Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Chapter Three Summary of Stephen Mumford's Metaphysics

      In chapter three of Metaphysics, Stephen Mumford expounds upon the idea of, are wholes just the sums of parts? We know complex wholes are made up of parts, for example a cake is made of flour, eggs, frosting, etc. or we can look at a computer and see that it is made up of smaller detailed parts and pieces, all put together in a certain way or order to make the bigger complex whole. Mumford points out here however, that although we can know something is complex, we cannot know if something is simple. We used to think the atom was the smallest thing out there, yet scientist have proven atoms are made up of smaller things we did not know existed until our technology could show us these smaller parts. So how can we ever know if we have found the simplest form? Can we ever for sure say we have found it? One theory in the philosophical sense is called atomism. The belief behind this is that everything can be reduced down to its smallest possible parts, parts that are no longer divisible or reducible.
Let us get back to the topic at hand, are wholes just the sums of parts? Mumford uses a pile of rock for his next example on page 27. Our hypothetical pile of rocks can demonstrate how a whole is the sum of its parts. If the pile is roughly stacked up, perhaps in reaches 3 feet high. No single rock is 3 feet high, however putting the rocks together in a pile has built the whole into a 3 foot high mound. What about more complex things like a cell phone? Again, we can see that the sum of its parts make up its shape, for example the case determines its dimensions. However, Mumford points out here that there are features of the phone that are not limited to the size of the case. For example, its capability to store photos, access the internet, etc. He states that, “ These rather amazing capacities seem of a different kind to the length of the case. There, the whole had a greater quantity of a property that was already possessed by the parts. They each had lengths that added up. But in the case of some of these operations of the phone, it doesn’t seem like there is any individual part that had the capacity in any degree. There is a disanalogy with the length case, therefore. It is not as if the bottom quarter of the phone is able to make a quarter of a call, whereas it presumably has a quarter of the length of the whole…” (p.28). I assume what he is stating here is that in some cases, parts can be greater then there wholes. The fact that a piece of the phone is capable of accessing the internet holds greater value then the case which determines the color of the phone. Also, parts are not given space according to function. For example, just because there is a part of a phone that allows for calls to be made, some would argue the primary function of a cell phone, does not mean that piece gets a majority of the phone itself. The importance of a function or piece is not proportional to its size in the whole. I could be way off on this analysis so any insight into this area to get me back on track would be greatly appreciated.
Let us now move on to substances v. aggregates. Continuing with our examples, if I move a stone from the pile to another pile, the original stone pile remains, minus one stone. It is made up of aggregate parts, they are not joined together or in any specific order. However, if I grab the top of the cell phone and move it, the entire thing moves as one unit. The phone is held together with connecting parts, placed together in a specific order. Here is where the opposition between the two gets interesting. According to Mumford, if I remove and replace a few stones from my pile, I now have a different pile of stones. However, if I remove and replace a part of my cell phone like the cover, I now do not have a different cell phone. Thus, substances can survive change whereas aggregates cannot (p.29).
Now, getting back to the quality of parts in a complex substance, some parts of a whole can be viewed as more important than others, there are also parts that seem to ‘emerge’ as Mumford states. For example consciousness. Consciousness seems to be a property of the whole organism yet something we do not find among the parts. The two main views right now are the reductionist view, someday science will be able to show us that the parts will ultimately explain the whole including how the brain creates life/consciousness, and emergentism, the belief that wholes are more then the sum of its parts.

So, my questions are as follows: Reductionists would also be atomist correct? Both believing wholes are the sum of parts which can be reduced down to the simplest things? Thus explaining things like consciousness by believing at some point the mechanical and chemical combination of the smallest simplest parts creates these apparent functions that are not assigned to specific pieces in the complex whole as opposed to emergentists who believe they appear? Can we then go as far to say that variations in the amount and way the mechanical and chemical simplistic parts are put together account for degree in consciousness? For example, humans are the only species on Earth that have achieve the advanced state of consciousness we are currently at, as far as we know. Does that mean our parts have perfected the merging process to develop our level of consciousness or do we carry extra ‘ingredients’ that perhaps other contending species such as dolphins and chimps do not have or have not developed yet? And if it is something that develops, how do we account for that? Are the simplest parts capable of evolving over time? Doesn’t that mean that they can change? Is that even possible? And if not then doesn’t that point to simplest parts being static, therefore an organism must already possess certain pieces in order to achieve the level of consciousness we have? Then how do we explain evolution? If our ancestors were tool baring nomads that evolved over time, that must mean the simplest parts of their piece that created the whole changed over time, yes? Are the simplest parts of pieces in a whole static or can they change/ evolve over time?


  1. Excellent questions, Sarah. More on this soon, but for now let me admit my own bias on these part/whole issues: reductionists who reduce multiplicity to a simpler account are always at risk of omitting important details in the name of unity. We should accept as much unity as the facts allow, but no more. (And we should accept no "alt facts" whatsoever.) Simple parts MUST evolve.

  2. Another chapter 3 thought: Mumford opposes reductionism to emergentism, and that's correct in the case of those reductionists who really insist that parts always explain wholes, leaving no room for anything truly new under the sun. A more interesting view holds that reductionist explanation sometimes succeeds, but that there are genuinely emergent phenomena in the universe - possibly including human consciousness - that include irreducible components like personal self-awareness and perceptual immediacy. Precisely what it's like to be you or me would fall into that category, on this view, thus resisting the quest to give an exhaustive general account of experiential reality. There are realities in the universe you can only get at, in other words, by indicating the unique status of particular points of view. They can't be "reduced" but must be taken in their own terms.

    "For most reductionists, it would be the science of physics..." that (as some reductionists like to say) "fixes the facts." My own pluralistic view is that some facts, like the regularly observed movements of various classes of inanimate objects, can indeed be fixed by physics; but others, including many facts characterizing one's own personal experience and intentions, cannot be so determinately fixed in advance of their actual occurrence.

    "It seems confused to say that one's genes went for a walk: it is the person who walks." (32) Yes! Persons are in this sense irreducible to their parts.

    Looking forward to your thoughts on the next chapter, on change. This is a perennial question in philosophy, once addressed by the temporary philosopher from Mayberry Goober Pyle: "If a man's hisself, how can he change?" And then Goober changed back into his more familiar, comfortable, non-intellectual persona. But he DID change.