Do Chairs Exist?
Hey Vsauce! Michael here. And here. Michael here! hey vsauce! what is here? …. what is there? what is there? What REALLY exists? Do waves exist or are there just things that are wavy? When does a piece of food I’ve eaten stop being food and become me? Do chairs exist? Ontology is the philosophy of existence. And chairs are what philosophers call ORDINARY OBJECTS. Ordinary objects are the plain old common sense things we deal with every day: spoons, buckets, rocks, stuff like that.
Their existence is as obvious as possible but the more we try to sus out where they are, the more sus they become. First of all, sure, this could all be a dream. Maybe we’ve all been hallucinating chairs all these years. Or this could part of the simulated reality pumped into our brains while our bodies are harvested for energy. But underneath that skepticism there’s a deeper ONTOLOGICAL question that we need to answer first.
Regardless of whether this spoon is made of real atoms or simulated atoms, is it really possible to be “made of” something? Take a look at these two things. As we all know, two minus one is … TWO?! There ARE two things here: An origami crane AND a piece of paper. I’m kidding, of course, there’s really just one: the crane and the piece of paper are the same. But watch this.
Where’d the crane go? If the paper and the crane were truly identical, they would share everything in common. But clearly they don’t: the paper can survive being unfolded, the crane cannot. Also, I made the crane, but I didn’t make the paper. And the paper was around before the crane. For two things that are the same, they sure are different.
This relationship is called CONSTITUTION: paper constitutes the crane. It’s a one-to-one relationship, but there’s another kind of “being made of” going on here, too. This paper is made not of ONE other thing, but of sextillions of things: fundamental subatomic particles: electrons and quarks, or strings, or physical and virtual fields.
This many-to-one relationship is called COMPOSITION. Philosophers call whatever it is that matter is ultimately composed of SIMPLES: a simple is a thing that, unlike a piece of paper, has no parts. No substructure. Not even a top or bottom. It could be the case that there are no simples, that there’s just a never-ending chain of smaller and smaller substructure. Philosophers call such a reality a GUNKY universe.
If structure never ends in the other direction and everything turns out to be part of something bigger with no final complete composite, that’s what’s known as a JUNKY universe. Point is: believing ordinary objects exist and are made up of smaller things is quite common. It’s called ontological reductionism. It’s the position that wholes are NOTHING MORE than their parts.
But our cranes and our paper challenge that notion. it seems like being MADE OF some things IS different than just BEING those things. Let’’s agree on what it means to exist.
Let’s say that for something to exist is simply for there to be more than zero of it. Pegasus exists if we mean “are there any winged horses in works of fiction and mythology?” And pegasus does not exist if we mean, “are there any physical, flesh-and-blood winged horses that evolved on Earth through natural selection.” okay, so if we can agree on that, then of course chairs exist! There’s this one right here. I can see it and feel it and taste it. yea. It’s dry and .. a little bit salty.
Dry and salty are what we call PROPERTIES. Properties tell us what things are LIKE. For example, this slice of cheese is FLOPPY. By noticing and sharing properties, we can let each other know what to expect from things. And we all more or less agree on what things there are.
We give names to stuff and if they catch on, we put them in dictionaries with the word “noun” next to them. But are all of these nouns an inventory of the universe … or an inventory of things we MADE? Let me put it this way: do islands exist? Well, it’s in the dictionary and a quick look around confirms that there are more than zero islands, so yes. Islands exist.
But what about incars? An incar is a car that is IN a garage. As a car leaves a garage, an incar diminishes at the threshold until it collapses into nonexistence. Later, an extremely similar incar may emerge at the same threshold when the car returns. Are there any cars in garages right now? If so, then incars exist. You might be thinking, “that’s not a thing. you just made that up.
And it’s silly: “being in a garage” is just a property that a car can have. Stop trying to make incars a thing.” Ok, first of all, I didn’t make it up, Eli Hirsch did. And second of all, if you think incars aren’t things, wait till you hear about islands. An incar might just be a relation between a car and a garage but an island is just a relation between land and some water. Now, “island” might be a more useful concept than “incar,” but does that make islands OBJECTIVELY more real than incars? And what about trogs? A trog is an object whose parts are a tree and whatever dog is nearest.
