Monday, December 4, 2023

Metaphysical semiholism

For a while I’ve speculated that making ontological sense of quantum mechanics requires introducing a global entity into our ontology to ground the value of the wavefunction throughout the universe.

One alternative is to divide up the grounding task among the local entities (particles and/or Aristotelian substances). For instance, on a Bohmian story, one could divide up 3N-dimensional configuration space into N cells, one cell for each of the N particles, with each particle grounding the values of the wavefunction in its own cell. But it seems impossible to find a non-arbitrary way to divide up configuration space into such cells without massive overdetermination. (Perhaps the easiest way to think about the problem is to ask which particle gets to determine the value of the wavefunction in a small neighborhood of the current position in configuration space. They all intuitively have “equal rights” to it.)

It just seems neater to suppose a global entity to do the job.

A similar issue comes up in theories that require a global field, like an electromagnetic field or a gravitational field (even if these is to be identified with spacetime).

Here is another, rather different task for a global entity in an Aristotelian context. At many times in evolutionary history, new types of organisms have arisen, with new forms. For instance, from a dinosaur whose form did not require feathers, we got a dinosaur whose form did require feathers. Where did the new form come from? Or suppose that one day in the lab we synthesize something molecularily indistinguishable from a duck embryo. It is plausible to suppose that once it grows up, it will not only walk and quack like a duck, but it will be a duck. But where did it get its duck form from?

We could suppose that particles have a much more complex nature than the one that physics assigns to them, including the power to generate the forms of all possible organisms (or at least all possible non-personal organisms—there is at least theological reason to make that distinction). But it does not seem plausible to suppose that encoded in all the particles we have the forms of ducks, elephants, oak trees, and presumably a vast array of non-actual organisms. Also, it is somewhat difficult to see how the vast number of particles involved in the production of a duck embryo would “divide up” the task of producing a duck form. This is reminiscent of the problem of dividing up the wavefunction grounding among Bohmian particles.

I am now finding somewhat attractive the idea that a global entity carries the powers of producing a vast array of forms, so that if we synthesize something just like a duck embryo in the lab, the global entity makes it into a duck.

Of course, we could suppose the global entity to be God. But that may be too occasionalistic, and too much of a God-of-the-gaps solution. Moreover, we may want to be able to say that there is some kind of natural necessity in these productions of organisms.

We could suppose several global entities: a wavefunction, a spacetime, and a form-generator.

But we could also suppose them to be one entity that plays several roles. There are two main ways of doing this:

  1. The global entity is the Universe, and all the local entities, like ducks and people and particles (if there are any), are parts of it or otherwise grounded in it. (This is Jonathan Schaffer’s holism.)

  2. Local entities are ontologically independent of the global entity.

I rather like option (2). We might call this semi-holism.

But I don’t know if there is anything to be gained by supposing there to be one global entity rather than several.


StMichael said...

Isn't this like the Dator Formarum of Islamic Aristotelianism?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I didn't hear of this concept before.

StardustyPsyche said...

Right. Eliminate the notion of a whole object form and you eliminate your dividing problem.
"Also, it is somewhat difficult to see how the vast number of particles involved in the production of a duck embryo would “divide up” the task of producing a duck form."

Animals do not have a "form" that somehow needs to come from someplace, thereby presenting some sort of puzzle as to the origin of this supposed "form".

All living organisms are just a collection of molecules undergoing a series of chemical reactions and other physical processes.

What you imagine as the "form" is just the aggregate of the parts.

DNA is just a molecule. DNA reacts with other molecules, and on and on to for cells, organs, and the whole organism. "Add" all the bits and you get the whole, no form necessary.

Daryl said...

I've been thinking about this in relation to corpses that have been cryogenically frozen. If in the future, they figure out a way to resuscitate the frozen corpse, how would the form-giver know to give the corpse the same form that it had before instead of just some generic human-form? What would explain that? Or would it just be a new form altogether?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Daryl: I don't quite understand the "how would the form-giver know" question. Unless we follow the medieval Islamic philosophers, we need not think of the form-giver as intelligent. We can just suppose that there is a law of the form-giver's nature saying that the frozen thing gets its old form back. (Assuming, which is not clear, that it lost it in the first place.) Or we can suppose the form-giver gives a new form. I don't know which would be right, and I don't know how we could find out.