Events rather than Things

Descartes kicked off  modern Western philosophy with his thought experiment of deciding what he absolutely couldn’t disbelieve in. He concluded  that he could, momentarily at any rate, disbelieve in all sorts of things, even the existence of other people, but that he couldn’t disbelieve in the existence of himself, the ‘thinking being’. Now for anyone who has done meditation (and for some who  haven’t likewise), Descartes is way off. It really is possible to disbelieve in one’s own existence if by this we mean the ‘person’ who was born at such and such a date and place, went to such and such a school, and so on (Note 1). This ‘entity’ simply drifts away once you are alone, reduce the input from the outside world and confine yourself strictly to your present sensations. Indeed, it is often more difficult to believe that such a ‘being’ ever did exist, than to doubt its existence !
However, what you can’t dismiss even when meditating in isolation in a dark quiet room is the idea that there are some sort of events continually occurring, call them mental or  physical or psychic (at this level such distinctions have little meaning). My version of the cogito ergo sum is thus, “There are thought/sensations, therefore there is something”. Sensations and thoughts are not physical objects but events of a particular kind, so why not take the concept of the event as primary and see where one gets to from there.
Moreover, one can at once draw certain conclusions. There must seemingly be a ‘somewhere’ for these sensations/thoughts to occur just as there must be a location for extendable bodies. We require a ‘place’ : let us call it the Locality. There is, however, no obligation to identify this ‘place where mental/physical events are occurring’ as the head (or brain) of René Descartes or of Sebastian Hayes (the author of the present pamphlet) and to rashly conclude, as Descartes does, that such a person necessarily exists . Nor is there any need just yet to identify the Locality with modern Einsteinian ‘Space-Time’ (though clearly for some people there is an irressistible temptation to do so). A second deduction, or rather observation, is that these mental/physical events do not occur ‘all at once’, they come ‘one after the other’, i.e. they are successive events.
A further question that requires settling is whether these fleeting thought/sensations are connected up in some way. This is not so easy to answer. In some cases quite clearly a certain thought does give rise to another in much the same way as a certain physical impulse triggers an action. But there also seem to be cases when thought/sensations simply emerge from nowhere and drift away into nowhere, i.e. appear to be entirely disconnected from neighbouring events. The first category, the thoughts that follow each other according to a recognizable pattern, naturally us to believe in some form of Causality but there is reason to believe that it is not always operative.
All this seemed enough to make a start. I had a primary entity, the Event — primary because I couldn’t disbelieve in it — and, following closely after it in the sequence of ideas, the notions of an Event-Locality and of an Ordering of Events or Event-Succession. Finally, some causal principle linking one thought/event to another was needed which I eventually baptised Dominance, partly to emphasize the (usually) one-sided rapport between two or more events but also to stress that a force is at work. Today, the notion of a binding causal connection between disparate events has been largely replaced by the much weaker statistical concept of correlation ; indeed there is a strong tendency in contemporary scientific thought to  expel both causality and force from physics altogether.      

What is an Event?

Modern  axiomatic systems usually leave the basic notions, such as ‘lines’, ‘points’ &c. undefined for the good reason that, if they really are fundamental, there is nothing more basic in terms of which they can be described. At first glance this seems reasonable enough but the practice has always struck me as being rather deceitful. The authors of new-fangled geometries such as Hilbert know perfectly well that they could take for granted the reader’s prior knowledge of what a line or a point is — so why not say so?  My basic concept, the event, cannot be defined using other concepts that are more fundamental but what I can do is to openly appeal to the ‘intuitive’, or rather experiential, knowledge that people have of ‘events’ while striving to make this ‘prior knowledge’ more precise.
So what is an event? ‘Something that happens’, an ‘occurrence’…… It is easier to say what it is not. An event is not a thing. Why not? Because things are long-lasting, relatively permanent. An event is punctual, it is not lasting, not permanent, it is here and it is gone never to be experienced again. And it seems to have more to do with time (in the sense of succession) than space (in the sense of extension). An event is usually pinpointed by referring to events of the same type that happened before or after it, rather than by referring to events that happened alongside it. The Battle of Stalingrad came after the fall of France and before the Normandy invasion: the fighting that was going on in parts of Russia other than Stalingrad is not usually mentioned. An event is ‘entire’, ‘all of a piece’, ‘has no parts’, it is not a process, has no inner development since there is no ‘time’ (duration) for it to develop, it is here and then gone. The decline-and-fall of the Roman Empire is not an event.
An important consequence is that events cannot be tampered with –once they have happened, they have happened.

