Thursday, November 08, 2012

Possession vs. Ownership, A Response to [T]he Barefoot Bum

Continuing on the discussion from below with Larry from the Barefoot Bum and I (and now Eli from Rustbelt) have been having quite the struggle hashing through just what is this possession vs. ownership thing. In all the struggle to communicate, and really that’s all this is-is a struggle to communicate (and agree), I’d like to first start out by giving what I think are the most basic and agreeable examples of these concepts I can think of, then move on to tackle what seem to be the conflicts in how I and Larry would like to use them in a philosophical sense. From there, with any hope, we can get to real misery that is my currently pathetic defense of Libertarianism. For the record, though, it isn’t so much a defense as it is my current exploration. If it turns out there’s simply no defensible position for such a political position, then I’ll abandon it – hell I even read “The Communist Manifesto” over the weekend, which is something I’d like to comment on at some point in the future.

 In any case, moving on to possession and ownership. There are, for the purposes of this discussion, only two meaningful definitions of possession I can think of, and I’d like to draw out two simple examples of both(and a combo of). First, there’s possession as “control-of” something: at any given time you can find me in possession of a firearm, and depending on what time of year it is, it’s either a Glock26, or a Glock21 (it’s much easier in the winter time to go full diesel since concealment isn’t a big issue). Now from the perspective of a Police Officer, should [s]he find me in possession of one of these two weapons, [s]he’s undoubtedly going to give me some heavy question and answer, which will in turn be supported by nothing more than my permit to carry. Generally speaking that’s as far as it goes as the officer in this case doesn’t care whether or not I’m actually the “owner” of the weapon, only that (as I’m in control of the weapon) I have legal authorization to do so. Extended even a bit further than that, suppose I’m in a vehicle; it doesn’t matter whether the gun is on my hip, in the glove box, under seat, or in a case in the back seat, as far as the law is concerned (and I don’t want to conflate law with possession) I’m in control of that weapon. i.e. it’s in a proximity of use. If the gun is in the trunk and I don’t have a permit, that would be okay. In any case, this is an instance where possession is all comes down to the control of a particular object, in this case proximity (and it doesn’t matter that it’s a fire arm) gives us reasonable justification to state that someone is “in-control” i.e. possesses a certain object. It should be noted for future discussion, however, that proximity and control assumes that we know both a little something about human nature (and humans behavior in general), objects and objects in general, and the relationship these two things can have with each other.

Secondly, there’s the idea of ownership. For example suppose I’m driving a car and (sticking with the folks in blue) I get pulled over. As is standard procedure [s]he’s going o check for ownership for the vehicle before coming up and asking me for my license and registration. What will undoubtedly happen is the officer will align the individual up (me, the current possessor of the vehicle) with the information he has on the registered owner of the vehicle. Of course if that doesn’t match, or in the least the last names don’t match up, I could potentially have some explaining to do. If it turns out the registration doesn’t match and/or the vehicle has been reported stolen, I’m on some deep doo-doo. Now sure enough I possess the vehicle, it’s in my control, but given our standards of ownership it’s just as clear that I don’t own the vehicle. All that said it should be just as clear that ownership (in this context) exists in a broader context then possession does. Yes I was in control of the vehicle, however at the same time I wasn’t in control of the necessary paperwork which demonstrated ownership of that vehicle. So, possession in this case is not ownership.

Lastly there’s possession as a synonym for ownership. For example, let’s suppose there’s a boat sitting in the driveway outside my garage. I might rightly say that-that’s one of my possessions, therefore directing ones attention to the broader context of ownership. Having said that it’s not necessarily clear that while I possess the boat (after all its sitting in my driveway, and by proximity I have control of it) that it’s actually my boat, even though I say it’s one of my possessions. Nevertheless I could supply one with the proper evidence to show that, yes, that’s my boat.

Hopefully in this every day, plane and mundane example I’ve shown that possession is A.) a matter of physical control and proximity, and B.) That it’s a handy synonym for the broader concept of ownership. It is important to note here that, just because ownership may exist in a broader context doesn’t mean that any more or less of an understanding of context is necessary to understand what these concepts mean. In other words “broader” in this case simply means we need more information, but the specifics of that we’ll get to shortly.

So then, let’s move on to the meat of the discussion, and take a look at the way that Larry wants us to use the terms “possession” and “ownership”, and just what that implies. Larry first sets out by defining his terms, which always makes the task of understanding all that much easier. First there’s the idea of “consistently determinable”, which Larry defines thusly, “consistently determinable; a statement is consistently determinable if, given a context, i.e. some statements and inference rules, everyone will consistently assent or dissent to some statement.” It seems to me that this statement is generally pretty harmless in that it’s just directing our attention to a “tool-like” use of a piece of language, and therefore I don’t find it at all objectionable. Larry goes on from here to talk about “determinable” within given contexts that are either “valid”, “invalid”, or “indeterminate” given the nature of consent relative to those concepts, and again I think we can rightly use those concept tools to talk about things in the way Larry wants without any philosophical dilemmas.

