Identity is not (not just) politics?

Identity Politics

It is increasingly topical that names used to identify “groups” become contentious topics. Muslim vs Islamist, Humanist vs Christian Humanist, Race vs Ethnicity, Gay vs Straight, CIS vs Trans, Sex vs Gender, Ukraine vs Crimea, Greece vs Europe, UK vs its parts, Locations vs Communities, even species of Monkeys vs Humans. (Post Note – Feminist vs “TERF” didn’t yet exist when I wrote this, but add it to the list above). As soon as you want to tie any of these to actual ethical policy you’re into the minefield of identity politics – “bogus identity politics” some would say. A topic I’ve been promising to say something about for some time.

Choosing which group to talk about is a political choice; what is the point I want to make and why? And this becomes one of the reasons why not only the group chosen as your subject, but its relationship to the name you use for it also becomes so contentious. That names come with baggage is the passive, relatively innocent end of the spectrum, but such choices carry intentional rhetorical force too – as a means of isolating or uniting one kind of identity from or with another. We all have agendas beyond our immediate point. Naming is politics, so whilst individual freedom is a good starting point, social agreement beats ideological imposition of one person’s freedom over another’s rights.

As with the causes, responses to the problem come on a wide spectrum too, from the careless calling of a spade a spade or tarring all with the same brush, to efforts to create tight definitions and carefully chosen labels or invented neologisms to support the particular issues and conversations. Further extreme is the adoption of particular existing terms, that may once have been carefully thought out names and definitions, but whose original purpose becomes lost in the paralysing euphemistic short-hand of political correctness. Both extremes – careless and PC – are effectively ways of ducking or ignoring the problem. The illusion is that careful use of terms with sufficiently tight definitions is the only real solution – it’s certainly the “scientifically rational” solution. But, that’s actually a fools errand.

Defining Identity

The underlying problem whether identifying some topic with or beyond yourself is just that; using a subject-object basis for identity (objective things distinct from each other and your subjectivity). Whether you are identifying with a group to make a point about its distinction from other groups, or identifying another group distinct from yourself or your chosen group, you are objectifying both subject and object. Me / We as opposed to You / They / Other as opposed to Another.

In science, or any endeavour blessed with scientific endorsement, it is pretty much essential that objects and terms are so defined. Repeatability by anyone, anywhere, anytime, with all extraneous effects accounted for, subjectivity specifically excluded, and amenability to mathematical and logical manipulation demands well formed objects and evidence. Even if their definitions are statistical or stochastic, are all fundamental to conventional scientific endeavour. Even when “being objective” in a non-scientific context, it’s about recognising your (subjective) position in relation to the object (subject matter), however much you try to discount it. The concept of knowing a truly neutral god’s-eye view from nowhere really only exists in an abstract model, not in the real world.

This is true of any model of reality, if it is to be amenable to rational analyses.

And science, the body of knowledge and its processes, is exactly that – a model of reality. The best model we have for extending rational objective knowledge of natural reality. There are two points to note. Firstly, the model is not the reality; the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Secondly, the model chosen is abstracted for a purpose; it’s a political choice based on the ends you’re aiming for, and in that way science is the model chosen to extend knowledge of the natural world. A good choice for science, and for the most part non-contentious.

A model of what exists is an ontology, and it’s normal for such a model to use classification, usually a hierarchical taxonomy to define all the things and groups or sets of things that make up your world model. Since the groups may be overlapping and nested hierarchically, things may be members / instances of more than one group / set, but each set is defined by its membership. Meet the definition and you’re in, fail to meet it and you fall outside that set. By definition (literally, by means of definition) the model cuts the world into useful pieces distinct from one another; definitively distinct. It’s what analysis means, it’s more ancient than Aristotle and it’s the old battleground of the romantic poets taking issue with classical science. It’s not new that we “murder to dissect”. Even contemporary philosopher Dan Dennett is at pains to urge his scientist friends, amongst whom he has many, to delay establishing definitions. Hold your definition, he says. Your definitions are not a fundamental aspect of the world, but an emergent part of the scientific model you are developing and extending. Accept that definitions are loose until fitted into your model, only then when usefully forming part of your model are they definitive. Though even there, they’re also contingent of course – they are definitive only for the purposes of the current model, until you find a better one.

