Friday, December 03, 2004

Gappy Objects

Consider an apple. I assume we all agree that it counts as an object. Now consider the mereological sum of that apple plus the northern hemisphere of Mars. Is this fusion also an object? It may not be one we'd have any reason to use, but I can't think of any, er... objective... grounds to deny it 'object' status. One might suggest that an object must be spatially continuous. But if that were so, then physics tells us there exist no such objects above the sub-atomic level. Besides, the territory of the United States (including Alaska) is clearly 'gappy' in a similar way, yet we have no objection to calling that particular sum a single object. So, it seems to me, any objection to recognising 'gappy' objects like my apple-Mars fusion is merely pragmatic, rather than metaphysical. That is, the object does exist, but we usually wouldn't bother saying so.

But is it an object in exactly the same way? Or are there different degrees of 'objectness'? Here I'm wondering if the common-sense objects we recognise every day (e.g. apples, chairs, etc.) share some metaphysical property which sets them apart from more bizarre objects like the apple-Mars sum. For example, we tend to recognise as a single object clumps of matter that exhibit unified behaviour (if I push part of an apple, the whole thing moves, but Mars does not move with it). But, as before, we could always find exceptions. Further, it seems to me that there could be no objective reason to ontologically privilege some collection of atoms over any other. So I think the difference is purely pragmatic, but I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts here.

Things get even crazier once we admit the eternalist conception of time as a sort of 'fourth dimension'. For then objects do not 'persist' through time in the intuitive sense of wholly existing at each moment. Instead, the whole object is a space-time 'worm': a combination of temporal parts.

But then, we ask, what privileges that particular combination of parts over any other? Is there any reason why we couldn't make another bizarre mix of objects? Consider, say, the sum of {me today + my cat tomorrow}. Can we call this mix a single object? Again, it's a pretty useless one, but I can't think of any principled objection to it.

However, these sorts of mixes seem quite different in kind to a normal object like a temporally-extended apple. It's not merely practical for us to say it's the same apple now as it was a second ago. Rather, there seems a genuine metaphysical connection between the temporal parts. We might say they are parts of a natural object, whereas "my cat tomorrow" is part of the contrived me-cat pseudo-object. Is there any way to account for this, without adopting a presentist view of time?

I find a certain theoretical elegance to the unrestrained eternalist picture which allows for doubly-gappy (i.e. discontinuous in both space and time) objects. It's very simple, after all. We imagine the entire space-time 'loaf' of the universe at all moments, then we say that every portion (or combination of portions) of the loaf counts as a metaphysical 'object'. Pick and choose whatever you want, and you get an object. The extreme generality is almost beautiful.

The only problem is that it doesn't make sense. It suggests that {me now + my cat tomorrow} is just as much a single unified object as {me now + me tomorrow} is. And that's just absurd. There's clearly a difference between the metaphysical status of these two objects.

I can accept arbitrary spatially-gappy objects as metaphysically equivalent to any other object, and happily dismiss our common-sense views as mere pragmatism, but I cannot do the same across time. I think there must be some objective relation between various temporal parts such that some are more appropriately combined than others.

My question is: Can we make sense of this within eternalism?


  1. I will keep perusing and reading what you have, but this post makes my head hurt. How did you find the topic to be of interest to you? It seems rather arcane, in my humble opinion. 

    Posted by Scof

  2. Your problem is you need a relationship between you and the cat of the type that exists between you and yourself tomorrow if you want that to be valid otherwise "the object" is "everything including now and the future".
    still having engaged with it ..
    I can empathise with scof - if you dont anchor a concept in reality (the definition of an object is a mental game not really bound to reality) then any paradox that emerges may have more to do with hte foundations of the question than a real issue with the argument.

    Posted by GeniusNZ

  3. I think we should determine how close two objects are connected and then just set a limit to what can still be called one object. I've been able to think of several ways to determine how close two objects are connected:

    1) Two objects are connected closer when the information you can get from viewing them together is larger than the added information of viewing both of the objects by themselves. An electron in my computer and one in the sun are not very closely connected, because there is not much more information looking at both of them together than looking at them by themselves. Two electron in a molecule are more closely connected because looking at them together, interacting, can give you more information about the molecule than looking at both of them isolated. The problem here is the definition of information.

