Thursday, June 12, 2014

More on fungibility and naturalism

In an earlier post, I argued against materialism on the grounds that persons are non-fungible but material objects are fungible or at least persons are non-derivatively non-fungible, while material objects are at best derivatively non-fungible.

Here's a pathway to arguing that if naturalism is true, then at least some persons are fungible. Since no persons are fungible, it follows that naturalism is false.

Start with the thought that:

  1. Something wholly composed of fungible parts is fungible.
If this is right, and material objects are composed of elementary particles, then all material objects are fungible since elementary particles are fungible. And that's all we need for our argument.

But (1) may not be quite right. After all, arguably, the Mona Lisa is (derivatively) non-fungible, but all the elementary particles making it up are. There would be no loss if we replaced the particles of the Mona Lisa one by one. The non-fungibility of the Mona Lisa is grounded in the non-fungibility of the arrangement of the parts: If suddenly the Mona Lisa was burnt up, but by coincidence the particles in the ashes and smoke arranged themselves in an exactly similar arrangement, something of value would be lost. There is something special here about the arrangement.

What makes the arrangement of the Mona Lisa's particles special is the specialness of the artistic process that produced that arrangement. This suggests:

  1. Something wholly composed of fungible parts arranged by a fungible process is fungible.
A fungible process is one such that it is value-relevant whether it is replaced by an exact copy. The painting of the Mona Lisa is like that. Given (2), it is very plausible that things composed of fungible parts are at best derivatively non-fungible, with their non-fungibility derived from that of the process of generation.

Now you or I perhaps did have our parts get arranged by a non-fungible process: our parents' loving union. But even persons produced by in-vitro fertilization had their parts arranged by our biological parents' bodies through their gametes, and the process of gamete production in a person is arguably non-fungible.

However, at least one person—namely, a first human person—has no person as a biological parent, on pain of an infinite regress. If theism is true, that person may still be the product of a non-fungible process of creation by a (divine) person. But naturalism rules out not only dualism but also theism. A naturalist who does not believe in an infinite past will have to hold that there is a first person who is in no way produced by a person. And there it seems that the process producing that first person is fungible—it plausibly doesn't matter value-wise which of two exactly similar brute animals mated with a brute animal to produce a person. (If it is responded that primates like those we descend from are themselves non-fungible, then just take the argument further back in our evolutionary past.)


Angra Mainyu said...


I would like to ask what you mean by “fungible”, and “materialism”, but that aside, I don't believe that a non-theist who does not believe in souls is committed to infinite regress or a first person, due to vagueness, just as she's not committed to a first nanosecond at which a cat is an adult, etc.

For example, the non-theist in question may hold that our colloquial language is not precise enough to be properly used in the context of arguments involving an alleged first elephant (on Earth, to set aside infinite regress), a first cat, a first human, or a first person, etc., just as she may hold it's not precise enough to be used in arguments involving a first nanosecond at which, say, Obama's mother had a son who is a person (or a similar thing), and so on.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't really need a first person for the argument. All I need is a first non-fungible being. While I realize that naturalists think that personhood comes in degrees, it's hard to see how non-fungibility could come in degrees.

And even if non-fungibility came in degrees, it's plausible that if x's non-fungibility derives from the non-fungibility of the process generating x, then x's degree of non-fungibility will not exceed that of the process. But if non-fungibility comes in degrees, it's clear that our non-fungibility exceeds that of our animal ancestors.

Angra Mainyu said...

I'm still trying to interpret the idea of a process that is “value-relevant” if replaced.

Different agents value different stuff. For instance, and to go with your example, the painting of the Mona Lisa is such that, if it's replaced by an exact copy, some agents would care. Others would not care.
Personally, I might care to the extent that some people care about it, and may suffer because of it – but rather, I would care about them in that case.

But other than that, let's consider destructive teleportation of the Mona Lisa (that may not be nomologically possible, but that's not the point I think, so let's assume it's doable). So, instead of transporting the painting, the information is transported, and then a new copy is made.
If no one cared if that were to happen, then I would not care, either. And I'd say I wouldn't be doing anything immoral because of my not caring.
Even then, that would not be an exact copy. There is no exact copying.

But that aside, if I'm getting this right, you're saying it's a bad thing if people are killed and replaced by copies, all other things equal?

I would tend to agree, provided that embryos aren't persons.

But I don't think the naturalist would agree that our non-fungibility comes from the non-fungibility of the process, at least not in any relevant sense of “comes from”.

Granted, I don't know what “naturalist” (and not sure about fungibility), but if we consider, say, moral obligations, or moral goodness, or other moral properties, people who describe themselves as “naturalists” do not need to hold that they come from the process that made us, or from any other process.

In particular, they may hold that the replacement is a bad thing because the death of a person is a bad thing, and that is dependent on the traits of the object being killed (in this case, a person), not their origin.