Was there a "first French speaker"?

I’m not sure why there is a “first speaker of French” fallacy. Does the existence of fine gradations means that a moment of transition cannot exist? For example, there is no clear moment where we can say that night becomes day. Yet night and day are distinct from each other. Thus, at some point, night had to become day, even if we can’t exactly pinpoint when. A similar situation arises when you look at a rainbow and try to distinguish at what point does the red become orange, or finding the point in history when Vulgar Latin evolves into Old French. In short, I do not think that fuzziness obliterates the possibility of distinctions at all.

The only alternative to this is if you bite the bullet and say that night and day are not really distinct, nor are red and orange, or vulgar Latin and Old French - they are just illusory distinctions. But this would seem to logically entail the collapse of all distinctions as illusory, which is to me is a much less philosophically appealing position to take. Even if you think it’s a defensible position, it’s certainly far from obvious that it’s the only plausible one, even taking into account modern science. In any case, I think this is a point where philosophers are allowed to weigh in.

One possible objection to the argument above is: how can there be a distinction if we can never pinpoint it, nor if we cannot scientifically test for it? My reply is that this presupposes a logical positivism where scientifically testable entities are the only things that exist. At most, you can say that a scientist as a professional scientist cannot say that there is a first speaker of French or that there was a first human. However, if you discard the assumption of logical positivism, why is a regular person not allowed to make that distinction, simply based on logical reasoning?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we are allowed to conclude that in the speciation of modern humans, two humans must have arose simultaneously. That would be a miracle of sorts. But I think it is not indefensible to say that at some point, there was one hominid who was effectively the first modern human.


Of course there can be distinctions. But there is no moment of distinction. There is no point at which night becomes day, only a gradual transition from night to day. And so on. That’s what I’m saying: Craig is proposing an instant transition. There is no instant transition between red and orange or between vugar Latin and Old French. All these things are distinct if you look at widely separated points on the continuum. That isn’t an illusion. The illusion is that you can divide the continuum neatly into two parts by a single line.

I don’t understand your objection, and I think you misunderstand the claim you’re objecting to.

You may think so, but you would have to be living in a world of fanciful biology unrelated to the world we live in now. There is no first individual of any species. Evolution doesn’t work that way.


I think you misunderstand my objection. My objection is that, just because you cannot identify an instant distinction using scientific criteria, does not imply that such a distinction does not exist. The distinction exists, it’s just that we can’t pinpoint it. I understand that biology says that there is no large “quantum leap” between one species to another. Instead, there are just changes in small gradual steps. I’m just saying that one of these small steps must effectively be the tiny “quantum leap”, even if we can’t pinpoint it or differentiate it using scientific criteria.

This is related to the Sorites paradox:

1,000,000 grains is a heap.

If 1,000,000 grains is a heap then 999,999 grains is a heap.

So 999,999 grains is a heap.

If 999,999 grains is a heap then 999,998 grains is a heap.

So 999,998 grains is a heap.

If …

… So 1 grain is a heap.

Note that I’m not necessarily supporting everything that Craig said, or even his specific Adam scenario. It might fail for other scientific reasons. I’m just responding to the “first French Speaker” scenario.


Yup, we discussed this here: The Parable of the Heap of Sand.


Interesting, in that discussion people didn’t explicitly connect it to this issue.

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I think the core of issue here is three fold.

  1. One is what we mean by “human.” Biologists don’t think in essentialist terms, but theology does, so there is something of a translation error at play.

  2. One is how to reason beyond the scientific evidence. There can be an essentialist demarcation line even if we can’t find it based on the evidence.

  3. One is essentialist versus non-essentialist thinking, to which Sorites speaks, but not precisely.


It really isn’t.

With the Sorites paradox, you are taking away one grain at a time, until you get to zero. So, sure, there will be a time when what you have contains less than 100 grains of sand. But that’s what @John_Harshman is challenging for argument about humans, or for the first French speaker.

