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Nihilistic Endurantism:
A proposal

By
Andrew Hermsmeier

April 2017

Submitted for the partial satisfaction of the degree of MA with Honours in Philosophy
Supervised by Dr. Wolfgang Schwarz
Introduction

In this paper, I propose a marriage of mereological nihilism and endurantism as a way to solve
the problem of temporary intrinsics. In Sections 1-3, I argue that endurantism is our intuitive
account of persistence and that its alternatives (proposed in order to accommodate temporary
intrinsics) have many counterintuitive concessions and problems of their own. In Sections 4-6, I
claim that mereological moderation seems untenable and so we must choose from two
counterintuitive mereological stances: universalism or nihilism (for the sake of discussion, I
assume the positions are equally counterintuitive and defensible). In Section 7, I propose an
endorsement of nihilism, as it allows for a non-ad hoc form of endurantism (i.e., nihilistic
endurantism) that solves the problem of temporary intrinsics and therefore avoids the various
counterintuitive concessions and problems entailed by perdurantists. In Section 8, I consider
three objections against nihilistic endurantism and anticipate that the endurantism v perdurantism
debate will shift towards the battleground of supersubstantivalism v non-supersubstantivalism (in
the event nihilistic endurantism gains favor amongst philosophers). Further, the disproving of
nihilism (like the proving of supersubstantivalism) would serve as a knockdown argument
against nihilistic endurantism. Therefore, I hope to encourage further debate on these two fronts,
with less discussion devoted to—or tacitly affected by—temporary intrinsics.

1: Endurantism and the Problem of Temporary Intrinsics

1.1 Endurantism, being wholly present, and intrinsic properties

Look at your palm. Let’s grant your hand exists (humor me). Five minutes later, you look
at the same hand. Perhaps you’ve clipped your nails. You grant your hand has continued to exist.
This seems simple enough. We’ll consider an object continuing to exist over time (e.g., your
hand) as persisting (Lewis1986, p202).1 As common as the notion is, how do objects do this?

1
We’ll assume material objects exist. This assumption won’t be defended. Further, “objects” should be read as
“material objects” unless stated otherwise.

1
One conception of persistence is known as (standard) endurantism (Lewis1986, p202)—
an object persists through time by enduring iff the object is wholly present at each time along its
worldline (i.e., all of an object’s parts are located at each moment in time at which it exists).2

One might take this a step further by conceding a stronger definition of “wholly present”
(Sider1997, p210) (Merricks1999, p424): X is wholly present at t iff everything that is a part of X
at any point in time is existent and part of X at t. We’ll explore this strong endurantism first.3

Imagine you observe a painting (see Figure 1.1.1). Five minutes later, you notice the
painting still hanging as last observed. It has strongly endured (i.e., it has persisted through time
by being strongly wholly present at each time at which it exists). Now let’s imagine you look at
the painting again and discover a large portion has been ripped off. In this case, the painting you
originally observed hasn’t strongly endured (i.e., all of its parts at any moment in time aren’t
present at this moment in time).

Again, this strong definition of “wholly present” isn’t a standard concession made by
endurantists, but it seems necessary to avoid ad hoc moves (e.g., X has parts-at-a-time, not parts
simpliciter). That said, disallowing change in parts isn’t the only cost of avoiding ad hoc-ery.

2
We’ll assume an eternalist conception of time (i.e., all points in time [past, present, and future] are equally real)
throughout this paper. This won’t be defended.
3
Given we’ve assumed eternalism, we won’t consider Merrick’s (1999) proposed coupling of endurantism and
presentism (i.e., only the present exists).

2
Notably, being strongly wholly present seems to imply that an object maintains all of its
intrinsic properties simpliciter at all times along its worldline. By intrinsic properties, we mean
non-relational properties (i.e., properties not had in virtue of a relation to another object). For
example, imagine a red sphere made out of a non-decaying substance. You put it on your desk,
note its existence, and leave the room. Two days later, you find the red sphere as you left it. It
hasn’t undergone intrinsic change (i.e., change to its intrinsic properties). If (e.g.) it had rolled to
the other end of the desk, no intrinsic change ceteris paribus would’ve occurred. That is, being-
at-this-end-of-the-desk seems to be a relational quality (relational to the desk). Thus, the sphere
is intrinsically unchanged.

Returning to our point, if an object were to persist by being strongly wholly present along
its worldline, it seems that intrinsic properties are unchanged so long as an object persists. That
is, if there are no changes to an object’s parts, in what way could an object undergo intrinsic
change?

Perhaps, one might propose, an object undergoes intrinsic change without undergoing a
change in its parts if a part(s) were to undergo intrinsic change. Unfortunately, this isn’t
satisfactory. If a given part were to undergo intrinsic change, the part seemingly hasn’t strongly
endured. Therefore, the part’s intrinsic change constitutes a change in parts to the object. Thus,
the object hasn’t strongly endured.

While this line of argument might seem circular to the reader, the point is that we have a
reductio ad infinitum: an object can strongly endure and undergo intrinsic change if a strongly
enduring part undergoes intrinsic change if a strongly enduring part-of-a-part undergoes intrinsic
change, etc. Therefore, we need an explanation of how a strongly enduring thing can undergo
intrinsic change without assuming another strongly enduring thing undergoes intrinsic change.
To my knowledge, this cannot be done.4 Thus, strong endurantism avoids ad hoc-ery by allowing
objects to have parts and intrinsic properties simpliciter, but at the steep cost of disallowing
intrinsic change and/or change in parts.

4
For reasons to doubt shape is an intrinsic property (and therefore, reason to doubt a change in shape constitutes
an intrinsic change), see (Skow, 2007). If shape change isn’t intrinsic change, I’m unaware of any intrinsic change
that fails to require change in parts (excluding potential non-physical intrinsic change [e.g., change in intrinsic
mental properties], which we won’t explore). This will motivate the proposal of intrinsically-unchanging (point-
sized) simples (Section 7).