Here’s a picture of one. Do you see the trog? this is its tree part and this is its dog part. You might be thinking, come on, how can THAT be a thing? The tree and the dog aren’t even connected! well so what? These two pieces of fabric aren’t connected and yet they’re a thing called a bikini. Now sure, if we cut down this tree and burn it for warmth, we wouldn’t feel the need to apologize to what’s left of the trog for destroying its tree part.
But maybe we should? What if some extraterrestrials showed up and said they thought dogs and trees composed trogs — would they be wrong? Could we convince the otherwise? Ontological realists believe that we could. That there really is a mind-independent answer to the question, “what is there?” People like Theodore Sider believe that the universe has “joints” and we can cut up reality up into objective, real things by finding them. Ontological anti-realists disagree.
Their position is that what we think there is is just one way to cut up reality. It’s a good one for us and our needs, but it’s not objectively more true than any other. So who’s right? Hmm… well if these blocks compose a tower … what do they compose now? Just because we don’t have a name for .. this.. doesn’t necessary mean that I haven’t accidentally built something. Does it? When DO two or more things compose something else? Peter Van Inwagen calls this the special composition question. In MATERIAL BEINGS he considers possible answers: maybe things compose something only when they’re in contact.
That’s a good thought, but it doesn’t explain how a BIKINI can be a thing. Or why two books are still just two books when one is stacked on top of the other. you know, Maybe a certain degree of FIXATION is required. Or a ‘melding’ … if a surgeon sewed us together and the skin healed with no seam and we shared the same blood supply … you know, even then it would seem wrong to say that we’d become some new kind of animal. There’d still just me and you.
But like, stuck together. The philosophy of parts and wholes is called mereology and Mereological Universalism is the belief that there’s an answer to the special composition question and the answer is this: any assortment of stuff, no matter how strange or scattered across time and space composes a thing. some pages compose these books but I don't just have two books here. Oh no, there's also a third thing let's call it a "took" because it's parts are Two Books. There is also something composed of my left ear, the northern third of every brown trout in England, and the Eiffel tower. Just because it has no name and no one’s ever talked about it before just shows a lack of intrest on our parts.
To a universalist, eliminating some composites but not others is just too arbitrary. We may as well accept them all. Eliminativism is any belief that accepts some composites, but eliminates others. Peter Van Inwagen, for example, believes that there are no ordinary objects, no chairs or shirts or shoes. Right here there are just some simples — atoms or whatever — arragned show-wise. There isn;t something else here called a shoe.
But he thinks that because people believe they themselves exist, and he can’t see how something could believe it existed without existing in the first place to even think that, there must be people. He goes further, though, to argue that ALL living thigns exist. While admiting he doesn’t have any “knock-down” agruments in their favor, he mentions that because simples that are part of a living organism maintain the organism — — while shedding some members and gaining others, all while remaining individuated from other organisms, unlike, say, waves of water at the moment of collision, clearly, simples in the act of a life must compose something. That position is ORAGANICISM.
It’s been called the belief that people exist, but that none of them wear clothes. Mereological Nihilism is less generous. It’s the belief that there aren’t any trogs or incars OR dogs or trees.
Because nothing ever composes. The nihilist doesn’t believe that there is NOTHING here. There are lots of simples, but that’s it. That might sound puzzling: how can a bunch of fundamental particles, arranged into atoms and molecules that are arranged like this NOT be a chair? That’s JUST IS what a chair is! Good question. Let’s call that deflationism: the belief that this is all silly and that all of these positions are talking past each other: they all agree on what reality contains: they all believe that there are simples here and that those simples are arranged in a chair shape. Since that’s just what a chair IS, they all believe in chairs.
Those who say they don’t just being weird and contrarian. Deflationism has many supporters. And it truly is the heart of our issue today. But to address it, we should first see why it would be nice if all of these parts did not form a chair.
