Sunday, October 09, 2016

Race Nominalism: The Major Confusions In A Nutshell: LiveScience: "Race Is A Social Concept (Not A Biological One)"

   I could say (and I guess have said) this about a lot of different articles, but this one could serve as a primer on the confusions that lead to nominalism about race. It's all there: invalid arguments including the continuum fallacy...a straw man of the alternative argument that actually counts against the view it's suppose to support...and half the article is about racism and the importance of fighting it--which is the real motivator of race nominalism, and utterly irrelevant to the scientific/philosophical question. Oh, and it's also got one of my favorites, an argument that's cagily stated here...but in other places stated more clearly...apparently to the effect that the very purpose of the idea of race is to bolster racism. See, it wouldn't be enough for realism about races to be an honest mistake. It's got to be racist at its core.
   Look, perhaps good arguments for race nominalism will appear tomorrow, or next year. The better case currently exists for the view that races are natural kinds--very unimportant and whispy natural kinds, but natural kinds nonetheless. But that could change. New evidence could arise, the nominalists might think of better arguments...whatever. But the idea of race is almost certainly a scientific theory, even if a folk scientific theory. The idea is going to arise to everyone who encounters a group of people with apparently systematic physical differences from their own population. The idea of race is, of course, necessary for racism, but it is obviously not sufficient for it, and it is not the purpose of it. It's not like no one ever noticed the physical differences between whites, blacks and Asians until the evil white people were casting about for some way to oppress others. And, of course, even if that were true, it wouldn't show that races aren't, in fact, natural kinds.
   Finally, race is not and cannot be a "social concept." (Of course, that phrase is ambiguous in ways similar to the disastrously confused "social construct.") Race is a physical (or biological) concept. The concept race is the concept of physical similarities and differences among groups of people. If such clustering of physical similarities and differences is not real, then race is not real. These are the only two options: races are biological realities; races are not biological realities. There is no third option.
   The alleged third option is just a cluster of confusions. Sometimes sociologists et al. try to cash out this putative third option by arguing that it means that race has social consequences (like black slavery in the U.S.). But race can't have social consequences--nor any consequences--if it isn't real. Unreal things don't have consequences. The idea of them might, of course...but that's different. So the idea of race could have social consequences...but an idea having social consequences doesn't make its object real. The ideas of Bigfoot, witches, and ghosts all have social consequences...but that's not sufficient to make them real because (like race) they are all concepts of real, non-social things--even if none of those things exist. Their consequences could (imprecisely) be said to be "socially real," because they are (largely) social consequences. But there's all the difference in the world between saying that the idea of an unreal thing has real social consequences and saying that that things is real. And the term "socially real" is intended to blur this important distinction.
   Anyway, and again: races, given what they are supposed to be, can't be social. They're either natural kinds (ergo real) or not (ergo not). An analogy: if we found out that we'd made an enormous, incomprehensible mistake, and everybody is really of the same sex...we...y'know...somehow just didn't notice... Well, in that case, the fact that we've built a lot of our society on the (illusory) difference would not mean that sex was actually real..."socially real"... The concept of sex (the biological categories, not the activity) is the concept of something physical. If those physical differences aren't real, then sex isn't real (more precisely: sexes are not natural kinds). Sex would be a myth--though, like at least most religions--a myth with profound social consequences. To describe it as "socially real" is to choose an inaccurate, misleading description over readily-available, accurate descriptions. The descriptions is misleading because it is ambiguous in precisely the way that will lead people to confuse the importantly different claims: (a) it's an inherently social thing, and it's real and (b) it's an inherently biological thing, and it's not real, but the idea of it has real social consequences. The idea of razor blades in Halloween candy was, we could say, "socially real" led people to have their kids' candy x-rayed. It just wasn't...y'know...real real...


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