How can we talk usefully about what there is in the world?

What is there in the world, and how do we come to know what these things actually are? This problem is a lot more difficult than it would first seem. One problem we have is how we distinguish the properties of one object from the properties of another object. It seems like a simple issue, but we soon enough run into problems. Try describing a spider- it has eight legs, weaves a web, eats flies. Great, but how does that spider differ from another spider? Does it have a marking on its back? Great, but how does it differ from another spider with the same marking? What we run into is the problem that descriptions are problematic in that they struggle to depict particular instances of reality.

The problem gets more difficult. Consider types and tokens. For anybody who is unfamiliar with the terms, a type is a thing for which there are many of, a token is a specific instance of that object. Type-  £1 coins, token- a particular £1 coin. If we take two £1 coins, both completely identical in every possible way, how do we reference, by description, one in particular?

Here I will look at Max Black’s exploration of the problem in his essay The Identity of Indiscernibles. Black believes that whilst we can talk about two identical objects, we are unable to discriminate between the two of them.

First, we could try to discriminate between to objects, let’s call them A and B, by saying that A shares in, or contains all the properties specific only to A. However, this is refutable because it doesn’t say anything other than-

A = A

We could further try to say that A is different from B because it contains properties which B doesn’t have. However, this is equally problematic because it is also not saying anything other than-


One way that people attempt to describe an object is by saying what features objects do not have in common. This is a more commonplace approach than we think. When you describe an object as ‘red’, you are also saying that it is ‘not blue, nor any other colour’. This is still problematic though, because if we are negating properties which are not included in the object we wish to distinguish, we will run into the same problem which we run into when trying to demonstrate by description what is unique about the object (A or B). Therefore we are still at [A =A] and [A = NOT B].

Relational terms are proposed as an ideal way of describing an object. This can include statements such as

“Victoria Beckham is married to David Beckham” or

“I am [x] miles from London at present”

Black draws a further problem here. If we can’t distinguish A from B in the first place, we can’t describe one from the other because we cannot be sure which one is A, nor which one is B. This is because by giving two identical objects the descriptions A and B, we are conditioning the natures of the objects A and B with external markers. It then presents its self as problematic to use an external metric as a form of description. Points of reference are inherently specific to the objects individually.

We are asked to suppose that there is a world in which all that exists are two identical metallic orbs. For arguments sake, they are a mile across. In the same way as A and B, there are no physical markers with which one could confer distinctions of properties. By calling one A and one B, we need to decide which one is which first. And without any point of reference within that world, there is no way of doing that. Calling them different names in a way which would help would be like painting one red and one blue. That would mean that they were no longer the objects we were talking about.

We could approach describing the spheres by adding in a perspective, a viewer. This would change the condition of the hypothetical world, but for argument’s sake, we will attempt. I am that viewer, and I am facing one directly from a distance of one mile, which would mean I was facing the other from a distance of two miles, let’s say. We can then describe them by the metric of perceived distance. The problem with this is that we will not have actually described the objects at all, we will simply have stated facts about them regarding where they are situated in regards to my perspective of them. The morning star and the evening star are the same thing, but it seems that we are describing two different things. What we are actually doing is describing the same thing at two different points in time and space. Two descriptions of condition, not of the object.

The other issue is that we are still no closer to describing the objects A from B, nor one metal sphere from the other. If we are discussing them in writing, say, we still have no points with which to describe the objects, just points with which to reference the objects.

Suppose we draw a line between the two spheres, directly between them, so that the spheres were equidistant to the line, could we talk about the one on the left, and the one on the right? It is debatable. The problem is, if we were to describe the objects as being on the left of right, we have the perspective issue again. Put that to one side. Suppose we described the ‘left’ one, that description would also have to be true for the ‘right’ one, therefore making the left one and right one no different. If I was standing on one of the spheres, wearing a green hat, and playing a flute, I would have to see myself on the other sphere, wearing the same green hat and playing the same tune on the same flute, otherwise I would have changed the object again. Therefore all the line could ever have been is a mirror line.

When we are describing something, we always run into the trouble of describing how one specific instance of something is different from another. Extra detail can only take us so far in describing a thing before two objects become indistinguishable from each other. It would appear that there was a paradox confronting us whenever we wanted to be sufficiently particular about what there was in the world, and of how we can usefully describe it. We must admit that after a point, we can talk about things and acknowledge their existences, but we would be hard pressed, if it is at all possible, to talk about them effectively.

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