the paradox of objects

3 min read

One of the most profound and ironically the most trivial philosophical experiences happened to me in about 1994. At Wolfson College, it was at a particularly difficult time for me in my own mental health. But a period that was particularly enriching personally, creatively and intellectually.

I was sat on the steps outside Wolfson College porters’ lodge. It was a fine day in the late spring or early summer. I was trying not to believe anything at the time, because everything I seemed to believe about myself and the world just made me depressed. It was an existential experiment and I think because of my neurodiversity (the extent to which I can become overstimulated in social settings which can overload my system unless I manage it) it left me a state of mania and with increased mental activity, which I intellectualised.

I was looking at the tree to the right of the main door, as you look out toward Barton Road and toward Granchester. Paradox had been on my mind and that encouraged me to try not to believe in anything (which is impossible to do, – don’t ignore historicity – said my criminologist friend Kevin Haines, he was right of course).

Paradox means the death of binary logic, the death of the true and false binary.

What occurred to me while looking at the tree. And it continues to haunt me. That all that is the tree is only that because of what is not the tree. The tree can only be because of that that is not the tree. It follows that for anything to exist, it only exists as a result of its negation. Fundamentally all objects emerge from paradox through distinction or difference. They both are and aren’t at the same time.

How can this fundamental paradox result in objects in the world that have such material properties, if at the heart of the matter there can be nothing there. Well nothing but distinction.

Distinction or difference is the foundation of consciousness, reasoning and in information. Thurston wrote in the 1920s about comparative judgement and that the basis of this judgement was though being able to distinguish one thing from another. This is the underlying feature of consciousness being able to perceive one thing as different to another. From simple distinction we are able to perceive patterns spatially and temporarily, we identify oscillations and repetitions in the cycle of systems of distinction and order. Effectively a fractal emerging from a simple system of recursion.

When I perceive a tree, when I observe a tree, I make the distinction between what is that tree and what isn’t that tree. How is the paradox of this object resolved? What gives it any permanence? It exists but also it doesn’t.

The mathematics of George Spencer Brown, his Laws of Form, uses a primary algebra that can show how order can emerge from paradox. That the thing equating to the not thing, can be dealt with iteratively, through recursion, through reentry into itself. At its simplest we get the emergence of an ordinal system extending indefinitely: first; second; third, fourth … More sophisticated reentry leads to other patterns with specific rhythms and aesthetics, like the Fibonacci sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) an expression of the golden ratio and evident in many organsisms in the world.

There is no permanence only a changing order. The existence of objects reflects the endurance of order and recursion. It is not that objects exist, it is that order exists; order that emerges from paradox.

1 Comment

  1. I did not know these references but I think your first point – it is all based on distinction – is sort of made by Bateson where information is ‘a difference that makes a difference’ and more fundamentally perhaps by Derrida in his critique of Husserl where he does your tree experiment – ie what we think we are seeing depends on everything that we are not seeing. Your second point about order is also I think in the first bit of Badiou’s Being and Event – a really nice account of set theory as fundamental ontology – it all starts with the ‘count as one’ procedure but what we count as one (ie a disticntion) is always a multiple so there is always a remainder. So I agree with you from from different premises – I mean different cultural reference points!

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