Review of Trenton Merricks' 'Objects and Persons'
Sider (Ted)
Source: Mind, 113, Number 449, January 2004, pp. 195-198(4)
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Many otherwise reasonable philosophers are impatient with ontology. These philosophers will probably have little time for "Merricks (Trenton) - Objects and Persons", which claims that while there do exist “atoms arranged statuewise”1, there do not exist statues2; while there do exist atoms arranged tablewise and atoms arranged chairwise, there exist no tables and chairs.
  2. Though I join these philosophers, at the end of the day, in rejecting Merricks’s claims, that day is long, whereas they want a quick verdict. But why? Do our impatient friends think that Merricks’s claims are contradictory, analytically false, or otherwise conceptually incoherent? They may say that the conventional meaning of “there exists a statue”3 is “there exist atoms arranged statuewise”4, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. Someone could, of course, just decide to mean such a thing by “there exists a statue”5, but then her pronouncements would be irrelevant to Merricks, who intends to be using a “legitimate and straightforward existential quantifier” to deny the existence of statues6. As I see it, the challenger must assume that there are multiple equally good candidate meanings for the (unrestricted) existential quantifier, corresponding to various competing views of the ontologists. For if there is just one, “distinguished”, candidate meaning for existence, then that is what we all mean by ‘exists’, whatever our conventions are, and there would be no guarantee that the truth conditions of existence statements would track our conventions. I doubt the assumption of multiple candidate meanings can be sustained without lapsing into Carnapian relativity, but would have liked to hear more from Merricks about “legitimate and straightforward” existential quantifiers.
  3. Our philosopher’s impatience might instead be metaphysical, but here Merricks’s responses are powerful. Is denying the existence of statues7 incoherent because statues8 are “nothing over and above” their parts arranged statuewise9? Philosophers do sometimes say such things, but reading Merricks should get them to stop. ….
  4. Perhaps the impatience is rather epistemic, indeed Moorean, belief in statues10 allegedly being maximally certain. But, as Merricks points out, it is not so clear that statues11 exist as opposed to atoms arranged statuewise12
  5. Merricks gives two arguments for eliminating statues13, tables and chairs. First, a number of well-known philosophical conundrums may be avoided by renouncing those entities. This is certainly right, though of course other theories purport to dissolve those conundrums as well. The final analysis of these arguments is complex. The second argument — and the core of the book — is a novel transformation of the exclusion argument from the philosophy of mind: statues14 would causally overdetermine their effects since any putative effect of a statue15 is also an effect of its microscopic parts; such overdetermination does not occur; therefore statues16 do not exist.
  6. Merricks makes an exception to his causal overdetermination argument for human beings. In addition to atoms arranged human-wise, there also exist humans. On its face, this exception is theoretically unsatisfying, all too convenient, and even tender-hearted. But Merricks’s justification for the exception is interesting: humans have causal powers beyond the causal powers of their micro-parts. Indeed, the property consciousness, instantiated by human persons, does not even globally supervene17 on microscopic physical properties, and it conveys distinctive causal powers.
  7. [snip]
  8. "Merricks (Trenton) - Objects and Persons" is challenging and interesting. Its argumentation is generally direct (though there are a couple lapses, in which the dialectic becomes overly tangled). Merricks’s writing is refreshingly clear. His claims are striking and important. The book should be read.


See Sider - Review of Trenton Merricks, Objects and Persons. Review of "Merricks (Trenton) - Objects and Persons". See also "Sider (Ted) - What’s So Bad about Overdetermination?".

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