If you’ve spent significant time in business and technology, as I have, working on information models, you’ll also realise that even in good functional models, definitions used to identify “business objects” are much less definitive than they might appear. The more you broaden the model to cover wider and wider contexts of life, the closer you get to a generic dictionary of terms independent of context, the more such definitions either include terms like typically or usually used for, or terms that contrast the definition of one object with another. Calling a spade a spade? Try defining “spade”. Seriously if you doubt me, try that exercise before googling or wiki-ing it. You won’t find a comprehensive one that doesn’t say what it’s usually used for, or contrasts it with not being a shovel, nor recognises that the name applies to many unrelated objects from which it has inherited the same name by metaphorical or shape association. If you turn up to work and simply have to choose between a shovel and a spade, the problem is trivial. Then imagine the kind of definition you might need if you had to frame a piece of legislation or policy on what a spade can or cannot be used for ever, anywhere, by anyone? Inconceivable? Don’t even think about it.

Definitions are only definitive within the limits of some model – an abstraction – fitted to a specific purpose. The defined objects are certainly not a fundamental aspect of reality.

The “aha” moment?

So how are we to “discern” different things of different “significance” in the real world, if we accept that objective distinction and definition are simply artefacts of our model, not the world itself? A two-pronged answer. Firstly until people reach an “aha” moment in recognising how significant this objectification problem really is, and how a fundamentally different model might look like and how it would improve life, the answer is one of guidance only.

So, for now, beyond the confines of science, and even within it, don’t get too hung up on definitions as the means to identify your objects & subjects of interest. Certainly in human situations beyond scientific contexts or specific applications, don’t be fooled into thinking you can solve your problem by seeking more definitive definitions. That’s the fools errand. In “identity politics” where waging rhetorical arguments on behalf of or between groups of humans, accept that no such definition can get beyond being a “working definition” for the current conversation. The only reliable identification of a group is mutual self-identity. What does the individual identify as? Even then, there are extreme subjective cases. The individual who refuses any (useful) labelling in order to reject or game the system you’re suggesting, or the individual who chooses perverse identity either for the same reasons or (say) to play the victim card, to claim some freedom conflicting with others, or in order to pursue some other rhetorical or political ideology.

In identity politics, definition of one’s identity is political, subjective, and psychological. It won’t fit your prior objective definitions usefully for long, no matter how carefully you work out such definitions.


A speculative coda:

Might there be a better solution for identity?

For a more comprehensive and fundamental solution if, as I do, you believe the problem is real (see “aha” above), real in the natural world described by science, then I’m guessing you’re going to need a better solution than a science based on politics and psychological games. You’d also have to believe a little metaphysical consideration is worth the effort. Ironically fundamental physicists, imagining some as yet unknown particle or field underlying their model-so-far are doing exactly that. It was Max Born no less who said “theoretical physics is actual metaphysics”. Sure, they will want to turn their imaginings into definable and testable components of their scientific model of physics but, until they do, such imaginings need not be limited by their existing models. The what-if’s can be as creative and imaginative as you like.

There is nothing supernatural in reality; that’s a naturalistic definition of reality. Anything imagined must be naturalistic and expected to stand the evidential tests of empirical experience. However, in order to have even a conversation about a world model with alternatives to objects (defined objectively, distinct from subjects and from each other), it’s going to be a struggle to fit existing language and rationale and remain intelligible. I’ve many times referred to this as the Catch-22 of making any progress here.

Identity and definition and the idea of identity as something objectively definable (or not) is a long-standing issue here, and the growth of this as a political topic in both the party-political sense, and the wider ethical sense of freedoms and responsibilities, are not new either. What may be new is the increased topicality of free-thought vs ideological extremism. In fact the prompt for this longer post arose from a conversation a couple of weeks ago with one scientist friend, a mycologist, who has his own very particular take on a solution to the problem that the real world is not as definitely objective as our traditional scientific models have led us to accept.

A natural solution – an inclusive and informative view of identity.

