Thursday, June 3, 2021

Ill-suited matter, form, and immortality

A question I haven’t seen explored much by contemporary neo-Aristotelian metaphysics is that of matter ill-suited to the form. Is it metaphysically possible for a bunch of molecules arranged like a normal oak tree to have the form of a pig? It would be, of course, a very unfortunate pig. Or is some minimal amount of match between the actual arrangement of the molecules and the form needed?

On light-weight neo-Aristotelianism, on which forms are simply structural properties, the answer has got to be negative.

But on heavy-weight neo-Aristotelianism, on which forms are irreducible entities, it seems like there should be no such restrictions. Why couldn’t God unite the form of a pig with a body as of an oak tree, or the form of an oak tree with a body as of a human?

However, supposing that we take such a liberal view on which there is no such thing as matter metaphysically incompatible with a form (presumably pace historical Aristotelians), we then have a puzzle. If it would be metaphysically possible for a pig form to be united to a bunch of organic gases, why is it that when pigs are vaporized, they (we assume) invariably die? Here is my story. Assume for simplicity time is discrete. At each time t, a pig—in virtue of its form—has a causal power to continue existing at the next time. But causal powers have activation conditions. The activation condition for the causal power to continue existing at the next time is an appropriate arrangement of the pig’s body. When the pig’s body becomes so distorted that this activation condition is no longer satisfies, the pig loses the power to go on living. And so it dies. However, of course, God could make it keep on living by a miracle: a miracle can supply what the causal powers of a thing are incapable of.

This account has one somewhat implausible prediction. Suppose that some powerful being instantaneously scatters the molecules of an ordinary pig across the galaxy, so that at t1 we have an ordinary pig and at the next time, t2, the pig molecules are scattered. Because at t1 the pig has a causal power of continuing to exist conditionally on its molecules being appropriately arranged at t1, and this condition is indeed satisfies at t1, the pig will live one moment in scattered condition at t2—and then perish at the next moment, t3.

On this account, external causes do not directly destroy an object. Rather, they destroy the activation condition for the object’s power to continue existing. When that activation condition is destroyed, the object (barring a miracle) ceases to exist. But it has that one last existential hurrah before it falls into nonbeing.

Does it follow that on a heavy-weight Aristotelianism with my story about death, a pig metaphysically could survive the annihilation of its body? I am not sure, but I am inclined to think so. Indeed, I am inclined to think that if we had a normal pig at t1, and then at t2 the matter of the pig were annihilated, the pig would still exist—reduced to an abnormal immateriality—for that one instant of t2, and then, barring a second miracle, it would slide into non-being at t3.

What about us? Well, Aquinas argues for our soul’s natural immortality on the grounds that the human soul has a proper operation that does not depend on the matter, namely pure thought. I have never before been impressed by the move from a proper operation independent of matter to natural immortality, but in my above (neo-Aristotelian but not very Thomistic) setting I see it having significant force. First, we have this question: What are the activation conditions for the human’s power-to-continue-existing? It makes sense that for a being whose only non-existential operations are material, the activation conditions should be purely material. But if a being has a proper operation not dependent on the matter, then it makes perfect sense for the activation conditions of its power-to-continue-existing not to include material conditions. In fact, something stronger can be said. It seems absurd for a thing to have a power to continue thinking whose activation conditions outstrip its power to continue existing. It would be like a power to play soccer without a power to move. So, it seems, if Aquinas is right that we have an immaterial operation, then we have the power to continue existing even absent a body. Of course, God can stop cooperating with any power we have, and if he stopped cooperating with our power-to-continue-existing, then we would stop existing (unless God miraculously sustained us in existence independently of that power!), but naturally we would continue to exist. Assuming, of course, Thomas is right about us having a proper operation that does not depend on matter, which is a different question.

(And unlike Thomas, I think we have immortality, not just our souls.)

20 comments:

El Filósofo said...

Dr. Pruss, what do you think of existential inertia?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's weird. Why should an object by default spill off in the temporal direction? After all, an object doesn't spill off by default in any spatial direction. I know that time isn't exactly like space, but still I find it very weird to think that there would be some sort of default temporal extension.

Wesley C. said...