3
With strong endurantism understood, let’s consider standard endurantism by introducing
the problem of temporary intrinsics and briefly mentioning two standard endurantist responses.

1.2 The problem of temporary intrinsics and standard endurantist responses

Let’s return to your hand. We’ve granted it exists. Subsequently, if you accidentally chop
off your thumb, your hand still seems to exist—it seems to have persisted despite losing a thumb.
Yet, we seem to have experienced a change in intrinsic properties(!): your hand was once
thumbed, then it was thumbless. Notably, this change isn’t to a relational property, but a property
that’s only dependent on the way your hand is itself (i.e., an intrinsic property). Thus, to say your
thumbed hand and your thumbless hand are the same hand is a violation of Leibniz’s Law—if X
and Y are the same object, they must share the same (intrinsic) properties.5 Yet, persisting
objects (e.g., your hand) seem to undergo change to their intrinsic properties, thus violating
Leibniz’s law. This is the problem of temporary intrinsics (henceforth, POTI) (Lewis1986, p203-
4). As we’ve seen in the previous subsection, strong endurantists cannot account for this and
must concede the two hands aren’t the same. Therefore, how might standard endurantists
overcome objects seemingly having temporary intrinsic properties?

One proposed standard endurantist escape is adverbialism (Johnston1987, p127-8)—for


an object at a time t to have the property X is for an object to have the property X in a t-ly way.
Thus, having X in a t-ly way and having ¬X in a t2-ly way constitutes no change in intrinsic
properties and therefore an object can standardly endure (i.e., persist via standard endurantism).

Another proposed standard endurantist solution is relationalism (Mellor1981, p110-4)—


for an object to have the property X is really for an object to have the relation X to a time t.
Therefore, an object may bear the relation X to t and the relation ¬X to t2.Thus, change to an
object’s intrinsic properties is really a change to an object’s relational properties to times. Thus,
POTI is avoided and objects can standardly endure.

5
Leibniz’s law is concerned with intrinsic properties (exclusively), given that relational properties require other
objects and are therefore accidental, whereas intrinsic properties don’t require other objects and are therefore
non-accidental.

4
In this way, standard endurantism, unlike strong endurantism, allows enduring objects to
undergo intrinsic change and change in parts. Thus, standard endurantism seems quite intuitive.
Unfortunately, standard endurantism, unlike strong endurantism, seems to be incredibly ad hoc.
That is, one endorses adverbialism or relationalism solely for the purpose of adhering to
endurantism while addressing POTI (or some other formulation of it) by qualifying the way in
which intrinsic properties (and parts) are had.6

While there has been much discussion on both adverbialism and relationalism within the
literature, I won’t discuss either further.7 The success or failure of the proposal to be made herein
(i.e., nihilistic endurantism [Section 7]) is orthogonal to the success or failure of either
adverbialism or relationalism. Nevertheless, standard endurantism—however seemingly
insulated by ad hoc moves—is intuitive and (arguably) survives while strong endurantism
doesn’t. Therefore, henceforth “endurantism” should be understood as “standard endurantism”
unless stated otherwise.

With POTI introduced, let’s consider a possible solution that manifests as a different
conception of persistence.

2: Worm-theory and Temporal Overlap

2.1 Worm-theory: an answer to POTI

One possible reaction to POTI is to bite the bullet and abandon endurantism altogether. In
its stead, we might endorse a conception of persistence we’ll call worm-theory (Lewis1986,
p202)—an object is both spatially and temporally extended, therefore having both spatial and
temporal parts. In this way, an object can be (e.g.) completely red at t and completely blue at t2,
given that these contradictory properties are had by two different temporal parts. Thus,
temporary intrinsics are accommodated.

6
In contrast, there are other reasons/debates that don’t have to do with persistence (directly) that might sway
someone to endorse mereological nihilism. My forthcoming proposal (i.e., nihilistic endurantism [Section 7]) will
turn on the endorsement of mereological nihilism and allows intrinsic properties to be had simpliciter.
7
See (e.g.): (Hawley, 2001), (Haslanger, 2003), (Giberman, 2014), (Haslanger, 1989), (van Inwagen, 1990a), (Lewis,
2002), (Lewis, 1986), (Mellor, 1981), (Johnston, 1987) etc.

5
To explain, Lewis (a proponent of worm-theory) illustrates temporal extension by
comparing it to the spatial extension of a road (Lewis1986, p202). That is, a portion of a road
may lie here while another portion of the road lies over that hill. Nevertheless, it’s the same road.
And so it’s the same with temporal extension: an object may exist now and in the future, but
these are just temporal portions of a temporally extended object. This means noting a change in
an object’s intrinsic properties is simply the observation that one portion of an object’s temporal
extension differs qualitatively from a portion earlier down the object’s temporal extension. Lewis
therefore defines change itself as being a ‘qualitative difference between…different temporal
parts of some [persisting] thing…’ (Lewis1976, p145). Thus, POTI is resolved.

That said, this conception of persistence isn’t without problems. We’ll now turn our
attention to a troublesome phenomenon entailed by worm-theory: temporal overlap.

2.2 Temporal Overlap: a problem for worm-theory

Imagine an extraterrestrial crashes into your garage. For whatever reason, you decide to
let it live there. Fascinatingly, the alien can perform a sort of macro-mitosis where it divides,
thus creating two identical copies of itself.

