synthetic zero

September 3rd, 2009

One of the most puzzling things I come across when I read philosophers is the tendency for some of them to want to use objects as a fundamental building block of thought. The idea of resurrecting objects seems to be flowing from a recent, quite flawed, set of arguments put forward by Quentin Meillassoux; while this language works well for certain ways of thinking about the world, it’s not a natural way of talking about quantum mechanics, for example, and while they explicitly include the fact that objects could be said to translate signals they receive (which allows for variation in ways of viewing the world) the approach doesn’t sufficiently account for the fact that the definition of the object itself may be dependent crucially on observation. It’s an attempt to reintroduce a stable view of a world filled with objects that can be spoken about as separate from the subject. But why think in terms of objects, per se, at all? Why not just think of the world as a flux of some kind, where differences are flowing through this world, and decomposing this flux into objects is merely a convenient way of talking about the world, rather than a fundamental ontological basis of discourse? (This notion of a flux is the basis of Brian Cantwell Smith’s excellent book, On the Origin of Objects, which I highly recommend.)

There is, however, a reason to think about aspects of the world which go beyond the subjective — thinking primarily in terms of the subjective, one can focus overly on narratives about the world which center on the ways we take the world, rather than forces that are outside, in some sense, the control of the subject or of subjectivity in general. However, that’s already implicit the moment one allows oneself to talk about a ground of Being that precedes subjectivity. One cannot know for certain the structure or properties of this ground of Being; only that there is something that is not entirely random (at least it seems reasonable to think this) about the operation of the world, and the world seems to have properties which are outside of merely the way in which we take the world in a subjective sense. All this is obvious, however, and doesn’t at all require the introduction of objects as fundamental elements of discourse. One can see that our models or paradigms may have some relationship to to the flux, or the ground of Being, but only in terms of our models as a whole being related to the flux as a whole, in a way in which the objects of our discourse are seen merely as approximate conventions for the purpose of conceptualization and discussion. Any given decomposition of the world into objects could well be fundamentally (not only conventionally) dependent upon subjects (again, a la quantum mechanics), so it seems more straightforward to simply acknowledge this fact explicitly, rather than trying to insist upon thinking of an “object” as entirely independent of subjectivity.

A lot of this reminds me of the famous studies which show that Asians tend to view the world in holistic, context-sensitive terms, and Westerners tend to like to think of the world as decomposed into independent objects:

Psychological research has established that American culture, which values the individual, emphasizes the independence of objects from their contexts, while East Asian societies emphasize the collective and the contextual interdependence of objects. Behavioral studies have shown that these cultural differences can influence memory and even perception.

This desire to formulate a philosophical picture of the world in which one can think in terms of objects which are separated from their contexts is, I think, rooted in some deep cultural predilections. Interestingly, Western philosophy, particularly in Europe, in the last couple hundred years, has moved away from this, but it appears the desire to reformulate things in terms of independent “objects” remains a strong cultural force.

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8 responses to this post:
  1. Asher Kay says:

    I’ve been thinking about the same thing lately.

    There’s a distinction, I think, between “thinking primarily in terms of the subjective” and recognizing that one’s ontological theory is a conceptual model of the world. Being a conceptual model means translating between what’s “out there” and what goes on in our heads that allows us to understand things. That’s one of the reasons why I think cognitive science is so important to ontology.

    I agree with you that there are cultural factors at work in the forms that our theories take, but I think that the “object” distinction is pretty firm in all humans, as evidenced by their languages. Quantum mechanics talks about quarks and their charm, electrons and their spin. Objects (particles) are not only present, but they’re also given properties using very conceptually rich and common words that don’t apply literally.

    In Prince of Networks, Harman says that the problem of “object” philosophies is explaining how objects connect, and the problem of “flux” philosophies is explaining “why the world is not a single molten whole, devoid of regions”. Kind of puts one in mind of the old two-slit experiment.

    September 4th, 2009 at 11:33 am
  2. mitsu says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as well. I found this post by Nick Srnicek on ontic structural realism quite interesting:


    He raises a lot of the concerns I have with object-oriented ontology. In particular, he says:

    ‘What Ladyman and Ross add to this is twofold. On the one hand, they add the expertise to pronounce that there is a “convergence” in philosophy of physics towards the idea that there are no such things as individual entities in the study of fundamental physics. Undertaking an in-depth and extensive look at the various work being done in contemporary physics, they argue persuasively that individual things don’t exist. Rather, what exists are ‘real patterns’ – temporal and spatial patterns which are mapped by the mathematical structure of scientific theories. (ETMG, 120; also, cf. Daniel Dennett’s ‘Real Patterns‘ essay) Now patterns, in Dennett’s formulation, must be capable of being captured in a smaller amount of bits than the original data set from which they came….