Could we perhaps say that existential inertia is incoherent because a tendency to continue existing is incoherent - kinda like lifting yourself by your shoelaces?

That is, existential inertia is obviously based off of physical inertia which is an object's tendency to continue moving once initial velocity is imparted to it - but while this may be coherent for less fundamental principles and properties, it can't reach out and touch basic primary existence, so there can't be any tendency to continue existing specifically?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think that argument may have some force given presentism.

However, given a more four-dimensionalist view, the continued existence isn't really *existence*: it is the occupation of a region of spacetime. Existence is already secured once the object exists at any one time. And just as an object can cause itself to occupy a larger region of space (say, an animal puffing out its chest), why shouldn't it be able to get itself (causally or not) to occupy a larger region of time? So, on four-dimensionalism, I don't think the bootstrapping worry is pressing. It's just weird if every object were, as it were, temporally puffing out its chest.

Wesley C. said...

Couldn't the argument be translated into 4D terms then? The nature of existence is still basic, and so even if we describe it as just temporal extension akin to spatial extension, there is still a difference between them due to the fact we're talking about existence.

Under 4D-ism, physical inertia would be a physical object's tendency to continue having a certain locational and directional pattern on continuing movie slides - but existential inertia would be any object's tendency to continue being exemplified at all in the first place as an existing thing, on the next temporal slides.

To give another analogy, say that the existence of things at any moment needs to be sustained by God, and say an object stops existing at t1 - translating this to 4D-ism we would say the object's very temporal extension needs to be sustained or caused by God, and it ceasing to exist is its temporal extension being cut-off or just ceasing.

But the nature of existence remains the same, and the underlying metaphysics doesn't change - only the particular way of understanding it does.

Wesley C. said...

Also, you mention how we'd still need to say that the object can soehow get itself to occupy a larger region of time - but this might be subject to objections about self-causation, especially active or power-based self-causation. How can a thing be said to have the power to get itself to occupy a larger region of time - especially since this touches on the thing's very existence, which seems uniquely circular in a way that spatial extension isn't since it's not about the very existence of things?

Temporal extension is basically the 4D way of describing a thing's existence over time, so it still touches on existence, and the problem can still get going.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see why occupying time is more "about the very existence of things" than occupying space. If I am sitting in Waco, then I exist in Waco. If I am sitting in the evening, then I exist in the evening. In both cases, the "exist in X" is really just a fancy way of saying "am located in X".

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should add that on a typical four-dimensionalist view, fundamentally objects simply exist, without any tense added to that existence. Fundamental quantifiers aren't tensed: they range over objects in all of spacetime (and maybe outside it). "Elizabeth exists in 2021" is a fancy predication of temporal location, rather than of existence, just as "Elizabeth exists as queen of Australia" is fancy shorthand for predication of political role. From the beginning of time it has been true that Elizabeth exists _simpliciter_.

Wesley C. said...

Let's put it this way: Say Elizabeth has existed for 5 minutes and then suddenly ceases to exist. On four-dimensionalism, this would be described as Elizabeth extending temporally for 5 minutes and then that extension suddenly stopping. The ceasing to exist here can easily be translated into four-dimensional terms, and most importantly doesn't seem to lose its basic existential character. So even if we describe existence over time as temporal extension, that temporal extension would still be a sort of existential extension, and so is closely related to the very existence of things. Thus, the main point that presentist descriptions of existence make isn't strictly specific to them, but have a 4D counterpart description that includes the same insights.

Spatial extension doesn't include basic existence within itself - it's not about existence as such extending over time, while temporal extension at the very least can include that, and so presentist terms such as continuing to exist or ceasing to exist have a direct translation into four-dimensional terms. An analogy would be to a ruler extending over space and then stopping - except in temporal extension it's the very existence of the ruler as such that's extended, not just a physical property. So to say that a ruler has the tendency to continue existing on its own is basically to say that it has the ability to make itself continue to extend temporally and so to continue existing - but just because we view existence as temporal extension doesn't remove the circular and self-causative aspects of it.

And since temporal location is uniquely related to existence across time, it's not like any second-order predication such as what properties, relations or roles one has - it is predication related to basic existence viewed as temporal extension.

Wesley C. said...

