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This article is a subtopic of the theme ‘reality’. Please read the articles on reality
Immanuel Kant
Reality and representation
before reading this article.



ach academic subject has its own special area of study. History, we might say, studies the reasons for events, science studies causal relations, mathematics quantitative relations . . . and so on. And each subject has its own particular categories or objects of study, or emphasis, in addition to many that are held in common.

So what, then, is the subject that examines what all of these separate disciplines have in common? What is it that studies them altogether?

This subject is metaphysics – the study of the nature of existence, the structure of reality, of everything.[2]

But where can our taxonomy of everything[1]possibly begin? What ‘things’ (objects) are there in the universe?

As soon as we postulate anything at all then other questions quickly flood in. Why should we select these (this) particular things rather than others: why group things in one way rather than another? What is the number of these things? What are they: what is their kind? What are their properties: that is, what is it about them that we consider warrants the status ‘object’? If there are several or many of them then what is the relationship between them?

If we each come to a different conclusion about what there is, does that simply mean that we divide the world in different ways or are things just subjective constructions of our minds as clear and distinct ideas . . . or do they exist out there in the world as discrete physical objects completely independent of anything that might be goin on in our minds?

Baron von Mueller
A square (tetragon)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
László Németh – Accessed 15 June 2017
So, for example, does everything ultimately consist of just one thing (monism) . . . and, if it is just one thing, then what is that one thing . . . is it, say, the universe, or atoms (fundamental particles), or human experiences, or events? Maybe it consists of two things (dualism) so, for example, philosopher Descartes believed the world consisted of just mind and matter. He was a religious man so we might offer another dualistic distinction, that between God and the world – isn’t that a legitimate dualism too? Perhaps there are three or more fundamental things (pluralism)?

Of course there are endless permutations that can be summoned up. Clearly, making any meaningful headway in such a discussion would require careful argument and elaborate justification, and for questionable benefit. But the fact that we fragment the world into conceptual units, how and why we do this, and how all this relates to the world may be, at least in part, a question for science to answer.

This article pursues the topic of ‘objects’, not in the expectation of answers, but to investigate what might be learned along the way – especially in relation to the metaphysics of science.

What is an object?

Every study is a study of something, every thought is a thought of something, every perception is a perception of something.

Immediately we want to ask whether these units are ‘in the world’ or ‘in our minds’ . . . but for the time-being, and because we are concerned here with ‘everything’, let’s start with an all-embracing statement – choosing ‘objects’ (object) as comprising everything there is.

Principle 1 – An object is anything that may be spoken of, seen, or imagined. This includes particulars, universals, abstract and concrete, properties, relations, events, actions, effects, numbers, sets, propositions and so on.

So, for our purposes, to get the discussion going, we have used ‘object’ as a first principle, and many potential kinds of object have been hinted at in Principle 1.

But, you may well think that the objects listed above are not of the same kind. So, how are we to rank them? Are some more ‘fundamental’ or ‘more real’ than others? How do we allocate ‘existence’, or ‘reality’ to the world of objects?

We are still struggling, so let’s see what the ancients had to say about these things, perhaps they can provide something for us to grasp on to?.


It is perception (input from the senses) that provides our moment-to-moment knowledge of the external world, supplemented by the testimony of others. Philosophically perception provides the nexus between epistemology (what constitutes knowledge of the world), and the philosophy of mind, and metaphysics . . . our acquisition of knowledge about the world, our understanding of the constitution of the mind and world, and the relation between the two.

The philosophical problem of perception depends on the confidence (degree of philosophical acceptance) we have in mind-independent objects. A brief glossary of major philosophical positions adopted in relation to the objects of perception is given below.

Idealists, of various shades, point out that perceptual knowledge is mediated by our sensory apparatus and must therefore be indirect: the only way we can access these external objects is as mental representations removed from the actual object (analogous to looking at a portrait of a person, listening to a sound recording, or watching television). The mind-independent object itself is therefore mysterious and unknowable.

Realists, also of various kinds, point out that perception is not ‘representation’ but direct ‘presentation’. Mind-independent objects are not mysterious, unknowable, and one step removed from us, we perceive them directly.


Direct realism – objects in the external world exist independently of perceivers
Indirect realism – our perception of objects is mediated, like an image in a mirror, or a football match on a TV screen (sense datum, appearance, percept) – referred to as ‘the veil of perception’
Scientific realism – some of the properties of the objects of perception depend on the perceiver (secondary dispositional properties like colour, smell and felt texture); scientific realists hold that successful scientific theories represent theory-independent phenomena
Idealism – an anti-realist position: we cannot know anything beyond our sense impressions or sense data. Berkeley maintained the universe can therefore consist only of minds and sense data – that there is only immaterial stuff in the universe. Physical objects cannot exist unperceived
Phenomenalism – idealists conceive a world of actual experience. Phenomenalists maintain that propositions concerning the physical world are about possible sensations. Thus, physical objects can exist unperceived
Intentionality – claims direct contact with the external world. Our percepts, like our beliefs, are directed at things: they are ‘about’ or represent something (representationalism) – but there is no ontological commitment to mental objects
Disjunctivism denies there must be something in common between ‘actual’ and ‘mistaken’ cases of perception. Objects can be in the world, not just internal mental objects

Ancient philosophy

The most basic objects of ancient philosophy were called ‘substances’. These are not the same as the substances that we know, but they were ‘that which grounds existence or reality’.

