Thursday, August 18, 2016

Naturalness vs. "Arbitrariness" and "Simplicity" in Mereology

There are three answers one can give to the question: "When does composition occur?"

(1) Always.
(2) Sometimes.
(3) Never.

The first view is something like David Lewis's view: Any plurality of objects composes a third. Hence, for example, there is an object consisting of Barack Obama, my left leg, an orange, and half of the beach in Santa Monica. (We could call it the BLOB.) This is the view encompassed in classical mereology.

The third view is something like Peter Van Inwagen's view in 'Material Beings'. This view holds that (with maybe a few very specific exceptions), there are not, literally, any composite objects. There are just "simples" -- atoms in the void, physically proximate to each other and arranged in various ways.

The second view encompasses all other possibilities. One of these possibilities is "common sense" ontology, or something like it. One such view might hold that things like physical organisms, tables and chairs, rocks, planets, stars, maybe even galaxies, etc. are composite objects. But not just any plurality of things constitutes an object on this view; for instance, there is definitely no object such as the BLOB.

One argument (I think due to Van Inwagen) says that (2) can be ruled out rather easily because it is arbitrary and/or overly complicated. Hence, we must choose between (1) and (3).

However, it seems to me that people who hold to (2) might argue that their ontology only encompasses what is natural; just as there is a distinction between natural properties (like 'having mass') and gerrymandered properties (like 'being Barack Obama-or-my leg-or-an orange-or-half of Santa Monica Beach'), there may well be a distinction between natural composites and gerrymandered composites. And just as one might choose to privilege the natural properties by saying they are the only ones that exist (as D.M. Armstrong does), so one might choose to privilege the natural composites by saying they are the only ones that exist.

Obviously more needs to be said than this and this view would need to be fleshed out. But I'm more interested in the methodological question, and all I need granted is that it is a distinction one could coherently use so as to avoid (1) or (3).

Now, people like Van Inwagen might (probably, would) respond to this view by claiming that it is arbitrary, that it multiplies distinctions, that the notion of "naturalness" is mysterious and vague, and so on.

But I think it is worth noting here an "arbitrariness" in this objection: Claiming that some entity is more natural than another (or, by extension, that one's theory is more natural) is no more mysterious than claims that that (2) is arbitrary and complex, and that (1) and (3) are non-arbitrary and more simple. Defining the sense in which (1) and (3) are "non-arbitrary" and "simpler" is no easier than defining the sense in which (2) is "more natural."

Frankly, simplicity and arbitrariness, as used in this way, seem to me to be just as bad off as the other notions that anti-hyper-intensionalists use as criteria of theory choice; they are themselves hyperintensional notions in fact. That's not to say that they are bad off -- I do think there is an intuitive sense in which theories can be "simpler" and "less arbitrary" than other theories. But it is arbitrary to use "arbitrariness" and "simplicity" as criteria for selecting between metaphysical theories, and then pretend you don't know what it means when one says that his theory is more "natural" than others or, relatedly, posits entities that are "more natural."

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