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Events and Things
Michael Bulley on whether Events can happen Now … and other metaphysical conundra.
The following thoughts were prompted by an article by the Oxford philosopher, Rom Harre, entitled ‘Some reflections on the individuation of events’, which appeared in the journal, International Studies in the Philosophy of Science (Vol. 5, No.1, 1991). As I enjoy hearing the theories of physicists and am interested in linguistic analysis, I was sympathetic to Harre’s relating linguistic ideas to scientific ones: he writes, for example, in one of his simpler passages,“… a change of tense is not a signal of a change in the status of an event.” Happy though I was with this approach, yet the more I thought I understood the author’s thesis, the more I had a nagging dissatisfaction with the use of the word ‘event’.
My intention here, is to make some suggestions about the vocabulary of this area of philosophy and ‘event’ in particular. The reader is, of course, encouraged to read Harre’s article, though those unused to this topic should be warned that it contains sentences like: “The individuation and numerical identity of an event is internally, that is conceptually, related to its being sharply and univocally located in the spatial manifold.”
Words and things
While our common understanding of physical reality is communicated by language, we need not suppose it is limited by it. Even so, philosophical and scientific writing, no less than that of cooking recipes and washing-machine instructions, but unlike that of poetry, should not be open to individual, differing interpretations. Within the areas of science that deal with the ultimate elements of physical reality (as in that field of philosophy whose topic is the significance of such understanding) we need to be on our guard against, on the one hand, the use of ordinary language for mystification and, on the other, over-jargonization.
There are those who say that, when the topic is of things that in everyday experience are unperceived, ordinary language is inadequate. I do not take that view, preferring to think that the careful use of ordinary words will better enable what is written now to be understood not only now, but in the future. I make the assumption, then, that in discussing concepts like ‘object’, ‘event’, ‘time’ and ‘space’, we should limit ourselves to what makes sense. This may seem hardly to need saying, but some scientists in modern times have taken a perverse pleasure in suggesting that ideas that sound absurd may be correct by virtue of their very absurdity. I, therefore, exclude hypotheses that sound self-contradictory, such as “an object is something that does not exist” or “space is infinite and comes to an end”. This is not to say that ideas that have tempted scientists into expressing them paradoxically may not be true, but that it is up to the scientists to find ways of expressing them that make sense. The principle must be that we can accept that an idea about reality might be true only when the words expressing it allow it logically to be true.
For the purposes of a logical argument, AN OBJECT IS TO BE CONSIDERED AS A SINGLE THING. It may be of any sort: if it is an atom, then that is the single thing, and not something comprising sub-atomic particles; if it is a chair, then the chair is the single thing, and not something comprising legs, cushion, back, etc.
This may seem at first sight a finicky point to make, but it is relevant to the requirements of a logical system of description, in which the terms stand for objects. In such a system, clarity requires that a single term must refer to a single object or to any other you wish to regard as the same sort of object. A particular term cannot refer both to one object and to another you wish to distinguish from it, nor can you apply different terms to objects between which you wish to make no distinction.
This way of describing things differs from the everyday one (or even that envisaged in set-theory), in which, allowing ourselves to make assumptions and coping with ambiguity, we generally refer to abstracted qualities of objects, such as ‘green’, ‘Australian’, ‘cuboid’ and so on. In those cases we can describe one and the same object in one context as ‘green’ and in another as ‘Australian’ without implying by the difference of terms that we are talking about separate and dissimilar objects. We could even appear to be self-contradictory and say that two objects both are and are not to be distinguished from each other on the grounds that they are both green, but only one is Australian. In a strictly logical description of the world, however, - perhaps like that envisaged by Wittgenstein in his famous Tractatus - the symbols do not stand for qualities of objects, but for the objects themselves (or, more exactly, what we imagine the objects to be).
