Monday, May 8, 2017

Good-bye, (Aristotelian) matter

Of course, there are material things like oaks and people, and it’s distinct from immaterial things like angels. But for a long time I’ve been wondering why my fellow Aristotelians think that there is matter, a component of material things. In the process of reflection, I have given up on matter as a fundamental ontological category. Of course, for theological and common-sense purposes, I need to have the concept of a material substance, but here I hope there is some reduction, such as that a material substance is a substance that has at least one geometric property. My Aristotelianism now inclines to be more like Leibniz’s than like the historical Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s. Material substances, on my view, are much like Leibniz’s monads; they are like Aristotle’s gods or Aquinas’s angels, plus whatever properties or causal powers are needed for them to count as material. I am my own form, and in this form there inhere accidents.

What philosophical work does matter play, particularly in Aristotelian theories?

  1. Many Aristotelians say that something remains through substantial change, namely matter.

The persistence of matter through substantial change is said to do justice to the intuition that the corpse is the remains of the living creature: that there is something in the corpse that was in the living creature. But it is notoriously difficult to remain faithful to the Aristotelian emphasis that identity always comes from form and allow that anything in the corpse is identical to anything in the prior living body. Absent a solution to this, the Aristotelian has to say that there is one bunch of matter prior to death, a bunch of matter informed by the form of the living body, and a different bunch of matter after death, informed by the forms of the substances making up the corpse. But that does not do justice to the common-sense intuition.

In the vicinity, too, there is the question of why it is that the corpse is physically like the living body. But this is not to be accounted for by matter, but by accidents such as shape, mass and color. Accidents are possessed by substances. Either accidents can or cannot survive the destruction of their underlying substance. If they can, then we have an explanation of why the corpse is physically like the living body. If they cannot, then adding that there is matter in both—and even that it is the same matter—does not help: we simply have to bite the bullet and say that the accidents of the living body have the power to cause similar accidents in the corpse.

  1. Matter may play a role in diachronic identity.

But since immaterial substances like angels can persist over time, matter isn’t needed to solve the problem of diachronic identity. Moreover, the problem of diachronic identity seems to me, as a four-dimensionalist, to be a pseudoproblem (see also this]). It is no more a problem how the same thing can exist in 2017 and in 2018 than it is a problem how someone can exist in the room and in the hall—just put a leg in each, and you’ll see how. Matter does nothing to help with the latter problem, since presumably it isn’t the same chunk of matter that’s in the room as in the hall. So, why should matter help with the former?

  1. Matter may play a role in problems of material composition.

Matter may also play a role in some specific solutions to the problem of material composition. One might, for instance, identify the lump with the matter and the statue with the substance composed of it, or the lump with one thing made of the matter and the statue with another thing made of the same matter, and then explain away the commonality of many properties, like mass, by the identity of matter. But either the statue and the lump have numerically the same accident of mass or they do not. If they do, then since accidents inhere in substances, not in matter, the commonality of matter doesn’t do any work. If they do not, then the commonality of matter doesn’t seem to have done much—we still have to explain why the two have an exactly similar accident of mass, given that they have numerically distinct ones.

What matter does do, I think, is help differentiate the classic statue–lump case from the horse–ghost case where Bucephalus’s ghost happens to walk right through the living Seabiscuit, in such a way that the ghost horse and the living horse happen to occupy exactly the same space. For we can say that the ghost case is a case of merely spatial colocation, while the statue–lump case is a case of having the same matter. And intuitively there is a difference between the two cases. Interestingly, though, this isn’t the material composition problem that matter usually gets invoked to solve. And since I don’t believe in statues, or in any other entities that could plausibly be thought to make there be two entities of one chunk of matter, this does little for me.

  1. Isn’t hylo-morphism the distinctively Aristotelian solution to the mind-body problem?

Sure. But, even more than the classic Aristotelian solution, my view is a dissolution to the mind-body problem rather than a solution. The form of course affects the accidents that constitute and shape our embodiment. All of this is due to the nexus—ontological, teleological and causal—that exists between the substance and its accidents (both substance–accident and accident–accident). It’s not a case of one thing moving another: it is just the common story of the form affecting the accidents and the accidents affecting one another.

And, yes, of course I agree with the Council of Vienne that the soul is the form of the body. On my view, talk of the soul is talk of the substance qua form and apart from the accidents constituting its materiality, and the substance qua form is a base for all the accidents which constitute us as having bodies. So, the soul is the form of the body.

  1. Physics talks of matter.

Sure, but physics probably doesn’t have a fundamental distinction between matter and energy, I think.

Anyway, I don’t deny that there is matter in the sense of substances that are so configured as to count as material. Quite possibly, where you have a heap of sand, you have a heap of material substances, and hence matter. (But perhaps not: perhaps fundamental physical reality is just a handful of fields.)


All in all, I just see little if any benefit to matter. And there is much mystery about it. Ockham’s razor cuts it away.

Unless, of course, we come to some philosophical problem that can’t be solved without matter, or can’t be solved as well without it…

9 comments:

Heath White said...

There is another philosopher who doesn't believe in matter, namely Berkeley. How is your view different from his?

John DeRosa said...

Good point Heath!

Alex, where can we go to understand your view. I don't understand it. And I assume it deviates from the classical Thomistic perspective set forth by Feser in Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (PS - he does interact with you in at least one chapter of that book).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath: I think there are nonminded substances like trees and like particles or fields. I don't think geometric properties reduce to mental ones.

John:
The view certainly deviates. And it's not written up or even worked out.

Christopher Michael said...

If you are your own form, and you have the same form as other human persons, then what distinguishes you from those other human beings? Presumably it would be accidents, but then that will force you to accept the identity of indiscernables (at least as applied to human persons). Do you see that as a cost?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's a cost, but I've already accepted something stronger than the identity of indiscernibles: the identity of things with indiscernible origins. Accepting this thesis gives me an elegant account of transworld identity and a reduction of de re modality to de dicto (x is essentially F iff (h)(IsOriginOf(h,x) → L (y)(h(y) → F(y))). (Think of origins as properties.) Furthermore, it gives me an account of identity that does not presuppose identity: x=y iff (h)(IsOriginOf(h,x)=IsOriginOf(h,y)). Moreover, it explains how God can know who possible individuals would be.

Michael Staron said...

Very interesting!

When you say that a material substance is identical with its "form," do you mean that it is identical with its essence or nature in the Aristotelian sense? So, e.g., am I identical with humanity? If so, do you favor a trope version of essences (so that, e.g., I am identical with my humanity and you are identical with yours)?

Alexander R Pruss said...

On my view essences are natures are forms, and all these are tropes.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But of course not all tropes are essences or nature or (substantial) forms.

awatkins909 said...

I pretty much agree.

I understand that precisely these sorts of considerations led many medieval scholastics to conclude that angels also had matter, in the Aristotelian sense, albeit 'spiritual' matter (e.g., St. Bonaventure). There was a very big controversy about all this. I found a nice dissertation on this somewhere -- I think it was Michael Sullivan's? -- but can't find it at the moment.

Of course, once you go that route, then you might think an important distinction between physical and non-physical things is being missed, or at least not tracked, by 'material' vs. 'non-material'.