To use your other example, yes there is a clear distinction between night and day. But exactly when does the transition occur? We can, of course, say that it occurs at midnight local time. But if the time keeping authorities add a leap second, that will also shift the night/day transition point by one second.

We cannot get away from the problem that there is an arbitary choice to be made. And, in make that choice, we are establishing a convention which we agree to follow.

Yes, we could establish an arbitrary convention as to when the language started to be properly called “French”. But there might well be 10,000 speakers of French already at the time that our convention settles on. So there would never be a time when there were French speakers, but fewer than 10,000 of them.


That would just mean that your convention is inadequate.

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What counts as adequate depends on what problem you are trying to solve.

Yes, we could have a convention where there was a unique first French speaker. But it would look extremely artificial, and it would be considered inadequate for many other reasons.

I’ll note that we have the same issue with our digital electronics. If I take a low voltage signal (say near 0 volts), the technology will count that as a binary zero. With a higher voltage (say, near 5 volts for some technologies), it will count as a binary 1. But there is no particular voltage where it switches from being a 0 to being a 1. Some logic chips might see 2.5V as a binary 0, while others might consider it a binary 1. Our computers work well, because they are designed such that no important decisions are made at ambiguous voltage levels.


Why would you think so? It makes no sense biologically. Are you taking a theological position? Was there a first French speaker? Is there a first orange too? Your point seems divorced from the real world.

Can we agree that this has nothing to do with biology or genetics? But Craig is explicitly talking about genetics. He’s talking about the origin of biological humans, not “textual humans”.


It makes sense philosophically, as I argued above. Otherwise all philosophical distinctions collapse and there is no difference between a grain and heap, or between a human and bacteria. I’ll repeat what I said, once again: I affirm that there is a fuzziness in the boundary between Vulgar Latin and Old French, but that doesn’t mean that a boundary doesn’t exist.

I’m not arguing against the biology. What I’m saying is that our current scientific methods could be unable to pinpoint this distinction, yet the distinction must exist, just based on basic reasoning that is prior to science.

It’s not a theological position, as my post above does not appeal to Scripture or God. Rather, my position merely appeals to philosophical distinctions. Josh is right that this position would appeal to a philosophical essentialist.

On the contrary. My point is very close to the common experience of every person that there are distinctions between things in the real world, such as between red and orange, human and dog, night and day. Many people would affirm such a distinction as real instead of illusory. I am arguing that such an affirmation presupposes a boundary that is not obliterated by the presence of ambiguous cases.

This is not a scientific proposition, this is a metaphysical proposition. Thus, it cannot be directly falsified by empirical evidence. For example, you would never argue that a scientific finding falsifies the logical law of noncontradiction, for that would obliterate the very assumption of being able to state a scientific theory coherently.

So much the worse for philosophy. Or, more accurately, so much he worse for essentialist philosophy.

No, I completely disagree.

The reasonable conclusion is that ordinary things (such as heap, humans) are not logical objects. We can use logic with logical objects, but not with ordinary things. To properly use logic with reality requires that we construct a formal model, and then use logic within that model.

No, this is just flawed reasoning.

Yes, science needs distinctions. We humans make these distinctions in our scientific models. But they are distinctions set by human convention. And we cannot expect reality to perfectly fit our models.

There are distinctions. But the boundaries are fuzzy, so not really boundaries.

We can have clear precise boundaries in our scientific models. But we cannot have them in actual reality. We make do with the reality that we have.

This is why we create logical models. This is why we need to distinguish between reality and our models of reality.


I personally think that to even want an “essentialist demarcation line” in the context of evolution is in the neighborhood of madness, but OTOH it is a biological fact that an allele can arise in a single individual at a precise moment in time. It is further a biological fact that a phenotype can arise in a single individual at a precise moment in time. If that allele or phenotype becomes fixed, then whatever we call it had a precise origin in a single individual. Whether we call that “French speaker” or “gullible airhead who goes to church” or “person with 0.063% higher probability of being smart enough to avoid religion,” we have what we need to identify that first one.

The problem here, for me, is that we’re only playing this game because of religion.


