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Against Strong Pluralism


Strong pluralists hold that not even permanent material coincidence is enough for identity. Strong pluralism entails the possibility of purely material objects -- even if not coincident -- alike in all general respects, categorial and dispositional, relational and non-relational, past, present and future, at the microphysical level, but differing in some general modal, counterfactual or dispositional repscts at the macrophysical level. It is objectionable because it thus deprives us of the explanatory resources to explain why evident absurdities are absurd. A second objection is to the suggestion that cases involving artefacts can illustrate strong pluralism. This offends against the principle that gien a complex intrinsic microphysical property instantiated in some regiion, the number of material things possessing it in that region cannot depend on the existence and nature of intentional activity taking place outside it.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, if strong pluralists accept the Kripke case – in which neither of the putatively distinct objects is an artefact – as an illustration they must also accept that there are far more than two permanently coincident entities present in that spatio-temporal location, and must in fact accept that wherever there is a complex material object there are many (more than two). Thus strong pluralists who accept this type of case as illustrating their doctrine must be what we might call plenitudinous pluralists. Strong pluralists who accept as illustrations only cases involving artefacts, like the Goliath/Lumpl case, are not so obviously committed to plenitudinous pluralism, and may as we shall see, deny it – at a price.

  2. 2.

    Again, according to the strong pluralist, Goliath and distant Lumpl*, which coincides with Goliath’s twin Goliath*, will differ in some modal, counterfactual or dispositional respect at the macrophysical level, despite absolute indistinguishability in all general microphysical respects).

  3. 3.

    Weak pluralists are not thus deprived of explanatory resources; they do not need to believe in magic. All they must say is that things which are intrinsically microphysically indistinguishable at a time (or even at all times they both exist) may differ in some sort and in the (modally inconstant) predicates true of them (though they can say that if either is of sort S the other ‘is’, in the sense of the ‘is’ of constitution, an S when they are indistinguishable). But to find a problem with that is to commit what the late Jonathan Lowe called (2002:370) ‘the cinematographic fallacy’, ‘the idea … that any qualitative differences between objects must be revealed by instantaneous snapshots’, and not to see that how the world is outside the temporal boundaries of a thing may be relevant to whether it satisfies a sortal predicate (because, in particular, sortal predicates are constrained by conditions of the form: ‘if x is (identical with) an S and if Rxtt* x exists at t and t*’).

  4. 4.

    I assume the strong pluralist will not want to say that Goliath and Lump both exist in the artefact-free world, but do not differ at all, even in modal respects.

  5. 5.

    If they accept Bennett’s proposal that all of the complete modal profiles possible in a given spatio-temporal location are instantiated there (2004: 355) they must also say, if they say that there are fewer possessors of M in the artefact-free world, that there are also fewer possibilities there.

  6. 6.

    I read this as, ‘for any x, if the ys compose x the ys compose x in any world in which they bear to one another the same causal and spatial relations as in the actual world’. In a sense it expresses the necessity of composition. But for my purposes I need only a de dicto implication of this: the number of possessors of the microphysical property in question is the same in the two worlds.

  7. 7.

    Others also find it congenial, e.g., Cameron (2007: 118): ‘One might well balk at the thought that whether or not a collection of objects composes could have anything to do with external factors, such as the intentions of designers … perhaps any possible answer [to the SCQ] must only concern the intrinsic properties and internal relations of the X’s’.

  8. 8.

    A fortiori, if it is only by accident that the location of an integral macroscopic object is changed.

  9. 9.

    Why should the presence or absence of external intentional agency be so important to the number of things possessing a particular intrinsic microphysical make-up? Why is the presence or absence of, say, external agency by water not equally important? How would the argument go against someone who insisted that it was?

  10. 10.

    Of course, some strong pluralists have made claims from which it follows (given that, as they think, modal predication is constant). Thus Baker (1997) affirms (a) that it is a de dicto necessary truth that all statues are products of intentional activity and (b) that anything which is (not only a statue but) non-derivatively a statue (in a sense she introduces) is necessarily a statue. But she does not explicitly consider the consequence, that the number of material things with a particular intrinsic microphysical make-up (and hence the same Kripkean origin) will vary with the presence or absence of intentional activity external to the region in which that make-up is instantiated. And the only thing she says in support of her claim that nothing which is non-derivatively a statue could have existed without being a statue is that a world without art objects is ontologically poorer than our world. So it is in a sense; there are no statues there. In the same sense a world without outlaws or husbands is ontologically poorer. Of course, as a weak pluralist I do not wish to deny the claim that nothing which is a statue could have existed without being a product of intentional activity. In some context which selects an appropriate property as the reference of the modal predicate an utterance of this sentence will be true, but so in some context will be an utterance of ‘no one who is an outlaw could have existed without being an outlaw’ (Lewis 1986, Chapter 4). I deny only that, as Baker thinks, there is some objectively true proposition which the former sentence expresses independently of context.


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Correspondence to Harold W. Noonan.

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Noonan, H.W. Against Strong Pluralism. Philosophia 43, 1081–1087 (2015).

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  • Pluralism
  • Coincidence
  • Goliath and Lumpl
  • de re modality