Tuesday, February 10, 2015

From unrestricted composition to unrestricted caninity

According to unrestricted composition (UC) for any plurality of things there is a whole that is exactly composed of them. Sider offers a continuity argument for UC. Here's a vivid formulation. Let the Ps be the particles in the even-numbered books on one of my bookshelves. If UC is false, then in the actual world the Ps will be a paradigm case of something that doesn't compose a whole. But there is a world where the Ps compose a dog. And between these two worlds there is a continuous sequence of worlds where the Ps gradually migrate from their every-second-book positioning to their canine positioning. It is absurd to think that suddenly somewhere in this continuous sequence the particles come to compose something. So, Sider concludes, they compose something all along, even in the actual world.

But to a hylomorphist, the argument as I've put it simply fails. There is no world where the Ps compose a dog, since a dog—or any other complex entity—is not composed of matter, but of matter and form. The argument can, however, be reformulated. Say that the Ps materially compose an F provided that the Ps are material and together with some form compose an F. Then the argument gets off the ground. In the actual world, the Ps do not materially compose anything while in the final world they materially compose something. Where along the line do they come to materially compose something?

Now, however, the story is underdescribed. For we have failed to say in which worlds in the sequence there is a substantial form of the dog informing the Ps. Facts about substantial forms should not be assumed to supervene on facts about the arrangement of the particles. There could be zombie dogs that are nothing but heaps of particles looking like a dog. In other words, it's a contingent matter whether a certain kind of arrangement of particles materially composes something—if there is a form informing them, then they compose and if not, not.

Of course, there is a question of explanation: Why is there no form informing the Ps in the actual world but there is one in the the non-zombie dog worlds? But the answers aren't particularly troublesome. Maybe the laws of nature explain that. Maybe God just decides when to create forms and make them inform particles.

However, there is a final move that Sider can make. Instead of asking in which worlds the Ps (materially) compose something, he could ask which arrangements of particles are such that something could be materially composed of the particles in that arrangement. Of course the dog-like arrangement is like that. And the even-numbered-book arrangement is not. So where is the transition in the continuous deformation of the even-numbered-book arrangement into the dog-like arrangement?

This is an interesting question for the hylomorphist. It is closely to the question of what forms there could be (cf. the discussion here and in the Murphy book referenced in the comments there). The hylomorphist could take an unrestricted view. There is a sufficiently wide variety of possible forms and defects that any possible arrangement of matter is compatible with being informed by some form—perhaps defectively. There could be a possible world where something looking just like our even-numbered-book arrangement is a highly defective (it doesn't grow or reproduce) plant.

Nonetheless, there is a remaining problem. While the even-numbered-book arrangement may be apt for materially composing a defective plant, it's surely inapt for materially composing a dog. So there will seem to be a discontinuous transition between those arrangements that can and those that cannot materially compose a dog. One answer here is that "dog" is vague. This doesn't fit with traditional Aristotelian views, though, on which all dogs have an exactly similar form, and so one could meaningfully ask about the range of arrangements that could be informed by a form that's exactly like that. But perhaps the Aristotelian can yield some ground here. Another answer would be unrestricted canine composition: any material arrangement could materially compose a dog, albeit a highly defective one. I am somewhat drawn to this strange view. Yet is it that strange? I think I can imagine a dog continuously deforming into the even-numbered-book arrangement but where rather than dying the dog comes to be more and more defective. I am dualist enough that I can even imagine the dog being conscious throughout the process.


Heath White said...

Sider needs the at-best-question-begging premise, “If a set of particles compose something in one arrangement, then they compose something in any arrangement.” In fact he seems to need the even more ridiculous premise “If a set of particles compose something in one arrangement, they compose the same thing in any arrangement,” since if it is absurd to think that at some point the particles begin to compose a dog, then it is equally absurd to think that, upon small changes of arrangement, they transition immediately from composing one thing to composing another. This premise has the very odd consequence that, say, bombs in wartime do not destroy anything.

Both Sider and Pruss seem committed to the claim that existence claims cannot have vague truth values. But if we run the simulation backwards, where a dog gradually transitions into a bunch of books, clearly there is a dog on one end of the transition and no dog on the other end. Most people would say, I think, that there is a small region—the region of “partially dissolved dog”—where it is unclear whether we have a dog or not.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think Sider needs that premise. In the continuum of worlds, the arrangement is what varies--the particles can stay constant. And the point is that if UC is false, there will be a sharp cut-off: the worlds to the left of the cut-off will have one fewer entity (the whole) than the worlds to the right of the cut-off. That's absurd. So best to suppose, he thinks, that they are composing something everywhere in the sequence.

He does need the assumption that what wholes are composed by particles supervenes on the arrangement of the particles.

And, yes, he does assume that there is no vagueness here. His point is that vagueness is introduced by vague terms. Quantifiers, negation, conjunction and identity are not vague terms, he thinks.

Heath White said...

If we assume no vagueness, then as we move down the continuum of worlds, one of three things happens at each step:

1. The set of entities (which things exist) in the worlds remain constant. A fortiori, the number of entities remains constant.
2. The set of entities changes, but the number remains constant.
3. The set of entities changes, perhaps by gaining or losing a member. Therefore the number of entities does not remain constant.

Suppose fundamental particles are never created or destroyed, and the number of them is finite. Then UC rules out 3. If we try to argue for 2, then we have the same sort of sharp cut-off issue. To illustrate: suppose we have a dog, composed of particles, named Rex. Slowly we alter the arrangement of particles in Rex, by pulling them apart. There is Rex … Rex… Rex… Rex… then the same set of particles, but not-Rex. If sharp cut-offs are a problem, that is a problem. So 2 has the same problems 3 does. That leaves 1, which is really strange.

You could embrace 1 in two different ways. Either (1a) Every set of particles is a whole, irrespective of how the arrangement of the particles changes. Now bombs don’t destroy anything. Or (1b) Every set of particles plus its arrangement is a whole. Now change (at least intrinsic change in the arrangement of parts) is impossible.

On the linguistic argument: I would think quantifiers would be vague terms iff the objects they quantified over vaguely existed. Saying things don’t vaguely exist because quantifiers are not vague seems circular to me. Same thing, probably, for identity.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Actually, on the view Sider was defending at the time, the fundamental beings in the world you describe would be something like particle stages--beings that exist at only one time, and the persisting particles would be made out of finitely or infinitely many of the stages (depending on whether time is infinite). Any four-dimensional arrangement of them will compose an entity. Some of these four-dimensional arrangements then cease to exist and others come into existence. For instance, there is an entity consisting of all and only yesterday's particle stages in you. This entity (which is a proper part of you) came into existence at midnight and ceased to exist next midnight.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...


"Slowly we alter the arrangement of particles in Rex, by pulling them apart." - If you tried to alter the arrangement of the particles of any of the dogs I've had, you would be the one whose arrangement of particles would be altered. :-)


"There could be zombie dogs that are nothing but heaps of particles looking like a dog." They do make zombie dog targets. You can get them at most stores that sell firearms. I'm sure these zombie dog targets would make good archery targets too. :-)

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Unrestricted composition, unrestricted caninity. What comprises caninity? I know caninity when I see it.

Is this robo-dog caninity?


The particles are arranged like a dog. But caninity? Does it have the true essence of dog?

"There is Rex … Rex… Rex… Rex… then the same set of particles, but not-Rex. If sharp cut-offs are a problem, that is a problem." If Rex is either a Boxer, Doberman or Schnauzer and we dock Rex's tail and crop his ears, does Rex still have the same caninity? Is it Rex or not Rex. If it is still Rex, how much of Rex's caninity has been diminished? Yet the essence of Rex is not diminished.