Sunday, May 06, 2007

Objective Structure

Does the world have objective structure? As Jack defines it: "That is, for any two simples x and y, there is a fact of the matter about whether their fusion, x&y exists."

This strikes me as a fascinating question, because it's so difficult to understand what such facts would consist in. (Thus my skepticism about whether there is any such thing.) I have no objection to the analytic project of systematizing our intuitions, or finding the most coherent and sensible way to project structure onto the world. That -- like its ethical analogue -- makes perfect sense. But why go the extra step of thinking that the answer is really "out there", built into the world, an additional fundamental fact about the universe?

Perhaps there could be "objective structure" in a derivative sense, say if the structural facts supervened on (or reduced to) the distribution of physical qualities, or some such. That would seem less objectionable. But let's put that aside for now and consider the hard-core realist view of objective structure as primitive, and wholly independent of other facts.

Doesn't that mean there could be a world with two physically identical "chairs" (speaking loosely), only one of which actually counted as an object in its own right? That is, it's a primitive fact that the first bunch of simples-arranged-chairwise comprise a chair, whereas the qualitatively identical second bunch - for no particular reason - do not. That seems weird.

Maybe this is just my deflationary intuitions repeating themselves, but it just doesn't seem like there should be any further (i.e. unsettled) question about whether the simples compose a fusion. Fix the base facts about the qualitative nature of the world, and all else follows. That makes most sense to me. What need do we have to posit further fundamental facts about "objective structure"? (That's a genuine question -- I haven't read enough to know how proponents of objective structure motivate their position, but would be curious to learn...)


  1. Richard,

    Check out Sider on realism about ontology. I think his paper is at his site.

    Also, consider whether you think there is a way the world is independent of sentience and awareness. Is there an objective, mind-independent fact about how many stars there are in the universe? or how many things there are in the universe?

    Thanks for the post.

  2. To Jack's first question I would answer with a definite "yes", if we set aside the unavoidable vagueness of the term "star" (something might be halfways between a small cold star and a large hot planet). There is a definite questions because we have clear criteria for what is and what is not a star (modulo vagueness). But I don't think there are similar criteria for what is and what is not a "thing". To put it in a different way: two astronomers that disagree over how many stars are there in a given galaxy share the same meaning for the term "star"; they would call the same objects stars, they just disagree over how many of those objects there are. By contrast, two mereologists that disagree over whether a star is or not a "thing" seem to be not sharing the same meaning for "thing". If "thing" (and "object", entity", "exists", etc.) have no shared meaning independent of the ontological theory we accept, then ontological discussions are not "substantial" and the "objective structure of the world" is a chimera.

  3. Alejandro,

    Interesting post! Though I think you are a whit question-begging by saying "two mereologists that disagree over whether a star is or not a "thing" seem to be not sharing the same meaning for "thing"."

    Here are a couple of questions for you.

    (1) What goes wrong with the following deduction, if anything? There are more than 100 stars. So there are more than 100 things which are stars. So there are more than 100 things.

    (Perhaps add to this, there are more than 100 donkeys. No donkeys are also stars. So there are more than 100 things which are stars and more than 100 different things that are donkeys. So there are more than 200 things.)

    (2) Suppose two mereologists accept that there are simples: portions of materiality without parts. And also agree that x is a thing just in case x is a simple or x is a fusion of simples. Is there now an objective mind-independent fact of the matter about how many things, in this shared, stipulative sense, there are in the universe?


  4. Without quibbling too much about problem constructs like "world" and "objective," It seems to me that you are asking 2 questions.

    Question 1- is there a self-consistent transcendent reality ?

    Question 2- Is this reality even hypothetically knowable in a comprehensive systemic way, at least so far as to determinedly posit some specific rule based relationships that are true of it?