Er, about the ruler analogy - to clarify a bit more since I may have worded it incompletely. The existence of the ruler would just be the ruler's extension to any degree over time - so the statement that the ruler has the tendency to continue existing on its own is equivalent to saying that the ruler makes itself be fully expanded over time to the degree that it is, or that it has the power to make itself expand over time further and further. But this is just to say that it either makes itself continue to exist or (in maybe more presentist terms) that it has the tendency to continue existing and to somehow reach out and touch its own existence with its natural powers directing existence.

So since this is still about the basic existence of things, especially in a self-referential sense, it still has the same problems on a presentist view as it does on a 4D view. It's literally the presentist problem translated in 4D language - it doesn't go away.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see what you mean by the "very existence" of the ruler extending in time but not in space on four-dimensionalism.

Suppose a ruler was created in one place, then stayed put for a while in the same place, and then it was annihilated. Then the ruler is a four-dimensional rectangular prism, and it occupies a four-dimensional rectangular prism R of spacetime. Outside R it doesn't exist. Inside R it exists. Let's say you have a point x inside R. We can say that the ruler extends to x and that the ruler exists at x. Now, let's move in either directon along one of the three spatial axes. Eventually we get to a point of spacetime outside of R, a point to which the ruler no longer extends. At that new point, the ruler does not exist. And the same is true if we move along the temporal axis in either direction: eventually we get to a point of spacetime to which the ruler no longer extends, and at that new point, the ruler does not exist.

You said that in the spatial direction it's just a physical property that the ruler extends to one point and not to another. Well, one could say that the same is true in the temporal direction: the ruler's temporal length is just as much a physical property as its physical length.

To the degree that this sounds implausible to one, four-dimensionalism sounds implausible to one.

Wesley C. said...

Well it seems that even in four-dimensionalism there must still be a difference between space and time, as we can point out several important characteristics time has that make it very different from mere space - basically, time isn't literally the 4th geometrical dimension. Unlike any spatial dimension, it has a direction, has unique causal relations within it, etc.

And temporal existential extension also has important differences from spatial extension - we can speak of it in unique causal terms such as creation and annihilation, whereas it makes no sense to speak of the physical spatial limits of a ruler as being caused or annihilated, or the ruler being created and annihilated in reference to its spatial limits.

Also, even four-dimensionalism must account for existence simpliciter or describe it in some way - if temporal extension isn't the four-dimensionalist way of describing the existence simpliciter, then what is it?

What I'm basically saying is that if temporal extension JUST IS existence simpliciter in four-dimensionalist terms, then the same problems follow as existence simplicter can't be tended toward on your own. Let's say that the continued existence of things over time is them being temporally extended over some units of temporal "length", and let's say God is the sustaining cause of the existence of things at each moment - what this means is that God is the immediate sustaining cause of every "length" unit of an object's temporal extension, as existence simplicter can't be self-caused or tended towards coherently.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Existence isn't merely about extension in space or time or 'spilling off' in certain directions. Existence is more fundamental than this.
"Existential inertia" is the same as existence. Nothing ever really comes into existence, because that would be a violation of the principle ex nihilo nihil fit. Likewise nothing ever ceases to exist either.
Existential inertia is fundamental.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wesley:

Sure, there are some distinctions between time and space. I am inclined to the view that the causal structure distinctions are what distinguishes time from space: an axis is a temporal axis provided that typically causal relations align unidirectionally along that axis.

As for creation, I think this does not imply temporality. An atemporal or temporally eternal object can be created just as much as an object with a finite backwards temporal extent.

Annihilation is not, on my view, the opposite of creation. It is simply the existence of a forward temporal bound.

"even four-dimensionalism must account for existence simpliciter or describe it in some way"

Existence can include temporal and atemporal as well as spatial and aspatial objects (and probably each of the four combinations). I do not think existence has much to do with temporality or spatiality, and hence it's not the job of the philosophy of time or of space or of spacetime to give an account of existence. Some objects that exist occupy a portion of time, just as some objects that exist occupy a portion of space, and some objects that exist occupy a portion of the electromagnetic emission spectrum.

Wesley C. said...

Regarding creation - since there are distinctions between time and space, this also implies there is a difference between existential temporal extension and physical spatial extension. For example, the existence of the ruler isn't like the physical extension of the ruler since it makes no sense to speak of the ruler's left end as being causally created, or the ruler's right end as it being the ceasing of a causal sustaining.

