The “Thingness” of Objects

What is it that makes an object the thing that it is? Is it some kind of substance onto which properties are predicated? Can two (or more) things colocalize (there exists in a single region of spacetime both a thing I call my hand and a thing I call my fist)? In what follows, I am going to riff on some ideas I have for a theory of thingness.

One of the problems that consume metaphysics in modern times is the composition problem of mereology: if there are two simple objects, then should we say that there exists two things or three things (only the two simples exist or the simples plus the composition of the simples)? A more concrete example: when atoms are arranged tablewise, should we say only that there is an arrangement of atoms (the simples) that we find interesting, but that does not instantiate anything new, or is there something above and beyond the arrangement of atoms tablewise, namely the table, that also exists?

I am inclined to take the Heideggerian idea of Dasein as the determination of an objects thingness – the tableness that exists above and beyond the arrangement of atoms tablewise. What makes a table a table rather than just atoms arranged tablewise is all of the possible relations the atoms arranged tablewise can take with all other actual existing objects in the universe at a given time. Or, more formally:

An arrangement of simples x is a thing F above and beyond x by virtue of all possible relations R of x with all other currently existing objects O such that F=ROx

The relationship ‘by virtue of‘ is a grounding relationship, defined as: “if the truth that P is grounded in other truths, then they account for its truth; P’s being the case holds in virtue of the other truths’ being the case” (Fine, 2001). In the instance of the table, the fact that something we call a table exists above and beyond the arrangement of atoms tablewise is grounded in all of the possible relationships of the atoms arranged tablewise with all other objects in existence.

This works because the thingness of an object – such as a table’s tableness above and beyond atoms being arranged tablewise – is due to what the object can do by virtue of its atoms being arranged in the way that they are: a table has tableness (above and beyond atoms arranged tablewise) because the possible relations the table can have with other objects are the relations that a table has with objects.

This goes along with my idea of PhenomIntensioNominalism (PIN for short – a portmanteau of Phenomenology, Intensionality, and Nominalism) wherein the truth of the statement “this is a table” (i.e. this arrangement of atoms tablewise is concurrently a mereological object that instantiates tableness above and beyond the tablewise arrangement of atoms) is due to:

1) the modality, quantifier, subject, and predicate of any proposition containing “this table” refer to mental concepts (the mereological ontology of tableness is a purely mental concept). The ontologically arbitrary partition of physical reality into a system of atoms arranged tablewise and the rest of the universe is only a mental concept constructed in virtue of
a) our particular phenomenology: if we either perceived reality differently, or we did not possess mental concepts of tableness, then we would not make the particular partition of the universe into “this table” and “all of the universe that is not this table”. The table would simply be another arbitrary local arrangement of atoms among the totality of atomic arrangements throughout the universe; it may perhaps take on some other mental concept, but it would not instantiate tableness.
b) the way in which humans conceive of tables: the tableness of the object is in virtue of how those conscious entities who hold the mental concept of “table” arrange (mentally and physically) objects in relation to the objects we hold to be tables in order to use them as tables

2) a table is capable of being understood by anyone familiar with the concept of tables in a way that is significantly similar (when I say “table” that does not reference what I would understand as “kittens” in your mind but which you call “tables”). Even if we might disagree on what defines a table (for example, you say that a boulder onto which objects can be set is included in the concept of table and I disagree that such a boulder counts as an instance of a table because I believe that human agency is a necessary condition for something to instantiate tableness), the disagreement would be a good faith difference in definition rather than a misconstrual of each other’s definitions or some attempt at redefining tableness.

3) tables are internally coherent (no contradictions or paradoxes) with all other concepts held to be true (by law of non-contradiction): the fact that the concept of “tables” exists in my mind does not contradict any other concepts within my mind. For instance, my acceptance of the concept of tableness does not infer or logically compel me to believe that the color blue does not exist or that square circles are possible.

4) the existence of the mental concept of tableness can be used to make correct predictions and retrodictions about the world: if you say “this is a table” then I will correctly predict that it will (and can correctly retrodict that it has) function the same way that other objects I understand as tables function – I know that if I alter the relation of some other object relative to the tablewise arrangement of atoms, that the arrangement of atoms will behave the way I predict that objects with tableness (above an beyond their arrangement of atoms) behave.

Edit: upon thinking about this further, I wonder if maybe 4) ought to be revised so it is less human-centered. My reason for thinking this is because there was a reason for arrangements of atoms to come together prior to human needs: the first replicators that are the forebears of life would be such pseudo-teleologically arranged atoms – the reason that atom-arrangement A has the arrangement it does is because such an arrangement has resulted in A replicating itself with greater fidelity and endurance.