Alan Rayner’s metaphysics (or his “non-definitive physics” as he would have it) is called “Natural Inclusion” (NI). Not exactly a monism, since it doesn’t even recognise a single “substance”, but like many monisms it starts with the idea that the subjective (me and my mind) stuff must comprise the same as the objective (other, out there, physical) stuff. That’s a view not inconsistent with scientists who would hold that me and my mind stuff are the “happenings” of my brain and bodily systems and energy stuff; not something else, not fundamentally distinct, and certainly not “woo” or supernatural. However, NI goes further and says even space and stuff are not a fundamentally different presence. Like a number of metaphysics, it uses the language of flow and dynamic patterning as more fundamental than any of the objects we consider significant, but since space itself is included in the flow, rather than flows of stuff contained in space we get flow-forms in and of the space-stuff.

And the language becomes – distinct but mutually inclusive presence, receptivity and permeability, separation as abstraction, dynamically distinct manifestations of informative energy flow …. and so on …. natural inclusion. The language is necessarily alien – unintelligible – if your mind-set is the traditional objective rationality, and I do not attempt to provide a full description of NI here, just a flavour. And, as I say, there are alternative flavours of metaphysics if you prefer. The only sin here would be to assume a metaphysics based only on your existing physics.

No, my purpose here was to illustrate a point about identity without definitions.


Think of two entities A and B, which we can clearly discern (you can see them, right?) as two different things from their (fuzzy red shape) appearance of “space-stuff”, even though their boundaries may appear confused and dynamic. In our “model” – necessarily an abstract model remember – we might choose to define B narrowly or A more widely (say) but equally tightly definitively (blue dotted circles) or we might simply need to draw a line D that clearly distinguishes the spade (A) from the shovel (B). But note that however we might choose to make the distinction between A and B definitive in our model, we can still discern our experience of A from that of B quite independently from those definitions, however narrow, wide, tight, loose, specific or generic.

In the NI approach the space-stuff (natural-flow-forms) that are A and B are “mutually inclusive of receptive space and informative energy”. They don’t “occupy” space as mutually exclusive objects. And note the word “informative” – it’s the information that gives them “form”. Inform as a verb, not just to communicate, but to give form energetically. I believe this is a powerful idea. Another good reason to investigate NI in particular, though as I say I’m not particularly holding up NI here as the solution.

[Post Note: since writing this Alan Rayner’s latest book is published “The Origins of Life Patterns – In the natural inclusion of space and flux]

[Post Note: Markov Blanket – statistical determination of self-organising system entity / identity boundaries. Within which the entity has a subjective view of the world via that interface – see Mark Solms / Karl Friston.]

The bottom line?

For now however, whether the idea of a non-definitive physics of “natural flow form” – or any metaphysics – is something that turns you on or off, my point here has been very straightforward:

It is perfectly possible to imagine a world model that does not depend on objective definitions. But, if your current context – a scientific one, say – demands definitions, remember not to get too attached to them. If you get to feel that definitive identity of our objective world is the fundamental aspect of our problem, in conflict with subjective identities, then there are alternatives that would re-pay your investigation. For now, the only alternative is messy consensus politics.


[Post Note : I mentioned earlier in the piece some basic concepts around models and ontologies, taxonomies of sub-classes where parent classes are being selected as significant – every two things have “a” parent class, so simply having a unique parent is rarely the point when it comes to distinguishing identity between any two related things. An interesting article here – about WordPress and WP-Theme code and licensing dependencies – that raises the exact same issues. Distinguishing or establishing a clear relation between two different pieces of code is fraught. In some sense whether one is literally (historical process-wise) derived from the other, they will share some common derivation, and however packaged and distributed, the real-time function of two pieces of code can be inextricably intertwined. Even in software, “identity” is political, subjective, beyond objective. Only case law can resolve the legalities of which definitions rule, not the definitions themselves. And this same issue of well-defined “packets of code” follows for any physical form – genetic or memetic – biological or discursive. It’s the information that is physical – geddit?]

[Post Note : Julian Baggini on personal identity.]

[Post Note : Lily Allen spots the problem with POTUS (sic pouts) as the twitter handle for Obama: