Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elegance and stipulation

Depending on metaphysics, wholes depend on their parts or the parts depend on the wholes. But nothing depends on itself: that would be a vicious circularity. So nothing is a part of itself. On my own preferred story about parts, they are modes of wholes. But perhaps apart from God, nothing is a mode of itself. So, again, nothing is a part of itself (we shouldn't say that God is a part of himself, except trivially if everything is a part of itself).

Yet contemporary usage in mereology makes each thing a part of itself. One is free to stipulate how one wishes. If "part" is the ordinary notion, the contemporary mereologist can stipulate that parthood* is a disjunction of parthood and identity, i.e.,

  1. x is a part* of y if and only if x is a part of y or x=y.
However, while one can stipulate how one wishes, one wouldn't expect a disjunctive stipulation to cut reality at its joints.

Why does this matter? Well, one of the interesting questions about parts is what axioms of mereology are true. We have several criteria for what makes a plausible axiom. It's supposed to be intuitive in itself, it's supposed to not lead to paradox, but it's also supposed to be elegant. It seems, however, that one can always ensure the elegance of any axioms with stipulation (just stipulate a zero-place predicate that says that the conjunction of the axioms is true). So it seems we want axioms to be elegant when expressed in terms that cut nature at the joints. In mereology, this would mean that we want axioms to be elegant when expressed in terms of proper parthood* (since proper parthood* is just parthood, the joint-carving natural concept) rather than in terms of parthood*.

This is a bit problematic. For it seems that the standard axioms of mereology get some of their prettiness by using the overlap relation:

  1. Oxy iff x and y have a part* in common.
But the overlap relation is a nasty disjunctive mess when expressed in terms of proper parthood*:
  1. Oxy iff x=y or x is a proper part* of y or y is a proper part* of x or x and y have a proper part* in common.
This suggests that much of the apparent elegance of the axioms of classical mereology may be spurious. They end up being a mess when you rewrite them in terms of parthood rather than parthood*.

I think the above negative conclusion about the elegance of the axioms of classical mereology is premature, and buys into a mistaken way to measure the elegance of the axioms of a theory. The mistake is to think that one rewrites all the axioms in what Lewis calls "perfectly natural" terms, and then looks at how brief the result is. Mathematicians frequently think that some set of axioms--say, group axioms--are quite "elegant and natural" even when rewriting the axioms in terms of the set membership relation ∈ produces a mess, as it generally does. (Just think of what a mess is produced when anything using the ordered pair (x,y) is rewritten using the set {{x},{x,y}}, and how just about everything in mathematics uses functions and hence ordered pairs.)

One can indeed make any set of axioms brief by careful choice of stipulations. But in some cases the stipulation will itself be very messy (the extreme case is where one replaces all the axioms with a single zero-place predicate) and in other cases there will be many stipulations. But if one can make a set of axioms brief by making a small number of relatively simple stipulations, that is impressive.

A theory can, thus, be elegant even if it is messy and long when all the axioms are written out in perfectly natural terms to the extent that the theory can be elegantly generated from an elegantly small set of elegant stipulations. Classical mereology can satisfy this elegance condition on theories even if I am right that the natural concept of parthood does not allow for proper parts. One just makes the fairly elegant (it's just a disjunction of two natural conditions) disjunctive stipulation (1), and then uses this stipulated notion of parthood* to elegantly stipulate a notion of overlap by means of (2), and then elegantly formulates the rest of the theory in terms of these.

The suggestion I am making is that we measure the complexity of a theory in terms of the brevity of expression in a language that has significant higher-order generative resources that, nonetheless, start with perfectly natural terms. These generative resources allow, in particular, for multiple levels of stipulation. We philosophers have a tendency to simply ignore stipulative definitions. But they do matter. If one takes classical mereology and rewrites the axioms in terms of (proper) parthood, one gets a mess; but the hierarchical stipulative structure of the classical theory is a part of the theory. Furthermore, the generative resources should also allow one to see an axiom schema as simpler and better unified than the sum total of the individual axioms falling under the schema. An axiom schema is not just the sum of the axioms falling under it.

This approach would also let one compare the complexity two different higher-level scientific theories, say in geology or organic chemistry, and say that one is simpler than the other even if both are equally intractable messes when fully expanded out in the vocabulary of fundamental physics. And one can do this even if one does not know how to make the needed stipulations--nobody knows how to define "tectonic plate" in the terminology of fundamental physics, but we can suppose the stipulation to have been made and proceed onward. All this makes it easier to be a reductionist about higher-level theories (I'm not happy about this, mais c'est la vie).

None of this should be news at all to those who are enamoured of computational notions of complexity.

One deep question here is just what generative resources the language should have.

And another deep question should be asked. When we formulate axioms by careful use of stipulation or axiom schemata, what we are really doing is describing the axioms in higher level terms: we are describing a set of sentences formulated in lower level terms. Patterns in reality are sometimes most aptly described not by first-order sentences in fundamental terms, but by describing how to generate those first-order sentences (say, as instances of a schema, or as the result of filling out a sequence of stipulations). We should then ask: How can such patterns be explanatory? I think that if such patterns are explanatory, if they are not mere coincidence, then in an important way reality is suffused with logos, in both of the main sense of the word (language and rationality).

There are, I think, three main options here. One is that we create this reality with our language. Realism forbids that. The second is that we are living in a computer simulation. But this explains the linguistic-type patterns only in contingent reality. But the axioms of mereology or of set theory are not merely contingent. The third is a supernaturalist story like theism, panentheism or pantheism.


William said...

If quantum superposition is real, then reality is actually disjunctive. Our disjunctive phrases would reflect reality accurately in those cases at least.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think quantum superpositions are disjunctions, actually. An electron in a superposition between up spin and down spin is, I think, *neither* spinning up *nor* spinning down.

William said...

Since the metaphysics is not really specified by the math, you could be right. That might however move you away from the realism you mentioned.

An equation that has two solutions does not lack any solution, right?

It may not be captured completely by the English "or," but if there is more than one solution to the quantum Schrödinger equation, I see that as a plural number of solutions, not a lack of a solution. Realism (as opposed to instrumentalism about physics) might suggest that the multiple solutions are somehow characteristics of that electron's actual state.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Schrodinger equation is fully deterministic. But the deterministic solutions of it are typically a superposition.

Alexander R Pruss said...

On reflection, a language using the lambda calculus may solve the problem raised in this post.