Composition as a Fiction
Monthly Metaphysics: March '23
Behold this table, if you can Its parts assembled to a plan. But parts can be, without a whole: Try summing candy with a mole. “No!” Universalism says, “The world includes the pet-plus-pez. No set of things cannot succumb: Whatever’s inside, it has a sum.” And now the Nihilist has his turn Ontology he’ll shred and burn “Nothing but atoms!” speaks his heart Each thing has only it as part. Rosen and Dorr now squeeze past Kant Fictionalism is their chant. There’s just no saying when sums stand And when instead there’s empty land Go look around, we can’t decide Which theory T we should abide. “But what about our common sense? Can it not push us off the fence?” To this reply they do not Chisholm: It’s unappealing dogmatism. To our talk of wholes, the whole big dance, We should adopt a light-hearted stance. Yes, composition, if we try Is a fiction that we can live by. Pick any sentence, turn it round Weight its commitments pound by pound All that one wants to safely utter it: It’s atomistically adequate. If so, it’s true: we’ve always lied. The ambitious metaphysician will not be satisfied.
A test-screening of this poem to a non-philosopher produced near-complete incomprehension: “I understand the words individually, but put together…I have no idea what I’ve read.” I have therefore decided to add a second layer of confusion in the form of some Explanatory Notes.
Italicized phrases are (almost) quotations from Composition as a Fiction by Gideon Rosen and Cian Dorr, published in The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics, 2003. A material body with parts (other than itself) is a composite object. Hydrogen atoms (if they exist!) are composite, since they have electrons and protons as parts. Electrons, on the other hand, are not composite; they are (in the original sense of the word, and the sense used in the poem) “atoms.” A composite object is said to be the sum of its parts;a chair is the sum of its back, legs, and seat. A theory of composition says what conditions some things X, Y, Z, …, must satisfy, for them to have a sum. Universalism is the theory that says: no conditions. Any collection of things has a sum. There is something that has the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge as parts. Nihilism (“mereological” nihilism, not the kind that Flea’s character practiced in The Big Lebowski) is the theory that says: unmeetable conditions. There are no composite objects; nothing is the sum of any other things. Both theories appear to conflict with common sense, or what we ordinarily believe about composition: we think there are tables and chairs, but not Statue-Bridges (much less candy-moles). A sentence is atomistically adequate if “it is true, or would be true if the facts about composition were different but all else were just as it actually is.” If Nihilism is true, “there is a chair in the corner” is false—really there are only some atoms “arranged chair-wise”—but it is still atomistically adequate, since it would be true if Universalism were true. One takes a fictionalist attitude toward composition if one cares, not about saying true things, but about saying things that are atomistically adequate.
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Academic philosophers add more conditions on being a sum, which need not detain us here.