Ordinary things

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In this post, I will consider ordinary things, objects such as pens, desks, chairs, and your body. One might think that ordinary objects like these are easy to understand. We don’t need philosophers for them. However, a short reflection on some philosophical questions about them reveals the mysterious nature of the things we take for granted.

What is a Thing?

Consider your pen. It has a colour. It is hard, capable of making marks on a page, and was made in a factory. You could write a long list of your pen’s properties. In fact, if you knew everything about your pen it is difficult to believe that there would be an end to the list. After all, you could list the locations of each of its molecules at every instant of their pasts. So, the first strange thing we can say about ordinary objects is that there is a potentially infinite number of things we could say about them.A fountain pen suspended in air, separated into its constituent parts

We can say a lot about a pen, but what exactly are we talking about? One might suggest that we are talking about a pen. But even then, we are saying that that thing is a pen. What is the thing that is a pen?

According to the substratum view, there are the properties of the thing such as being red, and there is the thing which bears those properties. The underlying thing that bears its properties is called a bare particular. A bare particular has no properties; it is the thing that possesses properties. The fundamental entities that make up the world are both bare particulars and the properties they possess.

According to the bundle theory, there is no such thing as a bare particular. Instead, there are just bundles of properties. There is nothing more to your pen than the properties of being a color, being made in a factory etc. The bundle theory is attractive to those who think that reality is made up of just those things that can be objects of experience. Since it is not possible to experience a bare particular, it cannot exist.

On the one hand, we want to talk about the thing that has the properties. On the other hand, invoking mysterious propertyless items is excessive. Aristotelians reject both the bundle theory and the substratum theory. To do so, they invoke the concept of kind in order to explain where the bundle theorist and the substratum theorist go wrong.

Kinds are metaphysically fundamental and determine the identity of their members. A pen has the essential property of having the potential to make marks on a page. If it didn’t have that property, then it wouldn’t be a pen. It might be any colour, but being red isn’t essential to it. It could be blue and still be a pen. A pen’s essential properties determine its kind. Thus, one does not explain things by what, if anything, bears properties. Instead, one explains them by their kinds.

When we talk about the nature of an object, we are talking about those properties that make it what it is. For example, we can talk about human nature only if we think there are some truths about humans that make us what we are. Aristotle thought that humans are essentially rational animals. If anything lacks rationality or isn’t an animal, then it isn’t a human. Discussions about God’s nature deploy the same idea. For example, God is essentially omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. If he were to lack one of those properties, he wouldn’t be God.

What Makes One Thing Distinct from Another Thing?

Presumably, when you consider all the objects in your room, you think of them as individual objects. The pen is not the desk, the chair is not your body, and the paper is not the floor. But now think about the pen. Isn’t it made up of other distinct things? It is made up of ink, perhaps a spring, a nib, a plastic container for the ink, and a further container to hold the other things together. Now, one could inquire further. Isn’t each component part composed of other, smaller parts? Perhaps there is a smallest possible part from which all the parts of the pen are made.

The question then becomes: if one is confronted with a stack of parts, what would one have to do in order to get them to be a pen? Some philosophers suggest that there is no obviously good answer to this question. Peter Van Inwagen asks us to consider a series of options for what makes it the case that your pen is an object and not just a stack of parts (Van Inwagen, Material Beings, 35-78).

Suppose one believes that your pen is formed by the contact of the parts. The parts are touching each other. But now pick up the pen. Surely you have just as much contact with the outer casing as the ink tube does. Is there, thereby, an object that is you and your pen? Surely not.

Perhaps there is a stronger bonding that must take place in order for parts to compose object and that that object is unique. In other words, there is only one object formed. Perhaps there might be some kind of fastening. However, suppose you pick up your pen and become irrevocably paralyzed. You and the pen are fastened together for good. Surely you don’t become an object.

