Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

What is the nature of an "entity"?

Rate this topic


Recommended Posts

I was in my Philosophy of Science class, and the topic of Metaphysics came up. The professor gave the following metaphysical problem.

Suppose that a child were to construct a toy house out of blocks and leave the room.  Then, suppose an adult comes into the room and accidentally destroys the toy house.  Mindful not to upset the child, the adult places all of the blocks back in the places they were before, reconstructing the same house.  Question: is this house the same as the one that was destroyed by the adult?

This was a remarkably cogent question in a class where I was used to hearing a lot of nonsense. Since it's clear that both of the toy houses were composed of blocks arranged in a form which resembled a house, both toy houses are entities.

Obviously, both of these can't be right.

Now on the one hand, when we're talking about entities, "the entity is its attributes." (IOE, 266). Hence, if we suppose that the first house and the second house are indistiguishable with respect to the placement of the blocks, then we'd ought to conclude that the two houses are in fact the same house, and that what the adult did was to 'rebuild' the house.

However, it makes me very uneasy to say that an entity can come into existence, go out of existence, and then come back again. After all, during the entire last exposition, we were referring to the houses as distinct entities, i.e., as the first and the second toy house. So in this sense we should assume that the entities are distinct.

I've read the workshop discussion of Entities in IOE, but it didn't answer my question. Given what I know, I'm tentatively concluding that the entities in question are the same house. What is the correct answer as to the status of the toy houses, and what am I doing wrong?

Link to post
Share on other sites

In this instance, I would say that the house wasn't an entity at all. I don't have my copy of ITOE with me, but I believe in the appendix, Ayn Rand specified that in order for something to be an entity it must be held together by some sort of "glue." In that respect, the house was a particular arrangement of entities, rather than an entity itself - much like a pile of sand (I think this was the example she used).

My answer would be: No, the second house was not the same as the first house. Rather, it was a different instance of the same arrangement of entities.

Link to post
Share on other sites
In this instance, I would say that the house wasn't an entity at all. I don't have my copy of ITOE with me, but I believe in the appendix, Ayn Rand specified that in order for something to be an entity it must be held together by some sort of "glue." In that respect, the house was a particular arrangement of entities, rather than an entity itself - much like a pile of sand (I think this was the example she used).

My answer would be: No, the second house was not the same as the first house. Rather, it was a different instance of the same arrangement of entities.

In order for it to be an entity, it has to be more than the some of its parts. The parts in your example are the blocks. The sum is the house, which is identifably more than the blocks.

The "glue" is whatever makes the the collection of entites more than just a collection. It doesn't neccesarily mean that the blocks must be physically connected, even though they are (through gravity).

Link to post
Share on other sites

Would the house be the same entity even if it wasn't knocked down? Is the entity-status of the house time independent. Clearly something has to change with the passage of time, even if it is unnoticable to the human senses. What effect on the entity-status of the house does that change have.

Is entity a metaphysical or epistemological concept? In other words, is whether or not a 'something' is an entity depend on the arrangement and relation of its parts (metaphysical), or does it depend on man's automatic integration of the interaction between man's senses and a 'something' (epistemological)?

I don't think I can answer the original question without knowing the answer to these questions (and perhaps more).

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi, Andrew,

Would the house be the same entity even if it wasn't knocked down?  Is the entity-status of the house time independent.  Clearly something has to change with the passage of time, even if it is unnoticable to the human senses.  What effect on the entity-status of the house does that change have.
Good point. Generally, we don't mention any kind of time-dependence when discussing entities, unless the change affects the attributes of the entity. For instance, if we take a scoop of dirt off of a mountain, it's still the same mountain, even though technically some of it's parts have been removed-- Rand succinctly defined a mountain as "a part of the earth that goes up", and removing a little dirt won't change that. However, if you take the roof off of a house, it isn't a house anymore, and what you have metaphysically is just parts of a house: a roof and the constructed walls and floor. Hence, we don't particularly care how long it has been from the construction of some table when we identify it as a table.

Now to tie this into the identity of an entity as opposed to the definition of an entity, consider the human body. Since blood cells in the human body are circulating, among other things, does this imply that a human being is a different entity every moment a cell changes position? Evidently not, since the overall form of a human remains the same. It's the overall attribute of being a human being that we need to be concerned about, not necessarily the exact position of each and every cell. This seems like a good argument for the 'one house' view.

Is entity a metaphysical or epistemological concept?  In other words, is whether or not a 'something' is an entity depend on the arrangement and relation of its parts (metaphysical), or does it depend on man's automatic integration of the interaction between man's senses and a 'something' (epistemological)?

