In response to my last post, Alex Reid of Digital Digs posts a great comment summarizing what is at stake in the external/internal relations debate.  Alex writes:

I think I get what you’re saying here Levi. Here is where the experimental/investigative project begins. Some relations are internal and necessary for a given object’s persistence. Other relations are external. These relations may affect an object or even destroy an object, but they can never be necessary for defining the object. In part, this is the principle of redundant causation, right?

Let me use a chicken for example. It could be free-range or in a cage; it’s still a chicken. It could break a wing; it’s still a chicken. It gets slaughtered. Now it’s a dead chicken. Is that a different object now? It gets prepared for cooking and roasted. Is that a different object? It gets eaten. At some point it ceases to be a chicken.

Objects are not immortal. At some point they cease to exist and their component parts become reorganized into other relations and objects. In a few billion years, the sun will likely expand and all the objects on the Earth will be reduced to atomic particles. I recognize that part of Harman’s complaint with DeLanda is the notion that assemblage theory suggests that objects are purely the product of historical relations. I agree that objects exceed their relations, become more than those relations in a non-deterministic way. Some relations are more important than others to whether an object is transformed.

As such, I wonder if the underlying question here is “what differences make a difference?” If we can agree that external relations can transform objects (as when the fire burns the cotton in Harman’s common example), then the question becomes how often do those transformations take place. In a process-becoming perspective the mutations are ongoing such that all relations become internalized. In an object-oriented perspective, transformations are less common and must be uncovered rather than assumed.

Alex gets right to the core of the question:  what differences or relations make a difference and what type of difference do they make?  The problem with the internalist position that claims that entities or objects do not precede they relations or have any independence from their relations, that claim that objects are their relations (see the previous post), is that they render us completely unable to think this question.  If it is true that no entity or “relata” precedes its relations, is that we are left unable to think what difference the subtraction or addition of a relation makes to the entity in question.  The situation is far worse in the case of Whitehead’s ontology, where it is said that every entity in the universe shares a perfectly definite “prehension” (relation) to every other entity in the universe and that each entity is but a bundle of the way in which it prehends other entities.  Whitehead says that he wants to think the conditions under which novelty are possible, but it is difficult to see how there could every be any novelty in his ontology for the very simple and basic reason that there can never be any new encounters for entities.  Why can’t there be any new encounters between entities?  There can be no new encounters between entities because entities are already related to all other entities that exist in the universe.  Where an entity is already related to all other entities that exist, there can be no question of a new encounter.

read on!