For some time I’ve argued that objects or substances (individuals) are “spacetime worms”. What does this meaning? It means that substances are four-dimensional. As Theodore Sider articulates it, “…four-dimensionalism [is] an ontology of the material world according to which objects have temporal as well as spatial parts” (Four-Dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time, xiii, my italics). We are all familiar with the idea that objects have spatial parts. My body has smaller spatial parts such as lungs, a liver, a heart, my brain (though some doubt I have one), atoms, molecules, etc. We are less familiar with the idea that an object or substance has temporal parts.
It seems to me that much of the so-called debate between processualists and object-oriented philosophers is a debate between a four-dimensional conception of substances and a three-dimensional conception of objects. The three-dimensionalist holds that “…objects [are] ‘three-dimensional’ [insofar as they are]… ‘enduring’, [and are] ‘wholly present‘ at all times at which they exist” (Sider, 3, my italics). In other words, for the three-dimensionalist objects are only mereologically composed of 1) spatial parts, and 2) those spatial parts are always present as the substance endures in time. In other words, substances, for the three-dimensionalist, have no temporal parts that can come to be and pass away.
It is three-dimensionalism that gives rise to paradoxes like the Ship of Theseus paradox. Suppose you have a ship named the Ship of Theseus. Every day you remove a board from your ship and replace it with a new board. At some point your ship will be composed of entirely new boards. At this point, is the Ship of Theseus still the Ship of Theseus or is it a new ship? There are all sorts of ways in which we can vary this paradox. For example, suppose you have a ship called the Ship of Theseus and another ship called the Ship of Philadelphia. Every day you remove one board from the Ship of Theseus and place it on the Ship of Philadelphia and you remove a plank from the Ship of Philadelphia and place it on the Ship of Theseus. Is there a point at which the Ship of Theseus becomes the Ship of Philadelphia and the Ship of Philadelphia becomes the Ship of Theseus? Or again, suppose you daily remove a board from the Ship of Theseus and place it in another position on the ship. When all the boards have been rearranged and now occupy a new position is the Ship of Theseus now a new ship?
These thought experiments seem like idle curiosities, yet they do have far ranging ethical, legal, and political consequences. Given, for example, that all of the matter in my body is replaced approximately every seven years, do I still have legal obligations to pay my mortgage after seven years or my student loans? My obligation is dependent on me being the same person I was throughout time. But if my being is individuated by the matter of which I am composed, then I would no longer have these legal obligations. Three-dimensionalism will argue that in the first two of these thought experiments the objects are not the same object because they are now composed of different matter than they were before. In other words, their proper parts have changed and are no longer present. Here the proper parts of a substance are not temporal, but spatial.
When the processualist rejects the notion of objects it seems that they are conceiving objects in three-dimensional terms: as entities that are composed of fully present parts at all moments in time. If substances change, the processualist continues, then they are no longer the same object because their proper parts have changed. On these grounds, the processualist concludes that we should reject the existence of objects altogether. Entities are processes, not objects.
However, while I am deeply sympathetic to the processualists and consider myself a process ontologist– which I don’t take as being synonymous with being a Whiteheadian –this argument only follows if substances are three-dimensional as articulated above. If, in addition to spatial parts, objects also have temporal parts it follows that objects are not brute clods that simply sit still, but that in their endurance through time they are activities or processes. The claim that objects have temporal parts is the claim that they have time-bound elements such as a past. My childhood, for example, is a temporal part of my being, as is what I taught yesterday, what I did last week, etc. Three conclusions will follow from this: First, insofar as substances have both temporal and spatial parts, no object will ever be fully present, because every object will contain parts that are elapsed or gone. This is a good candidate for articulating one of the meanings of withdrawal, and is one of the reasons I have claimed that the essence of objects consists in what Derrida called differance (I have an article forthcoming on this entitled “The Time of the Object: Derrida, Luhmann and the Ontological Grounds of Withdrawal”). Here differance should not be understood as the claim that beings take on their being in and through their difference from everything else (e.g., the thesis of Saussurean diacritics), but rather as the claim that 1) beings differ in-themselves in that they change (regardless of whether any other objects exist), and 2) that the presence of an object or substance is perpetually deferred by virtue of the fact that the past of a substance has always already disappeared and the future is necessarily open. Second, it follows that objects or substances can develop. Clearly, while my childhood is a temporal part of my being, I am physically, psychologically, and intellectually very different than I was at the age of three. Now I grow hairs in odd places. Finally, third, insofar as substances are temporal, they are open. To say that an object is open is to say that it’s internal structure is not fixed but that it can develop in unexpected ways in the future. If four-dimensionalism is true, I see no opposition between the processualists and onticology or object-oriented materialism (OOM).
It’s important to note, however, that while, under this view, all substances have temporal parts, temporality is not structured in the same way for all types of objects. Consider the example of a rock with a high iron content that exists in an environment or regime of attraction saturated by oxygen. For part of its existence this rock existed as a small asteroid in outer space, before falling to the earth. Once it falls to earth it begins to undergo a change in its local manifestations as it rusts through the process of oxidation. Over time it grows more and more brown from this process. Now it is unlikely that the temporal parts of this rock function in the same way that temporal parts for a corporation or a human being. For the rock, events in its remote past cannot be rendered present in its current temporal phase, but remain where they are. The present of the rock is only affected by the immediately preceding temporal moment. By contrast, as I’ve argued in some of my meditations on memory and the importance of memory, those substances or objects that have the capacity of memory have a very different sort of temporal structure. For example, even though a traumatic event might have occurred in my remote past when I was a four year old child, this remote event can continue to be operative in my present as if it were happening right now. Freud depicts this vividly in the beginning of Civilization and its Discontents where he compares the nature of time in the unconscious to the different historical layers dug up by an archeologist, but in such a way that events in all those historical time periods behave as if they were simultaneously occurring now. As thinkers and artists such as Bergson, Proust, Freud, and Deleuze have argued, the past of certain autopoietic substances is such that it is present with the present and such that it continues to be operative in the present. It is for this reason that these types of “machines” (to use Maturana and Varela’s language) are not characterized by simple stimulus-response mechanisms where given a certain input you get a pre-delineated output, but rather where the output given a stimulus is open and contingent by virtue of the way in which the past gives these machines the ability to “rewire” their responses. Societies can pull on their past in the form of historical documents to respond to their present, such that they don’t end up brutely or mechanically repeating, just as corporations can draw on their past dealings with other corporate and government entities to strategize their current actions. The past, far from condemning us to mechanical repetition, is what undermines the possibility of mechanical repetition by virtue of how the trace comes to function in subsequent operations or activities of the system or substance (i.e., Freud’s “mystic writing pad”).
The key point is that entities or substances are not beings that spatially endure, such that their parts remain materially the same and present from instant to instant, but rather that from instant to instant endurance and existence consists in the activity of an object producing itself temporally and in act. As Gilson argues in his marvelously entitled book Being and Some Philosophers, existence is not a noun or a predicate, but an act or a verb. And as an act or a verb, existence is temporal, composed of temporal parts, and therefore necessarily processual. This contention is not cause for the rejection of the concept of object or thing, but rather for revision of what we mean by object or thing. The idea that objects are three-dimensional, that their parts are only spatial is untenable and therefore should be abandoned, not the concept of object.