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A Mereology of Holes and Men

What is mereology? Mereology, not to be confused with meteorology, is the study of wholes and parts. A question such as “how many parts can we divide a whole into” would be a mereological question. And while much of this science is rather pointless when we ask questions like that, the answers can become very important in the realm of metaphysics and identity when the right questions are asked.

Some parts are essential to a subject’s identity while others are only secondary. For example, take a bottle of beer: if you remove the bottle cap, the bottle of beer is still a bottle of beer. However, the cap is now just a cap — it is not a bottle of beer, though moments ago it was “part” of the bottle. The “whole” is now two parts.

I will offer two examples: holes and men. I am using holes for purely humorous reasons to demonstrate principles of mereology. In the case of men, however, the science actually becomes far more important as we shall see, at least for philosophers and metaphysicians. So freshen up your drink and let us begin our exploration of the subject.

Of Holes…

Take a hole, any hole. For matters of simplicity, I will use a hole in the ground as my example. We will agree that a hole in the ground is a “whole”; the hole is all you need in order to have an entire hole.

How many parts does a hole have? There are an infinite number of parts in a hole; each tiny space in the hole in a part of the whole hole. If we remove any of these parts, the entire whole as known will no longer remain intact.

Are parts of a hole principle or secondary parts? Clearly they are secondary. While removing any part reduces the size of the original hole, the identity of the hole is unchanged. Any number of parts can be removed or added and the hole will still remain the same thing: a hole. Only if all parts were removed would it cease to a hole.

This is, of course, common sense. If someone witnesses a hole, and returns several days later when the hole has been partially filled in, there is no doubt in their mind that the hole they witness now is the same hole they saw a few days before.

This seems silly, rather elementary and it is. But the matter becomes more serious when the subject in question is no longer an abstract hole but rather a real flesh and blood human being.

… And Men

Mitch Hedberg unwittingly pointed out one of the important aspects of mereology when he quipped, “You know they call corn-on-the-cob ‘corn-on-the-cob,’ but that’s how it comes out of the ground, man. They should call that ‘corn,’ and call every other version ‘corn-off-the-cob.’ It’s not like if you cut off my arm you would call it ‘Mitch,’ then reattach it and call me ‘Mitch-all-together.'”

When speaking about the mereology of holes, we are at best creating an interesting thought experiment, but at worst wasting precious time and insulting the real philosophic community. When we move the issue to men, however, we enter the more professional realm of metaphysics and theology.

Mitch Hedberg points out that an arm is not the same as the whole human being, or we can say they do not share the same identity. In fact, one has possession over the other. One is “Mitch” and the other is “Mitch’s arm”. We would never say “the arm’s Mitch”, as the arm is unable to possess Mitch (though, we might say “the arm’s hand”). Whether or not the arm is attached to the body, Mitch continues to be Mitch (his identity is not lost by the arm, making the arm a secondary part).

If we attach Mitch to the operating table, and begin removing body parts from him and incinerating them, at what point do we cease to have no essential parts of Mitch left? As we have already noted, things like arms and legs are secondary and can be removed. He still remains Mitch and a man. (Interestingly, if we take the “whole Mitch” or the “Mitch-all-together” and incinerate his limbs, the definition of “whole Mitch” changes because we can have the whole Mitch without needing any limbs, as they no longer exist.)

What is a Man?

Trying to determine what a “man” is would take much more time and space than I have for the purposes of this essay. Philosophers have been working on this for years, and despite Ernst Cassirer’s and Alexander Pope’s best efforts we are probably still not finished looking.

But more importantly for this discussion, we are concerned with at what point a man is no longer a man by removal of his physical body. The limbless Mitch is still a man. A removal of his genitals, contrary to some opinions, would still leave him as a man. Continue this thought into the realm of the science fiction author, replacing his heart and lungs with robotics and he may still be considered a man.

