Stephan Blatti’s “Material Constitution” Part 4: Nihilism


Stephan Blatti, in “Material Constitution,” continues to elaborate the contemporary state of the problem of material constitution with his explanation of the nihilist position.[1]  (Please see Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of this series to get caught up).  Unlike the first two positions, the Orthodox view and the Dominant kinds view, the Nihilist view rejects the problem of material constitution by “denying the very existence of one or more of the objects concerned” (157).  He explains two types of nihilism, extreme and modest.

Extreme nihilism holds the position that only mereological simples, that is objects without proper parts, exist.  Objects with proper parts, composite objects, do not exist.  Thus, for this view, the statue or lump of clay do not exist and so the need to explain their relationship disappears.  Blatti names Peter Unger as the closest representative of this position; however, noting at the same time that Unger’s view is not quite as extreme and that he has since abandoned it.  It is rather a conditional extreme nihilism, “since he held only that if composite objects exist, then they fail to satisfy our ordinary sortal terms” (157).  Unger’s argument for this position is called the “sorites of decomposition” argument.  I would refer the reader to Blatti’s explanation for the details.  If I’ve understood this argument correctly, the basic point is that if you take away one atom at a time from, say, a rock, eventually you have nothing left.  But this contradicts the view that a rock is something itself independent from the simples that make it up.  Thus, the real reference of our sortal concepts are the simple elements that compose composite objects.

Like extreme nihilism, modest nihilism accepts the existence of mereological simples and denies the existence of most composite objects.  However, modest nihilism differs from extreme nihilism in that it posits the existence of some composite objects–namely, living organisms.  Blatti points to Peter van Ingwagen as the most important adherent of this view and his “special composition question” as his argument for the existence of living organisms.

Van Ingwan’s argument relies upon the rejection of the “doctrine of arbitrary undetached parts” (DAUP).  Blatti writes,

In essence, DAUP claims that for any given sub-region of an area occupied by a material object, a smaller object exists that occupies just that sub-region.  But according to van Inwagen, if DAUP were true, then prior to the accident not only does Tibbles exist, so too does Tib.  Assuming it is possible for a cat to survive the loss of his tail, the accident causes Tibbles to become one and the same thing as Tib.  But since two things cannot become one thing, either a cat cannot survive the loss of its tail or Tib did not exist in the first place.  Faced with this choice, van Inwagen contends, clearly it is the commitment to he existence of Tib that should be abandoned.  And because this commitment followed only from our provisional acceptance of DAUP, it must be that DAUP is false (158-159).

The problem of material constitution does not then get off the ground for a modest nihilist.  Inanimate composite objects do not exist, so the Statue-Lump problem is not a problem in the first place.  Also, while living organisms like Tibble do exist, arbitrary undetached parts (such as Tib), do not exist; so, again, the problem does not arise.

Both extreme and modest nihilism have stirred up much debate.  Perhaps the most amusing objection is the one that David Lewis names, that of the “incredulous stares” (159).  Blatti points to Moore’s formalization of this: “any argument whose conclusion denies the existence of ordinary objects must rely on premises which are less plausible than the rejection of the conclusion itself” (159).

Blatti finishes up his article by pointing to the Revisional view of material constitution.

[1] Blatti, Stephen.  ”Material Constitution.”  In Manson & Barnard, The Continuum Companion to Metaphysics (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012, pp. 149-169).

PicCred: Bruno Dubner


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