Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Topics in Contemporary Metaphysics: Material Composition and Vagueness

Bryan Frances
Spring 2011
Tuesdays 12-2
This course is concerned with two fundamental questions regarding existence, ‘What exists?’ and ‘Can we rationally decide what exists?’ A little more specifically, the course will first focus on two interconnected concepts in metaphysics—composition and vagueness—that come into play when we ask what exists. After probing those two concepts, we will move to a “meta” level to take on the question of whether certain traditional metaphysical debates regarding existence are resolvable or even meaningful.
First, composition. The universe contains things that have parts. A car has loads of parts, such as its tires, carburetor, and steering wheel. A dog has parts too: its legs, liver, eyes, brain. In fact, almost everything in the universe has parts. Is a thing with parts somehow nothing over and above its parts? What parts can something lose and still exist? What parts of a thing can be replaced before it no longer exists? Come to think of it, does anything really exist other than “atoms and void”, updated so that “atoms” are things like electrons, photons, and quarks? Finally, is there a difference between things that “exist” (e.g., trees) and things that “really exist” (perhaps only things like electrons)?
Second, vagueness. One of the hardest philosophical problems is that supplied by the sorites paradox, which has yet to be resolved. Often the paradox is introduced via a simple argument such as this:
  1. A person with $0 isn’t rich.
  2. If a person with $n isn’t rich, then a person with $(n + 1) isn’t rich, for any number n.
  3. Thus, no one is rich.
It’s not hard to see how (1)-(3) make up a philosophical problem: just consider the following five individually highly plausible yet collectively inconsistent claims.
  • Claim (1) is true.
  • Claim (3) is false.
  • The argument is logically valid: it’s impossible for (1) & (2) to be true while (3) is false.
  • If claim (2) were false, then there would have to be a whole number n such that a person with $n isn’t rich but a person with just one more dollar is rich.
  • But such sharp cutoffs don’t exist for terms like ‘person x is rich’.
Two central questions concerning vagueness are ‘Which of the bulleted claims are false?’ and ‘Why are they false, when they all look obviously true?’ We bring up vagueness issues here because they are connected to composition questions. For instance, do objects have sharp boundaries with exact parts, or are objects themselves vague in their extension and which things it has as parts? Many people are initially attracted to the latter option. And yet, isn’t vagueness a linguistic or conceptual phenomenon, and so not a feature of the world as it is independently of us? Investigating these questions leads most philosophers to fairly bizarre views.
Third, meta issues. After contemplating the various views that come from reflecting on the above questions, people often get a sinking suspicion that there is something fishy going on in these debates. It doesn’t seem possible to marshal good reasons for one view over another. Not only that: it seems that the many views are really just the same view couched in different vocabularies. These ideas belong to a subfield called ‘metaontology’, which we will study.
Most of the course readings will be recent articles by contemporary authors that are available on-line. In addition, we will study Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology, edited by David Chalmers, David Manley and Ryan Wasserman, OUP 2009.

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