Saturday, October 4, 2014

Existence: A Brief Ontological Excursion

The Philosopher is Mocked

Philosophers are often mocked when they ponder trivial things such as the reality of the external world, or even existence itself. “What does it mean to exist?” The philosopher reflects on this question with the utmost sincerity while a crowd of onlookers gazes upon him with a mocking pity. Shaking their heads, they wonder what the point of such a question is. “My poor man, cease from thinking about those things! You won’t add a single hair to your head!” Perhaps they’re right. After all, when one thinks of a philosopher they think of a wise fool who possesses a large vault of useless knowledge. Perhaps philosophers didn’t get the memo that scientists now hold the keys to truth and knowledge.

However, if philosophers really are the village idiots, then they would have died off a long time ago when science gained prominence in the 19th century. Obviously philosophers still exist, and their questions certainly haven’t been answered by scientists. Despite science’s inability to answer this particular question, is it a worthwhile pursuit? The goal of this short work is to answer this in the affirmative by entertaining a dialectic which will lead to the greatest truth of all. And so, “What is existence?”

To begin, I want to point out how inept most dictionaries are when it comes to defining existence. Many simply use the words ‘to be’, but this is extremely unhelpful when one finds that the definition of ‘to be’ is ‘to exist’. Even certain advanced definitions which use the word ‘substantiation’ are lacking in depth. Yet despite this unhelpful circularity, we all use the word, and its variations, daily. There must be more going on here than what meets the eye -- literally.

Let’s start with the undeniable: I exist (as do you, my reader). Rene Descartes’ metaphysical axiom, Cogito Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am), is an undeniable truth to us all. So whatever existence is, we certainly partake in it. Therefore, the “I”, the self, is the starting point from which this idea evolves, for we cannot escape ourselves. I argue that pure objectivity is an illusion; it’s either something we can never achieve or a chimera all together. Subjectivity is the undeniable foundation for our experiences.

Descartes’ axiom allows us to derive two additional undeniable truths. First, we are all equipped with the idea of negation. Negation is a byproduct of any proposition. For example, the proposition, “The stone has a mass of X”, negates the proposition, “The stone has a mass of Y”, where X and Y are distinct quantities. It follows that the stone has a mass of X and not a mass of Y. It follows that we can know of the ‘me’ and the ‘not me’, the self and the other. Secondly, we know that universal negation is impossible. Nothingness, what many mistakenly envision as a black void, cannot exist since it is causally impotent (i.e. nothing cannot give birth to something). But we know that at least one thing exists: the I. It follows that there is at least one thing necessary in its existence (see my blog “Necessity Concluded” for more details). However, through honest reflection we know that we aren’t necessary in our existence. Therefore, I exist and there is at least one thing necessary in its existence which isn’t me. Consequently, solipsism is defeated.

Coming back to existence, we can therefore divide the world into the inner and the outer. As for the inner, I mean my thoughts, intentions, memories, and anything constructed by my imagination. My thought of a dog can, on a whim, be transformed into a flower, a bird, or even into a different dog. I have authority over them because I can manipulate them with my will. Their existence is contingent upon my existence. As for the outer, I mean those appearances that we know intuitively do not originate within us, are not us, and are not under the jurisdiction of my will. A stone that I witness with my senses gives me a certain appearance that I am compelled to experience, and neither can I will it to change into a piece of bread despite my utmost sincerity. I am without authority with regard to its being. This I call objective existence.

From what has been discussed, I define existence as the capacity to provide an appearance in the form of a thought or an object. It follows that something does not exist if it does not have this capacity. For example, a married bachelor is not coherent, for it implies a logical contradiction and therefore cannot have a capacity to form an appearance. Typically, however, we see existence in the objective sense, or at least count it more worthy of our time. For example, there is nothing impressive with saying that my thought of God exists. What does matter is whether God exists in the objective sense I defined above. However, before I get into that I must deal with some anticipated objections.

