When does a Pond Become a Lake

If you think this is going to be about ponds and lakes then stop right here. This is not for you. This is about all of the following topics and more: politics, elections, COVID, abortion, taxation, racism, gender, sexuality, law and prosecution, freedom, euthanasia, the communal and the individual, orthodoxy and heresy, justice and forgiveness.  All of these thorny and controversial topics share the common problem represented in the question, “When does a pond become a lake?”

A lake? (photo by Linda Tucker)

There is no final answer for determining when a pond becomes a lake. It is possible that some community could establish clear criteria but those criteria would only be a convention adopted by a group that desires a certain goal. One could suggest that factors like circumference, depth, and surroundings be used.  But still, it could be (and has been) questioned and debated. The convention could evolve over time or be replaced by a whole new convention. Of crucial importance is the fact that science would be unable to solve the matter definitively. Science may contribute helpful information but that information would only be helpful toward advancing a certain goal and that goal would simply be a part of whatever convention science suggested. When ponds become lakes, just like every issue mentioned above, involves a conceptual conversation and that means that it is ongoing and messy. 

Of course some try to suggest that their convention is something more. That it is somehow rooted in nature or in some divine plan. They attempt to present their convention as something received rather than developed. The notion that one’s convention is a received revelation is also a convention and as such, traps the zealot in infinite regress.

Because our most persistent controversial topics are conceptual rather than factual, we go awry when we look to facts to settle matters. When is something alive, human, a particular gender? When does a pond become a lake? When is someone similar enough to us to be considered an insider or different enough to be an outsider? When does a pond become a lake?

A pond? (photo by Linda Tucker)

It will surprise many scientific materialists to learn that as helpful as science may be in understanding our universe it is rather limited in how it helps a controversial conversation at any moment in time. Over time science plays a role in the shaping of conventions but its role in culture, like Darwinism’s role in nature, requires the passing of time. Science can only provide conventional models that aim toward conventional goals, even if a particular theory starts out as unconventional. Unfortunately, human beings are going to disagree about our goals to the same degree that we disagree about our conventions.

Every convention implies a goal whether that goal is acknowledged or understood clearly as the convention is formed. Every goal implies conventions that will have to be in place in order for the goal to be achieved and this is true even if the goal is set before any of its implied conventions are created. Conventions and goals are not separate things, but one thing. Where you have one, you have the other. 

This does not mean that there are no facts. Consider the voting ballot. What is not in dispute is that a pen mark has filled in one empty circle over others. If the names were removed so that only circles A, B, C, were visible. Any individual with adequate eyesight or any group of individuals would agree on which circles had been marked. There might be the odd stray mark that would prompt discussion but even those ballots would be identifiable. In other words, before we can have disagreements we have to agree on a great deal. After counting the ballots, everyone involved would agree to the outcome. Once names were introduced however, the conversation would get messier because the goal would shift from the mere counting of marks on ballots to determining who will govern. The first kind of mere counting is a convention of sorts, but because we don’t know what meaningful disagreement would look like regarding it, we call it an objective fact. B won the election by “x” amount of votes. The second kind of “counting” the ballots is clearly conventional and is easily understood as such because we can imagine how disagreements might emerge.

All this means is that people on both sides of the political aisle know what it means to fill in an empty circle with a pen and both know what it is to count something. They are living in the same world. However, they are operating out of differing conventions with differing goals. It certainly seems to many of us that what supporters of Donald Trump desire is to change the conventions that have hitherto guided our nation. They, on the other hand, would argue that they are calling us back to traditional conventions. When does a pond become a lake or when does a lake become a pond?

What I can say is that because conventions are the product of ongoing conversations it is preferable to have peaceful conversations that involve as many diverse people as possible, especially those who have been excluded from prior conversations. That is my desired goal and I believe that conventions like freedom, justice, fairness, equality, and respect are ways of achieving that goal. Until we realize that the conversation is all we have we will keep shouting across a body of water with one group screaming “Pond!” and the other screaming “Lake!”

John Tucker (photo by Linda Tucker)

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