I recently inadvertently came across an article in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law arguing for treatment of water as a person under the law in order to give it many if not all of the protections granted persons under the law. I skimmed it and had a good laugh but it then occurred to me how this article is a good exemplification or microcosm of the nature of modern language and of various topics in the philosophy of language such as the absence of any “meaning” for words other than their use and usefulness in any given context.
For the moment, water most definitely does not fall into any meaning of “person” except in an aesthetic sense created by poets or rhetoric. However, the same could have been said at one time for entities, concepts, attributes, or things such as corporations, unincorporated companies and associations, trusts, municipalities, states, and even the European Union which is now considered a “person” under much of European law. Hell, even rivers are recognized as persons in some African national legal systems and in tribal legal systems in other countries — even New Zealand does it for one of their rivers in respect of Maori tribal law worshiping a specific river as an ancestor. So, why not add water to the list of human and non-human entities recognized as persons by the law? Why stop at water? Why not treat fire, mountains, the sky, or anything else needing legal protection as a person? The Maori culture historically also worships ritual warfare, slavery, cannibalism, sexual abuse of women, killing of female children, and revenge killings, why does not New Zealand recognize any of these as persons needing respect under the law? Obviously, the cultural process by which words change meaning is convoluted yet it is amazing and impressive how smoothly and quickly such changes can occur when those in power want to change the meaning of words — even when the changes encompass or assume radical changes both in the background and in the foundation metaphysics and physics of reality. An obvious example of such radical changes in both metaphysics and physical conceptualizations of reality is the recent popular and very powerful adoption of radical changes in both metaphysical and physical meanings of the words “gender” and “sex” over a period of only the last few years. Despite this convoluted process, there can be described two universal aspects to this process of meaning change brought out by this simple example of water beginning its path to becoming a person: 1) it results from an teleological act of a will to power not from logical reasoning nor is it derived from sense experience; 2) the resulting change in meaning though it relies upon physical and metaphysical assumptions does not embody either physical or metaphysical foreknowledge — that is regardless of how ethically and thus aesthetically pleasing the change in meaning may be, the change in meaning will not necessarily change reality to meet the teleological motivations for the change so as to be pragmatically or even naturally true.
Reasoning does not care what specific premises, axioms, or whatever assumptions are used to begin one’s reasoning. Reasoning is at best a process or methodology for preserving truth however one defines truth not for gaining knowledge of truth. If one starts with true premises, axioms, or assumption, sound reasoning will preserve that truth and valid reasoning will assure it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. However, reasoning cannot guarantee one is starting the reasoning process with truth.
Nothing in reality or sense experience requires an axiom, premise, or assumption treating water as a person. If one believes water needs to be treated as a person, for whatever reasons one believes this, this set or context of beliefs gives one the teleological or normative goal of having the use and usefulness of the word “water” be the same as the use or usefulness of the word “person” within that context or set of beliefs. The ultimate goal is to give water the same power as a person in our reasoning. If this act of will has the power of violence upon others, especially a monopoly on violence such as the law, this act of will can be compelled upon others to force them to have the same belief in water as a person in order to achieve the teleological or normative goals for the change in meaning. For example, the argument for treating water as a person usually begins with the premises that water is necessary for all persons to live and to enjoy life and that the abundance and purity of water is being threatened by technological pollution of water thus threatening human life. These premises can be derived directly from sense experience. There are then an uncountable number of conceptual options for dealing with these empirical problems. One option is the teleological or normative goal of treating water as a person legally, ethically, or even pragmatically. This is a creative option that is both aesthetically and normative pleasing but is not derived from sense experience but derived existentially and conceptually in the same holistic way we derive “I am therefore I think” and “I think therefore I want more than just thinking” as I have contemplated in other essays. Acceptance of this creative option creates the law and ethics and even the facts to justify itself and not the other way around: the conclusion and supporting facts are created by the act of will wanting water to be a person in the same way any act of will is created. It is not the case that facts lead to the teleological normative goal but the facts are created to justify that goal. An explanation of the creation of this act of will is not something of which we can speak within any language wordgame other than that of intention and will because this existential act of will precedes language as I have contemplated in other essays
Even the simple act of will of raising my left arm at this precise moment cannot be explained empirically or conceptually in any way but as an act of will or intentional act. Science can talk all it wants about neurons in the brain being activated that then activate electrical and chemical signals in nerves that extend into my arm but none of these explanations describe why or how “I” activated the neurons to begin this process of raising my left arm nor the nature of this “I” that started this process of raising my hand.
