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Tallis in Wonderland

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Scrutinising Material Objects

Raymond Tallis sees that the simple everyday world of material objects is not so simple after all.

Nothing in the world seems to be more straightforward than the material objects that surround us. Whether we are talking about things nature serves up, such as stones, clods of earth, trees or birds, or things we make, such as the desk at which I am writing this article or the chair on which I am sitting, they seem, ontologically speaking, to be regular guys. They certainly don’t strike us as intrinsically problematic in the way hallucinations, thoughts, memories, or abstract objects such as ‘economic trends’, or even institutions such as ‘the legal system’ do. You can see them, touch them, pick them up, point to them, even throw them across the room. They don’t (normally) disappear when you turn your back, and they know their place because at any given time they have one. They are the bedrock of our moment-to-moment existence. If anything deserves to be taken for granted, it is such “moderate-sized specimens of dry goods” as that deliciously witty philosopher J.L. Austin described them.

Of course, we know that seen through the eyes of science, these familiar items are anything but straightforward. The very existence of objects – discrete items that occupy a definite portion of space for a certain period of time – becomes puzzling. Under the gaze of classical physics, seemingly static and coherent objects break up into swarms of restless atoms. And quantum mechanics seems to take away the individual identity of even these components. Both quantum field theory and quantum entanglement apparently demonstrate that the physical world is not composed of discrete, independent, localised objects.

Some philosophers have embraced physics as the last word (so far) on what is really there. James Ladyman and his co-authors in Everything Must Go (2008) argue that reality does not consist of self-identical lumps of stuff. Reality is simply a structure described by a set of mathematical relationships whose surface appearance is reflected in what we call ‘the laws of nature’. According to this idea, structure and relations have ontological priority over things or objects, even over elementary particles. That physics, the most tough-minded of the sciences, should result in a picture of the world in which objects evaporate into mathematically-defined fields is not a little ironical.

In a personal communication, the philosopher of science William Simpson points out that it is “scientism rather than the empirical sciences that compels us to cut the cord with common sense.” Scientism is the belief that natural science gives authoritative answers in all areas of knowledge. In this fashion, such scientism confuses the world itself with the physical world and (to echo that much underrated philosopher Susan Stebbing) the physical world with the world of physics. It is therefore too early to call time on clods of earth, trees, and the chair that’s currently supporting your columnist’s bottom. If they were unreal, it is difficult to imagine why medium-sized wet-and-dry goods such as the human organism would treat them as basic features of its world, or why it would be of evolutionary benefit to subscribe to such a fundamental delusion.

On the other hand, there are some common and rather striking illusions. Think of the beam of light that seems absolutely still, though the energy comprising it is moving faster than anything else in the universe. Clearly, then, philosophy still has much work to do in making sense of the gap between the material world as it is present to our busy selves getting on with the serious business of life, and the way science portrays that world. Part of that job must be to examine our ordinary idea of an object.

Even here there is controversy. What qualifies as an object? Chairs, yes. But smoke, flames, rainbows? In the case of items like waterfalls, we have something poised between a process and an object: the water falls, and the waterfall stands still. And even if we respond to “What qualifies?” by saying “There is no fact of the matter, it’s just a question of definition,” it will be difficult to formulate a definition that includes furniture but excludes awkward customers like flames or rainbows, not to speak of hybrids like ‘a glass of wine’ as opposed to ‘a wine glass’. And if the entrance qualifications are relaxed, what will count as the spatial boundaries of such objects? The crock of gold seems more securely located than the end of the rainbow. Drawing boundaries – obviously difficult in the case of smoke – is challenging, as is the case – though less obviously so – of many seemingly less slippery entities, such as ‘a hotel’.

Being & Time

Philosophers thinking about objects have often focussed on questions of their identity. There is the well-worn issue of when an object ceases to count as being what it has been. How damaged does this chair have to be before it is an ex-chair and just a pile of wood? The boundary between chair and ex-chair is not something inherent in the material world. Within broad and ill-defined limits, it depends on my attitude to the item in question. Likewise, most philosophers accept that if the chair was repaired and the wood in it progressively replaced until nothing of the original material remained, again there is no fact of the matter as to how much wood has to be replaced, or how abruptly, for the chair no longer to count as the same thing.