We’ll call the original alien A1 and the two post-mitosis copies A2 and A3. Interestingly,
we (as tentative worm-theorists) seem to have a case of temporal overlap—A2 and A3 seem to
share a temporal part (i.e., A1). Thus, A2 and A3 are both present at A1, (spatio)temporally
overlapping.8 While initially strange, is temporal overlap counterintuitive upon reflection?9

A common worm-theorist argument is that temporal overlap violates no intuition if we


consider spatial overlap (Wasserman2002, p207). That is, my leg and I share spatial parts and so

8
Endurantists often seem committed to spatial coincidence and therefore encounter similar problems to those
addressed in this subsection. As we’ll see (Section 7), the nihilistic endurantist avoids spatial coincidence.
9
Worm-theorists needn’t concede temporal overlap occurs. That is, a worm-theorist may claim (i) temporal
overlap isn’t coincidence (Heller, 2000), (ii) identity can only be understood in reference to a time (Lewis, 1983), or
(iii) persons have branching pasts and futures (Moyer, 2008). None of these moves clearly succeed, nor do they
make much impact (except as counterintuitive moves avoided) on my final argument (Section 7), so for brevity,
these issues won’t be discussed.

6
spatially overlap. If we don’t protest against spatial overlap, why should we protest against
temporal overlap?

In response, I argue that this commonly drawn parallel doesn’t work. That is, such spatial
overlap examples depend on a sort of mereological hierarchy: my leg and I spatially overlap
because my leg is part of me. This is the case if we say a wheel and a car spatially overlap, a
branch and a tree spatially overlap, etc. Importantly, this mereological hierarchy doesn’t occur in
our alien case of temporal overlap.

To counter, one may turn to the example of merging roads (McGrath2007, p734). For
example, Road-A merges with Road-B. In this case, it will be argued, we have an intuitively
acceptable case of spatial overlap that doesn’t entail the above mentioned mereological
hierarchy.

In response, I argue that the demarcation of one road from another is artificial and
therefore the cited spatial overlap is artificial. In other words, this is a case of nominal labels
being treated as if they have ontological significance. For example, if Nicholson Street nominally
becomes Clerk Street, must we concede a new entity has emerged? Surely not. Similarly (see
Figures 2.2.1 and 2.2.2), it isn’t necessary for us to consider a forking road as two roads
emerging or merging. Rather, we could just as easily conceptualize the road as one y-shaped
road. Of course, this would confuse motorists, so I concede we should give two different names.
That said, given we, admittedly, label roads for the practical needs of motorists, not in the name
of ontological parsimony, we should be much slower in calling upon roads as examples of
spatially overlapping entities.

7
Of course, one may have different intuitions about the amount of roads depending on
(e.g.) the span of road that A and B are merged (compared to the amount of road not merged), if
they split again, etc. If the reader finds their intuitions subject to such winds, the reader must give
hard-and-fast criteria for when roads are two overlapping or one y-shaped. It’s doubtful the
reader will be able to provide such criteria. Thus, one of two intuitions must be endorsed (see
Figures 2.2.3 and 2.2.4): both figures are one road (respectively) or both figures are two roads
(respectively). The reader will likely experience a gridlock of intuitions. Therefore, I suggest the
reader choose one of the two equivalently intuitive/counterintuitive notions that happens to
respect ontological parsimony: both figures are one road.10

Another objection to temporal overlap can be made purely in virtue of the assault it
makes on ontology. If we look at A1 prior to mitosis, the number of entities overlapping at that
moment could be thousands.11 For fans of Occam’s razor (as most of us are), this is unpleasant.12

10
I would be surprised if the reader is willing to betray ontological parsimony because of the strength of their
intuition that Figures 2.2.3 and 2.2.4 are both cases of overlapping roads.
11
This “multiple occupancy” stance was first taken by Robinson (1985).
12
This sloppy ontology causes headaches elsewhere. If we’re unsure how many entities are temporally overlapping
at A1, how does the consequentialist know the ethical weight of (e.g.) sacrificing that life? That is, how many lives
are we considering sacrificing when considering sacrificing A1’s life?

8
If we say the number of entities present at A1 is fixed regardless of whether or not it will
undergo mitosis, we seem to allow for the possibility of 2+ entities temporally overlapping for
the entirety of their existence. Thus, an apple on a table could be 50 apples temporally
overlapping, even if it seems like one apple for the entirety of their existence. This is
counterintuitive.

To avoid this, one might (e.g.) claim that A1’s worldline is y-shaped (Wright2006, p136-
7). If this is the case, we can modify Leibniz’s law to “if X=Y then the worldline[s] of X and…Y
are completely coincident and for any point p along their worldlines, at p, X and Y have all the
same [intrinsic] properties” (Wright2006, p136). Therefore, A2 and A3 (like a y-shaped road)
just are the same entity (i.e., A1). Thus, the number of entities present at A1 is one—independent
of whether or not mitosis occurs.

Still, this move isn’t without its own difficulties. For example, this iteration of Leibniz’s
law—when applied to cases where two entities (with distinct origins) fuse into one object—
seems to conclude that you and I might be the same object (pre-fusion). This counterintuitive
conclusion is exacerbated by the possibility of an indeterministic future. That is, if the future is
indeterministic, you and I currently being one object seems dependent on an indeterministic
future event (i.e., whether we fuse).

Likewise, if we say the number of entities present at A1 is dependent on whether/how


many times it will undergo mitosis, we concede the number of entities present at A1 is dependent
on future events (Wright2006, p133). Thus, an apple on a table could be (presently) one or 50
apples, depending on what the (potentially indeterministic) future holds. This is also
counterintuitive.

While being counterintuitive isn’t an unforgivable sin simpliciter, to be


counterintuitive—while also threatening to multiply beyond necessity or otherwise entail present
de re facts dependent on (potentially indeterministic) future events—seems to warrant some sort
of skepticism against the proposal. With this skepticism in mind, we’ll turn our attention to a
final conception of persistence: stage-theory.

