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Fr. 704

January 13, 2016

2. Are all propositions, trivial and evaluative, to be considered as homologous?

This second question aims at determining whether Mogensen’s treatment of different propositions (or more accurately traits) stands on solid ground. When considering the centrality or the peripherality of traits, one trait is worth another for the author. Yet, for a trait to be worth, interchangeable with or analogous to one another, the traits in question must evince sufficient similarity to warrant the comparison. Are all possible identity traits alike in most important respects?

It would perhaps be more worthwhile to work from two examples, which demonstrate both successes and pitfalls. The second candidate criterion addressed by Mogensen is that of uniqueness. In the section dedicated to uniqueness, the author tests a range of traits, from the number of hairs on one’s shin to one’s religious beliefs. Were uniqueness alone to determine centrality, we would reasonably expect that a unique number of shinhairs to trump religious beliefs as central elements of identity insofar as the former is more likely to distinguish a person in absolute terms than the latter. Given the shared aspects of religious belief, religion could not therefore make up a central aspect of identity.

This runs counter to our intuitions and daily experience with identity, so Mogensen rightly considers this a strike against uniqueness qua candidate criterion. Yet he concedes that proponents of uniqueness could simply limit the traits considered to those considered significant by the person. By this, we can imagine that the author means that the traits in question are not merely trivial, bearing on unimportant facts, but that they come bundled with evaluative implications and normative charge. In short, they are action-guiding.

In this way, its proponents could sidestep the objection. As noted by the author, this does not, however, resolve the issue as those proponents would still be faced with the challenge of reconciling uniqueness with the shared aspect beliefs in a religious community. All in all, the author correctly reckons the parts of good sense and logical shortcoming in this response.

Nevertheless, Mogensen does not give the same weight to similar responses which his treatment of other candidate criteria could elicit from the reader. A good example arises in his discussion of durability. He opines that religious and moral beliefs do not demonstrate the same durability and resistance to argumentation as other beliefs such as water is wet or 2 + 2 = 4. It remains unclear, however, just why these traits should be compared in terms of durability.

After all, it can come as no surprise when factual or trivial beliefs (considered as traits) prove more resistant to objection and doubt than action-guiding beliefs with evaluative implications (considered as traits). Practical traits and their attendant values are open to evolution in a way that the trivial are not. If trivial traits and action-guiding traits are not sufficiently alike to merit consideration with regards to a single criterion, then it is perhaps misleading to discount the criterion without first narrowing the class of traits down to action-guiding traits alone. In this way, there might emerge more clearly just what traits are central to the person’s identity, both in terms of duration and their resistance to objection or doubt (for better or for worse).

From the previous example, it appears that Mogensen is not unaware of such considerations. If it is important to set out the action-guiding (or “significant”) traits out from the merely trivial in one case, there is reason enough to think that it would prove useful in another. Accordingly, it follows that his account would gain in clarity and charitable deliberation, were he to justify in each case the inclusion of the traits given in his tests. So long as trivial traits (or beliefs considered as traits) hold no little to no evaluative charge, they cannot bear meaning in the same way as the action-guiding traits and their bundled normative implications. Otherwise, questions will persist as to this part of his method, and the burden of proof will remain, at least in part, with the author to show why it is not wrongheaded to seek out common criteria for traits different in kind.

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