Parts and wholes

Salih asks:

I had an argument with a friend of mine concerning part whole relation, he argues that there cannot be any entity with parts because of a contradiction. Nothing can be many things (so only unities can exist) so for example he says an animal cannot be one for it has diverse parts and so one part say a wing cannot be a hand for it will cease to be a wing and nothing can be many things so nothing can unite these things. So how should I reply?

Answer from Craig Skinner

Ah, you and your friend have started a discussion on mereology (the logic of parts and wholes) and are touching on the special composition question, gerrymandered objects and mereological nihilism.

But I wont go into any of that here. You and your friend will get round to it if you keep going.

How should you reply, you ask.

To keep things going I suggest you tell your friend you wont listen to him because he doesnt exist. He is a (human) animal, having diverse parts, and so, by his own admission, not a unity and therefore non-existent. Ask him, too, why he bothers to argue with you since he knows you dont exist either. It may help your exchange if you agree that, although you dont exist, being just a collection of parts (ultimately fundamental particles) arranged Salih-wise, and he is just particles arranged friend-of-Salih-wise, you can pretend to exist.

It’s hard work, though, pretending to exist when you dont, and so, worn out with it, I’ll settle the Craigwise-arranged particles in my favourite easychairwise particle arrangement, and leave you and your friend to get on with it till you get things clear.

Asking the Big Questions

Ross Campbell asks:

I’m a graduate in philosophy and I wish to write a book in philosophy. The title I have in mind is “Why philosophy matters: Asking the Big Questions”. I’m looking for advice as to whether this is a good theme for a book and what topics I should include in the book. I welcome any advice. Thanks.

Answer from Craig Skinner

I applaud your ambition.

I answer as a potential reader, rather than as a writer. My own writings comprise scientific and medical papers and the occasional book chapter, and more recently, philosophy articles and editorials online. No book.

Your book sounds as if it’s intended for educated general readers. If considering buying your book, I would ask myself if it adds anything to existing titles. So I suggest you read (maybe you have) these 3 recent short books on the same theme:

Ultimate Questions (2016) Bryan Magee

What is philosophy for (2018) Mary Midgeley

What is philosophy and Why Study It? the Case for Relevance (2020) Max Malikow

Proceed if you feel you can add something or do it better.

As for title, it’s OK, a bit ho hum (yawn), Magee and Midgeley are snappier, but at least it tells us the content. Cynics of course will say, these people forever ask the questions, never answer them.

Content will include:

What exists?  matter, the external world, selves, God, free will, numbers, possibilities, causes etc

What can we know? what is knowledge, can we be certain, scepticism, limits (Godel, Heisenberg), logics etc

How should we live? ethics (meta-, systems, practical), philosophy as ways of life etc

Good luck. I hope you get a perspective from those who have written books, especially successful ones.

More on too much philosophy

Saleh asks:

How to stop thinking philosophically about everything? I feel that instead of enjoying life and the things around me I put so much energy and time analyzing them and looking for explanations like thinking in terms of of Aristotle’s causes or in terms of part-whole relations and so many ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. So how to lose interest in that or at least how to learn not to put so put so much energy and time on it?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Geoffrey Klempner has given a brilliant answer. I agree with all he says.

I just want to add one comment.

One reason people may be put off philosophy is that the subject sometimes seems remote from everyday life. Modern academic philosophy is a specialized, technical field with journal articles opaque to the general reader or even to other philosophers working in different branches of the subject. And  I can understand that the average student might wilt during the seminar on alternatives to material implication as truth conditions for counterfactual conditionals, and head for a fun evening with friends as soon as it’s over.

But philosophy wasnt always a subject for essays, exams and degrees.

How should we live? That was the central question for the ancient greats, with Socrates, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans and Neoplatonists (and the greats of Indian and Chinese philosophy) offering different, overlapping views. They all assumed cosmic order within which humanity had a proper place, and the task was to define that place. But this was overtaken in the West by Christianity, which imposed its own vision of how we should live. However, it has resurfaced, especially in Continental philosophy, since the “death of God” but without the assumption of cosmic order, so that the question has become, not how should we live, but how might we live, the central concern of Deleuze, Derrida or Foucault. If there are no constraints due to preordained cosmic order or fixed human nature (I dont say I agree with this), then we can improvise and experiment with ways of living, and not just understand, but change, the world, maybe for the better.