9
3: Stage-theory and I-relations

3.1 Stage-theory: an answer to POTI

If temporal overlap renders worm-theory unpromising, one can still reject endurantism by
endorsing a conception of persistence called stage-theory (Sider1996, p437-8, 443, 445)—an
object is really an instantaneous (i.e., not persisting) object called an object-stage that is linked
to other object-stages by an I-relation (i.e., whatever relation necessary to be had between
object-stages so that persistence occurs) (see Figure 3.1.1).13

Thus, an object can be completely red today and completely blue tomorrow because what
this means is that one object (i.e., an object-stage) is completely red and linked via I-relation to
another object (i.e., object-stage) that’s completely blue. In this way, the red object-stage has the
property will-be-blue in virtue of its relation to the blue object-stage, while the blue object-stage
has the property was-red in virtue of its relation to the red object-stage (Sider1996, p437-8).
Thus, stage-theory resolves POTI.

Further, because object-stages are distinct entities, we avoid temporal overlap (of object-
stages) (Sider1996, p444).14 That is, in our extraterrestrial case, the object-stage just prior to
mitosis is equally linked (via I-relation) to two simultaneously existing (non-overlapping) post-
mitosis object-stages.

With stage-theory understood as a conception of persistence that resolves POTI while


avoiding temporal overlap, let’s turn our attention to a notable hurdle: defining the I-relation.

13
An I-relation is required by worm-theorists as well (Sider1996, p437), (Lewis1983, p59). Defining an I-relation is
therefore a struggle for both perdurantist camps, but, for brevity, we’ll discuss the notion in terms of stage-theory.
Further, any issues for stage-theory arising from the instantaneous nature of object-stages or the possibility of
gunky time can be ignored for the sake of discussion. For more on these issues, see (Butterfield, 2004) and
(Stuchlik, 2003).
14
Sider concedes that temporal overlap (of the sort that entails coincidental worms) occurs in special cases
(Sider1996, p448). I don’t believe this concession is necessary if you deny the existence of complex material
objects (Sections 5 and 7). For the sake of discussion, I ignore this issue and pretend stage-theorists get to keep our
everyday objects and avoid coincidence.

10
3.2 Defining the I-relation: a problem for stage-theory

Sider claims that what constitutes an I-relation is up for debate (Sider1996, p437).
Indeed, an I-relation could be “in terms of memory, bodily continuity, take[n]…as ‘brute’, etc.”
(Ibid.). Further, what constitutes an I-relation for inanimate objects (e.g., chairs) may differ from
that which constitutes an I-relation for animate objects (e.g., persons) (Sider1996, p443).
Nevertheless, without a defined I-relation, we seem unable to say when object-stages are linked
in a way that allows for a persisting object (animate or not). For brevity, let’s concern ourselves
with only one sort of object, whose persistence is often held intuitively dear: persons. How might
a person’s object-stages relate to one another so that said person persists?

11
An intuitive reply is that a person I-relation would be mental continuity between object-
stages, thereby allowing identity to be had across the stages (Lewis1983, p55, 58-9).
Unfortunately, this proposed I-relation doesn’t give us clear answers in all cases.

Recall A1 divides into A2 and A3.15 What happened to A1? Intuitively, A1 can’t equal
both A2 and A3. Thus, we seem forced to conclude that A1 ceased to exist despite mental
continuity being equally had by both A2 and A3 in relation to A1! Yet, if we claim A1 both =A2
and =A3 (in virtue of mental continuity), we seem forced to say A2=A3, despite their lack of
mental continuity.

Even if we ignore the difficulty with A1’s fission, mental continuity still seems
troublesome. For example, let’s say you have memories of being a certain child, C, and therefore
have mental continuity with C. Importantly, mental continuity is only had if the memories are
genuine (Wright2006, p139). Yet, we seem incapable of differentiating between genuine and
merely apparent memories unless we already know whether or not you were C (Ibid.). Thus,
memory (i.e., mental continuity) seems to have no place in allocating or denying personal
identity to entities.16

As mentioned earlier, there are other (person) I-relation candidates (causal dependence,
bodily continuity, brute fact, etc.), but all (like the popular candidate discussed herein) face their
own challenges. Our current scope doesn’t allow us to review each, so I’ll simply say that not
having to define an I-relation is a benefit for any persistence theory that can avoid doing so.

That said, without a reliable definition, it seems hard to determine how stages are ever
linked in a way that allows for personal identity. Thus, I-relations must be defined if stage-theory
is to be a successful conception of persistence.

To recap (Sections 1-3), we’ve introduced three conceptions of persistence and the
respective challenges they face. Importantly, we’ve seen that endurantism is our intuitive
conception of persistence, but that it’s forced to concede ad hoc moves in light of POTI. While
both perdurantist (i.e., non-endurantist) theories resolve POTI, they do this at the cost of

15
The problem to be underscored here is attributable to Parfit (1971).
16
One might object that our inability to identify genuine memories doesn’t mean that genuine memories fail to I-
relationally link object-stages. While this is fair, it seems strange to propose an I-relation we cannot independently
identify. That is, I assume we want an I-relation that allows us to know that stages are I-related.

12
garnering new worries (i.e., temporal overlap and undefined I-relations). Thus, if at all possible,
we should like to salvage endurantism from its ad hoc-ery and thereby avoid counterintuitive
accounts of persistence and the collection of counterintuitive concessions and claims with which
they’re packaged. With this in mind, we’ll now turn to composition.

4: Mereological Moderation

Let’s return to your hand (have a look). I feel it’s safe (for now) to assume your hand is
an object. Interestingly, your hand is an object made up of other objects: palm, fingers, nails,
cells, atoms, etc. We’ll consider an object composed of other objects (e.g., your hand) as a
complex object. While this description seems to fit all of our everyday objects, how do objects
come to collectively compose another object?

Naturally, one believes in complex objects such as chairs, tables, dogs, and cars. Thus,
one naturally believes composition occurs. Likewise, one doesn’t believe that putting a cup on a
table makes the table and cup one object. Thus, one naturally believes composition doesn’t
always occur. This is the stance of mereological moderates (henceforth, moderates) (van
Inwagen1990b, p71). While this position is inarguably our commonsense notion, its success
requires a massive feat: one must provide criteria that explain when composition occurs and
when it doesn’t. To get a feel of just how difficult this task is, let’s consider four possible
attempts.

