Monday, October 9, 2017

Watching my weight

I’ve been watching my weight recently. This morning the scale told me that I weigh 184 pounds.

Or did it?

The scale is utterly insensitive to whether there is a philosophy professor on it, a pile of steaks, joints, and giblets (prepared, perhaps, by Lecter’s Specialty Meats), or the elementary particles composing me.

The (so-far!) undetached steaks, joints, and giblets, as well as the elementary particles, weigh exactly the same as me – or so I will suppose.

What is the scale actually weighing? I require some reassurance that the scale is indeed weighing me.

(No one ever said being a metaphysician is an easy road.)

It’s surely not weighing me, and my giblets, and my quarks (or superstrings, or whatever the most recent theory of the fundamental entities would require us to countenance). After all, the nature of the resulting values would be different even if the figure expressing them (184 lbs.) is the same. My weight is a single, non-composite integral number; the weight of my undetached joints, hams, and innards is a sum. As for my quarks or superstrings, I have only the haziest notions how their mass would produce a weight on a bathroom scale.

To refine the question, consider my liver. Suppose that the function of the liver is to filter toxins. Does this purple thing, just considered in itself, have the power to filter toxins? Of course not. By itself it has the power to make the scale register 3½ pounds; it has the power to reflect light. But the power to filter toxins requires the organism. That is, considered in itself that purple thing is not a liver. Call it a ‘shmiver.’

I can filter toxins from my body; I can circulate vivifying oxygen. (I can also hit an 8-iron, solve problems in predicate logic, and decide among courses of action.) I can do these things ‘because of’ my liver, heart, hands, and brain. But the organs don’t do these things; I do. I don’t depend on those organs for my existence and my powers; they depend on me for theirs.

Without me, my organs would lack the powers they bestow on me.

Read that last sentence again. It is a difficult, but crucial, claim to understand.

Why is it so hard to understand?

Consider ‘Elementalism’: the thesis that reality must consist of some kind or category of element as fundamental; other entities are either derivative composites of those elements or logical constructions out of them. The properties of elements and the relations among them ground, without remainder, the properties of the derivative or constructed entities.

Our contemporary commitment to elementalism is so deep that it next to impossible for us to discern that there is an alternative.

But examples of entities that cannot be made sense of, either as derivative from their elements, or logical constructions out of them, abound. I’m one. (So are you: I’m nothing special.)

My liver is as dependent on me as my shadow is. The only difference is that, absent me, nothing remains of my shadow, but a shmiver remains of my liver.

So there was a single entity standing on the scale this morning, and that’s what the scale was weighing. It was weighing me.

(Well, that’s a relief!)

The difficult question, of course, is how we should state the relation between me, my steaks/joints/giblets, and my elementary particles.

One description adopts a ‘mereological nihilist’ stance towards the relation. That is, appeal to organs is necessary to explain the powers of the whole substance; but this appeal is epistemic, not ontological. The claim that I can do things ‘because of’ my liver is a statement in a factitious scheme of classification of my powers – a bit oversimplified perhaps, but helpful. For example, it would be silly to say that I hit an 8-iron ‘because of’ my liver. But as a point of ontology, not explanation, it’s just as true.

On a stronger version of this view I do have organs, but strictly speaking those organs are not parts. At each level the independent reality of the composing entities gets subsumed by the reality of the simple entity with the relevant powers. The substance grounds the reality of the organs. Organisms extrude their organs as logical constructions.

This is an intellectually respectable thesis. (We can, I think, stipulate that a philosophical thesis intellectually respectable to someone as smart as Thomas Aquinas is an intellectually respectable philosophical thesis.) I find it attractive and am thinking hard about ways to support it.

The problem with it continues to be the difficulty that bothered early modern philosophers too. Such ‘formalist’ explanatory strategies seem to make substances resistant to the analytical methods of science. As Leibniz mordantly put it,
It is as if we were content to say that a clock has a quality of clockness derived from its form without considering in what all of this consists; that would be sufficient for the person who buys the clock, provided that he turns over its care to another.
University of Texas philosopher Robert Koons proposes a second description: I am indeed a composite entity, not a simple one. At each level my parts, considered just in themselves, have certain powers (shmivers weigh 3½ pounds, reflect light, etc.) However, those parts (in virtue of their composition) have additional powers when functioning in a composite at a higher level.

On Koons’s view, then, shmivers do have the power to filter toxins. Or rather, they have the-power-to-have-the-power, in association with the other organs. The persistence of the organism is dependent at each moment on the exercise of its organs’ ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ powers. On the other hand, the power a shmiver has only in association with the other parts, the powers of a liver, is dependent on the persistence of the organism.

