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Fine - The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter (Essay)

(Text as at 18/12/2010 19:58:05)

(For earlier versions of this Note, see the table at the end)

In this paper Fine argues for pluralism, the view that a physical object and the matter that makes it up are different things co-located. He argues against the linguistic arguments put forward by monists who maintain the identity thesis, that a material thing is identical to the matter of which it is composed.

Background & Motivation

My research topic is that of personal identity – in particular the dispute between Animalism (as propounded by Eric Olson) and the Constitution View (CV, as presented by Lynne Rudder Baker). Why, therefore, should I care whether or not a thing and its matter are different things? Well, for several reasons, mostly to do with the idea of co-location. Olson thinks that co-location leads to double-counting and epistemic ignorance. This is the corner-stone of his Thinking Animal argument – which is that if a person and a human animal are co-located, then we have two thinking things (a metaphysical nasty) and an individual doesn’t know which of the two he or she is (an epistemological nasty). Baker’s response is that while metaphysically-speaking there are two things present, one of which is constituted by the other, and these two things are non-identical, yet we only have to count one thing and we can know which we are most essentially – the person.

For Baker, a human person is a being which possesses certain psychological properties essentially. If it loses these properties (irrevocably?), it ceases to exist. It is necessarily embodied, though not necessarily embodied by the same human animal (or maybe by any human animal, provided it was at one time constituted by a human animal). A human animal that loses the capacity for what she refers to as a First Person Perspective (FPP) ceases to be a person, even though the mindless animal might persist as an animal. For Baker, we are essentially persons, contingently constituted by a particular human animal.

For Olson, we are essentially human animals – each of us is a particular human animal and exists precisely as long as that animal exists. We have no psychological properties essentially and existed (as a fetus) before we acquired any, and would persist after we lost all psychology should we collapse into a persistent vegetative state.

For Baker, the human animal persists for as long as Olson says it does, but the human person comes into being as soon as the human animal develops to the stage where it is capable of possessing a FPP, and goes out of existence as soon as it loses that capacity. I’m presently unclear whether the CV allows the person to have intermittent existence – what is supposed to be going on between death and resurrection, during coma, and such-like?

Neither of these theories of our identity has much to do with a thing and its matter. A human animal is presumably distinct from the matter that makes it up. As we will see, Fine treats of statues and lumps – which (as a pluralist) he considers to be distinct but co-located, and which monists consider to be identical. But, there is no lump of matter that is a candidate for being identical to an organism, human or otherwise. Organisms essentially exchange their matter with their environment – that’s just what organisms do when carrying on their lives; if they didn’t do it they wouldn’t be organisms, but something else like rocks – or statues.

Note that in this connection there is a distinction in the literature between pieces and portions of matter. Pieces can lose or gain bits, but a portion cannot, being essentially the sum of its parts. A portion continues to exist just so long as its parts exist, however scattered. A piece (or lump) persists so long as it maintains its topological connectedness and doesn’t lose or gain too much matter too quickly. However, an organism is neither a piece nor a portion. Its exchange of matter is too radical for piece-hood.

We might note in passing that the issues raised here are similar to other well-known philosophical worries.

Given these factors, what are the things that Fine specifically worries about in his paper that ought to concern me? And which side do I want to be on – that of the pluralist or of the monist?

Taking the second question first – while of course I intend to follow the truth wherever it leads – at the moment I’m inclined towards animalism. I don’t consider PERSON to be a substance concept, but simply view it that human animals (and maybe other things) have the property of being a person at certain times of their lives. Controversially, no doubt, I consider that the respect that accrues to HUMAN PERSONS is in virtue of certain of the properties that the HUMAN ANIMAL either has or will have (in the course of normal development). If it has irrevocably lost such properties, or can never develop them, it is no longer so deserving (though the LEGAL PERSON – it’s estate – or its friends and relatives are still deserving of consideration in how the human animal non-person is treated). If I’m right in this regard, then it seems that I ought to side with the monists and against Fine. I want there to be only one thing present. Yet, Fine’s arguments treat of a thing and its matter, not of a person and an animal. As far as the animal and the matter of which it is made, I agree that these things are distinct. Maybe I ought not to think so, if I thought that Olson’s TA argument was necessary for the support of animalism – because in that case Olson might be hoist by his own petard – we have two thinkers – the animal and the matter that makes it up (I hesitate to say “constitutes it”). Indeed Olson himself now seems to recognise this problem.