One may say that it’s possible that there exists a thing that does not provide me an appearance whatsoever. After all, why should existence be all about me and my experiences of appearances? First, I never ruled this out. The question isn’t about whether it does provide me an appearance, but whether it has a capacity to do so. Obviously there are billions of things not providing me appearances right now but can do so under the right conditions (e.g. my proximity to it). As for whether there can be a thing that does not have a capacity to provide me an appearance, but still exists, I say this is impossible. There would be no difference between such stealth objects and things that don’t exist. By stealth object, I mean an object that cannot be thought of nor experienced by any of our senses or cognitive faculties. However, this turns out to be the same as a logical contradiction. Moreover, even if it was possible for such stealth objects to exist, they would still be known and experienced by the Necessary Absolute, which I am compelled to believe is God (more on this later).

But perhaps I am complicating things as my opponents claim. Surely there’s a straightforward, self-evident, scientific definition of ‘exists’ that doesn’t require the use of suspicious ontological philosophy. Like many naturalists, they define existence much more narrowly than myself, which will prove to be its downfall. Many claim that something exists if it takes up space. This is an appealing definition, no doubt, but it doesn’t work because it suffers from the fallacy of begging the question. If it is true that taking up space is a ticket to existence, then how would they answer the question, “Does matter, space, and time exist?” They would of course say yes, but would be lacking an explanation. You cannot appeal to the criteria when the very units of the criteria are under investigation. To demonstrate, consider what they would have to say in order to answer the aforementioned question. “Space exists because matter occupies it, which in turn exists by virtue of change (time).” So, does matter exist? Yes. Why? Because it occupies space. Does space exist? Yes. Why? Because matter exists. Does time exist? Yes. Why? Because change exists. Does change exist? Yes. Why? Because matter exists. However, their original criterion was that something exists if it takes up space, but obviously the referent to space is matter (i.e. it is unhelpful to say space exists because it takes up space). Therefore, their criterion for existence boils down to ‘is made of matter’. However, we then reach the prime example of circularity when we answer “does matter exist” by saying “Yes, because it is made of matter.” So much for the naturalist’s definition.

[Briefly digressing, it should be added that Buddhism suffers a serious defeater if what I say is true. A central belief within that Eastern religion (if it could be said to be a religion at all) is that the ‘self’ is an illusion (anatta). This betrays, in my eyes, the most basic and familiar self-evident truth to us all: I exist. In essence, you must convince yourself that you don’t have a self, which is nonsensical. Moreover, this incoherent idea has consequences for their view of an afterlife, or lack thereof. Categorically, ideas of the afterlife can be reduced into two camps: eternalism and annihilationism. The former implies an eternal preservation of the self in some state after death, whereas the latter implies the destruction of the self at some point after death. In one you exist, and in the other you don’t. The Buddha, however, is forced into a corner. Despite all his teachings about what you ought to do, it all amounts to the annihilation of the self after death. It makes no sense to suggest that I have achieved nirvana when I am at the same time nonexistent. After death, there can be no present tense “I have done it” in Buddhism any more than a dead atheist can claim “I am correct.” Buddhism, like its more advanced cousin atheism, is annihilationism.]

Finally, I agree with some philosophers, Kant especially, that existence isn’t a property a thing has. This is why I prefer to use ‘capacity’ when talking about existence. My thought of a quarter and a ("real") quarter both exist. It’s not as though there are degrees of existence, such that my thought of a quarter has 45% existence verses the quarter’s 99%. Either something exists or it doesn’t. Existence is the presentation of qualia, and therefore cannot be a quality itself.

                                                                Concluding Remarks

This brief excursion into ontology is only a starting point.  The significance of the endeavor cannot be seen unless one takes it out of isolation. All our beliefs and questions are linked together in a complex hierarchical web. Furthermore, it makes no sense to live one’s life in the pursuit of happiness when we are at the same time believing lies at the core of our worldviews. From what has been discussed, we know that there must be a power greater than ourselves who sustains existence itself. Up until now I have simply referred to it as the Necessary Absolute. I am of course referring to God Himself. I conclude with the sum of all that has been said: We are before God at all times. How shall we live now?

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