A Question about Naturalism, Mereology, and Individuating Persons

“If [Helen Joy] ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared” (C.S. Lewis 1989, 41).

I think Lewis is basically right. To me, the soul is the formal principle of the body–necessary to explain a person’s identity and individuation despite spatio-temporal and material change. If souls do not exist, i.e. if there are ultimately no real formal causes to explain how the physical parts of a human body can constitute an organic whole conscious and living person, then what natural/physical facts or phenomena could be invoked to explain the fact that I am a whole person? If naturalism is true, and there are no souls, does it remain possible to show that mereological nihilism is false?


Lewis, C.S. 1989. A Grief Observed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Posted on February 9, 2012, in Philosophy of Mind and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I tried asking this question in the R&S section but it was misunderstood.

    I mean both metaphysical and methodological rationalism. Are there any non-naturalist views of reality that are compatible with strong atheism?


    • I assume certain forms of Buddhism could be strongly atheistic, yet posit some sort of non-natural transcendent aspect of reality. Also, I see no reason why one cannot be an atheistic Platonist.

      I would wonder if such a person is applying the same level of skepticism towards those non-natural transcendent aspects of reality as they did to the God question. I suspect that such a position is not logically incoherent, but it may be methodologically inconsistent.


  2. It’s hard to take Lewis too seriously on complex metaphysical issues. He can turn a phrase, to be sure, but he is rather sloppy in his critical analysis and argumentation (the ‘3 L’s’ argument springs to mind).

    Ironically, I mostly agree with a different theist here: Peter van Inwagen. Inwagen embraces a partial mereological nihilism, but acknowledges living organisms as “composites”. (Other non-nihilist philosophies often sin by overcommitting, a la http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mereology/#ComExiIde) While it’s been a while since I’ve read “Material Beings”, he argues that organisms are composites inso far as they participate in the activity of a “life” (he smartly leaves defining this up to the biologists and other scientists). No soul required!


  3. Matt,

    I’m actually not too far off from Peter van Inwagen on this either. The difference is that I don’t think science can define life so long as science is nominalistic and refuses to admit of formal causes. If “life” can be essentially defined, then I would see very little difference between Inwagen and my own hylomorphism, except that I might admit of a few more wholes beyond organic wholes. I think that the soul simply is the form of life that is present in a material body. Those life processes are what I would call the final causes that relate to what a living thing is essentially. But I don’t think this is just a semantic difference. So long as PVI pushes the problem of defining life onto scientists, he really avoids the central question of whether or not souls are necessary to explain organic wholes,as they subsist and function. But I don’t think it’s a scientific question at all. It’s a question about the reality of universals and essences.


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