Finally, van Inwagen considers the most radical form of bonding, fusion. Something fuses with another object if and only if there is no discernible seam where the two objects come into contact. However, suppose you leave your plastic pen on a plastic chair outside in a heat wave. You find the pen and chair have melted to the extent that the two things have become stuck together. Would they then become a single object? Surely, we would want to say that two objects have become stuck together not that they have become one object.

So, what makes your pen distinct from the desk on which it sits? Given the failure to describe the form of contact its parts have that would distinguish the two objects, its seems that one could embrace one of two positions. Either one could deny that there really is a pen, or one could embrace the possibility that the pen and the desk could be an object.

Nihilism is the thesis that, for any region of space, that region contains only elementary particles or simples. Simples are whatever it is that is not composed of parts and out of which all things are ultimately composed. Nihilism entails the view that there are no pens, chairs, or desks in your room. The only thing in your room are simples arranged in various ways (chairwise, deskwise, or penwise).

The alternative view is universalism. Universalism is the view that in the arrangement of parts one always brings about the existence of an object. Universalism is the view that “for any set, S, of disjoint objects, there is an object that the members of S compose” (Michael Rea, “In Defense of Mereological Universalism,” p. 347). On this view, any combination of objects can be another object. Thus, according to a universalist, there is an object composed of my shoe and Donald Trump’s hair.

Even though the universalist allows that there could be all sorts of weird objects, we don’t consider them so because we haven’t arranged them as things. To say that parts come to be arranged as something is to say that the parts are arranged according to a kind. Parts are arranged function wise and thereby constituting an object according to a kind. A computer, for example, is “endowed with a purpose or function” and thereby constitutes an important type of organisation analogous to the organisation of an organism. Any arrangement as an object composes an object iff it is arranged for some purpose or function. As Rea concludes, “any type of organisation can be kind constituting” (Rea, 355).

How Does a Thing Persist Through Time?

Further to the question of the nature of things is the question of what it is for a thing to persist through time. You and your pen keep on existing. But is your pen the same pen as it was a few moments ago? Is there a past version of your pen, or is the pen only existent in the present? Perhaps, just as your pen has spatial parts such as ink and plastic tubes, it may have temporary parts such as your pen ten minutes ago and your pen right now.

Endurantists claim that for a thing to persist through time is for it to exist wholly and completely at different times. The only existing pen is the one that exists at the present. The account assumes a presentist account of time according to which what exists is real if and only if it exists at the present time. According to endurantists, things do not have temporal parts. The only things that count as parts are those within space. Thus, there is no such thing as your pen 10 minutes ago. There is only your pen right now.

Perdurantists claim that a thing is an aggregate of different parts each existing at its own time. Perdurantists assume an eternalist conception of time. Time is a real dimension much like the three spatial dimensions. An thing persists through time as temporal parts (or “time-slices”). On this view, things are often depicted as “space-time worms” with all that exists at all times being equally real. Your pen 10 minutes ago exists in the same ways as it exists in the present.

Important Things

Pondering a pen may seem unimportant. But similar reflections can be conducted on other more important beings. For example, one might ponder the nature of human beings in the same way. Of what are humans composed? What makes you the same person through time? We also have a series of theological questions. For example, what is God’s relationship with time? What are God’s essential attributes?

In the same way that it is common to hear that we don’t need philosophy to understand pens, we may wonder whether we need philosophy to understand God and humans. Such a view is mistaken. I shall try to show that philosophers contribute positively to understanding both. In some of the following posts, you may see me draw upon issues related to questions about objects in general—like your pen—to develop theories about God’s attributes and theories of human persons.

Studying metaphysics isn’t easy. I find Michael Loux’s introduction, Metaphysics helpful. You can find information about things (referred to as concrete particulars by metaphysicians) in chapters 3 and 8. For the discussion about mereology (the ‘when do parts make a thing?’ question) I used Van Inwagen’s Material Beings, (35-78) and Michael Rea’s defense of universalism in, “In Defense of Mereological Universalism,” (p. 347).