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Pathways to Philosophy

Does Matter Exist Objectively?

by Ochieng Ombok


Let us posit an object, say, a cube. If we have to give its description to the best of our ability how would we go about it? Let me try to describe it. What is before me is a red cube. I move closer to it for a better examination and touch it with my hand. Then I add certain descriptions. I feel that the cube is hard and warm. I realize that it's producing some kind of smell that makes me want to taste it with my tongue. As I move my head closer, I happen to hear some kind of a humming sound emanating from the cube, and on tasting, I realize that the cube is salty. So, in totality, I have observed with my senses that the cube is red, hard, warm, humming, smelly and salty. Do we have a good explanation of what I have observed?

Let us get help from Van Inwagen. Suggesting an account for physical objects in his Material Beings, he says:

"A thing is a material object if it occupies space and endures through time and can move about in space and has a surface and has a mass and is made of certain stuff or stuffs."

This seems to be the common sense position of what we already have about the cube. But now, let us examine whether what we already know about the cube is enough for us to make a claim that the cube exists, or that we have actually perceived the cube. To us, something exists. Something which has a geometrical form of six squares enclosed to form a closed body, and besides this, it appears red, feels hard and warm, hums, smells and tastes salty.

Let us bring in an unfortunate man (or woman) whose destiny is to lose one sense after another. First, he loses his sense of hearing. So, the very same cube appears red to sight, hard and warm to touch, smells and tastes salty. Secondly, he, unfortunately, loses his sense of feeling. So the cube appears red, smells and tastes salty. Next, he loses his sense of taste. So the same cube appears red and smells. Next, he loses his sense of smell, and the redness of the cube is the only sense perception that he is capable of. Finally, our very unfortunate man loses his sense of sight, and to him, the cube ceases to exist altogether, for he has lost all of the senses he requires for this kind of perception. Or does the cube, to him, exist unperceived? Can we claim that something does not exist simply because we do not have a sense or senses to perceive it.? If, say, some other beings existed who had an entirely different set of five senses from those which we have, is it not true that they would perceive objects that we do not perceive at all, and they would not be able to perceive those that we do perceive? If so, then it would mean that the objects that they perceive do not exist in our world and those objects that we perceive do not exist in their world. So, is there a third reference in whose world all these objects exist?

Let us assume that the cube in question exists without being perceived, then we would realize that what we perceive through our senses are not representative of the objects out there, for if we eliminated all our sense perceptions, the objects continued to exist independently of our perception of them. We would also realize that our senses just made us believe that the qualities they passed over to our consciousness were the same as the qualities of the objects we perceive.

And what would it mean on the other hand, if we assumed that the cube ceased to exist as we eliminated the senses? If this were so, then with the elimination of each sense perception of the cube, a part of the cube represented in our minds through that sense would disappear, and hence the cube would finally cease to exist. In this case, we arrive at the next questions. If the cube ceases to exist when the senses are eliminated, can we really be sure that it actually existed while it was being perceived? So, is the existence of the cube independent or dependent on our senses?

Let us seek help from Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley's immaterialism is his denial that matter exists. To him, the cube does not exist at all. The cube is in fact an abstract idea whose relation to its sense qualities of redness, hardness, warmness, smell and taste is unknown. These qualities are just the ideas that effectively hide the true essence of the cube from our consciousness. So, if it is by these qualities that we know and identify the objects, then what do we remain with after we have stripped the object of all its qualities?

In his paper "Whither Physical Objects?", W.V. Quine says in part;

"...let us understand a physical object... simply as the aggregate material content of any portion of space-time, however ragged and discontinuous."

This definition solves one problem and creates another. It solves the problem of having to define an object by the information gathered through the senses, but introduces the need to have a better definition or explanation of the terms portion of space-time. At least at this point, we have two separated sides of the investigation. We have the proceeds from our senses on one side and the portion of space-time on the other. Bishop Berkeley argues that the relation between these two sides is unknown, and that there can be no source of the idea of external existence. Therefore, to him, physical objects only exist within the mind.

