by Varun S Bhatta.
To say that there are variations in ontological stances about the concrete world (apart from the obvious one that there are many different kinds of material things) might seem absurd at first. We see things like trees, animals, mountains, tables, and other natural things and artifacts, and it seems straightforward that these are the entities that make up the concrete world. How can there be an ontological position about the concrete world that is different from this? As we will discuss, the claim that all these material entities exist is just one possibility. For instance, there are strong philosophical reasons to argue that the material entities, which are commonly found around us, do not exist and the fundamental particles, which compose these things, are the only material entities that exist. Apart from this ontological position, which is usually referred to as nihilism, the other possible stance is to claim that there are no different individual material things – neither the compositional things nor fundamental particles. Instead, the universe exists as a whole, is one single entity. This stance is usually referred to as monism. In the sections to follow, we will discuss each of these different positions briefly.
2. Object Ontology
We live amidst several material things. These material things have become so much a part of our world view that the only time we are skeptical about their existence is when someone is hallucinating the presence of something that is not actually present before our eyes. Since they are given to us immediately[i], it seems quite evident that these material things exist. According to this stance, which is referred to as ordinary objects ontology, objects directly given to our perception exist (Korman 2015). Here, the qualification ‘ordinary’ excludes objects that are not directly perceived through our senses like amoeba and quasars, whose existence might not be verified by direct perception. Accordingly, we can remove this restriction, and include all these scientific things so that our ontology covers all things that current science proposes. Let us call this general position, simply, object ontology.
There are a few important characteristics of object ontology. This ontology has a wide range of things – ranging from the fundamental particles to extremely large things like clusters of galaxies. The things at the lower level compose the higher-level things. Therefore, the hierarchy of composition of things seems to be an inherent trait of this ontology. Another important characteristic is that every single thing that exists in this ontology is of a particular kind. The objects that are around us are instances of specific kinds – a tree, a stone, a pen, a dog, etc. In other words, every object that exists belongs to a particular kind, either natural or artificial. Russell’s stance was that any existential claim about a thing, say the specific table in the room, should be understood as the following – there is at least one thing such that it is a table and it is present in the room. As you notice, in this way of framing existential statements, the kind (e.g., table), of which the thing under consideration (e.g., the thing in the room beside the window) is an instance of, plays the central role.
The characteristic of being an instance of a specific kind provides this ontological stance a certain neatness: there is no vagueness in how a thing exists; whenever something exists, it exists as a specific thing. By being the object of a specific kind, the object has determined individuality. It is because of that, a thing can be considered as one object of that specific kind and can be distinguished from other objects of the same kind. To illustrate, if there are pens of a similar type, then we can say, specifically, how many of them there are (say, two pens) and distinguish between these objects[ii]. Therefore, it might seem that this ontological stance promises to provide a definite way of knowing what all exists. E.g., it equips one to tell the number of things that are present on, say, a table unambiguously. If he/she were to make a list of things present, then that person will be able to come up with a finite number of items. This is an important ability that an ontological position should provide. To understand why this is important, consider that there is a cup of water on the table along with the pen and the pencil. So, it seems that we have three things that exist on the table. Now, pour the water on the table and remove the empty cup. We still have three things on the table – the pen, the pencil, and some water. If we remove some portion of this water from the table, we still have the same number of things. So, it seems that the quantity of water does not really matter in deciding the existence of water – a drop or puddle of water is considered as ‘some water’. This is because water is not a countable thing like pens and pencils. There seems to be some determinate way of deciding how many pencils exists; but we cannot do the same with water. Water and similar things (like wood, clay, gold, butter, etc.) are labelled as ‘stuffs’ as opposed to ‘objects’ which denote things like pens, tables, trees, etc.[iii] With this illustration we see that object ontology strains while attempting to accommodate stuffs and articulating unambiguously the nature of their existence. Apart from this, there are a few other philosophical problems regarding the existence of objects. It is in the context of discussing them that we see the motivation to accept different possible ontological stances.
3. Compositional Objects and Nihilism
According to object ontology, apart from the fundamental particles, there are vast kinds of objects that are further made up of smaller things. The inclusion of these objects into the gamut of existing things, along with stuffs, makes the object ontology stance open to a few criticisms.
All the ordinary things that are around us are compositional things. A piece of wood can be chipped off from the table; the mobile phone can be disassembled into its bare parts; everyday, cells in our body die and new cells are born to take their place. So, it is not surprising that the conception of smaller things making up larger things is part of our worldview. But, to give a philosophical account of this formation has been an enduring problem for all traditions of philosophy. The central question about the compositional objects is the following – if an object is made up of smaller things, what unifies these numerous parts into a single whole? In order to investigate the nature of the composition, it also has to be determined whether the whole is different from the parts that form it (or is it just the collection of parts arranged in a particular order?).