I believe that it's metaphysical. I remember Rand drawing very careful distinctions about this issue in the workshops. An entity is epistemological in the sense that it exists as a relationship between parts, which man grasps. However, that relationship must itself be metaphysical, or we would have nothing to grasp, epistemologically. So entities are metaphysical.

I don't think I can answer the original question without knowing the answer to these questions (and perhaps more).

I'm starting to think that the entity which is the toy house in this example is the same toy house in both cases, and that it's proper to say that the adult in the scenario 'rebuilt' the house, as opposed to made a 'new' house out of exactly the same materials. My original reason for thinking this still holds-- the entity is its attributes, and so if it has exactly the same attributes it did before, it's the same house. But I'm still not entirely convinced by any of my own arguments.

Link to post
Share on other sites
I was in my Philosophy of Science class, and the topic of Metaphysics came up.  The professor gave the following metaphysical problem.

This puzzle is known as The Ship of Theseus. It dates back to antiquity.

It goes roughly as follows:

Theseus' ship was on display in Athens, after returning from distant lands. While on display, when a plank of the ship would rot, it was replaced by a new plank. Over time, it was supposed, all of the ship's original planks were replaced with new ones.

Question: once all the planks have been replaced, do you still have Theseus' ship on display or a new one?

Modernly, you may have heard it said (not sure the truth of this) that every molecule in your body is exchanged about every seven years. So, after seven years, your physical composition is completely different down to the molecule. Are you the same person you were seven years ago or a different person? Certainly, you seem to be the same in many important respects (just as the ship of Theseus does), but you are also different. How do we reconcile this alleged contradiction of identity?

Additional twists can be added to this basic puzzle (The Ship of Theseus) to make it even more "entertaining." I'm sure this is enough for now...

ps, this traces back to Herclitus' philosophy of the flux. That should be a hint.

Link to post
Share on other sites
1 a : resembling in every relevant respect b : conforming in every respect -- used with as

2 a : being one without addition, change, or discontinuance : IDENTICAL

Grammatically it would seem fine to say “the new house is the same as the old one” but it would not be ok to say “the new house is the same house”.

In this context the standard for judging the house’s sameness is, (as taken from the definition) whether and entity remains one without addition, change, or discontinuance. This is what we mean when we say “it is the same” – it means that it is what it was and it hasn’t changed in the mean time.

However if we are talking about two separate entities, then “same” becomes a way of comparing their attributes, or you can say “same as” which seems to specify such a comparison without the context.

I wouldn’t worry about the issue too much, all that is needed is a objective standard – then it is a simple yes or no answer. The root of the house problem I’d say is being unclear about grammar... it isn’t a problem until we start thinking about it. :D

Link to post
Share on other sites
Grammatically it would seem fine to say “the new house is the same as the old one” but it would not be ok to say “the new house is the same house”.

In this context the standard for judging the house’s sameness is, (as taken from the definition) whether an entity remains one without addition, change, or discontinuance.  This is what we mean when we say “it is the same” – it means that it is what it was and it hasn’t changed in the mean time.

However if we are talking about two separate entities, then “same” becomes a way of comparing their attributes, or you can say “same as” which seems to specify such a comparison without the context.

Yeah, I agree, there's a subtle equivocation on 'same' going on here. The two houses are the same in the first sense but the house itself doesn't remain the same, since it was at one point destroyed. Since the question was phrased as though the first toy house constructed and the second were up for comparison, I'd say that the first definition applies and we ought to conclude that the two houses are the same.

I wouldn’t worry about the issue too much, all that is needed is a objective standard – then it is a simple yes or no answer.  The root of the house problem I’d say is being unclear about grammar... it isn’t a problem until we start thinking about it.  :D

I don't really-- it's not as though Objectivist Epistemology hangs on this issue. But these little things irk me, especially when Objectivism applies so nicely to just about every other philosophical issue.

Link to post
Share on other sites
Suppose that a child were to construct a toy house out of blocks and leave the room.  Then, suppose an adult comes into the room and accidentally destroys the toy house.  Mindful not to upset the child, the adult places all of the blocks back in the places they were before, reconstructing the same house.  Question: is this house the same as the one that was destroyed by the adult? [. . .]

What is the correct answer as to the status of the toy houses, and what am I doing wrong?

The first thing you're doing wrong is taking terribly seriously what's really a very silly question.

