Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Everything that Breaks Breakable?

Well, see, I was working up this neat little post on the subjective location of visual imagery. Do some people experience visual imagery as located inside their heads, while others experience it as located in front of their foreheads and still others experience it as in no location at all? But it turns out I've already written that post. Maybe this time I'd have found a bit more to say, but I'm afraid I stole my own thunder....

Still, something light and quick would be nice before I head over to Talking Points Memo and National Review to resolve my low blood-pressure problem. So how about the following question: Is everything that breaks breakable?

Strangely, this question has been bothering me recently. (See, I really am an analytic philosopher after all!) Now, if "breakable" just means, "under some conditions it would break" then everything that breaks is breakable. But then everything solid is breakable (and maybe some things that aren't solid, too, such as machines made entirely of liquid). That seems to rob the word of its use. So maybe "breakable" means something weaker, like "under less-than-highly-unusual conditions it would break". Of course, then when those highly unusual conditions occur (someone takes a chainsaw to my garbage cans, an earthquake rends the giant granite rock) something that wasn't breakable broke. Hm!

Why do I care? Well, other than the fact that I haven't entirely shucked my inner nerdy metaphysician, the following arguably parallel case lies near my interests: If believing that P is being disposed to judge that P, does an actual occurrence of judging P imply belief that P? (Readers who've visited recently will note the connection between this question and Tuesday's post.)

If this seems to be just a matter of deciding how to use words, well that's what all metaphysics is (I contentiously aver), so this fits right in!


Unknown said...

Make your breakable models, make sure you model them over the original model so that when the pieces spawn they'll be in the right places.

Justin (koavf) said...


I suppose that "breakable" is something like "flammable", which is "easily set on fire; combustible; inflammable." There are a number of substances or objects which are not easily set on fire, but if teleported into the hear of the sun would combust. The words "breakable" or "flammable" still have some meaning or value, though, as they communicate something to another person when used. For instance, if I say that Ed McMahon is bald, there is no precise definition of "bald," but it will communicate to someone else that he has lost enough hair to be considered bald. Likewise, I can that say that I have a heap of sand, and there is no definite meaning of the word, but a range of possible amounts of sand that could constitute a "heap."

In a sense, "breakable" is even more significant than "flammable," though. Anything that is not simple is made of parts and so can be disestablished into its parts. Consequently, what constitutes "breakable" is an even more fundamental question because it asks what is simple. And if you are looking for something that is both material and simple, you'll be looking for a long time.

So, to answer your question, not everything that is broken is "breakable" nor is everything that is combusted "flammable."


kvond said...

Hmmm. Breakable implies broken through a cause outside of its own workings. So while "broken" and "breakable" quite often coincide, the totality of uses of these two terms do not. There are ways to describe something as broken which are meant not to suggest a vulnerability to outside influences.

"Our trust was broken", but it does not seem to mean the same thing to say that it was breakable (since the implication can be that it broke from within, but could not be broken by some other agent or cause).

"The Economy is broken", but this does not necessarily entail the meanings of the sentence "The Economy was breakable".

An old wrist-watch doesn't work anymore, perhaps it is assumed its parts wore out rather than that it was struck by a hammer. "The watch is broken" It may very well be the case that such a watch is breakable, but this breakability is not necessarily what is being referred to when its state is described as "broken". "Broken" is rather more likely here a case of being worn out through a recursive understanding of its workings.

I don't know though what is thought to be achieved by metaphysically matching up the uses of these two terms. What really would be the case if this was conclusively so?

Neil said...

My guess is that all these attributions of dispositions are relativized to contexts. Which contexts are usually settled by conversational implicature, but something close to the standard use, if there is one, is < would break if subjected to the kinds of forces in play around here and all other relevant conditions remain fixed >. Or slightly more nerdy: breakable is relativized to the kinds of forces and conditions that are believed to pertain in nearby possible worlds (believed to, rather than actually, because it is possible that a powerful demon is in the vicinity).

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

At the level of the "space of reasons and beliefs" nothing is an all-or-none matter.

The inextricable interwined of pychological process and emotional states makes evrey belief and knowledge always subject to variation, reappraisals... and even it is most pertinent to apply a multivalued logic to characterize well what we believe and know.

