Friday, January 29, 2010

Can a property be a person?

Why think that a property couldn't be a person?

1. "Properties are abstract." But "abstract" and "concrete" are just terms of art. It may be that being abstract entails not being a person by definition, but then the question is whether properties are abstract in that technical sense.

2. "Properties are necessary beings." Let's grant first that properties are necessary beings. It follows, then, that no property can be a contingent person. But properties being necessary beings is still compatible with a property being God. Moreover, it is not clear that all properties are necessary beings. It may, for instance, be the case that there are haecceities, but they only exist when exemplified.

3. "Properties are multiply instantiable, but it is nonsense to speak of multiply instantiating a person." I actually don't see where the nonsense lies. If g is greenness, then g is multiply instantiated, i.e., several things stand related to him in the relation of instantiation. Suppose someone said that all green things stand related to me in the relation of instantiation. That would be false, but it would not be nonsense: the relation is just one that, as a matter of fact, the green things do not stand in to me. Moreover, not all properties are multiply instantiable. For instance, divinity is not (at least on one Trinitarian-compatible disambiguation of "multiply"). Nor are haecceities.

4. "Properties are causally inefficacious." But what is the justification for this? Properties are theoretical entities—they fulfill some theoretical roles for us, and we get an epistemic hold on them qua properties through their fulfillment of this theoretical role. So, for this objection to hold up, we'd need to show that the theoretical roles that properties fulfill are ones that require them to be causally inefficacious. But that seems clearly wrong. Maybe the theoretical roles that properties fulfill are ones that do not require them to be causally efficacious (Plato might disagree). But which of these roles requires them to inefficacious? Properties explain the grounds of predication. That does not require inefficaciousness. They explain the grounds of similarity. That does not require inefficaciousness. Maybe they explain individuation (Leibniz thought so). That does not require inefficaciousness. Each of the theoretical roles that properties fulfill requires them to have certain positive characteristics, such as the ability to be instantiated. It may be that sometimes the positive characteristics are incompatible with other positive characteristics. But I don't see how to make a case for that.


enigMan said...

A nice philosophical question; my naive reply: no, because people are substances. A first thought is that while Idealism about physical objects is plausible, Idealism about other people would be solipsism. Still, the philosophical mainstream seems to hold that consciousness is just a property of a brain, and hence that a property can be a person. So I suppose that any good argument for the answer 'no' will be either theistic or very hard to find. Maybe it depends upon what is meant by 'property', but if the choice is property or object, then I am obviously not a property. I suppose that we might be properties to some other language-users, but 'property' is our word, so I'd go for 'no' (but language is weird when you look at it).

Alexander R Pruss said...

But why can't a property be a substance?

I think Aristotle thought that Plato's Forms were substances.

enigMan said...

I've no idea... and according to bundle theory, an object consists of its properties and nothing more. Also, I guess it depends upon what is meant by 'person'. It seems plausible that a personality could be a (complex) property, and perhaps the character one is in one's dreams could be too. If the underlying spirit (or brain) was not really a person, then perhaps it is plausible after all that (only) a property could be a person... I'm wondering why you ask?

enigMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
enigMan said...

Sorry for the deletion; I was trying to say that a property can't be a substance because whereas a (non-trivial) property can be instantiated, a substance (in the sense of an individual thing, a being) cannot be, the whole point of the concept of property being to make such a distinction (or rather, what I was saying was even further from the truth than that:)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, it seems to me that if realism about properties is true, every property is an object, too. After all, every property exists, it instantiates other properties, etc. Why should the possibility of being instantiated preclude one from also being a substance?

Option 1: We stipulate the a substance is not instantiable. Then, of course, we trivially get the claim that no property can be a substance. But if this is how we stipulate "substance", then to defend the claim that a person needs to be a substance, we need to argue that a person can't be instantiated.

Option 2: The claim that substances are not instantiable is a substantive metaphysical claim. But then it needs a serious defense.

enigMan said...

Hmm... The idea that people can be instantiated is not crazy, but is like the Sci-Fi downloading and copying of minds, and like AI. But against that idea I would say that if someone copied my mind (or if God instantiated my haecceity twice) then the others would not be me, would not be the same person as me. I would say that was self-evident, going with option 1.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think you're assuming here that if a person x is instantiable, then that person is an instance of itself. That's true in the divine simplicity case.

Here's a fun challenge. Come up with good arguments against the following thesis:
(*) Greenness is a person.

Here is the only argument I know of:
1. Greenness is a necessary being.
2. The only necessary being that is a person is God.
3. Greenness is not God.
4. Therefore, greenness is not a person.

