zondag 7 april 2024

Universal withdrawal?

Already from the title of his fascinating book Object-Oriented Ontology. A New Theory of Everything (2018) it's clear that Graham Harman considers his object-oriented ontology to be a unified theory of everything. As Harman writes: "In my view, the 'theory whose range of applicability is limitless' can only be found in philosophy, and especially in the type of philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO)" (p. 23). According to Harman science cannot provide a theory of everything since science doesn't avoid the pitfalls of physicalism (according to which everything is physical), smallism (according to which complex composites as less real than their component parts), anti-fictionalism (according to which fictional characters do not exist), and literalism (according to which accurate literal descriptions can give us the things directly and completely). I agree with Harman that a theory of everthing can only be found in philosophy. Moreover, with perhaps the exception of anti-fictionalism, I agree with Harman that we have to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls in our search for a philosophical theory of everything.

However, there's another pitpall we must also avoid: universalism. A theory traps into the pitfall of universalism if it is committed to the existence of a contingent universally held property (i.e., a contingent property held by everything). Universalism is a pitfall to avoid because there are no contingent universally held properties, as my semantic argument shows.(*) That's why for example the theories of everything of Thales (everything is water), Heraclitus (everything is fire), Nietzsche (everything is will to power), Schopenhauer (everything is will to live), and Latour (everything is a hybrid) are untenable. And that's why for example materialism (everything is material), idealism (everything is mental) and pantheism (everything is divine) fail as well.

Now, unfortunately, Harman doesn't avoid the pitfall of universalism. First, Harman is a methodological universalist in spirit. As he writes: "In short, we expect a philosophy to tell us about the features that belong to everything [...]" (p. 55). But more importantly, his object-oriented theory of everything falls prey to universalism. On Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology, all objects have an interior that remains forever hidden to all other objects. So, all objects withdraw from all other objects. This does not only apply to all real objects, but also to all sensual objects. For each sensual object is hidden to everything that's not its observer, while its real qualities, and thus the sensual object itself, withdraws from its observer as well. Harman is thus committed to 'withdrawal' being a universally held property. Since 'withdrawal' is also a contingent property (e.g., it does not follow from the laws of logic that all objects withdraw from all other objects), Harman's thesis of universal withdrawal is a form of universalism, rendering his object-oriented ontology in its current form untenable. There are objects that do not withdraw from all other objects.

(*) Let me provide a concise formulation of my semantic argument. If two simple or primitive terms (i.e., terms having unanalysable meanings) have the same reference, then they have the same meaning. From this it follows that there are no contingent universally held properties. For suppose there is a contingent universally held property. Its reference is thus everything that exists. Now, that property is a conjunction of simple terms all having the same reference and thus also the same meaning as the simple term 'exists'. The alleged contingent universally held property is therefore 'existence'. But ‘existence’ is not a contingent property, so we arrive at a contradiction. Hence, there are no contingent universally held properties.

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