watcha doin this summer, crispy? ah, you know, chillin'. this morning, like many of you i'm sure, i figured out what the universe - all that is - is. turns out i was right all along, a remarkable coincidence. at any rate, you'll be relieved to hear that human inquiry has reached its culminating moment. shit is over now, baby. (from the ontology chapter of entanglements: a system of philosophy).
There is only one level, plane, kind of existence, but there are infinitely many situations: as many as there are things, plus as many as there are relations between them. The primary real things are situations or tangles. It could be quarks, leptons, and bosons, or a cow, a car, and a cop. A situation is a group of physical objects and sub-situations unfolding in time. In the case of a human experience as a situation, we might describe the following components: (1) individual objects; (2) a human body with its attendant sensory apparatus; (3) a social articulation, vocabulary, or representational system; (4) atmospheric conditions in which these are embedded: light, for example; the composition of the air; (5) mutual transformation of these constituents over time. In the case of situations that aren't experiences (2) and (3) are missing, while we also might discover strange new or analogous relations.
I am very much not saying that all situations are human experiences, a claim which would be a betrayal, among other things, of human experience. Some situations have human or other sorts of perceivers in them: some are just juxtapositions of trees or planets, orbiting over time in a surround. When I'm looking at something, and I turn away, something in the situation changes, but not everything, and the other embedded objects maintain some - most - of their relations.
It appears in the above structure that 'individuals' are taken as an unanalyzable foundation or that I'm doing atomism or monadology. But I prefer to say or speculate that it's situations all the way down. Each individual in a situation is a situation, or is constituted by its relations. That goes for quarks, leptons, and bosons, as well as for a cow, a car, and a cop. This goes for experiences, of course, as well. Perhaps this yields some sort of regress, but I suppose that whether it's situations all the way down is an empirical question, and if we produce the ultimate relationless monads with a particle-beam accelerator, then I was wrong. At any rate, A situation is a group of situations in spatio-temporal relation.
A corollary of this is that everything that exists is on a single ontological plain. Or as I put it in the introduction: it's all string. No knot is definable in isolation: you have to specify how the string enters and leaves it; you have to figure out where it leaves off and the next knot begins, or whether they form a single tangle. If I tie a pile of half-hitches, is that a single knot or a number of distinct knots? That is something that needs to be fixed conventionally, or relative to certain histories and purposes, though there are limits on possible or plausible answers with regard to any given tangle.
The hardest of (1)-(5) to put in ontological communion with the rest, or to drop onto the one and only ontological plain, is the vocabulary or representational system. As should be evident by now, I am going to wave in the direction of a nominalistic approach. Because language, as we have seen, gains meaning only in utterances and inscriptions in physical contexts, possibly including internal auditory or visual events, I propose to treat the representational system - a language, vocabulary, taxonomy, or pictorial system, for example, or something that combines various languages, pictorial systems, etc. - as a vast scatter of physical objects in some kind of connection mutually unfolding in time, as a situation.
So first of all, we could say that the idiolects/neurology of each language/pictorial system user is part of 'the language,' but so also many other objects, such as books (i.e. particular physical bound volumes) and pictures that aren't in anyone's head. An experiencer, herself a situation, is related to, or is in a situation in which, various materials that are called into play in understanding or interpreting a situation of which she forms a portion. We might think of these along Wittgensteinian lines as practices or even language games - conventions, rules of transformation, perspective renderings, but also bodies and the movements of bodies, objects, the passions and agencies of things. I just want to emphasize one more time that there is nothing ontologically fundamental about experiences and that the world is not primarily composed of experiences, an assertion i regard as ridiculous. Of course there is something epistemologically fundamental about them; knowledge is impossible without experience. But experiences are physical situations.
I am a physicalist or materialist of some sort, though it might be hard for me to tell you why. I would wave toward a 'reduction' or 'analysis' of every situation to a set of physical objects and events, though I am also attracted to various 'non-reductive' physicalist programs based on supervenience or other strategies. But actually, though this seems relatively clear, and though it positions my project within a certain historical development in ontology since Newton, Darwin, and Marx, the question of what is and what is not physical is a relatively difficult one in many cases. If you didn't count quarks or entire universes, clouds or piles of this or that as physical things, exactly, I wouldn't necessarily quibble. I could say I feel myself to be a physical object in a physical situation; I feel that I am well-acquainted with actual physical things - I am satisfied that such things exist - we do have access to this one realm of reality, and any multiplication of ontological levels beyond necessity should be avoided.
