Puzzle about objects and identity

Inger asked:

The perdurantist solution to Lump and Goliath is OK. But suppose the lump and the statue are brought into existence at the same moment, and later also destroyed at the same time. What would the perdurantist say to this? And would it reinstate the appeal of the Two Object View of Wiggins?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

For the past half-hour I have been trying to think of a way to explain the problem to someone who has not studied analytic philosophy. I’m afraid that many of the people reading this will think that it is just silly, that philosophy students have just been brainwashed into thinking otherwise. (No comment.)

What is the problem? We live in a world which contains lots of ‘objects’. By that I mean things you can name, or recognize, or describe, or (sometimes) pick up, or own, or etc. If you had to describe your current situation, wherever you are, you could talk about the things you can see around you, where they are placed, and so on. I’m sitting at a thing called a ‘desk’, typing on a thing called a ‘keyboard’, looking at a thing called a ‘monitor’, and so on and so forth.

What I’ve just done is state the obvious. But it’s surprising how (seeming) philosophical problems can arise out of stating the obvious.

‘Goliath’ in your example is the name of a statue (of Goliath, although it could be a statue of Donald Trump, you can call the statue whatever you like). And although no sane person would normally do this, ‘Lump’ is the name of the stuff that Goliath is made of. Let’s say bronze.

(Maybe I am the owner of Lump and I lent it to a sculptor for a specified time to make a statue out of. The statue is subsequently sold. What happens when I ask for Lump back would make an interesting legal case.)

The logical problem starts when you realize that although you seem to be pointing to the ‘same thing’ when you point to Goliath, or to Lump, this leads to a contradiction. Because there were times when Lump existed and Goliath didn’t exist, and after Goliath is melted down and made into a different statute there will be times when Lump still exists and Goliath no longer exists. A thing can’t both exist and not exist at the same time!

So Lump and Goliath can’t simply be the ‘same object’. How do you describe the situation in a way that doesn’t lead to a contradiction? Surprise, surprise, there’s more than one way.

The view of David Wiggins (distinguished British philosopher) is that there are ‘really’ two objects, even though for some of the time they occupy the same space. (Oooh! I can hear you gasp.) The history of the object called ‘Lump’ is different from the history of the object called ‘Goliath’ even though for some of that time, the two histories run side by side. Goliath stands in your front hall way and so does Lump, in exactly the same place. No two objects could be closer!

Rubbish, says the perdurantist. What the example shows is that we have to consider existence as something that pertains to a ‘temporal part’ of an object. Lump is made up of temporal parts (Lump at 2.15pm on 16th February, Lump at 2.16pm on the 16th February and so on — you can cut this as finely as you like) and so is Goliath. While the temporal parts coincide they are simply parts of Lump-Goliath. You don’t have to distinguish between the Lump aspect and the Goliath aspect of a given temporal part. However, before Lump was made into Goliath, there were Lump temporal parts which were not Goliath parts. And similarly for after Lump is made into another statue.

So what? Why can’t we simply say what we like so long as we don’t get into a logical contradiction and so long as no factual information is lost? Some ways of talking are more cumbersome than others. Going back to your original situation when you are describing the things around you, it is natural to use the language of ‘objects that persist through time’ (Wiggins), and very unnatural (to say the least) to use the perdurantist language of ‘temporally extended object parts’. Then again, there might be more complex situations (like the Large Hadron Collider?) where it was more convenient to let go of the idea that we are talking about persisting objects because it gets too messy.

Actually, I think more could be said here, along the lines P.F. Strawson describes in his book Individuals: An essay in descriptive metaphysics (1959). The building blocks of our ‘conceptual scheme’ as Strawson calls it are ordinary spatio-temporal objects or ‘individuals’. We couldn’t even get started describing ‘temporally extended object parts’ if we weren’t first able to identify and re-identify these ordinary objects. Well, then, maybe it is a case of ‘bootstrapping’, where you start with a particular conceptual scheme and use it as a bootstrap to construct a better one (for some purpose, presumably scientific).

Your suggestion (finally) is that if Lump and Goliath are brought into existence and destroyed at the same time then… what, exactly? Let’s say you pour molten copper and tin into a Goliath mould. Then Lump and Goliath come into existence at the same time. Before the bronze existed, Lump didn’t exist, although its constituents did (you can make a problem about that if you want). If you dissolve Lump/ Goliath in acid then ‘they’ go out of existence at the same time (more or less). Well, then. In that case, the perdurantist (the one who said we should talk of ‘temporal parts’) has nothing to explain. Nor does Wiggins.

Then again, you might think that even though in your scenario Lump and Goliath have exactly the same history, there are counterfactual (contrary to fact) statements about what might have happened to Lump or to Goliath, by virtue of which we are still required to distinguish them. — If you insist. Honestly, I really don’t think it matters in the grand scheme of things.


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