Philosophy gets a bad rap for asking and answering pointless questions. Here’s a great example: does the chair you’re sitting on exist or not? Most people roll their eyes at such a question because the answer seems obvious. Of course the chair exists; you’d be sitting on the floor if it didn’t. It seems like a waste of time to even ponder something so obvious.
Well, I’d like to argue the seemingly-absurd. I’m going to make the case that chairs don’t exist, nor do any other inanimate objects. Here’s my conclusion in three words: objects are concepts. They do not exist independent of the mind.
This conclusion is not reached for aesthetic or mystical reasons; it’s only because arguing for the independent existence of objects results in outrageous conclusions.
It Starts With a Sock
The problem begins with John Locke’s undergarments. Specifically, his sock. He wondered, “If my sock gets a hole in it, and then is subsequently patched, does it remain the same sock?” Then further, “What if it were patched twice? What if it went through so many repairs that no original threads remained – would it still be the same sock?”
This dilemma has been thought about for thousands of years. Some philosophers have answered “Yes, it remains the same sock”, while other have said “No, it is a different sock.” As I will elaborate shortly, both of these answers have big problems. The easiest conclusion is to say, “A ‘sock’ never existed in the first place.”
I need to clarify a few premises to avoid confusion. I am not arguing that physical reality is an illusion or that matter suddenly disappears when nobody is looking. My argument is:
a ) The physical world is real, and it is separate from the human mind.
b ) Physical reality is made up of fundamental “bits” of matter – call them “atoms”, “quarks”, or “Planck units”.
c ) These fundamental units are arranged in different ways.
d ) The human mind names particular arrangements of matter as “objects” for easy reference.
e ) Assigning a name to something does not create a new “thing”.
f ) Therefore, all “objects” are merely references to bits of matter, not to independent, unified “things”.
In other words, objects are concepts. The physical world is indeed real, but “objects” are not part of the physical world.
Thus, we can easily resolve the problem of John Locke’s sock. “It” never existed in the first place – just bits of matter which are conveniently referenced as a “sock”. As patches were added, that particular arrangement of matter changed. Whether or not Locke decides to continue referencing the different assortment of particles as “a sock” is entirely subjective; it’s only a name.
So that’s my conclusion. Now I’ll explain why it’s preferable to the alternative – thinking independent objects exist.
Problems with Objects
One of the biggest problems with objects is their boundaries. When we reference “object X” versus “object Y”, we’re implying that there’s a concrete boundary between them. Objects must have real edges, otherwise they could not be differentiated from each other. Several examples will show the problems with this idea.
Take a simple example: a pile of sand. Imagine a garbage bag full of sand breaks in your house. You can clearly see a pile of sand on your floor. You get a shovel and mop, start cleaning up, and work until there’s only one grain remaining. You can say with certainty: the pile of sand is gone, as one grain of sand does not make a pile. But this presents us with a problem.
Instead of using a shovel, imagine removing each grain of sand piece by piece. When does the “pile” disappear? When you begin, it’s certainly there. When you end, it’s certainly gone. That means at some point a threshold must have been crossed. By placing or removing that one grain of sand, a “pile” pops in and out of existence.
Consider another example. Let’s say you go outside and find a large stick on the ground. You break it in half. Then you break it in half again. And again, and again. At what point does the “stick” disappear and you’re left with an entirely new thing: a “twig”. Then, if you keep breaking the twig, you’ll essentially be left with sawdust. A “stick” is not “sawdust”, and at some point a metaphysical transformation takes place – the stick pops out of existence while sawdust pops into existence.
Of course, there’s an easy resolution to this. The “stick” and the “pile of sand” never existed in the first place. They only appear as “wholes”, but they are not greater than the sum of their parts (because there is no “whole”). Each object is entirely explained by its constituent particles. Therefore, the boundary between “pile” and “not-pile” or “stick” and “twig” is merely linguistic.
