Monday, 18 May 2009


Just thought I'd pop up one of my old essays from last semester on Metaphysics. People are immediately put off by the thought of reading a philosophical essay, especially a very traditional strand such as metaphysics, but it really is so simple once you get your head around the new concepts that I think everyone should be able to appreciate a little philosophy in their lives.

If I was given any sort of power (more fool whoever gave me it) I would make philosophical studies compulsory in religious maintained schools. I went to a Catholic grammar school, they made a big deal out of their reputation, a reputation which would have been severely tarnished if half the scandals within the school broke into the mainstream public attention. Anyway, I digress, when we chose out A Levels religion was a popular choice, I suppose it was something we had very obviously grown up with, something the school flourished at teaching, to accomodate this there were a number of elements which made up the Religious Studies A Level, each pupil studied 2 elements, usually one biblical and one more modern. I was one of the lucky few who got randomly placed with the "good" combination, Luke's Gospel (horribly uninteresting, but a great teacher, and Philosophy). By this point I was already fairly set in my athiest ways, but I was interested in learning about the ideas of why people believe in a god, why specifically Christian, and the argments for and against it. I have ranted about this many times to anyone who is willing to listen to me, I truely believe that my life would be so unbelievably different if I hadn't been given the oppertunity to study Philosophy. At first I concentrated on the religious aspect, as I suppose the school was encouraged to do for a religious A Level, but then I moved onto the existentialists, the nihilists, political philosophy, Marx, Locke, at the end of the year I remember the teacher saying the last element on the syllabus was taken off the exam so we didnt have to do it if we didn't want to, and I begged her to give me the information sheets and readings anyway, I'll always remember, it was a rediculously simple introduction to Freud and Jung. I still have my A Level Philosophy folder, my teacher let me keep Camus' The Plague and Sartre's Nausea because I borrowed them so much, I promise one day when I'm out of debt to buy them a series of philosophical novels instead of the old tattered copies hundreds of grubby handed students had destroyed.
Philosophical ideas are beautiful things and deserve to be kept that way.

Just a brief introduction to the essay, assuming you know nothing of the subject, metaphysics is a study into elements of subjects which you can't dissect with science or logic. It is called metaphysics purely because when they were trying to reconstruct Aristotle's work, they formed it in such a way that this section didn't have a title, they named it "metaphysics" because it literally came after the chapters on physics! Now this essay is specifically on Bundle Theory, but the question it is flitting around is basically, if we take away all elements which describe something for example, take the properties of redness, roundness, and appleness, away from a red round apple does it immediately cease to exist? How many properties must be taken away before it disappears? Can something exist we cannot describe? There are NO right answers in metaphysics, only logical conclusions. The trick is using Occams Razor, you have to come to the least conveluded, likely answer. Though I've always had a problem with Occum's razor, a simple question to it..."why?"

This isn't a fantastic essay, I just scraped a first with it by the skin of my teeth, it's pretty badly written but the detail is all there. I think it's an interesting subject if you want to dive into the nitty gritty of philosophy. I'll post up some more accessible, perhaps more popularised philosophical essays later.

Is an individual material substance constituted exclusively by its properties?

A substance is commonly recognised to be a culmination of properties which we can use to adequately describe it. When we consider this matter in greater depth however a number of problems arise which render us unable to commit ourselves to the description of substance as purely properties. Proponants of this idea, a bundle theory, would agree with the original statement's intention. Criticisms to this stance are numerous which means it is now very difficult to hold this view successfully.

The bundle theory is a reductive explanation of the elements which make up a substance, it states that a substance is only it's attributes with no other abstract features. This contrasts it with the Aristotelian substance-attribute distinction, Aristotle in Book VII of Metaphysics (350 B.C.E.) sought to highlight a difference between the matter and form constituting the substance. The bundle theory is intrinsically linked to Leibniz' identity of indecernibles principle (Discourse on Metaphysics 1686) this states that if X and Y share the same properties then X is identical to Y. It then follows for the bundle theory that if two substances have entirely the same constituting properties then the substances are identical; if any element of the properties is different then the substances are distinct.

