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The Problem of Temporary Intrinsics

The problem of temporary intrinsics is a problem of persisting through changes in intrinsic properties.

I see an apple fall from the tree. Then 1 see it rot on the dark soil by a stream. 1 see the apple become a hard, red object on a tree branch and then a soft black object on the soil. I see the apple change. There are two kinds of change I see the apple go through:

  • Change in relation to other things: the apple changes its spatial relations relative to the tree and the stream. It is near the tree and far from the stream; then falling, it is far from the tree and near to the stream.
  • Change independent of other things: the apple changes colour, from red to black. The apple changes texture and shape, from hard and spherical to soft and indefinite.

These two kinds of changes can be conceived of as changes in two kinds of properties: extrinsic properties and intrinsic properties. Extrinsic properties are properties that are dependent in some way on things other than the object. Intrinsic properties are not dependent this way.

Intrinsic Properties

The apple’s colour and shape may resemble other objects’ colours and shapes. However, the particular instance of that colour and shape is possessed by that apple alone. It is not possessed along with other things; the apple does not have them dependent on other things. Furthermore, any change in its colour or shape seems to be a change in something in the apple; even if the change is caused by other things, the change is only in the apple—e.g., a bird pecks a piece out of the apple, changing its shape, but not changing the shape of anything else.

These properties are intrinsic properties. According to Langton and Lewis, a thing’s possession of an intrinsic property “is independent of accompaniment or loneliness”:

  • Accompaniment: a thing has accompaniment (or is accompanied) if and only if it coexists “with some contingent object wholly from itself”.
  • Loneliness: A thing is lonely if and only if it does not coexist “with any contingent object wholly distinct from itself”.

So, an intrinsic property is a property that something can have whether the thing is either accompanied or lonely. The property is “compatible with both; it implies neither” (Langton and Lewis 1999, 117).

What examples are there of intrinsic properties? Common examples are shape or colour: objects can have them if they are alone or accompanied. As such, if these properties are intrinsic, changes in shape or colour are changes in intrinsic properties.

We might wonder however: are such properties intrinsic? Lewis seems to take it for granted they are. When we sit down, that we are “sitting down”-shaped is a property of us that we have even if we are alone, unrelated to other things, or related to other things. It may be possible to argue against this. For example, maybe objects cannot have their shapes on their own but only in relation to other things. Like being large or small, an object is only “sitting down”-shaped in the absence of other things; or an object is only the colour red in the presence of other things, i.e., when it is accompanied.

We may object to such reasoning. This is not enough to hold these properties are intrinsic. And, given other examples, we may argue that those examples are also not intrinsic properties. However, if we insist that ordinary objects have no intrinsic properties, then we are insisting that they have their properties only in relation to other things or only in the absence of other things. This means the following: take an ordinary, everyday object; take any property of that object; no matter what that property is—shape, colour, weight, sound, smell—it is the same as the object being small or being far away or being loud or being alone. The object only has it in relation to something else, or in the absence of something else.

Another objection to the idea that ordinary objects have intrinsic properties is that intrinsic properties cannot change. Intrinsic properties must belong to the object throughout the object’s existence. If the object persists, then the object’s intrinsic properties persist. For example, an intrinsic property of the object might be its morphology: the general shape of an object independent of how it twists or bends, such as the general body plans of mammals. An object may have this morphology throughout its existence, only ceasing to have it at the object’s destruction.

However, along with morphology, objects also have temporary shapes. Their morphology may persist through twisting and bending, but their shape changes through twisting and bending. Either their shape is not intrinsic, and depends on other things, or it is intrinsic. If the shape is intrinsic, then, since the shape changes, it is an intrinsic property that changes.

Temporary Intrinsic Properties

A common theoretical way of understanding changing intrinsics is that one temporary intrinsic replaces another temporary intrinsic. For example, an object changes its (intrinsic) property of shape when one temporary shape replaces another temporary shape.

As such, we might ask: how does the same object replace one intrinsic property with another? We have already discussed attempts at explaining how persisting objects have the property being at a time. Being at a time that is not the entire duration in which an object exists is, if a property at all, a temporary property. So, let us consider similar attempts to explain intrinsic change.

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