I. “…if the Xs are in contact, they compose something” (van Inwagen1990b, p33).
Yet, recall our cup and table are in contact, but fail to constitute an object.

II. Xs compose something if they’re fastened so that “…at most only a few [forces]
would be capable of separating them without breaking…or otherwise
damaging…them” (van Inwagen1990b, p56). However, the entanglement of cables
(e.g., two different phone chargers) meets this description, but doesn’t entail
composition.

III. Xs compose something “…if they can’t be pulled apart, or even moved in
relation to one another, without breaking some of them” (van Inwagen1990b,

13
p58). Imagine an Aleutian is impaled with a barbed spear. The removal of the spear
will require breaking (of something), but the Aleutian and spear don’t constitute an
object.

IV. Xs compose something if “…they melt into each other in a way that leaves no
discoverable boundary” (van Inwagen1990b, p59). Notably, this proposal seems to
require complex objects.17 That is, it seems puzzling how someone might fuse two (or
more) non-complex objects.18 Thus, this attempt to show how composition could
occur relies on the assumption that composition does occur and is therefore guilty of
question begging.

In short, maintaining composition occurs—but not always—is a very intuitive response.


Unfortunately, the necessary provision of hard-and-fast criteria for composition is a daunting
task for moderates. As of yet, there seems to be little hope for this view and so we’re forced to
stray from our intuitions about composition.19 With this necessary wandering understood, we’ll
now consider the position that composition never occurs.

5: Mereological Nihilism

Imagine there are irreducible bits of matter—i.e., they aren’t composed of other objects
and so aren’t complex. We’ll call these simples (van Inwagen1990b, p72).20 In order to avoid the
troublesome task of explaining when (and when not) composition occurs, one can claim that
composition never occurs. That is, the only objects that exist are simples. When we think we’re
viewing a complex object (e.g., a teacup) what we’re observing is a bunch of simples arranged in
a teacup-like way. This is the stance of mereological nihilists (henceforth, nihilists) (van
Inwagen1990b, p72-3).

While counterintuitive, nihilism has noteworthy philosophical benefits. For example,


imagine we have a metal lump that’s pressed into a coin. Subsequently, it’s squished back into a

17
III also relies on complex objects. That is, into what would non-complex objects break?
18
Non-complex objects will be discussed in Section 5.
19
For a recent moderate attempt based on the (mistaken, I believe) claim that there can be a thing over-and-above
parts before composition (i.e., a proto-object), see (Carmichael, 2011).
20
We’ll assume simples to be point-sized. This won’t be defended.

14
lump. The coin seems to come into existence when the lump is pressed, but the lump doesn’t
seem to cease existing by being pressed into a coin. Thus, it seems that the lump and coin
simultaneously exist as spatially coinciding objects. This leads to problems similar to those
regarding temporal overlap (subsection 2.2).

Nihilists needn’t concede this occurs. That is, lumps and coins don’t exist—only simples
(arranged in coin-like ways, lump-like ways, etc.) exist. Because simples can’t spatially overlap,
nihilism therefore avoids spatial coincidence.

Nevertheless, one might object that nihilism claims we can know a priori matter isn’t
gunky (i.e., any object is composed of smaller bits ad infinitum). It’s true that we don’t know
simples exist, that matter is or isn’t gunky, etc. That said, nihilism entailing matter isn’t gunky
doesn’t mean nihilism says we can know a priori matter isn’t gunky (and should therefore be
dismissed).21 Rather, nihilism is incompatible with gunky matter. Incompatibility shouldn’t be
conflated with claiming we can know a priori what we can only (hope to) know a posteriori.
Indeed, incompatibility is a virtue that makes a stance worthwhile. If nihilism were compatible
with all conceptions of X, all conceptions of Y, etc., this would make the position less
powerful—seemingly more auxiliary with every group of competing stances with which it’s
shown to be compatible.22 Thus, we should hope for that which ceteris paribus allows us to keep
as many of our intuitions as possible while not being compatible with various hoards of
competing theories.

Nevertheless, if we’re given strong reason to believe our world is comprised of gunky
matter, we’ve strong reason to abandon nihilism (or else trivially claim that objects, like
unicorns, don’t exist in our world). If we’re given strong reason to believe there are possible
worlds comprised of gunky matter (despite any potential lack of gunky matter in our world),
nihilism might also fail (though this is debatable).23 Nevertheless, in the absence of any overt

21
This is similar to a mistake (regarding gunky time) made by Stuchlik (2003).
22
Consider the claims of a psychoanalyst caricature. If you deny your repressed childhood memories it’s because
they’re repressed. If you acknowledge your repressed childhood memories, there’s your proof of your repressed
childhood memories. No matter what, the psychoanalyst cannot be wrong. So, I contend, who cares about such
trivially impregnable claims?
23
Whether nihilism makes a claim about metaphysical necessity (and if so, what this means) is a discussion beyond
the scope of this paper. See (e.g.): (Sider, 1993), (Williams, 2006), and (Chalmers1996, p109-59).

15
hope for the moderate, nihilism remains on the table. We’ll now turn our attention to another
counterintuitive stance: composition always occurs.

6: Mereological Universalism

One might avoid the moderates’ troubles and welcome gunky and non-gunky matter by
claiming composition always occurs. That is, for any set of non-overlapping objects, there is an
object that its members constitute (Rea1998, p348). This is the stance made by mereological
universalists (henceforth, universalists) (Ibid.). Thus, we can have our everyday objects (chairs,
tables, dogs, etc.) while having room for the existence or nonexistence of simples.

