On the alleged innocence of mereology

Massimiliano Carrara
University of Padua
In Parts of Classes [Lewis 1991] David Lewis attempts to draw a sharp contrast between mereology and set theory and to assimilate mereology to logic. He argues that, like logic but unlike set theory, mereology is “ontologically innocent”. In mereology, given certain objects, no further ontological commitment is required for the existence of their sum. On the contrary, by accepting set theory, given certain objects, a further commitment is required for the existence of the set of them. The latter – unlike the sum of the given objects – seems to be an abstract entity whose existence is not directly entailed by the existence of the objects themselves. The argument for the innocence of mereology is grounded on the thesis of “Composition as identity”. Lewis analyses two different versions of the thesis: the first is the Strong composition thesis, according to which certain objects are their sum, where the use of “are” would mean that composition is literally identity. The second version is the Weak composition thesis, according to which composition is analogous, under some aspects, to identity. He criticises the first version of the thesis and argues for the second one. In the paper we argue that (T1) arguments for the ontological innocence of mereology are not conclusive. An obvious objection to the Strong composition thesis is that – given certain objects Xs – they cannot be their sum because none of them is the sum. One could reply to this objection by observing that the “are” in the sentence “The Xs are their sum” is to be understood collectively and not distributively. But the crux is that the collective reading fails to generate a new entity, whereas mereology, in particular in Lewis’ use for the reconstruction of set theory as “megethology”, needs to consider sums as real objects. Besides, we contend that Lewis’ argument for the innocence of mereology based on the Weak composition thesis is a petitio principii. The reason is that the aspects of the analogy between composition and identity, which Lewis emphasises, obtain under the presupposition of the existence of sums. But this is just what a denier of innocence would refuse. (T2) Some arguments against the ontological innocence of mereology show a certain ambiguity in the innocence thesis itself. Some defences of the innocence seem to implicitly presuppose that the sum of certain objects Xs is not a genuine entity. Speaking of the sum of the Xs would be just another way of speaking plurally of the Xs. However, the relevant use of sums in mereology treats them as well determined objects. The relevant innocence thesis takes for granted that, though sums are genuine objects, nevertheless their existence does not require any further commitment. (T3) The innocence thesis, apart from Lewis’ defence, seems to depend on a general conception of the nature of objects and on how the notion of ontological commitment is understood. We think that the thesis is the manifesto of a realistic conception of parts and sums. This conception consists of the following clauses: (i) given any object x, it is well determined which parts it possesses; these are in turn objects whose existence is a necessary consequence of the existence of x. (ii) However any objects Xs are given, they automatically constitute a well determined object x which is their sum; (iii) We can refer singularly and plurally to parts and sums of given objects. Obviously, one might wonder if such a conception is really ontologically innocent. One could object that it is not innocent because clauses (i) – (iii) are not. For example, clause (i) could be considered as an ontological commitment to the existence of sums. But the innocence at issue does not concern the above-sketched conception. The innocence is embedded in the conception itself. In other words, someone who argues for clauses (i) – (iii) takes a point of view from which mereology appears to be innocent. For, such a point of view forces us to consider as well determined the parts of any object and does not allow us to separate the existence of certain objects form the existence of their sum. (T4) is the claim that the alleged innocence of mereology is subject to Quine’s notorious criticisms of the set-theoretical interpretation of second order logic. To the purpose, we construct a mereological model of a substantive fragment of set theory, i.e. the one that grounds the principal model semantics of second order logic. First, we construct a mereological model under the assumption of the existence of infinitely many atoms. Then, we replace this assumption with that of the existence of any infinite object (with or without atoms). Finally, let us make a general point about the innocence thesis of mereology. A conclusive argument for that would be a refutation of the thesis that there are only denumerably many entities. For, since the parts of an infinite object constitute a non-denumerable infinity, such an argument would entail that there could be no infinite without a non-denumerable infinity. However, the thesis that any genuine infinity is a denumerable one has had some important advocates. So, a conclusive argument for the innocence of mereology seems to be highly implausible
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References found in this work BETA

Parts of Classes.David LEWIS - 1991 - Mind 100 (3):394-397.
Is Mereology Ontologically Innocent?Byeong-Uk Yi - 1999 - Philosophical Studies 93 (2):141-160.

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Citations of this work BETA

On the Ontological Commitment of Mereology.Massimiliano Carrara & Enrico Martino - 2009 - Review of Symbolic Logic 2 (1):164-174.

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