Aristotle's 'Cosmic Nose' Argument for the Uniqueness of the World

Apeiron 36 (4):311 - 326 (2003)
Abstract
David Furley's work on the cosmologies of classical antiquity is structured around what he calls "two pictures of the world." The first picture, defended by both Plato and Aristotle, portrays the universe, or all that there is (to pan), as identical with our particular ordered world-system. Thus, the adherents of this view claim that the universe is finite and unique. The second system, defended by Leucippus and Democritus, portrays an infinite universe within which our particular kosmos is only one of countless kosmoi. Aristotle's argument in De caelo I.9 that the world is necessarily unique is an important contribution to this debate. This argument holds interest because it shows Aristotle wrestling with an apparent inconsistency in his own philosophy, as deeply-held convictions within his cosmology collide with an equally deeply-held conviction within his metaphysics. The following three principles, each of which Aristotle appears committed to, are inconsistent: The cosmic uniqueness principle. The world is necessarily unique. The cosmic form principle. The world is an ordered, structured unity. As such, the world has a form. The possibility of multiple instantiation principle. For all F, if F is a form, it is possible that there exist multiple Fs. In De caelo I.9, Aristotle argues that we can establish the uniqueness of the universe, reject the multiple instantiation principle, yet still retain the distinction between 'this world' and 'world in general,' if the following is true (as it is): the world takes up all the matter that exists. Aristotle illustrates this argument with one of the stranger analogies in his corpus: imagine an aquiline nose that takes up all the flesh in the universe. If this were so, then there could not exist any other aquiline objects whatsoever. (For this reason, we dub the De caelo I.9 argument the 'Cosmic Nose argument.') This paper is an interpretation of how this argument is supposed to proceed and an assessment of its success. The first section states the problem Aristotle is confronted with, sorts through Aristotle's various statements of the Cosmic Nose argument, which exhibit some sloppiness, and reconstructs charitably a single argument. We also spend some time examining the significance of Aristotle's example of a gigantic aquiline nose. We argue that, even charitably reconstructed, the argument appears to commit a serious modal fallacy. The remainder of the paper explores whether this modal fallacy can be overcome. We conclude that, although not a cogent argument for the uniqueness of the world (as this would require a significant revision of our current astronomy), the Cosmic Nose argument does succeed on its own terms. However, it should not be regarded as a free-standing argument for the uniqueness of the world. Instead, it depends crucially on the earlier argument in De caelo I.8 for the universe's uniqueness; De caelo I.9 should be viewed as an attempt to extend the conclusion of De caelo I.8 and to show how this conclusion can be made consistent with Aristotle's metaphysical principles about the nature of form.
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