Monday, May 31, 2021

The Hermes in the marble

A substance’s existence does not ontologically depend on the state of anything beyond the substance. But a typical artifact depends on absences of materials beyond itself. A classic example is a statue that comes into existence when the surrounding marble is removed. The statue’s existence is grounded in part in the absence of the surrounding marble. Similarly, even if a knife blade is made by forging rather than by removal of material, one can destroy the blade by encasing it in a block of steel: the existence of the knife is grounded in part in the absence of surrounding steel.

Thus, it seems, typical artifacts are not substances.

But this argument was too quick. What if the laws of nature are such that the following is true? When the sculptor chips away the surrounding marble to make the Hermes, a non-physical component, a form, of the Hermes comes into existence. That form is united with the Hermes’ matter. And what makes the statue be itself is not the absence of surrounding matter, but the presence of the form. It may be that by the laws of nature the form only comes into existence as a result of the removal of material, but it would be logically possible for the form to come into existence without any removal: the statue causally but not ontologically depends on the absence of surrounding material. God could make the statue within the block of marble, without any removal of material, simply by creating a form for a Hermes-arranged subset of marble molecules.

(One could also have a non-Aristotelian version of this account in terms of Markosian’s brute theory of composition.)

I think the above Aristotelian story is implausible. One reason is that the story conflicts with our intuitions as to the survival conditions for artifacts. A statue is essentially a statue. But the Hermes-shaped bundle of atoms in the block marble, even if distinguished by a metaphysical union with a form, are not a statue. Maybe God could make a form for these atoms, but it wouldn’t be the form of an artifact.


SMatthewStolte said...

Quick response to the claim that “A substance’s existence does not ontologically depend on the state of anything beyond the substance.”: This is false. Every substance is ontologically dependent on the state of something beyond the substance, since every substance is ontologically dependent on God’s willing its continued existence.

Longer response: The marble that the artist needs to chip away doesn’t just surround the marble that makes up the statue. It is related to it in a particular way. It might be related to it in the way that distinct parts are related to each other in a larger whole. But if I were related to another substance such that the two of us would become parts in a larger whole, then the two of us would cease to exist as substances.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Matthew: I think the dependence on God is causal, not ontological.

William said...

I think the removal of material is not necessary to create the problem. If I cut a sheet of paper diagonally I make two triangles of paper where there was a rectangle. What I did was change a shape. In this case the shape is the form.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think a shape is a form. A form is an intrinsic component of a substance.

Unknown said...

Posted on some older post by mistake, so reposting here:

Hello sir Pruss!
It's unrelated, but the question really troubles me and I would love to know your thoughts.
There're a bit of questions here, so if you've no time, don't bother, but as a teen baby-philosopher I'd be honoured if you responded! So, I've been told by a catholic priest philosopher that thomism is outdated because:
-It's based on outdated aristotelian metaphysics and physics
-We should not make systems in philosophy, rather find answers and arguments apart without preassuming things that systems like platonism or aristotelianism do.

Is this criticism right? I have no idea if you're a thomist or not, but it just felt so weird for me not to accept thomistic 5 ways based on such criticism.

He also said, that he would argue for God out of
1.Rationality of the universe (we can do maths sort of thing)
2. Why is there something rather than nothing question.
3. The fact that it seems intuitional that some God exists
How do you feel about this way of arguing? Isn't it just too weak in Your opinion?
Maybe arguments like from beauty (loved your lecture :)), conscience or morality would be good to back up the case for how obvious God is, as those are things we take for granted, unlike First Cause or Greatest Perfection.

That was long, but have a magnifficent day!

Dominik Kowalski said...

- The quantum revolution has been regularly used as an argument in favor of Aristotelianism. While it is doubtlessly true that Aristotle got his physics wrong, that doesn't affect his metaphysics, since they're independent of it.

- Accepting metaphysical systems based on dogmaticism is wrong without prior justification. Doesn't mean that you can't reason yourself to a thomistic metaphysics (e.g. the real distinction between essence and existence), so the criticism is misguided