But if we change to the level of the metaphysics of things or the "space of objects", things are more blur.

Dispositional concepts and terms imply to be commited to the realism of possible worlds and conterfactual logic, or modal logic, that not many people are please to share.

This means Eric, that to understand the "space of reasons" we have to take the tools use in the metaphysics of things or the "sapace of things"?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ah, hard core analytic metaphysics! Reminds me of the old days in the U.C. Berkeley grad student lounge arguing with Josh Dever over the necessary and sufficient conditions for something's being a "dessert"!

(Josh's view was that dessert was whatever came on a dessert plate. Mine was that it was something sweet at the end of a meal, which would make it metaphysically impossible to eat your dessert first.)


Olivia: That sounds like a good plan!

Justin: I like your analogy to "flammable". On your view, could you break water?

Kvond: That's a neat little distinction between "breakable" and "broken". I'm inclined to agree with you on the natural-language use.

Neil: I agree that the attribution has to be relativized contextually (assuming that not everything that can break is breakable). I wouldn't ordinarily say my trash cans were breakable, but I might if we were tossing them around with construction equipment. I should confess, though, that it isn't too hard to convince me that the truthiness of sentences varies contextually.

Anibal: I'm with you on blurriness, though I don't see why dispositionalism is committed to anything very metaphysically serious about modality, other than a denial of the most radical modal skepticism. (I myself don't believe in possible worlds, and I think many modal claims have indeterminate truth value.) I'll sign on to the necessity of understanding things and reasons together, though your McDowellian language frightens me!

Justin (koavf) said...


It seems like you could "break water."

"Water" is used in a variety of ways (13 as a noun, according to, but broadly speaking, it's generally used to mean: a particular body or collection of water ("Look at all the water in this tub!") or a chemical substance, i.e. H20. In the former case, "the water" would be "broken" if it was distributed from that body where it was kept. That is, a lake is drained, so "the water" was "broken;" that collection of water is no longer collected together. In the same way, a baseball card collection would be "broken" if half of your cards were stolen or a baker's dozen of donuts is "broken" if you eat four of them.

In the chemical sense, water is "broken" if its bonds are destroyed. Once that water is turned into H and O2 or if it is bonded to something else to make it non-water, the water has been "broken." This is the sense in which "broken" is metaphysically meaningful, as we can prove that water is not simple.

Of course, saying that "water is broken" is not idiomatic and counter-intuitive, but only in a vernacular sense. We simply don't use those words that way, but conceptually, none of us has a problem with the idea of a lake being drained or hydrogen bonds being broken.

Does that make sense?


Neil said...

Doesn't it follow from what we agree on that you have your answer? Everything that breaks is breakable in some context; more helpfully, the fact of something's breaking tends to change the standards in play such that claiming that that thing is breakable becomes conversationally appropriate,

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

Sorry, if i scared you, it was not my intention to sound with McDowellian overtones.

But when we deal with the intersection of action, mind and objects necessarily our language is more abstract.

We need a newer terminology. Because philosophy have produced a well operationalized language but only within each domain (the domain of mind, domain of objects and action)not in conjunction.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right, Neil -- it does sound now like I'm committed to saying that my trashcans are breakable, or at least to saying that in some contexts it would be right to say that my trashcans are breakable. Whether it follows that they are breakable simpliciter or whether it follows that everything that breaks is breakable, I'm not as sure!

Anibal: I agree that sometimes it helps to have new terminology! I do think we need to be really clear about it, though, with multiple concrete examples, and as conservative about introducing it as possible. Otherwise, I think we can plunge into a jargonistic haze that disables the important common sense check on tricky abstract arguments.

kvond said...

Eric: "Kvond: That's a neat little distinction between "breakable" and "broken". I'm inclined to agree with you on the natural-language use."

There something profound here in your distinction, in the sense that you seem to be saving something, making a proviso? I mean, we are speaking here about natural languages here aren't we? It seems to me that we want to treat natural languages as if they were formal languages, and again and again are surprised when they don't correspond. We suspect that if we make some radical shifts in our analysis, like for instance as one person sugggested, restrict ourself to a "space of things" then we might get a hold of the Tiger's Tail. But really the reason why we pick the word "broken" is because it takes up something extra, something teleological in our thinking, something which is not included in "things"...nor in their "space".