More on A-T essentialism: Mereology bites chemistry.

Feser is a fearless philosopher-writer who enjoys blog-tilting at analytical windmills. I like his prose, but hate his science. His mereology may have jumped the chemical shark


Feser claims that hydrogen atoms cannot be present in the body, or in water, except in virtual form, because the hydrogen in water cannot burn. Here Feser makes unjustified assumptions about the so-called essence of hydrogen, based perhaps on what he knows about its behavior. He claims that the property of being able to burn is part of what is essential to hydrogen (an essential property), so that hydrogen that never burns is not really hydrogen (and thus is only "virtual" hydrogen). This puts Feser in the position of saying, in contradiction to basic high school chemistry and basic physical science since the 18th century, that water is not made of the substances or elements hydrogen and oxygen-- it is just the substance water, and the different elements of a compound like H2O do not really exist in the compound.

Taken in an empirical, scientific sense, this is the sort of nonsense which could send the scientifically trained screaming toward logical positivism. One can only hope that Feser metaphysically equivocates on what he means by such words as "hydrogen" (a substance unknown to humankind prior to 200 years ago).

Making assertions like this one (that there is no actual hydrogen in water), based perhaps on philosophical beliefs about what Aquinas might have thought of hydrogen, is to virtually torture both Aquinas and hydrogen :). Mercifully, it is instead a fact that hydrogen's burning in air is extremely context dependent, and so it is therefore more of a virtuality that all hydrogen burns, more of an accident (or human design) if a given bit of hydrogen happens to actually burn! Why, then, should burning be essential to Feser's essentialist definition of hydrogen as a substance?

Most of the hydrogen in the galaxy is located in stars, in plasma form, which NEVER burns by combining chemically with oxygen! If the defining, essential property of hydrogen is to be found in its usual behavior, and it is that average or usual behavior which is to define its true essence, then hydrogen should instead (since most is to be found within stars) be defined by its ability to FUSE-- into helium. Not to burn in air. Or perhaps, since hydrogen's main tendency in human experience (context change) is to be a component of water, then being in water as a compound should be the definition of the substance hydrogen on the earth, not burning.

To be factually correct here, even as an essentialist, one needs to go back to the high school chemistry curriculum. Hydrogen is the substance which in its atomic state is composed of one proton, 0 or more neutrons, and one electron. Its behavior beyond that is HIGHLY CONTEXT DEPENDENT and should not be essential to what an atom of hydrogen is, actually or virtually.

Having Feser's hypothetical essences of things like hydrogen pop in and out of existence as things are combined and extracted seems mereologically silly, though it's conceivable. This is an example of the absurdities which emerge from the A-T thoretician's practice of accepting a particular definition of the essence of a thing as an authority in science, to the point that he then forces all other knowledge one has about that thing into the Procrustean bed of his definition of its essence, as I complained previously about Oderberg here.

If things indeed have essences, then those essences are likely constantly overlapping, the same way that quantum waveforms in physics can be seen as constantly overlapping in ordinary materials. Why is this overlapping of essences a problem for A-T metaphysics? And why must such substances be able to exist independently, "in themselves," in a philosophy that requires sufficient causes for everything (God excepted but that's beside the point), including substances? Why can't a substance exist at least partly because of the overlapping substances of which it is composed?

Much in Feser's metaphysics badly needs updating for the new millenium.

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