Now I wasn't saying that four-dimensionalism must make its own unique account of existence, just that it has to include the phenomenon of existence in some way, just as it includes physical motion or growth; it just describes them differently from presentism. And the existence of things over time seems to be identical to temporal extension in that case - that is, four-dimensionalism speaks of an object's existence over time as being its temporal extension.

But since time is different from space especially in causal terms, and since temporal extension is how four-dimensionalism describes the existence simpliciter of objects over time, the same metaphysics of existence still applies.

A four-dimensionalist view of God creating and sustaining existence would basically mean that God causes the entire temporal extension of an object - for each "inch" of temporal length of existence, God is the immediate cause of that. So if God's causation ceased in a certain direction, the temporal object wouldn't extend there.

In other words, the existence simpliciter of objects still has force and is completely included in four-dimensionalism - so we can conclude that just as an object can't tend towards continued existence on its own due to circularity, so too it can't make itself extend in any way temporally.

The conclusion remains the same, and the only differnece is that we view existence as temporal extension in four-dimensionalism. For a temporal object to have the tendency to continue its temporal extension is basically to say it tends to exist on its own - but that is incoherent whether we view it as temporal extension under four-dimensionalism or as continued existence under presentism.

Wesley C. said...

Er, the semifinal paragraph is a bit imprecise. What I'm saying is basically that the existence of a thing in time just IS its temporal extension, and that the tendency to continue to exist - along with the problems this view brings - have a direct translation into four-dimensionalist terms.

The slightly-presentist terminology of an object having a tendency to continue to exist would be translated in 4D as an object having a power or tendency to expand itself in temporal extension, or to just continue to extend somehow. Now, since an object's temporal extension IS its existence over time, this would entail that an object would somehow have a power or tendency to make its existence increase or occupy more temporal "space".

Which is basically to say that the object causes its own existence... or somehow can reach to its own existence and increase it. Or however you translate tendency language into 4D terms. The incoherence is the same.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Wesley:

I don't know if there is any simultaneous causation in the world, but there could be. And if there could be, then we could have a setup where God creates the left-hand-most particle of a ruler, that particle instantly creates the next particle, and so on, until we get to the right-hand-most particle, which for some reason doesn't create anything, with all of this happening at one and the same time.

Unknown said...

Alex:

The key difference between time and space is that, while space is multi-dimensional (classically: three-dimensional), time is one-dimensional. Another important difference between time and space is that time is directed: at any point in time, the past lies in one direction and the future lies in the other direction. A final significant difference between time and space is that, as it were, the flow of events only goes in one direction: the direction of flow is from past to future. (This is a metaphor. A more technical account would simply advert to anisotropy, or some such.) Given these features of time, it seems that there is nothing left to say about why 'objects spill off in the temporal direction'. If we think about this in terms of something like general relativity, what would be really bizarre would be if objects did not "spill off in the temporal direction". In order for that to happen, the manifold would have to be incomplete. But what would explain the incompleteness of the manifold? Why there? Given that there is a manifold, its extendibility (if it were extendible) seems a feature more in need of explanation than its inextendibility.

Unknown said...

The key difference between time and space is that, while space is multi-dimensional (classically: three-dimensional), time is one-dimensional. Another important difference between time and space is that time is directed: at any point in time, the past lies in one direction and the future lies in the other direction. A final significant difference between time and space is that, as it were, the flow of events only goes in one direction: the direction of flow is from past to future. (This is a metaphor. A more technical account would simply advert to anisotropy, or some such.) Given these features of time, it seems that there is nothing left to say about why 'objects spill off in the temporal direction'. If we think about this in terms of something like general relativity, what would be really bizarre would be if objects did not "spill off in the temporal direction". In order for that to happen, the manifold would have to be incomplete. But what would explain the incompleteness of the manifold? Why there? Given that there is a manifold, its extendibility (if it were extendible) seems a feature more in need of explanation than its inextendibility.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Unknown:

I don't see any difficulty for objects not to "spill off in the temporal direction" in GR. We could imagine that every object is a particle that exists at exactly one point of spacetime, and hence does not spread either temporally or spatially.