Leibniz and Hume are both in favour of the principle of the identity of indecernibles on the basis that it is illogical to reject it. Macdonald in Varieties of Things (2005) highlights Leibniz view that the principle is a “neccessary truth,” this in turn means that the bundle theory is true also. Hume advocates the principle also, but from an empirical standpoint, he believes it is counter-intuitive to think we can describe something without making reference to the properties it contains, it is necessary to have the sensory experience. The bundle theory's success is found in the common sense notion we have when describing something, because we refer only to the substance's properties we cannot concieve of a substance being anything more. This certainly makes for a plausible theory on the construction of substances however it fails to be entirely convincing and a number of objections have been raised that question it's validity.

A potential objection to the position of the bundle theorist is the distinction between necessary and contingent elements within the substance. Any substance is contingent since there is the possibility that it could never have come into existance, however, the properties of the substance are necessary, they could not fail to exist in any possible world. The bundle theory has then created a contradiction since the same entity would be both neccessary and also contingent.

The bundle theorist may respond to this criticism with an opposition to the supposition that since the properties are neccessary it then follows that the substance should be neccessary also. The example of a large object made out of small bricks could be used to the bundle theorist's advantage, it would be wrong to call the whole object small just because it's componants are. However, in examining this, the problem of the co-exemplification of relations arises. Instead of the properties being contingent, the bundle theorist could respond that it is the relation of the properties themselves which is the contingent element. Using the co-exemplification relation in this way leads to an infinite pattern since something will always be needed to relate the properties to their relations.

This criticism can be more successfully rejected by a bundle theorist utilising the idea of trope theory to clarify their argument. It is similar to Aristotle’s idea of individual accidents. In trope theory we percieve the property as being particular within that substance, two apples may look the exact same colour of red however they exist in two seperate entities so they are not identical, the property of red is similar in both apples so they are grouped as being the colour red. Tropes are not the same as universals since they are locationally distinct and they are also contingent since they may not exist within that substance in a possible world. This seems to successfully refute the claim that the constructs of the substance are neccessary whilst the substance itself is contingent, however trope theory in itself is a highly disputed idea.

Another objection raised against bundle theory is that of the intrinsic unity of substances. We would commonly associate a collection of things to be nothing other than that, with no qualities to link them, however the same is not said for properties of a substance. Macdonald gives the example of sitting in a chair holding an apple, we do not consider the whole thing constituting a substance, that of a chair, a person and an apple. Yet, the bundle theorist remarks that the properties of redness, roundness and being an apple, are sufficient to call the substance an apple and not just a collection of properties.

This criticism, although similar to the first, poses more of a problem for the bundle theorist to respond to. A possible claim could be made about the neccessity of some properties to each other, therefore making them instrinsically linked, however this by no means accounts for all properties in a substance. The bundle theorist could describe the essential properties a substance has, however this is unhelpful as it is trying to reduce substances by making reference to the substance thus getting caught in a circular argument. It seems that for this criticism to be rejected the bundle theorist would need to employ the use of co-exemplification relations again as extra properties to create a link between the properties and the substance. However as we have seen before, the use of co-exemplification relations is flawed so this would not satisfy the objection. It is apparently very difficult for the bundle theorist to try and satisfy the objections that are raised through the lack of an intrinsic link, it is a reasonable feeling, yet theoretically difficult to say that some properties just naturally warrant an individual substance whilst others do not.

The bundle theory appears to create neccessary truths about a particular substance in relation to its properties. The objection states that the bundle theory only serves to make logical truths, not informative statements, about a substance by ascribing the properties to it. If the bundle theory claims that a substance only is the sum of it's properties then by making reference to its properties we learn nothing new, providing we are aware of what the substance is. Macdonald gives the example of Felix the cat to illustrate this objection. Consider the statement “Felix the cat is a feline animal,” presuming this is true the bundle theorist can only say “the cat is the cat” since the property of being feline, and knowing we are talking about the substance Felix, cannot provide us with any new information. If we are unaware of a property Felix has, the example being that of having forty teeth, then the true statement about Felix cannot then be true since we should not be aware that the substance is indeed Felix. The bundle theory needs to account for how can one be assured that the substance is exactly what they think it is, despite the fact we do not know all the properties of the substance. The bundle theorist would claim that it is not neccessary to have a full knowledge of all the properties of a substance, there would have to be a point that a certain number of properties is sufficient.