    “The moving finger writes and having writ,
Moves on, nor all they piety nor wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line
    Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”

But objects, since they are more spread out in time, are alterable, can be expanded, diminished, painted over, vandalized, restored, bought and sold and likewise individuals can change for the better or worse otherwise life would not be worth living.
Events also seem to be more intimately involved with causality than things. The question, “Why is that tree there?” though by no means  nonsensical sounds somewhat peculiar. But “Why did that branch break?” is a natural question to ask. Why indeed. And, as stated, events usually appear to be causally connected, we feel them to be very strongly bonded to specific other events which is why we look for ‘cause-and-‘effect’ pairs of events.
To sum up:  An event is punctual, sequential,  entire, evanescent, irrevocable, and usually dependent on earlier events.

Ultimate Events

But here we come across a problem.
Although an event such as a battle, an evening out, a chance meeting with a friend, even a fall, is perceived as a ‘single item’, as being entire — otherwise we would not call it an event — it is obvious that any event you like to mention can be subdivided into a myriad of smaller events. Even a blow with a hammer, though treated in mechanics as an impulsive force and thus as having no duration to speak of, is not in point of fact a single event since, thanks to modern technology, we can take snapshots showing the progressive deformation of the object struck.
So, are we to conclude that all events are in fact composite? This is, I suppose, a permissible assumption but it does not appeal to me since it leads at once to infinite regress. It is already bad enough having to treat ‘space’ as being ‘infinitely divisible’ as the traditional mathematical treatment of motion  assumes it to be. But it is much worse to suppose that any little action we make is in reality made up of an ‘infinite’ number of smaller events. I certainly don’t want to go down this path and so I find myself obliged at the very outset to introduce an axiom which states that there are certain events which cannot be further decomposed. I name these ultimate events and they play much the same role in Eventrics as atoms once did in physical theory.
Ultimate events, if they exist at all (and I am convinced they do) must be very short-lived indeed since there are many physical processes which are known to take only a few nanoseconds and any such process must contain more than one ultimate event. Perhaps ultimate events will remain forever unobservable and unrecordable in any way, though I doubt this since the same was until recently said of atoms prior to  the invention of the electron tunnelling microscope. Today it is possible to count the atoms on the surface of a piece of metal and sheets of graphene a single atom thick have either already been manufactured, or very soon will be. I can easily foresee that one day we will have the equivalent of Alvogrado’s number for standard bundles of ultimate events. Whether or not this will come to pass, what we can do right now is to assume that all the features that we attribute to ordinary events but which are only approximately true, are strictly true of ultimate events.  Thus ultimate events really are punctual, all of a piece, have no parts and so on.
Assuming that a macroscopic event is made up of a large number of ultimate events, there must seemingly be something that keeps the ultimate events separate, i.e. stops them fusing. There is here a further choice. Are the ultimate events stacked up tightly against each other so that their extremities touch, as it were, or are they separated by gaps? Almost all thinkers who have taken the concept of ‘atoms of time’ seriously have opted for the first possibility but it does not appeal to me, indeed  I find it implausible. If ultimate events (or chronons) have a sort of skin as cells apparently have, this would imply that there is at least a rudimentary structure, an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ to an ultimate event. This seems an unnecessary and, to me, rather artificial assumption; also there are advantages in opting for the second alternative that will only become apparent later. At any rate, I decided from the very beginning to assume that there are gaps between ultimate events which means that bundles and streams of macroscopic events are not just made up of discrete micro-entities (ultimate events) but are discontinuous in a very strong sense. This is an extremely important assumption and it applies right across the board. Since everything is (by hypothesis) made up of ultimate events, it means that there are no truly physical continuous entities whatsoever with the single exception of ultimate events themselves (since they are entire by definition) and (possibly) the Locality itself. As the philosopher Heidegger put it in a memorable phrase, “Being is shot through with nothingness”.

