(About a 9 minute read)
It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:
What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?
Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.
Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them! Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.
To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists. Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11. I was off! Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!
I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!
Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!
We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.
Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces. So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?
Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions. Simply dreadful conclusions! I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!
The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!
Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds. Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.
Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”. But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so. For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds. And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.
Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!
The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots. Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.
The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance. Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace. But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object? Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.
For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land. So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object? Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago? A half million years ago? Today? And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?
There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain. That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone. But we must ask, what could be the nature of that essential nature? For it certainly cannot be something physical.
Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness. That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations! The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence. That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”. But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion? There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion. Simply none.
I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues. We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans. Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.
In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations. And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects. They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.
Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!
The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.
To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand. Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects. All objects. Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left. At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?
You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand. Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”, we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction! For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into. Frightful!
And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects. When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?
Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects. In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.
A Most Titillating Implication!
No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me. Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much! Far too much fun!”. But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.
You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities. But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?
The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post. I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog. For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!