    What this all means for OOP is that the notion of real patterns articulated by Dennett and extended by Ladyman and Ross is a useful conceptual tool for understanding the irreduction principle. It provides, in a computational manner, explicit criteria for formulating the reality of objects in the special sciences. But as Ladyman and Ross remind us, “one makes a metaphysical mistake if one reifies these essences and imagines that they are the real constituents from which the world is fashioned.” (241) In other words, it seems to me that while OOP can be a productive theory of ontic relations and potentiality, it may not be sustainable as an ontological theory.’

    Dennett’s formulation, i.e., representing discernible patterns in terms of computability — this seems very general and powerful, and a clean and elegant way to express the idea that one may be able to “refer” in some sense to reality — that is, in the sense that one can discern patterns which are computable, describable in fewer bits than the input (i.e., one could say that you can compress sense data into fewer bits in some sense). This seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to talk about, and is obviously quite consistent with quantum mechanics and other physical theories and interpretations.

    Note that of course, I agree that even in these relatively fundamental models, you have “particles” and so forth —- but these particles can be seen to be radically interconnected with other particles so that it may be impossible to tease them out from either each other or the observer in any coherent fashion. Object-oriented models, to be consistent with physics, have to admit that the statistics of an object’s potential to be observed in a particular manner may change as the result of changes to objects scattered across the universe, even backwards in time (i.e., quantum entanglement), or they may have to admit that there is a fundamental entanglement of the observation with the observer (which actually is friendlier to the notion of locality, ironically). But if you have to have objects with the property that they have no beingness that is entirely separable from everything else in the universe, then why bother making objects a fundamental part of your ontology at all? It seems quite strained, and you end up with objects that aren’t very object-like (i.e., they have no clear boundary and no clear beingness separate from other objects), or you can treat them as seems far more reasonable to me as convenient fictions imposed upon reality, but which may have some “reality” in the sense that reality admits itself to mathematical description in the form of computability.

    As for how to get objects from a flux; again, I reference the wonderful work of Brian Cantwell Smith, who deserves far more fame than I think he has gotten for his work. He goes into great detail into this question and I believe comes up with a very plausible story, without making very many metaphysical assumptions whatsoever (though his arguments tend to assume a classical world, they are nevertheless quite illuminating).

    September 5th, 2009 at 12:41 am
  3. Fabio Cunctator says:

    I think you touch a very sensible point here, onw which I actually decided to probe further in my own work. That is, that the understanding of objects as substances (with the eventual addition of properties such as eternality, immutability and so on) is a direct product of Aristotelian/Christian metaphisics [as are most of the terms and concepts used in physics]. This is a point which is so trivial, that is often overlooked. The history of western ontology is rich, but not the only one.
    What I like of OOP is the interest in an ontology which does not take any privileged stance on the human subject. But the problem is that to give independence (from the human) to the objects of the non-human world needs not to mean that we necessarily must give them absolute ‘objectified’ ontological subsistence and independence (or perhaps, not event ontological subsitence and independence at all). I am not necessarily hinting towards the ‘flux vision’ but more towards what I could call a ’speculative nihilism’.

    September 5th, 2009 at 6:14 am
  4. mitsu says:

    >What I like of OOP is the interest in an
    >ontology which does not take any privileged
    >stance on the human subject

    I agree with this completely. However, as you point out, decomposing the world into objects (no matter how cleverly designed to avoid the error of naive correspondence theory) doesn’t seem to me to be needed to get that effect. At the very least, as an intuitive device it seems to me to impose more structure than is needed, in a rather awkward and unnatural fashion.

    >I am not necessarily hinting towards the
    >‘flux vision’ but more towards what I could
    >call a ’speculative nihilism’.

    True, even the notion of a “flux” adds a bit too much to the picture, as that sort of image implies a kind of substance which flows, which has a kind of continuity, extent, and so on. That’s why I like Dennett’s even more minimalist condition: that reality is patterned in a way which is computable, i.e., you can attempt to describe the patterns in fewer bits than you have in your observational data sets. That alone implies some independence from the purely subjective without having to posit very much additional structure, even a “flux”.

    September 5th, 2009 at 9:00 am
  5. Fabio Cunctator says:

    I’m not very familiar with this bit of Dennett. Where do I find it? Is it Consciousness Explained?

    September 5th, 2009 at 10:19 am
  6. mitsu says:

    I was referring to Dennett’s essay, “Real Patterns”, referenced by Ladyman and Ross, above, from his book, Brainchildren. There’s a good review of this, here:


    Of course, Dennett’s idea of compressibility is framed in Turing complexity terms which assumes classical computation which itself is a framework which can already be superseded by quantum computation, etc., but the basic idea is appealing to me: simply that, in some way, one can say it is reasonable to assume that reality as we encounter it has some patterns which can be approximated by models or processes which require less specification than the raw percepts.

    September 5th, 2009 at 2:14 pm
  7. Fabio Cunctator says:

    Great, thank you. I just found the article and will read it asap.

    September 5th, 2009 at 4:06 pm
  8. synthetic zero archive says:

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