Aristotle, in his Categories, distinguishes between primary substances as particulars (say, a particular chair or tree, as the subject of a sentence, or noun) and secondary substances as their properties (say, a tree being green or a chair being comfortable; these are qualifiers or descriptors and in language the predicates of subjects, or adjectives). To primary and secondary substances can be added the relations between objects and their properties.

Now, when I say ‘I have a tall oak tree in my garden‘ the sentence denotes a primary substance (the oak tree), a secondary substance (it is tall), and a relation (it is in my garden). Note that secondary substances cannot exist independently of primary substances: ‘tall’ and ‘comfortable’ can only be used for particulars. Also that the relation ‘in my garden’ is, as it were, in turn, dependent on the primary and secondary substances.

This gives us what appears to be something like an order of dependency that runs from particulars to properties and relations.

Aristotle‘s abstract ideas give us one way of describing ‘everything’ as the totality of particulars, their properties and relations.

Principle 2 – Everything is the totality of particulars, their properties, and relations.

This is perhaps a promising start in our quest to understand ‘everything’ and something that can fleshed out.

To summarize: Aristotle devised a system of categories, roughly as follows: the world consists of primary and secondary substances: primary substances were particulars, say one particular human being, and secondary substances were, say, human beings in general (universals).

He then categorized properties under the headings of quality, quantity, relation, location, time, position, possession, action (acting on other substances), and passion (being acted on by other substances).

Aristotle went on to divide primary substances into their form (what kind of thing it was) and matter (what it was made of), so for him, being (ousia) was a compound of matter and form (this is known as hylomorphism).

The defining properties or qualities of primary substances were their essence (their essential characteristics: those that define them). In spite of some ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ we must concede to Aristotle that this is an extraordinaily neat schema for existence.

Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant was obviously impressed and went on to further systematize the Aristotelian system by suggesting 12 categories in four groups: Quantity (as unity, plurality, totality); Quality (as reality, negation, limitation); Relation (as inherence/subsistence, causality/dependence, reciprocity); Modality (as possible/impossible, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingency). For Kant the categories are what give unity and structure to our spatiotemporal conceptual world: only by applying the categories of substance and causation can we have experience of the world.

There are, of course ,many ways of framing existence, each particular classification derived for its own particular purpose and from a particular perspective. Aristotle divided his first philosophy (his foundational ‘science’) into the core disciplines of metaphysics (what is the case), ontology (what exists or is real), and epistemology (what we can know). Whether any of these has priority is contentious but philosophers have found these divisions useful and have continued to work with them.

There are at least six characteristics associated with (primary) substances:

a) They are ontologically foundational
b) They are independent, durable, and have characteristics that define them (an essence)
c) They are subjects of predication and bearers of properties
d) They are subjects of change
e) They have objecthood
f) They are kinds of stuff

Principles 1 and 2 give us the generality needed for such an all-inclusive topic but there are at least two areas that you might think worth tackling. First, there is the desire to get away from abstractions into the world of hard physical objects. If our intuition that the world consists of physical objects is correct then what can be said about these in terms of existence and reality?

Secondly, our whole emphasis on objects might be misplaced. Though we might be drawn into a scheme of units, concepts, and categories of various kinds, maybe this is a diversion from a different aspect of existence – its flux, process, and change. Needless to say the ancients had something to say about this too.

Being & Becoming

For the ancients this raised the vexed problem of being and becoming – the coexistence of permanence and change. How can things persist when everything is in a state of constant flux? How can we remain the same person for a lifetime when every part of our bodies is replaced every seven years?

This is an ancient conundrum like our modern one which asks whether matter is a wave or a particle – isn’t it both at the same time?

Philosophers of being, of permanence, included atomists like Democritus and Leucippus: all that exists are eternal and unchanging indivisible particles (atoms) in the void. For Plato ultimate being was the eternal and unchanging Forms or Ideas. For Thales all was ultimately water, while Empedocles reduced everything to four fundamental elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. For Pythagoras everything eventually becomes number. Philosophers of becoming, of change, included Heraclitus who noted that it is impossible to step into the same river twice since both you and the river will be different. Enlightenment philosopher David Hume believed all was impressions and ideas. Philosophers of being and becoming have persisted through to today though under different guises and names.

There was another important distinction: that between particulars (say, a particular tree or chair) and their properties (say, being tall or comfortable). Importantly, properties cannot exist independently of particulars. Being tall is only something that can be said of a particular. When we then consider relations (say, the chair in the dining room) relations too cannot exist independently of particulars and their properties. This results in a kind of ranking of existence – from particulars, to properties, to relations.