Space is not an object; it is not a thing. IT REFERS TO THE EXISTENCE AND DISPOSITION OF OBJECTS. In ordinary language, space is thought of as that within which objects exist or are disposed. If we stick to the rules of definition that I have just mentioned, we ought not, strictly speaking, to say that an object occupies its own space, since that appears to be using two terms of one thing; nor should we say that there are two types of space, namely, one occupied by objects and the other not so occupied. That leaves the naïvesounding definition that space is whatever is not objects! That would make sense of the notion that there can be space between objects, and it would cater for measurement of space, which is just the imaginary occupation of space by objects. I emphasise that all this is still a description based on linguistic sense and does not presuppose what reality is actually like, or even if there is one.
An interesting, but irrelevant side-issue to this is what there would be if there were no objects in existence; would that be only space? I am tempted to say that ‘space’ would not be the right word, but ‘nothing’. That then seems to make space dependent on objects.
POSITION IS NEITHER SPACE NOR OBJECT, BUT DEFINED BY THE TWO. Colloquially we can speak of an object being in or at a particular position or that the object has moved from one position to another. That will not do for logical purposes, however, since it appears to ascribe objectivity to position. If, for example, you defined all the places in England in relation to their direction and distance from London, you would still be left with the question of where London was, and that would have to be defined in relation to some other place. So, although things like mathematical graphs and geographical measurements seem to imply the absolute existence of position, you cannot fix any particular position; all you have are arrangements of objects.
To say that an object has changed its position, you need grounds for that conclusion. If there is no observer or evidence and only one object, there can be no change of position and if there is more than one object, there might be a change of position, but we cannot know it. If there is an observer or evidence, then we might have grounds for saying that an object has moved, either one object in relation to the observer or to the source of evidence or that it has moved in relation to other objects.
So, whereas casually we might say that an object occupies its own space or occupies a certain position, we should now see that, for logical purposes, position is not a separate thing from the object. If you say “Put it over there”, the position of the object will be nothing other than its being over there; that is, the position and the object were not separate things that have now been made as one; nor could you say that the object occupied more than one position, since that would contravene the unitary definition of ‘object’. This logical view could certainly be frustrating for practical purposes: if your object was the breakfast, you would have to be satisfied with saying only that it was in the kitchen, and not that the marmalade was on the table and the eggs in the frying-pan.
Naturally, both in everyday and scientific discourse, we switch quickly and easily from one system of description to another; even so, where it matters, it is important not to mix them, otherwise you might appear to be saying that the molecule of water was a quite separate thing from the atom of hydrogen in it.
The comments I have made on ‘object’, ‘space’ and ‘position’ might have tinkered with colloquial usage. With ‘event’ I think I have to stray further.
In everyday language, the following could be regarded as events: “We painted the spare bedroom”, “Joe’s trousers fell down”, “Abigail sneezed.” They give an impression of being individual or composite actions or occurrences. In the article I referred to, Rom Harré makes subtle links between the concepts of ‘object’ and ‘time’, and how we refer them to ‘space’, yet still implies that events can be regarded singly (the ‘individuation’ of events). He says, for example: “We are aware of events, but not of the moments at which they occur” and “…locating an event is finding a place in a story; locating a thing is finding a place in the world”.
It seems to me, though, THAT TO TALK OF AN EVENT MUST IMPLY SOME CHANGE IN STATES OF AFFAIRS. If there is no change, there is no event. If an identical state recurs, there must have been a different state in between. It might be argued that, if an expected change does not occur, that could be counted as an event, even though there is no difference; but then, I think, you must include those who expected the change, and the difference would lie in them. An event, therefore, must be at least double: one state of affairs and a different one. The simplest sort of event, therefore, is a first and second state of affairs.
Inevitably, the concept of time must enter here, if we are considering, as I think we must, a sequence of states of affairs. Although it may be difficult to imagine it for everyday events, like making a cup of tea, I think we must insist that there must be some correspondence between the objects in the two states; otherwise, the change would not be properly definable nor the connection cogent enough to call it an event. To give a silly example, we could not compare the second half of last year’s Cup Final with Auntie Mary’s bulb-planting extravaganza yesterday and say that just because one came after the other they together constituted an event or were parts of the same event.
