In the past, I’ve argued that the laws of logic can be challenged or even violated. A response to my post on procedural realism and the Moral Argument mentioned that the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction have been challenged by analytic philosophers. I found it curious that there was no mention of a challenge to the law of identity, since I think it’s the most easily challenged.
In order to challenge the law of identity, one need only challenge its underlying assumption, namely essentialist ontology. “The essentialist tradition, in contrast to the tradition of differential ontology, attempts to locate the identity of any given thing in some essential properties or self-contained identities” (see here). According to modern physics, as it now stands, all objects are atoms in flux and empty space. Where then is the atomic glue that holds a table or chair together and how does one differentiate between two chairs that look precisely alike without presupposing the essentialist tradition?
The essentialist tradition begs the question when concerning identity, since there’s no way to prove that any one object has essential properties. Interestingly, the reason for presupposing the essentialist tradition might have everything to do with personal identity. People are animate objects, but objects nonetheless. Without essentialism, we can no longer assume that we have a distinct identity. Physically, we are atoms in flux and empty space as well and thus, what we’re left with are second order grounds for personal identity. In other words, we can avoid talk of atoms and empty space and instead look to DNA, neurons, brain anatomy, and so on. In this way we retain our uniqueness without first order grounds.
That aside, if we instead argue from the basis of differential ontology, the law of identity is no longer as unassailable as it appeared. As stated, we would rely on second order grounds. “Differential ontology…understands the identity of any given thing as constituted on the basis of the ever-changing nexus of relations in which it is found, and thus, identity is a secondary determination, while difference, or the constitutive relations that make up identities, is primary.” We would therefore ignore notions of a stable identity and instead look to differences between objects.
Given this, the law of identity (A = A) will be replaced with the law of distinction, i.e., something like A =/= B or C or D and so on. Since A is not B or C or D, then we identify A because it is contrasted with objects in relation to it. We are no longer assuming that there are essential properties that make A, A. This is, after all, what we say of ourselves. We do not say I am me because I have essential characteristics. Instead we contrast ourselves with others; we factor in physical appearance, ethnicity, gender, personality, and so on. We then add other factors like level of income and education, personal tastes, and so on. Clearly none of these characteristics are essential.
Ultimately, the law of identity is not unassailable and can be challenged by uprooting its essentialist assumption. One way of doing so is by positing differential ontology. One can, however, do so by positing human consciousness. In other words, another traditional philosophical assumption (contra-pragmatism) is that there’s a deeper reality that goes beyond our everyday experience; perhaps quantum mechanics hints at this. On the basis of this, we cannot draw ontological conclusions on the basis of our faculties. In other words, the four chairs and dining room table in my living room look distinct because my faculties see them as such. In reality, however, there’s nothing but atomic flux and empty space. This is in no way an attempt to undermine the usefulness of our faculties, but if there’s a deeper layer to reality that we cannot capture, then there’s no way we can argue for essential properties. Furthermore, we wouldn’t be able to argue from difference either. We would, in other words, have to assume the accuracy of our faculties in order to argue for a law of identity.