Eclectic Spacewalk #3 - Object Oriented Ontology
A New Theory of Everything, Philosophy is more like Art than Science, and The Third Table
Table of Contents:
Object Oriented Ontology—
Look around you. Are all the objects you see experiencing existence?
What is OOO?
A “Theory of Everything” will NOT be scientific but philosophic.
Ontology is a branch of philosophy that deals with ultimate questions of what reality and real things are or ‘the study of being.” Flat Ontology - everything exists equally and nothing has special status.
Knowledge is just duo-mining, but NOT “reality.”
Undermining an object is breaking it down into parts.
Overmining an object is describing its effects.
Real-world implications in knowledge, aesthetics, and even politics!
OOO in summary
Text (5 books)
Audio (5 podcast episodes)
Video (3 quick hits & 5 lecture/talks)
Reading Time: 25-30 minutes (Read sections you find intriguing, bookmark the media/links, and come back to anytime.)
Abstract: “Object-Oriented Ontology or “OOO” is a branch of philosophy, also associated with speculative realism, that puts “things” at the center of its study. In addition, it states that an object is not the sum of its bits or all of its effects, but instead just an object in itself.”
The two thoughts that occur to the majority of people, when reading the title of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, would most likely be: a “new theory of everything” is a bold claim, and what is Ontology?
Like most everyone else since the beginning of our shared species’ quest for knowledge, you and I have unconsciously, and then consciously, thought about our reality wearing blinders. You have been hoodwinking yourself and didn’t even know it!
Let’s do a fun little experiment. Look up from this essay and take a gander of your current surroundings. Here is mine:
Now, according to Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), every “object” you see and every object in my picture has, or could have, ITS OWN EXPERIENCE OF EXISTENCE.
Going back to my picture...
What does my computer want? What about my plant? And the book that this post is based on? Can the sand in my (half)hourglass explicitly want anything that lies outside of our own human-centric definition of consciousness? Can I ask the same question to my yerba mate?
This is a little easier to gulp down and digest when you view the question(s) through an animal and/or artificial life prism. The scientific breakthroughs of today have given us a much better understanding of animals’ minds and - in a different area - given us machines bordering on “intelligence.” This has put heavy pressure on continuing to see reality ONLY through human experience.
Right now I can feel the breath from all of the exhalations from readers about to throw in the white towel of defeat in continuing to read. Don’t distress, and continue on. This isn’t some esoteric discipline for a small subset of people and situations. This is literally a theory of everything, so by definition, it includes everyone.
One of the biggest proponents of OOO, Ian Bogost, has this to say about how the movement could benefit greatly from regular people:
“I’m of the general belief that academia has a responsibility to the public interest, but more than any other philosophical movement in recent memory, OOO stands to benefit from the deep engagement of ordinary people, since it returns the attention of philosophy to the real, everyday world.”
A New Theory of Reality?
You may have heard in the past few decades of the unification of all scientific thought into one theory. There have been many attempts, like string theory - which has its own experimental issues that would give Karl Popper an aneurysm - along with the below “Quantum Field Theory.”
“This is the amplitude to undergo a transition from one configuration to another in the path-integral formalism of quantum mechanics, within the framework of quantum field theory, with field content and dynamics described by general relativity (for gravity) and the Standard Model of particle physics (for everything else). The notations in red are just meant to be suggestive, don’t take them too seriously…No experiment ever done here on Earth has contradicted this model.” - Physicist Sean Carrol
Most notably, however, is that this is NOT a complete “theory of everything.” Quantum Field Theory doesn’t account for dark matter and has not been fully connected to the force of gravity.
Critically, the above theory or “any scientific theory of everything” will never be enough due to its marriage with the “real.” In other words, a theory of everything WOULD INCLUDE imaginary things.
If you disagree, then please just think about how much influence imaginary things like religious entities, companies like the Dutch East India Trading Company to Manchester United Football Club, and “energy” from astrological events millions and millions of light-years away - have on our discourse.
Graham Harman states that the difference between a real horse, an imaginary horse, and a unicorn is essentially FORM. Unfortunately, that form is always “dark” to us in a sense and we can never “know” the true form because by expressing it we really change its form. There is no free lunch in the universe…
“The difference between a horse, an imaginary house and a unicorn is not that the former ‘inheres’ in matter and the latter two do not. Instead, the difference is that the real horse has a different form from the imaginary horse, and certainly a different one from the unicorn. One of the implications of this is that we cannot ‘extract’ a form from a thing and express this form in mathematical or other directly knowable terms; or rather, we can do this, but only by paying the price of changing the form into something else.”