With respect to the first question, Fine addresses various objections against pluralism that arise from alleged opacity of context that invalidate the usual arguments for non-identity based on Leibniz’s Law of the indiscernibility of identicals (LL). We will see this in detail in due course, but these arguments are important as a (maybe naïve) appeal to LL is ubiquitous in these contexts. Fine thinks he can rebut the charges of opacity, but that doesn’t mean that the arguments can be comfortably ignored, for the arguments are subtle and complex (it seems to me).


We now turn to Fine’s paper itself - "Fine (Kit) - The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter". What all the things discussed above have in common is that it is possible to have two things that, despite being made of the same stuff and co-located – either at a time or for all time – are non-identical. The reason that they are taken to be non-identical is that the two things have different properties, either actually or modally. Their non-identity follows from LL.

The challenge that Fine addresses is that provided by various strains of monist – those who think there is only one thing present. These philosophers circumvent the argument from LL by a linguistic argument that appeals to alleged opacity of the context. But before we follow the argument we must return to Fine for some more scene-setting.

As we have seen, Fine notes that philosophers differ over whether a thing and the matter of which it is made are one and the same. It appears that they cannot be, because their properties can differ. His initial examples are of a statue and its clay – the clay exists before or after the statue – and of a river and its water – the river is composed of different water at different times, though not at a time.

Both these examples are somewhat objectionable. A river is an odd example because isn’t there more to a river than its water? Fine himself later raises the issue of whether the clay that forms a statue is the sort of thing that can be named (and without a name, how can it be picked out?).

Note also the use of the terms “made” and “compose”. Do these have the same meaning as one another and do both mean the same as “constituted by”, or are they purely mereological. Finally, is there a real distinction between constitution and mereological composition?

Some philosophers have rejected the distinction between the thing and its matter, saying that the apparently different properties do not represent difference in the objects themselves, but only in the descriptions under which they are conceived. Fine’s aim is to disprove this; a hard task as (he says) there’s nothing immediately obvious in the linguistic data to settle the matter.

Fine has to omit various issues from his remit. I need to consider the degree to which I care about these omissions, while recognising that a single paper can only deal with so much. My first thoughts are:- Fine doubts that metaphysics in general or this topic in particular are exhausted by linguistic questions, yet he has had to focus on linguistic arguments in this paper. This is a special case: while non-linguistic arguments are presented for non-identity, these are rebutted with the charge of linguistic confusion which itself has to be rebutted.

1. Monism

Fine now defines the monist position, and distinguishes various flavours. His opponents claim that coincident material things are the same thing, but what do we mean by “coincidence”? We need to distinguish spatial from material coincidence (each “at a time”). Spatial coincidents need not be material coincidents, nor vice versa. For the purposes of Fine’s paper, he requires both material and spatial coincidence. Examples: These examples need unpacking a bit. The basic idea is presumably that the spatial extent of the loaf is defined by its outer boundary, while that of the bread excludes the volumes occupied only by air-bubbles (or water in the case of a water-logged loaf). This may beg some questions about just what “bread” is – is the only “real” bread unleavened (ie. without air-bubbles), or is unleavened bread just more concentrated? No doubt there will be lots of debate about precisely what matter (at a time) makes up an organism.

We also need to consider what we mean by matter: according to Fine, if there is such a thing as ultimate matter, then the underlying matter is the ultimate matter; if not, then Fine tentatively suggests that two things materially coincide at a time if any matter composing either is composed of matter composing the other.

Fine considers it an error to think of coincidents as things with the same parts. This would make the statue and the clay non-coincident, on the grounds that the statue’s arm is part of the statue but not part of the clay. [I don’t fully understand this claim – it recurs in Footnote 17 in Section 3], but presumably the idea is that lumps of clay, strictly speaking – and qua lumps of clay – don’t have arms. Statues have arms composed of portions of clay that themselves form part of the whole lump, that itself composes the whole statue.

So far we’ve just considered coincidence at a time. We also need to consider worldly coincidence where the entire space-time worms in the actual world coincide (there is no commitment to perdurantism in the use of this terminology). Finally, there is necessary coincidence, where the space-time worms in all possible worlds coincide. Fine specifies these qualifications more precisely. This leads us on to varieties of Monism: What is a thing? Whatever it is, monists see only one thing where pluralists see two. What sort do they see? This “mere thing” – the “intrinsic identity” of the thing – differs according to the flavour of monism, but is basically matter. Fine doesn’t take these differences to be significant for this paper.