 However, Larry next makes a real sticky mess of the issue (at least in so far as I can see) when he introduces his next concepts; those two concepts being “objective” and “subjective”. He very plainly wants to say that “objective” is simply the “world outside our minds”, while the term “subjective” pertains to our minds directly. Now for rhetorical purposes there shouldn’t be any necessary dilemma yet. But not so fast because the next thing Larry states is that “the union of the objective and the subjective constitute the real…. Gravity objectively exists, and the law of gravity, i.e. our thoughts about gravity, also subjectively exist.” And just like that, mecca-lecca-hi, mecca-hiney-ho, we have philosophy. Before we get to far we have to pull back because the next thing he states is:
“I don't want to get into a theory of truth, but we can say, glossing over a lot of philosophical problems that are not pertinent here, that because our subjective thoughts about gravity seem in some sense to "match" the objective nature of gravity, our subjective thoughts seem in some sense to be "true."
In other words Larry wants to create a nice philosophical structure for himself, but at the same time we should just gloss over it because after all, it’s not pertinent, they seem to “match”, and they’re in “some sense” true. Okay, gotcha

The next natural question of course is, just what’s wrong with this philosophical dilemma in the first place? Well, lets follow Larry a little bit further down the rabbit hole to see just how he connects the concept of “consistently determinable” up with the dichotomy of the subjective and objective. To realize the idea he has in mind he first tells us that an idea is “objectively determinable” when a statement is consistently determinable without introducing any properties of mind. Now if you don’t understand that statement just by itself (and we’ll ignore what may have been meant by it) it simply means that without human evaluation, a thing is true just by itself. This is basically another way of saying that truth is a concept of reality, or something that exists in reality in itself as opposed to something that’s just a word (an adjective) that people use as a justification for their beliefs. Without getting too deep into that though, lets move onto the next thing that Larry states, which is that “subjectively determinable” statements are those that require properties of minds to be consistently determinable. Leaving that (also) where it stands for the moment he does state that both the objective and subjective determination can be extremely problematic in that it’s not obvious how to operationalize objective determinability. But then he goes on to say that we can “hand-wave” over this, because the terminology essentially captures some deep intuitions about the way the world work, i.e. how our mind conceptualize the world.

In case you missed that, not only are we to simply accept the philosophical ideas that Larry has constructed in the manner I’ve already stated above, but to further the hand-waving we should also accept them because, hey, they’re deep intuitions that we all just naturally have, so why would anyone object to them? Given the language Larry is using it seems clear enough that we can now build a full picture of what’s going on here (unless we get further clarification) which is that he wants us to buy into the correspondence theory of truth, but at the same time his language also suggests that he wants to remain in a certain sense noncommittal in order to give himself some later wiggle room, perhaps. Nevertheless the whole idea is generally best summed up with the idea that the world speaks a certain language (or contains all the facts) that we as human beings are supposed to interpret. But the obvious question from that is, what non-question begging justification could we ever conceive of to convince someone that we’ve determined the proper language with which to interpret the universe? How can something like an idea, or a concept (whatever it may be) exist outside the historical context that we all find ourselves in? How can it make any sense at all that something like what Larry is saying just be naturally intuitive, all the while ignoring the fact that many (if not most, if not all) our intuitions are conditioned by the historical backdrop of thousands of human voices in the past? i.e. How do we know we just don’t think that a given conception of the world is intuition because that’s just what we’ve always been taught, or that’s simply the context within which many of our discussions take place within (much of that perhaps being the result of intellectual, philosophical, and scientific history, etc.). If most people before us were philosophical Realists, it stands to reason that the context within which we think about the word would be not all that much different. So what of this intuition about the world we’re supposed to have?

There are a lot of questions I have for Larry here that we could honestly get stuck on forever, perhaps that’s a good thing, perhaps not. In any case I would like to see how the rest of the story fleshes out with respect to how “objectively determinable” and other concepts connects up with possession and ownership. First there’s those items that are “objectively determinable”, which he labels arbitrarily as “possession”, and secondly theres our normatively or subjectively determinable components which are ownership. Shifting over to the simple examples I gave above, lets suppose we have the statement that “I possess I Glock26”. Larry would like to call this “objectively determinable” because evidently it doesn’t require any minds with historically contingent concepts of having and being in control-of in order to make the determination that there’s something meaningful happening here. As a matter of fact he even goes so far as to state that aliens could even ascertain the fact that I possess a Glock26 as though the concept of possession (in the sense that we use it) would have anything like the same meaning it does for us. The most that we can say for these poor aliens is that they could ascertain proximity, or the phenomenal nature of two objects in space. However the relationship that a person and gun have, what it means for someone to have it holstered on their hip, etc., would be completely foreign to them. Next there’s another statement, which again, following from what I’ve stated above would go something like, “Andrew owns the Glock26”. Now of course, granting the idea of proximity and location in space, indeed I would require some broader contextual information in order to ascertain any concept such as ownership (what’s minds ahs to necessarily have to do with it I don’t know), but the aspect of ownership and the aspect of possession is no less behavioral. In order to understand the relationship and contexts of these things requires a level of understanding of people and relationships.

