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Science and the special composition question


Mereological nihilism is the thesis that composition never occurs. Some philosophers have thought that science gives us compelling evidence against nihilism. In this article I respond to this concern. An initial challenge for nihilism stems from the fact that composition is such a ubiquitous feature of scientific theories. In response I motivate a restricted form of scientific anti-realism with respect to those components of scientific theories which make reference to composition. A second scientifically based worry for nihilism is that certain specific scientific phenomena (quantum entanglement, natural selection) might require ineliminable quantification over composite objects. I address these concerns, and argue that there seem to be nihilist-friendly construals of the scientific phenomena in question.

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  1. van Inwagen (1990, pp. 30–31).

  2. Throughout this article I will generally assume that it is objects which may or may not enter into composition relations, rather than, say, stuff, or some other ontological category which doesn’t fit neatly into the object/stuff dichotomy. This assumption is for ease of expression only, as I do not mean to endorse any particular positive ontology in this article (for example, an ontology of objects).

  3. Defenders of nihilism include Hossack (2000), Dorr (2002, (2005), Dorr and Rosen (2002), Horgan and Potrč (2008), Cameron (2010), Sider (2013), Brenner (2015a, (2015b), and Caves (Forthcoming).

  4. The “arranged F-wise” locution is a bit of jargon introduced by van Inwagen (1990), and subsequently employed by others (for example, Dorr and Rosen 2002; Merricks 2003). Following Merricks, we might say that some things (or stuff, although I will generally ignore this alternative) are “arranged composite object F-wise” iff “they both have the properties and also stand in the relations to microscopica upon which, if [Fs] existed, those [things’] composing [an F] would non-trivially supervene” (Merricks 2003, p. 4). For further discussion see Brenner (2015a).

  5. And, of course, were we to adopt this broader sort of anti-realism then we should not feel compelled to believe in composite objects on the basis of their inclusion in successful scientific theories.

  6. This point somewhat resembles Stanford’s “problem of unconceived alternatives” (Stanford 2006), which Stanford uses to defend a much stronger sort of scientific anti-realism than that which I advocate here. I should mention that there are important differences between Stanford’s problem of unconceived alternatives and my own similar argument in favor of a restricted anti-realism. One important difference is that while Stanford uses historical evidence to argue for the claim that many of our scientific theories will probably have plausible unconceived competitors, my argument does not take the form of a historical induction.

  7. For a discussion of the relevance of “chunking” to the debate over composition see Osborne (2016, Sect. 3.4).

  8. See also: “How one answers the question as to whether A’s are composed of B’s depends on the context of inquiry in which one is engaged, and the criterion for correctness of the answer is whether it works—whether it helps one further that inquiry. The question of composition is pragmatic in this way because what constitutes composition is negotiable, and not settled prior to and independently of the considerations advanced in the process of answering it” (Healey 2013, p. 53).

  9. For what it’s worth, Kenneth Pearce (Forthcoming) defends a view which he calls “mereological idealism,” according to which what composite objects exist really is a matter of human stipulation, in the sense that some objects compose another object when they are “unified in thought under a concept.”

  10. Terminological aside: “whole” is, in this context, just another term for “composite object.”

  11. In a previous publication (Schaffer 2007) Schaffer argues that nihilists can accommodate quantum entanglement, but only by adopting existence monism, according to which only one thing exists. In Schaffer (2010) he is primarily concerned with defending priority monism, according to which the universe as a whole grounds everything else that exists. Schaffer appeals to entanglement as one line of evidence in favor of priority monism. That being said, Schaffer’s appeal to entanglement can also be seen as part of an argument for the weaker thesis that any object (the universe, or something else) is a whole, and it is this feature of Schaffer’s discussion of entanglement which concerns me here.