Realism & anti-realism

Trying to gain a grip on this slippery topic philosophers have approached the problem of ‘objects’ by considering the distinction between those objects that exists independently of the mind and those which are mind-dependent. So the Parthenon is real since it existed before I was born and will, in all probability, persist after I die while my thought about and picturing of a unicorn in my mind (my cognates, percepts, and beliefs) will not persist in the same way and are therefore not real in this sense.

Process ontology

Included in modern philosophers of becoming would be possibly Liebniz, the American Pragmatists, Alfred North Whitehead, and contemporary philosopher of biology John Dupré.

For the realist it is the object or objects that exist independently of the mind, and so on …

The reality of natural objects

To gain a foothold in this quicksand of ideas we might begin by considering our everyday notion of an object as something made of matter – a material object like a tree, car, a grain of sand, or the Eiffel Tower. After all, this is close to science as the investigation of the material world.

Objects as phenomena

Both philosophers and scientists have long claimed that this familiar world of objects is not a world of ‘reality’ but a world of ‘appearances’. Immanuel Kant drew a distinction between objects in the world (noumena) and our mental representations of these objects (phenomena). Several important points can be made about the biology of these representations before we consider the philosophy:

a) The segregation of the world into categories, units of understanding, and physical objects, is a precondition for our survival, so we will have preferenced those needed for our survival
b) We are restricted in both the number and kind of categories we can experience in our daily life – by, for example, the scale at which we live, and the biological limitations of both our perception and cognition
c) We have greatly extended the range of our sense organs by means of science and technology
d) The match between the world and our representation of it must be sufficient for us to have survived as highly evolved organisms
e) Humans are not privileged over other sentient organisms in their experience of the world, except insofar as they have far greater brain processing power and have been able to extend their perceptual and cognitive capacity through science

Philosophically it appears to follow from this that: there cannot be a perspectiveless account of everything. The nearest there is to a privileged or complete knowledge of the world is through the extensions made to our biology by science.

Objects and science

Science itself professes to examine the underlying reality of our common-sense world. The challenge to our everyday world of objects and experiences comes in two forms. Firstly, the question arises as to whether the objects of our experience can be further divided into something more simple and basic. Are the unit categories we are concerned with (objects) atomic or compound? If they are compound in any sense then they are too metaphysically ‘shallow’ or general: we must look ‘deeper’ to find their underlying reality – they must be reduced to something more fundamental (reductionism, smallism, foundationalism).

On the other hand the search for foundational constituents may be mistaken. Perhaps it is better to understand material objects not through their fundamental constituents but through their qualities, actions, and effects, and maybe their unexpressed potential, capacity, or powers.

Natural kinds

Smallism & analytic decomposition

For an extended discussion of this metaphysics see the several articles on reductionism
We might claim that we can reduce the complexity of the myriad objects of the material world, like the few listed above, by describing them as being aggregations of just those few elements that occur in the periodic table. Thus ‘everything’ consists of the elements of matter. But then, don’t the elements consist of even fewer subatomic particles? The analytic path of reducing compound objects to their simpler underlying objects describes much of our science.

The ancient natural philosophers who followed this line of thinking include the monists Thales (everything consists of water), Anaximines (everything consists of air), and the pluralist Empedocles (eveything consists of earth, air, fire, and water mixed by love and hate). Probably the most appealing theory still relevant today is that of Democritus and Leucippus who claimed that eveything was made up of minute indivisible particles called atoms.

Principle 3 – The search for basic constituents has only two outcomes – either it continues in an infinite regress or it hits a bedrock of fundamental building blocks.

Bigism & synthetic aggregation

See also the discussion of parts and wholes
Unless an object is a single ‘whole’ then it must consist of parts. Perhaps our task is not to decompose objects into their smallest parts but to unite them into their greatest whole which is truly ‘everything’ – isn’t this the goal of metaphysics? What might this kind of whole be then – an indeterminate mass, perhaps a flux of energy, perceptions, events, or effects? Perhaps the search for basic constituents, an essence, a bedrock of reality. We cannot know a thing in itself, only its qualities.

Maybe the use of a scientistic deductive mode of thinking based on first principles (foundationalism) is a mistaken way of trying to penetrate reality. Maybe philosophy cannot be atomistic it can only proceed by descriptive generalization.

For the ancients this line of thinking was called the apeiron. Ultimate reality was the boundless, unchanging, and eternal (Parmenides, : an indeterminate mass or undifferentiated plasma out of which objects emerge.

The biology of metaphysics

Immanuel Kant was the philosopher who most starkly drew attention to the possibility that the way we interpret and structure the world is at least in part a consequence of our human mode of perception and cognition. For Kant there were conditions of possible perception and cognition. He believed that space and time were a mental given. It is as though we understand the world by seeing it through our space-time spectacles. Today we would say that there are innate features of the mind that structure our perception and cognition in particular ways.

This is a fruitful line of thought that has perhaps a longer road to run: it also has empirical consequences. We might, for example consider three possibilities that might apply to metaphysics and which will be discussed further.

Cognitive categories: individuation, rank-value, spatiotemporal scale

Cognitive science may not resolve philosophical problems but it can give us insights into modes of thought that bear on these problems.

