Explaining philosophy for social justice warriors and/or trolls
blackwomanvalues is a black woman. You can tell, right?
blackwomanvalues is apparently transethnic, which is Internet-speak for “I can be whatever the fuck I want, and if you don’t agree, you are just privileged”. Think transgender, except on racial and ethnic lines. There is a high probability of it being a troll. That’s fine by me. If they aren’t a troll, fine, but even if they are, I’m going to unpick a few things they say, because, well, they are interesting and they make some arguments that are quite commonly used by people who probably haven’t studied philosophy very much.
So, here’s a few choice quotes from blackwomanvalues justifying why they identify as a black woman.
It is important to note that race is a subjectively fabricated concept, with no scientifically verifiable cultural or physical characteristics shared universally within any group. Regardless of what you may perceive, there is no definitive formula for the acceptance and identification within a racial group- for objectively, they don’t exist.
Please. If you buy in to this kind of argument, you are conflating different things. That something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real in some important sense. Money is socially constructed. It’s pretty arbitrary that when I’m in the United Kingdom I can exchange bits of paper with the Queen’s face on them for goods and services, while in the United States, I use money with pictures of Lincoln and Franklin and Washington on them. Is there some “scientifically verifiable cultural or physical characteristics shared universally” by money that isn’t by non-money? Well, don’t you dare say “a special type of pigment”, because coins are money too, and so are these funny plastic credit and debit cards we carry around. The key thing that distinguishes money from non-money is that money can be used as a method for exchanging value. That function is granted to it by linguistic and social means.
Is Barack Obama scientifically different ten minutes after he was elected President than he was before elected President? No, but there’s an important social distinction, namely he’s the President.
Saying that because something scientifically doesn’t exist in the sense of being undetectable by laboratory methods, that it objectively doesn’t exist is ridiculous—and it misunderstands the way that science operates at multiple layers of explanation. If you honestly buy into this argument and get pissy when someone steals a twenty dollar bill from your wallet, congratulations, you are a hypocrite.
And here’s another thing.
In this case, the pre-englightenment philosopher Rene Descartes statement “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”, is an important contributing factor to my identification, aided with internal feelings of belonging and similarity.
Descartes’ statement of the cogito, or Descartes’ cogito argument. Oh, fuck, I’m gonna have to explain this, aren’t I?
Imagine you are 17th century philosopher. You set yourself the task of doubting all things. Methodological doubt is your challenge: you want to try and doubt everything and see how far you can take it. Are you sitting at a computer reading something? Well, yes, obviously, but what if it were not true? How can I know it isn’t true? Well, for Descartes, he got right back to the very basics. If you wish to doubt that the external world exists, that’s fine. Perhaps you are having your mind manipulated by an evil demon; these days, you are hooked up in some ghastly contraption with some neuroscientists electrically stimulating your brain. All very Matrix-like. But let’s go one further: what if you didn’t exist at all? You may be a brain in a vat or a victim of the evil demon, but at least you are thinking. There is something, whether it’s a brain or a wibbly-wobbly soul thing or a computer process, and it’s got some kind of consciousness and some intensionality. You know that you are thinking, and you can think about things, like the fact that you can think. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. This isn’t a license to believe anything, it’s a response to skepticism about one’s very own existence.
The translation of sum to “I am” is problematic: in English we rather naturally prefer not to use the sentence “I am” alone, preferring an expansion into sentences of the form “I am x”: think of sentences like “I am a vegan”, “I am watching TV”, “I am six foot tall”, “I am gay” and “I am a citizen of the world”.1 Saying “I exist” would be a much better term, as it is less likely to cause the sort of confusion that sum has.
The problem with using the cogito to justify anything beyond the philosophically basic task of proving that there is a subject is that it leads you to obviously false conclusions. If you think cogito-style reasoning can justify “I think, therefore I’m a black woman in a white guy’s body” (or some other similarly absurd value), then you can substitute anything in the place of x in the sentence “I think, therefore I’m x”. You may want to try and mitigate this problem by switching it to “I think I’m x, therefore I’m x”. This doesn’t work either.2 We have situations where we make mistakes. I think I’m looking at a crooked stick, but it’s not crooked. Visual illusions exist. To argue from the certainty implicit in a cogito argument to the justification of anything you happen to think is to make yourself epistemically infallible, that is to say your beliefs can never be wrong. Whether or not you find the cogito convincing, concluding your own infallibility on the basis that one thinks is a conclusion so obviously absurd that one must have made a mistake in one’s understanding.
So, yeah, two bad arguments. They may have been given by a troll in this case, but they are used quite often. And they probably ought not to be. I shall now be on tenterhooks, waiting, desperately, for someone to point out that I’m exercising my “educated privilege”.
A counter-example: someone says “who is going to London tomorrow?”, and you respond “I am”. It sort of proves my point though, because the x in “I am x" is pretty much implicit by dint of being an answer to a question. Once you account for the pragmatics of the way the sentence is being used, it expands quite naturally to "I am going to London tomorrow", which is a sentence of the form "I am x”. ↩
Plus, that doesn’t actually work. The whole point of the cogito is that you are deriving existence from the fact that you have some mental content. Any rhetorical force of appealing to the Cartesian insight is lost. A modified cogito where you attempt to conclude that you exist and have some property x because you think is arbitrary (for what values of x is that kind of argument satisfactory? What happens if you have two locally incompatible values of x like x and not-x? The argument proves them both). And a super-duper modified cogito such that you can plausibly get content from the content in the premise fails because (a) it isn’t really a cogito any more and (b) it commits you to epistemic infallibilism which I think we have very good reasons to reject. ↩