This is a pretty good argument, but I am curious if there is any argument for this conclusion that doesn't make use of (2). In other words, is there some reason besides the modal stuff to think that greenness isn't a person?

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

Persons are causes. No property is a cause. Therefore, no property is a person.

The first claim commits one to agent causation. The second claim is accepted by most metaphysicians, with the exception being some trope theorists. So, if you like agent causation and you don't think tropes are causes, you should not think persons are properties.

(As an aside, I don't think properties instantiate properties.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

That no property is a cause is accepted by most metaphysicians. But I submit that there is no good reason to accept it. See my point 4.

On reflection, I can see one argument that might be popular with non-theists. All causes are in time. Properties are not in time. Therefore, no properties are causes. But of course a large strand of the theistic tradition is committed to the denial of the claim that all causes are in time. And presentist Platonists are, I think, committed to the denial of the claim that properties are not in time.

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

I think it's the nature of causation doing the work, not the theoretical role of properties.

The reason most metaphysicians think properties are not causes is not because their theoretical role requires that they are not, but because they think that the only things that could be causes are *events*, and properties are not events. (This explain why trope theorists can disagree; they can put tropes to work as events.)

Suppose you think, as everyone should, that causation is the exercise of a power. Then causes are those things that exercise their power. Suppose you also thought, as everyone should, that properties don't have powers, but rather that they *are* powers. Then you have good reason to think that properties are not causes.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The argument

1. Only events are causes
2. Properties are not events
3. Therefore, properties are not causes

cannot be consistently given by someone who has just argued that persons are causes, unless she thinks that persons are events.

Now, on to the powers argument. The argument presupposes:

4. Nothing that is a power has a power.

But why think that? After all, plausibly, something can be property and have a property (greenness is a property and has a property; that it is a property is fairly uncontroversial; an example of a property that it has is propertyhood). Plausibly, something can be a part and have a part.

That said, I myself deny that powers are properties. Powers seem to me to be particulars. But that might just be a terminological issue.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And what is the argument that properties aren't events? :-)

There, I think an argument can be given.

1. Properties are necessary beings.
2. It is not necessary that there is time.
3. If E is an event, then E's existence entails that there is time.
4. Therefore, no property is an event.

I think this is a pretty good argument, and I accept all the premises. It's not, though, a knock-down argument. For instance, 2 might be denied.

And 3 requires a subsidiary argument like:
3a. Necessarily, if E is an event, then E is in time.
3b. Necessarily, if E is an event, then E is essentially an event.
3c. Therefore, necessarily, if E is an event, there is time.

Like I said, a good argument, but not a knock-down one. Do I have a very good reason to believe 3b, for instance? I guess it seems very plausible.

enigMan said...

I like the thought that greenness is a person, it reminds me of the fictional Hooloovoo, an intelligent shade of blue (from Douglas Adams' SciFi). But of course, greenness is not green. And the property of being that man is not that man, and so on. It seems that properties are less real than substances. The world has men, of various colours, and then there are properties on top of and deriving from that. Properties are abstract. So your thought-experiment is inclining me towards your first argument, that properties are abstract, are less real than people. But then, I don't see why there couldn't be a real of superreal stuff, some of the properties of which were people. Then again, we don't use language that way...

enigMan said...

...oops, that last 'real' should've been 'realm'. Incidentally, 'abstract' is indeed a term of art, often confused with 'nonspatiotemporal', but I mean something more like more conceptual, by 'less real'. I think that such metaphysics has to be pretty vague, because our meanings have to go by analogies from our ordinary use of language. There we can draw quite a good line between things and words for things, and from words we get to concepts and properties, but I find things get fuzzier there, especially when we try to generalise to the conceivable or the logically possible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Greenness isn't green, but abstractness is abstract. Some properties are self-predicating and others aren't.

I think your feeling that properties are shadowy and not fully real is a healthy one. But it is one that is incompatible, I think, with Platonism about properties. And it is to the Platonist that my argument is addressed.

Wes said...

I'm interested in divinity and in some of the moral properties that might plausibly be thought to be included in divinity.

Take the property of being perfectly loving and the property of being perfectly just. Now I'd have thought (i) that a person might instantiate one of these properties without instantiating the other, and (ii) that more than one person might instantiate either or both of them. So I'm wondering whether you'd agree that neither of /these/ properties could be a person. I'm also wondering whether you'd agree that the conjunction of these (and other) moral properties could not be a person.

Ultimately, I'm trying to work out an answer to the following question. If one isn't prepared to accept a strong version of the doctrine of divine simplicity, does it make any sense to say that God = God's moral nature = the ultimate standard of moral goodness?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks for these comments.