We have seen that monism comes in various strengths. Extreme monism entails moderate monism which in turn entails mild monism. That is, an extreme monist is logically also a moderate monist. If I believe that “two” things that are coincident at a time are identical, then obviously I must accept that “two” things that coincide at all times in a world are identical; and, similarly for the other implications.

A final distinction is of strictness: someone who is a moderate monist but not an extreme monist is said to be strictly moderate. So, a moderate monist accepts that there can be distinct objects that coincide at a time, but not ones that coincide at all times within a world. It seems to me that a strictly moderate monist is committed to contingent identity. This is the point of "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity", where Goliath and Lump1 are coincident in the actual world and so, according to strictly moderate monism, are identical, yet they might not have been coincidental (and therefore, it is claimed, might not have been identical).

Extreme monists are said to include:- Strictly Moderate monists are said to include:- Opponents of Moderate monism are said to include:- I’ve not been able to follow up these references to see whether the attributions are fair.

According to Fine, Strictly Moderate Monism appears to be a plausible middle ground, since it allegedly avoids the “metaphysical mystery” of distinct worldly coincidents, while accepting distinct temporary coincidents. Yet, he suggests, extreme monism is more defensible, in that the key arguments involve it. However, Fine avoids taking sides and claims that his arguments cover either extreme or moderate monism. [I found this part of the argument obscure and skipped it.]

However, the extreme monist seems to be saying something rather strange. Take the example of an organism that is momentarily coincident with a particular portion of matter. As time goes by, that portion becomes more and more dispersed, and looks less and less like an organism. So, such an extreme monist would have to deny that organisms strictly persist. If they talk about portions, then they’d have to argue that the persistence criteria for organisms and portions of matter are the same, else there would be a failure of the transitivity requirement of identity.

Despite the above, it may be that the linguistic arguments later in Fine’s paper rescue the extreme monist.

Fine also thinks mild monism to be wrong. He claims to have counter-examples to show that even necessary coincidents of the same sort can be distinct. We are referred to "Fine (Kit) - A Counter-Example To Locke's Thesis". I have followed up this reference, and my initial view remains that mild monism is the only version of monism likely to be correct. Fine’s rejection of it may stem from his argument later in the paper currently under discussion that pluralist examples that rely on modal arguments are inadequate. I’m unimpressed by his example for the reasons given in my review1 of that paper. Either way, the focus of Fine’s paper (he claims) is on extreme and moderate monism.

2. Opacity

This is where the discussion gets interesting. The standard argument against extreme monism is that the statue has different properties to those of the alloy of which it is made, so by Leibniz’s Law, they are non-identical. The same argument is used against mild monism, but using modal properties. The standard response to this argument is that the different properties only reflect different ways of describing a single object. We are referred to We are referred to the example from Quine ("Quine (W.V.) - Ontological Relativity"): 9 is necessarily > 7, but the number of planets isn’t (as has been demonstrated by the reclassification of Pluto). We can’t deduce that the number of planets is not 9 (or 8) from this difference in modal properties. Similarly (it is said), you can’t deduce the non-identity of a thing and its constituting matter.

Fine now rehearses the standard theory of transparent versus opaque contexts. If s is a singular term, φ(s) is a sentence, and φ(-) is a context, then:- Such formalism means little to me without an example. The standard one is:- Note: The transparent / opaque distinction appears to be the same as that between extensional and intensional contexts in the philosophy of mind. Herewith an extract from my notes on "Crane (Tim) - Elements of Mind - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind" with respect to intensionality. How does this carry forward to our present concern? What would φ(-) be? Fine gives two contexts – existence at a time, and modal sentences, about pieces of alloy and statues. For example:- The monist argues that the contexts in which the non-identity of a thing and its matter is claimed are opaque. So, we cannot deduce from the fact that the alloy exists at time t, while the statue does not exist at time t, that the statue and the alloy are non-identical. Personally, I cannot see how the context can be opaque here. But, even if it is, Fine claims that there’s a standard manoeuvre open to the anti-monist to make the context transparent – to rephrase the propositions to, for example, “the alloy is such that it exists at time t”. I don’t see how this makes any difference, since I couldn’t see what the problem was in the first place.

However, the counter-response (by the monist) is either This leads to deadlock, the current situation – the monist “fouls” all examples.

The strategy of Fine’s paper is to see whether the monist’s allegation of opacity works given our language use in general. The Monist’s Strategy is to point out that formal languages have been constructed in which the anti-monist’s arguments for non-identity turn out to be invalid. But does this reflect actual language use? Fine thinks not – but has no way of proving wrong the convinced monist.

