2011 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

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Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol; Author, The Self-Illusion
Haecceity

Understanding the concept of haecceity would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit because it succinctly captures most people's intuitions about authenticity that are increasingly threatened by the development of new technologies. Cloning, genetic modification and even digital reproduction are some examples of new innovations that alarm many members of the public because they appear to violate a belief in the integrity of objects

Haecceity is originally a metaphysical concept that is both totally obscure and yet very familiar to all of us. It is the psychological attribution of an unobservable property to an object that makes it unique among identical copies. All objects may be categorized into groups on the basis of some shared property but an object within a category is unique by virtual of its haecceity. It is haecceity that makes your wedding ring authentic and your spouse irreplaceable, even though such things could be copied exactly in a futuristic science fiction world where matter duplication had been solved.

Haecceity also explains why you can gradually replace every atom in an object so that it not longer contains any of the original material and yet psychologically, we consider it to be the same object. That transformation can be total but so long as it has been gradual, we consider it to be the same thing. It is haecceity that enables us to accept restoration of valuable works of art and antiquities as a continuous process of rejuvenation. Even when we discover that we replace most of the cellular structures of our bodies every couple of decades, haecceity enables us to consider the continuity of our own unique self.

Haecceity is an intellectually challenging concept attributable to the medieval Scottish philosopher, John Duns Scotus, who ironically is also the origin of the term for the intellectually challenged, "dunces." Duns Scotus coined haecceity to address the confusion in Greek metaphysics between the invisible property that defines the individual, as opposed to "quiddity" which is the unique property that defines the group.

Today, both haecceity and quiddity have been subsumed under the more recognizable term, "essentialism." Richard Dawkins has recently called essentialism, "the dead hand of Plato," because, as he points out, a intuitive belief in distinct identities is a major impediment to accepting the reality that all diverse life forms have a common biological ancestry. However drawing the distinction within essentialism is important. For example, it is probably intuitive quiddity that makes some people unhappy about genetic modification because they see this as a violation of integrity of the species as a group. On the other hand it is intuitive haecceity that forms our barrier to cloning, where the authenticity of the individual is compromised.

By reintroducing haecceity as a scientific concept, albeit one that captures a psychological construct, we can avoid the confusion over using the less constrained term of essentialism that is applied to hidden properties that define both the group and the individual identity. It also provides a term for that gut feeling that many of us have when the identity and integrity of objects we value are threatened and we can't find the word for describing our concerns.