DOI: 10.14704/nq.2009.7.4.258

From Atomism to Holism: The Primacy of Non-Supervenient Relations

Vassilios Karakostas


The pros and cons of various forms of atomism and holism that are applicable both in physical science and today’s philosophy of nature are evaluated. To this end, Lewis’ thesis of Humean supervenience is presented as an important case study of an atomistic doctrine in philosophical thought. It is shown that Lewis’ ontological doctrine of Humean supervenience incorporates at its foundation the so-called separability principle of classical physics. In view of the systematic violation of the latter within quantum mechanics, it is argued that contemporary physical science posits non-supervenient relations over and above the spatiotemporal ones. Depending on the mode of assignment of states to physical systems — unit state vectors versus statistical density operators — we distinguish between strongly and weakly non-supervenient relations. It is demonstrated that in either case the relations of quantum entanglement constitute prototypical examples of irreducible physical relations that do not supervene upon a spatiotemporal arrangement of Humean qualities, weakening, thereby, the thesis of Humean supervenience. It is examined, in this respect, the status of Lewis’ recombination principle, whereas his conception of lawhood is critically investigated. It is concluded that the assumption of ontological reductionism, as expressed in Lewis’ Humean doctrine, cannot be regarded as a reliable code of the nature of the physical world and its contents. It is proposed instead that due to the undeniable existence of non-supervenient relations a metaphysic of relations of a moderate kind ought to be acknowledged as an indispensable part of our understanding of the natural world at a fundamental level.


Atomism; Humean supervenience; Quantum entanglement; Quantum holism; Recombination principle; Ontological reductionism; Laws of nature

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