At any rate, philosophy as a way of life is back on the table, whether Socratic, Stoic, Aristotelian, Deleuzian, Nagarjunian or whatever, and Geoffrey and Pathways has done much to promote the idea that philosophy is for everybody and is central to worthwhile human life.

Death of Socrates

Stephanie asks:

  1. Pick a famous death.
  2. Pick a philosopher: either Camus, Locke, Epicurus or Plato.
  3. Why did you choose the philosopher you did? What is you initial feeling about what they would say about the famous death.

Answer by Craig Skinner

I’ll be brief, and quick since you ask for my initial (not my considered) feelings.

1. Socrates.

2. Plato.

3 (a) most famous and greatest of the four and pupil of Socrates.

(b) Camus: would say it was an admirable death. Socrates was authentic (existentialists like this); and Camus liked suicide as an option.

 Locke: disagreed with Socrates’ implicit social contract and elite rulers, preferring his own explicit contract and majority rule. Would have said Socrates should have taken the chance when he had it to escape death, go abroad and keep his head down.

 Epicurus: agreed with Socrates that death was not to be feared, although Epicurus thought death was annihilation, Socrates thought it a blessing.

 Plato: the death was pretty much murder by the state (Socrates was outspoken and made enemies), plus Socrates was honourable, accepting the city’s judgment, but refusing to stop his philosophical dialogues in public places.

Things and their properties

Saleh asks:

Aristotle said matter is the ultimate subject of predicates but it cannot exist on its own without any predicate or form for it would be nothing but still we need it as the substratum for predication. My question is why cannot there be a pure subject without any predicate?

Or alternatively why cannot we have a predicate existing as thing without any substratum? Why subject and predicate must go hand in hand?

Answer by Craig Skinner

We agree that the everyday physical world consists of things + properties (subjects+predicates in your terminology; substances+ accidents in Aristotle’s).

So your first question is why cant we have a thing with no properties? If we say a thing is the bearer of its properties, and strip away all the properties, we are left with a bare particular as the substratum. But what kind of entity could this be? If the substratum has no properties whatsoever, we could exchange the substrata of a dog and a stone say, and add all the properties back in. But now the entity with all the dog properties is really a stone. Absurd. An alternative view is the bundle theory which says that a thing just is all of its properties: take these away and there is nothing left. But, in that case, what is it that binds these properties together to make a particular thing? I think the substratum theory and the bundle theory are incoherent. No, the bearer of the properties is the thing itself, which is prime matter (potential) taking the form of that particular thing, as Aristotle says.

Aristotle correctly called a thing (substance) a “being in itself”, a self-standing item which cant be predicated (or be a property) of anything else. A property (predicate, accident, quality), on the other hand, can only be “present in another” i.e. as a feature of a thing. By definition a property is not, and cant be, a thing. Thus you never come across a big or a black or an old, there always has to be a big, black or old something. Plato, by the way, thought that properties in the everyday world were instances of universals which exist in another heavenly world of Forms. So the black in my cat instantiates the Form of the Black (blackness). Even if every black thing in the world were destroyed, the Form of the Black would remain, just uninstantiated. But Aristotle thought blackness existed only as and in its instances. “Goodbye to the Forms, for they are nonsense” he said. I’m with Aristotle — properties exist in things, not prior to them, in rebus rather than ante rem, as the philosophers of old put it.

Finally, Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality/ actuality, substance/ accidents, matter/ form, essence/ existence, and four causes/ causal powers is increasingly recognized as the framework underlying physics and biology, after a long period of misrepresentation and neglect beginning with early moderns such as Hobbes, Descartes and Locke, and I’m pleased you’re interested in it.

The ontological argument

Donna asks:

Could you summarize the logic of the Ontological proof?

