Thursday, October 3, 2013

Artifacts made of holodeck matter

Suppose that I had a small single-room apartment, and a set of Star Trek style holoemitters which can generate shaped and colored force fields that simulate objects for the purposes of both sight and touch. I could then with a simple verbal command transform my room from a bedroom, complete with bed, bedding and bedside table, to a kitchen with all the appurtanances, to a well-appointed bathroom, to a cozy library, to a living room with as much soft, cushy furniture as would fit. The furniture would be fully usable.

Now, suppose I went to Ikea and bought a lovely new set of sofa designs and uploaded them to my holoemitter. Shouldn't I say that at this very point, when I uploaded the sofa designs, I had a new sofa? If so, then sofas aren't essentially material objects. For my new sofa would, until projected, exist only as a configuring of the memory system of the holoemitter computer. Of course, after activating the sofa projection, the force fields in my room would be sofa-shaped. But they no more would be the sofa than the arrangements of pixels on the screen are identical with the electronic book that I purchased (even in the special case that the book is only one screen long). The fields would manifest the sofa and would at most be part of it.

But perhaps one can resist the above. Maybe I have no new sofa until I project it, and it is the shaped force fields that make up the sofa. But now notice that the sofa can be turned off and then turned back on. There is presumably no numerical identity in the force fields making up the sofa on successive activations. Yet it sure seems plausible to say that it's the same sofa. (We could even have the holoemitter store data on acquired characteristics like dents and scratches.) Suppose we deny that. Then we can still ask: Why is it the same sofa from millisecond to millisecond, when it hasn't been turned off? After all, during every millisecond it is entirely produced by the holoemitter. It has no "existential inertia" (this is not so clear in the Star Trek canon, but I stipulate thus). Yet it would be weird to say that I have had thousands, or maybe even infinitely many, sofas in a single second. But what if I hack the holoemitter to emit two copies of the sofa for a big party, thereby illegally circumventing my sofa license from Ikea? Which of the two sofas being projected will be the sofa I had the day before? There just is no answer to that question.

I think that the more we think about such science fictional scenarios, the more we destabilize our concept of an artifact. And this gives more plausibility to the thought that there really are no such things as artifacts. There is just stuff (force fields, particles, memory systems) arranged artefactually, stuff that serves as sofas, computers and chairs. And we talk as if there are artifacts. But within minutes we would talk in the same way of the holofurniture!

But one might also take this approach to give plausibility to a less radical solution, namely Rob Koons' theory that artifacts are particularized social practices. There will still be tough questions with counting, though. If I buy two sofa licenses from Ikea, the holoprojector computer might not keep two separate copies of the sofa design files. It might much more efficiently store a single copy of the sofa design files with a note that I am permitted two simultaneous manifestations. It seems more plausible that there is a single particular social practice—the pair-of-sofas practice—or two practices, one per sofa. But what if I initially bought a single sofa license from Ikea, and later bought a second license. Did I lose the first sofa, and gain a pair-of-sofas?


Anonymous said...

Just a Leibnizian quandary here, you say: "Which of the two sofas being projected will be the sofa I had the day before? There just is no answer to that question."

Why think that because a couch is bilocated that it isn't, in both instances, the very same couch? Why think that if a couch is multi-located through time that it isn't the same couch? Why not think that both holocouches are identical to the couch of yesterday?

Suppose that there are substances, immaterial atoms, as Leibniz imagines. Suppose that matter supervenes on these perceiving substances. Then what is the difference between the holofurniture and the furniture we now have? I can make out no relevant difference.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Remember that this question about which of the two sofas is the one I had the day before is on the option that the sofa is the manifestation, rather than that the sofa is the software. Well, there sure seem to be two manifestations here.

I don't know that there are any relevant differences between holofurniture and furniture, other than that holofurniture makes the correct ontology more obvious.

Richard Davis said...

Interesting and useful context for exploring artifacts and identity.

I'm not convinced, though, that this causes major problems for the view that artifacts exist (even on a non-Koonsian view). When there is only one sofa-manifestation that is being switched off and on, it's not clear to me why there is a problem in saying it's just one sofa which sometimes exists and sometimes doesn't. When due to illegal hacking, there are two sofa manifestations (but previously there was only one), we should say that each of them was the one previous sofa, although now neither is the original sofa (which no longer exists, because 'the original sofa' carries a uniqueness condition). This requires that identity is not constant over time (so 'At some t, A = B' does not entail 'Now, A = B'), but it doesn't require that identity isn't transitive (we can still have 'A = B & B = C --> A = C'). This isn't a problem, as (i) the thesis that identity is constant over time is neither analytic nor deducible from the thesis that identity is transitive, (ii) I see no other good reason to think identity is in all cases constant over time, and (iii) there are some plausible non-scifi-ey cases where identity over time fails (e.g., the oak tree was the acorn, but now the oak exists and the acorn doesn't).

