My understanding of mereological nihilism is that the only things that truly exist are fundamental particles. There are no humans, no planets, no stars, no animals, no trees, etc. There are only fundamental particles rearranging themselves over time. Thus, everyday objects are conceptually arbitrary: calling an arrangement of fundamental particles "a tree" is as arbitrary as calling a fraction of the tree and a fraction of the air surrounding the tree a "a hybrid tree-air arrangement". Or a fraction of a book, the desk the book is on and the surrounding air a "a hybrid book-desk-air arrangement". The conceptual boundaries we put on arrangements of fundamental particles are completely arbitrary.

Under this metaphysical view, is it possible to have morality? I ask this question because, in my opinion, sentences such as "person A raped/murdered/attacked person B" would make no sense at all. Since fundamental particles are the only things that exist, it follows that persons do no exist, and so to claim that there was a person A that raped a person B would be a conceptually arbitrary statement. A more accurate statement would be "fundamental particles rearranged themselves over time in a way that we interpret as person A raped person B".

Is it possible to justify any sort of moral responsibility under mereological nihilism? How can we determine which rearrangements of fundamental particles are "good" and which rearrangements are "evil"?

  • To quote from the wikipedia page "No, but there there are fundamental physical simples arranged morality-wise. "
    – Daron
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 19:44
  • 2
    Yes, easily. Moral anti-realism is far more common than mereological nihilism, and anti-realists came up with plenty of ways to introduce moral responsibility or an appearance of it. Something does not have to "fundamentally exist" to play a useful role in human behavior.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:05
  • ofc there may be a contradiction there. perhaps moral entities or properties are necessary for moral knowledge and so morality, and mereological nihilism means that no entity exists. if someone argued that, i would probably deny the first claim. it may help to look into the naturalistic fallacy, to decide if that's about right
    – user50495
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 1:28
  • Mereological nihilism seems a nonsensical position to me. It's like asserting that only the integers exist, and sets of integers do not exist. One may believe that physically the universe consists of only mereological simples, and also assign meaning to "chair" as arrangements of these simples. And in fact some people who call themselves "mereological nihilists" do just this. But most people who don't call themselves mereological nihilists also do it. Mereological nihilism seems more a difference of what label you want to apply to yourself than what you actually believe.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 6:23
  • If I make the claim, "chairs exist only as arrangements of atoms," does this make me a mereological nihilist or not? I suspect that someone who does not agree with the claim would say yes, and most people who do agree with the claim would say no.
    – causative
    Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 6:32

6 Answers 6


Mereological nihilism is a natural consequence of the mereological fallacy (nice article here [1]). Following the fallacy, the human body being just a set of simples (at least a bunch of particles) it is no different of a bunch of sand. This is true, if we just ascribe such perspective to a reductionist paradigm [2]. A group of persons can be just that, or a family, according to the preferred paradigm, being holism the opposite.

In addition, the belief that everything is made from fundamental entities is not certain, nor in science, neither in philosophy. Immanuel Kant's second antinomy [3] is precisely a refutation of such position.

The systems theory defines a system as a group of interrelated parts. This means that a human body is more than a bunch of simples: it is a set of interrelated simples. It is the set of relationships binding simples, and not only the simples, that allows small systems to be assessed as such.

Systems (parts) and relationships are all elements of our understanding, not of the reality outside our heads. The holistic systemic view is the description of how our understanding approaches nature in order to describe it and solve problems, which are useful to survive. Negating the systemic view implies negating our understanding, and therefore our existence.

And that is the point of your question: under mereological nihilism, we don't exist, and therefore, any moral perspective or any system of rules does not exist. This leads to a contradiction: if we don't exist, existence being a fact determined by our understanding, then, simples don't exist as well. Here, the answer to your question is clear: not only morality, but every fact of nature --including simples-- is NOT possible under mereological nihilism.

But if the concept of existence is taken with objectivity, we do exist, and so our ideas and systems of rules, while a human being can be understood as a group of parts, or as a whole, just by applying a reductionist or holistic approach (which are valid if properly applied).

[1] https://www.consciousentities.com/2006/03/the-mereological-fallacy/

[2] http://csr.ufmg.br/modelagem_sistemas_dinamicos/Chapter2.pdf

[3] https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ggoddu/Modern/272h-k1.html

  • I agree with u mind cannot be reduced to simples. My further personal position is that even certain arrangement of simples (your relation theory but using mereological nihilism's jargon) may not explain some seemingly "emergent" aspect of human mind such as self-awareness (the existence of a dominant ideal soul where I believe true understanding only happens in this ideal realm), so I'll regard this mind aspect as a simple not a system of simples. Leibniz's Mill Argument came to my mind to support my above metaphysics. I wonder how your Theory of (Parts) Interaction explain the awareness of I. Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 20:29
  • Emergence is out of topic, nevertheless, you can see this answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/68755/…
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 9:23
  • Thx for your reference! I've reviewed and found my question is very similar to @natojato question in his comment with yours answer. Searle's Chinese Room Argument is very similar in spirit with Leibniz's Mill Argument, and seems your final solution in your own comment there was to study Kant... Am I on the right track with your qualia? Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 16:49

Universities at least arguably don't "truly" exist, they are nothing more than the buildings staff and students, etc., but the abstract thing "a university" can be ranked and be judged as better or worse, enough to encourage new students etc..

