THE NON-IDENTITY OF INDISCERNIBLES

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

“Mais non, monsieur, zis eez our fly zupe, zee specialite de la maison.”

How do we resolve this issue? By deferring to the intentions of the chef? But he might dissimulate, to save the restaurant from having to offer a reduction off my bill. So the more general question to be grappled with here is how ought we to deal with extensional equivalences? And deal with them we must, because as with my bill at the restaurant, much can hang on how the matter is resolved. Such as? Such as a charge of false advertising, the distinction between capitalism and socialism, the defensibility of Creationism, the laudability of being law-abiding. The list goes on and on.

A return flight from here to there is advertised as $59, but when I get to the website’s checkout it’s $319. Is this bait and switch advertising? Certainly not. The difference of $260 is all taxes imposed by the government, or the fee charged by Paypal, neither of which has anything to do with the airline. Are you going to say the 12% sales tax bringing a $9.99 shirt up to $11.19 is false advertising?

But hang on a minute. Aren’t there all kinds of taxes embedded in the $59 as well? Isn’t the percentage of the company’s contribution to its employees’ government-run mandatory unemployment insurance scheme likewise a government tax having nothing to do with the airline? So isn’t it entirely arbitrary which expenses to the airline are just part of the cost of doing business and which are not?

Arbitrary yes, but $319 sounds like too much to spend, and $13 sounds too good to be true, whereas $59 is what the focus group has decided sounds just right.

Many years ago, while I was putting myself through university, I drove a school bus two hours a day five days a week and lived in government-subsidized single parent housing. I had a friend who worked as a crisis intervention worker, alternating between ten hours a day for four shifts one week and then ten hours a night for four shifts the next. She lived in the identical unit next door, but paid fair market value. So after rent we each came home with identical disposable incomes. Wasn’t a school bus driver making four times as much per hour as a professional social worker? Certainly not. Unlike me, she had the dignity of full time professional work, which she hated, by the way. And she complained bitterly about having virtually no time to spend with her kid.

I’m not even a theist, let alone a Creationist. But I like to ridicule my Creationism-ridiculing colleagues by advancing in its place the Five Minute Hypothesis, according to which the world came into being five minutes ago, precisely as it was fine minutes ago, with all our pseudo-history books on the shelves where we now find them, and all our pseudo-memories in our heads where we now pseudo-remember them. All three hypotheses – my colleagues’ fifteen billion year, the Creationist’s six thousand, and my five minute – are non-falsifiable. Whatever would count as evidence for one would as readily count as evidence for either of the other two. So, I argue, since what’s at issue can’t be the so-called science, it has to be the politics.

Certainly not, says the atheist. Certainly not, echoes the Creationist. My father always said, Do what you’re best at. Well, my signature forte, or so I’m told, is my irritating supercilious grin.

According to Justice Devlin, if what the sovereign commands is egregiously immoral it can’t be a law, and therefore one needn’t obey it. By contrast, according to H.L.A. Hart, if it’s a constituent of a legal system and it has the right pedigree, it’s a law all right, but egregiously immoral laws ought not to be obeyed. So wherein lies the difference? It lies in Devlin wanting never to be a criminal, and Hart, in these circumstances, taking it as a badge of honor.

Differences that can make no difference are no differences at all. But the difference between fly soup and a fly in my soup does make a difference. It makes a difference in the bill. So the question before us is under what conditions should we allow a non-difference to make a difference? Then we can infer backwards to whatever it is that’s making this difference. This should be straightforward enough, shouldn’t it? Well, let’s see.

Okay then, suppose the chef experimented by putting a fly in a soup, tasted it, approved, and that’s how it ended up on my table. In that case I think I should pay. Suppose a fly landed in the soup, the chef tasted it to see if it was still acceptable, and decided it was actually an improvement. Once again I think I should pay. Suppose he saw the fly land and drown, but this time he served it without tasting it. Now I’m beginning to waffle. The intention was still there. But did he intend for me to eat a soup with a fly in it or to eat fly soup?

Suppose I make an atom-for-atom replica of the Mona Lisa and burn one of them but I don’t know which. Suppose further that this has become known. Is the surviving painting worthless, halved in value, or unaffected? Surely this is an empirical question. What sense would it make to say how it should be?