Firstly, to function as human beings our experience cannot be processed ‘all at once’: our mental life is fragmented into units of experience, the concepts and percepts that are the building blocks of our perception and cognition. For simplicity we can refer to this fragmenting of experience as ‘individuation’.

Secondly, to act in the world these units cannot be treated with equal value, they must be continuously ranked in various waus according to our current needs, interests, and desires. For simplicity we can refer to this prioritization as ‘rank-value’ since this captures the way that at any given moment some menta objects are in the foreground of our minds and others in the background and that by showing this preference we are are attributing a value to those of primary concern.

Thirdly, in (concepts, objects, or categories). We must therefore be aware that the rankings we impose may be more to do with our minds than the world.

Also, secondly, we can only function as human beings by prioritizing in myriad ways the units of our experience. We are constantly and habitually ranking objects of thought and the world. We must therefore be aware that the rankings we impose may be more to do with our minds than the world.

Thirdly, though the universe may be comprehended at many scales (say the universe as a whole, the cells that make up a living tissue, or the subatomic particles of matter) we are familiar with the world at the spatiotemporal scale of human beings. So, for example, the tree in my garden, so solid and permanent, being there before I was born and persisting after I die, on a universal spatiotemporal scale is a brief wisp of existence, a minuscule transient local aggregation and disaggregation of matter, not a thing at all but an insignificant process. So our comprehension of physical objects, the way they are, is biased by our emphasis on the qualities they possess that have been of evolutionary significance to us as humans.

Principle 4 – our biological survival depends on at least three key cognitive faculties: individuation, rank-value, and adaptation to spatiotemporal scale.

The important metaphysical question to answer, then, is the extent to which individuation, rank-value, and spatiotemporal scale lie in our minds and/or the world. How effective are our minds at presenting to us what lies outside us? To make headway here we must look at each of these cognitive characteristics in turn:

1. Individuation
It seems that our minds operate best with static concepts because if we are thinking and speaking of a changing thing then we cannot pin it down, it slips out of our conceptual grasp so that we have no secure reference. To opreate at all we create units of thought (concepts) that are like bricks out of which we build our representation of the world. Everything in the universe is undergoing more or less rapid change depending on the time scale we adopt. In geological time the seeming indomitable permanence of mountains soon crumbles, complex life has evolved over time from simple organic molecules, living beings are bundles of physiology and metabolism constantly passing through linear and cyclical processes of development and change. Communication about all this flux is achieved by first reducing the complexity and limiting the focus, of both attention or language, by creating mental objects which we then freeze in time. This process of reification or individuation has been referred to elsewhere as cognitive focus. The question of whether the objects of our mind correpond well with objects in the world has been addressed in part by natural selection but is also being addressed by our science whose task it is to assemble the best possible categories for explaining the physical world, minimizing as far as possible the ‘artificial’ categories that might be imposed by the human mind.

There is a sense in which everything around us is a continuum of matter in space: some parts are more dense than others and consist of different kinds of stuff from others but all exists in a continuum of stuff. There is no doubt that the image of the world outside me that is projected onto my retina is complex mixture of colours, light and shade. Somehow, out of this meaningless abstraction my mind discriminates individual objects like tables, chairs, and cars, also a foreground of focus, and an indistinct background.

Clearly the kinds of objects discriminated are to some extent a consequence of evolutionary selection, namely those that are important for our survival and reproduction. The question then arises as to the extent of the match between our perception of the world and the world itself.

We are thus confronted with Kant’s dilemma. We can never know objects ‘in themselves’, we can only know them as they are presented to us through the uniquely human innate structuring of our perception and cognition. I might be able to discern a tiger leaping towards me, but the world of the flea on the tiger’s back is very different from mine since it has a different kind of cognition and perception and it is experiencing the world at a different scale. The physical objects outside the flea and myself are the same (they are equally real) but we experience and interpret them differently. There can be no objective and independent assessment of what these objects are ‘really’ like (a point of view of God or the universe) since we cannot step out of ourselves. The nearest we have to such an independent view is the world as presented to us by science, with its many deficiencies.

Here we confront two key philosophical puzzles: a) the relation between subject and object and b) the problem of understanding and explaining the nature of the ‘thing in itself’. These two topics will be discussed later but for now it is enough to urge caution in the acceptance of the very objects (categories) that we use to describe the world.

Principle 5 – We can never know objects ‘in themselves’, we can only know them as they are presented to us through the uniquely human innate structuring of our perception and cognition. There can be no objective and independent assessment of what objects are ‘really’ like (a point of view of God or the universe). The nearest we have to such a perspective is that presented to us by science which attempts to minimize, as far as possible, our specifically human outlook

2. Reality & ranking – the flat ontology Manuel DeLanda
Because something is a small part of something much larger does not privilege its existence. We are entitled to claim that humans are just as real as the electrons out of which they are composed. Though science investigates matter at many scales, and we gain knowledge by applying analysis and synthesis at various scales, no piece of matter exists to a greater or lesser extent than any other. Objects may be more or less inclusive, involve more or less matter, that are more or less complex in structure, but their existence itself is, as it were, a constant. Our desire to describe the more or less inclusive, the more or less complex, the smaller or larger as more or less real is a consequence of our tendency to rank all experience. No physical entity is ontologically privileged. This is argued in more detail here and it runs counter to scientific orthodoxy today. A flat ontology removes the necessity for the grounding of an object in something other than itself. There is no need to apply the Principle of Sufficient reason. (Explanations and reasons do not provide underlying truth or get closer to reality, they simply express or reduce one scale or mode of existence to the terms of another).

Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus famously declared that ‘The road up and the road down is one and the same’. Heraclitus was fond of the unity of opposites – standing on a slope in a road we could be travelling either up or down. The road is perceived differently but it is the same road no matter what direction you are travelling in. We can make an analogy. An organism is the same organism no matter how we describe its constituents (organs, tissues, cells, molecules, subatomic particles) and the idea of some constituents being ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ than any others is either totally illusory or depending on the criteria used to make them as such, simply a matter of convenience.

Principle 4 – All matter exists equally, though matter may be ranked in many ways it cannot be ranked in relative terms of existence (the material flat ontology)

Container metaphor
By analogy with physical objects we can characterize ‘everything’ as being either a whole, a collection of parts, or a part within a greater whole. Expressed another way there is the object (the thing in itself), that-which-is-in-it, and that-which-it-is-in. In simpler terms there is the object, its components, and its context.

One current way in which both science and philosophy struggle with metaphysics is by using – explicitly or implicitly – hierarchical (privileging, prioritization, ranking, preference) and container (inclusion-exclusion) metaphors, conceptually organizing the physical world into either layers superimposed one on top of the other, or objects containing one-another like a Russian doll … either superimposition or inclusion-exclusion. Society contains individual humans, humans contain tissues, tissues contain cells, cells contain molecules, molecules contain subatomic particles, and so on.

One moment’s reflection reveals how misleading both these metaphors can be. The challenge is to find an improved method of representation.

3. Scale, space & time
We have a particular ‘human’ understanding of space (as scale) and time. The size of a human is (I’ve heard said) to the size of an atom, what size of an atom is to the size of a quark. ‘Our’ world is real and important to us but it is only our experience and interpretation. Though we cannot step outside our world it is clear that both space and time can be viewed differently and that this casts a different perspective on everything. The pumpkin that is the object of my pride and joy, when conceived temporally over the span of the universe, exists for the minutest spec of time, it is a transient object that is temporally completely inconsequential. Similarly as a physical object in the universe it occupies an almost infinitely small part of spacetime. When perceived in this way what sort of a ‘thing’ is my pumpkin – perhaps it is just an extremely transient part of the world process. Perhaps we can learn a little from this though.

Principle – existence is relative to the scale of spacetime under consideration (not that of human perception and cognition)

The transience experienced in this example suggests the transience of ‘objects’ – that the objects (particulars) of our experience have a strong subjective element. Further, it might also suggest that contrary to the ancients and common sense, we might regard structure/relations as more informative than objects. This gives us a kind of relational theory or ‘structural realism’. Perhaps we would do better to think of the world in terms, not of things, but modalities: possibility, necessity, potentiality, actuality.

Subject & Object – Realism, Idealism, & Correlationism
A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. A realist claims that there is a world of objects existing independently of our minds. There was a world of objects existing before I was born and it will persist after I am dead, and it could exist independently of human beings. That the age of the universe is about 14 billion years is a fact that is independent of my mind. Naïve realism maintains we experience the world of physical objects directly as they are. In contrast an idealist claims that there can be no world outside of our mental experience. Ultimately this is all that we can know: it could be no other way.

The ‘thing in itself’
Themes discussed under this heading are addressed in more detail in the article reality & representation
When asked a question like ‘What is an apple?’ we are inclined to answer by describing either its general properties (its context) or what it is made of (its content). So, for example, on the one hand we might say that the apple is round, sweet, juicy, green, and hard. On the other hand, we might say that it is a particular configuration of tissues, cells, or molecules. Aristotle’s ‘four causes’ (four kinds of explanation) suggest not just two, but four different kinds of answer in terms of: what the apple is made of (material), what produced it – where it came from (efficient), its defining characteristics (formal), and where it is going, that is, what it is becoming – its function, or what it is for (final). So we might add to a description of the material composition of the apple (material cause) a note that it comes from a particular kind of tree that is related to other plants in a particular kind of way as determined by its genetic make-up (efficient cause) which gives the apple its particular properties (formal cause) such that it is a tasty food and destined, when grown from its pips, to become another apple tree similar in appearance to its parent (final cause).

If we then ask, ‘What is the thing in itself?’ does this question simplify or complicate matters? Does it make sense to consider an apple devoid of any context? Isn’t this a reduction since we are applying limits to the possible world of the apple? There is also an implication that we can treat the apple as something frozen in time, static, and without change? Then again perhaps we would do better to not consider the apple as a physical object at all but as a constituent of an ongoing process or a relation between things?

There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds (e.g. mammal), properties (e.g. short, strong), and relations (e.g. father of, next to).

