Mount Peck

No doubt the Soviet Union, with Joseph Stalin at its head, played a major role in the fall of Hitler. Die Fuhrer was a fool to invade Russia, and there he lost a million killed and another million either missing or taken prisoner.  Russian deaths were upwards of eight million, so the nation was bled horrifically, even as it bled the Nazis. Thus we see the ally, Stalin, seated with Churchill and Roosevelt in photos of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, a meeting devoted to the shape of the post-war world. Seeking then to honor an ally after the war, British Columbians were pleased to name a mountain for Stalin in the Northern Canadian Rockies.

However, in 1987, representatives of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association objected so strenuously and effectively that Stalin had visited atrocities on their people (resulting in many more deaths than the total suffered in the Nazi-Soviet battles) that the BC government changed the name to Mount Peck, honoring trapper and guide Don Peck. (Incidentally, the majority of such geographical name changes are meant to erase vulgarities, whether sexual or racial, and I was thankful to find this “safe” one to open the piece.)

So what if someone says, “I grew up within view of Mount Stalin”? Do you respond, “Actually, you didn’t. You grew up within view of Mount Peck”? Who’s right? Both? (And to complicate matters, might the First Nation people have had their own, earlier name for the peak, as they did before Denali became Mount McKinley, and then back again?)

Philosophers have puzzled over just how it is that language attaches itself (or is attached) to the world. One view is that proper names are essentially descriptions, e.g., “George Washington = First President of the United States.” So to say that George Washington had a set of dentures made out of lead,  human teeth, cow teeth, and elephant ivory (or so says the Smithsonian magazine) is to say that the first president of the United States had such dentures. But along comes philosopher Saul Kripke in the 1970s and says, in effect, George Washington could have died when he still had his baby teeth and still have been George Washington, long before he could be described as “first president of the United States.” So where is a proper name rooted if not in a characterization of the person or object in question? Kripke said the linkup came at a sort of christening (or in Washington’s case, perhaps, a literal one). From that point on, various depictions and narratives may accrue, but they don’t define the subject in question, whose name is passed down through a “causal chain” (and since it is a “rigid designator,” it would hold in every possible world). They merely summarize his life, however it may or may have developed.

For an interesting analogue to the christening, philosopher/filmmaker Errol Morris proposes a photograph. Once taken, it portrays that particular subject, and whatever subsequent generations may make of it (perhaps mistaking Private Smith for Private Jones), it’s still a photo of Private Smith.

Also interesting is the way that surnames “smuggle” in descriptions. In a medieval world where there might be a dozen men in the village with the “Christian name” ‘John’ (their namesake being the “beloved apostle”), it was important to have a ways of distinguishing between them. So they appended last names according to where they lived (“the one on the hill” became ‘Hill’), their occupation (“the one who stitches clothes” became ‘Taylor’), their parentage (“the son of James” became ‘Jameson’), or a physical characteristic (“the one with the particularly strong arms” became ‘Armstrong’). Of course, today’s Bill Hill may live in a valley, but he’s Bill Hill just the same, having been so designated at birth.

 Okay, but what if, as in the case of Mount Peck, there is a rechristening? And, again, what if indigenous people named it something else centuries before? Who wins?

The descriptive approach has its own problems. What if we simply define Stalin/Peck as that peak located at coordinates, 58° N, 124° W (in very round numbers)? Call it what you will, but it’s still that peak, the one that the GPS will take you to if you key in the right latitude and longitude.

Ah, but what if there’s a tectonic plate shift, and Peck drifts west to longitude 125 W? And what if, in the process, it splits in two at the top, producing twin peaks? Does the ‘Mount’ part of ‘Mount Peck’ vitiate the name, meaning there’s no longer such a place? Or do we designate one of the peaks ‘Mount Peck’ and call the other one its new sister, with a brand new name?

Who cares? Well, there are interesting issues in play. On Kripke’s account, salt was salt before people knew that each of its molecules was made up one sodium atom and one chlorine atom. So to define salt as NaCl is to say something factually true but not necessarily true in a logical sense. The sodium/chlorine structure is an “a posteriori necessity,” in his words, something discovered down the way. But for those who first identified salt (presumably Adam and Eve), the chemical composition was a total mystery. For all they knew, it had one atom each of potassium and neon (though, of course, they didn’t have any notion of ‘atom’).

If I may press this a bit, I think that Kripke overcommits to the “necessity” of physical laws, for they are utterly answerable to God’s omnipotence. The Lord can perform the potassium/neon flip at will, with the tangible product remaining ordinary table salt.   

One application is in questioning the claim that, contra young-earth creationists, the universe must be at least 150 thousand years old. Otherwise, light from the nearest visible star, Proxima Centauri (4.24 light years or over 25 trillion miles away), wouldn’t have had time to make it to our eyes. Calculations depend upon a constant, a fixity, the speed of light, i.e., 186,000 miles per second. But folks knew what light was before they had any notion of its speed (whether in wave or particle), and it wouldn’t be a contradiction to say that, at the time of creation, God made light go a trillion miles per second. The universal constant is really contingent, easily changeable according to the pleasure of God.

(I played with a similar notion in my dissertation, saying that “daylight” was essentially a look of things, such that if there were a dramatic shift in electromagnetic wave frequencies associated with that look, but the look stayed the same, e.g., with green bushes, white lilies, red roses, it would still be daylight.)

Though such matters may seem arcane, things got hot on a television show I saw recently. The topic was the imposition of pronoun gender-neutrality (e.g., ‘xem’) on the committee work of the California legislature. The consensus was that people have a right to be referred to as they please, and the discussion moved to the case of a former world heavyweight champion. The white host amiably said he was happy to refer to Cassius Clay as Muhammed Ali, and the black guest bristled. The problem was that the former had grounded the person’s identity in Clay. This was a faux pas, for the boxer simply was Ali, not just called Ali, or so the guest insisted.

And there are theological questions in this arena. Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Do we get to name God or does he uniquely get to “christen” himself ‘God’?

Of course, there are many John Smiths in the phone book, and they’re not phonies. But just because they have the same name, it doesn’t follow that they’re the same people. But what of the many “gods” in the spiritual phone book? It’s fair to ask, which one is the real God? Is it the one who self-identified as “I AM”?