I come from the world of OOP programming and I find OOP terms convenient to describe everything that has properties or fields and possibly some actions that may be applied to its properties/fields. Thus a class lists properties, fields and methods, while objects are concrete instances of this class.

It was suggested by @goldilocks that:

Not all physical phenomenon are "objects".


I think there is a lot of confusion about what "physical phenomenon" refers to. It refers to things which can, or could (assuming perfect knowledge) be explained in terms of physics.

What "things" can be explained in terms of physics and at the same time can't be described in terms of objects? Some examples?

  • 1
    In context, I meant things like fields, which could be represented in spirit if perhaps not (ala quentin's answer) in perfect realistic detail by an OOP object (I'm sure they often usefully are). But WRT colloquial/conventional language about the physical world (we are not all programmers), I'd say a field is a thing which may be associated with objects but in and of itself is not an object. No doubt there are other possible definitions though! Beyond that I don't have anything to add to that that the existing answers haven't covered. Nov 16, 2014 at 18:46

3 Answers 3


Causal powers must be different in kind from the physical objects upon which they act. Consider, for example, F = ma. Rewind history to before we knew it had any problems. For all we knew back then, there was a real causal force which caused all objects to obey it, precisely. That is, there was something awfully like an abstract object, existing timelessly and without location in space, which causes all objects to act as if F = ma. Today, we know that F = ma is only an approximation. However, that's not really a problem, because we can just posit some more sophisticated version—perhaps some form of M-theory—which produces F = ma in some circumstances, a more complex General Relativity in other circumstances, and something even more complex near the event horizons of black holes.

One could try and deny the very idea of causation; Regularity Theory is a view which does this. However, Regularity Theory has some serious problems, as pointed out by Rom Harré in Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. One could also argue for a kind of causation which is located within spacetime instead of in the "timelessly and without location in space" manner which I discussed, above. However, this would require major changes in how we even think about science; it typically requires that how objects behave is not dependent on spacetime. Furthermore, it is hard not to think that some sort of rationality is required in how objects behave, such that if, say, the physical constants were different in one part of the universe than the other, that there would be an underlying law as to why and how they shift from being one value to another. It seems to keep coming back to laws which hold timelessly and without location in space, which means they are manifestly different from physical objects.

  • If the idea is to represent the content of a physical theory, the universality of laws of nature is not a real obstacle. Laws of nature can be conceived as relations between universals (e.g Armstrong). In OOP, the class / instance distinction is almost identical to the universal / particular distinction in metaphysics, and OOP languages have built-in features for defining class-level operations, fields and constants (e.g. in java through the "static" keyword). Nov 15, 2014 at 22:38

A field in continuus space-time. That would require an infinite memory.

Edit (precision following comments): that would require arrays with real-numbers as indexes, which cannot exist on a digital architecture.

  • This seems to need some qualification/elaboration -- not all field configurations require infinite memory for their description.
    – Dave
    Nov 15, 2014 at 14:23
  • That's right but I was more thinking about how we would implement a generic field (not a particular configuration) in an object oriented programming language. Objects can have integer-indexed (countable) arrays but not (uncountable) real-indexed. Nov 15, 2014 at 16:48
  • Having said that, even having a generic real-valued property is beyond the capabilities of a digital computer. Real numbers are always approximated. Nov 15, 2014 at 16:50
  • @quen_tin I didn't ask about actual implementation of such objects. Let's say we have an infinite memory. Is there any problem after that?
    – a1111exe
    Nov 15, 2014 at 18:47
  • 1
    Yeah, but int isn't big Z, and float isn't big R. If you take this seriously then a building is not an object because its height is a real number, which demands more precision than any machine can have. The classes float and double model 'the reals', so the real numbers are as much of an object as the building is. From there a field is still an object because we can still compute (theoretically) its intensity at a point to the needed precision given all the other information predicting the effect (which must also be expressed or measurable-at-need, if we are doing physics.)
    – user9166
    Nov 16, 2014 at 17:38

OOP objects are only 'objects in reality' by reference. Right? An actual employee at a a company is an object (but don't tell them that, they don't like it). And that object 'is' (in an odd set-theoretical, naming-relation-upon-equivalence-class-via-relation way) the OOP 'object' that instantiates "class Employee: public Human" because we expect the operations on the latter to represent real facts about the former.