I don't think you can have perfect love without perfect justice. Unity of virtue is one reason. But I don't want to have to argue for that, and so in the rest of the comment I'll assume for the sake of argument that one can have the one without the other.

Since I've just defended the non-absurdity of greenness being a person (modulo one decisive modal worry), I guess it's at least as non-absurd that perfect love (or perfect justice) could be a person (and the modal worry may not apply in that case).

Anyway, I think that all I need is that God = divinity or God = moral perfection. I don't think divinity or moral perfection are conjunctive properties. For instance, divinity isn't omnipotence and omniscience and .... Divinity is more like having all perfections, and having all perfections isn't the same as a conjunction of all perfections. And moral perfection isn't a conjunction of all moral perfections, but it's having all moral perfections.

As you can no doubt tell, part of what I'm doing here is just having fun with Platonism. I am not actually a Platonist myself, and while I believe in G

Alexander R Pruss said...

(continued) ... God having being his divinity, I have no commitments about God being a property, because I have no commitments (that I know of) to properties.

enigMan said...

I guess that platonists would be more inclined to say that properties are more real than ordinary things, and there is a sense in which people are too (and another in which angels might be), so that's not much use...

I suppose platonists would regard properties (like greenness) as necessarily unchanging, and I think that people have to be capable of changing (e.g. to have free will)... But then something like your objection to your fourth reason applies: Such a property-person would have, as a person, a necessarily unchanging essence (making her the same person, even as she changes in other ways), which might be identified with the property.

Still, that does not seem (to me) to be how we use language. If there was a property-person (e.g. some angelic being, made by the creator of some platonic realm) then we could still seperate conceptually the property from the person. And my feeling (although I'm no grammarian) is that it is only the former that we mean by 'property'. If so then when platonists say that properties exist, as individuals in some platonic realm (as opposed to existing with their instances, as parts of complexes), they might be effectively saying that properties cannot be people (?)

Alexander R Pruss said...

"If there was a property-person (e.g. some angelic being, made by the creator of some platonic realm) then we could still seperate conceptually the property from the person. "

Would that be like the way that some naturalistically inclined philosophers still conceptually separate the person from a body? (E.g., by making the criteria of identity for the person be different from the criteria of identity for the body.)

Mike Almeida said...

It may, for instance, be the case that there are haecceities, but they only exist when exemplified.

I wonder why that would be true. Individual essences, instantiated or not, include haecceities.

Andrew said...

Could you say something about the different dependency relations that objects/substances have to properties and then say that persons are necessarily property bearers (doesn't E.J. Lowe do this...he does make the distinction b/w objects and properties by appealing to dependency in 4-category ontology...but I imagine he might say something more in Personal Agency about persons in general)? You might wondering about whether God _has_ properties, but I often leave worries of aseity to smarter people. Can you say the persons are property bearers and that no property bearer is itself born by some other bearer?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I was imagining someone who thinks that individual essences only exist in the worlds where their bearers do.


Let's suppose that persons must be property-bearers. But that doesn't rule out properties as candidates for persons, since all properties are also property-bearers. For instance, all properties bear propertyhood. At least some, and maybe all, properties bear abstractness. Properties also enter into relations, and hence bear relational properties. Thus, wisdom bears being instantiated by Socrates.

Andrew said...

Then, perhaps could we say that persons are property bearers which are not born by anything else? (They can bear properties, but cannot be born.) Now that I think about it, I believe this is how Lowe distinguishes objects from properties.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I can see reasons for thinking that persons are property bearers--for instance, doesn't a person has to bear personhood?

But what is the reason for thinking that persons cannot be borne?

Andrew said...

haha...I take it back...I'm a person and I was 'born' a matter of fact I was 'born' on September, 28th.

I think Lowe would say that persons are substances, and he defends the following definition of substance in ch. 6 of his The Possibility of Metaphysics:
x is a substance iff x is a particular and there is no particular y such that y is not identical with x and the identity of x depends on the identity of y.

It has been a long while since I have read the chapter, and will come down to the various ways of dependence, which I must confess I do not recall right now.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I assume that a "particular" is something that nothing can instantiate?

Let a "substance-" be defined by Lowe's definition of a "substance" minus the condition (which I assume is part of the definition of a "particular") that substances cannot be instantiated.

I am curious if Lowe has any argument for thesis that a person must be a substance, rather than just a substance-.

Alexander R Pruss said...

For anybody interested in this discussion, see this contest announcement.

Andrew said...

Off the top of my head, I am not sure. This sounds like fun...if I can fit some time into thinking about persons I will try to get at it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, and before you were born, you were borne, too. :-)

I agree that I couldn't be borne in the sense of "exemplified". But it does not follow that no person could be exemplified.