On Philosophy

December 9, 2006

Essay: The Causal Theory, Information, and Descriptions

Filed under: Essays,Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

The Causal Theory of Names, as presented by Evans in his paper of the same name, states that the use of a name refers to some object if there is a causal chain of reference preserving connections between the original naming event and the use of the name. And, although this version of the Causal Theory cannot account for how individual cases of a name’s use refer, it can be adapted to describe how a name in the context of a community refers. Evans attacks this version of the theory by showing that even if the naming event is causally connected to the use of the name, the use of the name does not necessarily refer to the object originally so named. In response to these problems Evans proposes a new theory, a variant of the Causal Theory, in which the causal origin of the dominant information is what is referred to. Evans’ own theory is not without its problems, however, and by addressing these problems we are left not with a kind of Causal Theory, but with a kind of Description Theory.

To motivate his own theory, Evans must first show that the standard Causal Theory is lacking, by demonstrating that what a particular use of a name refers to cannot be determined by its causal origin in a naming event. To do this, Evans provides the example of two babies named and then accidentally switched immediately afterwards. Given this situation, if baby A was named Jack, the person we refer to when we use that name will be baby B, which contradicts the idea that reference is determined by a causal chain originating in a naming event. However, there is a relatively straightforward response to situations such as these: adherents of the causal theory could simply insist that the first time that someone attempts to refer to baby B with the name Jack (in such a way that their use of the name Jack obviously must refer to baby B due to other factors, such as the proximity to baby B) then this is, in effect, a new naming event (although not recognized as such by those present), giving baby B the name Jack. The causal theory already allows some names to accrue without “formal” naming events, so allowing the baby to be renamed in this way shouldn’t be inadmissible. However, there are counterexamples that can’t be so easily set aside. Consider, for example, a couple who tells you that they will name their first child Pat (before the child has been conceived). You set off to the Antarctic, and you some time later learn that they have had a baby, without being told its name. Even so you can still call the couple and ask them how Pat is doing, and, by the use of that name, refer to their child. And in this case, your use of the name Pat cannot possibly be part of a causal chain of reference preserving connections originating from a naming event. Causal Theorists might respond to this example by asserting that the use of Pat in this situation is not a rigid designator, but rather a definite description, and thus not subject to the Causal Theory. But to grant this seems to be to admit that we don’t need the Causal Theory to explain how names refer, and if this is the case why should we accept that we need it for any cases, if we can explain how names refer without it?*

So, assuming that we have a good reason to reject the Causal Theory, Evans introduces a replacement. He proposes that a name, N, refers to x in a community C if it is common knowledge that N is used with the intention of referring to x, and that the use of N in a particular case successfully refers to x if it is common knowledge that N has been used to refer to x in community C in the past. Evans considers this a variation of the Causal Theory because he defines the intention to refer in causal terms, specifically that we intend to refer to the object that is the dominant source of the information associated with the name. Evans’ theory certainly seems robust, and he covers a number of unusual cases that it handles gracefully. It does, however, still have a problem with the counter example I provided above concerning the baby named Pat. Now if I am discussing with the parents about their new child, then Evans may be able to appeal to the fact that my community includes people who are causally related to Pat. However, I could just as easily discuss Pat with my other Antarctic explorers, and in this case the community contains no one who is causally related to Pat in the right way in order to intend to refer to the baby, that is if we subscribe to Evans’ theory about how our intentions refer. In fact we could even talk amongst ourselves about Pat (such as what schools he or she might go to) long before Pat is even born**.

The question about what a name refers to then revolves around how we define what we intend to refer to, since Evans’ framework will work equally well with any definition. If we define it as the dominant source of information, we have Evans’ theory; if we define it as the object so named that was the causal origin of our intention, we have the Causal Theory; and if we define it as that which meets some description, we have the Description Theory. And there is a sense in which it is impossible to tell which of these theories is “right,” as they all seem coherent. Certainly we might encounter cases in which they give answers that are counter-intuitive, but since we can not directly examine reference, there is no guarantee that our intuitions are not in error. And anyone who subscribes whole-heartedly to one of these theories may simply alter their intuitions to be in line with it. But, putting those issues aside, I think that we should endorse a theory about names that best agrees with what we think names refer to, in cases where there is no uncertainty in our minds as to what we are referring to. With that in mind, let me first consider Evans’ example of the ancient scrolls of mathematics found with the signature “Ibn Khan” at the bottom. Of course, in actuality, the original scrolls said “scribed by Ibn Khan”, but that detail has been lost to history. Evans asserts that when we use the name Ibn Khan, we are referring to the mind behind the mathematics, given that it is the mathematics that is interesting to us, and dominates our considerations. And the Causal Theory simply can not properly handle cases such as this, because it would require that somehow we have renamed a man who does not even exist anymore. So the scroll presents us with two pieces of information about the individual we are referring to: X created these proofs, and X was called Ibn Khan (where “called” means something like “dubbed by a community” or some other construct that is non-semantic). And, given our context, the information that X is the creator of the proofs dominates, and so by assuming that Ibn Khan is X, we use that name to refer to the creator of the proofs, even though that person was not really called Ibn Khan. This seems like a sound account, but it simply can not handle cases in which we obtain information about an object in such a way that the object is not causally the source of that information, for example, in the case of the baby named Pat. Such cases are certainly rare, but I think they highlight the fact that what really mattered about this information was that it was accurate. Thus I think that we can easily transform Evans’ theory into a Description Theory that can handle even these odd cases. We simply say that the intention is not to refer to whoever is the source of the dominant information, but whoever the dominant information is true of. Here I have slightly altered Evan’s ideas about dominance. His use of dominance describes how the majority of the information comes from one source or another, while here I am using it to indicate that some of the information is more important than the rest to us. And in most cases the dominant information is usually “is called X”, supplemented by “that I have met” or “is my friend”, to cover the case of multiple people with the same name.

Now I cannot address all of the critiques that Description Theories often face, both for reasons of space and ignorance, but the variant Description Theory that I have outlined above meets the objections to such theories that Evans presents. Specifically Evans mentions that having reference determined by which individual fits the description best is unworkable. I agree that it is, but Evans himself has provided the solution to this problem with the idea that certain information, and hence certain descriptions, are dominant. Another objection Evans presents is that the description in question may fit two people, and that this forces us to conclude that if you are in love with a particular person you would also be in love with their identical copy, whom you have never met, which Evans thinks is absurd. In response we might argue that the descriptions that determine who we are referring to, often in the form of “is called” and “I have met” simply prevent such situations from occurring (Evans acknowledges this, but then goes on to say that they could be outweighed by other parts of the description that are satisfied, a response that is blocked if we are adopting his idea that certain parts of the description are dominant, even if we have an abundance of information about them). It is my conclusion, then, that a kind of Description Theory, informed by Evans ideas about information and the role of the community, best describes how names refer, and can meet the objections commonly raised to Description Theories.

* Another possible response is to argue that we can name objects that are not present, and in fact don’t even exist yet. But then we must wonder how we are naming one object rather than another. The only obvious answer is that there is some description that only one object, which doesn’t exist yet, meets. But in that case we would be admitting that what the name refers to can be picked out by some definite description. And this is to admit that names are replaceable with descriptions, and this would be to simply embrace the Description Theory.

** I imagine that as Antarctic explorers we might become so bored that we have long discussions about people’s future children.


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