“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, April 23, 2012

Temporal Parts, OOO and Sorites

Shane Denson writes on my Dark Ecology talk:

Very nice and to the point. Thanks for posting this. One question, though: how does the notion that ecological awareness consists in the realization of connectedness in a world in which "there are no clear boundaries" (as I believe you put it here) square with the ontology of objects, which, as I understand it, is an ontology of clear boundaries par excellence? (Please note: I'm genuinely interested in your answer to this, and I have no hidden agenda in asking.) It does seem, though, that a lot of the disagreements over processual or relational as opposed to object-oriented ontologies turns precisely on this question of whether entities are clearly parsed on a metaphysical level. Sometimes it seems that the debates turn to epistemological questions of whether we can see or know the world as having or not having clear boundaries around the objects that populate it, but it seems you are saying that our current ecological realizations, i.e. epistemological and/or affective events, are indeed indexed to an ontological situation in which a lack of clear boundaries obtains. Does this only apply to boundaries between human, animal, and other nonhuman agencies, or does it also apply to inter-object relations? If the latter, doesn't it make sense to say that the debates over processes vs objects are in a sense undecidable, or that these determinations depend on some sort of non-foundational perspectival selections, which need not be mutually exclusive? I'm just thinking through options here, and I'm really interested to hear your response. Also looking forward to hearing your talk at the Nonhuman Turn conference in Milwaukee!

Easy. The difference between OOO and process philosophies on this point resides in what is logically entailed by the metaphysics of presence that underwrites processes.

Process philosophies are faced with Sorites problems having to do with temporal parts. An ooze of process lava is made of temporal as well as spatial parts. The problem is what counts as a “present” versus a “past” one. Sorites problems are cousins of Zeno's paradox and have to do with subdividing beings—what constitutes a heap or in this case a process? Ten thousand grains of sand, yes; 9999, yes; and so on all the way down to one—so nothing constitutes a heap, or everything. Same with a process. Flow of lava at time a, time b, time delta a, etc. The “thin rigid boundary” is a real problem, entailed by the logic of processes.

Whereas OOO is precisely against the metaphysics of presence. Thus there is no problem whatsoever. Boundaries called “present” or “nature” are always totally arbitrary and metaphysical.

Shane's line of thinking is actually a pretty good symptom of the metaphysics of presence that underlies process philosophy—why for me it is a regression from, rather than progress beyond, Derrida. 

If you listen to my CU Boulder talk at The Shape of the I, you will hear some filling out of this argument.

This will be argued in Realist Magic.


Dali Clocks said...

Hi Professor Morton,

I was hoping if you have time you might clarify how this argument works in terms of Henri Bergson's notion of the virtual as a different way of thinking presence temporally (past/present distinction is folded through duration etc). I ask because, coming out of work on Deleuze, Bergson and the process philosophers are in conversation but Bergson is importantly distinct. He even wrote a little about Sorites, if I remember, in terms similar to pragmatism (why we might assign heapness at one time or another). Sorry if that was unclear.

David said...

Hi Tim, so what is the Sorites problem for processes?

1) Processes are composed of ultimate temporal parts that are not processes.
2) Successive temporal combination of non-processural things never gets you a process.

So if pn is 's1+s2...sn is not a process', we have pn implies pn+1.

We start with with an ultimate part p1 (s1 is not a process) and we know by induction that this is true for all n.

On the face of it 1 and 2 are contraries. But isn't it open to the process philosopher to dig their heels in and just deny 1 - i.e. that processes are composed of things that are not processural?



Luke Jaaniste said...

Tim. You said: Boundaries called “present” or “nature” are always totally arbitrary and metaphysical.

Are there any boundaries for you that aren't arbitrary and metaphysical. I imagine that doesn't mean they have to be eternal/permanent, nor completely distinct, nor universal, nor only material. They could be in some way incomplete or undecideable yet still worthy of being named as a boundary that is more real than what you want to give to 'nature and 'present'.

I'm thinking very tangible, everyday things, like skin as a boundary (when approached at the scale of our fingers, not microbes for which the skin is a lumpy, porous Swiss-cheese sponge), or institutional affiliations (at the scale of individual people that turn up as employees/staff etc and the rest of us not affiliated, say to your own university). etc.

Part of my thinking here is that the 'object' in OOO might be counter-posed to at least four other contenders for philosophy privilege. Object rather than subject (in that OOO seems to want to de-centre the human subject, ala anti-correlationalist). Object rather than process (the debate of this post, for instance, anti-process-philosophy). Object rather than background (where does the nothing, absence, background, earth, etc fit in... answer might be that it doesn't, ie, flat ontologies, no extra dimension beyond the object, no 'n+1' dimension or extra foundations). And object rather than field (fields might be porous, networked, but are objects? - regards theories of assemblages, in the way Delanda understands it, would an object be an assemblage - irreducible yet decomposable? And Ian Bogost I think says object = unit, or thing, which might be other synonyms here; and you used to talk about the mesh).

It's the fourth one listed here that I'm I suppose asking about i terms of boundaries. But it kinda implies the three others.