Heraclitus and the physical

The following is an idea that Brentano tries to develop into an argument for non-physical existence. I’m here reformulating it in my own terms.

Hypothesis: a physical thing becomes a different individual if it changes at all, even in place or with respect to time.

I take my coffee cup downstairs to write. There has to be some sense in which it is the same one upstairs and down. Let’s look at the possibilities for why it is the same:

1.) It’s the same concave-and-behandled mass of porcelain.

2.) It’s fulfilling one function throughout the whole trip. If the handle broke off on the steps and I just happened to see something that would work just as well as a handle, then I’d talk about a putting a new handle on the same cup. If all the parts of the cup were replaced in the same way, I’d still call it the same one.

But the function is something I impose on a thing from without: it’s no more intrinsic to porcelain than a yoke is intrinsic to an ox. But the the intrinsic causes mentioned in (1) are only realizations of the goal that is extrinsically affixed, and so are likewise extrinsic.

This leads us toward the idea of substantial form. But the substantial form in the inanimate is not very good at giving us an individual. When I speak of “this paint” I’m either talking about the sort of thing it is (forest green, say) or I’m remarking on it being in some one container, or something like this. But none of these things make “this paint” an individual. True, this substantial form with this matter will give us a “this”, but the work of specifying the “this” will have to fall to the accidents.

Now any inanimate thing can have a participated individuality: a Stradivarius violin, for example, participates so strongly in the individual who made it that it would take very few modifications to destroy the individual it is. The ship of Theseus, however, is whatever ship that makes the journey to Minos once a year, and so we could just as well replace it with another ship without it ceasing to be the individual it is (as happens frequently with Air Force One). But these are all extrinsically affixed individualities. What sort of individual is an inanimate thing in itself?

So it seems that the inanimate (or the physical as such) either is no individual at all, or its individuality includes all specifying accidents, which alone specify it as this rather than that. But the first option seems impossible, since there has to be something in virtue of which the inanimate is a concrete reality as opposed to an abstract one. So this leaves us with the totality-of-accidents account, in  which case the physical as such is best described in Heraclituswise: you cannot step in the same river twice, and the coffee cup I brought downstairs is not the same one that arrived there.

But there is an element in Heraclitus’s claim that goes overlooked:  you can’t step in the same river twice. The river’s individuality – it’s existence – is forever unstable and in flux, but the you is not. In this sense, Heraclitus’s insight is a critique of physicalism: the stability of the self is essentially divided from the existence of the physical. The reality of substance, based as it is on the observation that the real is concrete and not abstract, can only be verified if the real is principally not the physical.

This realization of individuality admits of more and less. Leibniz’s indiscernibility axiom won’t allow for the (veritable) individuality of the animate to be all of the same kind, and the animate as such, existing in time, can never be the same individual simply and without qualification. Individuality simply requires transcending time and spacial location simply and not in various qualified ways. The indiscernibility axiom thus develops into a cosmological argument, which in turn supplies a standard for a declension of existence so far as the existent is individual.


%d bloggers like this: