The “Vacuity” objection to ‘Substances’

Substances are predicate-bearers. Yesterday I found myself in a philosophical discussion with a friend online who argued that to say that something has a Substance or has the property of being predicate-bearing was vacuous, since if two different substances had all and only the same predicates they would not only be indistinguishable, but identical. I argued that such a critique was based on the principle of the identity of indiscernibles, though I myself accept that principle (tentatively). However, his argument was pressed in the following way: he argued that the claim that there could be a distinction between two things in light not of predicates/properties but in light only of being discrete substances was entirely vacuous to him. At first blush it seemed to me that we fundamentally disagreed, but on further reflection I do think that it is vacuous to say that two substances can be differentiated, or even can be different, by some reason other than at least one antithetic predicate between them. It is not logically possible for at least two predicates in the same logically possible world to share all and only the same predicates.

So, the ‘substance’ is not something to which one can ostensibly point (in any manner of speaking), and thus it is not something by reason of which differentiation can be either observed or conceived. However, does this entail that substances do not exist, since they do not differentiate one thing from another? No, I think not.

It is not logically possible that predicates exist without belonging to predicate bearers (i.e., that the world have properties without having any ‘things’ to which belong properties). So long as Leibniz was right about this, that it is incoherent to imagine a world without substances (things, predicate-bearers, etc.), then even if one cannot differentiate one thing/substance from another merely by it’s being not the same substance as the other (independent of considerations having to do with its predicates), one cannot go the other way and argue that substances do not exist. It is not coherent to posit that in some logically possible world there are not things/substances – or more precisely it is incoherent to argue that in some logically possible world there is not at least one substance/thing.

It must be observed that there is no such thing as ‘having’ a substance, nor can ‘substance’ ever stand in the place of a predicate. Rather some thing is some substance, and a substance is just a predicate-bearing thing (to avoid circularity, a predicate-bearer). We cannot conceptually differentiate one thing from another by imagining two discrete substances simpliciter, but can only differentiate substances by imagining different predicates. However, we can’t do away with the category as vacuous since it is not possible to conceive of properties except by presupposing substances (i.e., literally not logically possible). Differentiation and Identity are concepts inexorably bound up with predicates, but without substances even Differentiation and Identity are incoherent ideas, because predicates cannot be conceived of as anything but properties possibly had by a thing/substance.

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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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3 Responses to The “Vacuity” objection to ‘Substances’

  1. “However, we can’t do away with the category as vacuous since it is not possible to conceive of properties except by presupposing substances (i.e., literally not logically possible).”

    I conceive of properties as actual or anticipated patterns of sensation, where “property bearers” are simply indefinitely large bundles of other correlated sensations.

    Hmm, the principle of explosion doesn’t seem to have rent the universe in two…

    • With respect, I don’t think that you do (at least, I don’t think you do coherently). Here’s how my thinking goes: sensation or experience is not a brute fact. The sufficient reason for x experience is some noumena (or set of noumena) x1. Properties cannot be had by properties (except in a manner of speaking, but one cannot posit metaphysically that there are properties without positing that there are property-bearers or ‘subjects’). If there are properties then there are substances. There are properties. Therefore there are substances.

      To my mind, bundle-theory is completely meaningless. What would it mean to say that a property is had by an aggregate of properties which are each had by an aggregate of properties which are each had by an aggregate of properties which are (et cetera ad infinitum). If there are properties then there are substances, properties inhere substances.

      This is probably the real difference: I think that it is not logically possible to have phenomena without noumena, and I think it is logically possible to have noumena without phenomena. The sufficient reason for phenomena is noumena. The sufficient reason for noumena which are contingent is some incontingent being, and you can imagine how the rest goes.

      Perhaps I should ask you this: do you think that relations are ontologically prior to their relata? (I may have asked you this in the past, I can’t recall). Also, do you think it is logically possible to have phenomena without any noumena (that there is a logically possible world etc.)?

      • With respect, I don’t think that you do (at least, I don’t think you do coherently). Here’s how my thinking goes: sensation or experience is not a brute fact.

        I don’t see why not.

        The sufficient reason for x experience is some noumena (or set of noumena) x1.

        I find the concept of noumena incoherent. It has no proper deployment conditions and performs no work in my world-model.

        If there are properties then there are substances. There are properties. Therefore there are substances.

        Only by question-beggingly adopting the very vocabulary whose legitimacy is the subject of the dispute.

        To my mind, bundle-theory is completely meaningless. What would it mean to say that a property is had by an aggregate of properties which are each had by an aggregate of properties which are each had by an aggregate of properties which are (et cetera ad infinitum).

        It means, like Pavlov’s dogs, we associate sensations, and a property is just a rule for associating those sensations. To say fire has the property of being hot is just to expect a certain painful sensation to be associated with touching certain flickering sensations etc.

        This is probably the real difference: I think that it is not logically possible to have phenomena without noumena, and I think it is logically possible to have noumena without phenomena.

        I think it is not meaningful to say anything one way or another about noumena, since by definition we have are infinitely and eternally isolated from any such alleged entities.

        Perhaps I should ask you this: do you think that relations are ontologically prior to their relata?

        I am reasonably sure I have a grasp on the concept of something being temporally prior to something else. I can then, by way of metaphor and analogy, make out what someone means when they deploy the concept of being “logically prior”. But I haven’t the slightest clue how to extend the metaphor to say whether something is or is not “ontologically prior, so I have no idea how to answer this question.

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