My favorite example is a jigsaw puzzle. Look at a fully assembled puzzle. Everybody can agree and say, “There’s a puzzle!” Yet, a puzzle is quite clearly made up of individual puzzle pieces. We wouldn’t only lay down one piece out of a 10,000-piece puzzle and declare “There’s a puzzle!” The same is true for two or ten pieces. However, let’s say 9,999 pieces were all assembled, and we were just missing one small edge piece. You can imagine it would then become accurate to say “There’s a puzzle!” This means – even if some people disagree where the boundary is – at some point between the first and last puzzle piece being placed, a metaphysical “puzzle” pops into existence. Let’s examine that final piece further.
For the sake of example, let’s say somebody is a stickler and says, “Only upon assembly of all 10,000 puzzle pieces does a puzzle exist.” Right at the moment when they lay down the 10,000th piece, what happens if they only push it down half way? By the mere push of a finger – moving something down a millimeter in space – somebody can bring an entirely new “thing” into existence, and by bumping into it, that thing pops back out of existence.
What if the last piece is a little bent, so it still leaves some empty space in the puzzle? What if it’s scratched? What if the piece fits, but it’s from another puzzle, even though it’s roughly the same color?
Of course, all of these problems get avoided the easy way: the “puzzle” is a concept, not an independent “thing”. Puzzles do not exist in physical reality, and they do not pop back and forth from existence to non-existence by the push of a finger.
The final example I’ll give on this topic shows the problem in reverse. Imagine a delicious pizza. Now cut it into eight slices. You still have the whole – it’s still in the box, and everybody would agree a pizza that’s merely been sliced is still a pizza. But you also have something additional: eight slices of pizza. Cut the pizza up further, and you’ll end up with an even larger metaphysical reality – more “stuff” in front of you. As soon as you pull the slices out of the box, the pizza immediately disappears into the ether, and you’re left with only slices.
The Same Problem, Cubed
OK, I lied earlier. This is my favorite example. Consider a troublesome object, known by thespians as the “actor’s cube”. It’s simply a cube, painted black, that actors use for whatever purpose they need. It can be a chair, a table, a stool, a stair, or even a weapon – i.e. you can sit, stand, eat upon, or throw it. But what’s going on here? Is the cube all of these things at once? Is it only upon the actors sitting that the cube becomes a chair?
You’d have a difficult time arguing that an actor’s cube is not a weapon when thrown. But if it’s only sat upon, does it still remain a weapon? Perhaps it’s something in-between – a metaphysical “potential-weapon”? Of course, if that were true, it would mean an actor’s intent could change the metaphysical nature of objects. If I accidentally drop the actor’s cube on your foot (during a scene where it’s being used as a chair), we wouldn’t call it a weapon. But if I intentionally dropped it on you to cause damage, we would.
What an odd situation, where the mere intention of somebody can make different metaphysical objects pop in and out of existence, even though the physical particles didn’t change at all.
Now, a skeptic might insist, “The actor’s cube is only an actor’s cube. It’s merely being used as a table.” This runs into many other problems, not least of which is the horribly sticky question, “Well, what makes a table a table?” Then, the skeptic is stuck trying to define “table-ness” as some objective criteria – Platonic forms, if you will. And furthermore, who determines what an actor’s cube is? You could take an old cardboard box and paint it black, or maybe a wooden chest, or a mini-refrigerator – doesn’t even have to be black. Will a stack of old luggage bound together by straps qualify? I don’t see why not.
True story: for several months after Julia and I moved to Atlanta, we used a cardboard box as a dinner table. We threw a curtain over it as a tablecloth and sat on the floor to eat dinner (because we didn’t own chairs). I have direct experience with a box actually being a table.
Perhaps a sillier example is the humble “backscratcher”. Surely, anybody can point out a backscratcher, but is there objective criteria for what qualifies something as a metaphysical “backscratcher”? You can use a stick, a fork, a golf club, or practically anything else to scratch your back. Must it really have some particular shape?
My answer: a “backscratcher” is a word. You don’t have to metaphysically justify calling a “fishing pole” a “backscratcher”, if you so desire.
