Biological Identity Conference - Denis Walsh

Institute of Philosophy

Biological Identity Conference
Day Two

Hylomorphism, foundationalist materialism, and emergence
Denis Walsh

I contrast two approaches to individuating, and explaining, the properties of primary substances— hylomorphism and foundationalist materialism. The principal difference lies in the relation that each posits between a substance and its material constitution. According to hylomorphism, a primary substance is a complex of matter and form. According to foundationalist materialism a primary substance is constituted exclusively of its matter. The theoretically significant properties of a complex entity are fixed by the intrinsic, context insensitive properties of its matter. Foundationalist materialism has notorious difficulties accommodating the emergent properties of complex dynamic systems. This has become a genuine impediment to the proper understanding of the nature and function of biological systems, in which the function of the system confers certain causal properties upon its parts. I trace the problems back to the putative relation between a substance and its matter. These difficulties do not apply to hylomorphism. I conclude that hylomorphism provides a more appropriate model for the individuation and explanation of biological systems.

Recent debates in metaphysics on personal identity and material constitution have seen a rise of theories which appeal to a biological understanding of identity. So-called animalists claim that the puzzles of standard psychological theories of personal identity can be avoided by the insight that we are essentially animals or organisms rather than persons and that the necessary and sufficient conditions of our identity over time therefore are purely biological in character. Moreover, it has been argued (most famously by Peter van Inwagen) that if there are any composite objects at all in the world, then these are those studied by biology. According to this view, there are no inanimate things like stones or cars, strictly speaking, as these turn out to be just collections of particles; but there are living organisms, due to a special unity making them each one rather than many.

It is time to investigate whether, and if so how, the concept of biological identity can indeed serve the functions metaphysicians attribute to it. For that purpose, the conference will aim to confront the metaphysical motives for proposing biological conceptions of identity, diachronic as well as synchronic, with the scientifically informed research on biological identity which has been carried out within the philosophy of biology but which so far has been little noticed by the metaphysics community. The conference seeks to connect these two hitherto largely separate debates so as to put future metaphysical allusions to biological identity on more solid grounds and, at the same time, to raise awareness for the metaphysical implications of the empirically founded models of biological identity developed in philosophy of biology.

School of Advanced Study, University of London
Denis Walsh (Toronto)
Event date: 
Friday, 3 June 2016 - 1:00am
Download on iTunes