My liver is every bit as real as me. So we can explain in an analytical fashion how livers work in the body, and Leibniz’s difficulty is solved.

Tom Pyne
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy


  1. Tom, thanks for this further development of your formalist thinking. We've discussed this in previous posts, so my response will come as no surprise to you. In the case of your weight, the scale is measuring the acceleration of a lump of matter in a gravitational field. The matter can be described in different ways for different explanatory purposes. (I'm not sure any of these is Tom Pyne, or even Tom Pyne, minus the mass of his waste products at a certain time/date/location, since Tom Pyne is a process, and never properly described as a lump of matter.) I do agree with you that to accept an explanation is to accept the existence of the entities posited within it. But I don't agree that in addition to an electron bound to a proton there is an ontologically distinct entity called a hydrogen atom (despite the fact that atoms do independent explanatory labor.) That your theory implies otherwise strikes me as a reductio.

    But here is a different question: Does your view fit better with Christian metaphysics? Specifically, does it give me a better reason than my own to hope that Tom Pyne is an eternal entity? Note that I am not asking if this is a reason you find it attractive, but just whether this is true.

    1. Randy,

      Some quick responses:

      You “don’t agree that in addition to an electron bound to a proton there is an ontologically distinct entity called a hydrogen atom…”

      Geez, I never know when we’re agreeing and when we’re not.

      On the mereological nihilist view I’m attracted to, the one I called the ‘first description,’ I don’t think so either. There is the hydrogen atom, an ontological simple; the subatomic thingies are, to use a weasel-word, ‘virtual’.

      Organisms are processes? I though I was the revisionist metaphysician here!

      Regarding being an eternal entity, in either the mereological nihilist version or Koons’s version, I am an organism, an animal, and have the persistence conditions of an animal. Whether that’s more or less consistent with Christian metaphysics is a question I haven’t thought enough about, though Aquinas holds a similar view. It’s also held by prominent Catholic philosophers like Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Geach, Edward Feser, and Robert Koons himself. On the other hand, non-Catholic philosophers like Richard Swinburne and Plantinga seem to be Platonistic substance dualists. Peter van Inwagen, a Episcopalian, considers himself a Christian materialist regarding the natural world.

      The attraction of the formalist metaphysics for me is (being as honest about one’s own views as a compulsively self-questioning person like me can be) independent of the fact that I’m on Team Aquinas.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Your post brings to mind Eddington's "Two Tables" quandary, in which he ruminated over how one and the same thing (his writing table) could be both the ordinary object of common sense, and the extraordinary object described by quantum physics. My take on Eddington's dilemma has always been 'both descriptions are true, depending on what you want to do with them.' Are you looking to write a note to a friend? Then the common sense desk will suffice. Are you looking to calculate how much fuel the table will provide for your Mr. Fusion drive on your time-traveling Delorean? Then you need the quantum table. Neither is more 'real' than the other, it all depends on what we want out of it.

    I'm curious if this same strategy can be applied to your case here. If I'm tracking things right, my view would be something like this: whether or not it is more apt to say 'your liver filters toxins' or 'you filter toxins' depends on why we're asking the question and what we want from an answer.

    For example, if there is a medical problem and your liver's function is declining we need to diagnose and locate the problem. Is the problem isolated in your liver (say, a tumor)? If so, we would say 'your liver is having problems filtering blood.' This tells us where we need to focus our attention: the liver (or if you prefer, 'shmiver'). Is the problem is more systematic (say, a bloodborne autoimmune disease like hepatitis) then it would be more accurate to say 'you are having problems filtering your blood.' Again, this tells us where to focus our attention: on the whole organism (including possibly behavioral patterns of the organism that may ameliorate or exacerbate the condition.)

    We don't have to commit ourselves, tout court, to any mereological view one way or the other to address and make sense of liver disease. Are there any problems, other than the mereological mystery itself, that we can't resolve this way? Perhaps, as Randy has suggested, there are religious or theological problems that your view can parse better than mine. But given our differences on the topic of religion, I hope you can anticipate that resolving such problems won't really come as a selling point to me. So are there any non-merological, non-theological problems that you think your view can make better sense of?

    If not, I'm inclined to say there really is no mystery here at all. The appearance of one happened because (to steal a phrase from Wittgenstein) 'language has gone on holiday.'

