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English report

What is the world ultimately made of? For centuries philosophers and scientists have pondered upon this question. Some say, for instance, that the things around us consist of tiny particles while others think that it is abstract structures or ideas that make up reality. Both are wrong, argues the philosopher Arjen Kleinherenbrink. He is a post-doctoral researcher at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, specialising in ontology, the study of what there is. In his talk entitled “Everything is a machine” (“Alles is een machine”) Kleinherenbrink presented his own ontological theory. Rather than reducing things to higher-level or lower-level structures, he argued that each thing is a self-producing machine. After his talk, Kleinherenbrink entered into a discussion with the philosophers Joyce Gusman-Vermeer en Maïté Tjon A Hie who offered critical feedback to his machine ontology.

Against reductionism and dualism

Kleinherenbrink began his talk by outlining the dominant, reductionist view on ontology. A reductionist typically reduces the objects in the world to other entities (beings). He or she might for instance say that love as such does not exist, since it really consists in the working of certain hormones. Similarly, the well-known philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that wine really is just an assemblage of chemical components. This reductionist manoeuvre always relies on a certain dualism where things are divided into two camps: on the one hand, the things that seem to be real and, on the other hand, the things that actually are. As Kleinherenbrink made clear, his theory is directed against reductionist and dualist ontologies, which are so pervasive in modern-day discourse.

Specifically, Kleinherenbrink’s machine ontology opposes two distinct strands of dualism, which he referred to as concrete dualism and complex dualism. Concrete dualism seeks to reduce the things in the world to more fundamental entities. Numerous examples for this view can be found in the theories of Pre-Socratic philosophers, who thought that matter is ultimately made up of such elements as fire, water, air, and earth. Complex dualism takes the opposite stance: here, what things ultimately are is determined by higher principles, such as abstract Ideas, structures, or relations. Philosophers like Plato, Kant, Hume as well as many post-modern thinkers of the 20th century have all endorsed complex dualistic ontologies.

As Kleinherenbrink argued, both strands of thinking run into problems. Concrete dualism, on the one hand, does a bad job in explaining intricate properties of things. If everything was made up of fire, for instance, how do we explain the properties of water, which are opposite to fire in many respects? The complex dualists, on the other hand, struggle to account for the origin of their overarching principles. For example, if reality was ultimately a function of language, how do we explain the emergence of language itself?

The machine in everything

In the second part of his talk, Kleinherenbrink discussed his own approach to ontology. To say that everything is a machine, as Kleinherenbrink does, is to say that things are ultimately self-producing and do not depend on other, external entities to exist. As such, no thing can be reduced to any other thing (the actual “machine” or “drive” of reality). At this point, Kleinherenbrink gave the example of art and universities, which stay the same things irrespective of the changes in the individual parts that belong to them.

If all things are equal in their being machines, what is it that makes them distinct? According to Kleinherenbrink, the distinctness of things resides in their faculties or powers. In his terminology, the “faculties” of a thing correspond to its “essence”. What is essential about an entity is not simply its function or its aim, but the way it relates to other entities. Faculties thus construed are irreducible and emerge from the contact between things. In Kleinherenbrink’s conceptual framework, reality thus appears as a pandaemonium of things which all leave their traces on each other.

A lively discussion

In the discussion with Joyce Gusman-Vermeer and Maïté Tjon A Hie that followed his talk, Kleinherenbrink was pressed to clarify several of his statements. To say that everything is a machine, he insisted, is not itself a reductionism. In contrast to concrete and complex dualists, Kleinherenbrink advocates a formal (instead of a substantive) ontology. This means that he is looking at the rules that govern the interaction of things without claiming to know what these entities are in themselves. Such a claim, Kleinherenbrink argued, would be impossible from the outset, as “there is no single way to say which faculties something has.”

Kleinherenbrink further defended his usage of the term “machine”. He argued that speaking of machines is superior to other terminologies for three reasons: first, it is a way to avoid other jargon-laden expressions; secondly, it is a way of subverting the view that there is one single machine that drives reality; thirdly, other terms are simply not as handy and evocative as “machine”. This being said, Kleinherenbrink conceded that it would be more accurate to say that everything is “machined” rather than “a machine”.

Towards the end of the event, Kleinherenbrink situated his research in the spectrum between two emerging currents in philosophical ontology: speculative realism and new materialism. The aim of Kleinherenbrink’s theoretical efforts is to find a middle way between these two. Judging from the public interest in his talk, his further advances in this direction will certainly not go unnoticed.

By Hans-Georg Eilenberger