Even if they're treated as fictions, we predicate "can fly" of Pegasus, so I don't see why a human life, being a metaphysical fiction, can't be predicated intrinsic value.

I think that does deal with your argument, though there may be other arguments, and it is existentially bothersome to predicate value of things that aren't real (just as moral anti realism, the predicate of value, is an issue).

moral anti-realism is the denial of the thesis that moral properties—or facts, objects, relations, events, etc. (whatever categories one is willing to countenance)—exist mind-independently. This could involve either (1) the denial that moral properties exist at all, or (2) the acceptance that they do exist but that existence is (in the relevant sense) mind-dependent. Barring various complications to be discussed below, there are broadly two ways of endorsing (1): moral noncognitivism and moral error theory. Proponents of (2) may be variously thought of as moral non-objectivists, or idealists, or constructivists. Using such labels is not a precise science


This isn't a great answer, and someone could maybe jump in with a metaphysical analysis of mereological nihilism and higher order properties.

But, however much emotive force your argument has to you, and it is understandable that it has that if only due to a wish for "real" things, it's surely unconvincing.


It is reasonable to suggest that all things are made-up of separate parts, and - as science has shown, all things are made-up of interconnected, divisible and immutable parts, from the quantum through to the galactic.

Like all things conceived by the human mind - our perceptions are formed by 2 fundamental aspects: our instincts and the sphere of ever-evolving social/cultural constructs, including ideas concerning justice, morality, truth, aesthetics, belief systems.

We may argue, reasonably, that not all laws are moral, and not all morality is lawful, but whatever the case may be, the decision rests with authorised institutions. Some justice systems are based, ultimately, on the moral ideals of protecting rights, as constructed and enforced by the state. Different justice systems enact different sorts of morality based on different factors - such as historical and cultural contexts.

Social constructs may also change and evolve over time, especially when demanded by apparently oppressed groups within a society, which in turn, may lead to new laws in support of newly conceived human rights - and eventually these groups may express their own morality and ideals through culture, such as arts, media, philosophy...

The fact that the world is made up of parts, as far as we can perceive and comprehend and reason, may lead to a sense of nothingness, where everything is devoid of meaning or value - but on the other hand this fact may lead us to believe the universe, in all of its complexity, exists to allow for the possibility of life. Some call it God, others call it a life-force...

If all things are made-up of atoms, including life - then are atoms, as present in every object (parts), eternally alive? This is a reasonable suggestion: that life and the entire material world is alive, despite being apparently nothing more than specific arrangements of atoms.

What binds all life is the instinct to procreate and survive. Indeed, even the universe contains ever-evolving galaxies and solar system, with suns and planets being created and destroyed.

Our modern world, in general, seeks to recognise this universal truth, and create laws to protect life. These laws are expressed throughout all of society and culture, which become ever-evolving norms. Morality ensures societies do not descend into chaos (uncertainty), and provides a framework for society to follow in how individuals conduct themselves - but always in accordance with one ultimate principle: life should be protected ("lawfully").

We could claim that nature is both supportive and occasionally unsupportive of life, as demonstrated through the destruction caused by natural phenomena, e.g. extreme weather. However, our interpretation may cause us to declare nature (or fate) as cruel, and impose our constructs in an attempt to explain weather phenomena. During ancient times, this typically involved conducting ceremonial sacrifices to gods - whereas in contemporary society, we use science. In both cases, the goal is to enact a moral idea through social and cultural activity.

Some philosophical ideas may contain absolute truths, such as Nihilism, but our instinct to survive ensures we avoid pushing the idea to its possible logical conclusion, i.e. (eventually) everything is nothing, or despair.

We avoid this reasonable conclusion by creating constructs, which are all driven, ultimately, by our collective instinct to survive. This collective consciousness is expressed through morality, which also tend to find practical application in systems of justice.

It is true - that our society (culture, ideals, morality...) is constructed in a way most convenient for and conducive to life.

Perhaps that's how all empires start, from insecurity. Certainly how the Egyptian one started... John Romer (British Egyptologist)


Let's suppose fundamental particles have consciousness and free will, albeit very slightly. They can be commanded, let us say. So let us say that God exists and has some right to issue commands. God commands all particles like so: "Let there be light." Some particles assent and become the light (that is their free will: to turn into photons or not). Wouldn't you say that these particles did the right thing?

Now, as for interpersonal ethics, hmm... Particles can do little of themselves, so to prohibit murder, for example, God would have to instruct particles very disparately... Say, God would have to tell some particles to move one way, others in others, so that the whole arrangement looks like one object not murdering another.

Therefore, assuming panpsychism, a mind-will pairing for all minds, theism, and divine-command theory, we can reconcile mereological nihilism with some sort of ethics.

