Mereological Nihilism as a Failure of Mathematical Ontology

Andrew Glynn April 6, 2013

The ’mereological nihilism’ of metaphysicians like Cian Dorr is based on current mathematical ontology, itself based on existential ’being-in’, modeled as an entity-container relationship, a set. As a result, since Cantor, mathematics as a formal ontological language has been able to deal with reality insofar as it can be modeled as a set. In mathematical terms every proof has to be grounded in the axioms of set theory to be regarded as a valid proof. Any specific beingin, though, as opposed to being-in as a general concept, has to be functional. A functional aggregation, mereologically, is a system, not a set. Dorr’s basic premise is that something not in itself unitary is only a ’counted as one’. In terms of set theory this ’counting as one’ is arbitrary and any meaning has to derive from the intention behind the counting. We don’t, though, generally see arbitrary sets of things as ’unified’, as really one. Since this is Dorr’s only ontological sense of what can be considered ’real’ he can only view subparticles that he believes can’t be split any further as really ’one’ thing, therefore as real in an absolute sense. Any aggregation, whether a functional or arbitrary one, is treated as an arbitrary set with no inherent meaning. That Badiou begins with the same basic assumptions makes a natural relation between his basic ontological assumptions and his ontology of event difficult to fathom, other than viewing those assumptions as immediately discarded in favour of an ontology of event as the ground of meaning. Since Badiou doesn’t clarify 1

that he has in fact discarded the rationalist assumptions, nor does he provide an alternative, which makes it difficult to see in what his ontology of event is grounded in. For Dorr, what we commonly perceive as ’things’ that have multiple parts are simply epiphenomenal ’compositions’. A real thing eventually devolves to the subparticle level, which somewhat contradictorily is no more than a posited model. While truth may often take the form of fiction, to abandon experience of world in favour of an invented and only partially successful predictive model is itself an irrational move predicated on ungrounded, undemonstrated beliefs.

... people, if they exist, are epiphenomena. If I exist, then my impression that my choices make a difference to events outside myself is an illusion. . . . I am convinced that if I existed, I would have to be causally efficacious. If there are epiphenomena, then they are of no importance to me; whereas if I exist, then I am of great importance to myself. But if I exist, then I am an epiphenomenon. Hence I do not (strictly and literally speaking) exist. There are thoughts, feelings and experiences with no thinker – at least no single thinker; maybe the many things that I used to call ‘the particles that compose me’ could be said jointly to think, feel and experience. Cian Dorr, “Mereology as a Fiction”, unpublished paper , pp. 13 and 14. While Dorr’s position is extreme, it remains a self-consistent extrapolation from the assumptions underlying mathematics taken to their completion. It is extreme because it is a negative ontology. Where ontology generally looks at how given things are meaningful, Dorr claims that not only the meanings but the things themselves are fictional.


The confusion between sets and systems, propagated by the inability of mathematics to account for systemic traits, is at the heart of the following paper arguing in favour of non-classical mereology, based exclusively on sets, yet includes systems without differentiation:

This case proceeds by undermining the appeal of classical mereology and then showing how it fails to cohere with our intuitions about a measure of quantity. Part Two shows how Heyting mereology provides an account of sets and classes without resort to any nonmereological primitive. ... Mereology, the theory of parts and wholes, has several distinct paradigms. One is something we can take apart and put back together again, say a bicycle made up of a hundred parts including the nuts and bolts. Another is something that is divisible in many different ways such as a cake. A third is political geography, where shires, counties, cities, and so on, make up states, which make up nations, and so on. Not surprisingly these paradigms concern systems with only nitely many parts even when, as in the cake paradigm, there is no precise point at which parts of cake cease to be cake. So we should not carelessly assume that a system with innitely many parts satises axioms extrapolated from the nite case. “Nonclassical Mereology and Its Application to Sets”, Peter Forrest (italics mine)

Aside from the continuing rationalist belief in measurability as the ontological criterion of the real, itself an irrational assumption that makes rationalism on3

tologically worthless, the equivocation between set composition with systemic arrangement makes this argument particularly. However this type of argument will remain an ontological temptation, since we don’t have a mathematics ontologically founded on system, but only one founded on arbitrary sets. The result can be seen in the difficulty ’complexity’ mathematics has in dealing with systems. While it can measure systemic complexity, and even demonstrate strong emergence of additional complexity within a simple system, ’complexity’ mathematics itself can only deal with systems that we would hardly consider, relative to the world we encounter, as complex. 8 bits with a parity bit, for instance, is a system requiring complexity mathematics to properly grasp the multi-scale relations, but it’s hardly a complex system in our usual sense of the term. The relations in a system are not in any way adequated by any of our mathematical representations, since relations are modeled as arbitrary rather than functional, and the ’functions and relations’ we create in our attempts to model systems are as a result complex and difficult to resolve. In a set, relations are accidental to the entities represented in the set, but in a system the relations are ontologically more primary than the parts the relations are between. A part in a system can be replaced by a different part, even one substantially different, without changing the substance of the system, as long as the different part functionally behaves in the same manner in terms of its relational responses. This brings up the ’metaphysics of substance’ that Dorr and others are at such pains to denounce. In not finding a measurable, material substrate that could correspond to the concept of ’substantiality’ of the real, itself predicated on an arbitrary disbelief in non-material reality, substance itself is rejected as a chimaera. But the ’substantial’ parts of a system are themselves systemic. We model parts and parts of parts as systemic all the way down to the split


in the nothing itself, in a quantum sense. ’Substance’, as what could make one part ’substantially’ different yet swappable in a given system is the form of the functional relations that make a system systemic, and thereby differentiate it from an arbitrary set. Assuming a material substrate as ’substance’ misses the phenomenality of substance itself, and thus finds it illusory. By contrast quantum mechanics, while itself a mereological formulation, is not inherently anti-substantiality, although it finds our common sense notion of substantiality problematic. Materialism itself, as a rationalism predicated on a notion that is dependent on the ideas as real while simultaneously denying the ideas as real, falls apart in modeling down to the subparticle level, since the primary particles of matter itself are modeled as systems made up of ’things’ that are not in the usual sense of the word material. The realization of Hegel that the ’real’ ideas are not something lying behind or above appearance, but come about as a reduplication of experience in subjective representation of what itself appears in the initial experience. As functional, the highest scale of functionality is the most determinative scale. The highest level of scale in a given system of subsystems is deterministically effective upon the lower scale systems, while effects from the lower scale on the higher are inherently unpredictable. It is in this sense of substance as functional that the ’count as one’ is not arbitrary, but inherent to the system, and the system can then be said to ’be’ one in that it counts itself as one prior to any interpretation. Reductionism, an integral part of rationalism, is problematic precisely because it loses sight of the determining scale in the things it analyzes in a reductive manner.


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