican-heliocentric astronomy.  But while we pursue these novel and interesting explorations, let’s not forget the main thing in our lives:

our story and the picture of it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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