Additionally, this stance entails the existence of objects such as the composite object
NRQ, consisting of your nose, a rock in Oklahoma, and a proton in the Queen’s blood.
Importantly, it’s for the same reason that the heterogeneous and scattered NRQ exists that your
hand exists, chairs exist, etc. Thus, we technically keep our everyday objects insofar as we can
say “my chair exists,” but that chair thought to exist by universalists isn’t the same chair
intuitively desired (i.e., the chair exists in virtue of any non-overlapping objects constituting an
object, not in virtue of any intuitively moderate explanation of composition). Nevertheless,
despite failing to salvage any of our intuitions about composition (indeed, arguably straying
further than the nihilist), universalism offers philosophical benefits.

That said, universalism isn’t without costs. Firstly, universalism requires an extreme
disregard for ontological parsimony. While this isn’t a knockdown argument against
universalism, this disregard for parsimony gives a prima facie edge to any alternative stances
judged to be otherwise equally tenable. Further, while nihilism is susceptible to gunky matter,
universalism is similarly susceptible to junky matter (i.e., every object is a proper part of another
object) (Bohn2010, p296).24 Universalism claims there is a composite object E consisting of all
objects (Bohn2010, p298). Yet, if matter is junky, E cannot exist (Ibid.). That is, if E is an object,
it’s a proper part of another object and so cannot be composed of all objects. Thus, unrestricted
composition cannot be true.

24
Nihilism allows junky and non-junky matter.

16
Thus, if we’re given strong reason to believe our world is junky, we’ve strong reason to
believe universalism fails. Whether junky matter (worlds or non-worlds) is possible, is a debate
beyond our present scope.25 Thus (given no tenable moderate proposal), universalism, like
nihilism, remains on the table.

To recap (Sections 4-6), we briefly surveyed three conceptions of material composition.


Importantly, we’ve seen that moderates champion our intuitive conception of material
composition, but that this position doesn’t seem hopeful, given the difficulty of providing hard-
and-fast criteria for when (and when not) composition occurs. Thus, we’re left with two
counterintuitive options: composition never occurs or composition always occurs. For brevity,
we’ll assume that nihilism and universalism are both equally counterintuitive and equally
defensible. Though the reader may disagree with one or both of these assumptions, to weigh-in
on the nihilism v universalism debate (including but not limited to discussions regarding gunk,
junk, and metaphysical necessity) is beyond our current scope. With these assumptions made,
we’ll now consider a novel way to endorse endurantism.

7: Nihilistic Endurantism

By endorsing endurantism, we keep our intuitive account of persistence. This is noted by


philosophers from each camp.26 Further, we avoid temporal overlap, vague I-relations, tensed
identity, violating Occam’s razor, present ontological facts being contingent on (potentially
indeterministic) future events, and necessitating branching time. It’s therefore desirable that we
find a way around one of endurantism’s greatest hurdles: POTI. If we can do so in a way that
isn’t ad hoc (unlike [e.g.] adverbialism or relationalism), this bodes well.

25
For discussions on the incompatibility of junk and universalism, and/or the possibility of junk, see: (Bohn, 2009),
(Bohn, 2010), (Schaffer, 2010), (Watson, 2010), (Cotnoir, 2014), (Giberman, 2015), and (Sanson, 2016).
26
“…endurance is far and away the most popular” (Lewis2002, p2). “…if it was discovered that some objects
perdured while others partially endured we would have some tendency to say that the real persisters were the
partial endurers” (Johnston1987, p130). “Only if [endurantism] is true can we avoid the need to analyze change in
terms of stages…” (Sider1996, p447).

17
Notably, a person could (conceivably) become a nihilist without any discussion of the
jockeying conceptions of persistence. If this were to occur, a nihilist could prima facie naturally
endorse endurantism (i.e., intuitive account of persistence) without any knowledge of POTI.

Therefore, I propose a marriage of nihilism and endurantism: the only objects that exist
are enduring simples.27 We’ll call this position nihilistic endurantism (henceforth, N-
endurantism). Importantly, if an endurantist comes to believe only point-sized simples exist
(thus, objects cannot undergo a change in parts), it seems plausible that intrinsic change doesn’t
occur (see footnote 4).28 Thus, N-endurantism’s force will rely on the further belief that simples
don’t undergo intrinsic change (henceforth, any talk of “simples” should be read [not defined] as
“intrinsically-unchanging simples” unless stated otherwise).29 Therefore, macro-observable
qualitative change is reducible to change of relational properties amongst simples.30 Thus, N-
endurantism resolves POTI without ad hoc-ery (i.e., intrinsic properties can be had simpliciter),
yet avoids the untenable controversy of strong endurantism (Section 1). Outwith POTI, N-
endurantism also resolves other endurantist worries.

For example, endurantism is often thought to entail spatial coincidence. If we have a


lump then coin then lump, we have a lump then a coin and lump (spatially coinciding), then a
lump. But, as we saw in Section 5, nihilism allows us to say there is no lump or coin—only
simples—and therefore no spatially coinciding objects. Thus, N-endurantism avoids spatial
coincidence.31

Another more heterodox worry for endurantism is the idea of a single time-travelling
brick composing a wall at t (Effingham&Robson2007, p633-4). Given that endurantism states an
object must be wholly located at each time it exists, the wall cannot be thought of as a composite
object without violating the weak supplementation principle (i.e., “every object with a proper
part has another proper part that does not overlap the first”) and ‘Parts Just Once’ principle (i.e.,

27
(Super)substantivalist worries will be addressed in subsection 8.3.
28
Thus, one can deny intrinsic change and change in parts without betraying the intuition of the (standard)
endurantist. The only intuition that’s betrayed is that of mereological moderation. Recall that we’ve claimed
moderation seems untenable and granted universalism and nihilism are equally counterintuitive (Section 6).
29
Challenges against this assumption will be addressed in subsections 8.2-3.
30
Emergentist worries will be addressed in subsection 8.1.
31
Perdurantism could also avoid spatial coincidence/temporal overlap/y-shaped worldlines via nihilism. That said,
if nihilism enables endurantism and perdurantism, ceteris paribus one would endorse endurantism.

