The Very Bad Wizards on Holes

I was listening to the most recent episode of Very Bad Wizards, on a long late-night drive home from an event in the freezing rain.

The first part of the podcast focuses on the metaphysics of holes. (The amount I feel I need to congratulate them both for their maturity while discussing holes cannot be understated. They really do have the emotional maturity of twelve-year-olds and they acquitted themselves very nicely.)

The question is, “Is a hole an object?”

I think that “hole” is part of the language we use to describe shape. So for example, if you draw a shape with three straight sides on a piece of paper, that’s called a triangle. But if you fashion a piece of porcelain tile in the same shape, what you have created as an object is not “a triangle”, it’s a porcelain tile which is triangular in shape.

Similarly a hole is a qualifier when you want to quickly convey visual information to someone else. As with many things, looking  at things through the lens of computers is helpful. Let’s suppose you were using a CAD program to 3D print an open-top box (five sides, no lid). There are two ways to do it. You could describe the shapes of the five rectangular sides, each with the appropriate thickness and say where to put them so that the edges align appropriately to form a box. Or you could draw a solid rectangular prism and then “hollow out” the middle by removing a space from the interior equivalent to slightly smaller rectangular prism. Now, depending on your level of familiarity with CAD programs, one of those methods would, presumably, get you the finished design for a box much faster than the other. But after the printing process, the resulting boxes would be identical.

In situations like this, where you can describe the shape of the box both with and without reference to a hole.

Even in situations where a hole is a very specific thing, like digging one for a grave, really you are just describing an alteration to the shape of the earth’s surface. It’s just that when only a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface is relevant in these instances, so the deformation relative to the spot of ground you’re contemplating is more significant so the language of holes is more convenient.

They’re real but they aren’t “objects”, they’re descriptors that are useful. Just like it’s easier to be a good driver if your language has words for “red” and “green”, it’s easier to conversation if you language has the word “hole” in it.

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