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Sunday, November 16, 2014

In which I learn that I am a 'mereological nihilist'

Doug Benscoter: Atomism and Its Irrelevance to Classical Theism -- "Peter van Inwagen, for instance, holds to mereological nihilism: that no composite material thing really exists. He does, nevertheless, make an exception for living things."

While I hadn't yet thought of it in terms of "composite material thing[s]", and of course (being just a normal non-academic person ... like you), I had never encountered the term 'mereological nihilism', I had years ago reached the conclusion that almost none of the (supposed) entities we speak of do actually exist, but that living entities do exist. That is, the sun and moon and stars, and the earth, do not really exist. But you really do exist, and the individual cells comprising your body really do exist.

I had come to these conclusions in considering the 'Perseus' Ship Paradox', which is the paradox of identity. I had concluded that only things inherently possessing identity really exist. And the only material entities possessing inherent identity of which I am aware are living things. Perhaps sub-atomic particles also possess some sort of inherent identity, though I can't see it including "selfness", which seems to me the key thing in identity.


Greg said...
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Greg said...

Paradoxes of identity shouldn't get you to mereological nihilism. Whether or not you believe Ship B--the ship composed of replacement parts--is wholly distinct from Ship A--the original--this doesn't discount the existence of ships. Indeed these paradoxes rely on the existence of composite entities. Ship A cannot become Ship B unless it first is.

Greg said...

I'd also like to add this Bible verse:

Psalm 147:4 He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.

Granted the Psalms are poetic, but it seems this is good reason to include composite celestial objects created by God into your ontology.

Ilíon said...

I haven't yet taken the time to look up 'mereological nihilism' to see how the phrase is defined or used by those in the know. So, at this point, I'm just going by Mr Benscoter's quoted statement.

Nevertheless, I long ago concluded that only those things possessing intrinsic identity actually exist. That we ascribe identity to the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, that mountain, that rock, or that ship doesn't mean that these things actually possess it.

It's a strange thing, I realize, to say that most of the things we sensibly speak of don't actually exist. But isn't the paradox (or is it perhaps two paradoxes?) we get when we insist that these things do exist even worse?

For consider, if we replace a board of Persus' Ship (*), either:
1) whatever it is we're talking about is *still* Perseus' Ship; or,
2) Perseus' Ship ceased to exist as soon as we altered it by removing the original part to replace it;
or, and this idea probably doesn't cross our minds until we've noticed all the paradoxen (**) that fall out otherwise,
3) Perseus' Ship doesn't really exist in the first place.

But, if Perseus' Ship still exists after we've replaced one board, does it not still exist after we've replaced a second board? and a third? and eventually all of them? And if we've kept all the original boards as we removed them, can we not reassemble them? And is that re-assembled ship not Perseus' Ship? But in that case, we clearly have two ships -- we can see them with our own eyes -- which are the *same* ship. But that's self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if Perseus' Ship ceases to exist as soon as we have altered it by removing an original part, does it not likewise cease to exist if we gouge out a large portion of one of the boards? And, likewise, if we gouge out smaller portion of a board, and so on down to less than a splinter? That is, if removing a material/physical part causes a (presumed) entity to cease to exist, then it must be that *any* material/physical change causes the (presumed) entity to cease to exist. But, in that case, the term "Perseus' Ship" cannot refer to any entity that ever actually exists -- for the matter of which all material/physical (presumed) entities is (thought to be) made is always changing.

(*) personally, I prefer "Perseus' Maserati" -- that was to be the title of a planned, though never written, post about the paradox. The conceit of the post being that before his father gave Perseus the famous ship, he'd given him a Maserati (a gift from Hermes, by way of time-travel) ... and a box with a spare of every single part of the auto. Of course, with no gasoline, nor paved roads, all Perseus could do with the car was to sit in it turning the steering-wheel and making vroom-vroom noises, until one day he decided to sequentially replace each of the parts with the corresponding "identical" spare part. Having done so, he reassembled the original parts ... and then he had *two* Maserati, each of which was the "original" car.

(**) 'Orthodoxen' and 'paradoxen' are my (hopefully) humorous pluralizations for 'Orthodox' and 'paradox'