Now that I have some genuine philosophers reading my blog and commenting I guess it would be good to get some of my thoughts on what might turn into my dissertation to see if I can get any feedback on them.
One of the problems I've been thinking about has to do with coming into or going out of existence. I had thought I had identified a problem with a view that I've never really liked much, the view that posits coincident entities to explain the puzzles of change. Since a statue and a clay have different persistence conditions (the clay can go on existing once the statue has been melted down), they must not be the same thing, by Leibniz's Law. That means there's a statue and a piece of clay both existing at the same time in the same place, one constituting the other.
Coincident entity theorists have trouble when they admit to something taking time to come into existence. For example, Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper on abortion presents what's now the standard view, among philosophers anyway, about fetuses and personhood. A fetus isn't a person from conception but is by birth (or some say even not yet then but by age 2). The process of becoming a person is not immediate, because 'person' is a vague term, admitting of borderline cases. The problem with saying this is that coincident entity theorists believe some genuinely new thing has come into being once the person exists, just as a genuinely new thing has come into existence when the clay has been fashioned into a statue. Views that say that a fetus has literally become a person (i.e. it has a new property) but isn't a new thing don't face this problem at this point. An ontology that allows a new thing to come into existence out of exactly the same parts as something else that's there is going to have trouble with that thing taking time to come into existence, though, since there's a problem specifying whether the new thing exists during the transitional time. It's neither exists nor fails to exist, just as someone with a certain small enough number of hairs isn't quite bald but isn't quite not bald or some color right in the area between red and pink, say, might not be red but also isn't not red.
So I thought this was a problem for people who hold both a coincident entity theory and the vagueness of personhood view, neither of which I hold, but Judith Jarvis Thomson has recorded her agreement with both. Then I hit some trouble. Some people might just insist that existence is vague, but I have trouble seeing what this amounts to. Most philosophers seem to think existence is captured in logical notation by the existential quantifier. Does the existential quantifier admit of vagueness? Quine's legacy still holds strong on this matter. It's not as if there are different ways of existing, as Anselm thought (and Meinong is often wrongly presented as having thought). It's not as if some things exist and other things exist even more. There's no such thing as partial existence (though there are things that don't exist anymore while some parts of them still exist). Yet if there's a time when it's neither true nor false that the new thing has come into existence, as views allowing vague personhood require, then there's no fact of the matter whether this new thing exists. It's somewhere between existence and non-existence? How could that be?
Problems have been raised with what sort of indeterminacy of existence someone would have to hold to get out of this problem. No way I've seen would actually solve it, though I'm not sure why someone would want to go that way anyway. Maybe I'll have to end up looking in that direction in the end, but I'd rather just deny coincidentalism.
The problem I ran into was that coincidentalism isn't the only view that falls prey to this problem. The views that get out of it include any with unrestricted mereology, i.e. any two things form a third thing, the mereological sum of the two -- so there's a real thing that's the sum of me and the Eiffel Tower. If two things that form a third thing come together, and the third thing already existed as an entity with two disconnected parts, then simply putting the parts together doesn't create a new thing. It just unites those parts. So putting the two things together doesn't create a new thing. The new thing already existed. Thus even if it takes time for the two to come together, it doesn't matter. The "new" thing isn't new. It's just got a new property, having all its parts connected. The two "original" things also still exist, just as parts of the third thing, but they were parts of it before. They just weren't connected parts of it.
In some ways I'm attracted to this kind of view. I like to get rid of the arbitrariness that comes will picking out objects that exist as the ones we care about, when there are perfectly reasonable objects that we don't care about. If a bicycle gets taken apart and put back together, it seems to me to be the same bike. If the parts get shipped to various parts of the world and eventually put back together, I still want to say that the bike didn't stop existing during the time when its parts were separated. The objects we do care about have features like this anyway. They're mostly empty space. What seems to us to be contact between its parts is really just electromagnetic attraction over a distance. What seem to be surfaces are really just electromagnetic repulsion between atoms (or bonds between atoms) at the edge of what we call the object and others at the edges of what we call other objects.
One thing that makes me loath to accept a view like this whole-hog without modifying it significantly to fit with other intuitions is that our moral evaluation and continuing experience don't fit with this metaphysical picture very easily. I'm not quite sure how to turn this into an argument, but the basic idea is that whether something really is me and not someone or something else will have moral consequences. For instance, someone in the future who has similarities to me but isn't me will not be be wife's husband. It would thus be adultery if she has sexual relations with him (unless I've died, of course, but if it's a clone somehow aged to adulthood then she might be misled). If he claims to own my house or my car, then he'll be lying (or at least not telling the truth -- he may think he's me, as Arnold Schwarzeneggar's characters in The Sixth Day eventually came to understand). If someone tries to hold him responsible for something I did that he didn't do, even if he remembers doing it, then (contrary to John Locke) what they're doing is wrong.
