Monday, November 18, 2013

New Paper: "One's a Crowd: Mereological Nihilism without Ordinary-Object Eliminativism"

Have you always wanted to be a mereological nihilist but were too afraid to try? Do you like your cats, apples, and tables too much to be an eliminativist about ordinary objects? Then non-eliminative nihilism might be the right philosophical position for you!!! 

Now forthcoming in Analytic Philosophy "One's a Crowd: Mereological Nihilism without Ordinary-Object Eliminativism"!!!

It used to be a small paper (and some of the ideas in it were discussed in an old post on this blog); it grew into a 12,000-word monster but I'm very happy with it. 

Abstract: Mereological nihilism is the thesis that there are no composite objects—i.e. objects with proper material parts. One of the main advantages of mereological nihilism is that it allows its supporters to avoid a number of notorious philosophical puzzles. However, it seems to offer this advantage only at the expense of certain widespread and deeply entrenched beliefs. In particular, it is usually assumed that mereological nihilism entails eliminativism about ordinary objects—i.e. the counterintuitive thesis that there are no such things as tables, apples, cats, and the like. In this paper, I argue that this assumption is false—mereological nihilists do not need to be eliminativists about tables, apples, or cats. Non-eliminativist nihilists claim that all it takes for there to be a cat is that there are simples arranged cat-wise. More specifically, non-eliminative nihilists argue that expressions such as ‘the cat’ in sentences such as ‘The cat is on the mat’ do not refer to composite objects but only to simples arranged cat-wise and compare this metaphysical discovery to the scientific discovery that ‘water’ refers to dihydrogen oxide. Non-eliminative nihilism, I argue, is not only a coherent position, but it is preferable to its more popular, eliminativist counterpart, as it enjoys the key benefits of nihilism without incurring the prohibitive costs of eliminativism. Moreover, unlike conciliatory strategies adopted by eliminative nihilists, non-eliminative nihilism allow its supporters to account not only for how we can assert something true by saying ‘The cat is on the mat’ but also for how we can believe something true by believing that the cat is on the mat.

Favourite sentence in the paper: "So, unless one takes metaphysics to be merely the shadow of grammar, one should not take the fact that certain constructions are grammatical while others are not to be evidence for or against a certain metaphysical view."

A special thank-you to Dan Korman and Trenton Merricks, who gave me precious feedback on a very early draft.


  1. I don't quite understand your view. Reading this and (skimming) your paper leaves me wondering. Are you saying that the cat is (is of identity) the simples arranged catwise? I don't think this admits of a sorta kinda answer. Either they are identical or not. I don't think your view is that the cat is sorta kinda identical with the simples etc. The "all it takes to be" business suggests something short of identity. But the notion that "the cat" *refers* to the simples etc suggests identity. Since the latter seems to me the more interesting view, I'll proceed on the assumption that that's what you mean.

    If identity is the view then I think persistence is a problem, among others. I know you address this in the paper - persistence is the gradual acquisition or loss of simples with which the object is associated or identical. But once it's clear that identity is the view, the problems become more obvious. For example, while a cat can survive the acquisition or loss of parts, it's less clear whether the simples arranged catwise can. I'm inclined to think that simples (the plurality) can survive the acquisition or loss of their "members," but there are difficulties. The crowd surrounding the building can continue to exist even if it loses or gains a couple of people. But some might doubt that the simples etc can survive the loss or acquisition of some among them.

    But a bigger problem is that the simples will pretty clearly persist in conditions that the cat does not. So the simples arranged catwise will persist if they are scattered to the four corners. The cat will not. Thus the cat is not identical with the simples arranged catwise.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    On my view, "the cat" turns out not to refer to a single object that is a cat but to a plurality of objects (analogously to grammatically singular terms such as "the crowd"). So it doesn't make sense to ask questions about the identity of the object referred to by "the cat" as you do, for there is no such object. At most it make sense to ask questions about the identities of the simples collectively referred to as "the cat". Anyway, all this is explained much more clearly and extensively in the paper, so I recommend that you have a closer look at it. You might want to focus on section 5 in particular, where I discuss questions of identity.

  3. Sounds like my interpretation was right - although you resist some of the consequences. ;-)

    I wasn't asking about the identity of the object referred to by the cat, as you say I was, I was asking about the identity of the plurality - the simples arranged catwise.

    You say "At most it makes sense to ask questions about the identities of the simples collectively referred to as 'the cat'." I take you agree that it does make sense to ask those questions, since it does.

    I'm just asking identity questions about the cat, which you agree is a perfectly cromulent something(s) or other. To paraphrase Quine, as there is no entity without identity so there are no entities without identities. The cat, as you say, is a many rather than a one, but that doesn't make it any less amenable to the rigorous requirements of identity conditions.

    Your view, if I understand correctly, is that, as "the crowd" and "those people" co-refer, so "the cat" and "those simples" co-refer (in the right circumstances etc.). Surely if "X" and "Y" corefer then X is (identity) Y. Whether we're talking singles or multiples doesn't matter. Identity is identity. We can perfectly intelligently ask questions about the "identities" of the crowd and those people. Does the crowd persist, etc. Are the people still there surrounding that building. It's no different in principle for the cat and its "associated" plurality.

  4. Weirdo (if I may :-P),

    I address those questions in section 5 of the paper. I doubt I can do a better job here. However, long story short: according to the non-eliminative nihilist, "a is the same F as b" does not express an identity and can be true even if some of simples referred to by "a" are not identical to any of the simples referred by "b" and vice versa.