One of the central claims of object-oriented ontology is that objects are withdrawn from one another. In this way, OOO radicalizes the Kantian claim. Kant had claimed that the in-itself is withdrawn from humans such that we only have access to phenomena and never things-in-themselves. OOO accepts this thesis with the caveat that this is true of all objects, regardless of whether the entities involved are humans relating to nonhuman objects or other human beings, or whether the entities relating to one another are planets relating to stars. Each object encounters other objects as phenomena or what Graham calls “sensual objects”. The consequence that follows from this is that the inner world of objects is essentially unknowable. We can track inputs and the outputs produced as a result of these inputs (what I would call “local manifestations”), yet the inner world of objects is a black box.
I’ve been delighted to discover that Andrew Pickering articulates a very similar line of thought in The Cybernetic Brain. This is a wonderful book, so take the time to read it if you have access to it. This point and how it modifies our understanding of knowledge and the world comes out very clearly in his discussion of Ross Ashby’s famous homeostat. As recounted by Wikipedia,
The Homeostat is one of the first devices capable of adapting itself to the environment; it exhibited behaviours such as habituation, reinforcement and learning through its ability to maintain homeostasis in a changing environment. It was built by William Ross Ashby in 1948 at Barnwood House Hospital. It was an adaptive ultrastable system, consisting of four interconnected Royal Air Force bomb control units with inputs, feedback, and magnetically-driven, water-filled potentiometers. It illustrated his law of requisite variety — automatically adapting its configuration to stabilize the effects of any disturbances introduced into the system. It was the realization of what he had described in 1946 as an “Isomorphism making machine”.
What we get in the case of the homeostat is a machine where each individual homeostat evolves in response to the outputs of the others. As Pickering describes it,
…we need to think about Ashby’s modelling not of the brain but of the world. The world of the tortoise [which I discuss here] was largely static and unresponsive– a given field of light and obstacles –but the homeostat’s world was lively and dynamic: it was, as we have seen, more homeostats! If in a multiunit setup homeostat 1 could be regarded as a model brain, then homeostats 2, 3, and 4 constitute homeostat 1’s world [what I would call it’s “regime of attraction”]. Homeostat 1 perturbed its world dynamically, emitting currents, which the other homeostats processed through their circuits and responded to accordingly, emitting their own currents back, and so on around the loop of brain and world. (106)
The conclusion to be drawn from this, says Pickering, is that “[a]s ontological theater […] a multihomeostat setup stages for us a vision of the world in which fluid and dynamic entities evolve together in a decentered fashion, exploring each other’s properties in a performative back-and-forth dance of agency” (ibid.). The key point here is that the other objects are not explored cognitively through passive representation, but through action and interaction. One homeostat discovers the properties of another object through perturbing it in particular ways. This, in turn, produces certain outputs. Thus, Pickering goes on to add, that “[…] relations between homeostats were entirely noncognitive and nonrepresentational. The homeostats did not seek to know one another and predict each other’s behavior. In this sense, each homeostat was unknowable to the others, and a multihomeostat assemblage thus staged what I called before an ontology of unknowability” (ibid.).
Here there are a few points worth making. First, the properties– outputs, local manifestations –discovered in the environment of the “brain-homeostat” are a function of the brain-homeostat’s actions (inputs). As a consequence, what the brain-homeostat discovers is a function of its own action. The other homeostats can harbor all sorts of other powers— virtual proper being –that are not manifested because either 1) the other homeostats are not being perturbed in such a way as to activate them, or 2) because the other homeostats do not have channels that allow them to be perturbed by the brain homeostat. In this latter case, we get a situation in which the other homeostat is so withdrawn from the brain-homeostats that it’s as if the homeostats do not even exist for one another. This would be analogous to the neutrinos I discuss elsewhere. Second, as the dance of agency unfolds through the communication of the homeostats with one another, patterned relationships begin to emerge. This would be analogous to what takes place when fireflies flick to one another in such a way that an oscillating pattern emerges where they all appear to simultaneously switch off and on in response to one another. Thus, third, we here begin to get the genesis of higher order objects. Through the formation of these patterned interactions, we begin to get the emergence of an entity in its own right that can interact with other entities at higher levels of scale. Here this higher scale entity draws outputs from lower scale entities (the homeostats) so as to maintain a patterned existence and unity in the order of time. In this case, it is not really one of the homeostats that’s a brain, but rather the homeostats taken as an aggregate that form something like a brain through their ongoing interactions and communications to one another. Here we might think of the homeostats as being akin to individual neurons.