An object is, by definition, something that persists over time. A question that exercises some contemporary metaphysicians is how an individual object can exist at several different times. Some believe that an object is wholly present at each moment of its existence – the doctrine of ‘endurantism’. But what does it mean to say that it is present as a whole at any given moment of its existence? This cannot mean that its entire history is present. At time t1, the history of object O – what states it will be in after t1 – is not yet determined. What’s more, the various phases of the object would be in conflict if co-present. The tree-in-winter and the tree-in-summer could not co-exist because it would have to be simultaneously leafless and leaved. The same would apply even more obviously to the sapling, the full-grown tree, and the rotting log. Moreover, no-one can see the past or future of an object at any given time. The ‘wholly present’ object, then, is not the four-dimensional, spatio-temporal sum of its existence. That’s why some philosophers – those who subscribe to ‘perdurantism’ – have argued that what is present before us at any given time is only a time-slice of the object: what we see at time t1 is O-at-time-t1. These time-slices are analogous to the different spatial parts of the object that occupy different places – for example, the four legs of the chair. Strictly, perdurantists’ objects are space-time slices. This is more compatible with Special Relativity, as Katherine Hawley points out in her paper ‘Metaphysics and Relativity’ (2009). Endurantism that “begins with an apparently natural picture of spatially-extended objects sweeping majestically through time” seems to separate time from space, which would cause physicists to shake their heads.

But perdurantism has its own problems. How, or in virtue of what, do the time slices join up with one another to make a history? By what criterion do they count as having been cut from the same loaf? We could not speak of O-at-t1, O-at-t2, etc. without presupposing the notion of a persisting O which is (wholly?) present at t1, t2, etc. And what is the limit to the slicing process? Why does it stop before the mathematical instant or the quantum limit? Perdurantism has consequently met some stiff opposition. Hugh Mellor, in Real Time (1982), argues that “Things, unlike events, are wholly present at every moment… No-one would say that only part of Sir Edmund Hilary and Tensing climbed only a part of Everest in 1953.” He points to a telling contrast between objects and events: while an event such as a meal has natural temporal divisions – a main course followed by a pudding – a chair does not. However, you could argue against Mellor that it was Young Hilary who climbed Everest as it was in 1953, and both the climber and the mountain have changed since then. It looks as if we are back to time-slices.

We could duck the issue by saying that endurantists and perdurantists simply capture different aspects or different ways of looking at objects, each only part of the story. Well, maybe. But it is important not to overlook something fundamental to the very nature of objects; namely, that in virtue of presenting themselves as objects, they are imbued with a certain implicit temporal depth. The solid, reliable chair says “I was before now and I will be after now.” It broadcasts its persistence. It is explicitly something that has not just come into existence; and will not cease to exist in the next instant. It is an item that extends beyond the present moment, although I cannot see its future and past moments.

Some objects of course seem carry their past and future on their sleeve, in particular their past. The mossy stone, the battered suitcase, and the old man’s wrinkled face that is “the map of days outworn” tell of their past. The sapling and the baby’s face speak of a future. However – crucially – this is not the same as revealing a singular past that actual objects have undergone, or a singular future they may subsequently turn out to have. At any rate, a stable object is the revelation of the presence of something that transcends the present: part of the furniture of a near or more distant past, or of a near or more distant future.

Some philosophers have suggested that objects cause their successive states, so that O at t1 is the cause of O at t2. Behind this rather surprising notion – such that a stone as it were stones itself, and a chair chairs itself – is a recognition that for objects in a restless world, staying the same requires as much explanation as change. The arguments for and against this view are complex (they take up several pages of Section 11.2.3 in Of Time and Lamentation by you-know-who – due out in 2017). For the present, it is sufficient to note that the object-as-cause underwriting its own continuity would seem to have no causal power left over. If the effect were proportionate to the cause, and the object were both cause and effect, there would seem to be no spare capacity for foreign engagement.

I hope I have persuaded you that while nothing could seem more straightforward than an everyday object like a chair, as so often, the appearance of simplicity belies a complex underlying reality.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2016

Raymond Tallis’s latest book is The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic). The Mystery of Being Human: God, Freedom and the NHS will be published in September. His website is raymondtallis.com.

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