But it does mean that the boundary can’t be localized to a single spot, right? There is no first French speaker, right? Your point, then, is irrelevant to this discussion.

Nobody is arguing that there’s no distinction. The argument is whether the distinction is a sharp line. There truly was no first French speaker, just a gradual transformation of language from what everyone would agree was Latin to what everyone would agree was French. There truly was no first human, just a gradual transformation of a population (complicated by the fact that we don’t know what “human” even means in a historical context; but that’s another question). The sorites paradox is irrelevant. The world has many non-dichotomies, and you choose to ignore the fuzzy middle ground. But that’s ignoring the reality of the case.

Your reference to “current scientific methods” seems to imply that there might in the future be such a method; other wise “current” has no meaning. Current scientific methods are also unable to find the dividing line between Latin and French. Why? Because there is no such line, only a gradual transformation of language. It’s the same with species.

We can agree that a million grains is a heap. We can agree that one grain is not. Somewhere between one grain and a million is the change from no heap to heap, but there are, in the middle, many cases that can’t be categorized. Learn to deal with non-dichotomies. Essentialism doesn’t work in the real world.


This is just re-asserting what you are arguing, namely that the existence of fuzziness obliterates the existence of a sharply defined boundary. It is a restatement of logical positivism, which I already don’t accept. I’m don’t think we’re engaging fruitfully here.

The impression I get here is that the distinction between French and Latin is only a sociological one. It doesn’t correspond to anything existing independently of the mind. Is this what you believe?

That’s really important here, as long as the context is the need for some people in the conversation to have a really sharp line. It is problematic for us to suggest that the question is whether there is a time x at which there are French speakers (or “humans”) and a time x-1 when there weren’t. And it’s not enough to just shrug and say “it’s okay if we don’t know where the line is.”

Just a reminder that a descendant can lose the ability to speak her ancestral language. There are more difficulties in the essence of an individual’s humanity being lost - if one genetic feature bumps somebody over the line into the human camp, does its loss revert a descendant back to beast? Does the train only run in one direction? A number of participants here understand genetics far more than me, so I am not sure how this plays out. I just seems to me that while one can advance an arbitrarily defined boundary, or a spiritual event, it is awkward to speak of a first human in a population in strictly biological terms.

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In ordinary English, “fuzzy” and “sharp” are antonyms. Antonyms are generally considered mutually exclusive. I’m not sure, therefore, what they mean to you. Nor do I see how that relates to logical positivism. You might explain.

Hard to say, since I don’t know what you mean by that. The distinction between languages is a matter of vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. Each of these can change incrementally and infinitesimally over time. At one end of a continuum we have Latin and at the other end we have French. The choice of how to divide up that continuum is definitely arbitrary, especially if you want a sharp line at which one ends and the other begins. Now of course the distinction between modern French and classical Latin is obvious based on a million differences of language. But all these differences arose at different times and places. Unless one of them is your sole criterion for separation, there can be no sharp dividing line. You can’t point to the first French speaker, not because it’s beyond our current ability, but because there never was such a person. The same is true for any continuum.


Isn’t the problem here because we don’t have a rigorous definition for “French speaker”? The issue here is not that there is no demarcation, but rather that there is no good enough definition to have a sharp demarcation. If I define a French speaker as someone who knows a hundred 21st century French words from a list of a thousand that I wrote down, then there would be a first French speaker. To me the problem is that the definition of a “French speaker” is nebulous. Perhaps the same is true for the definition of “human”.

Once an appropriate definition is supplied, the existence of a sharp boundary is guaranteed for continuous phenomena such as night from day, or orange from red, by the intermediate value theorem.


I’d just like to add that one could in principle come up with a sufficiently complicated and convoluted definition of human that refers to real and measurable physical properties of organisms(some particular collection of at least n number of alleles from among some defined larger set must be present in the genome, say), according to which some individual would qualify as the first human(the first to be born that meets that criterion). The real problem is this hypothetical definition, while corresponding to something concrete and biologically real(an organism either meets that genetic criterion or it does not), would be completely arbitrary.