- Everyday life and discourse is shot through with puzzles of material constitution. We often wonder what kind of material makes up certain physical objects. Of a traffic sign on the road, for instance, we might ask whether it is made of aluminum or steel. Seemingly implicit in such a question is a distinction between the sign, on the one hand, and the piece of metal that constitutes it, on the other hand. But what could be the basis for distinguishing the sign from that particular hunk of matter? Then again, consider the criminals who profit from melting down stolen copper pipes. If such pipes were nothing more than the portions of copper of which they were made, then we should say that the pipes persist in molten form. Yet, quite the contrary, we think that melting is a way of destroying these pipes.
- Such examples confirm that even our pre-philosophical intuitions about material constitution strain in opposite directions. On the face of it, it seems bizarre to suggest that a physical object is something distinct from the particular piece of material of which it is made: surely what we see when we see a traffic sign is not multiple objects simultaneously occupying the same space. If this commonsense thought is correct, then the relationship between a physical object and the hunk of matter that makes it up is one of identity: the object just is its constitutive matter. But how are we to reconcile this thought with the equally intuitive thought about the copper pipes? If the portion of copper but not the pipe survives the melting process, then it cannot be that the pipe and the copper were one and the same thing, since prior to the melting, the portion of copper instantiated the ability to survive melting down while the pipe did not. A moment’s reflection on this example, then, seems to suggest exactly the opposite of the lesson drawn from the traffic sign example: material constitution is not identity.
- Sustained reflection on cases like these has played an integral role in contemporary discussions of material constitution. Here we will focus on two such puzzles — one concerning a clay statue1, the other a tailless cat2. Though different in important respects, both examples qualify as puzzles of material constitution because each presents a case in which two objects seem to share all of the same parts and yet relate to those parts in different ways.
- Other notable puzzles include the Ship of Theseus3, the “paradox of increase4” (also known as the “growing argument”), and the case of Lumpl and Goliath5.
- Nearly all of these puzzles are centuries old, having been first introduced by ancient Greek philosophers (e.g., Epicharmus, Chrysippus) and later revived and, in some cases, modified by medieval (e.g., William of Sherwood, Peter Abelard), modern (e.g., Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Reid), and contemporary (e.g., Allan Gibbard) philosophers.
Footnote 4: Is this the same as The Problem of the Many?
Footnote 5: See "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity".
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