Let’s begin with over-determination: If chairs really do exist, shouldn’t they be able to interact with us? The thing is, though, everything this alleged chair can do can be described by referencing the behavior of simples here and any other simples that come along. An account of the activities of every ATOM in this room, leaves nothing for the chair to explain. Composites are causally redundant. Believing in chairs is like believing that, while yes, the burning gas from my stove completely describes why the water in a pot boils, there’s ALSO a magical invisible substance called boil-o that comes out of my stove that does the same thing as the flame at the same time and if there was no boil-o the flame would warm the water just the same, but there is boil-o. Chairs are no more real than boil-o. Composites over-determine what happens in the world.
They also lead to over-COUNTING. For more on that, let’s say hello to this video’s sponsor. Hi. I’m Michael Stevens. You may know me from such films as ”Lady Gaga - Judas PARODY! Key Of Awesome #42” and The Emoji Movie. But today, I’m here to talk to you about the Curiosity Box.
This season, subscribers will be receiving many things, including a shirt celebrating the Sherman line, a kit to find out what bacteria is growing on you, a puzzle that celebrates the average color of neptune and yes, uranus, and the first ever at-home demonstration of impossible colors. And right now, if you subscribe with code BOGO, we’ll also send you our entire summer box completely free. just pay shipping How many THINGS will you be receiving for one ridiculously low price? You might think 15: 8 things plus 7 things.
But don’t forget that you’re ALSO getting this entire collection and THIS entire collection. That’s 17 things! ORder now. That’s a good deal, but the ontology seemed wrong. If I count some parts, I shouldn’t also count the whole they compose. But if you believe in composite objects you MUST do this, right? After all, the composite exists.
So if this chair contains, say, 100 sextillion atoms, then there are actually AT LEAST 100 sextillion and one things here: all of these atoms and also a chair. That seems wrong.. but wait, there’s more. If I take a knife and scrape off a tiny part of this chair … is it still a chair? I think most of us would say yes.
It would still be a chair even if I removed a tiny bit again. And again. A series of tiny innocuous removals is called a SORITES SEQUENCE.
The trouble they cause is that while it seems we must accept that each individual step doesn’t annihilate the chair, clearly, ENOUGH minute removals WILL eventually leave us with no chair. Nothing at all, in fact. But how can that be? How subtracting zero over and over again EVER give a different result? Clearly, there must be a point at which a tiny change DOES make a difference. Different people might give different answers as to where that line is — but, you know, we could just stipulate the boundaries: we could define “chair” in some extreamly precise way. If we did that, if we defined the shape, function, history, and use that makes something a chair so precisely that the even the smallest deviation would make or break its status as a chair … how could we know if it’d done it right? If we called up God and said, “hey dude, watch this, see this chair? Okay, now we’re going to remove a single atom from it.
Ta da! It’s no longer a chair is it?” Would God would be like, “pwha! Correct! you guys nailed it. That is exactly right. It was a chair before and now, in my infinite wisdom, I can confirm that that single atom was what made the difference.” Unless there’s some explanation for why a boundary should be drawn in a precise way instead of some other way, our stipulations are just arbitrary. Ordinary objects may be unredeemably vague. But being vague may actually be a feature of ordinary objects.
For example, how many people is a crowd? 10 people standing together in a huge empty park might be more of a group, but 10 people standing further apart in a tiny waiting room will feel way more CROWDED. The fact that our terms depend on context, that they’re PLASTIC, make it seem less and less like they’re describing THINGS and more and more like they’re pragmatic. That rather than telling what there is, they tell us to expect. Peter Unger has pointed out that there’s at least one kind of thing that CAN survive a sorities sequence without paradox: stuff. If you innocuously remove pieces from something that is just “some stuff” you will still have some stuff after each step until you reach a clear and unambiguous boundary: when the last piece is removed, there will no longer be any stuff.
This might show that there ARE composite objects: stuff. As soon as we pretend that some stuff is a THING, though, vagueness sets in. Suddenly we’re talking about a thing that can lose parts but also can’t lose parts and unless contradictions can exist, words like “chair” don’t really refer to any thing in the universe. Sorites seqeunces lead to other problems, too. Like: the PROBLEM OF THE MANY.
