In astronomy the presence of a planet outside our solar system or a black hole is determined not by direct observation, but rather by discrepancies in the movements of other bodies in the neighborhood or vicinity of the planet or black hold. Thus, for example, we do not infer the existence of a black hold by directly observing it– how could we given that its gravitational pull is so great no light can escape from it –but through the acceleration of stars in the course of their orbit. This acceleration indicates the presence of a powerful gravitational force, thereby allowing us to both infer the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and how massive it is. Similarly, in the case of inferring the existence of exo-planets or planets outside of our solar system, we track the wobbles in the orbits of other stars, allowing us to infer the presence of a planet– usually gas giants like Saturn though recently we’ve discovered earthy or rocky planets –and the size of the planet. In short, we here arrive at the presence of an absence through inference from a presence.

In discussions surrounding object-oriented ontology, I sometimes get the sense that the term “realism” is equated with materialism. Thus, over at the excellent but difficult to navigate blog Nothing to Be Done, I today read the following:

I’m still not convinced that the phrase ‘object-oriented realist’ works. It’s the conflation of realism and objects which causes difficulties, Because I do not believe that realism can be extended into these areas. But still I’m looking forward to watching the argument develop.

When faced with a comment such as this, a comment that simply expresses a worry without providing any sort of “why” or reasoning behind that worry, I’m led to wonder why, precisely one has difficulty seeing how an object ontology can be consistent with a realism. Reflecting on this criticism, along with some criticisms that are sometimes leveled at speculative realism in general, the only conclusion I can come to is that realism is being equated with materialism. And here the materialism being equated with realism is not just any realism, but, I suspect (others can correct me if I’m mistaken), are rather contentious, tendentious, and suspect reading of quantum mechanics. The only conclusion I can come to is that if one somehow sees objects and realism as contradictory, then this is because they have drawn certain conclusions from quantum mechanics based on things such as Bell’s Theorem or quantum entanglement that are interpreted as suggesting that there are no objects.

read on!

If I describe this conclusion as tendentious, then this is for two reasons: first, I do not think we are yet at a point (and we may never be) where we can say much about what quantum objects are at all. We can say all sorts of interesting things about quantum effects and phenomena, but as to what things are at this level, who knows? For example, when we talk about phenomena like non-locality where phenomena on two sides of the universe behave like mirror images of one another, we have, as yet (and maybe never will), no way of determining whether we’re talking about two distinct entities that are somehow related in a way that exceeds the speed of light, or whether we’re talking about one entity that is individuated in a peculiar fashion, or whether we’re talking about something else altogether. We can talk about the differences produced here under specific conditions, but as to what we’re talking about, we simply do not know.

As an aside, this first point about the tendentiousness of conclusions drawn from quantum mechanics in this way– and I am equally hostile to those who believe that somehow quantum mechanics proves correlationism or anti-realism as I think they have a rather thin or superficial understanding of the quantum laboratory –helps to make an important point about ontological realism as opposed to epistemological realism. The epistemological realist naively holds that are representations are “like” the objects that actually exist. This is not the thesis of the ontological realist. The ontological realist is advancing something like a transcendental argument to the effect that if objects exist they must have such and such characteristics. It makes no claims as to what objects we can know and not know. The question of knowledge will be inquiry specific and, for certain objects, might be entirely impossible. It seems that this difference must be endlessly repeated. Indeed, philosophers like Harman will argue that we can never properly “know” any objects because it belong to the being of objects to necessarily withdraw from other objects. Since knowers or observers are objects, this holds for observer-object relations as well. One interesting feature of Graham’s position is thus that he gives ontological grounds for a common epistemological point. Similarly, because I hold that every object translates the differences it receives from other objects, it follows that no objects encounters the difference of other objects qua those differences. In both Harman’s case and my own, this epistemological point so common among the anti-realisms is “built in” ontologically. We, I believe, diverge from the anti-realists and holding that this is a generalizable ontological phenomena pertaining to any inter-ontic relation rather than restricting it to the gap between human objects and nonhuman objects. In short, we see no particular reason to valorize the human-object gap as this is just one among many gaps that populate the universe.

