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Question of the Month

What Sorts of Things Exist, & How?

The following endeavours at listing the existing each win a real solid book.

I begin as Descartes did, with the knowledge that I exist: ‘I think therefore I am’. What else exists? Everything I experience must exist in some way, even if it’s simply as my experiences. So I divide my experiences into the sorts of things that depend on me for their existence, and those that do not. The former are my sensations, feelings, and thoughts. The latter constitute what I call ‘the world’. I experience the world as other than myself and independent of me, and conclude that most external things that I believe exist do exist. How do they exist? That is, in what way? They exist much as I believe they do (with some help from science). That things exist much as I believe they do is the simplest explanation of my experience, and so conforms to the Principle of Parsimony. If only I existed, then I created everything in my experience without remembering doing so; and I created them so that I cannot control them even though many of them hurt me; and moreover, I arranged everything so as to deceive myself about their independent nature. This makes no sense. It’s simpler and more efficacious to believe things are much as I experience them.

What sorts of things exist in the world? Two important distinctions are the material and the immaterial, and persons and things.

The material things seem to be required for the immaterial things (although perhaps it’s the other way around). But the immaterial things are the philosophically more interesting. These include consciousness, thoughts, words, meanings, concepts, numbers, emotions, intentions, volitions, moral principles, aesthetic experiences, and more. What would philosophy be without them?

The distinction between persons and mere things is extremely important too. People relate to persons and to things differently (or they should). It is the difference between the I-Thou and the I-It relation. The I-Thou relation is the basis of ethics, and as Immanuel Kant argued, we must always treat persons as persons and not merely as things.

How do things exist? That is, by what means? Everything in the world depends on one or more other things in the world for its existence: its coming to be, persisting, and waning. However, one wonders how anything at all came to be. Why is there anything?

John Talley, Rutherfordton, North Carolina

The terms, ‘things’ and ‘exist’, seem self-evident, yet they’re not. And the word ‘how’, whilst the apparent key to understanding this, is probably the most enigmatic part of it.

What does one mean by ‘things’? As well as a physical object, examples of which surround you everywhere you go, a thing can be an idea, a concept, a mathematical equation, or a tune in your head. So I’d divide ‘things’ into two categories: those that are constructs of the mind, and those that are independent of any mind. But some things have an existence that seems to bridge these two worlds, physical and mental. Take music, which can exist as a score on a page or as physical compression of air waves; yet we experience it as some-thing transcending the physical that elicits emotions, memories, and sometimes a tendency to dance or swoon or even cry. In this case, the ‘how’ is utterly unfathomable.

We all have dreams that deceive us into experiencing something that feels and looks real, yet when we awaken we know it isn’t. Dreams are solipsistic, which means they only exist in our minds; but so do colours, even though they appear to exist externally. Then there are stories, which like music, can exist as words on a page, yet in our minds can evoke strong emotions and take us to imaginary worlds, not unlike dreams. Stories embody imaginary Things by their very design, yet they’re part of being human, as is all art.

Science has attempted to explain the physical world, yet it’s like peeling an onion. It has reached a stage where fundamental ‘things’ are described by quantum mechanical wavefunctions – mathematical entities that may or may not physically exist. Mathematics appears to be a product of the mind, yet there will always be mathematical ‘things’ that we can never know because they are infinite, like all the digits of pi or every prime number. So is this a third category of ‘things’ – abstract truths?

Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne

Substantial existence includes entities and energy. However, complex structures need more than substance. Aristotle called this extra, ‘form’; but form is actually pattern, and patterns are a type of information. Hence patterns are examples of non-substantial existence. All substantial entities are a fusion of matter/energy and information. Hence the real duality is not mind/body or soul/body, as claimed by Plato and Descartes, but matter-energy/information. Many patterns determine the form of substantial entities; for example, the petals on a flower or the shape of snail shells follow the Fibonacci series. This series existed before Fibonacci discovered it, and petals followed the sequence before the discovery. The pattern itself existed before there were any mathematicians or petals, and even before there was any substance. Thus, fundamental existence is non-substantial: basically, mathematical patterns and the rules of logic or logical patterns, such as Venn diagrams. However these non-substantial patterns require intelligent entities to discover and reflect on them.

Other types of non-substantial existence are ideas and concepts. These include fictional characters, such as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge. However there are grey areas between factual past (and even present) substantial entities and fictional characters, since some people (and other substantial entities) become legends as deeds and characteristics are falsely attributed to them. For example, if Robin Hood was an actual historical person, his deeds and characteristics differ from the legend. Even history books include legends, such as nobles from the Houses of York and Lancaster choosing differently coloured roses.

Russell Berg, Manchester

I stand with Gilles Deleuze’s view of Being, which can be traced back to Spinoza’s substance and the work of Duns Scotus. He argues that all that can be said to exist – that is, what can be experienced, either directly, or indirectly through its effects – must be said to exist in the same way. To approach it from another angle, as suggested by Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, there is no point in talking about the ‘ontological status’ of things. A thing either exists or it doesn’t. There’s little wiggle room for an in-between.

