Sunday, January 07, 2007

Is it possible to have two dossiers with exactly the same information?

This is the question that raised a bitter discussion in the last session of the reading group on propositional attitudes. We were reading Kripke’s (1979) A puzzle about belief, and we end up talking about the antidescriptivist argument in pp. 260-2. According to Kripke: “The puzzle can arise even if Pierre associates exactly the same identifying properties with both names” (p. 260). Now, this is hardly convincing for a modern description, someone who would accept a version of metalinguistic causal descriptivism (the reason being that the identifying properties for a name will contain the name itself; for a name N we will always associate the property of being the bearer of N.)


The discussion began when someone conceded that it’s possible something close to that: that it’s possible to associate to a given proper name two mental dossiers with the same information. Part of what’s at stake here is what a dossier is, and I don’t want to start begging the question in my favour. But what I can say is that the dossier for a given proper name comprises the information we associate to that name and that we have more than one dossier for those proper names we use to refer to more than one object (like ‘Aristotle’.)

So is it possible to find examples of a proper name with two dossiers containing the same data about the referent? Manuel Perez Otero came up with one of the best examples. Let suppose that 20 years ago you hear about a Brazilian football player called ‘Socrates’ and about a physician football player with the same name. They happen to be the same person, and so we got a case in which there are two dossiers for the same name and person. Later you forget some of these things; some information is eliminated from these two dossiers. You forget that the first ‘Socrates’ was Brazilian and that the second one was a physician. Now, do we still have two dossiers?

My answer is that none. After we forget those things we just believe that there were two football players called ‘Socrates’ and we cannot meaningfully say anything about none of them. We cannot say ‘Socrates was a football player’ because we just belief that there were to Socrates and we don’t know anything that would possibly distinguish one from the other. This would have been different if at the beginning we just had one dossier…

This answer makes perfect sense if you treat dossiers as individuated by the information they contain. A dossier will be just a set of beliefs that are believed to be by the subject about the same object. But, is it possible, for those who defend that we still have two dossiers, to provide a plausible elucidation of the notion of dossier that would render their claims true?

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