A number of people have balked at talk of objects or substances, wishing to oppose them to processes. The worry seems to be that the concept of object or substance presupposes some fixed and unchanging core of identity in which qualities inhere. Within the framework of onticology, however, I have tried to argue that objects are dynamic systems that produce their identity across time. The identity of an object is not something that lies beneath change such that change and activity is a surface-effect of an unchanging core; rather, identity and persistence are activities and processes on the part of substances. This is why I perpetually emphasize the phenomenon of entropy when discussing objects. Entropy is a measure of the degree of order embodied in a system in terms of probability (for me “system” and “object” are synonyms). The more entropy a system possesses the less order or organization it has. The less entropy a system has the higher degree of order and organization it has. In terms of probability, the higher the degree of entropy within a system, the more probable it is that sub-elements can occur anywhere in the system. By contrast, the lower degree of entropy a system has the less probable it is that a sub-element of the system will be in a particular place.
My thesis is that objects are ontological improbabilities. If objects are improbabilities, then this is because objects are forms of organization and order. The elements that make up any object exist within the object in such a way that their structural placement is improbable. To see this point, contrast the difference between a crowd of various types of people (men, women, people of various faiths and ethnicities, rich, poor, etc) and a Roman legion. What is it that entitles us to call a Roman legion an object and a crowd of people a collection of objects (plural)? Our crowd of people is characterized by a high degree of entropy insofar as the sub-elements that make up the crowd have an equal probability of occurring anywhere in the crowd. Like particles in Brownian motion, each type of person can occur anywhere in the crowd. By contrast, a Roman legion can be thought as an object because the occurrence of the elements has a low degree of probability indicating a high degree of organization and order. Each soldier has a defined position with respect to the others and moreover, the soldiers receive the placement they have based on different ranks and skills. As a consequence, these smaller scale objects (the persons) combine together to form a unit that functions as an object.
Entities, objects, or substances are negentropic units. However, as we look at the example of both the crowd and the Roman legion suggest, it follows that the identity of substances must be a process that must perpetually produce their identity or unity across time. Every substance, I argue, is perpetually threatened by entropy or de-objectification: destruction. Likewise, many collections or aggregates tend towards the formation of objects. Let’s take the example of the Roman legion in battle. Perhaps fear overcomes the soldier, leading them to scatter. At this point entropy has set in, leading the object to dissolve. Perhaps the soldier that carries the flag or the captain is struck down and the soldiers scatter and fall apart. Likewise, in the case of the crowd, all of the different types of people that populate the crowd might tend coagulate together, forming various unities. For example, in The Mist, directed by Frank Darabont, those in the crowd of the grocery store begin to form objects or substances around religious, racial, and class characteristics when encountering the horrific entities that inhabit the mist (these horrific events functioning as what Deleuze calls “intensities”). The mechanisms and forces by which objects coagulate or crystallize are of the utmost interest to onticology. These mechanisms can be natural forces, material constraints and infrastructure, libidinal, semiotic components, and many more besides.
At the risk of stepping on Robert Jackson’s toes and his path breaking explorations of cellular automata in the context of object-oriented philosophy, I can think of few ways for better illustrating what onticology intends by an object than John Conway’s Game of Life. The Game of Life is a very simple simulator that gives rise to surprising complexity. Imagine a grid, as in the case of graph paper, where each square can either be occupied or not occupied (0, 1). Now imagine that the configuration of the occupied positions in this two dimensional universe change with each subsequent moment. What we need here is a set of rules, a physics, that regulates the transition from one “instant” (and as my Onto-Cartographies will argue, “duration” and “instants” are highly variable depending on the type of object in question) to another. In Conway’s game, this physics is very simple:
Life Physics: For each cell in the grid, count how many of its eight neighbors is ON at the present instant. If the answer is exactly two, the cell stays in its present state (ON or OFF) in the next instant. If the answer is exactly three, the cell is ON in the next instant whatever its current state. Under all other conditions the cell is OFF. (Dennett, Freedom Evolves, 36)
If the cell is off in the next instant this means it dies. If two adjacent cells are on, nothing happens. If three cells adjacent to the cell are on, this means that cell turns on. In other words, based on these simple rules or this simple physics, we get change and process.
Now what is interesting about this impoverished universe (only three rules and the possibility of being ON or OFF) we get the surprising result of emergent substances and substances that evolve. Our initial intuition might be that only ON squares (1’s) are genuine entities (Democritian atomism), but what we instead discover is that there are emergent entities that possess powers (virtual proper being) that could not have been anticipated from the sub-elements (0’s and 1’s). To get a sense of this, consider the following video of a set of simulations derived from Conway’s Game of Life:
As we watch this clip we see all sorts of patterns or negentropic unities emerge that dance across the screen. Now, based on this clip, there are a few things I’d like to draw attention to with respect to the being of substances. First, we see that the identity of substances is not a withdrawn core that remains the same as “surface qualities” change, but rather consists of certain topological (e.g. temporally malleable) processes that sustain a vector trajectory across time. This, in my view, is the substantiality of substance. The substantiality of substance is not something other or beneath these activities, but rather consists in these activities themselves. Second, we see the “strange mereology” I have often discussed here and elsewhere. Mereology investigates the relationship between parts and wholes. If the mereology of onticology is “strange”, then this is because I argue that the parts that compose an object are themselves objects in their own right, irreducible to the larger scale object of which they are a part and because the larger-scale object is a larger-scale object independent of the parts that compose it. This is basically the thesis of emergence. Moreover, there is, in principle, no limit to these strange nesting relations. We can have aggregate objects composed of aggregate objects composed of the elementary 0’s and 1’s if such true “atoms” exist. Finally, third, the powers of the larger-scale objects differ from the powers of the smaller-scale objects. The larger-scale “floaters” that dance across the screen relate to other smaller and larger-scale objects than the smaller-scale objects relate. This is what I mean by withdrawal. Withdrawal is both a counter-factual thesis and a thesis about exo-relations between different objects. At the level of counter-factuality, withdrawal means that the object would manifest itself differently given different relations to different objects. At the level of exo-relations, withdrawal means that the manner in which an object manifests itself at a subsequent stage of duration is a function of its own internal organization.