If removing a tiny number of atoms from this chair still leaves me with a chair, how many chairs are here? I mean, there’s this one. And then there’s this one, which is really similar to the first but doesn't have these atoms on top of it. I don’t even have to remove atoms for this to be a problem. All I have to do try to define which atoms here are part of the chair and which aren’t. At the atomic level, there isn’t a definite boundary.
Near the edge, it will hard to tell whether a particular molecule is part of the moisture in the chair or part of the ambient humidity. Instead of there being a single chair here, it seems like REALLY there are billions and billions of candidates for the chair. Which one is the chair? But now, suppose that instead of removing pieces like in a sorities sequences or choosing pieces like in the problem of the many, we instead discard pieces and replace them with new, similar pieces.
This is the set up to the famous SHIP OF THESEUS paradox. Suppose I buy a boat and name it THESEUS. Over time, parts of the boat wear out and I replace them with brand new parts. After, say 10 years, I might realize that not a single part of my boat was part of the boat on the day I bought it.
Do I now own a different boat? Have I owned TWO boats? But now suppose the someone has been following me all these years and has been picking up each old part I throw out and storing them in a warehouse. After I replaced all the original parts they take them and join them back the way they way there were 10 years ago. Which boat is THESEUS? Both? If we conclude that ordinary objects don’t exist, the problems of sorites, the many, theseus, over-determination, and over-counting all evaporate. If there are only simples and they never compose anything, then which one is the ship of theseus is easy to answer: neither! Neither are the boat and nothing ever was the boat. All that happened was that some simples got moved around. The simples the scavenger has are the simples I possessed when I bought the boat, but there’s no mystery of persistence: removing or exchanging a piece of stuff never left me with the same stuff.
There’s no mystery as to which of the billions of chair candidates here is THE chair and the removal of no specific atoms will ever stop it from being a chair because it there is no chair here and there never was. There are only simples arranged chair-wise. The illusion that there ARE composites that can survive changes in parts is an artifact of our minds. It’s a helpful one that allows us to track certain properties and ignore others, but when taken seriously, it obviously isn’t really how the universe works. And that’s okay.
We shouldn’t be embarassed when we talk about boats or chairs. Our words for ordinary objects really do refer to actual phenomena and therefore are more correct than believing that, say, the sun turned into a black hole yesterday. Unlike the false statement that chairs exist, there is NO evidence saying the sun turned into a black hole yesterday could even be INCORRECTLY describing. Because of this, Trenton Merricks calls the belief in ordinary objects false but, “nearly as good as true.” This is all silly, though, right? Of course there are chairs. If you believe that there are some simples arranged chair-wise, then you admit that there’s a chair! Because that’s just what a chair IS.
It’s not some additional THING over-and-above these simples: it just IS them. Each is still an atom or electron or whatever, but TOGETHER they are a chair. Not so fast there, chair-lover. What do you MEAN “a chair IS simples arranged chair-wise?” the phrase “simples arranged chair-wise” just picks out these simples. There’s nothing else for that phrase to refer to.
There aren’t all of these simples and then ALSO some OTHER simples that are the simples arranged chair-wise. So do you mean that “chair” is a disguised plural? That it refers to lots of things like the phrase “these books”? Because “these books” only commits us to the existence of this book and this book but not an additional single object that’s called a “these books.” Likewise, if “chair” just means this simple and this simple and this simple, then it points to a whole bunch of things and not one of them is a chair. Sure, “chairs” exist if by chair we mean a word for all these simples. But if by chair we mean an actual object in the universe, there just aren’t any, my friend.
Except… maybe there is no chair over-and-above the simples, but instead something happens when an assortment of simples are arranged into a chair-shape. Each member continues to be a single atom or whatever, but COLLECTIVELY they all simultaneously BECOME one thing: a chair. Okay, so then either there’s no chair here, just simples; or somehow a miraculous contradiction has appeared: many things and ALSO one thing that, despite both clearly differing in that respect, are still identical! It looks like chairs can’t be identical to the parts they’re supposedly composed of..
but chairs also can’t be DIFFERENT from their composite parts because there’s nothing else there and, after counting and accounting for their parts, there’s nothing left for the existence of a chair to cause or explain. To rescue chairs from non-existence, we need to find a way to show that a chair is independent of its atoms — and therefore distinct from them — but not SO distinct that it’s impossibly over-and-above them. We need to find a way to make chairs ONTOLOGICALLY INNOCENT.
