Monthly Archives: August 2007

Emergence, Supervenience, and Indeterminacy

While Ross Cameron, Elizabeth Barnes and I were up in St Andrews a while back, Jonathan Schaffer presented one of his papers arguing for Monism: the view that the whole is prior to the parts, and the world is the one “fundamental” object.

An interesting argument along the way argued that contemporary physics supports the priority of the whole, at least to the extent that properties of some systems can’t be reduced to properties of their parts. People certainly speak that way sometimes. Here, for example, is Tim Maudlin (quoted by Schaffer):

The physical state of a complex whole cannot always be reduced to those of its parts, or to those of its parts together with their spatiotemporal relations… The result of the most intensive scientific investigations in history is a theory that contains an ineliminable holism. (1998: 56)

The sort of case that supports this is when, for example, a quantum system featuring two particles determinately has zero total spin. The issues is that there also exist systems that duplicate the intrinsic properties of the parts of this system, but which do not have the zero-total spin property. So the zero-total-spin property doesn’t appear to be fixed by the properties of its parts.

Thinking this through, it seemed to me that one can systematically construct such cases for “emergent” properties if one is a believer in ontic indeterminacy of whatever form (and thinks of it that way that Elizabeth and I would urge you to). For example, suppose you have two balls, both indeterminate between red and green. Compatibly with this, it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be uniform; and it could be determinate that the fusion of the two be variegrated. The distributional colour of the whole doesn’t appear to be fixed by the colour-properties of the parts.

I also wasn’t sure I believed in the argument, so posed. It seems to me that one can easily reductively define “uniform colour” in terms of properties of its parts. To have uniform colour, there must be some colour that each of the parts has that colour. (Notice that here, no irreducible colour-predications of the whole are involved). And surely properties you can reductively define in terms of F, G, H are paradigmatically not emergent with respect to F, G and H.

What seems to be going on, is not a failure for properties of the whole to supervene on the total distribution of properties among its parts; but rather a failure of the total distribution of properties among the parts to supervene on the simple atomic facts concerning its parts.

That’s really interesting, but I don’t think it supports emergence, since I don’t see why someone who wants to believe that only simples instantiate fundamental properties should be debarred from appealing to distributions of those properties: for example, that they are not both red, and not both green (this fact will suffice to rule out the whole being uniformly coloured). Minimally, if there’s a case for emergence here, I’d like to see it spelled out.

If that’s right though, then application of supervenience tests for emergence have to be handled with great care when we’ve got things like metaphysical indeterminacy flying around. And it’s just not clear anymore whether the appeal in the quantum case with which we started is legitimate or not.

Anyway, I’ve written up some of the thoughts on this in a little paper.

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Fundamental and derivative truths

I’ve posted a new version of my paper “Fundamental and derivative truths“. The new version notes a few more uses for the fundamental/derivative distinction, and clears up a few points.

As before, the paper is concerned with a way of understanding the—initially pretty hard to take—claim that tables exist, but don’t really exist. I think that that claim at least makes good sense, and arguably the distinction between what is really/fundamentally the case and what is merely the case is something we should believe in whether or not we endorse the particular claim about tables. I think in particular that it leads to a particularly attractive view on the nature of set theory, since it really does seem that we do want to be able to “postulate sets into existence” (y’know how things form sets? well consider the set of absolutely everything. On pain of contradiction that set can’t be something that existed beforehand…) The framework I like lets us make sober sense of that.

The current version tidies up a bunch of things, it pinpoints more explicitly the difference between comparatively “easy cases”—defending the compatibility of set theoretic truths with a nominalist ontology—-and “hard cases”—defending the compatibility of the Moorean corpus with a microphysical mereological nihilist ontology. I’ve got another paper focusing on some of the technicalities of the composition case.

This project causes me much grief, since it involves many many different philosophically controversial areas: philosophy of maths, metaphysics of composition, theory of ontological commitment, philosophy of language and in particular metasemantics, and so forth. That makes it exciting to work on, but hard to present to people in a digestible way. Nevertheless, I’m going to have another go at the CSMN workshop in Olso later this month, focusing on the philosophy of language/theory of meaning aspects.

A couple of bits of news.

First, I’ve finished a (much extended) draft of the reply I gave to Hugh Mellor’s paper “Microcomposition” at the Leeds RIP Being conference (the name still amuses: that’s the Royal Institute of Philosophy, folks, not a metametaphysical jibe). The paper’s called “Working parts” and presents some arguments against the view that mereological relations are metaphysical primitive. Hugh’s position is that they should be analyzed in terms of locational and causal relations, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that view. Comments, as ever, very welcome. The paper is available here.

Second, from the end of this month I’m going to be taking over as secretary of the Analysis Committee. The trust does all sorts of good things: from awarding Analysis studentships to giving out conference grants, and of course, and are the figures in the background of the fantastic journal Analysis. I’m really excited to be involved.