Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Artifacts, Aristotelianism and naturalism

One of the main reasons I don’t believe in (complex) artifacts is that the existence of an artifact would have to depend on our intentions. Whether some stones make up a sculpture depends on whether they were piled with the intention of making a sculpture or just tossed in a heap to provide raw materials. And it is incredible that just because one thinks about something in a particular way while executing a series of physical actions, a material object comes into being, and if one doesn’t think in this way, but executes the same series of physical actions, there are just raw materials in a heap rather than a thing. This just seems like magic.

It has, however, just occurred to me that I may have been thinking too much like a naturalist. We human beings already have a broad array of amazing non-natural powers. By promising, I create an obligation for myself, and by requesting, I create a reason for you. By reproducing, two humans produce a new thinking being. Why couldn’t human beings (and perhaps other tool-using animals) also be gifted with the basic power to create a form for a bunch of physical objects, a power which they exercise by executing some physical movements with particular intentions, much as I change my own normative status by using my vocal chords with particular intentions?

That our intentions should affect what material objects there are is also a bit less magical when one has an Aristotelian ontology. For on an Aristotelian ontology, “material objects” are not purely material: they have immaterial form. Yes, all this is a bit magical. But on Aristotelian ontology, all beings are a little magical, and we are especially so, being minded.

That said, I still find it hard to believe that we can create artifacts.

But all this suggests an interesting argument against naturalism:

  1. We can bring complex artifacts into existence.

  2. Mereological universalism is false.

  3. If naturalism is true, we can bring complex artifacts into existence if and only if mereological universalism is true.

  4. So, naturalism is not true.

But I am still not sure (1) is true.


Michael Staron said...

Could you say more about (3)? I am not seeing it . . .

If this post is right, then reality might have an interesting hierarchical structure. At the bottom are fictional beings which are entirely mind-dependent entities. Then there are artifacts which are partially mind-dependent (given their material composition they are not entirely mind-dependent). Then there are full-fledged substances which exist without any dependence on minds (minus some type of analogical mind-dependence on God).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Physical objects--say, sculptures--coming into existence precisely because you thought a certain thought seem to be a case of magic from the point of view of naturalism, and if naturalism is true, there is no magic.

On the story of my post, artifacts are full-fledged substances. They are mind-dependent only in a causal way, i.e., their causal history includes mental activity, much as a typical racehorse's causal history includes the mental activity of its human breeders. My idea was that perhaps among our causal powers there is the power to produce full-blown substances by arranging matter while thinking certain relevant thoughts. So when you intend to make a sculpture while arranging rocks, a substance comes into existence. When you intend to just stockpile rocks, nothing comes into existence.

SMatthewStolte said...

I’ve held something like this position for a few years. But I don’t think the only intentions that matter necessarily have to be the intentions of the artisan. For example, we could have a social convention that any time rocks are piled pyramidwise inside a sacred space, a sacred artifact is produced. If a stranger is unaware of this and decides to stockpile rocks in what turns out to be the sacred space, he could unknowingly produce an artifact. The social convention is still dependent on some thoughts and intentions, but the artisan doesn’t know about these.

Tim said...

If matter has a structure outside of interaction with it by humans, how does it know how to aggregate itself into this structure and maintain it for at least minimal period of time?

Alexander R Pruss said...


This is related to one of the reasons I've been suspicious of artifacts. A stump can turn into a stool without any physical contact, just by intending to use it as a stool. (Imagine that I have a stump on my property. I advertise it for sale as a stool.) In a case like that, I would say that the artisan makes the stump into a stool without physical contact, just by thinking about it a certain way.

But things get weird for my way of thinking about this. Suppose a local pawnshop has a modern sculpture for sale really cheap. And I think to myself: it'll make a really comfy stool. So I buy it with that intention. When does it turn into a stool? When I use it? Surely not: as I am bending my legs, I can say correctly that I am in the process of sitting down on a stool. When I intend to use it as a stool? But that happens before I pay for it. So have I actually destroyed the sculpture and made a stool just by intending something about the object in the store? That seems strange indeed. Could I likewise destroy the Mona Lisa by going to the Louvre with the intention (no doubt unsuccessful) of stealing it and using the canvas for a blanket?

So maybe you're right: social convention has to play a role here. Social convention has it that owners have special rights to define objects, for instance. But now this causal power to produce forms for objects becomes a really weirdly messy extrinsic power. Who is actually acting on the object to give it a form? People far away? We get massively non-local causation. This is possible: God could have given us such causal powers. But it becomes even less credible.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Well, it maintains itself by means of its causal powers. The chair maintains itself by means of the van der Waals forces between its molecules, etc. And on my version of the story at hand, it would have these forces because of its form, because on my understanding of form (inspired by a talk by John Haldane), it is the enforcer of the laws of nature of a thing.

Tim said...

Right, but a powers ontology can't help but inhibit a form of teleological intentionality to matter, in fact I think this needs to be attributed to matter to explain why it realizes certain structures rather than others. But then again I'm a panpsyhcist I think intentionaity is primitive and universally distributed over reality in degrees of complexity, the aggregate of the entire system would be a universal mind (God). But again I am an idealist theist I think all of reality is front loaded with some level of intelligence.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect there is teleology in all things that have causal powers.