EDIT: I'm not trying to be completely flippant, btw. Iirc Peter van Inwagen almost accepts mereological nihilism (he counts some sets of particles as sufficiently integrated to count as actual full objects, I think "being alive" is his basic criterion?) but is also a Christian philosopher. So for what it's worth...


Morality requires an agent: a being who acts with intention that can be evaluated on moral grounds. Mereological nihilism seems to be ambivalent on the concepts of 'beingness' or 'agency'. The idea that we might have arbitrarily assigned this group of mereological simples to be a 'tree' and that group of mereological simples to be a 'person' does not contradict the idea that this 'tree' and that 'person' might have a moral relationship to each other. So what if we define a person the same way we might define (say) a weather system: i.e., as a stable system that holds a constant inflow and outflow of mereological simples in a persistent, recognizable form or pattern? The question is still the same: whether that form or pattern has 'beingness' regardless of the particular simples that constitute it at any given moment.


Of course, morality is possible under mereological nihilism.

Nihilism is employed in many religions to try to epistemically and thus fundamentally change people's attachment/avarice/anger/ignorance for many conventionally believed "absolute materials". It's not used to convince people there's nothing you can know or should care about, morality is a central and guiding topic in both philosophies and religions. Actually in most nihilistic religions, morality (ie, the judgment of good and bad) is the guiding light and ultimate way to lead one's life decisions.

Although ontologically it may be empty with nothing, however, relative to ourselves with a rational mind, the world's seemingly illusive cause-effect chain is definitely not empty, one has to endure one's karma no matter what philosophical views one holds...

A chair can be easily reduced to its molecules, which can be further reduced to its atoms, to its particles, quarks, and ultimately modern QM showed us the ultimate material existence in this perceived physical world is nothing but some metrical fields like fibers bundled together, even spacetime should be viewed as an external relational illusive phenomena from various ways of such bundling. With this scientific reductive physicalism, mereological nihilism was naturally born as a metaphysical philosophy and sensibly claims there's no object with "proper parts", only permeated fields as "simples" really exist (from Wikipedia's definition of mereological nihilism).

So what's really a "metric" as the quiddity of any field? It's essentially a kind of perceptible valuations, which seems support panpsychic idealsim. One major danger of any physicalism or materialism is to deny the true existence of souls. In this context, one should regard human being's soul (self-consciousness and awareness, awakened, illuminated, Leibniz's apperception) as a type of mereological nihilism's "simples".

In summary, mereological nihilism is very similar to Leibniz's monadic networked ontological world full of simple perceptible or conscious or rational substances called monads (matter is an illusion of aggregates of monads), also it's very similar to the jewels in the ancient Indra's Net allegory told in Hinduism and Buddhism.

So finally where does "morality" come from and why it's the most relevant topic to the really existed "simples" (fields, souls, jewels)? Because all the attributes and physical laws in the kingdom of efficient cause were already possibly pre-programmed with perfect harmony during the creation of these "simples", the only possibly left free-will of these "simples" from its contingent truth created in the kingdom of final cause should NOTHING BUT embody, unfold and shine its own immanent soul which was created in the image of its creator, that's equivalent to say the free-will of these "simples" should be true and honest to itself. In reality, however, we saw depressed souls everywhere who didn't enjoy what he or she does for too many various reasons, and their souls were thus dark, neither shining nor vital at all, just act like machines and thus very predictable and manipulatable...

In this sense, morality is perhaps not only possible but also the only important thing left for a "simple" to use its possible free-will to decide its course according to its ethics principle (compared to human souls, fields are much harder to fulfill morality due to its apparent lack of conscious free-will). In the final analysis, morality and ethics is nothing but trying to be true and honest to oneself in the image of its creator with consideration of the whole network of "simples". Mereological nihilism clearly demarcates the ethics boundary for each simple, as there're no composites so each simple is morally responsible for its own. Of course, no created "simples" or souls are perfect, thus there're no perfect "good" or "bad" deeds or things, everything is in between an imperfect spectrum realizable by imperfect "simples"...

  • How do you determine what is "right" and what is "wrong" under mereological nihilism?
    – user48437
    Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:15
  • A famous example is Mahayana Huayan Buddism's Indra's Net metaphor. The world is composed by mere "reflections" of infinite cause-effect karma chain (dharma), thus there's laws in it, not arbituary. However, unlike western realism (materialism or idealism), those "cause-effect" are not real ontological existence, it rejects both matter and idea as ultimate substance, thus it's a kind of mereological nihilism. But one still can judge good and bad based on the laws (dharma of karma) via meditating and understanding of this wonderful nihilistic net... Actually until then, u started your new life. Commented Feb 25, 2021 at 20:31
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Hope u did some meditation staring at the wonderful nihilistic net composed of "simples" without "proper parts". I've elaborated why morality is possible and perhaps the only important topic under mereological nihilism, with the implicit criterion to judge what's moral "good" and "bad". Commented Mar 4, 2021 at 5:27

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