Being & becoming, permanence & change, individuals & continua
Newton deliberately avoided the question of what gravity was: he believed it was sufficient for the purposes of science to simply say what it did – what its properties were. Quiddity is the essence or nature of the ding an sich, the ‘thing in itself’. How are we to characterize this essence – is it knowable?

Science has failed to resolve questions about the nature of its basic units of study – this is true of space, time, matter, and organisms. Is this because these units are simply too small to detect or perhaps simply devoid of discrete boundaries? The smallest unit of space seems to depend on our measurement of the smallest units of matter which appear to be more like vibrations or force fields that particles. We are not sure how to determine the smallest unit of time. In human terms ‘now’ is a variable quantity that can certainly be reduced beyond human perception. Or is there something more subtle is at work? One possibility is that our minds are not equipped to deal with such questions but how could that be?

The world might consist of continua that, for biological reasons, we need to discriminate. One example would be colour. We need colour discrimination to help us find food and other objects necessary for our survival. Though other factors no doubt contribute we view the continuum of wavelengths in the range off our colour vision as consisting of discrete though blending colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. One of the major tasks of science is to distinguish between continua of the world and individual of the mind.

Knowledge of something unknowable is a contradiction: the circle of correlation.
Immanuel Kant pointed out that since all experience passes through the filter of our perception and cognition then we can never know real objects directly. This does not mean that they are purely mental constructs – they exist outside the human mind. Two important points follow. Firstly, we cannot know these objects outside our own human way of knowing. Secondly there is no privileged view of these objects, no God’s eye view or an objective position taken from the point of view of the universe. The ‘thing in itself’ is a ‘witheld’ (Harman) object. The empiricist view of an object being its bundle of properties denies the existence of any ‘in-itself’.

There are several major lines of thought that have proceeded from here. Firstly there is the scientific tradition which, loosely speaking, acknowledges these problems but believes that we can at least access things-in-themselves more objectively by compensating for the obvious filtering of our cognition and perception.

This philosophical distinction between idealism and realism continues to this day. Many philosophers now take a middle road that has been called correlationism (what we make of the world is a correlation between experience of objects and the objects in themselves): strong correlationism is about the circle of correlation (as soon as we think of or experience something it becomes an object of the mind: thought cannot step outside itself to compare the ‘world-in-itself’ with the world as it is ‘for us’ – leading to an inescapable idealism, the correlationist circle), we can only talk of being in terms of thought; and weak correlationism which is close to the position adopted by Kant, that there is indeed a real world outside our minds but we cannot know it directly, absolutely, or completely because we are constrained by the biological limitations of our cognition and perception. This limitation to our knowledge has been called ‘finitude’.

We do experience objects indirectly, they are not inaccessible, and our scientific interpretation of them is an improvement on first impressions (appearances and the manifest image).

Object & Name
We experience so many individual physical objects in the world that we could not possibly give them all individual names. Instead we use a system of nomenclatural abstraction. So when, as a biological scientist, I refer to Homo sapiens I am not referring to one particular human but humans in general, and when I refer to ‘leaf’ or ‘petal’ I am also using these words in a general sense, I am not referring to a particular tree or a particular leaf. In fact all the objects of scientific classification and terminology are abstractions like this: there are no named individual living objects, only names in abstraction. We might claim that there is, say, the General Sherman tree in California or the tree you planted yesterday which refer to distinct biological entities – but these are not scientific names.

On closer inspection it is clear that this principle of abstraction applies to much of our general naming of objects – car, cup, painting, table, even tea leaf – are general concepts (even though they can be described as singular terms), not specific individual physical objects. When we say ‘This is a tea leaf’ we need further contextual information to focus on a single particular tea leaf.

But biologists in the course of their work must refer to individual physical objects, so how do they do it? Scientifically the only way this can occur is by describing the context, that is, the relation of the object to other objects. Say … the tree in the middle of the lawn, or the one which we are both looking at now, or the one which is now in flower, or that tree (pointing). Botanically when identifying a specimen as an example of Quercus robur, English Oak, I do not describe what the specimen is like ‘in itself’, I compare it to other specimens by establishing its similarities and differences.

Only when an object acquires special significance is it given its own unique name or reference. So we have: the Eiffel tower, the Sun, my car, and your computer. Alternatively we can isolate or individualize a material object by considering ever more characters or properties until there are no other objects with the same suite of characteristics. This is contextual or relational and it draws attention to the fact that the characteristics of most objects are many.

All experiece is about something that may or may not be real.

Object & object
Philosopher Harman suggests that Kant’s position is anthropocentric because objects, processes, relations, and qualities are all constrained by what we as humans ‘make’ of them. This ignores two points: first, there are object to object interactions no matter what can be said or known about them and, secondly, human to object relations are also object to object relations that need have nothing to do with consciousness. The relationship between objects is not about consciousness, it is about the properties of the objects. What happens when two rocks clash together does not depend on what we ‘make’ of what has happened but what in fact has happened. And any relation is a distortion.