Once our act of will successfully leads to a change in meaning, the change will not necessarily change reality so as to achieve the teleological or normative goal for making the change — though it might. Reality is still what it is and we cannot lose sight of this fact. Conceptually, at present “person” has more power than “water”. By making water a person, though this raises the power of water to equality with a person in our conceptualization of reality, because all power is relative this equality means reducing the power of person to the same as that of water in our conceptualization of reality. What effect this will to power for water at the expense of person will have on the pragmatics of our conceptualization of reality is an unknown. Just as when the Supremes in their wisdom made corporations “persons” for many constitutional purposes, this change in meaning strengthened the power of corporations but weakened that of persons in the sense that persons were no longer more powerful than corporations. Perhaps the best example of such distinction is abortion. Making a “fetus” mean the same as “choice” is a result of the teleological normative goal of giving a pregnant woman the power of life or death over a certain form of life. The reality of that form of life and its death have not changed by this change in meaning and the final effect of such a change in meaning upon a society that allows and enforces it by violence is unknown. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel said about evolutionary explanations for morality:
Even if we took the most optimistic view possible, and assumed that in general men’s consciences have been approximately molded by evolutionary forces, the best we could hope for is that they should lay down principles which have been useful. Unlike the God it has replaced, natural selection cannot be supposed to possess or to embody foreknowledge.
If the human race perishes in a nuclear war, it may well be (although there will be no one alive to say it) that scientific beliefs did not, in a sufficiently long time scale, promote “survival”. Yet that will not have been because the scientific theories were not rationally acceptable, but because our use of them was irrational. In fact, if rationality were measured by survival-value, then the proto-beliefs of the cockroach, who has been around for tens of millions of years longer than we, would have a far higher claim to rationality than the sum total of human knowledge.
We can see these two aspects present and being ignored in the recent and ongoing arguments for the meaning of “sex” and “gender”. Empirically, the word gender was taken from linguistics and incorporated into problems dealing with differences among the male and female sexes by psychiatrists dealing with individuals who were hermaphrodites, androgynous, or had other unusual sexual characteristics such as bodies that appear female but have XY chromosomes. As with all words, even the word “sex” commonly used to mean a distinct biological male/female distinction has some vagueness and ambiguity as is true of all words because language is a social construct whose meaning is dependent on the context of its use and usefulness. Empirically and scientifically, defining sex involves many factors of physical attributes, chemicals in the body, and even conceptual genetic combinations that are not as clear and distinct as is commonly assumed. We could have more than two biological sexes: 1) male; 2) female; 3) hermaphrodites; 4) intersex (androgynous); 5) gonadal dysgenesis (women with xy chromosomes); 6) infertile persons; and probably some more if we really wanted them.
No one wanted more than two and there was no reason to do so until the 1970’s when feminists picked up on this sex/gender distinction to try to break the association of what they considered to be socially constructed male behaviourial characteristics with the male sex and of what they considered to be socially constructed female behaviourial characteristics with the female sex. As with the water/person meaning change, this feminist theory had a teleological normative goal of empowering the female sex by eliminating what they considered to be an unequal power balance in favor of the male sex so as to supposedly equalize power between the sexes. Regardless of whether one disputes the soundness or validity of their arguments, in the last few years these arguments and their teleological normative goals have been accepted by the law, academia, and ethics along with the assumed metaphysics and physics that justifies the change in meaning of gender for now but eventually also for sex. As I wrote in my previous essay Not Utopian But Heavenly, the ultimate goal of this assumed dogmatic metaphysics and physics appears to be not a utopia but a heaven on earth socially constructed consisting of angelic humans equal sexually because there will be no sex. Thanks to this teleological process taking over the monopoly on violence called the law, such a genderless and sexless society in which everyone is their own gender creating their own sex seems to be our future for the foreseeable future absence some catastrophe or revolution.
What effect will these changes in meaning for sex and gender have upon reality? Despite everyone involved pretending to know, just as no one knows what the result of making water a person will be, no one really knows what the result will be of changing the meanings of sex and gender will be. Despite our inability unambiguously to define “sex” empirically as is true for all definitions because all words are vague social constructs, in all known sense experience there are two and only two sexes for purposes of reproduction which is a fairly important aspect of reality. These two — male and female sexes — are necessary for persons to reproduce and thus for societies to continue living. Heaven may be sexless but heaven does not need physically to reproduce. Even for test tube babies we need a male and a female contribution to the tube. Of course, life was not always divided into male and female. For hundreds of millions of years and perhaps billions of years, life consisting of single cell and even multiple cell individual lives reproduced and prospered without two sexes or any sex, there was only individuals. This seems to be the future desired by those who presently control our social will to power to change meaning in the wordgame language of sex and gender: a world of individuals defining their own sex and gender. The Powers have the will to power to achieve this just as they soon will be doing with the wordgame language of water and person, but will this change in language succeed in changing reality? If reality does not go along with our language telling it what to do, what then? Maybe the proto-beliefs of the cockroach will give them the last laugh on all of us.