Monday, September 12, 2011

'Material Object'

Today the following question came up: What is a material object?

Surprisingly, there has not been a lot of work done on this. Assuming 'material object' is pretty much interchangeable with 'physical object', you can look at Ned Markosian's 'Physical Object' for some quick (3 page) thoughts. See his "What Are Physical Objects?" for a more thorough discussion.

Any suggestions on what physical objects are?


  1. I believe a material object is anything that can affect us physically. this includes things that we can see and are substantial, but don't necessarily have mass such as fire or a nebula.

  2. Hawkeye, by that definition thoughts and emotions would be material objects as these can affect us physically. Feeling angry, for example, can raise your blood pressure and pulse rate, and can cause you to clench your fists and raise your voice. Thinking about sad things can make you cry and feel physically exhausted and may even depress your immune system.

    Thoughts and feelings affect us physically but are clearly not material objects. A different definition is needed. Perhaps you are trying to suggest that material objects are only those things that affect us physically AND can be seen and take up space? This would be a better definition but it would exclude things like quarks (too small to be seen and aren't really substantial) from being deemed material objects even though they compose all material objects.

  3. Hawkeye,

    Suppose there existed some strangle particle that was located in space-time but for some reason or another could not casually interact with anything. On your view, this particle would fail to be a material object. This seems like a problem for your view to me.

  4. Miriam,

    It's not clear that thoughts and emotions aren't physical objects. This is a controversial subject in the philosophy of mind.

  5. Alright...So what would be some reasons for believing thoughts and emotions are physical objects? Since we are trying to define what physical objects are, considering this might help with the definition.

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  7. Miriam,

    Here's one argument you might give in favour of the view that thoughts and emotions are physical objects:

    1) Only physical objects can causally interact with other physical objects. (premise)

    2) Thoughts and emotions can causally interact with physical objects. (premise)

    3) So, (1) and (2). (conjunction introduction 1,2)

    4) If (1) and (2), then thoughts and emotions are physical objects. (premise)

    5) So, thoughts and emotions are physical objects. (MP 3,4)

    One might deny (1). (I'm sympathetic to this response.) If one does this ,though, then one owes an account of how non-physical objects can affect purely physical objects.

    (2) can be supported with examples from your post.

    Motivation for (4): Assume (1) and (2). The consequent of (4) follows from this assumption by the axioms of first-order predicate logic. I could prove this, but I think (4) is pretty clearly true.

  8. Alright i see where the problem with my definition was, scrap that. incidentally, thoughts and emotions themselves aren't anything, but reactions. it's not anger itself that causes you to clench your fist, it's your mind reacting to what in your environment caused you. emotions and thoughts are just ways that we describe our brains reactions, in fact it can be argued that it's the behavior of fist clenching, combined with an increased heart rate, as well as other angry symptoms that cause anger. An emotion is just a label we give to describe the combination of our body's behaviors, and to my knowledge all the reactive systems in our body are considered material objects.

  9. Hawkeye, "angry symptoms" do not cause anger, anger causes angry symptoms. While you could certainly argue that emotions are merely the sum of various biochemical reactions occurring in the body in response to some stimulus or other, thoughts cannot be explained away quite so easily. You could maybe try to do so by saying that thoughts are just the brain accessing memories of experiences or bits of knowledge or something similar but that wouldn't explain things like imagination. Behaviour also doesn't account for beliefs - what combo of body behaviours does believing something entail?

    A lot of what you wrote sounds like behaviourism (the view that mind = behaviour). Is that really what you were trying to get at or am I misunderstanding you?