I am not sure it is a good definition, but if the criterion for being a physical phenomenon is the applicability of (some future) physics to them, then all physical phenomena are objects from the OOP point of view, in this same sort of referential way. Physics is stated in laws that take mathematical forms. Any foreseeable physics will still couch its entire range of predictions in the form of a theory with clauses that identify to what the equations apply and then some methods for prediction. That seems to be the form theories take there, and anything that departs significantly from that form in the future, will probably not still be physics.

Such a law is an object, it produces the referents as sub-objects, works on them, and discards them. So an atom is obviously not an OOP 'instance of a class', in reality, but a Bohr atom, or a deBroglie atom is one, because Bohr's and deBroglie's theories are objects and they attach to a certain part of our observational space and force us to re-encode whatever we see or imagine there into a specific finite representation. This is just the same way we encode the employee as "new Employee(...)", only vague and computationally intractable. Those objects will always have the form of an OOP object, just because that is what a theory has become for us -- a list of definitions, conditions and predictions. Then the atom is the object those instances model in the same sense the real, physical employee a the object modeled by our cruder model of 'class Employee'.

[As noted elsewhere at great length I can't buy that definition, because I think we are no longer able to identify what we would and would not accept as a 'physical' theory, except to the degree it is just a form in which we want our science expressed. You can make up math that predicts anything you can imagine, so it begs the question of what is physical just to say it could be described mathematically. ('Reductivist monism' may be well defined but 'physical' is not, anymore.)]

If you are an hard-core idealist, it is a lot more obvious everything to which we can make a reference is an object. Any clear idea of an entity or process is a model (consistent or otherwise) in some category of models, and OOP is just a framing of category theory. But then, if you admit math as ideal, you have to deal with the intrinsic conflict between universality and negation (Russel's paradox).

Something cannot both be ideal and at the same time have to be coped to fit observed problems with its reality. Formalistic solutions to math's boundary-issues discard universal universality -- only some things get to be universal, and the motivations as to which things those are are from practical observation, not principle. To me these are not acceptable solutions from an idealistic point of view, because there is no good idealistic reason to seek them. The few less formalistic, idealist solutions we have found, usually deeply impoverish math, and make it a lot harder to move forward.

  • Thanks! Could you be so kind and explain further your last sentence: > But then, if you admit math as ideal, you have to deal with the intrinsic conflict between universality and negation.
    – a1111exe
    Nov 16, 2014 at 18:52
  • Look up Russel's Paradox. The problem here is some really basic problem we have when we use 'all' and 'not' together that lets us ask all those unanswerable questions of omnipotence and immovable objects. So if idealism is true in some way, there is a human defect that prevents those grammatical concepts from getting along with mathematics. Traditional mathematical logic gives up 'all', Intuitionistic mathematics gives up 'not', but both of those do not accord with natural human ideas.
    – user9166
    Nov 16, 2014 at 19:12
  • Well, the same Russel provided us with his type theory - one way to discard these paradoxes. IMHO, the problem of all paradoxes about omnipotence lies in an undefined demand. Like demand to a straight square to be a perfect circle is just inconsistent and undefined. BTW, as far as I know, there is no authentic source that asserts that God is omnipotent. 'All-powerful' seems to be a less contradictory term.
    – a1111exe
    Nov 16, 2014 at 19:37
  • Right, traditional mathematics discarded 'all' out of hand (like I just said). We took Wittgenstein's out -- "That whereof one cannot really speak must be consigned to silence." But it is really hard to do math that way. And we just pretend to. No one asks, in group theory, well what if our underlying group is not a set? It is a bizarre non-starter.
    – user9166
    Nov 16, 2014 at 19:50
  • And whatever you think of God/esse/s, and what authoritatively can be said about one, it does not rule out the questions themselves, which every culture asks at some point. It is still a real problem, even if you can make big excuses to ignore it. Ignore < solve. If natural human thought is to be trusted, not checked by physics, then its internal problems are important.
    – user9166
    Nov 16, 2014 at 19:54

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