I think where the process becomes difficult is when we reach the head. A headless body might not be considered a man, whereas a living head with a robotic body might be considered a man. The first option I think is widely accepted (if a head and body were separated we would regard the head with more reverence). The second, less so (at what point does a blend of man and machine become more machine than man?).

This seems to imply that we accept the very fundamental part of a man to be in his brain. Peter Cave offers a hypothetical story, a variant on the famous “brain in a vat”: “Years ago, when my arm was chopped off, I continued to have experiences as if I had an arm, despite being armless… Technology was developing fast, and I soon had an impulse machine plugged into my nervous system… With my body’s deterioration — more bits falling off — neurologists thought it best to concentrate on preserving my brain. That is how I, brain, ended up in a vase… I undergo experiences… which the neurologists judge to coherre with my former life. The experiences result from their stimulating my brain’s cells.” [Cave: 117]

In Cave’s story, the man seems to retain his self, even when reduced to mere brain. But is the self the man? Or is it just “self” without man at all? What if the thoughts from the brain were transported to a positronic brain, thus leaving only electric impulses? Is this still a man? Is this even the self anymore? If we put Mitch’s thoughts in a robot, would the robot be Mitch?

In the realm of Plato’s Ideas, what is the form of man? While many would agree a generic man is humanoid in shape, would it be a “man” to just be a levitating head? I suspect many people have doubts about this and Plato would likely not have believed it. So if a head is not a man, how can he be considered a man by adding an artificial body? Are we more human by wearing clothes or corrective lenses? How important is the “shape” of a man in deciding what a man is?

I do not have the definitive answer for these questions. While I do not believe a man is any less of a man for losing limbs or eyes in combat, I cannot be sure at which point we have no man left and are speaking to a brain and a machine. (In the classic experiment derived from Descartes’ admirers, does a brain in a vat qualify as a man if it is capable of full thought and belief that it exists as a man? I find it likely most people would reject this view.)

And what of Souls?

In classic Christian thought, man is a vessel for the soul. Men have souls while animals do not (this was accepted up to the time of Hegel, and even today by some). Where does the soul live? In the body as a whole, in the pineal gland or in some other dimension co-existing with the body in some Malebranchian sense? If we accept souls as really existing, the study of mereology is fairly important.

Now, just as we said that losing limbs does not make anyone less human (not even Mitch Hedberg), I think most theologians would agree that the soul is not lost with the limbs or diminished in any way. But how far will theologians take this line of thought?

Jumping ahead, let us consider the brain in the vat again. While I do not know if a brain would be considered a man (something I doubt), if the body parts were removed one by one and only the brain was remaining with the original thinker still intact… will the soul still be present? I am inclined to say yes. Which leads to an odd notion, almost a paradox.

If the soul is present in the disembodied brain, and a brain in a vat is not a man, a soul can exist in a creature without it being a man. But if the soul is not in the vat with the brain but rather in the afterlife, then the mind can exist in a creature separate from the soul — and how odd for one’s soul to be in the afterlife while their mind exists freely on Earth. As you can see, this creates a very unusual ethical and theological situation. One that cannot be properly answered given that we cannot have direct knowledge of the soul should one exist.


Certainly these issues can be explored in more depth and have been by logicians, theologians, moralists and philosophers of all stripes. I have only hoped to strike a general foundation of some ideas and more discussion will likely be forthcoming in the future, either through revisions of this article or in other essays. Until then, have a thought experiment of your own… what are the necessary components of a thing? When does that thing no longer exist as itself?


Arlig, Andrew. “Medieval Mereology”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. May 20, 2006. (available online)

Cave, Peter. What’s Wrong With Eating People?: 33 More Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles Oneworld Publications, 2008.

Hedberg, Mitch. “Beret and Pancakes”, Strategic Grill Locations. 2003.

Schmitt, Gavin. “The Whole Hole”, unpublished journal entry dated March 4, 1999. With special thanks to Michelle Nieuwenhuis.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “A Mereology of Holes and Men”

  1. strivinglife Says:

    I just realized that you refer to Mitch Hedberg in this article.

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