Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Artifacts and non-naturalism

One of the reasons to be suspicious of artifacts is that it seems magical to think we have the power to create a new object just by thinking about things a certain way while manipulating stuff. If Bob gets some clay and exercise his fingers by randomly kneading it, he doesn’t make a sculpture or any other new object out of it. But if his identical twin Carl intends to shape the clay into a sculpture, and in doing so moves his fingers in exactly the same way that Bob did, and produces exactly the same shape, then—assuming artifacts exist—he creates a new object, a sculpture. It seems magical that our thoughts should affect what object exists in the world, even when the thoughts make no difference to our manipulation of the world.

When I discussed arguments with this in my Mid-Sized Objects graduate seminar, I found, however, that there was a lot of friendliness towards the view that, yes, we are capable of this magic, though some demurred at the word “magic”. And in particular, a student pointed out that we are in the image of a God who can create.

This has made me think that a non-naturalist can think that our thoughts have effects that are not screened by the movements of our bodies. Thus, it could well be that Carl’s thoughts causes the world to be different. For instance, on a hylomorphic view, Carl could have the power to create a scu;tural form for a piece of clay by his thoughts. Or on a variant of Markosian’s brute composition view, Carl could have the power simply to cause a new object composed of the clay.

In fact, this suggests an interesting new argument against physicalism, where physicalism is understood as the claim that all causal powers reduce to those of physics. Intuitively, the correct ontology includes more things than van Inwagen’s ontology of particles and organisms and but not all the things from the mereological universalist’s bloated ontology. In particular, intuitively, the correct ontology does include Carl’s new sculpture, but Bob hasn’t produced anything new, and hence the correct ontology seems to require a non-natural “magical” power over composition facts to be found in Carl’s (and presumably, albeit in this context unexercised, Bob’s) mind. And if our ontology is to include, as common-sense would suggest, galaxies, planets, mountains and rocks, we need powers in things to produce such objects—i.e., to ensure that their particulate parts do compose something—and these powers are not to be found in physics.

Markosian’s apparently preferred version of the brute composition view can almost accommodate this. On that version, the composition facts supervene on the arrangement of particles: there are infinitely many necessary truths that specify which arrangements of particles compose. But these necessary truths would include lots of arbitrary parameters (e.g., encoding the difference between some stones that are just lying there and a hillock). We don’t want necessary truths with arbitrary parameters. It is much better if any such arbitrary parameters are relocated to the laws of nature or, better, the causal powers of things.


Ibrahim Dagher said...


It seems to me, were I naturalist, that I could maintain that the object produced by Bob really is a newly composed object, namely, the object Bob created unintentionally. In this way, a naturalist might be able to say that composition occurs, but that it is not ultimately linked to the magical intentions of agents. (How or when composition occurs would of course be a rather difficult question).

Alexander R Pruss said...

But would it be plausible that the object would have the same artifactual persistence conditions? These seem linked very much with our intentions for objects. We could, in fact, have two different artifacts that are physically exactly alike, but with different persistence conditions. Think, for instance, of a bow and a model bow. A model bow, existing for display only, can survive petrification, but a bow cannot. But a bow and a model bow can be exact duplicates of one another. So, the maker's intentions--whether to make a bow or a model bow--then affect whether the object is destroyed when it is (intentionally or not) petrified. Suppose now the object is made unintentionally out of wood and string. Does it have the persistence conditions of a bow or of a model bow?