Truths about substances according to the bundle theory which seem to result in them being neccessarily true is worrying since it follows that the substance needs the specific properties neccessarily. Properties are not all definitions of the term itself, using the example of the statement “batchelors are unmarried men” we can see that it is analytically defined. The bundle theorist can make the distinction between essential properties and kind-determining properties however this too is troublesome as it seems to contradict the theory that you can have the substance without a property no matter if it is essential or not.

In a response the bundle theorist needs to address the problem which arises from all truths being logical truths when one considers any true statement made about the substance to be obvious by knowing the substance itself. One way a supporter of the bundle theory could do this is to highlight a distinction between what is an obvious logical truth and what is less obvious. The counter-argument relies on the knowledge of the individual themselves, whilst a logical truth may be obvious to one person it may not be to another and so appears to be informative to them. The problem here is not with the bundle theory but with the imperfect knowledge of the person who is referring to the substance. Another attempt to combat this objection can be found by considering the use of tropes again instead of properties. From our understanding of tropes it is then possible to discover informative true statements since the we are not using the idea of universals. If the trope occurs only once in anything then within any substance we can find new information about it.

The fact that substances persist through time causes another problem for supporters of the bundle theory. According to the theory it would seem the substance becomes new if it gains or loses a property over time. The best way to counter this is by focusing on diachronic identity, as opposed to synchronic identity, that is, identity over time as opposed to at certain stated points. The substance would only need to be identical with itself at a certain point in time for it to be the same unchanged substance, so this does not really pose much of a problem to the bundle theorist. However problems arise when considering the properties of a substance which has changed at different temporal positions. When we make reference to a substance we are doing so at a particular point in time yet the idea that temporal change is somehow built into a substance does not do justice to our common-sense notion of change. It seems the bundle theorist does not have a clear rejection of the problm of substances persisting through time.

The strongest criticism which could be used against the bundle theory is proving that the identity of indecernibles is false, this would then collapse the entire bundle theory. To do this we would need to find two non-identical substances which have exactly the same properties. Using the principle of the identity of indecernibles if two seperate substances have the same properties then they are identical, however it also has to have the property of being identical to itself. The damning problem with the bundle theory here is that to make reference to the substance (being identical to itself) in the context of one of it's properties it ends up becoming a circular reductive argument.

There is the oppertunity to clarify between pure and impure properties for the principle, meaning that only pure, non-relational, properties are considered. It then becomes a lot more difficult to disprove the principle of the identity of indecernibles since all apparent rejections are focused on relational properties.

The counter-example to the principle of the identity of indecernibles is given by Max Black in his thought experiment of two identical spheres. This situation can only take place in a possible world where nothing else exists, only the completely symetrical world and two identical spheres, no observer or anything for them to be in relation to. Black succeeds in this opposing example because he posits that the two distinct spheres exist despite the fact they have the exact same properties. This means that Leibniz' principle has essentially been proved to be false thus the bundle theory falls apart since it relies entirely on the identity of indecernibles to be true.

Through the various objections to the bundle theory which make it increasingly difficult to defend the bundle theory's claim that substances are only the sum of their properties. Even setting aside the fatal destruction of Leibniz' principle of the identity of indecernibles the mounting pressure against the theory which led it to withdraw to the use of trope theory and co-exemplification relations results in a weaker front being established. It is, through the final attack of Leibniz law being proved false, nearly impossible for a bundle theorist to seriously uphold their claims without having to make some serious consessions and so it is highly improbable that a substance could be considered as only being constituted by it's properties.

Emma Fisher


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