    2) Two objects are more closely connected when a small chance in one of the object has a large influence in the other object or in the entire system. More the apple a meter to the left won't influence Mars much, but moving your arm a meter to the left would influence your body tremendously. 

    Posted by Amantine

  4. Scof - metaphysics is not to everyone's taste, I freely admit. But I enjoy it, so I hope it won't put you off reading my other posts on (more down-to-earth) topics. As to how I got interested in it, I had an excellent lecturer for the metaphysics course I took earlier this year. I'm naturally inclined towards abstract thought anyway, and you don't get much more abstract than metaphysics - it's like mathematics with meaning.

    Amantine - interesting suggestions. If they work, that would seem to count against even mere spatially-bizarre fusions. But I wonder if there's any way to accept the spatial ones whilst rejecting the temporal ones?

    But if we want to reject spatial fusions too, then (something like) your suggestions are probably the way to go. If we have an objective/formal definition of "information" then that could serve our purposes here. (Information theory is something I'd like to learn about, so if anyone has any good references to recommend, I'm all ears!)

    However, don't we still get some troubling counterexamples? For example, how would you deal with the U.S. territory? There's no metaphysical connection between (say) Alaska and Hawaii, it's purely conventional. Perhaps we could simply concede that the U.S. is not a 'natural' object (which isn't exactly a surprise).

    So, perhaps we should admit any arbitrary spatial fusion as a (conventional/artificial) 'object', but reserve a special status for ones whose parts are highly interconnected (in some, yet to be precisely specified, sense.) That sounds quite promising to me. Thanks for the suggestion! 

    Posted by Richard

  5. Richard: "There's no metaphysical connection between (say) Alaska and Hawaii, it's purely conventional."

    There are connections between Alaska and Hawaii. By looking at them together you'll see that they governed by the same federal government. Maybe we should allow such human connections as well.

    I also find information theory very interesting, especially things like the Holographic Principle ( I'm also still looking for some good books about it, though.


    Posted by Amantine

  6. Clearly all objects are only objects by convention. An object is a word for describing a-thing-that-can-have-a-name. It's just a human convenience. If you find it convenient to describe a gappy object, go for it. If you find it inconvenient, then don't. 

    Posted by Tennessee

  7. Metaphysics is effective if you have a strong sense of what your function is and what your culture is.

    Plato was operating within a culture of philosophy that honored Pythagorean mysticism. Plato was a persuader, and his metaphysics was persuasive. Unfortunately, Plato was not as profound a mystic as Pythagoras, so it's easy to twist Plato to unintended meanings.

    Aristotle was just a particularly domineering classroom tyrant. Just as Aristotle's student (Alexander of Macedon) raped and pillaged the political world, but ultimately achieved nothing positive, Aristotle developed an excellent method of "proof by intimidation" that serves to keep second-rate teachers and students quiet while the Big Ape is talking.

    If you want rhetorical hegemony without regard for logic or truth, by all means embrace Aristotelian metaphysics. If you want to use Platonic metaphysics to figure out what Pythagoras was talking about, you have a much harder task -- you may be well advised to start with medieval Neo-Platonists, or even the medieval Arab thinkers.

    Assuming you do work in Neo-Platonistic metaphysics, you will probably find a lot of use for objects that look gappy to naive observers but are seen to be connected, even integral, by different means of perception.

    However, Neo-Platonism is not easy, and your professors might very well hate you for liking it. I turned away from further study in philosophy because I couldn't stand philosophy profs who claimed to be open-minded and then used every dirty trick in the book to censor dissent.

    Currently I still enjoy doing metaphysics, but the only people who listen to what I have to say are *not* in English-speaking academia. Interestingly, Asian professors have been much more interested in my ideas than American ones, and I may end up pursuing graduate study of metaphysics in an Asian country such as Japan.


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