Does Mereological Nihilism Entail Atomism?

If somebody is a mereological nihilist they do not believe in ‘composite objects’ as things which really exist – they would say that the designations of ‘tables’ and ‘chairs’, ‘mountains’ and ‘bears’ are all simply conventional names for particular organizations of matter. This is called nominalism. However, presumably the nominalist believes, at least if she is anything like a materialist, that all objects to which we can ostensibly refer are composite objects. Composed of what? The corpuscularian doctrine of the early Empiricists answered by postulating a corpuscle, which was actually a physical atom. Here, it has to be understood that “physical-atom” is a philosophical term, and doesn’t refer to what physicists today call an ‘atom’. The word means indivisible, thus the concept is one of an indivisible smallest constituent particle of matter.

However, Leibniz famously offered a modal argument against the possibility of a physical atom, since any object extended in space must be in principle divisible (it must be logically possible, even if not physically possible, to divide such an object). Therefore (assuming we accept his argument), since there is no unit of matter smaller than which no unit of matter can be, how can there be any material composites? Any composite object must be ‘composed’, but composed of what? – If there are not true ‘atoms’, then there is simply an infinite regress of smaller composite parts. If, however, there must be some ‘basic units’, then it seems they cannot be physical – thus it seems the only logically possible option is that they be ‘substances’, or immaterial atoms.

In order to avoid calling composite objects subjects/substances (properly related to predicates), the nominalist must be a mereological nihilist, and they must hide behind a sort of physicalism or materialism which takes for granted that there are ‘atoms’. However, since physical atoms are not logically possible, something must be wrong with mereological nihilism. Nominalism, therefore, is metaphysically absurd precisely because it is stuck with an infinite regress of composite parts for any composite object. This is a good argument to think that something is wrong with nominalism in general. However, the Naturalist seems to have no option other than some kind of nominalism; therefore, naturalism is not true. A possible escape from this would be an idealist metaphysic, which I note many intelligent Naturalists already adopt. Therefore my argument probably only works to defeat materialism.

Notice that this charge I am throwing against Naturalism circumvents any discussion about bundle-theory; instead my concern is not with language and predication, but metaphysics.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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2 Responses to Does Mereological Nihilism Entail Atomism?

  1. “they would say that the designations of ‘tables’ and ‘chairs’, ‘mountains’ and ‘bears’ are all simply conventional names for particular organizations of matter.”

    I think that’s not quite right, since that would commit the mereological nihilist to a belief in composite organizations of matter, which the nihilist denies, since the nihilist does not believe in anything composite.

    Rather, the nihilist has two moves. She might say “There are tables” is false. That’s too harsh. So, better, she might do something like this: “The correct semantics for ‘There are tables’ is that it is true if and only if, and if so because and if no then because not, there are (plural quantification) simples that are arranged tablewise.” Thus, the “are” in “There are tables” is to be understood analogically, non-literally, non-focally, or the like.

    Nonetheless, you’re right that the nihilist has to believe in simples. But why is that a problem? Maybe the simples are in space but not extended. Or maybe they are extended but indivisible–I don’t see how divisibility follows from extension. I suppose it’s tempting to say that if an object is extended so that it occupies two places, then it has a part in one place and a part in the other place. But the nihilist simply denies that.

    • Thanks for those thoughts. I have two things to say in response. The first is that I conditioned the whole argument on accepting Leibniz’ modal argument against physical atoms (by which he means extended & simple objects). In other words I was inviting the reader to suspend precisely the criticism you raise to the argument ‘for the sake of argument’. I myself have gone back and forth on the modal status of his argument, and I’ve posted about that before; nevertheless I find the more I think it over the more convinced I am that Leibniz’ criticism of something which is extended and indivisible is a conceptual mistake. For Leibniz it is always possible to conceptually divide an extended object, even if not physically possible, and being the rationalist that he is he considers that conceptual possibility alone demonstrates that one cannot say of anything extended that it is simple. Now, suppose somebody were to object by saying that some physical atom simply cannot be divided – in virtue of what can it not be divided? It is either by virtue of our physical inability to divide it, or it is by virtue of it’s being not logically possible to divide it. If it is merely the case that we cannot physically divide it then it seems a trivial fact about it that we cannot divide it. However, for it to be ‘not logically possible’ to divide it it must be the kind of thing which we cannot conceive of dividing – but anything extended in space can always, in virtue of extension, be conceived as divided. Perhaps the objector would suggest that space is comprised of units smaller than which no units of space can be, but that (I intuit) is simply a misconception of space. I am less attracted to that idea than I am to the idea of Chronons.

      Now, if the nihilist claims that there are physical simples which are simply not extended, then it seems that their non-extended simple thing, which presumably cannot contribute to the composition of composite objects in the same way that a brick contributes to the composition of a house, is not relevantly far off from Leibniz’ monad. Perhaps not, as physics is a much more mysterious field than it appeared to be in the hands of the early modern mechanistic ideologues – but I would want to press the nihilist willing to admit of a simple substance (or ‘thing’) which contributes to the composition of composite objects in an analogous way to the way mathematical points contribute to line segments (as I have argued in another place; “Mathematical points… are similar to monads only insofar as they act as the precondition for the existence of line segments”). I would want to build a case for substance realism once she (the nihilist) has left naive materialism behind. I didn’t append such arguments here, but I think I probably could go some distance in that direction if the nihilist objected in the way you here suggest.

      Finally, when you say that it isn’t quite right to say of the mereological nihilist that they do believe in composite organizations of matter, is that just to say that the mereological nihilist cannot subscribe to bundle-theory? I’m not sure I see why not – maybe you could clarify that for me and set me straight.

      Thanks again for the comments.

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