    Perhaps this strikes you as 'mereological nihilism', but I would instead see it as 'mereological pragmatism.' Without an independent problem to solve, why conjure a quandary out of nothing? Even if we solve it, what difference does it make to anything, beyond the quandary itself?

    1. Hi Garrett.
      Thank you for your challenging comments! Let me try to respond to your most important criticism: That there is no mystery here.

      You ask, “Why conjure a problem out of nothing? Even if we solve it, what difference does it make to anything, beyond the quandary itself?”

      A contemporary critic of Zeno could with equal justification have said, “There’s no mystery here. Achilles will pass the tortoise. Arrows hit targets all the time. Relax and have some souvlaki.”

      I think there is a real mystery here beyond my silly angst about bathroom scales. It is indeed related, as you suggest, to Eddington’s ‘Two Tables’ problem, but it’s really the deeper problem that drives Eddington’s: the problem of composition.

      But let’s stay with Eddington’s for a minute. Your take on that dilemma is: “Both descriptions are true, depending on what you want to do with them.” Adopting this pragmatic stance is not a way to opt out of metaphysics. Pragmatism is a metaphysics: a form of antirealism. But the pragmatist claim that we can frame no thought of what is the case independent of our own cognitive practices bumps up against a stubborn fact: our natural cognitive capacities place us in intentional relations (tokened in demonstrative and indexical thought) with a real, external world that is not of our construction, and which transcends our ability to encompass within those practices. So if instead of writing a letter to a friend or refueling your time machine, you want to inquire into how physics and common sense both refer to one unified natural world, you will still be faced with the Two Tables.

      My own suspicion about Zeno is that he would have been perfectly willing to concede that things move. And he would have been unsatisfied with the pragmatic response: “If you’re philosophizing in the Stoa it’s true that things don’t move; but if you’re judging a race it’s true that things move.” He wanted a description of the objective world in which an infinite series of finite distances was not itself infinite, and where an arrow moving zero feet in zero seconds can be in motion. I think his challenge was, “Give me the concepts that show it’s possible!

    2. Continuing my comments...

      Now that I think about it, Zeno posed the problem of composition too, in his ‘paradox of increase.’ How can I get bigger (fatter) by adding parts?

      Consider the traditional responses to the paradox.

      First, Reduction: I’m just the aggregate of elements. Therefore, I’m never the same from one moment to the next. Reductionism as a program has lost favor in light of Kripke’s devastating modal objections.

      Second, Supervenience: I supervene on certain arrangements of elements, but which elements form my base can be contingent. This preserves my separate reality at the price of denying me any causal efficacy. Everything that happens happens at the elemental level. I am an epiphenomenon. The fat just happens to me!

      Third, Emergence: I am an emergent entity from certain arrangements of elements. As such I have independent causal powers that are not the sum of the powers of my elemental base. Not everything happens at the elemental level; some things happen at the level of me. But this is substance dualism. A besetting problem with dualism is the multiplication of causes. Now, if I eat the Ben & Jerry’s the resulting adipose tissue has two causes: the elements, and me. Indeed, there will be causes at every level: elemental, chemical, biological, physiological… Everything that happens is multiply, incoherently, over-oomphed.

      Fourth, Elimination: Back to Democritus: reality is just atoms and void. As James Ross once remarked in another context, “Now, that’s expensive!”

      Elementalist assumptions about composition are, I would argue, what has made progress in some areas of contemporary philosophy implausibly difficult.

      Philosophy of mind seems like epistemology during the 1960’s: a sterile rehearsing of well-entrenched positions, with the arguments and counterarguments knowable six moves in advance. Able philosophers have thrown up their hands and concluded that there is no solution – or more precisely, no solution cognitively accessible to us. Might this not suggest that it’s past time to give the assumptions under which the mock battles are being conducted a quick, unsparing audit? The problem of free will and determinism is another.

      My little essay on weight is an encouragement to enlarge our philosophical toolkit, to see if an alternative set of concepts might help us make progress.

      Does that make sense?

  3. I’m not convinced that livers and shmivers have different powers. Here’s a seemingly sensible view: powers are dispositions, and objects have dispositions even when they are not in the conditions that ground those dispositions. A poison is still lethal when sitting in a bottle on the shelf, for example, even though it will only kill under other conditions, such as when swallowed by someone who has not built up an immunity, taken an antidote, etc.

    Similarly, your liver has the power to filter toxins, because it is disposed to do so under the right conditions: when hooked up to an appropriate organism. But this is also true of your shmiver. When hooked up to an organism, it also has the power to filter toxins. It won’t do this while sitting by itself on a table, but then neither will your liver. But this doesn’t mean that either of them merely has the power-to-have-the-power to filter toxins, because having the power to filter toxins just is being disposed to do so under a certain set of conditions. Even the power to reflect light is not a power that your liver/shmiver can exercise under all conditions—there has to be some light to reflect.