Metaphor also plays a huge role in these distinctions. Aaron Lewis recently wrote a great piece on how we are still led, at least partly, by the metaphorical: Metaphors we believe by: the pantheon of 2019
“The more I learn, the more I suspect that rationalists only managed to kill a very narrow and anthropomorphic conception of God. People who study complex systems started using new words to talk about god-like phenomena — metaphors that are more palatable to secular minds. I believe these new words can help scientifically-minded people better understand what it actually felt like to believe in God before science became a Thing. Let’s take a tour through the pantheon of 2019 and explore what these seven “gods” might teach us in our era of ecological crisis and post-truth confusion.”
WTF is Ontology?
Ontology is the philosophical study of existence, and an ontology of oriented objects puts “things” at its center. A flat ontology is: Everything exists equally and nothing has special status. For example - My PS4 controller, limestone, parchment, the country of Uzbekistan, and silverback gorillas all are unique in a very technical, Heidegger “thing in it itself” way.
“In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.”
Knowledge, Effects, and the “Third Table”
Graham Harmon aptly calls the above scientific naturalism of bundling properties undermining and social relativism of their relations/effects on other things overmining.
So, objects instead must be understood as real independent substances in their own right, with much larger and robust sensory qualities. Otherwise, objects lose their underlying identity as something real and end up being mere appearances, analyzable in terms of something else more fundamental and real.
“Since knowledge cannot be metaphorical - for this is the realm of both aesthetics and Philosophia - it must be literal, which means that it must be a question of articulating the qualities or effects of an object in overmining/undermining fashion. And since knowledge cannot be ‘truth’, which would imply an impossible direct revelation of the world, it needs to have some sort of contact with reality, though not contact of a direct sort, which we have seen to be impossible. But unlike aesthetics, the point of knowledge is not to experience the unknowable uniqueness of a real object, but to attain some sort of partial grasp of the features of a sensual object that is already in our midst. This means that whereas aesthetics brought real objects into play, knowledge must somehow bring real qualities into the picture.”
Let’s do another quick thought experiment to get at the core of what an “object” is. Think back to the photo of my desk, or any table for that matter.
If you were to describe the table, you would inevitably have to use knowledge, which is really only two qualities: “what something is made of” (undermining, the description of such would be called: the first table) and “what it does” (overmining, the description of such would be called: the second table).
So what is left after you undermine/overmine a thing?
Graham Harman has another pithy response to this, “the third table.”
“An object is whatever cannot be reduced to either of the two basic knowledge sets: what something is made of, and what it does. Too many philosophers in the West have tried to claim that it is simply one of these, the other, or both. Another way of saying it is that OOO is strongly committed to an anti-realist view of objects, literalism being the notion that we can paraphrase an object, as if it were truly equivalent to a sum total of qualities or effects and nothing more.”
The Third Table is essentially describing the four possible combinations of “The Quadruple Object” as shown below. (Apologies for the semi-legible annotations.)
OOO has “rescued the non-relational core of every object, thus paving the way for an aesthetic conception of things.” In plain English, that means that Aesthetics has become a first philosophy. Nonliteral access to an object is crucial in OOO. This has become an interesting new direction in the world of architecture.
Graham Harman says that if we were all Socratic, then we would recognize that idealism is poisonous and “reality” is the best antidote. No one knows the Truth!
“OOO takes Socrates at his word. No one is actually in possession of knowledge or truth, which therefore cannot be our protection against the degeneration of politics or of anything else. As OOO sees it, the true danger to thought is not relativism but idealism, and hence the best remedy for what ails us is not the truth/knowledge pair but reality.”
But if we cannot possess knowledge or truth, then our models and theories about society and politics should have that understanding baked into them…They do not now. Charlatans abound everywhere, especially in politics, claiming to possess a truth that no one can know.
“There is no political knowledge. Political theory cannot be based on the claim to knowledge: whether it be the supposed knowledge of what the best polity is, or merely the cynical claim that it’s all just a struggle for power. Along with the need to recognize itself as non-knowledge, political theory must give a much larger role to non-human entities than has previously been the case.”
Summary of Object-Oriented Ontology
All objects must be given equal attention, whether they be human, non-human, natural, cultural, real, or fictional.
Objects are not identical to their properties but have a tense relationship with those properties, and this tension is responsible for all of the change that occurs in the world.
Objects are of just two kinds: real objects exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, while sensual objects exist only in relation to some real object.
Real objects cannot relate to one another directly but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object.
The properties of objects are also of just two kinds: again, real and sensual.