Writers who adopt the “formal language” approach are:- The impasse is demonstrated by considering the hypothetical case of the “fanatical mono-referentialist” (an FMR - such a person may not exist, but is used for the sake of the argument) who claims that every singular referring term refers to the same thing – “the One”. Fine gives the example of Gore and Bush – the FMR’s claim that “- won the election” is an opaque context. The One won the election in a Bushey fashion but failed to win it in a Gorey fashion. What the anti-monist sees as difference of reference in a transparent context is seen by the FMR as identity of reference (but difference in manner of reference) in an opaque context.

Fine thinks that there is a fact of the matter as to whether language is mono- or multi-referential. However, it is disputed whether the FMR position is the height of absurdity or can be accepted. There are two versions of the fanatical position, the conservative and the radical: Fine now points out that the FMR has three problems that prevent us taking his views seriously:-
  1. Specific judgements of reference and identity
  2. Inability to account for paradigm cases of validity and transparency
  3. Needless complexity that when removed collapses the theory into the ordinary view.
These are spelt out as follows
  1. Specific Judgements: reference and identity are connected. Fine points out how, in a transparent context, co-referents are identical. So, for the conservative FMR, our identity judgements go wrong because of the alleged opacity of the context just as our referential judgements do. [Is this right?]
  2. Paradigm Cases: [Add a comment here].
  3. Complexity: [Add a comment here].
We noted above that the FMR doesn’t really exist (Spinoza is dead). However, the materialist monist is also similarly absurd, Fine claims, but with many “ones” rather than a single One.

3. Choice of Example

Fine thinks that the pluralist’s case is weakened by poor choice of example. The standard examples cited by the pluralist generally fall into 3 categories, all of which are easily objected to:- I am disconcerted by this turn in Fine’s paper, in so far as its relevance to my research is concerned. I’m not primarily concerned with whether or not a thing is identical to its matter, but with the soundness of arguments based on temporal or modal differences and with the idea of constitution – since these are the ones that tend to turn up in the Personal Identity literature. So, I need to watch out for the relevance of the subsequent discussion.

Fine claims that a statue is constituted by alloy NOT a piece of alloy. Consequently, the monist might claim, the putative name for this piece does not refer. This point is very contentious and needs some argument. "Gibbard (Allan) - Contingent Identity" thinks it legitimate to name his lump Lump1 [I need to review Gibbard’s arguments]. I have always thought that lumps aren’t the sort of things that can have names, so think Fine may have a valid point here. Even so, lumps or pieces of stuff do seem to be persisting objects (with distinct persistence conditions from the mereologically essential ones of portions of stuff). Fine himself, however, seems to ignore this point from now on, and he continues to use Statue / Alloy examples. So, I think his point isn’t against lumps per se, but only against their being the constituting object. This may be why he objects to the use of the constitution relation as an example, and claims it’s of limited scope. Lumps may constitute statues, but the lumps themselves aren’t constitutes by anything else but themselves. They just are “matter”. [That said, I’m still confused on this point].

Fine gives some alternative examples, listing various predicates and their advantages. Eg. “Defective” or “valuable”, applied to the statue and the alloy. Such examples avoid the need for either modal or temporal arguments, and are equally effective whether we refer to pieces or just to stuff.

I have some concerns about this move, in that this class of predicate are all external properties. It is true that the predicates that make a statue a statue are external – Baker has it that “relation to an art-world” is the critical factor – but artefacts are often used for convenience. Natural kind objects could also be used. We might say that a cat is not identical to the matter that constitutes it, but it’s more difficult to point to the persisting lump of matter that constitutes a cat. Even so, I think I’ve heard it said that even for objects falling under natural kind concepts, external factors play a part – ie. what makes a cat a cat is a relation to evolutionary history, and a “ex nihilo” assembled cat-simulacrum is not a cat.

For Fine, the significance of the new predicates is as follows:-
  1. Models: the formal models created by monists that rely on temporal and modal differences (which were referred to above in section 2, just before we started to discuss the FMR) can be finessed. Fine thinks that temporal and modal matters have been over-stressed in the theory of the identity of material things. As noted earlier, I am uncomfortable about this [but need to say why].
  2. The alikeness of worldly coincidents: is exaggerated by both monists and pluralists. That is, material objects that coincide at all times in a world are not as alike as is alleged – or at least the differences are not as inexplicable or surprising.
  3. Objects in extenso: a sub-point of the above: the (mistaken) view that there’s nothing more to material things than the dimensions they occupy. Counter examples: not just the ones at the start of this section, but purely physical ones: weight, colour, stability. See "Fine (Kit) - A Counter-Example To Locke's Thesis".
  4. The point of ontological differences: meaningful application of predicates. The Sphere of Discourse covers the range of predicates that can meaningfully be applied to the sort. A statue can be Romanesque, but the clay itself cannot. Statues are for aesthetic appreciation. The point of having chairs is that they are comfortable for sitting on.
… The following gibberish needs sorting out …

Note: I couldn’t quite follow this – isn’t the weight of the statues just that of the alloy that constitutes it (and so on)?