To have our cake and not have it, too. Amie Thomasson does this in a very clever way. She points out that if I ask you, “hey, is there anything in the fridge?” and you open it, see that’s it empty, and say, “there’s nothing in here” it would be weird if I came over, looked inside, found a single eyelash in the corner and said, “ummm EXCUSE me? What is this?! you said there was no THING in the fridge, but there was an eyelash and, gosh dangit, the whole things is actually FULL! Of AIR.”
That would be weird because when I asked if there was anything in the fridge, it was implied that I meant anything TO EAT. By arguing that the empty fridge is not REALLY empty, I was using the word “thing” in what Thomasson calls a “neutral sense.” I used it to mean any and all entities that could possibly be described. But you took me to be using “thing” in what she calls a “sortal” sense.
A sortal is a term that tells us what a thing is in way that allows us to count how many there are AND know when there is or isn’t one. “Water” is not a sortal. If I told you there was water in my basement and you asked, “how many waters?” I’d have to use a sortal to answer you.
For example, “gallons of water.” Thomasson argues that the neutral use of “thing” is meaningless when used to ask questions. For example, if I used thing in a neutral sense and asked how many orange things are in this video you would have no idea how I wanted you to carve it all up thus, there would be no would be no single correct answer. You might say, "uh, one orange thing? Your shirt?" But then I could say, “what, no there's my left sleeve, my right sleeve, the inside of the shirt, the outside of the shirt. Come on, there's way more than one."
Unless we use a sortal net, any search for what things there are will end in confusion. Not because there are no things, but because it hasn’t been made clear what conditions to apply when searching. For Thomasson, this means that what we find depends on what APPLICATION CONDITIONS we use.
If I ask if there’s anything here that the condition “smaller than a molecule” applies to, you could note each such thing and give me an inventory. “Chair” would not be on the list. But if I asked you if there were any medium-sized rigid-acording-to human strength things here, “chair” would probably go on your list, and no single atom would. If an application condition is satisfied in the wrold, then the thing is descrbes exists. So CHAIRS do exist. If the application conditions for one thing are also sufficient for something else, then, if we find the first thing, we have found the other because it’s existence is entailed ANLYTICALLY by the existence of the first thing — that is, by meaning and logic alone.
For example, if I say that I live in a house you can conclude — without looking! — that I live in a building. There’s no paradox here, I don’t live in a house AND a building — two distinct things that defy the laws of physics by being co-located. Instead, the conditions that apply to a house are also sufficient for building.
So a single chair is not impossibly identical to some collection of many. Nor is it somehow over-and-above its parts. Instead, atoms arranged chair-wise merely logically ENTAIL a chair. The entailment connects things differentiated by distinct application conditions.
When we ask which one is the ship of theseus, a puzzle erupts because we’re being too neutral. We need to say what we mean by “ship of theseus”: if we mean the original parts, then this is it. Do we mean the thing registered to me by the boat authorities? well then it’s this one. “But which is the REAL one” is an incomplete pseudoquestion.
When it come to sorites sequences, I think we need to just stipulate where the boundary is. I don’t think there’s an objective answer provided by the universe or God as to exactly what is and isn’t a chair, but that doesn’t HAVE to mean that there aren’t any chairs, it can just mean that every single collection of simples is it’s own unique object independent of our minds and that we get to decide which we will call chairs. Vagueness comes from our minds and our language but there are no vague objects in the universe.