These two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which OOO treats as the root of time and space, as well as two closely related terms known as essence or eidos.
Finally, OOO holds that philosophy generally has a closer relationship with aesthetics than with mathematics or natural science.
“We humans tend to believe that things are only real in as much as we perceive them, an idea reinforced by modern philosophy, which privileges us as special, radically different in kind from all other objects. But as Graham Harman, one of the theory's leading exponents, shows, Object-Oriented Ontology rejects the idea of human specialness: the world, he states, is clearly not the world as manifest to humans.”
Outline of OOO book:
“Chapter 1: Intro to notion of objects, only comes in two types: real & sensual, what OOO thinks is wrong with modern philosophy since Descartes and Kant. Kant is important ancestor of OOO.
Chapter 2: Explains why philosophy has less in common with science than is usually believed, and more common with the arts. Here we touch on the key cognitive role of metaphor, which the author claims is more important for philosophy than discursive propositional statements such as ‘the cat is on the mat,’ ‘gove is a yellow metal’ or ‘water boils at 100 degrees celsius’ which philosophers so often take as the model for their theories.”
Chapter 3: Discusses some of the implications for OOO in these fields. OOO agrees with Latour’s actor-theory network in politics, but not in matters of social theory. In social theory, OOO is more interested in the inner nature of things than in their actions, and contends that only a half-dozen or so important events befall an object before it reaches maturity, ripens, declines, and dies. In politics, OOO avoids the left/right polarization of political discourse since the French Revolution, focusing instead on difference between truth politics and power politics, both of them need replacement. It also adheres to discovery of actor-network theory that non-human entities play a crucial role in stabilizing the human polis.
Chapter 4: Author shows why the interaction between objects, which seems like the most obvious everyday thing in the word, is more paradoxical than it sounds. Incorrect assumptions on causality. Fourfold structure of objects, one of the methodological pillars of OOO. What is left of knowledge in the wake of OOO’s rejection of literalism and direct access to reality. Since Chapter 2, has already claimed that philosophy as more in common with the arts than the sciences, some might complain that OOO 'aestheticizes’ philosophy while leaving us skeptical as to the possibility of any actual knowledge. Yet we will see that OOO merely rejects the idea of knowledge as a direct presence of reality itself, and does not scorn knowledge per se.
Chapter 5: Author clarifies the nature of OOO further by distinguishing its treatment of objects from the views of perhaps the two most dominant french thinkers of the past half century: Derrida and Foucult, neither of them doing the degree of justice to objects that OOO itself demands.
Chapter 6: Discuses key authors that author has worked with: Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton. Close proximity: Jane Bennett and Tristan Garcia. Architectural theorists: Mark Foster Gage, Erik Ghenoiu, David Ruy, and Tom Wiscombe.
Chapter 7: Concludes with a summary of some of the most important guiding maxims of the movement.”
“The logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind. Dark ecology puts us in an uncanny position of radical self-knowledge, illuminating our place in the biosphere and our belonging to a species in a sense that is far less obvious than we like to think. Morton explores the logical foundations of the ecological crisis, which is suffused with the melancholy and negativity of coexistence yet evolving, as we explore its loop form, into something playful, anarchic, and comedic… Morton hopes to reestablish our ties to nonhuman beings and to help us rediscover the playfulness and joy that can brighten the dark, strange loop we traverse.”
“In Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Ian Bogost develops an object-oriented ontology that puts things at the center of being—a philosophy in which nothing exists any more or less than anything else, in which humans are elements but not the sole or even primary elements of philosophical interest. And unlike experimental phenomenology or the philosophy of technology, Bogost’s alien phenomenology takes for granted that all beings interact with and perceive one another. This experience, however, withdraws from human comprehension and becomes accessible only through a speculative philosophy based on metaphor.”
“This ontology argues that being is composed entirely of objects, properties, and relations such that subjects themselves are a variant of objects. Drawing on the work of the systems theorists and cyberneticians, Bryant argues that objects are dynamic systems that relate to the world under conditions of operational closure. In this way, he is able to integrate the most vital discoveries of the anti-realists within a realist ontology that does justice to both the material and cultural.”
“Bennett argues that political theory needs to do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in events. Toward that end, she theorizes a “vital materiality” that runs through and across bodies, both human and nonhuman. Bennett explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the effect of ad hoc configurations of human and nonhuman forces. She suggests that recognizing that agency is distributed this way, and is not solely the province of humans, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics: a politics less devoted to blaming and condemning individuals than to discerning the web of forces affecting situations and events.”
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