Powers, properties, relations
We can perceive a table in at least three ways: as a solid object where we place other solid objects, as a mass of electrons but mostly space, or as a shadowy impression.
(WIKI – Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is a school of thought that rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects.[1] Specifically, object-oriented ontology opposes the anthropocentrism of Kant’s Copernican Revolution, whereby objects are said to conform to the mind of the subject and, in turn, become products of human cognition.[2] In contrast to Kant’s view, object-oriented philosophers maintain that objects exist independently of human perception and are not ontologically exhausted by their relations with humans or other objects.[3] Thus, for object-oriented ontologists, all relations, including those between nonhumans, distort their related objects in the same basic manner as human consciousness and exist on an equal footing with one another.[4]

Object-oriented ontology is often viewed as a subset of speculative realism, a contemporary school of thought that criticizes the post-Kantian reduction of philosophical enquiry to a correlation between thought and being, such that the reality of anything outside of this correlation is unknowable.[5] Object-oriented ontology predates speculative realism, however, and makes distinct claims about the nature and equality of object relations to which not all speculative realists agree. The term “object-oriented philosophy” was coined by Graham Harman, the movement’s founder, in his 1999 doctoral dissertation “Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects.”[6][7] In 2009, Levi Bryant rephrased Harman’s original designation as “object-oriented ontology,” giving the movement its current name.)

David Hume & Empiricism
Philosopher David Hume considered objects to be what our senses, aided or unaided, tell us they are. An object so defined is a set of qualities.

Different kinds of objects
First we need to establish the place of mind (the subject) in any schema since objects seem to be of different kinds. A unicorn is different from a horse. We say that unicorns are imaginary objects (they only exist in the mind) while horses are real physical objects, they exist in the world independently of our minds (realism). But this begs the question of the role of minds since we can only know the world through our minds. Kant expressed this by claiming that although we can assume the presence of a world outside or minds we can only know that world through the categories of our perception and cognition. There is thus a problem in establishing the relation between objects or categories of the mind and the objects of the world outside our minds. Kant’s position is anthropocentric insofar as it denies the possibility of object to object relations. Empiricists like Hume identified objects with their qualities and relations – objects just are their qualities and relations.

Key questions turn on whether and how objects differ from their relations and qualities. Science tries to replace its objects with properties and qualities – science becoming the compilation of an exhaustive list of objects and properties. Another whether we approach reality through an infinite regress ‘downwards’ (smallism). We cannot privilege the small.
(vicarious causation).

Thinking and being are not the same.

Speculative realism (expression coined c. 2007 by Ray Brassier) stance of metaphysical realism against the dominant forms of post-Kantian philosophy or what it terms correlationism rejects the privileging of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects. It rejects the anthropocentrism of Kants Copernican Revolution. The post-Kantian reduction of philosophical enquiry to a correlation between thought and being, such that the reality of anything outside of this correlation is unknowable- that is, objects are said to conform to the mind of the subject and, in turn, become products of human cognition. In contrast to Kant’s view, object-oriented philosophers maintain that objects exist independently of human perception and are not ontologically exhausted by their relations with humans or other objects. How do I change if I am just effects?

Objects are not real
Objects are denied reality either because they are made up of more basic or foundational objects (smallism, foundationalism). Alternatively, to be is to be contained, to be in something.

Time & change
An object changes over time. Because it exists at T1 and T2 the change in time is itself a change in a property of the object. Does this mean that we are dealing with a different object? The appearance of an object might vary from moment to moment under shifting light conditions. Again, does this mean the object is different? Is the object at T1, and T2 less real than the object ‘now’?

Ceteris paribus
A table is only a table in relation to its overall context (its ‘negative’. A table devoid of a context would exist as an undefined object … The object-in-itself. So no in-itself exists in-itself

Anon. – ‘what a thing is, is what it does’
Brassier – ‘enduring things are never more than patterns in a sea of process’
John Dupré – ‘things are temporal parts of processes’
Tristan Garcia – ‘an object is the difference between that-which-is-in-it and that-in-which-it-is’. This is the difference between internal components and their context – a relational ontology
Graham Harman – ‘an object is a unit (monad) that is independent of its qualities and relations. An object is more than its parts but less than its context’

Scientific pluralism
Throughout its history science has proceeded by explaining the apparent complexities of the physical world through increasingly simple and ever more embracing principles (laws) made all the more elegant by the use of mathematics. This reduction of complexity to simple statements and equations has fostered the belief that this process of unification is continuing towards a final goal – it is moving towards a single reality (or truth) consisting of the fundamental laws of physics and the fundamental units of matter. This is like the move towards a global language, cuisine, politics, and culture. This is a form of monism that now appears to be under challenge, a vision of the world in which only physics can give us meaningful scientific information – all othere subjects are, as it were, convenient explanatory systems that must ultimately be accounted for in terms of physics. Living organisms, for instance, are really only matter (physics) arranged in a particular way. Against this monistic fundamentalism it is claimed that not only does it not make practical sense to describe biological, economic, and social systems in the language and principles of physics, but that each domain of knowledge is authentic in its own right without being expressed more fundamentally through another discipline. This view of the same reality existing in many equally authentic aspects (and sometimes many aspects within a domain) has been called scientific pluralism.[3] Pluralism is not relativistic since each domain builds on its past paradigms.