We don’t have to believe that our reality is simulated, but I do think we have to believe that it’s stipulated: it is a reality that contains not what intelligent machines have decided to give us, but what we have decided we have. There’s no fact of the matter as to whether calling this a star is the TRUE way to carve up this stuff. It’s a pretty useful way to do it, and helpful for at least human purposes, but “STAR” is a thing WE imposed on the world. As Michael Jubien puts it, “there are no things, but as a consequence there are as many things as we like.” As for the problem of the many, we can simply just admit that there really are billions of slightly different chairs here.
Some include a few boundary atoms that others don’t, but since they all act and react pretty much in unison, in our daily lives it doesn’t matter which exact material collection we mean when we say “this chair.” However, let’s go back to our cranes. When we talked about holes we said that holes might be ONTOLOGICALLY parasitic.
That their existence seems to require the existence of something ELSE: something that can HOST the hole. Perhaps this crane is holey, too. Not a physical thing in its own right, but a disturbance IN some paper.
There is no material crane here, there is only some paper that is arranged crane-wise. But once we start entertaining that notion, we realize that nearly EVERYTHING we see and feel all ordinary obejcts and even ourselves are ontological parasites Michael Jubien calls our tendency to think that what is true of a “chair” is true of the material that is chairing OBJECT FIXATION or PROPERTY REPRESSION. Object fixation is useful and “nearly as good as true” but when paradxoes loom, we should remember that while chairs exist, they aren’t made out of matter and can’t be touched or or felt or tasted. All I can do is taste some stuff while it chairs. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s not a duck, but it is arranged duck-wise. I think that the only concrete physical things in our universe are simples — or, since our universe could be gunky — the material world only contains stuff.
And yes, this stuff is chair-ing, but the road paved by the idea that that makes this stuff A chair leads to paradox. To see how we could have made that mistake, let’s remember the famous Clintonian dictum that often “it depends on what the meaning of “is” is” There’s the “is” of predication, which tells us what some thing is like, as in, this cheese IS floppy. And then there’s the “is” of identity which tells us what is the same as what for example, 2+2 IS 4.
To believe that chairs are made of matter — to be believe that YOU are made of matter — is to confuse these two ISes. When a collection of properties are extremely thorough in telling us what to expect from some stuff, we tend to just go ahead and NOUN them: collapse them into a single word and believe it doesn’t just describe some stuff, but REFERS to it. I think we have an intuitive sense of the thoroughness of properties and this can be seen in how we order our adjectives.
“Big” can mean many things. A big diamond and big house are very different in size. “Blue” tells me a bit more about what to expect, but CHEESEBURGER, oooh that’s specific. So specific, in fact, that we call it a noun.
This increasing thoroughness may be partly responsible for the fact that “big blue cheseburger” sounds fine, but blue big cheeseburger” sounds kind of weird. When we embrace the idea that cheseburgers are not physical objects, but instead, exist as an abstract set of properties like juicy, warm, soft, and so on, the specter of ontolgical paradox dissipates. You and I are not physical objects either. “Michael-ing” is a bunch of different properties and most of them are very vague. They include things like, “knowing who Kevin is, being more or less a certain height, having a roughly continous relationship with the stuff that Mcihaeled yesterday and that that’s Michael-ing today” and so.
Some of what it means to Michael does concern composition, like, the fact that I will still exist even if I shave off the stuff I call my beard. If I shaved off my beard, there would still be some stuff Michael-ing, but it would be different stuff than before. We’re able to lose parts and change and grow because we aren’t made of matter, we’re hosted by matter.
There’s no thing that is you and no thing that is ME. As Alan Watts would say, the universe doesn’t contain people, the universe PEOPLES. Chairs and tables and rocks and buckets and people are not made of atoms, they are preformed by atoms. We are disturbances in stuff and none of it is us. This stuff right here is not me. It's just me-ing.
We are not the universe seeing itself, we ARE the seeing. I am not a thing that dies and becomes scattered, I AM death and I AM the scattering And as always, thanks for watching. as always, links to read and learn more can be found in the description down below there's also a link down there to subscribe to the curiosity box if you subscribe now, this will be your first box but remember, use code BOGO and we'll you are summer box as well completely free give your brain a treat. support vsauce, support Alzheimer's research, and creators everywhere by joining today I'll see you there. And as always, thanks for watching.