 Let’s move on to defining the dilemma between possession and ownership a bit more succinctly, and go ahead and see how Larry himself does it. 
“ The first is that ownership directly matches possession: given some objectively determinable definition of possession, anyone who possesses an object always owns it. The second is that ownership does not directly match possession: we must in some sense know a lot of things about people's minds to determine whether or not someone owns something; for any objectively determinable definition of possession, it will be the case that people can possess things they do not own and own things they do not possess. Note that the specific definition of possession is irrelevant; what is relevant is only that possession is by definition objectively determinable."

On this I’m partly agreeable. We certainly could (baring all the issues it would create) align possession with ownership and say that if you have proximal control, you also have ownership. But of course we can’t do any of this without concepts to back them which are in no way purely objective in the way that Larry has used it. The second point he makes is simply the trivial notion of every day possession we talked about at the start, and yet none of this splits the notion that one is more or less a social construct than the other for reasons already pointed out. What’s stickier here is that last sentence where he states that the definition of possession is irrelevant, but only the “sight” (my word) of possession which is objectively determinable. Which, I suppose so, but how this would be conceived of outside of human concepts is a bit of a mystery, and that’s the central problem here. Two objects existing together in space is really all together meaningless.

So then, let’s get even a little stickier, Larry states: 
“If I really possess something, it takes objectively determinable initiation of physical force to expropriate the object without my consent… We need the things we use and possess, and we resent people forcing us to do things without our individual consent. These intuitions are not, by and large, problematic. Even a committed communist such as myself admits that I possess my car, for example; I use it, and I maintain control over it, I need it; and I would be quite peeved if anyone, including the state, arbitrarily expropriated it by force.”

Notice anything interesting here? He stopped using the word ownership. You see on the one hand Larry wants us to use “possession” in the most simplest of forms, which simply means control-of and/or proximity to. But all this get’s quite messy when you now switch to a mode of using possession that looks a lot more like ownership as it’s not always objectively determinable that anyone possess anything. I mean, what does it mean to “maintain control” over something if not that I own something, or in the very least have some sort of right to maintain control over it even when I’m not around. But then we’re not talking about something that is (in Larry’s language) “objectively determinable” anymore because according to him we’d need to know something about peoples minds in order to determine whether or not they had rights to control something. So even if we forget all the messy philosophical stuff and just stick with Larry’s language it still fails to make the point. 

Moving on in part to Libertarianism Larry states: 
“So these intuitions are not problematic. However, the Libertarian argument then typically "subjectivizes" what appear to be the objectively determinable notions of possession…”

But wait, didn’t Larry himself just get done “subjetivising” it himself?!?

To conclude all this, let’s for a moment step outside the philosophical issues and just agree to use Larry’s language. On those grounds as I just pointed out I’m not all together sure he’s standing on any sort of firm ground as in the end, he’s conflated the notion of possession with what he’s consider a social constructive idea of ownership. Unless theres some definition I’m missing out on here, I’m not so sure this can move forward to say anything about what Libertarianism entails with regard to ownership. Additionally it seems that while Larry has spoken a bit more about the concept of possession and ownership, he's done nothing but add terms to the discussion that don't seem to bolster the point. Although I do look forward to correction on those items. 

1 comment:

  1. Not that I need to add it here, but one last additional note. If we want to narrowly define possession at just having something in hand, having control of it, that's perfectly fine. I mean I/we can accept that without the need of getting all tangled up in the philosophical waters. But in order to move from simple possession to, I need some of the things I possess like my car and home and the like, well then you're immediately expanding the concept of possession as I've already stated.

    Now maybe we just narrow down possession to the things we need, but even more that's not in any way something which (if we accept the philosophical notions) is objectively determinable. Perhaps in some sense it could be, but then we're narrowing down the idea of just making sure people possess shelter food and clothing, however in the context of modern society and the ideas of poverty inequality (which I shamelessly take from Eli at Rustbelt), this does no good at all in making the idea of simple possession broad enough to not encompass a larger socially constructed idea.

    Anyway, again, I just don't think that in this case the idea is robust enough to carry over and say anything about how Libertarianism, because this idea by itself fails.