Philosopher Hasok Chang has established what he calls an operational epistemology that is more meaningful to scientists – as a ‘knowing how’ rather than ‘knowing that’ – knowledge combining skill with information. Operational coherence does not depend on relations of ideas but the harmonious conjunction of activities seeking ends.

John Dupré Processes and Powers

Does the world consist of processes or objects? Parmenides envisaged a world of permanence, Democritus described the appearance of change as consisting of the reorganization of eternal and unchanging indivisible atoms: Heraclitus saw a world of constant change.

Today we might express this duality by calling objects the temporal parts of processes and a ‘thing’ as a stable element within a timescale. The origin of reification presents a conundrum that may lie in our cognition and language – we simply cannot avoid things, something, everything i.e. thing-talk.

Science tends to a Democritan ethos.
Powers vary according to time, place, and circumstance. Genes can fold in different ways that influence protein transcription as editing and repairing. The causal pattern is therefore stochastic rather than determinate.
Causation varies at different scales???? Powers or capacities differ from genes in having no limit, they are context-dependent.
The DNA in human cell unravelled is about 2m long.
Homo sapiens sapiens we know that we know.

Scientia – discourse working together. knowledge based on demonstrable and reproducible data.

Process ontologists
Rescher – ‘enduring things are never more than patterns of stability in a sea of process’ and ‘what a thing is depends on what it does’. All is timescale dependent, especially biological systems.
Different kinds of processes – cyclical and linear.
Species – individuals or breeding units. Frozen moments of a cycle. (22 min)

This talk will explore the implications for a metaphysics of powers of the replacement of a substance ontology with a process ontology. I take a process to be an entity that must be active in some way to exist and I argue that processes are more fundamental than things: things are temporary and partial stabilisations in a flux of process. Can the activities that sustain processes be understood as the exercise of powers? Can the interactions between processes be treated similarly as the exercises of powers by processes?

Stabilized processes, genome replication generally and genome coding for a protein in particular.
Division of the world into entities is underdetermined?
Any relationship between objects does not exhaust the relata.

Anti-reduction must be metaphysical and tackle: –
Multiple realization – Fodor &
Irreducible natural selection producing functional kinds – functions are selected effect adaptations

Explanation must go from physical to biological.

It has been argued elsewhere that everything in the universe exists equally (flat ontology, a rock is as real as a rock or an atom): only we, as humans, make distinctions within the category of being.

A full glossary is given in the article reality – these terms relate specifically to the current article.

Anti-realism – views that contrast with realism including idealism and its close relatives phenomenalism, skepticism, eliminativism, instrumentalism, and relativism
Bigism – the view that we can only grasp reality by widening the context cf. smallism
Flat ontology – an ontology in which claims to reality of an object do not depend on its further reduction or synthesis
Foundationalism – the use of a deductive mode of thinking based on reliable first principles
Naive Realism
Object Oriented ontology (OOO) – objects are real, mind-independent, and ontologically equal with no necessity to be further analysed or synthesized to get closer to their reality cf. flat ontology
Phenomenology – the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience as distinct from the study of what exists independently of the mind as the nature of being: not how things are but how they appear. A feature of this experience is its intentionality – it as always about something
Realism – the view that objects can exist independently of minds
Reductionism – the analysis of a phenomenon in terms of simpler, smaller, or fundamental constituents in order to provide a sufficient explanation
Relativism – the claim that there is nothing fundamental, true, real, or moral – only what a particular individual or culture happens to believe is such
Scientific Realism – there is a world independent of our minds as described by science (metaphysical claim) that gives us genuine knowledge corresponding with reality (epistemological claim) that its concepts and theories are more than convenient or useful tools or instruments for achieving practical ends (semantic claim). Scientific realists claim that scientific research produced reliable knowledge even when its phenomena are not observable. Science is a means of testing reality cf. realism, antirealism
Smallism – The view that we can only grasp reality by narrowing the context. The smaller constituents of any object are more basic or fundamental then the object in its entirety; they are therefore more real cf. bigism
Speculative Realism

Garcia has a relational ontology. A thing is a relation between what is in it and what it is in.
Is an object different at different times?
OOO object-oriented ontology.
Objects are withheld and solitary, interacting by vicarious causation.
Objects are in the world which is every thing and not itself something, but rather ‘the form of things’. ‘every thing has two configurations. a thing is an object insofar as it impacts or relates to other things. things are ‘equal’. There is no being ‘in-itself’. Being is being in this or that, while that in which something is comprehends it. The world comprehends things; objects comprehend each other. ‘Being is not primary’, writes Garcia, ‘which means both that no being is in itself and that no being is before things. Being is secondary and the handmaiden of things, which means that being is the sense attributed to one thing in relation to another thing.’

Locke understood substance as a characterless substratum to existence while Hume, as an empiricist, understood it as a bundle of properties.

What concepts do we use to characterize ideas of substance, object, thing, event, property and the like? How are we to deal with our choice of individuation and reidentification, including what it is and what it does?

Is it possible to define reality other than as a relation between the observer and the observed – as properties in relation to other properties?

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