Dominant and Subordinate Sorts: Footnote. The range of properties of a subordinate sort is not always a subset of those of the dominant sort. Purity applies to gold but not (in the same way) to statues.

4. Predicational Shift

The monist claims opacity, so must give a reason for the opacity of context and explain how the context is opaque. The second question is given the focus now, the first reserved until later in the paper.

The pluralist argument is basically:-
P1: φ(s)
P2: not-φ(t)
C: s not = t

This is spelled out in detail in the paper.

The Monist Challenge – Pathological Breakdown: either s or t doesn’t refer, either above or below the line. Circumvent by avoiding terms like “the alloy”, which might not refer (or not uniquely). Vagueness can be finessed. Otherwise, two options, Referential or Predicational Shift.
Problems with Referential Shift :

Two Responses: Conclusion on Referential Shift : rejected, leaving opacity due to Predicational Shift the only option – to be addressed in the rest of the paper.

5. Explicit Invocation of Sorts

6. Implicit Invocation of Sorts

7. Implicit Invocation via Reference

8. Plural Invocation of Sorts

… Further details to be supplied2

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Awaiting Attention (Personal Identity) Fine - A Counter-Example to Locke's Thesis      

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Fine - A Counter-Example to Locke's Thesis Intermittent Objects Persistent Vegetative State    

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Fine (Kit) A Counter-Example To Locke's Thesis Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Fine (Kit) The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Sider (Ted) Review of Lynne Rudder Baker, Persons and Bodies Paper High Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Intermittent Objects Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes
Todman (Theo) Thesis - Persistent Vegetative State Paper Medium Quality Abstract   Yes

References & Reading List

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Baker (Lynne Rudder) Why Constitution is Not Identity Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Journal of Philosophy 94, No. 12 (Dec., 1997), 599-621 Yes
Burke (Michael) Cohabitation, Stuff and Intermittent Existence Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Mind, 89, No. 355, Jul., 1980, pp. 391-405 No
Burke (Michael) Copper Statues and Pieces of Copper: A Challenge to the Standard Account Paper - Cited Low Quality Abstract Analysis 52, 1992, pp. 12-17 No
Burke (Michael) Preserving the Principle of One Object to a Place: A Novel Account of the Relations Amongst Objects, Sorts, Sortals, and Persistence Conditions Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Rea - Material Constitution - A Reader No
Crane (Tim) Elements of Mind - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind Book - Cited High Quality Abstract Crane (Tim) - Elements of Mind - An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind Yes
Doepke (Frederick) Spatially Coinciding Objects Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Rea - Material Constitution - A Reader Yes
Fine (Kit) A Counter-Example To Locke's Thesis Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Monist, Jul2000, Vol. 83 Issue 3, p357, 5p Yes
Fine (Kit) The Non-Identity of a Material Thing and Its Matter Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Mind - 112/446 (April 2003) Yes
French (Peter) & Wettstein (Howard), Eds. Midwest Studies in Philosophy (Vol XXIII) - New Directions in Philosophy Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Low Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 9%
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Gibbard (Allan) Contingent Identity Paper - Cited High Quality Abstract Rea - Material Constitution - A Reader Yes
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Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne), Eds. Persistence : Contemporary Readings Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Medium Quality Abstract Bibliographical details to be supplied 39%
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Martin (Michael G.F.), Ed. Mind - 112/446 (April 2003) Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Bibliographical details to be supplied 50%
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Quine (W.V.) Ontological Relativity Book - Cited (via Paper Cited) Bibliographical details to be supplied 5%
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Sider (Ted) All the World's a Stage Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Haslanger (Sally) & Kurtz (Roxanne) - Persistence : Contemporary Readings 17%
Sider (Ted) Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time Book - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Sider (Ted) - Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time 18%
Sider (Ted) Global Supervenience and Identity Across Times and Worlds Paper - Cited Medium Quality Abstract Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59 (1999): 913–937 14%
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