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What is a Mouse Pointer ?

- A Dooyeweerdian Examination of the Ontic Status of the Mouse Pointer

This text below is an excerpt from a chapter in a book I am writing. I include it here as an example of how aspectual analysis can help us unravel the ontic status (i.e. the Being) of a thing that is not as simple as it seems.

What is a mouse pointer? That little arrow on the screen in front of you: what is its ontic status? I have never come across any other attempt to account for the ontic status of the mouse pointer.

Plato might answer "A deficient copy of the ideal mouse pointer." Aristotle might try to convince us it is matter in a certain form. A modern physicalist might say "The lighting up of certain phosphor dots on screen" but that says nothing about its purpose, its movement, its being part of the screen, its sensitivity to other shapes on screen, its control by the mouse, nor the innards of the computer that are necessary for the mouse pointer to work. A computer scientist might refer to the bitmap of its pattern and the algorithm in the display procedures of most platforms (except the Amiga, which has a hardware mouse pointer!) that undertakes the inefficient task of redrawing the mouse pointer whenever anything else is drawn in that area of screen, but that says nothing about its purpose or appearance. It must also take into account the means by which the user interface determines what visible objects the mouse is over, and the algorithms for detecting whether the mouse position is inside or outside a shape (difficult, for example, when the shape is a spiral!). The user who is thinking in terms of HCI might refer to its purpose to identify and single out things on screen. The user thinking in terms of engaging with content represented in the computer or human living with computers is probably unaware of it, except that the web user might refer to it as an indicator of whether they are over a hyperlink etc. But it is still at least interesting, and possible useful, to try to analyse the ontic status of a mouse pointer.

An aspectual analysis of the mouse pointer can bring all these views and others together, and provide a framework by which to understand it. We will include the three pre-physical aspects up to the lingual.

Pre-Physical Aspects

From the quantitative aspect the mouse pointer is one, so its quantitative aspectual being is a unity. From the spatial aspect, it is a shape with a position -- but it may be any shape, not just an arrow. From the kinematic aspect, the mouse pointer's movement is seen to be important. The spatial and kinematic aspects are important in facilitating its psychic function.

In these three aspects we have been able to give see the mouse pointer as a distinct thing, and will do so in later aspects. But in the physical aspect it turns out the mouse pointer has no, or very little, real being as a distinct -- though it has a physical aspect. We present the argument here at some length because it raises an issue that might require more work in Dooyeweerdian philosophy itself.

The Physical Aspect

The mouse pointer certainly does have a physical aspect, in that it arises as a result of certain phosphor dots in a cathode ray tube emitting light of a certain colour while others emit light of a different colour. (A similar argument may be made for other physical processes such as an LCD screen.) The problem we have, though, is that if different phosphor dots emit pointer-light, we still have a mouse pointer, and yet it arises from a completely different set of physical dots. Therefore, the mouse pointer, while it certainly has a physical aspect of its whole multi-aspectual being, does not have a distinct physical being.

It seems that Dooyeweerd did not discuss this difficulty, because he perhaps had no experience of mouse pointers or similar things. But he could have some experience of similar things. A shape that is part of the image on a television screen exhibits a similar problem.

Contrast the mouse pointer with a pebble, which is constituted of different physical parts (mineral crystals or molecules) from other parts of the mountainside, and these may be distinguished. But a pebble remains distinct physically; our mouse pointer does not.

Does the difference lie in the mouse pointer being 'embedded' in the screen? Physical being does not presuppose sharply defined boundaries; boundaries become necessary in the biotic aspect of organisms. Consider, for example, a volume of rock stained brown with iron oxides embedded in a mountainside. This is not physically separate from the rock in which it is embedded, but it does persist physically in that the same physical sub-beings (molecules, crystals, etc.) constitute it over a period of time. But this cannot be said to be true of the mouse pointer.

Is the difference between the brown rock and the mouse pointer a lack of movement? No. Consider, for example, the sea with a current of fresh water from a river moving through it. Though moving, the current is more like the stained rock than the mouse pointer. More or less the same physical parts (molecules) constitute it for as long as it exists as a current of fresh water. But this is not true of the physical being of the mouse pointer.

Our intuitive notion is that a physical being persists over a period of being clearly constituted of the same set of physical parts. This is not true of the mouse pointer.

Is the mouse pointer like the hammer that has had two new heads and three new handles? Its physical being changed while its formative and juridical being persisted. To answer this, we must bear in mind that it is an essential part of the mouse pointer to move on the screen and in so moving be continually constituted physically of different physical parts. But the hammer, though it moves as a whole, does not, in so doing, continually change its physical constitution as an essential part of its being a hammer. So the mouse pointer's physical being is not like that of the hammer.

A mouse pointer is constituted of emitted light (or in LCD of shadow). So might its physical being be like that of a patch of sunlight shining through a hold in the clouds on the sea? As the clouds move, so does the patch. But the patch has the same light source throughout, while the mouse pointer does not. (It could however be argued that the electron gun in the CRT is a single source.)

But the physical composition of the mouse pointer changes continuously as a result of its movement. There is one other physical thing like that: a cloud, not the ordinary cloud but the cloud that hugs a mountain peak even though a force 8 gale is blowing through it. It too has a physical being that changes as a result of its very movement (relative to the mass of air).

Physically, the cloud is merely a collection of millions of visible water droplets formed from water-laden air. The water vapour condenses (and thus becomes visible to the human eye) when the air approaches the mountain but then evaporates again once it has moved away. Likewise, the mouse pointer is a collection of visibly distinct points of light formed from phosphor dots that change state as the mouse pointer moves across them.

Therefore, to say it has no physical being is fallacious; it is just that its physical being is of a special sort that we only rarely experience.

It seems that this is an area in which Dooyeweerd's philosophy needs to be clarified, since Dooyeweerd did not discuss this kind of physical being. However, Dooyeweerd has provided the framework that has not only enabled us to arrive at this reasonably satisfactory understanding, but by its dogma that all aspects will be present in everything, it has given us the motivation to find it.

The Biotic Aspect

The biotic aspect might be the activation of retinal cells by light. But it may also refer the hardware components that, like biotic organisms, remain distinct from their environment. So what is the hardware of the mouse pointer? It consists of the cathode ray tube, the electronics that drives the electron beam, and that part of the electronics of the computer that makes up the signal fed to the driver. On most platforms the hardware of the mouse pointer cannot be distinguished from that of the whole computer screen. But on some platforms (including the Amiga) that which makes up the signal contains hardware that is specific for the mouse pointer. The electrical signals appropriate to the pointer are distinct from those of the rest of the screen and replace them at the appropriate times.

The Sensitive Aspect

It is from the sensitive aspect that most of the important characteristics of the mouse pointer become meaningful, and at which they have been designed. Whatever we can say about the mouse pointer we can say it is a distinctive visual phenomenon. Without the following psychic-sensitive things it would not exist:

Most of these it is appropriate to speak of as things rather than only as object-functionings in aspects. As may be seen, the psychic aspect of the mouse pointer gives us a much more complex aspectual being than most other aspects do.

The Post-Sensitive Aspects

From the analytic aspect, our answer can again be relatively short: a mouse pointer is a device that helps the user focus on a thing on screen. From the formative aspect, the pointer is a device that helps the user activate, or see the inner structure of, a symbolic thing in the computer. From the lingual aspect, the mouse pointer is like the pronoun 'this'. From the lingual and later aspects, the mouse pointer seems to have very little aspectual being.
This page is part of a collection that discusses application of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Number of visitors to these pages: Counter. Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Copyright (c) 2002 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 21 November 2005 Last updated: