Wednesday, June 30, 2021

A technical problem for organicism

Van Inwagen’s account of composition is that

  1. the xs compose a whole if and only if their activity constitutes a life.

Here is a possible problem that just occurred to me. Let x1 be me and let x2 be one of my particles. Then x1 and x2 compose me.

Now when a plurality of things have an activity, that activity is a joint activity. However, just as it is ridiculous to say that I and my right leg have walking as a joint activity, it seems incorrect to say that I and my particle have a joint activity that constitutes a life. Thus, it seems incorrect to say that x1 and x2 have an activity that constitutes a life. Of course, x1 by itself has an activity ϕ that constitutes a life, and x2 participates in ϕ. But given that ϕ is the activity of x1 by itself, it seems incorrect to say that ϕ is a joint activity of x1 and x2.

One might try to define a more technical concept of engaging in an activity that implies that whenever x1 engages in an activity ϕ with the help of a part x2, that always counts as x1 and x2 engaging in ϕ. Here is an attempt:

  1. The xs engage in an activity ϕ if and only if each of the xs contributes to ϕ and together they accomplish all of ϕ.

But it seems wrong to say that I and my particle x2 together accomplish a life. That would once again sound like we have a joint activity, which we don’t.

This is better:

  1. The xs engage in an activity ϕ if and only if each of the xs contributes to ϕ and anything that is a part of something that contributes to ϕ overlaps one of the xs.

But this falls afoul of van Inwagen’s requirement that an answer to the special composition question make no reference to mereological concepts like parthood or overlap.

But perhaps I am needlessly fastidious about the use of language. Maybe I and my heart, or I and my topmost particle, do engage in life. We do sometimes use this locution about a government body: "x, with y at the helm, ϕed." Maybe if that's true, we can say that "x and y ϕed", despite y being a part of x. But it still sounds wrong.


Michael Gonzalez said...

Is the whole itself supposed to count as one of the composing "xs" in van Inwagen's account?? I confess complete ignorance on this matter, but I find it quite strange to say that I am a component of myself. Or, for that matter, that any whole is to be regarded as its own component right along with other components (like particles or organs).... Indeed, I find that more shocking than the subsequent statement that I and my particles jointly participate in my life.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's standard in mereology to consider each object a part of itself.

And the standard definition of composition is that the xs compose y iff each of the xs is a part of y, and anything that is a part of y overlaps one of the xs. (Two things overlap iff they have a common part.) It follows that y composes y: for y is a part of y, and any z that is a part of y overlaps y (z is a common part of z and y).

Michael Gonzalez said...

Yes, it makes sense that y composes y, if y is a part of y. I just never thought that the latter was the case. I did some very quick looking around, and it does appear that this has been challenged (notably by Kearns). And it does seem to me that the problem you're pointing out in this blog post evaporates if we deny that principle. But, I definitely yield to the consensus on the matter, since I know almost nothing about mereology.

I'll just say that it seems obviously wrong to think that the living organism is a part of itself in the same way as, say, its organs or atoms are. Imagine if God assembled a living being atom by atom. At what point does He also add the whole living organism to the collection? What if He chooses not to add that part, but adds all the others and animates them?

William said...

The problem seems to have a sorites flavor to it.