    I'll take the usual way out on question 1, and say that my imagination seems not to be powerful enough to be generating all these sensations by itself, thus there must indeed be some transcendent reality. That it is or is not self consistent is A) unknowable and B) possibly meaningless if this consistency is in fact a human issue, and possibly does not apply beyond us. possibly something in some vague way related to our ideas of coherence might actually be true.
    which brings us to 2, knowability in some absolute way. We probably cannot have demonstrable absolute knowledge in this sense--we lack the scope. Is it possible that there might be some hypothetical construct... some Anselm's god that might indeed have, at least hypothetically, absolute knowledge of at least some proposition? I would tend to think that the nature of the world, such as it appears, is contrary to the possibility. What is implied by tat possibility is at least some permanent algorithms, if not permanent structures, which are knowably and consistently true, right? To have this, we'd need a unified theory to justify any piece of it as being wholly consistent, wouldn't we? And even then, mightn't that be just a consistent picture of ourselves?

  5. Hi Jack,

    I agree that there are mind-independent base facts (e.g. concerning physical qualities). I'm merely wondering what should motivate us to add structure to that list. But I definitely need to give Sider's paper a closer look.

    Regarding your last question to Alejandro, do the two mereologists agree on the criteria for simples composing a 'fusion'? If not, perhaps a "merely semantic" disagreement is sneaking in here...

    But so long as they are willing to stipulate mereological universalism, or whatever, then there will be an objective fact about how many things are in the universe. (The problem is that there is no objective reason to prefer this stipulation to, say, the mereological nihilist's proposal, which would yield an entirely different number.)

  6. Jack:

    Interesting questions. Regarding (1), I would catiously agree with this reasoning, because I thinkk there is a minimal shared meaning of "things" as including "discrete, countable objects made of matter and distinguished in our common-sense ontology" or something like that; thus we all can agree that stars, tables and toohpicks are "things". But I think this is a fact about ordinary language, and that ordinary language contains no criteria for applying the term or not to stuff it doesn't normally talk about, like fusions or (see below) entities postulated in mathematical physics.

    Regarding (2), I would dodge the question saying that according to modern physics it is very unclear whether there are "simples" in the sense you define -for example, many believe that the basic objects of physical theories are "quantum fields", not "particles", and that particles (electrons, photons, etc) are emergent constructions from fields existing only in certain particular cases. I don't think the usual apparatus of mereology is suited for talking about quantum fields, so probably the discussion between your two mereologists is purely academic. Yes, if you assume a Democritean world with discrete self-existent material particles, and mereologists agree that both them and any fusions of them are things, then there will be a definite number of things in the universe. But this has nothing to do with the actual world.

    (Perhaps you can see that I am extremely suspicious of "armchair metaphysics" -I think if there is a substantial content to metaphysics, aiming to talk about the "ultimate structure of the world" and not just about word games, it would have to follow humbly in the heels of fundamental physics and analyse the ontology of its most advanced theories. I have elaborated on this on an old post on my blog)

  7. Richard, I suppose that I just disagree with you. It not that there is no objective reason to prefer universalism to the nihilism, it is just that it is difficult to find an objective reason to prefer nihilism to universalism. I think, for instance, that considerations of the possibility of gunk (perhaps necessity of gunk), or features of the universe as a whole are important considerations in deciding between mereological theories.

    I actually think that the mereological debate is quite similar to many, many philosophical debates. A skeptic and a non-skeptic can agree about the spatiotemporal relations among the basic particles in the universe and all of the phenomenal facts [the what-its-like facts], and disagree about whether S knows P. So in this debate too it is difficult to find an objective reason to prefer skepticism or non-skepticism--but I suppose I don't think that the debate is empty or devoid of objective reasons in one direction or the other.

    Maybe there is a pertinent difference between the two that I am not seeing. (Perhaps the folk-psychology facts minus the knowledge-facts)

  8. Good point. The way I see it, substantive philosophical disputes are essentially normative, concerned with the ideally rational way for us to carve up the world, or project our concepts onto it. Hence, philosophical disputes are more about our concepts, and how we ought to think, rather than how the world really is in itself.

    As suggested in my main post, my objections to mereology disappear if we adopt this "projectivist" understanding of meta-ontology (as I would likewise recommend for meta-ethics, and meta-philosophy generally).


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