Many philosophical discussions presuppose a picture of reality on which, fundamentally, there are objects which have properties and stand in relations. But if we look to how science describes the world, it might be more natural to bring (partial) functions in at the ground level.

Objects have attributes like mass, momentum, charge, DNA sequence, size and shape. These attributes associate *values*, like 3.4kg, 15~kg m/s north-east, 5C, TTCGAAAAG, 5m and sphericity, to the objects. The usual philosophical way of modeling such attributes is through the mechanism of determinables and determinates. Thus, an object may have the determinable property of *having mass* and its determinate *having mass 3.4kg*. We then have a metaphysical law that prohibits objects from having multiple same-level determinates of the same determinable.

A special challenge arises from the numerical or vector structure of many of the values of the attributes. I suppose what we would say is that the set of lowest-level determinates of a determinable “naturally” has the mathematical structure of a subset of a complete ordered field (i.e., of something isomorphic to the set of real numbers) or of a vector space over such a field, so that momenta can be added, masses can be multiplied, etc. There is a lot of duplication here, however: there is one addition operator on the space of lowest-level momentum determinates and another addition operator on the space of lowest-level position determinates in the Newtonian picture. Moreover, for science to work, we need to be able to combine the values of various attributes: we need to be able to divide products of masses by squares of distances to make sense of Newton’s laws of gravitation. But it doesn’t seem to make sense to divide mass properties, or their products, by distance properties, or their squares. The operations themselves would have to be modeled as higher level relations, so that momentum addition would be modeled as a ternary relation between momenta, and there would be parallel algebraic laws for momentum addition and position addition. All this can be done, one operation at a time, but it’s not very elegant.

Wouldn’t it be more elegant if instead we thought of the attributes as partial functions? Thus, mass would be a partial function from objects to the positive real numbers (using a natural unit system) and both Newtonian position and momentum will be partial functions from objects to Euclidean three-dimensional space. One doesn’t need separate operations for the addition of positions and of momenta any more. Moreover, one doesn’t need to model addition as a ternary relation but as a function of two arguments.

There is a second reason to admit functions as first-class citizens into our metaphysics, and this reason comes from intuition. Properties make intuitive sense. But I think there is something intuitively metaphysically puzzling about relations that are not merely to be analyzed into a property of a plurality (such as being arranged in a ball, or having a total mass of 5kg), but where the *order* of the relata matters. I think we can make sense of binary non-symmetric relations in terms of the analogy of agents and patients: *x* does something to *y* (e.g. causes it). But ternary relations that don’t reduce to a property of a plurality, but where order matters, seem puzzling. There are two main technical ways to solve this. One is to reduce such relations to properties of tuples, where tuples are special abstract objects formed from concrete objects. The other is Josh Rasmussen’s introduction of structured mereological wholes. Both are clever, but they do complicate the ontology.

But *unary* partial functions—i.e., unary attributes—are all we need to reduce both properties and relations of arbitrary finate arity. And unary attributes like mass and velocity make perfect intuitive sense.

First, properties can simply be reduced to partial functions to some set with only one object (say, the number “1” or the truth-value “true” or the empty partial function): the property is had by an object provided that the object is in the domain of the partial function.

Second, *n*-ary relations can be reduced to *n*-ary partial functions in exactly the same way: *x*_{1}, ..., *x*_{n} stand in the relation if and only if the *n*-tuple (*x*_{1}, ..., *x*_{n}) lies in the domain of the partial function.

Third, *n*-ary partial functions for finite *n* > 1 can be reduced to unary partial functions by currying. For instance, a binary partial function *f* can be modeled as a unary function *g* that assigns to each object *x* (or, better, each object *x* such that *f*(*x*, *y*) is defined for some *y*) a unary function *g*(*x*) such that (*g*(*x*))(*y*)=*f*(*x*, *y*) precisely whenever the latter is defined. Generalizing this lets one reduce *n*-ary partial functions to (*n* − 1)-ary ones, and so on down to unary ones.

There is, however, an important possible hitch. It could turn out that a property/relation ontology is more easily amenable to nominalist reduction than a function ontology. If so, then for those of us like me who are suspicious of Platonism, this could be a decisive consideration in favor of the more traditional approach.

Moreover, some people might be suspicious of the idea that purely mathematical objects, like numbers, are so intimately involved in the real world. After all, such involvement does bring up the Benacerraf problem. But maybe we should say: It *solves* it! What are the *genuine* real numbers? It's the values that charge and mass can take. And the *genuine* natural numbers are then the naturals amongst the genuine reals.