18
“a composite object cannot have the same object as a proper part many times over”)
(Effingham&Robson2007, p634-5). Perdurantists, on the other hand, can maintain composition
occurs without violating these principles by claiming the wall as composed of temporal parts of
the same brick (Effingham&Robson2007, p635).

In response, N-endurantists can ignore discussions of composition principles (much like


an atheist ignores disputes regarding biblical exegesis) while claiming this special wall—like all
complex objects—doesn’t exist.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that N-endurantism meets Lewis’s criteria for solutions to POTI
(Lewis2002, p1):

I. Avoid making monadic intrinsic properties dyadic.

II. Avoid claiming that having a property is to stand in a having relation to said property.

III. Avoid relying on vague notions of having a relation at a time.

While N-endurantism clearly meets II-III, a comment should be made about its meeting I.
N-endurantism concludes that, if complex object X doesn’t exist, then supposed intrinsic
properties of X seem to be non-intrinsic (i.e., relational).32 This isn’t a violation of I. Thus, N-
endurantism upholds I-III.

With the claims and (some) benefits of N-endurantism presented, let’s now consider three
objections against it.

32
Why these properties shouldn’t be thought of as intrinsic to something else (in the absence of X) will be explored
in subsection 8.1.

19
8: Objections

8.1 Emergentist Objection

It might be argued that N-endurantism is too swift in endorsing a reductionist stance in


regards to macro-observable qualities (e.g., brick-properties of simples arranged in a brick-like
way). Could it not be the case that macro-observable properties are emergent (i.e., irreducible to
the less complex properties from which they arise) rather than reducible to relational properties
amongst simples?

In response, if one denies complex objects, one denies emergent entities, and thus denies
emergent properties. For example, imagine simples compose a brain, a mind is emergent from
said brain, and said mind has emergent mental properties. In this case, emergent properties seem
viable. But if we (as nihilists) deny simples compose a brain, then a mind doesn’t emerge to have
emergent mental properties. Thus, emergent properties don’t obtain.

If one wishes to maintain that emergent properties can occur without emergent entities,
what would have the emergent properties? Simples arranged in certain ways? If this is the case
(indeed, this would be the only possible move), it’s difficult to see why we couldn’t consider
such supposedly emergent properties as simply reducible to the relational properties of simples.

While one might be tempted to consider an arrangement of simples as (e.g.) a system


(i.e., having the emergent property of being-a-system or being an emergent entity with emergent
system-properties), it should be underscored that this nominal label to macro-
qualities/functions/etc. is only necessary for easier practical conceptualizations for humans. 33
Such practical benefits simpliciter don’t validate emergentism any more than a bucket of water
validates its emergence from its molecules. Indeed, while someone might consider a dead brain
lacking an emergent entity had when it was alive, this can also be conceptualized as a change in
the relations amongst simples (the latter being the more ontologically parsimonious
conceptualization). Thus, emergentist claims aren’t worrying for N-endurantists unless
irrefutable examples of emergent entities can be given. While the literature contains moves that

33
Likewise, “an arrangement of simples” needn’t be read as “a plurality of simples with plural intrinsic properties,”
but as “simples arranged in a way (i.e., having the relational qualities to each other) that elicit our perception of X
and/or X-properties”. The latter, ontologically parsimonious reading has been and will continue to be what I mean
by both “arrangement of simples” and “simples arranged in an X-like way”.

20
might allow emergentist interpretations, I’m unaware of any successful display of emergentism’s
necessity (or likelihood of necessity). Without such a reason for why we can’t consider
supposedly emergent properties as reducible, I err on the side of Occam’s razor and endorse
reductionism.

Thus, N-endurantism commits no sin by endorsing a reductionist stance in regards to


macro-observable properties.

8.2 Time-travelling Simple Objection

Imagine a time-travelling simple manages to be spatially multilocated at t, thus allowing


a single simple to be arranged in a brick-like way. Thus, there will be macro-observable brick-
properties reducible to the relational properties amongst the intrinsically-unchanging simples.
Yet, in this case, only one simple is present. Does this mean that the inter-simple relational
properties to which the brick-properties reduce are actually intrinsic properties of one simple? If
this is the case, a change in brick-properties could actually be (reducible to) an intrinsic change
of a single simple. Thus, simples aren’t intrinsically-unchanging and N-endurantism loses its
force.

Further, even if one concedes that a brick-like arrangement requires more than one type
of simple (we’ve prima facie no reason to assume there to be only one type of simple), surely
(barring some unknown fact about simples) a large enough quantity of simples of a singular type
could be arranged in a way that formed an everyday “object”. Call this arrangement blob. If a
blob(-like arrangement) is possible, we can reimagine a time-travelling simple as being arranged
in a blob-like way rather than a brick-like way. Thus, intrinsically-unchanging simples remain
threatened.

In response, I argue that it seems likely (if simples exist) that a simple of Type-A will be
intrinsically identical to another Type-A simple (given that quarks of a given flavour seem
identical and electrons seem identical [in regards to their static properties]).34 Thus, whether a

34
NB: I’m not necessarily nominating quarks and/or electrons as potential simples. Rather, I mean to underscore
that our most-micro entities (currently postulated by mainstream physics) seem to be static-qualitatively (i.e.,
intrinsically) identical to other particles of the same type (e.g., charm-quark A is intrinsically identical to charm-

21
blob is an arrangement of one time-travelling simple or n-amount of different non-time-travelling
simples of the same type, there seems to be no qualitative difference whatsoever.

Therefore, unless one wishes to (i) consider the relational properties between two simples
of the same type as intrinsic properties, then one shouldn’t (ii) consider the relational properties
between a singular multi-located simple as intrinsic (given that there needn’t be any qualitative
[intrinsic or relational] difference between the two scenarios). To concede (ii) without conceding
(i) would seem to make qualities’ intrinsic-ness or relational-ness dependent on facts that make
no qualitative impact on the scenario(s) (i.e., whether those are two simples or one multi-located
simple).35

If further explanation/justification is needed, N-endurantists might consider simples as


material universals (i.e., objects that just are instantiations of a universal).36 Thus, all (e.g.)
Type-A simples could be thought of as the same object wholly multi-located. This would make
sense of a blob-like arrangement of one time-travelling simple being no different from a blob-
like arrangement of multiple non-time-travelling simples.

