Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Sider on joint-carving and reference

Humans refer to things sometimes. Ted Sider thinks, with David Lewis, that part of the story for why it is that we refer to some things, rather than other possible things, is that the things we refer to are more natural. This Sider understands as a matter of the primitive structure of the world. To takes one of Ted's examples, Ted's word 'pig' refers to pigs, instead of pigs-before-2011-AD-or-cows-afterwards. And he thinks that general considerations about fundamental structure can yield this intuitive result. Ted writes:

The point may be seen initially by making two strong, crude assumptions about "reasonably joint-carving". Assume first that a notion is reasonably joint-carving iff it has a reasonably simple and nondisjunctive definition in terms of the perfectly joint-carving notions, and second that the perfectly joint-carving notions are those of physics. Then surely no reasonably joint-carving relation that is to play the role of reference could relate a human population to bizarre semantic values. For the bizarre semantic values themselves have no simple basis in the physical, nor do they stand in any physically simple relations to human populations. Given any reduction that does relate us to bizarre semantic values, there is surely some other relation with a simpler basis in the physical that relates us to nonbizarre semantic values. (29)
There is considerable vagueness and imprecision in the notion of "reasonably" simply definitions Ted evokes, but I guess I agree that it's pretty plausible that one couldn't tell a "reasonably simple" story in purely physical terms of how humans are related to bizarre semantic values like pigs-before-2011-AD-or-cows-afterwards. But Ted needs more than just that fact; he needs the comparison. And I guess it just doesn't look very plausible to me that there is a "reasonably simple" definition available in purely physical terms of any of the pieces we need here. By any ordinary standards, a definition of pig --- or human! --- in purely physical terms will be rather unreasonably complex! So I worry that if this is the story about why we don't refer to pigs-before-2011-AD-or-cows-afterwards, it will generalize to show that we don't refer to pigs either. (A related problem; surely it's possible to refer to pigs-before-2011-AD-or-cows-afterwards, right?)

I think this problem persists, even given the less toy version of the theory. He continues the passage above:
The two assumptions of the previous paragraph are undoubtedly too crude, but the point is independent of them. Whether a notion is reasonably joint-carving --- enough to take part in special-science explanations --- has something to do with how it is based in the fundamental. So reference must have the right sort of basis in the fundamental if it's to be explanatory.
But it's just very difficult to say anything halfway reasonably simple about how any of this stuff arises from the fundamental. Things like pigs are just way too far removed from things like electrons. (And presumably, even electrons aren't fundamental anyway.)

More on this theme, and what I think we should say instead, tomorrow.

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