And so, perhaps instead of saying that “this is an A” allows a conscious entity to make correct predictions about A, we would say that “this is an A” is in virtue of the A-wise arrangement of atoms resulting in A being able to influence its local surroundings in a predictable way (such as tables functioning as tables or replicator molecules replicating themselves). And so, instead of saying

“I know that if I alter the relation of some other object relative to the tablewise arrangement of atoms, that the arrangement of atoms will behave the way I predict that objects with tableness (above an beyond their arrangement of atoms) behave”

we would instead say:

If it is the case that there is an alteration in the relation of some B-wise arrangement of atoms relative to an A-wise arrangement of atoms, and the B-wise arrangement of atoms will behave in a predictable way in relation to the A-wise arrangement of atoms in virtue of how the A-wise arrangements of atoms behave, then the A-wise arrangement of atoms are a candidate for being considered a composite object A (having a mereological composition above an beyond the A-wise arrangement of atoms) by an entity with both consciousness and a concept of A’s thingness.

It might even perhaps be better to change the stipulation “…by an entity with both consciousness and a concept of A’s thingness” to a less consciousness-centric conception. Instead, we might say that thingness is simply what an A-wise arrangement of atoms is for something: if the A-wise arrangement of atoms is able to reproduce other independent A-wise arrangements of atoms, then the thingness of A is that its particular A-wise arrangement of atoms is for reproducing. This is not to be mistaken with some teleological meaning, where the atoms came together for the purpose of reproducing their particular arrangement; instead, it is that this reproduction (which occurs in virtue of the particular arrangement of atoms) becomes the thingness of the A-wise arrangement of atoms in virtue of their being arranged A-wise – the A-wise arrangement occurred prior to and grounds its thingness (existence precedes essence).

In this formulation, concepts are something that can be possessed by non-conscious A-wise arrangements of atoms grounded in the predictable way in which the A-wise arrangement of atoms can possibly interact with any other arrangements of atoms. This formulation can then be grounded in information theory: given the particular A-wise arrangement of atoms, there is a reduction in uncertainty about the way in which the A-wise arrangement of atoms can interact with some other B-wise arrangement of atoms (and C-wise, and D-wise, and so on). Or, stated another way, the thingness of the A-wise arrangement of atoms is the information (reduction in uncertainty) about the way that the A-wise arrangement of atoms will interact with any B-wise (and C-wise, and D-wise, and so on) arrangement(s) of atoms.

This is why highly structured arrangements of atoms have low entropy, because they have a highly predictable way of interacting with other arrangements of atoms, giving them more thingness: a boulder, although able to function as a table in many ways, may be disputable as a table because it is not arranged as tablewise as something you buy from a furniture store, which has more tableness.

A potential problem with this formulation, though, is that it almost appears to lead into Platonism: if A can have more tableness than B, then there must be something that has the most tableness. If there is something with the most tableness, then is it possible for something to have infinite tableness (i.e. the Ideal table)? Obviously, it doesn’t follow that being able to have more tableness means there must be something with infinite tableness – just because there must be a tallest human doesn’t mean there is a human who is infinitely tall. I think a workaround for this is possibly that the thingness of an arrangement of atoms is finite because the reduction in uncertainty about how an A-wise arrangement of atoms will interact with B-wise (and C-wise, and D-wise, and so on) arrangements of atoms has a global minimum: given the maximum amount of information one can possibly know about an A-wise arrangement of atoms, one can predict with 100% accuracy and 100% certainty how the A-wise arrangement of atoms will interact with any B-wise (or C-wise, or D-wise, and so on) arrangement of atoms. The thingness of A, then, is the actual way in which the A-wise arrangement of atoms is interacting with local arrangements of atoms. Thus, the thingness of A will be different if it is in an environment in which it is interacting with B-wise arrangements of atoms than when it is in an environment interacting with C-wise arrangements of atoms.

More concretely, if you know absolutely everything it is possible to know about a particular tablewise arrangement of atoms, you will be able to predict with 100% accuracy and 100% certainty how that tablewise arrangement of atoms will behave in any relationship the tablewise arrangement of atoms will have with any other possible arrangement(s) of atoms in the universe. The tableness of the tablewise arrangement of atoms is then due to its interaction with other arrangements of atoms. Thus, a tablewise arrangement of atoms has tableness when it is interacting with other arrangements of atoms in a particular way – in the ways in which people use it as a table. However, if the tablewise arrangement of atoms is, say, keeping someone afloat out in the middle of the ocean, the tablewise arrangement of atoms becomes a life raft: it now has life-raftness, grounded in the way in which the tablewise arrangement of atoms is interacting with the oceanwise arrangement of atoms below it and personwise arrangement of atoms sitting atop it.

2 thoughts on “The “Thingness” of Objects

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