Normal people don't think up questions such as this. At least in our modern age, questions of this kind typically are not the product of an honest person's quest for intellectual understanding — quite the opposite: they are concocted and presented to rational and intelligent people in order to undermine their self-confidence, and induce in them exactly the kind of uncertainty you're experiencing now.

Note that although the question was given to you, apparently no attendant answer — not even a mistaken one — was provided. Such would almost certainly defeat the purpose: Tomorrow, all the tortured and sleepless young minds will file in to class and proceed to have a marvelously "intellectual" discussion about the metaphysical status of the toy house, with some students arguing in favor of positions they're not entirely sure of, and others merely watching uneasily (or bored) and saying nothing. The teacher in this instance will likely act as a facilitator and play devil's advocate against the arguments raised. By the time the schoolbell rings there will have been no clear, solid conclusion reached; everyone will leave even more hopelessly confused and tired, even more turned off to this moronic subject known as philosophy — and perhaps just a little less certain that they can make sense out of the universe, or that there's much use in trying.

The solution to what's known in academic circles as the Romper Room Conundrum is really quite simple. In other words: don't plan on hearing about it class — unless you intend to stand up and present it. The answer is first to confess that you've reconstructed the house to the child who originally built it, and then ask him for his opinion on the matter. Assuming he's a reasonably bright kid above the age of 5, he'll probably say something along the lines of the following:

"Gee, Pops, are you really that dumb? Have those crackpot philosophy profs finally obliterated your very last brain cell? Just what exactly are they teaching you in that big highfalutin university? Haven't you ever heard of the concept of respect? That is, that something can be true in one respect, but not true in another?

"If you asked me whether or not the house that you've built is the same as my original, I'd have to ask you: What exactly are you referring to when you speak of 'the house'? If you mean my design and the actual blocks I used to execute it, then yes, it is the same. If, however, you mean 'the thing which was the work of my hand' — then no, clearly this is something different. The answer depends entirely on the respect one speaks of things being 'the same' — and more, the answer is virtually contained in this meaning, and becomes practically self-evident once such meaning is indicated. Should the person posing the question fail to make clear what he means, the question is quite impossible to answer — which makes it his problem, not yours. Now quit torturing yourself over such foolishness and move out of the way: you're blocking Sesame Street."

I want to emphasize that, at least in today's world, no such question would ever come up in the mind of a normal, rational person in the course of his life (or at the very least he would never consider it to be anything terribly vexing or important) — without the influence of modern philosophy. Thousands of years ago, people got confused stepping into rivers and replacing boards on ships, and understandably so: such people were just beginning to learn how to think, and had not yet experienced the dawn of Aristotle's phenomenal epistemological influence. Sadly, that light has not yet reached many of our present culture's most illustrious educators, ensconced as they are in the lonely isolation of their ivory towers and inside their own heads.

[P.S. — Statements here are intended as a general indictment of academia and modern philosophy, and are not a commentary on any particular individual or institution.]

Edited by Kevin Delaney
Link to post
Share on other sites
Suppose that a child were to construct a toy house out of blocks and leave the room.  Then, suppose an adult comes into the room and accidentally destroys the toy house.  Mindful not to upset the child, the adult places all of the blocks back in the places they were before, reconstructing the same house.  Question: is this house the same as the one that was destroyed by the adult?

Say this for example: a big hotel was destroyed in the fire. The owner rebuilds it in exactly the same way it was before. Is it the same hotel? My first guess would be that it is. So would be the house in the example.

IDC says that it is another house, however, the example says that it was the same house that was reconstructed. That means that the original design stayed the same - nothing was changed in the child's idea, except who invested the physical effort required to build it and when.

Then again, if two houses were built at the same time according to the same specifications, on two different places, then clearly they would not be the same house.

My final conclusion is that the given issue is a borderline issue, i.e. it may not matter whether you choose to think of it as a new house or as the same as the old one. If it were a real house and someone lived in it, and it was suddenly destroyed, then the effort of rebuilding it would most likely lead to them thinking that they are building another house. However, for a neighbor or a distant relative, who isn't very much influenced by the destruction of this family's house, it wouldn't really matter. It would look like the same house.

Link to post
Share on other sites
The first thing you're doing wrong is taking terribly seriously what's really a very silly question.

Normal people don't think up questions such as this. At least in our modern age, questions of this kind typically are not the product of an honest person's quest for intellectual understanding — quite the opposite: they are concocted and presented to rational and intelligent people in order to undermine their self-confidence, and induce in them exactly the kind of uncertainty you're experiencing now.

