Immaterial Beings
Miller (Kristie)
Source: The Monist, Vol. 90, No. 3, Lesser Kinds (July 2007), pp. 349-371
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Holes seem to present something of a metaphysical problem. For in some good sense they seem to be essentially absences: holes are where things are not. Buying into something like that conception has led metaphysicians to see the problem of holes as highly domain specific and largely independent of more general issues regarding the metaphysics of paradigm material objects and of space time. That, in turn, has led many metaphysicians to ignore the problem of holes altogether (is worrying about holes really engaging in proper and worthy metaphysics?) and has polarized remaining metaphysicians into those who endorse what I will call an inflationary theory of holes, and those who endorse what I will call a deflationary theory.
  2. For once we conceptualize holes in terms of absences, two opposite positions naturally present themselves.
    1. On the one hand there are those who hold that folk intuitions are basically right about holes: holes exist roughly where we think they do. Thus in the relevant region there exists some entity which is a hole. But since holes are absences, the entity in question cannot be an ordinary material one: it must be a special kind of entity. Hence the idea of immaterial beings is born. This view might, perhaps uncharitably, be thought of as one in which we reify absences: absences are real entities; they are immaterial beings. Views of this kind are inflationary. The advantage of inflationary views is that we get to say that roughly speaking, the folk are right about the location and number of holes in the world. The disadvantage is that it requires an account of immaterial beings.
    2. Those who find the idea of immaterial beings and the reification of absences objectionable, instead embrace some sort of deflationary view according to which holes are identified with proper parts or surfaces of paradigm material objects. The advantage of these views is that no recherché metaphysics of immaterial beings is necessary. The disadvantage is that it does serious damage to many of our folk intuitions about holes.
  3. This paper defends a view that falls somewhere between the two extremes of inflationary and deflationary accounts, and it does so by rejecting the initial conceptualization of holes in terms of absences. Once we move away from this conception, I argue, we can see that there are no special metaphysical problems associated with holes. Rather, whatever one's preferred metaphysics of paradigm material objects, that account can equally be applied to holes. This means that like the deflationist, I am entity monist: I reject the idea that there are any immaterial beings. On the other hand, like the inflationist I reject the idea that we should identify holes with parts or surfaces of paradigm objects. Like the inflationist, I hold that there exist entities in roughly the regions of space-time where pre-theoretically we would say there exist holes, and those entities are holes. Call this latter part of the view – that where the folk are apt to claim there is a hole, that hole has roughly the dimensions that the folk attribute to it – hole instinctivism (the view that our instincts about hole location/dimension are roughly right). Ultimately I embrace hole conventionalism, a view that includes commitment to both entity monism and hole-instinctivism. According to hole conventionalism, holes are no more ontologically problematic than statues1, nor are they of a fundamentally different ontological kind from statues2.
  4. This means that in a very strong sense there is no domain specific problem of holes. This is not just the (I take it true) claim that within metaphysics, apparent domain specificity dissolves once we see that no claim exists in a vacuum: when we commit to one view we thereby commit to a whole package of other views. It is rather the stronger claim that there is not even apparent domain specificity, for there is no special 'hole problem'. There must be reasons, however, why many are drawn to hole deflationism.
    • In section 2 I consider some reasons why we might be suspicious of the idea that there exist entities just where we think there exist holes. These worries are often expressed as doubts about the coherence of the notion of immaterial beings, and it is easy to see why, if one assumes that hole-instinctivism entails that holes are immaterial beings. Though I deny this entailment, many of the arguments against thinking of holes as immaterial beings are equally good, or, as I argue, bad arguments against hole-instinctivism. Thus, section 2 is devoted to defending hole-instinctivism, and with it, one of the central contentions of an inflationary account.
    • In section 3 I turn to consider whether the other crucial claim of inflationary accounts, namely that there is a viable distinction to be drawn between material and immaterial beings, can be sustained. I argue that it cannot.
    • Finally, in section 4 I draw together the threads of the account of hole conventionalism that have emerged throughout the previous two sections and add some meat to the bones of the account. I argue that this account not only steers a plausible path between inflationary and deflationary accounts, preserving the best of both, but importantly, it also allows us to treat holes as being on a par with any other entity.

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