Some may reproach me with questions about Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or unicorns. But they’d be missing the point. All indications are that those things do not exist. What does, however, exist, are the concepts of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and unicorns. And those concepts, going by our having experience of them, have as much being as the rock that stubs our toe. So this perspective stands against scientism, which works by a criterion of ‘what can be measured exists’, opening up the inquiry to everything that could be experienced – love, desire, beauty, etc – even if it can only be experienced through inference (cf energy, heat, and other concepts of math and physics).

Unfortunately, what starts with some interesting implications deteriorates into mind-twisting brain-strain when considering the nature of nothingness. The fact that things are implies that they could as easily not be. And this leads to a paradox in that if nothingness (or non-being) did exist, then it would have the same ontological status as anything else and, consequently, non-Being would be an aspect of Being!

Of course, some might scoff: “Hah! You lay waste to your own assertion!” And maybe I have. On the other hand, maybe not. The jury’s still out for me. Either way, the paradox exists (as much as anything else does), and warrants further consideration.

D.E. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes existential Dasein, Being in Time, or consciousness, from ontological Sein, defined as a sense of impersonal Being. Existential Being is self-evident: it is our consciousness of existing. It necessitates ontological Being, but while vivid and apparently consistent, it is as indefinable and incommunicable as colour, and is accessible only in time. The space between Sein as absolute and Dasein is filled with Otherness, whether conscious or inanimate, knowable only by inference, or what is unknowable; giving rise to moral ambiguity.

Heidegger’s concern with time is life’s temporality, a consequence of embodiment, reflecting the universe’s flow from low to high entropy, which also requires or even is time. How these aspects of Being relate to physics is yet undetermined. However, a deep link between them may be expressed by what one version of quantum physics labels ‘U’ and ‘R’. A wavelike quantum state evolves smoothly or unitarily (U) with time; but to interact or be perceived it must reduce (R) to one of several possible macroscopic configurations through ‘measurement’, by interaction with a sensitised environment. Such tipping events may underlie the specificity of consciousness, the sense of Being, even the attribution of meaning.

A mental state induced by some input or thought process, producing a sensation of meaning and any consequent behaviour, need not represent any reality. Concepts exist inasmuch as they can be expressed, and could be timeless in principle. However, they must be performed in time, and as some change is then inevitable, existence of conceptual forms outside space and time is doubtful. Yet the massless photon, propagating at light speed, is truly isolated in its own timeless moment until it interacts with matter. And all matter may be like the photon fundamentally: Being at its most elementary, acquiring time only through interactions. Physics creeps closer to unified understanding of Being in the universe, a machine whose parts Are, but are not like anything familiar.

Dr Nicholas B. Taylor, Little Sandhurst

I exist whenever I think, since there are no thoughts without thinkers. (Thank you, René Descartes.) Thought is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for existence, because there is no reason to think my senses typically deceive me about the existence of un-minded, material entities and processes. (Thank you, Thomas Reid.) Even in dreamless sleep, I exist: as do rocks, ribs, and ribosomes.

Since many of my thoughts are propositions (‘S is P’, e.g., ‘chickens lay eggs’), they relate me to realities beyond myself. Propositions are not the same as thoughts or spoken or written sentences. The proposition ‘S is P’ can be thought, written, or spoken in any language; yet it remains the same proposition. Propositions, therefore, are abstract objects, which give the meaning to all these expressions. Without propositions, translation from one language to another would be impossible. Translation is possible. Therefore, propositions exist.

Propositions exist in human brains, but are not identical to any brain state. For instance, my thoughts have intentionality (or aboutness), which is not reducible to events in my brain, because material properties and processes cannot be about other material properties and processes. (Thank you, Brentano and Husserl.) When I view a Mark Rothko painting, I interact cognitively with this noncognitive entity. It does not, and cannot, reciprocate. Moreover, a total brain scan would never uncover a thought, but only its physical surroundings and correlated mechanisms. (Thank you, Leibniz.) Thus, thoughts and brains are different in kind.

But how do propositions, minds, and bodies exist? Propositions are not ‘brute facts’ about states of affairs. Since they have meaning, they must be meant. The place for meaning is a mind. Yet the truth or falsity of countless propositions are unknown (even unknowable) to any human mind, such as the exact time and place when the first chicken was hatched. So, if propositions exist in human minds, but do not require human minds for their existence, where might these propositions reside? They cannot exist on their own, and cannot be orphaned. Thus, they exist in a super-human mind, which contains all propositions and which is the metaphysical support for their existence. (Thank you, Augustine and Plantinga.) This mind is God’s.

Douglas Groothuis, Littleton, Colorado

What do we mean by ‘things’? The commonsense view, that reality consists of a multiplicity of things existing for a certain time then not existing, can be shown to be nonsensical. Whenever we investigate the nature of a thing, whether empirically or through reason, we only find its constituent parts and relations, and those parts and relations can similarly be deconstructed until we are ultimately left with no-thingness [such as a quantum flux]. So a fixed inherent identity for any given thing, which is the foundation on which everyday language and much of science and philosophy is based, can’t be found. We make a series of fudges when we prematurely halt this investigation before we reach no-thingness, in order to settle for a baseline of supposedly fundamental descriptors that enable us to maintain the idea of a world of many separate things. Science does this when it says ‘shut up and calculate’; mathematicians do it when they say 2+2=4 without questioning the validity of quantification itself; and logicians do it when they make the law of identity, A=A, fundamental, without seeing that A has no fixed essence that would qualify it as a ‘thing’. But you can never even step in the same river once!