A  (very) Rough Visual Image

Many of the early Western scientists had a clear mental picture of solid bodies knocking into each other like billiard balls and, reputedly, Newton had a Eureka moment on seeing an apple falling to the ground in the orchard of the family farm (Note 1). Such mental pictures, though they do not always stand up to close scrutiny have nonetheless been extremely helpful (as well as misleading) to scientists and philosophers in the past. Today abstraction is the name of the game but I suspect that many a pure mathematician employs crude images on the sly when no one is looking — some brave spirits even admit to doing so. I think it is better to declare one’s mental imagery from the outset. I picture to myself a sort of grid extending in all possible directions, or, better, a featureless expanse which reveals itself to be such a grid as soon as, or just before, an event ‘has occurrence’. Moreover, I imagine an ultimate event completely filling a grid-cube or grid-disc so that there is no room for any other ultimate events at this spot. This is the image that comes to mind when I say to myself, “This particular event has occurrence there and nowhere else”.
I now stipulate that a ‘spot’ of this grid is either occupied or empty but not both at once. This might seem obvious but it is nonetheless worth stating : it is the equivalent of the logical Law of Non-Contradiction but applied to events. No kind of prediction system would be much use to anyone if, say, it predicted that there would be an eclipse of the moon at a particular place and time and that there would simultaneously not  be an eclipse at the same spot. One might reasonably object that Quantum Mechanics with its superposition of states does not verify this principle, but that is precisely why Quantum Mechanics is so worrisome (Note 2).
Thirdly, I assume that once a square of the grid is occupied it remains occupied ‘forever’. This is merely another way of saying, “What has happened has happened”, and I doubt if many people would quarrel with that. It is not possible to rewrite the (supposed) past because such events are not accessible to us and, even if they were, they could not be tampered with : there is no way un-occur an event, or so I at any rate believe.
Finally, for the sake of simplicity, I assume to begin with that all ultimate events are the ‘same size’, i.e. occupy a spot of equivalent size on the Locality.

Axioms of Ultimate Event Theory

Putting these last assumptions together, along with my requirement that every occurrence can be decomposed into so many ultimate events, also my requirement that there must be some sort of interconnectedness between certain events, we have a set of axioms, i.e. assertions which it is not necessary or possible to ‘prove’ — you either take them or leave them. The whole art of finding the right axioms is to choose those that seem the most ‘reasonable’ (least far-fetched) but which readily giving rise to non-obvious deductions. Ultimately the validity of the axioms depends on what one can make them do (Note 3).
Ultimate Event Theory, or my contemporary version of it, thus seems to require the following set of Definitions and Axioms :

 FUNDAMENTAL ITEMS:    Events, the Locality, Succession, Dominance.

    An ultimate event is an event that cannot be further decomposed.
    The Locality is the connected totality of all spots where ultimate events may have occurrence.
   Dominance is an influence that certain ultimate events exert on other events and on (repetitions of) themselves.


Everything that has occurrence is made up of a finite number of ultimate events.


All ultimate events have the same extent, i.e. occupy spots on the Locality of equivalent size.


A  spot on the Locality may receive at most one ultimate event, and every ultimate event that has occurrence occupies one, and only one, spot on the Locality.


 A spot on the Locality is either  full, i.e. occupied by an ultimate event, or it is empty, but not both at once.


 If an ultimate event has occurrence,  there is no way in which it  can be altered or prevented from having occurrence.


Only events that have occurrence on the Locality may exercise dominance over  other events.


There are gaps between successive ultimate events.

                                                                                                                                            SH  25/09/19

Note 1  “Introspective experience [according to Buddhists] shows us no ‘ego’ at all and no ‘world’ but only a stream of all sorts of sensations, strivings, and representations which together constitute ‘reality'”  (Max Weber, The Religions of India

Note 2 Historians are often embarrassed by anecdotes about Newton seeing an apple fall and wondering whether there might be a universal ‘force of attraction’. But there is plenty of good evidence that the story is based on fact though Newton gave slightly different accounts of it in later life as we all tend to do about really important events. It is notable that (arguably) the three greatest scientists of all time, Archimedes, Newton and Einstein all had Eureka moments.

Note 3   If one accepts the original Schrödinger schema of Quantum Mechanics, the wave function itself does not model ‘events’ since whatever is going on prior to the collapse of the wave function, entirely lacks the specificity and decisiveness of events. So there are apparently ‘real entities’ that are not composed of ultimate events. But we lack appropriate terms to deal with such semi-realities: probability’ is far too weak a term, ‘potentiality’ is in every way preferable. Contemporary scientific parlance studiously avoids the concept of ‘potentiality’, so important for Aristotle,  because of the dead weight of positivism — but the concept is due for a revival.

Note 4   Since sketching out the barebones of this theory some thirty years ago, I have somewhat lost faith in the appropriateness of the axiomatic method but, until something better is available, one continues to use it. We enter the drama of life in media res, as it were, and, I am inclined to think that, like human societies or animal species, the universe  itself ‘makes things up as it goes along’, as it were, subject to some very general fundamental constraints of a logical nature. Such an Experimental Universe Theory is not yet the accepted contemporary scientific paradigm by a long shot but we seem to be moving steadily towards it.