  12. Schaffer makes a similar point in Schaffer (2007, p. 185, n. 28).

  13. For an overview of the various proposed ontologies which quantum field theories might be thought to give us, see Kuhlmann (2014, Sect. 5.1) and Morganti (2013, Chap. 3.3). I should take this opportunity to emphasize that, while in this section I frequently write as if there are particles, I do not mean to endorse an ontology which includes particles, and in fact I endorse no positive ontology in this article. In this section I am responding to arguments which happen to be framed in terms of an ontology of particles. Entanglement will very likely be retained in any future physical theory, even if a particle ontology will not. So, arguments from entanglement to composition can perhaps be reframed in terms of whatever ontology future physics (or current physics—e.g., quantum field theory) will give us, despite the fact that such arguments are currently formulated in terms which presuppose a particle ontology.

  14. That electrons in the singlet state might merely collectively instantiate the relation “have total spin 0” is, I think, a fairly straightforward interpretation of the matter, but one which is widely overlooked. Two exceptions are Bohn (2012, Sect. 2.2) and Caves (Forthcoming).

  15. Thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting I address this worry.

  16. Calosi and Morganti’s main target is Humean supervenience, which I have no desire to defend here. In virtue of his endorsement of collective properties instantiated by entangled particles the proponent of Humean supervenience may be left with additional explanatory burdens which I do not address here (see Calosi and Morganti Forthcoming, pp. 9–10; note: all page references for Calosi and Morganti Forthcoming refer to the online version of the article, as it has not yet been assigned to an issue).

  17. One concern here is that the sorts of laws of mereology cited above are contained by definition in the notion of proper parthood or composition. So, once one posits a proper parthood or composition relation (a non-negligible theoretical cost) one gets the laws for free. In Brenner 2015b (p. 331) I note that if one takes this route, then the proper parthood or composition relations will make larger contributions to the theoretical complexity of those theories which posit that composition occurs, since the notion that proper parthood or composition occurs will contain more content (i.e., not only do proper parthood relations obtain, but they have such-and-such features as well).

  18. Or maybe it wouldn’t be spatially scattered if, per some of Bohm’s (1980, pp. 236–240) speculations, the entangled particles are merely three dimensional projections of some single (non spatially scattered) higher dimensional object. Howard (1989, p. 251) makes a similar suggestion.

  19. The suggestion in this paragraph, that entangled systems are really just spatially scattered simples, was proposed as one possible nihilist-friendly interpretation of quantum entanglement in Schaffer (2007, Sect. 6).

  20. Thanks here to an anonymous referee.

  21. Although Morganti thinks of it as a causal relation.

  22. Below I’ll often write as if the relata of the grounding relation is, or can be, particulars. This is controversial. If you don’t like the idea that particulars can be the relata of grounding relations, substitute my talk of particulars instantiating grounding relations with whatever ontological category you do regard as the relata of grounding relations (propositions regarding those particulars, facts regarding those particulars, whatever).

  23. If the entangled degrees of freedom can’t enter into parthood relations, you might wonder how they can enter into entanglement relations. In response I’ll note that, since degrees of freedom don’t strictly speaking exist, any talk of degrees of freedom (including their entering into entanglement relations) should in principle be amenable to paraphrase.

  24. For other philosophers who defend the view of species as mereological sums see Ghiselin (1974) and Brogaard (2004).

  25. Lewontin’s summary of the conditions necessary and sufficient for evolution by natural selection is not entirely uncontroversial, but then again no such summary is. Lewontin’s proposal is, however the most widely cited summary of this sort (Godfrey-Smith 2007, pp. 1–2), so it can function as an adequate case test in the present context (that is, a case test for whether nihilism can satisfy whatever conditions are necessary and/or sufficient for evolution by natural selection to occur).

  26. The vagueness objection to species as individuals is quite popular. See, for example, Williams (1992, pp. 121–122), and citations therein.


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Thanks to Anjan Chakravartty, Eddy Keming Chen, Justin Christy, Elise Crull, Peter Finocchiaro, Jack Himelright, Callie Phillips, Michael Rea, Meghan Sullivan, Peter van Inwagen, and two anonymous referees for very helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Andrew Brenner.

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Brenner, A. Science and the special composition question. Synthese 195, 657–678 (2018).

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  • Composition
  • Special composition question
  • Mereological nihilism
  • Compositional nihilism
  • Quantum entanglement
  • Natural selection