As for the problem about why there are not infinitely many different sofas (each of which exists for a single instant or perhaps picosecond), we might say that necessarily, any sofa is mereologically maximal with respect to the properly related sofa-like-parts in its temporal vicinity. So none of the picosofas is a sofa since none of them is mereologically maximal: each of them has at least one adjacent picosofa-part which isn't a part of it. On the other hand, while you have had only one sofa, you've had very many different picosofas; but that is fine, since 'picosofas', unlike sofas, are weird entities which we don't normally think about and for which we have no relevant commonsense intuitions ruling out the view that we've had very many of them.

Richard Davis said...

Here's a harder case, riffing on the same idea: Suppose you originally have one sofa license and you have already projected one sofa. The next day, you ask IKEA to up you to two sofa licenses. Ever obliging, IKEA does so. Now you project two sofas. The computer doesn't keep two different copies of the license, though. It just adds a note saying you may project two. So which of the two sofas you are now projecting is the original one?

Intuitively, the sofas are individuated by the licenses. I.e., intuitively there are two licenses, a new one and an old one, one for each sofa. The old sofa is the one that goes with the old license, and the new sofa goes with the new license. But of course, there's no way to tell which license goes with which sofa. Barring the existence of some sort of 'brute haecceity' which attached to the old sofa and which now quite randomly attaches itself to one of the present sofa-manifestations rather than the other (and we SHOULD bar that suggestion!!!), there can be no 'going with' relation that links each license uniquely with one sofa.

I think here the root problem has to do with the individuation of 'licenses', not the individuation of sofas. There are not, in fact, two licenses each for exactly one sofa. Instead, there are three possibilities: (i) the original license expanded (it used to be for one sofa, but now it's for two sofas), (ii) you lost the original license for one sofa and now have new license for two sofas instead, or (iii) the original license was for 'at least one sofa' and now you have both it as well as a distinct new license for 'at least two sofas'.

If (i) or (iii), then the case is just like hacking to illegally get two sofas on one license. If (ii), though, then either sofas are NOT in fact individuated by licenses (so again, the case is the same as the hacking case) OR your original sofa no longer exists and you have two new ones instead.

What IKEA *can't* do is give you a new license for exactly one new sofa --- at least assuming that the computer refuses to keep two copies of the license on file. If the computer were more obliging, of course, then you could have two license-instances --- one new and one old --- and these could straightforwardly individuate the old and new sofas from one another sans problem.

So yay to artifacts and woot to geometrically efficient holodeck houses.

Richard Davis said...

A thought: I was assuming throughout my last posts that none of the two current couch manifestations is closer than the other to the original couch manifestation with respect to color, shape, size, orientation, location, smell, etc. If one of them is sufficiently more akin than the other is to the original couch, then (for a certain use of 'couch') that one and not the other one is the original couch.

Heath White said...

Here is one way to think about it, which I am offering as food for thought not endorsing.

“Dollars” are arguably created by social practices. I have a few of them. So long as dollars are instantiated in matter, e.g. pieces of paper or gold coins, there is an answer as to whether my wallet today contains the same dollars as yesterday. But when we cease to tie dollars to matter and just make them accounting abstractions, there is no answer to whether (say) my bank account today has the same dollars in it as yesterday.

We might say the same about sofas. Insofar as they are material sofas, we know how to count them. When they become mere projected force fields from a computer, we lose this ability. This all suggests that matter is doing a lot of the work and in some sense sofas and dollars are “nothing over and above” the matter that makes them up. Sofa-identity is just matter-identity, or at least has it as a necessary condition.

One worry I have is that “matter” is being taken for granted here. I have at least a little sympathy with the idea that any given particle is just a holoemitter of force fields. On the other hand we can probably count holoemitters, so maybe that’s okay. Also, there is the worry that it’s just more sub-particles all the way down. But that cannot be right (can it?) if the standard regress arguments used in cosmological arguments are successful.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I have much sympathy for the idea that it might turn out that there are no individual particles, but only a handful of fields.

Now: Should the answer to the question of the ontological status of artifacts be affected by whether a particle or a field theory is correct?

I feel a pull to saying that it shouldn't be.

In any case, the truth or falsity of what we say in ordinary language about sofas should surely not be affected by discovering whether field or particle theory is true. So when in ordinary language we say that there are sofas, we aren't saying anything more (or less) metaphysically beefy than if we said that there are holosofas.