📰 Objects, Objectively | Meta-Rationality
Author: David Chapman
Full Title: Objects, Objectively | Meta-Rationality
What is an object? Philosophers are always saying, “Well, just take a chair for example.” The moment they say that, you know that they do not know what they are talking about any more. The atoms are evaporating from it from time to time—not many atoms, but a few—dirt falls on it and gets dissolved in the paint; so to define a chair precisely, to say exactly which atoms are chair, and which atoms are air, or which atoms are dirt, or which atoms are paint that belongs to the chair is impossible. So the mass of a chair can be defined only approximately.
There are not any single, left-alone objects in the world. If we are not too precise we may idealize the chair as a definite thing. One may prefer a mathematical definition; but mathematical definitions can never work in the real world.
There are no absolute truths about an eggplant-sized object, because there is no absolute truth about which atoms make it up. The physical boundaries of a physical object are always nebulous, to varying degrees.
The mass of a set of atoms is objectively well-defined. But a cloud or a chair or an eggplant is not a specific set of atoms. If you look at the surface even of a stainless steel ball bearing under a powerful enough microscope, in sufficiently slow motion, in the same way there will be atoms loosely associated but not definitely either part of it or part of its surrounds.
The rationalist argument was that “we know from physics that an object doesn’t depend on your subjective ideas about it.” But Feynman tells us that we know from physics the opposite: “There are no definite objects in the world; mathematical definitions can never work.”
Obviously eggplants exist. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that the universe is not intrinsically divided into chunks; certainly not at scales larger than molecules. The problem is not objects, exactly, but objective objectness: qualities of solidity, durability, separateness, homogeneity, and identity.
Reality is not divided into chunks, but it is elaborately patterned. Objective and subjective do not exhaust the possibilities. Objects arise in interaction.
“If we are not too precise we may idealize the chair as a definite thing,” said Feynman. In rational practice, we use ontologies that assume the existence of definite objects with definite properties. Such an idealization cannot precisely reflect the real world, because there are no such.
In reasonable everyday activity, it’s usually not a problem that the world cannot be divided into definite objects.
We put indefinite messes (cell cultures, for instance) in containers to give them External boundaries, and to shield them from External influences. Rationality works because we’ve engineered the world to more nearly conform to definite ontologies.
Science generally aims for universal, objective truths (and rightly so). However, when you apply rational conclusions to the real world, separation of objects is generally somewhat context-dependent and purpose-dependent.