Answer by Craig Skinner

The ontological argument has been flogged to death but just wont lie down. Anselm’s original was dismissed by Aquinas because it confuses a true semantic claim “God (necessarily) exists” (true by definition of the word “God”) with a possibly false existential claim “(Necessarily) God exists”, a simple logical fallacy (changing the scope of the modal operator from de re to de dicto, to be technical about it). Then Kant dismissed the argument on the grounds that “existence” is not a property which an entity may or may not possess, but a prerequisite for an entity to have any properties at all.

I shall deal with the modern version of the argument.
As ever we define God as a necessarily existing being, then proceed:

P1. If God exists his existence is necessary.
P2. If God doesnt exist his existence is impossible.
P3. Hence God’s existence is either necessary or impossible.
P4. God’s existence is possible (not impossible).
P5. Hence God’s existence is necessary.
Conclusion: God exists.

But note, the argument just as readily “proves” God’s nonexistence:

P1. If God is nonexistent his nonexistence is necessary.
P2. If God isnt nonexistent his nonexistence is impossible.
P3. Hence God’s nonexistence is either necessary or impossible.
P4. God’s nonexistence is possible (not impossible).
P5. Hence God’s nonexistence is necessary.
Conclusion: God is nonexistent.

The problem is P4. It begs the question. Clearly God’s existence (nonexistence) is only possible if he exists (doesnt exist). All we can really conclude is that if God exists his existence is necessary, if he doesnt his existence is impossible, but we dont know whether God exists or not.

What makes a chair a chair

Acer asks:

What makes a chair a chair?

Answer by Craig Skinner

I assume you speak of the furniture item rather than the person in charge of a meeting or organization.

What makes a chair a chair is (as with all other things) that it matches the relevant definition, description, specification, concept or meaning, in this case:

“A seat for one person that has a back, usually four legs, and sometimes two arms”.

This definition is wide enough to include armchairs, pushchairs and wheelchairs. There will be borderline cases like deckchairs, but whether we include these is just a matter of stipulation.

End of story you might think. But no, Plato wanted more. Instead of a thing simply matching a definition or concept, for him it matched the relevant Form or Idea. All chairs in the everyday (sensible) world are imperfect instances of the perfect Form of a Chair which exists in the (intelligible) world of Forms. So what makes a chair a chair is that it is an imperfect copy, or instance, of the chair Form, it partakes of that Form. For Plato the world of Forms was more real than the everyday world which contains only imperfect copies. Notice that the Form is logically prior to the instances — if all chairs in the world were destroyed, the chair Form would still exist, only uninstantiated. And similarly with qualities, so that all red things, say, are instances of the Form of Redness, and so on.

Aristotle said the Forms were nonsense: of course, he said, the thing we’re talking about has the form of a chair, but its form exists in the chair itself, and so with all other chairs, so that if all chairs were destroyed, there would be no such form, and similarly if all red things were destroyed, no redness would exist.

I’m with Aristotle — forms and qualities exist in things, not prior to them, in rebus rather than ante rem, as the philosophers of old put it.

We’re not quite finished. Never mind whether chairs have their form intrinsically or copied from the perfect Form existing in a heavenly realm, some modern philosophers declare that chairs dont exist at all, really there exist only “particles arranged chairwise”. Why, they say, should we privilege the particles arranged “chairwise” as being a thing but not, say, the particles arranged as “my nose + the Taj Mahal + the moon”. No, they say, there are no composite objects such as chairs, otherwise we must accept crazy, gerrymandered objects like the nose-Taj Mahal-moon. Only the fundamental particles (whatever they turn out to be) exist. Awkwardly, this means you dont exist, only “particles arranged Acerwise”, but we can still talk about chairs, plants , planets and people as if they existed. Some of us (myself for one) find it hard to accept that we dont exist (but can still think, Descartes would  surely consider we were joking). However, it seems to me, that if we agree particles exist and can be arranged chairwise, why not just say that matter has taken the form of a chair, or a human, or whatever, and we’re back to Aristotle’s view that a thing is a bit of prime matter taking a substantial form. As is often the case, Aristotle gets it right.

And now, worn out with not existing, I’ll settle the Craigwise-arranged particles in my favourite easychairwise particle arrangement.