Note that although the question was given to you, apparently no attendant answer — not even a mistaken one — was provided. Such would almost certainly defeat the purpose: Tomorrow, all the tortured and sleepless young minds will file in to class and proceed to have a marvelously "intellectual" discussion about the metaphysical status of the toy house, with some students arguing in favor of positions they're not entirely sure of, and others merely watching uneasily (or bored) and saying nothing. The teacher in this instance will likely act as a facilitator and play devil's advocate against the arguments raised. By the time the schoolbell rings there will have been no clear, solid conclusion reached; everyone will leave even more hopelessly confused and tired, even more turned off to this moronic subject known as philosophy — and perhaps just a little less certain that they can make sense out of the universe, or that there's much use in trying.

An excellent point, Kevin, and very well put. I have encountered many variations of this tactic over the years with exactly the result you describe. Is it any wonder that philosophy today is viewed with such contempt by most people?
Link to post
Share on other sites

Kevin,

The first thing you're doing wrong is taking terribly seriously what's really a very silly question.

...

[Long rant implying that anyone who doesn't immediately solve the problem is stupider than a five year old.]

...

I think your resolution, that the problem is verbal, is the right one. I also think the question is trivial at best, whatever its solution. The reason I asked it is because I was studying IOE, and I wanted to know exactly how Objectivist Epistemology fits into all of this, in order to improve my understanding of the subject. Unlike most problems that fall under IOE's scope, I couldn't solve this one immediately, which is why I came here for help.

This problem hasn't "obliterated my last brain cell," and so it does suffice to simply say that the answer to the problem is found by closely examining the context of the problem. :lol: If you think that considering this question is a waste of time, then I suggest you waste no more of your own on it.

[edited for grammar and spelling]

Edited by Nate T.
Link to post
Share on other sites
.
I've not been posting recently as I've felt that I had to do more research on OPAR/IOE to be able to contribute, but I wanted to reply to this post since you are grossly mistaken about the nature of academic philosophy. While I agree with your answer that the problem is entirely one of language ("in what sense are you using the word same?"), you dont seem to realise that the majority of modern philosophers would also agree with you and would treat the problem in the exact same way - indeed the dissolution of long standing pseudo-problems like this has been one of the successes of analytic philosophy. While your solution is correct, your attacks on academia are baseless and you are imagining a divide that simply does not exist - these problems are generally taught to students because 1) they have confused philosophers in the past (Heraclitus and Aristotle in this case), and 2) they emphasize the need to define your terms precisely. They do not, however, have any real relevance today within the literature. The point isnt to 'confuse' students - it is to make them understand that using words ambiguously (such as the word 'same' in this case) can easily create problems which do not exist. It's an exercise in critical thinking more than anything else. Edited by Hal
Link to post
Share on other sites

Hal, I have to disagree with you here. I would say that it is possible that SOME academic philosophers may use such questions in the manner you suggest. It has been my experience thusfar however that MOST philosophers do not use such questions in this manner. They do indeed use them to "undermine [rational and intelligent peoples'] self-confidence, and induce in them exactly the kind of uncertainty [he's] experiencing now." My current philosophy professor derives extreme pleasure from introducing such questions, watching students fumble around trying to answer it(because they have never been taught the proper method of analyzing the question) and then giving them a "possible" answer, to which if you dont immediately ascribe, you will be given a sternly disapproving look from the professor and a statement that your position is "interesting."

Edited by coirecfox
Link to post
Share on other sites

I agree that this problem is designed to be a trick problem. The trick is context dropping. One thing is only the same to another in a particular context. The law of identity only applies to a thing within the contexts of time and respect. So the question that must preceed answering this question is: in what respect do you want to know if they are the same?

Are they the same house in respect to builder? No.

Are they the same house in respect to design? Yes.

We deal with questions like this all the time -- is your sandwich the same as mine? Same in what context? Are they the same physical material? Are they the same abstract components?

This is simply a problem of not enough information. Those who attempt to answer to answer it are assuming a specific context for the question.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 1 month later...

Exactly what Moerbeke said, the reality of the ship is that it is the same and it is different just in different contexts. This has got to be my biggest pet peve is how often this happens on a daily basis. People tend to not explictly define thier context and as a result end up swtiching back and forth between contexts and end up "confused". Literally it seems to be a constant issue with most people.

Even such things as sports. People say things like "This team is better than this other one". Another person aruges back. Most of the time though it's a context issue not anything else. Are they talking about overall, offense, defense.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...