Suppose I might have just made up this story, but the art world doesn’t know whether I did or didn’t. Since there’s a 50% chance I made it up, there’s a 50% chance there’s a 100% chance it’s the original, which means there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. But since there’s a 50% chance I didn’t make up the story, then once again there’s a 50% chance it’s the original. So what difference does it make whether I did or didn’t make up the story? How would the art world deal with these equivalent probabilities?

It might be supposed that what matters here, in both the soup case and in this one, is whether there’s been a possible actus novus interveniens. The mere announcing that I could have duplicated the painting raises a question that wasn’t there before. It’s like my saying there’s no evidence whatsoever that so-and-so is a pedophile. If that were true, why would I be saying it? To say there’s no debate about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is a performative contradiction. And so on.

What’s going on here, I think, is what’s being rendered salient. It’s always been the case that the original Mona Lisa could have been destroyed and replaced by a replica. It’s always been the case that my wife could have been switched with a functionally indiscernible android. What’s always been part of the background has just been made foreground, and now I’m creeped out by it. Could be fly soup. Could have been advertised as $319 in the first place. Could have been we’re all paid the same but some of us put in four times the hours that others do. Could have been only five minutes. Could have been do what’s right rather than what’s lawful unless it’s not right.

All men are mortal, except Jesus. All men are immortal, except everyone other than Jesus. These claims are extensionally equivalent, but do they mean the same thing?

Suppose you concede that there was nothing Jesus said that hadn’t been said a thousand times before. So the entire Christ story hangs not on its social gospel but on the salvific power of the Cross. Then what theological difference would it make at what age Jesus was crucified? So since we can represent Jesus as black as readily as we can white, we should be able to nail a plastic infant to a cross and parade it through the village on Good Friday. But we don’t. And that we don’t should be taken to falsify the claim that the Christ story hangs on the soteriology of the Cross. And what this shows, in turn, is that analyzing non-differences that make a difference is a way, indeed the way, to get at what’s really going on in the back of our heads. What’s going on in the back of our heads – if by ‘our’ I was speaking as a Christian – is that it’s not enough that God was willing to sacrifice what He had begot in order to reconcile sinful humanity to Himself. It’s that what He had begot must itself understand its sacrifice as a sacrifice to that end. An infant couldn’t do that. Only a grown man could.

But hang on. In saying that an infant couldn’t have understood that, we’re explicitly denying that the omniscience of God passed directly to what He’d begotten. And this, in turn, puts a lie to the opening passage of John. If at one time the infant knew not, but at another the adult knew, then sometime in the interim he must have learned. For him to have learned it must have been imparted to him. But to have been imparted to can’t just amount to God saying to him, “Just trust me on this.” Presumably he must have explained how the Cross would reconcile humanity to Him. But if God could explain it to Jesus, why can’t He explain it to us? Let it be granted that Jesus was smarter than the average bear. But it’s not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of conceptual coherence. So if God can’t explain it to us, neither could He have explained it to Jesus, in which case the adult was as much of a mindless dupe as the infant would have been. This does not bode well for kindergarten Christianity, if one thinks about it. Well, I guess some things don’t bear thinking too much about them.

Impressions to the contrary notwithstanding, my point here is not to trash any particular view about any particular subject. My point is simply that analyzing the difference a non-difference might make can do important conceptual work for us. It’s revelatory. It reveals to us what we might not have known we’ve been thinking. In some cases we’ll double-down on what we’ve been thinking, in others we’ll realize our thinking has been idiotic. In the case of pricing and incomes, I’ve learned to go straight to the bottom line. Hence capitalism and socialism are terms of rhetorical flourish, not economics. In the case of the Creationism debate it’s not about cosmology. It’s about the social conservatism that’s sometimes contingently attached to Creationism. In the case of criminality I’ve decided that the law of the land be damned, an occupied people do have the right of armed struggle. And in the case of my might-be-android wife, I’ve decided she’s fungible, and so I’ve kept a spare in the closet.

That leaves the soup, for which my solution is to ask before ordering. If I’m averse to fly – just as were I allergic to it – I’d order something else. Though more likely my wife Andry – I mean Pam – and I would eat in a less expensive and pretentious restaurant.

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