    This still gets you where you want to go, though. You have various powers because you are disposed to do things under the right conditions (possessing all of your various bits), and your organs have various powers because they are disposed to do things under the right conditions (being a part of you).

    1. Hi Brandon!

      You’ve put your finger on one of the controversial features of the view I advocate in the post.

      The terminology of 'dispositions’ formed an element in a strategy for supplanting one fundamental explanatory paradigm, Aristotelian/Scholastic formalism, with another, Galilean elementalism, as part of the program we now call the ‘Scientific Revolution.’

      A ‘disposition’ is expressible as a counterfactual conditional:
      If P were to be the case, then Q would be the case

      Being toxic is a disposition. Suppose stuff S is toxic.

      That gets parsed as: If S were to be ingested, then S would harm the body.

      Dispositional attributions are generally neutral regarding what makes the counterfactual true. Indeed, the truthmakers of counterfactuals were a matter of vigorous philosophical debate during the 20th century. Generally the account of what makes dispositions true appeals to some non-dispositional, categorical base (chemical composition, for instance). Then you appeal to a law of nature, or conjunction of laws of nature.

      So: (i) This stuff is X. (ii) it is a law of nature that X harms the body. Consequently, (iii) if it were to be ingested, it would harm the body.

      So on this dispositional + nomological view you are entirely correct that this is what we mean by S ‘has the power’ to harm the body, or S ‘causes’ harm.

      But that’s not what ‘power’ means on the view I put forward. That view holds the reverse. Powers are not explained by dispositions; rather, powers both ground the truth of the counterfactuals and constitute the real content of the laws. Laws of nature are idealized summaries of the powers of objects to act and be acted upon.

      Which is just as well, because if you take the laws of nature to be the fundamental explainer you’re left with the embarrassing fact that they’re idealizations, and thus all false.

      As my post indicated, I’m inclined to the view that shmivers don’t have the power to filter toxins, only livers do. In contrast, on a view like Koons’s, shmivers really are livers, since filtering toxins is a ‘secondary’ power shmivers have.

  4. Tom,
    While I'm late to this particular party, I think that my question is different enough from the others here to justify popping it in:

    Suppose a person (like me) is sympathetic to the picture you propose here. What's the best way for them to 'draw the line' as it were, with the whole-ish entities whose powers are real, and the part-ish entities whose powers are merely derivative? After all, there are many levels in the merelological totem pole, and human organisms are not necessarily at the top, as far as I can tell.

    Take a simple example: marriage. Someone once said in this context, "they are no longer two but one." The "they" was referring to the male husband and the female wife. Is it fair to consider whether this statement has a sort of literal, metaphysical truth to it?

    I wonder similar things about other mereological groupings in which human organisms have traditionally played "the part."

    1. I apologize for taking so long to respond, Russell.

      With a view like Koons’, in which components are as real as what they compose, it’s less urgent to produce a principled way to answer your question (though an answer will still be required).

      With the view I’m drawn to it’s really pressing, since the price of being a component is non-existence. Shmivers can be subsumed into organisms. Organisms are independent substances. Can there be, in turn, an aggregation of independent organisms that yields a single whole substance which subsumes them?

      I don’t see why not.

      Poul Anderson’s wonderful novel, The Rebel Worlds, takes place on a planet where three species of minimally sapient organisms, something like a rhinoceros, something like an eagle, and something like a chimp, can perform what might be called ‘circumstantial symbiosis.’ One of each can combine to form a fully sapient, intelligent person greater than the sum of its constituents. So there is a possible intelligent person for every combination of three organisms, though not all of them are actual. A crisis occurs which requires that a particular trio, who rarely combine, do so to produce an especially wise and foreseeing individual who helps resolve the issue of the story.

      But I don’t think that’s what happens on our planet, despite Jesus’ suggestive scriptural language in Mark’s gospel: “And they two shall be one flesh: so then they are no more two, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8) In order for that to be so, there would have to be some unity-in-powers which doesn’t seem to be present in marriage. Couples become close, ecstatically close, but there is no ‘unity of apperception’ that would be required for a higher level organism.

      So I take Jesus’ words to be metaphorical. This view seems supported by Paul’s reproof to the Corinthians that the use of a prostitute makes you ‘one body’ too. (1 Cor 6:16)