With this background, it should now sound nonsensical to talk of the ‘existence’ of an event. More oddly, it will be equally wrong to say that suchand- such an event happened. For how should we talk of the happening of the event? The event is not the difference in the states of affairs, nor the process by which one state becomes another, since that would be analysable again into other different states. The best we can do is to say that the word ‘event’ is a way of referring to sequential states of affairs with objects in common that we might interpret so as to be able meaningfully to give a name or description to them, such as ‘hailstorm’ or ‘William blowing the candles out.’
In everyday language, such names and descriptions might well be used in a sort of shorthand way with words implying change, or implying that some object is to be categorised differently; so, ‘cooking’ or ‘graduation’ or ‘metamorphosis’ imply changes to and recategorisation of ‘raw egg’, ‘student’ and ‘caterpillar’.
Some events might perhaps be analysed as different states of affairs not immediately next to each other. Yet if some event were the doubleness of one state of affairs followed by a different one, with nothing between them, then, whereas each state might be said to occupy a time different from the other’s, the event cannot be said to happen at either the one time or the other. It might be tempting to say that the event happened at the instant the previous state ceased and the following one began, but if there is nothing between them, there is no duration of time there to be occupied. If we start talking about a point of time of no duration between two other points definable to an infinitely small degree, then I think we are in danger of resurrecting the ghost of Zeno and offering the sort of paradox I warned against earlier. Perhaps there is a type of state of affairs that, like some other absolutes in science, is itself the smallest possible measurement of time, but that would still not be an event having a time at which it happened.
THE TERM ‘TIME’ IS SIMPLY AN INTERPRETATION OF STATES OF AFFAIRS BEING IN A SEQUENCE IN AN EVENT; that is, the idea of time makes sense because the concepts of ‘before’ and ‘after’ make sense. So, just as an object is its own position, in the same way a state of affairs is its own time. There is no separate objectivity to time to allow us to refer to a time and say that an event happened at it. In this way of thinking, we cannot say that the train arrived at platform 2 at 4.15, nor that it was standing at platform 2 at 4.15, but only that there is a time that is the train standing at platform 2. Likewise, when we quantify time, that also should be separate from the event, since it will now not make much sense to talk of the time between one state and another. The time is the sequence itself.
So, if ‘happen’ implies ‘event’, we can now answer the question in the subtitle to this article “Can something be happening now?” The answer is “No”. There can be a present state, but not a present event.
Something or nothing
Can there be a state of affairs consisting only of one object, that is, a state definable simply as the existence of the object? If so, it is hard to think of an event involving it. The only contrast that springs to mind is the non-existence of the object; but then we have a second state of affairs consisting of nothing, which sounds a bit self-contradictory. If Natalie is in the room, she’s where she is in it; if she’s not in the room, we don’t ask where in the room she isn’t.
What I have said so far seems to assume that states of affairs must be unchanging in themselves and that a simple event is the sequence of one frozen state and a subsequent different frozen state. This could be useful for precise scientific analysis or philosophical discussion about the nature of time, but might be awkward for describing everyday experience. Without complete confidence in it, therefore, and in disregard of my earlier animadversion against paradox, I suggest the following idea: that a state of affairs can be fluid; so that if the event is the footballer scoring a goal, there are three fluid states: the first is the ball not yet being in contact with the striker’s foot; the third, the ball being in the goal; and the second the state between the first and third. Even this theory, though, will not settle whether Geoff Hurst’s shot actually crossed the line in 1966.
© M. Bulley 1996
Michael Bulley teaches classics at Highworth School in Ashford, Kent.
Zeno and his Paradoxes
Zeno of Elea (born c. 490 BCE) was a “pre-socratic philosopher” (although he actually lived during the lifetime of Socrates’).
He and his fellow “Eleatic” thinkers came from small colony in South Italy and argued that, by logic, only one thing can exist, nothing changes, and any evidence to the contrary is illusory! None of his writings survive although fragments remain in Aristotle’s Physics and its commentaries.
His most famous paradox proves how Achilles can never pass a tortoise if it’s given a head-start. Another (the paradox of the arrow) showed how motion can never happen at all! If a flying arrow is in any particular spot at a given moment; you never catch it actually moving, so how does it fly?
Zeno was trying to show that the laws of motion disproved the facts of motion!