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Objects are defined in a popular dictionary as “anything that is or may be apprehended by the senses; especially a tangible or visible thing.”1Funk and Wagnalls, Standard College Dictionary, Canadian Edition. Longmans, Toronto 1963. But do you think that protons and electrons are objects? Can they satisfy this definition? Perhaps not, so consider some philosophical possibilities. According to the ontological theory of bundles developed in the 18th century by Scottish philosopher David Hume an object consists of its sensory properties, and nothing more. However, according to substance theory an object is more than just its sensory properties, and this can be relevant in discussions about the value of human life. For EthnoPhysics, we prefer Hume’s position, at least as a definition for physical objects. But we also accept a constraint of judicious caution when considering human bodies. This is partly to defer bundle versus substance disputes, but also because our reference sensations are based on the human body and we want to avoid circular reasoning. The proviso limits theoretical validity. But within that range, we understand a physical object to be anything perceived by the senses, including all the sensations we have used thus far to describe events.

Objects and Erwin Schrödinger

Objects and the objectification of sensation were analyzed by Erwin Schrödinger, pictured here around 1915.
Erwin Schrödinger circa 1915.

Objects are defined from sensations. And the intellectual process of changing over from perceptions to things, is called objectification. To put it plainly, objectification is when we stop talking directly about personal feelings, and shift instead to communal standards for describing experience. But the details can be very complicated and confusing. Indeed, EthnoPhysics is largely devoted to sorting out the technicalities. We get some help from the Austrian-Irish physicist Erwin Schrödinger who says2Erwin Schrödinger, Mind and Matter, pages 36, 37 and 76. Cambridge University Press, 1959. that objectification is

An icon indicating a quotation.... a certain simplification which we adopt in order to master the infinitely intricate problem of nature. Without being aware of it and without being rigorously systematic about it we exclude the Subject of Cognizance from the domain of nature that we endeavour to understand. We step with our own person back into the part of an onlooker who does not belong to the world, which by this very procedure becomes an objective world.

Objectification certainly allows us to make enormous simplifications through the use of established community conventions. For example measurements can be calibrated, and discussions can use jargon. Objectification changes the style of descriptive narrative from using adjectives for identifying sensations, to using nouns for identifying particles. Schrödinger suggests that this process is motivated by a practical need to disentangle causes and effects.

An icon indicating a quotation.No single man can make a distinction between the realm of his perceptions and the realm of things that cause it, since however detailed the knowledge he may have acquired about the whole story, the story is occurring only once not twice. The duplication is an allegory, suggested mainly by communication with other human beings …

So when trying to understand causal relationships, objectifying a description frees us from personal constraints. Objectified narratives can be systematically adapted to suit personal sensory limitations (e.g. deafness or blindness). And objectified accounts can also be systematically extended to exploit whatever stimuli are presented by phenomena of interest, including perceptions outside the usual range (e.g. ultraviolet-photography or radio-astronomy). Schrödinger notes that objectification is

An icon indicating a quotation.... an inheritance from the ancient Greeks, from whom all our Western science and scientific thought has originated.

Next we trace much of this legacy back to Anaxagoras of Clazomenae as we look at his strong formative influence on European physics.

1Funk and Wagnalls, Standard College Dictionary, Canadian Edition. Longmans, Toronto 1963.
2Erwin Schrödinger, Mind and Matter, pages 36, 37 and 76. Cambridge University Press, 1959.