What it means to say things move in the universe

We pulled into the gas station and I was amazed by the number of bugs that had flown into the grill of the car. But then it hit me that this was not the best description of what happened. Or was it? If you’ve ever driven in snow, you’ve had the sense that the flakes were flying into the headlights, but it’s probably silly to see it in this way. Making the car a stationary frame of reference would lead to an odd account of how snow fell; and doing the same to explain bug splatter gives us an odd account of how fast the bug can fly. For all that, he looked like he flew straight at me.

The familiar resolution is to say that there is no such thing as an object in motion, only moving-with-respect-to. Motion is seen as a transcendental relation.  Of as relation, it is neither being itself, nor in another, but to another.

There are two such relations, either a part with respect to a whole or a whole with respect to its part. An object moving with respect to a background or reference frame is a part of the whole space of the reference frame. A walking man, however, (regardless of whether he is going down the street or going backwards on a moving sidewalk) is moving as a whole because his parts are changing position.

On this account, the universe is clearly moving in the latter way. But how is the universe a whole? This seems like an odd claim: no one thinks that there is a Chastekio, that is, the entity formed by me and the innermost moon of Jupiter. So why is it not even more ridiculous to think that the whole universe is an entity? One response is to doubt the analogy: just as no one thinks there are Chastekios, so also no one thinks there is a lugshield, that is, an entity formed by a lug nut and a windshield, but there are still cars. But why are there cars, though? This is only because we can appeal to a unity of function or of intention: a car is a whole either because it is the best thing to act carwise or because some automaker intends it to be one thing. But in virtue of which of these is the universe one whole? If we take a function view of its being whole, we are saying that the universe is universing, which makes it either an organism (like a horse) or an instrument (like a combine or machine); and if it is one whole as the result of intention, then either we or some other being is making it to be what it is. But to place this being within the universe itself is impossible, thus, it would have to be outside of it.

But why can’t the universe be a whole simply because it’s all there is? Only because “being all there is to something” does not make that something a whole, as this description applies just fine to chastekios and lugshields. There is nothing more to the former than myself and Io, and nothing more to the latter than a lug nut and windshield.

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1 Comment

  1. thenyssan said,

    July 26, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Ooh. This is really good.

    I’m going to say organism. But doesn’t an organism have an environment, adapt to it, act on it, etc.?


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