Peter Pullen cartoon
Image © Peter Pullen 2017. Please visit www.peterpullen.com

We appear in a world haunted by the notion of identity, with every apparent ‘thing’ clamouring to establish itself as existing but never quite managing it. To make sense of what’s going on we need to cease the habit of comprehending reality in terms of fudged relative descriptions of supposedly isolated phenomena, as their existence has never been rigorously established; and at the same time turn our attention to the ubiquitous no-thingness at the root of all apparent things. This is the only candidate for the philosopher’s stone of ‘that which is identical to itself’. Fundamentally there is only one thing going on, one thing that is worthy of the label ‘existence’, which I take to mean having an enduring essence – and that is the supremely self-identical no-thingness that appears as worlds and beings without ever really straying from its essential identity. The moment we believe it’s possible for there to be separately existing things apart from this uncreated source, is the moment we begin to forget that we are that source, and our beginningless dream turns into a nightmare.

Tristan Hanlon, Stockport

Things themselves have their origin in the basic complex structures formed in the cosmological events following the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. But sorting things, as distinct from merely listing them, is a natural propensity, overlaid by culture, entailing efforts to comprehensively classify what otherwise might appear chaotic. Categories have been devised and disputed in the search for those best suited to help us make sense of and manipulate the entities that exist. Our sorting things means cataloguing entities cogently and concisely, leaving out nothing but avoiding duplication. For example, there might be substances, material, including primitive life-forms, and evolved life-forms, incorporating plants, invertebrate and vertebrate animals, including us. ‘Immaterial things’ might be regarded by some as an oxymoron, and consciousness considered an emergent property; but if consciousness is neural assemblies, then it too is a thing. Classifications depend on the changing interests of conscious agents, their beliefs, needs and wants, theories and practices.

Philosophers have made contributions to the classification process. Stephan Körner in Categorical Frameworks (1974) presented a concise but comprehensive account of the rules or principles of categorisation, drawing on “certain logical and ontological distinctions due to Aristotle, Kant, Frege, and others.” In so doing, he acknowledged the significance of metaphysical, psychological and social factors, including the role brains and perceptual processes play in the process of categorisation. Acknowledging the effect of these features on what we are prepared to accept as real is obligatory if we are to retain a critical approach to our understanding of and relationship with things. This relationship leads some to conclude that reality is but a construct. Alternatively, it may be claimed that technical refinement in the development of instruments to reveal the micro and macro aspects of the universe extends our perceptual systems so far as to enable objective access, or to get us closer and closer to reality.

The history of this process of paring down to the fundamental, essential categories of what exists, reveals it to be a continuous process of refinement or reduction. Physicists currently engaged in such metaphysical speculation deploy categories such as particles, waves, force fields, and quantum mechanical wavefunctions, and it is from this group, apparently, that all things are formed.

Colin Brookes, Leicestershire

Often it is the case that the more we contemplate, the more sceptical we become. It is fairly instinctive for us to initially question the existence of physical objects and the external world, and this generally divides us in two different categories of thinking to determine what exists; either rationalism or empiricism. Rationalists appeal to our capacity to reason as the ultimates means of abstracting truth in the world. Thus, logic can deduce mathematical truths, which can then be said to ‘exist’. By contrast, the empiricist outlook attempts to justify the existence of external objects through our individual experiences of the world. However, not everyone trusts the sense data that we receive as being reliable evidence for the existence of external objects. Indeed, neither of these theories alone can adequately justify the world that we assume to exist; but we have to take our perceptions as truth to lead an active existence in the world we believe we’re living in. Perhaps, as Kant suggested, we can combine rationalism and empiricism to reflect upon the external world. Yet despite all this deliberation, none of the external things can be said to exist beyond doubt. All that I can claim, with some degree of certainty, using the Cartesian justification ‘I think, therefore I am’, is that I myself exist. This is not to say that the external world doesn’t exist; only that is not knowable to me in the same way as the existence of my own mind. The temptation here is to assert that other minds also exist, since I am able to engage in intelligent conversation, which I believe to be the result of an intelligent mind. Yet I cannot fully justifiably assert that this is a product of another mind, and not fabricated in my own. At best I can infer and must assume that my behaviour reflects my mind in the same way that somebody else’s behaviour reflects their mind; but I cannot say beyond doubt that their existence is absolute or non-artificial. This means that the external world exists for sure only in relation to the ‘I’ who is experiencing it.

Rebecca Sherwood, Cambridge

Next Question of the Month

The next question is: How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Please give and justify your ethical epistemology in 400 words or fewer. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 10th October 2017. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Thanks.

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