A Hand in the Void
Consider another example. Make a fist. Look at it; surely there’s a fist in front of you. Now open your hand. The fist is gone. What happened? The particles are the exact same, but their arrangement slightly changed. At some point between open and closed, your fist disappeared.
Or, “it” was never there to begin with.
This brings up another crucial problem. Let’s assume that you’re trying to argue the following is true: objects take up space. We also know:
a ) that object is made up of particles, and
b ) those particles also take up space.
So the question is this: does an object occupy the exact same space as the particles which make it up?
Either way you answer – yes or no – creates difficult problems.
Let’s say the answer is yes: objects occupy the exact same space as the particles which constitute them. This implies that every object has an exact number of particles. When that number changes, the object changes. When your chair gets a scratch, it would no longer remain the same chair, as it lost some constituent particles. It would become a chair-with-a-scratch. Even if you gently rubbed the chair, microscopic particles would be removed, and its metaphysical existence would change again. That means a practically infinite number of objects exist, and they are constantly popping in and out of existence with the slightest breeze. In fact, no concrete “object” would ever exist for more than an instant, as atoms are constantly bumping into each other. This scenario is logically possible, but it strikes me as utterly absurd and unnecessary.
So then we’re left with the answer being no: objects do not occupy the exact same space as the particles which constitute them. But this might even be more peculiar. What would a chair occupy space with, if not particles? Pure chair-ness? Concrete space, not filled by particles, but filled with some kind of non-particle-spatial-stuff. I can’t even imagine what that stuff would be.
This would also imply that the particles are unnecessary, and we could remove them without changing the chair at all. Take a chair, remove the physical particles, and you’re still left with a chair. But this is preposterous! I am unwilling to posit the existence of ghost-chairs. Surely, if we throw the chair into a fire and let it burn to ashes, it doesn’t remain a chair any longer, and it doesn’t take up space.
The only resolution is to say that objects do not take up space – they are not physical.
Constellation of Errors
There’s many other great examples of “objects” which have fuzzy boundaries when you start examining their constituent parts – a bed of nails (one nail isn’t a bed), a digital picture (one pixel isn’t a picture), a work of art (one drop of paint is not a painting), etc. But this final example highlights perfectly the problem with assigning independent existence to our concepts: the Big Dipper.
When you look up at the sky, everybody knows exactly what you’re talking about when you reference the Big Dipper. But what exactly is it? Is the Big Dipper actually a concrete thing? Of course not – it’s seven stars zillions of miles away from each other. It’s a pattern that humans recognize, not some external object.
Chairs, houses, baseballs – all of these things are like constellations. They are patterns that we observe, and then we give those patterns a name, for easy reference. Our words do not reference actual unified “things”, any more that the Big Dipper is some independent “thing” floating around in space.
Again, just because objects are conceptual doesn’t mean that physical reality disappears without the mind. The particles exist whether you’re aware of them or not. As Einstein famously said, “I’d like to think the moon is still there when I’m not looking.” More precisely, we could say the particles at the location which we reference as “the moon” remain, regardless of our mental states.
This entire metaphysical theory is not without problems, however. While it’s completely satisfactory (as far as I am concerned) with inanimate objects, things start getting more difficult when you’re talking about living things. At some point, when you start removing particles from my brain, you might actually end up taking something additional out of existence – namely, my “self”. When we reference beings and/or consciousness, the boundaries get a lot more difficult to establish. Am “I” my brain? Am “I” fully explained by my physical constituent parts? I don’t know the answer, and it’s a topic for another post.
In conclusion, I’d say the human mind is extremely effective at carving up physical reality into bite-size pieces. It names stuff and distinguishes “this” from “that”. And thank goodness it does, because we’d have a very difficult time navigating the world without boundaries. But this phenomenon is entirely in your head. When you experience interacting with “objects”, you’re really only interacting with concepts.
This does not imply a mystical monism, however. Physical reality is indeed divisible, but only between fundamental units of matter. Base-particle X is meaningfully different than base-particle Y; anything beyond that is merely a useful construction of the mind.
So, in the words of pretentious undergraduate students everywhere: no, that chair you’re sitting on does not exist. You can not sit on a concept.