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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Are you substantial?

Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between substances and attributes. This may seem like yet another piece of obscure philosophical jargon, but is meant to capture the very intuitive distinction between objects and their properties. My pet hamster, Colonel Mustard, is a substance. Colonel Mustard's furriness is one of his attributes. The problem of accounting for the fact that different substances can share attributes has been the subject of several posts on this blog. Another worry has to do with providing a clear criterion for demarcating substances from attributes. At least since Aristotle, a very standard way of doing this involved saying that attributes necessarily depend on things outside of themselves for their existence, while substances do not. The following excerpt from Descartes' Principles of philosophy (I.51) exemplifies this well:

" By substance we can understand nothing other than a thing which exists in such a way as to depend on no other thing for its existence."

The thought here is that attributes, by their very nature, always seem to depend on other things for their existence, namely, the substances that 'have' them. Colonel Mustard's furriness couldn't possibly exist without Colonel Mustard (or, at least, without other furry things). An attribute essentially needs to inhere in a substance in order to exist. A substance, in contrast, is not dependent in this way. Of course, typical substances themselves in fact depend on other substances for their existence -- Colonel Mustard wouldn't survive very long if I stopped feeding him, or if the sun disappeared. Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible to conceive of Colonel Mustard as existing without the sun, or without being fed, though the laws of nature make this impossible in the actual world. In contrast, it is impossible to conceive of 'furriness' existing without something that is furry. Hence, attributes like 'furriness' necessarily depend on other things for their existence, while substances like Colonel Mustard do not.

This way of demarcating substances from attributes accommodates our intuition that objects are in some sense 'more real' than their properties. Colonel Mustard is substantial, he exists in his own right. 'Furriness', at best, is an aspect of him, not fictional, but not substantial either.

The distinction quickly runs into trouble, however, because there is apparently only one being that meets its criterion for substantiality -- God. Indeed, all substances (other than God) are created and sustained in existence by God. Crucially, every substance (again, other than God), if it exists at all, necessarily owes its existence to God. God exists necessarily, and whatever else exists necessarily depends on Him for its existence. This means that while Colonel Mustard's existence may not necessarily depend on the sun, it does necessarily depend on God's creative activity, in the same way that 'furriness' necessarily depends on furry things for its existence. God, on the other hand, being the ultimate and necessary ground of existence, is not similarly dependent (in fact, God is necessarily independent). Descartes recognized this problem, and conceded that, on the standard definition of substance, strictly speaking, God is the only substance. He nonetheless argued that everyday objects could be substances in some attenuated sense, since they are necessarily dependent on God and nothing else, whereas attributes are necessarily dependent on God and on substances (Principles I.51).

A much more radical, if more coherent, response to this puzzle is offered by Baruch Spinoza, who wholeheartedly embraces the conclusion that there is only one substance, God, and that all other alleged substances -- you, me, Colonel Mustard, Donald Trump, etc -- are really just properties or modes of God. You and I don't exist in our own right, we are, at best, aspects of the single divine substance. Steven Nadler puts it nicely in his paraphrase of Spinoza's reply to Descartes:

" In effect, he is saying to Descartes: I agree that a substance is essentially what exists in such a way that it depends on nothing else for its existence; but then, as you yourself admit, strictly speaking only God is a substance; and I, in order to be fully consistent, refuse to concede to finite things even a secondary or deficient kind of substantiality." (2006, p.56)

Hence Spinoza's monism -- there is only one thing, which possesses an infinity of modes. Hence also his pantheism -- everything other than God is an aspect of God, such that God's being 'envelops' everything. This lands us with a rather bizarre theology (it is still debated whether Spinoza's opponents were right in calling him an atheist). More importantly for our purposes, this lands us with an utterly odd picture of ourselves and the objects of the world around us, which, we are told, aren't really objects at all, but properties or 'modes'.

Of course, we can just bite the bullet and accept that we aren't substantial, but instead properties of something else -- God, or whatever else we think to be the ultimate ground of existence. But I tend to think that philosophical systems ought to try to respect the linguistic conventions of wider society. Such conventions stipulate that you, myself, and Colonel Mustard are objects, not mere attributes or properties. As I've said before, philosophers are free to make up their own linguistic conventions, but will have very little to say to those outside philosophy if their use of everyday concepts like 'object' radically differs from that of the wider public. I take it that philosophers should have something illuminating to say to those outside philosophy. Hence, the conclusion that everyday objects aren't substances at all should strike us, I think, as a sure sign that there is something wrong with the argument that inferred it. As we have seen, what brought us to the radical monistic conclusion is the traditional account of the substance-attribute distinction, whereby substances, unlike attributes, are not necessarily depending on anything outside their existence. Thus, if we are to avoid the unacceptable conclusion that you and I are nonsubstantial, it looks like we will have to give up the account. One perhaps surprising upshot of this may be that there is no clear line between substances and attributes. Certainly, different accounts of the distinction can be put forward, but philosophers have struggled to come up with a satisfying alternative (see McBride 2005 for a pessimistic survey of such attempts). But perhaps this shouldn't be surprising after all. The claim that Colonel Mustard isn't a substance or object at all, but rather a mere mode or property of God, may be absurd. But the claim that Colonel Mustard is less substantial than God, but more substantial than 'furriness', isn't obviously absurd.

This is especially true if we take properties to be tropes, i.e. particular things that exist in the objects that have them. If, say, the furriness of Colonel Mustard is a particular 'furriness-trope' that, along with other tropes, helps to constitute Colonel Mustard, then both Colonel Mustard and his furriness are particular, concrete things in the world, and it is easier to imagine how the difference in substantiality might be a matter of degree.

MacBride, F. (2005). The Particular–Universal Distinction: A Dogma of Metaphysics?. Mind, 114(455), pp.565-614. Nadler, S. (2006). Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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