So, where does this leave us? We have our portion of space-time on one hand and sensory perception on the other. And on the third side of the coin, we have Berkeley claiming that all that exists is the mind, that stuff onto which all that is perceived through the senses falls and interprets. Therefore, to Berkeley, all that exists are the ideas created by the mind itself and those that are impressed on the mind through the senses. But Berkeley denies the existence of that which impresses itself to the senses.

At this point, I would like to introduce an example of a surveillance system. The network consists of cameras connected to a computer, and in the microprocessor, and the memory of the computer, all that is found is 0's and 1's (Zeroes and Ones). The computer's consciousness (I don't know exactly what I mean by that) is able to automatically interpret these zeroes and ones to come up with an impression that makes sense to its mental world, (neither do I know this) but the computer cannot explain how it does this interpretation.

When, in our investigations, we take the necessary electrical measurements at all points along the cables leading from the cameras to the computers, we get voltages, albeit of different values. When, however, we go out to see what the camera is recording, we see people of different sizes, wearing clothes of different colours, trees with different flowers, unaccompanied pets, trams, birds of a feather flocking together, vegetating policemen dozing on their feet and speeding vehicles of different makes and colours, including GK's Ford Escort [Program F, Unit 7] whose colour GK has never told us, escorting GK to GKW (i.e. God Knows Where).

I would like to compare this to the sense of sight in a human being. We look at various forms and colours and also perceive motion. But all that we get through our optic nerves are sensations made of the same quality, albeit in different expressions. When these sensations reach our minds, they are interpreted in a way that is not clear to us, so that we can say that we have seen a red cube, a vegetating policeman, a round obese woman or GK's colourless Ford Escort-ing GK to GKW.

Though we know that the microprocessor of the computer gets information in terms of ones and zeroes, it is not clear to us in what terms our own brains (or minds) get all the information. I would also like to compare the voltage through the cables leading from the cameras with the computer to the nerves leading from the eyes to the brain.

After these comparisons, I would like the computer to take Bishop Berkeley's position. Let the computer say:

All that exists is the microprocessor.
What the camera records does not exist.
All that exists is what is in the microprocessor.
All that exists is zeroes and ones.
Let us go back to Berkeley and see what this leads to. What is the equivalent of zeroes and ones in our minds? What stuff is arranged inside our minds in order for our mental interpreters to interpret for us to understand? What stuff is this in our minds that is an equivalent of the zeroes and ones in QWERTY Keyboard ASCII convention and consisting of all permutations and combinations possible in our world and any other world that we can imagine? Rene Descartes and John Locke believe that physical objects are only mediately perceived by means of the immediate perception of the ideas they produce in us. But still, we remain with the question of the interpreter and what is to be interpreted.

We have dealt with the line from the camera to the microprocessor, or from the eye to the brain(or mind). Now let us go to the line from the object to the eye, or camera. From the object, both the eye and the camera perceive the reflected light. But the reflected light does not emanate from the object. It emanates from somewhere else and a part of it is reflected by the object. This reflected part is what we observe with our eyes.

So the reflected light is what we see.
But the reflected light is not the object.
Therefore, what we see is not the object.
So, what is the object?

Now that we have established above that what we see is not related to the object, then what is the object? In trying to answer this question, let us go back to Quine's portion of space-time. W.V. Quine forwards this theory in trying to answer this question. What he has actually done is to replace the term Thing-in-itself with another term. If the Thing-in itself and portion of space-time means the same thing, then what would be the shortcomings of taking Quine's theory as leading to a solution to this impasse?

The obvious question would be that of the essence of space-time or Thing-in-itself. Is it composed of Leibnizian Monads, or quarks, or superstrings, or waveforms? The question still remains unanswered.


© Ochieng Ombok 2004

E-mail: oombok@KENGEN.co.ke