• Inigo Montoya and the “supernatural, emergent, and subjective”

    "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    The immortal words of film classic The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya have been meme-ified for use against internet and media pundits rhetorically abusing words beyond the licence of art and form: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. In real conversations, sometimes it is confusion of individuals or small classes of people, like the ones who think that evolution means that one day a chimp gave birth to a human baby, thus creating the human race. Such a person will use the word evolution often, but not correctly.

    Other times it is the entire society and language itself that is confused about a meaning. Granted, the meaning of a given word is arbitrary and artificial by definition. But some words encapsulate inferential ideas, and those can be all sorts of wrong. For example, in many languages the name for the people, their cultural and ethnic identity is the same as the word for “humans” and foreigners are a separate class. Not only is this mistaken, but it incubates xenophobic ideas about the centrality and importance of the self-identified group in the cosmic order.

    I’ve previously written about why I think the word supernatural does not mean anything, in the sense that it does not refer. As an English word, it certainly has some sort of meaning, but that meaning is a reification of an incoherent concept. And it was never a coherent concept. But, after so many words, then books, then respected names had used and said it enough it was legitimated, reified. Now it’s a section in book stores, a Seinfeldian kiosk; a proud tradition of thought about nothing. This is far from the most embarrassing bit of philosophy to become respected discourse (See Anselm’s ontological argument).

    Along with supernatural, I would add these less obvious entries: emergent and subjective. These are perfectly good words for many purposes, but they also often get used in the reification-of-incoherent-concept fashion. Consequently, they can fog thinking where invoked, and are sometimes abused for intellectual skulduggery .


    I am not blaming or ridiculing philosophers, I should say at the start here. They may use these terms, but they can be used appropriately. To wit, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy introduces it with Emergence is a notorious philosophical term of art. A variety of theorists have appropriated it for their purposes ever since George Henry Lewes gave it a philosophical sense in his 1875 Problems of Life and Mind. Here’s the definition from Merriam-Webster.

    [quote]In the theory of evolution, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. The British philosopher of science G.H. Lewes (1817–78) distinguished between resultants and emergents—phenomena that are predictable from their constituent parts (e.g., a physical mixture of sand and talcum powder) and those that are not (e.g., a chemical compound such as salt, which looks nothing like sodium or chlorine).[/quote]

    Or in the vernacular, something which is more than the mere sum of its parts. The example above is a fine one, the properties of sodium chloride, a granular crystal that makes things taste yummy, is not a list of the properties of either sodium (a poisonous metal) and chlorine (a toxic gas that is rare on Earth in free form). But more to the present point, emergent is used to describe things like evolved biological forms and especially the mind. One form of the philosophical emergentism theory asserts that the mind is emergent from the physical activity and structure of the brain. Here the reification is evident and complete because the emergence of the mind is now nigh-magical, described as not merely being unexplained in terms of the smaller parts, but being inexplicable by them. The next step, intellectually and sociologically, is the imagining that there is some sort of a cosmic process that ineffably generates complex [fill in the blank].

    Properly understood, “emergent” has a negative meaning. It specifies when our perspicacity is inadequate to specify the causal sequence ending with mind or population dynamics or what have you. The distorted meaning is positive: the assertion of a mysterious force unrelated to the mere elements. It’s worth noting that almost everything that is now explained by natural science was previously “emergent”: biogenesis, the origin of species, the weather, climate. Lots of things are not the sum of their parts, but they might be the product. Or quotient. Or result of a complex model of these and other interactions because mere addition is not the only tool in the box.

    The Subjective

    A straight-forward meaning of subjective is anything taken from the perspective of a particular individual. You say green is the best of colors and I say red, and no purely rational method can determine which of us is correct, or even that “correct” means anything. Nothing to object to, in this. But we go much farther. We’ve made “subjective” into the antonym of “objective”.  Again, we began to imagine the description is a predicate, an innate property of a thing instead of a mere classification we’ve created out of convenience. Why does mere point of view matter so much? It may be raining in Chicago but not in New York without us concluding that humidity, temperature, and pressure are subjective features. Yet we think an opinion about a color is subjective merely because it varies across individuals, as weather varies across geography. The difference is that we know how to measure and quantify weather and we don’t really know how to measure and quantify “opinion” and perhaps we even have a hard time deciding what it is.  Today’s most vocal Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, likes to point to our inability to objectively parse subjective consciousness as an argument that we should accept the assertion of the reality of the soul. The notion of the soul or magic essence is the ultimate reification of these concepts. The incoherent made real. It also illustrates the intellectual and moral danger, but that is a topic for another day.

    Like supernatural and emergentsubjective is primarily useful in demarcating an edge of our (present) understanding and not in elucidating the nature of items within its scope.  While we may not be closer to deciphering the precise definition of experiential “redness” or the like,  loads of formerly purely subjective ideas have had parts shaved off by science or else situated in an objective formal framework. Some primate species that eat fruits have preferences for colors associated with those plants (indeed, it may have partially driven the evolution of color vision in simians to begin with). Twin and sibling studies show that around half of the variance in personality is genetically-based. Life history theory research points to permanent effects on attitudes based on early life experience or even that of our parents. Computers can do things we used to call subjective “opinion” or “art” like predicting weather, diagnosing medical patients (as well as any human doctor), and composing music.

    Sum of my parts

    So it is that I often feel like saying to folks, You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. That may be harsh, but at least I am not seeking murderous revenge. Usually. The reification problem is particularly bad in these cases, but it is not restricted to them or to philosophy jargon filtering into the laity. Almost any idea is in danger of become a sociological entity. Tradition or popular support may bestow regard and features that the concept’s intellectual underpinning does not support. It may be insulated from erosion new knowledge should cause. In some part, this is why awful ideas persist long after their obsolescence (See Wegener, Pasteur, Darwin, or Semmelweis). Maybe this is why we continue to believe nonsense, like that drug abuse can be fought with cops and courts; that religion owns morality. My progressivist readers should not feel too proud in not believing those things because we all probably have at least a few bits of culturally reified nonsense that we do believe in fully.

    Category: Critical Thinkingfeaturedphilosophy

  • Article by: Edward Clint

    Ed Clint is an evolutionary psychologist, co-founder of Skeptic Ink, and USAF veteran.