How does this affect something that might be related to coming into existence? Is it correct for me to say that I was once a fetus, that I was once an embryo? I think it most certainly is. Perhaps the moral issues surrounding that truth (related to whether it would have been ok for someone to have killed me at an early stage) are less certain, at least based on the metaphysics. I'll grant that for the sake of argument, at least for now. Still, the metaphysical issue should affect what you say about the moral issue. Someone who killed me during that stage would most certainly have robbed the world of me, whether that action is wrong or not. However we evaluate the action, we have to consider that fact. But it's not just that it would ensure that I don't exist at this later time. It would have been killing me, plain and simple. If that fetus was me, then killing it would have killed what I then was. This has nothing to do with whether the fetus is a person. On the coincident entity/vague personhood view, however, there isn't even any fact of the matter whether I exist at the time. That just seems so odd to me that I at least wouldn't welcome it as a conclusion.
It isn't too much of a stretch to see how this affects end-of-life issues, though whether a life's being ended counts as going out of existence is more controversial, at least when dualism or the possibility of resurrection is in view, as I think it should be. For that reason I think focusing on coming into existence is a lot simpler. My problem is that I want to take an ontological view that doesn't have these moments of vague existence or indeterminacy of existence, whatever that amounts to. Yet I also don't want to say that the mereological promiscuity that avoids these problems is the whole story. I want to say that some things really do come into existence without any new parts being created (and that some things sustain their existence through change of parts). These things are even more fundamental and important than the sums of parts that many people would think of as the building blocks of all existing things.
Yet how is what I want any different from what the coincident entity theorist wants? If it takes time for an egg and a sperm to combine, it takes time for the new thing to come into existence. Even worse, a fertilized egg can split into two things. If that takes time, then there's a period of vague or indeterminate existence, whatever that means. I don't like this at all, because now we've got premises that I agree with and a conclusion I detest. That leaves me wondering what the various ways are to get out of this problem and which of them are even remotely tolerable for someone with my intuitions about personhood, objects, persistence, and moral evaluation.
Dualism might be thought to solve the problem if what makes a new person is the addition of a soul. Any plausible dualism I would prefer would involve some connection between the creation of souls and natural processes. I wouldn't prefer to think of God giving out souls without it being according to some natural laws. Most of the silly objections against dualism (which really are most of the objections against dualism) rely on conceptions that aren't like this. But can I get away with saying this in the case of eggs splitting? I don't want to say the souls splits, but I don't want to say two people were there all along. Do I want to find a point after which no egg can split at which the soul arises? That would be the only way around this, and it requires no science fiction kinds of splitting later on. Even if that were good enough, the soul's creation or attachment to the body would have to be instantaneous to avoid the problem I have in mind, so dualism at best isn't going to be an easy solution for me.
The only other view that I can think of that might easily solve this problem is epistemicism about vagueness. According to this view, there are sharp lines in all the areas that we seem to think are vague. Vagueness isn't in language. It's not as if statements with vague terms, when about things in the penumbral area, are neither true nor false. It's just that we don't know where these lines are. We don't know how many hairs in a particular case is the sharp line between being bald and not bald. Someone can be not bald one minute, lost one hair, and then be bald. There will somehow be a sharp line between red and not red. (Is wavelength quantized so as to allow this? I have no idea.) If Timothy Williamson is right, the line would be determined purely by our language use in ways that we can't track. It's determined by the meanings of the words we use to describe what's going on. I don't like that at all, for this issue, though. How can contingent facts about how we use words (or about what concepts we happen to form) be what determines whether someone exists?
I suppose it doesn't quite have to go so far, though. Maybe there's something different about existence vagueness. Maybe Williamson is right or the semantic views are right for most vagueness, but we're not dealing with language terms here. With existence, it's fundamental ontology. I'm not sure how to work this difference, though. What cause there to be a sharp line? That line wouldn't be able to be observed empirically. It wouldn't be based on the difference between what's on one side of the line and what's on the other side of the line. If it's not based on language use, and it's not based on which concepts we form, then what explains it?
The only thing I can think of would be something like a divine command theory about whether things exist, and that's just as unsatisfying as any of these other things. If there's going to be a fact of the matter about when I began to exist, should it be the sort of thing determined by divine fiat with absolutely no other reason? I don't think this is true even of morality. I'd be more inclined to think it could be true of contingent facts, but this doesn't seem to me to be a contingent matter. Are there two distinct possible worlds that are intrisically duplicates and yet in one God declares me to have come into existence one second before God declares me to have come into existence in the other world? That sounds as much like nonsense to me as thinking there are two worlds that are instrinsically duplicates with one having morality and the other having no moral truths or that there are two worlds that are intrinsic duplicates and two indivisible simple things, one with just the two and the other with the two plus the mereological sum of the two. These seem to be matters of metaphysical necessity.
So what am I left with? I don't know. This is why my dissertation isn't going anywhere. Any ideas (or further reading that may help give me some) are welcome.