My basic commitment in ontology is to the one-plane principle: there is only one level of being. If it's situations all the way down, also all the way up: the whole is a single interconnected mesh or tangle. A representation and what it represents are different things, but they are on the same level of being, or they share an ontology: they are material situations: seal and wax, for example. It is important to me that the universe is material, which I think has a magical quality. Thoreau writes: "What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star's surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. . . . Think of our life in nature,- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, - rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?" I think matter is mysterious and more or less adorable. And it's a bitch, too, of course.
But I would be happier to have it all spiritual than to have a material/spiritual ontological gap or divide. I insist on this: I will, because I do, have a universe in which it is possible to gather all things, or any two or more things, into an assemblage, network, or knot: an immanent god, or no god at all (no god at all). That is a universe that is always a challenge to the imagination, or in which it is possible to be creative, that is, to tie up some string in some heretofore-inexistent configuration.
Though only some situations are experiences, experiential situations are rife with reconfigurations or resituations; experiences throw things together at a node in a chaotic way and at an incredibly rapid rate and in a characteristic manner, sort of spelled out in (1)-(5). This profusion of material, or the status of a subject as a continual factory of new situations, gives to metaphysics an overabundance of material and not a lot of structure. Now if I talked about 'human subjects as factories of fact,' I would usually be taken to be an idealist. But what I have in mind is that human bodies and the perceptual and intellectual apparatus that goes with them, actually move through a world that is moving through them, and as they do, their experience produces and consists of facts kaleidescopically, even as the profusion of unexperienced situations is hardly reduced from its infinity. However, it may be that in some sense everything that exists is in some sufficiently broad sense experiencable: we're built to be in environments; we're built as environments by environments This is made possible by the materiality of things, our sharing of the same ontological space, or opening into the same time. One should be an egalitarian about things: they are all ontologically equal, or else they are nothing.
Now whether you loved or hated that last passage or were able to associate it with no particular meaning, you have to admit that it's speculative metaphysics. It may be impossible to do speculative metaphysics with a clear conscience or unselfconsciously in these late days, but you can still do it if you want. What makes it sensible to engage in speculative metaphysics is precisely the one-plane principle: we are the sorts of situations we're trying to explain, and not only that, situations are always blossoming everywhere all around us. We have and can develop further a sense of our situation. Now perhaps the metaphysical declarations constitute dogmatism, an appeal to the irrational or ineffable, arbitrary or mystical intuitionism. They are certainly unjustifiable, or at any rate unjustifiable by many standards of justification. And as I've argued, I don't think justification could ever be forthcoming for truths at this level of generality. This is philosophy, the place where justifications run out.
On the other hand, there is no particular reason not to try to figure out what you believe about this sort of thing, or not to declare it once you've formed an opinion. No expression of opinion in such areas is liable to have disastrous or even detectible practical consequences. The only reason not to write speculative metaphysics is that no one will read it. But, you know, Schopenhauer did it. Nietzsche did it. Even educated fleas did it, in 1878. Why not us?
I would take whatever justifications I could find at the level of committing a fundamental ontology, but I'm also comfortable proceeding without them. It's certainly possible to think you've demonstrated something about the way things are, when all the time you were committed to one view or another, which drove the arguments rather than the other way round. That is one of the reasons that arguments in metaphysics seem so often disappointing, or to be fudged just at the key moment. The argument is not at the center of the commitment. It has to come out right.
Committing yourself to a fundamental ontology is an act of faith, an act of belief to which any possible evidence is radically inadequate. It is a matter of identity and aspiration as well as a propositional attitude. The good part about this religion is that it comes with no institutions, just doctrines.
An important standard for evaluating theories - especially your own - is whether it keeps faith with your experience, whether it is true to that experience. Now, to say that my material 'situationism' does keep faith with its author's experience isn't much of an argument. But the commitment to any account in matters like this also has a desirous aspect: what would I like or want the universe to be? That surely is the sort of thing that gives people a benevolent god or a beautiful order of nature (much less the perfect union or coincidence of these, as in Leibniz, say), whatever argumentative conniptions they may perform to justify that belief if they go pro as theologians or philosophers.