Second, and, in a perhaps more ontologically substantial vein, if this thesis is tendentious, then this is because it seems to work from the premise that only the quantum level is real. Working on the premise or assumption that only the quantum level is real, objects at higher levels of scale are treated as epiphenomena, “simulacra”, foam, or mist that have no reality of their own. However, given that we encounter lawful regularities at higher levels that don’t exist at lower levels, it is unclear as to why we should endorse this conclusion. Biological phenomena or organisms cannot exist without chemistry and chemistry cannot exist without quantum mechanics, such that quantum phenomena and chemical phenomena are both conditions for biological phenomena. However, while we can well recognize that these are conditions for biological phenomena, nothing in this thesis leads to the conclusion that there are not unique patterns and regularities that emerge at the biological level. In other words, we seem to here confuse necessary conditions with sufficient conditions. The quantum philosopher wants to treat the quantum level as the logos for everything else. Instead, we should, where material beings are concerned, think in terms of logoi where we have mereological relations between levels with some levels serving as conditions for others but with each level possessing a system specific logoi that is irreducible to the lower levels while nonetheless being dependent on these levels.

But I’ve gotten off topic. There is a reason that realists such as myself, Harman, Latour, Stengers, and Bogost refer to ourselves as realists rather than materialists. While it is indeed the case that all materialists are realists, as anyone who has taken an elementary course in categorical logic knows, the reciprocal proposition “all realists are materialist” does not follow from this first proposition. A simple glance at the history of philosophy is enough to see this point. Plato, for example, was a realist. However, he was not a realist because he advocated that only material beings exist, but because he advocated the existence of entities such as the forms and numbers. Many scholastics were realists not because they advocated that only material beings are real, but because they advocated the thesis that universals are real. Many mathematicians are referred to as realists not because they advocate that only material beings exist, but because they advocate the thesis that mathematical entities, which are ideal, are real. My point here is not that the object-oriented ontologists share these claims with Plato, the scholastics, and mathematicians (though I tend to side with the mathematical realists myself), but to point out that in the history of philosophy realism has tended to be a much broader position than materialism. Where the materialist holds that only material beings are, the realist tends to be pluralist, allowing for a wide variety of different types of entities that are equally real.

However, arguments from historical precedent are not here enough. In this connection, I think Harman provides the proper argument against materialist realisms. Harman’s argument is basically that philosophical materialisms (I won’t impugn the good scientists that frequent my blog) are idealisms. If they are idealisms then this is because they begin with an idea of the real, of what being is, and then set about translating all beings into this model. In this regard, Harman accords well with the theses of Laruelle in Non-Philosophy II, whom I detest, but whose points are nonetheless well taken. To begin with an idea of what is real is to begin within the framework of an idealism that allows the concept to dictate being. By contrast, object-oriented ontologies, paradoxically, do not begin with a thesis of what is real, they do not allow an idea to dictate being, but rather hold that we do not know what the real is, only that the real is.

In my own ontology for example– an ontology of which Harman is not guilty –I begin from the modest principle that to be is to make a difference. However note that I do not regulate what is capable of making a difference. What makes a difference is completely open within the framework of my ontology. Material beings certainly seem to make differences, but fictions, humans, contracts, semiotic entities, and numbers also make differences. I suspect that there are many other things besides that make differences. To be quite honest, I’m rather surprised that certain philosophers of religion and theologians haven’t exploited this point when characterizing me as the wicked, secular-humanist, materialist atheist. For if the ontic principle is rigorously followed through, then there’s nothing that allows me to prohibit God, and other things besides, from the order of being. A theology or philosophy of religion premised on the ontic principle might lead to some surprising results contrary to traditional theistic conceptions of God where God overdetermines everything else, but the very coordinates of my thought prevent me from excluding the divine as productive of difference. I suspect this is one reason that I get so much flack from more materialistically oriented philosophy as they, at some level, recognize the democracy or non-idealistic clamor that the ontic principle threatens to unleash as an ironic criteria of the real. I also suspect that this is the reason that some theologians and philosophers of religion have been rather enthusiastic about object-oriented ontology and the ontic principle.

In the end, I take it that as leaky as my ship is, this capacity to surprise is the mark of a good philosophy or ontology. Since I first formulated the ontic principle in January or February, I’ve been on a witches broom of thought, no longer knowing where I’m being led or am going. In other words, my basic ontological commitments might not only be surprising to others, but are surprising to me as I carry out their implications. I do not take this as a negative thing, but as precisely what a philosophy should do. If a philosophy doesn’t make you become, if it doesn’t change you like some infectious parasite that rescues from doxa whatever that doxa might be, if it doesn’t generate new problems, questions, and concepts, if it doesn’t shift lenses, if it doesn’t manifest the world otherwise, then what is it good for? A philosophy should be relief, where relief is not thought as the reduction of tension, but in the artistic sense of bringing into relief.