Further, a relational property between two instantiations of the same entity would seem to
be non-intrinsic, given that one instantiation doesn’t necessarily require another instantiation of
itself. So any relational property arising between two (or more) instantiations could be
considered accidental (i.e., non-intrinsic). This would also provide incredible ontological
parsimony (all of the supposed stuff in the universe would be reducible to instantiations of
fundamental stuff) while upholding Leibniz’ law.37

That said, I’m unsure if this move is necessary, but consider it a tentative option for the
N-endurantist that warrants further discussion. For now, I hope it’s acceptable enough that
whether a property is intrinsic or relational shouldn’t be dependent on a factor that makes no

quark B). Thus, if these particles are simples (or composed of simples), it seems likely that simples would therefore
be intrinsically identical.
35
If one concedes (i) and (ii), we simply make a conceptual adjustment: traditional relational properties become
intrinsic-relational and traditional intrinsic properties become intrinsic-static. Subsequently, the current discussion
would continue as it has (just under new technical banners).
36
Think of Hume’s bundle theory (Hume1738, Book I, Part IV, Sec VI) without the troublesome bundling (i.e.,
without instantiations of plural universals being one object).
37
Of course, two simples will vary in their spatiotemporal location (i.e., quasi-qualitatively differing), but this is
necessary for multiple instantiations of a universal or any intrinsically identical (non-overlapping) objects.
Objections against this understanding of spatiotemporal locations will be addressed in subsection 8.3.

22
qualitative impact on a scenario. Thus, change to the arrangement of a single time-travelling
simple avoids being non-relational, simples avoid intrinsic change, and N-endurantism maintains
its force.

8.3 Supersubstantivalist Objection

Lastly, one might argue that spatiotemporal location isn’t a relational property. If this is
the case, any change in spatiotemporal location might constitute an intrinsic change. Therefore,
simples cannot persist without undergoing intrinsic change. Thus, N-endurantism loses its force.

One might argue that spatiotemporal location isn’t a relational property by endorsing
supersubstantivalism—spacetime is the only substance (Schaffer2009, p133).38 While there are
various interpretations of this claim, we’ll assume the reading most well-known: spacetime and
matter are the same substance (Ibid.). Thus, located material and their locations are identical
(Ibid.).39 If this is the case, objects cannot persist without undergoing intrinsic change
simpliciter. Therefore endurantism (of any form) necessarily fails (Schaffer2009, p135).

Fortunately, there are other options. For example, one might endorse relationism—
material entities (with spatiotemporal relations) are the only entities that exist (Dainton2010,
p154).40 Therefore, change in spatiotemporal location can be considered a relational change
amongst material objects. Thus, N-endurantism (and its force) is permitted.

N-endurantists can also endorse a moderate position called substantivalism—


spatiotemporal locations and material objects exist as equally fundamental types of substances
(Dainton2010, p152). While substantivalism (like supersubstantivalism) claims spatiotemporal
locations aren’t relational properties of material objects, it also fails to make location an
intrinsic property of material objects. Therefore, substantivalism fails to make location change
an intrinsic change for material objects.41 Thus, N-endurantism retains its force.

38
Schaffer (2009, p133) uses the term “monistic substantivalism”.
39
Lehmkuhl (2015, p6) also notes that this interpretation is probably most well-known. For a discussion on the
various moves and auxiliary claims available to the supersubstantivalist, see (Schaffer, 2009) and (Lehmkuhl, 2015).
40
NB: this isn’t to be confused with relationalism (strain of endurantism).
41
Even if a simple’s located-at property is dependent on its relation to a location (Dainton2010, p152), its intrinsic
properties aren’t qualified by its relation to a location.

23
While our current scope doesn’t allow for discussion regarding the nuanced
supersubstantivalism debate, it’s worth noting that perdurantists can endorse any of the above
mentioned conceptions of spacetime, while endurantists (of any form) cannot endorse
supersubstantivalism.42 Thus, it may be in the interest of any opponents of N-endurantism to
endorse, and vehemently argue for, supersubstantivalism, given that strong evidence in its favor
would serve as strong evidence against all endurantism. Likewise, I believe those drawn to N-
endurantism should make the defense against supersubstantivalism an underscored priority.
Supersubstantivalism v alternatives (along with universalism v nihilism) has the potential to
become a primary battleground for the endurantist v perdurantist debate (if N-endurantism were
to gain favor amongst philosophers).

Conclusion

To conclude, N-endurantism allows us to keep our intuitive account of persistence by


solving POTI without ad hoc-ery (i.e., intrinsic properties can be had simpliciter). Further, it
avoids spatial coincidence, temporal overlap, vague I-relations, tensed identity, present
ontological facts being contingent on (potentially indeterministic) future events, and
necessitating branching time. Lastly, by denying temporal parts, material composition, and
emergentism, N-endurantism is incredibly ontologically parsimonious.43

My hope is that the proposal herein therefore garners enough interest to encourage further
(persistence) debate within the realms of supersubstantivalism v non-supersubstantivalism and
nihilism v universalism, with less discussion devoted to—or tacitly affected by—temporary
intrinsics.

42
For more on this debate, see: (Earman & Norton, 1987), (Hoefer, 1998), (Dainton2010, p145-63), (Skow, 2007),
(Dorato, 2008), (Schaffer, 2009), and (Lehmkuhl, 2015). For more on this debate in relation to persistence, see:
(Sider2001, p110-20), (Gilmore, 2008), and (Gilmore, 2014).
43
N-endurantists can also endorse relationism (rather than substantivalism) to further augment ontological
parsimony.

24
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