The stance that there are no compositional wholes and there are only parts is called compositional nihilism. According to this stance, none of the objects around us or larger objects like planets, galaxies, etc., actually exists. Only the fundamental particles, which supposedly constitute these objects, exist. In fact, it is in attempting to articulate this position that we understand the subtlety of the notion of existence. Let us explore this with the help of an example. We know that the table in the room is composed of smaller parts. According to object ontology, all the parts of the table have composed together to form the individual table that is present. So, what finally exists is the table. The ontological nihilism position denies the existence of the table. According to them, only the parts – the fundamental particles – exist; there is nothing over and beyond these parts. Now, according to an object nihilist, the table that is being perceived is not an illusion. What is perceived as a table is just the collection of particles arranged tablewise (van Inwagen 1990)? This method of paraphrasing our sentences about compositional wholes (like tables, planets, pens, etc.) in terms of particles and hence obviating any commitment to wholes is called nominalism, So, for a compositional nihilist, none of the compositional objects exist. Only the constituents that compose these larger things exist finally. Now, understanding fundamental particles as the constituents of things is one available possibility. According to this possibility, the basic things that exist are individual particles that science proposes (like electrons, leptons, quarks, etc.)[iv]. The alternative possibility is that of stuff – the unindividuated blob of the matter being the basic existing thing. The crucial difference between the particle ontology and the stuff ontology is that stuff (like water, wood, butter) is not individuated, whereas particles are individuated.[v]
Before we go to other ontological positions, skepticism about composition is not the only reason that leads to the dissolution of compositional wholes into their constituent parts. There are other metaphysical problems like the Sorites paradox (Hyde 2015) and the problem of many (Weatherson 2015) that encourage one to opt for the nihilistic position.
Among the ontological positions that we have considered till now, object ontology accounts for the pluralistic stance (that there are many kinds of things that exist in this world) and compositional nihilism stands for the extreme position according to which none of these heterogeneous things exist and only a few basic kinds of fundamental particles or stuff exist. As you may notice, in this spectrum of possible ontological positions, there is another stance that is as yet unexplored and this is the other extreme position called monism, according to which there is only one thing that exists in this world.
Historically, there have been quite a few proponents of monism and due to this, there are various ways to articulate this stance[vi]. The central premise of monism is that ultimately there is only one thing that exists: the whole world is one. This is contrary to object ontology, according to which several kinds of things exist. Monism, similar to nihilism, goes against what is directly given to us – that the world has diverse occupants. Therefore, it is the onus of a monist to provide an account that correlates what we perceive around us (which is various kinds of things) with her ontological claim that what finally exists is this whole world as one. In order to claim that it is the whole world that exists finally, the monist can claim that the seemingly many kinds of things like humans, tables, planets, etc., do not in fact exist. The whole world exists as one large blob object. Apart from this denial of the existence of the objects we see around, alternatively, the monist can also claim that all these things do exist; but these things are actually the parts of the world, which is the primary whole. This world, as a whole, is fundamental and the parts have existence only derivately[vii].
According to monism then, the parts are not prior to the whole that they form. This is in contrast to the compositional nihilism position, according to which, the parts are more fundamental than the whole (i.e., without parts, there would not have been a whole). Since the nihilist equates the parts with the whole, she can claim that there are no wholes. The paradigmatic examples for nihilists are material things like stones and tables. Compared to this, the prime example of a monist is a living body, in which the parts come together and form a whole that is functionally and structurally different than the parts.
But what are the motivations for monism? Monism indeed provides the simplest ontology possible. The favorable argument for monism is based on the premise that the simpler account is preferable. This preference is usually labelled Occam’s razor, according to which the simplest explanation (i.e. the one which explains using the least number of presumptions) is the preferred one. Therefore, since monism provides the simplest answer to the question ‘what all exists?’ it is a better answer. Apart from this and various other arguments for monism, modern quantum physics also provides some motivation for monism. According to quantum physics, all the quantum particles are entangled. Two or more quantum particles, like electrons, exhibit entanglement when these particles share few properties (like spin) at the system level. That is, even though it’s the individual electron that possesses the spin property, the value of the spin that each of these electrons possess depends on the spin-value of the other electrons in the system. Since quantum physics describes that the properties of these quantum individuals are always decided at the system level, our world is an entangled system. Therefore, this description of quantum physics is usually taken as empirical proof for our world, the whole, being fundamentally prior to the parts.
[i] Immediate and direct as contrasted to other things like distant astronomical objects or microscopic objects which are only perceived through the help of specific instruments. [ii] Individuality, accountability, and distinguishability will be discussed extensively in the subsequent chapters. [iii] Linguistically, ‘water’, ‘gold’, etc., are mass terms, and ‘tree’, ‘dog’ are count terms. [iv] The current philosophy of science is not finally convinced that the quantum particles are neatly individuated. There are many problems related to the individuality of quantum particles. [v] For a neat classification among these possible ontological possibilities, see Sidelle (1998). [vi] For a good introduction to various flavors of monism, refer to Schaffer (2015). [vii] Among the various versions of monism mentioned in Schaffer (2015), the two versions specified here are existence monism (nothing but the world exists) and priority monism (the world is fundamental and prior to the parts that constitute it).
Hyde, Dominic. 2015. “Sorites Paradox.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sorites-paradox/.
Korman, Daniel, K. 2015. “Ordinary Objects.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ordinary-objects/.
Schaffer, Jonathan. 2015. “Monism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/monism/.
Sidelle, Alan. 1998. “A Sweater Unraveled: Following One Thread of Thought for Avoiding Coincident Entities.” Noûs 32 (4): 423–48.
van Inwagen, Peter. 1990. Material Beings. New York: Cornell University Press.
Weatherson, Brian. 2015. “The Problem of Many.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/problem-of-many/.