Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Realities that don’t exist

Many people of the pontificating persuasion seem to have an ambivalent attitude to what counts as real and what doesn’t, what exists and what doesn’t. It isn’t an easy question of course, which is why philosophers have had a fine old romp around it for several thousand years.

Definition of exist
verb [no object]          

  1. have objective reality or being: dossiers existed on almost everyone of prominence there existed no organization to cope with espionage
  2.  occur or be found, especially in a particular place or situation: two conflicting stereotypes of housework exist in popular thinking

A stereotype is a familiar example of something existing in a social, abstract sense, but not in a material sense. Logic, moral values, numbers, equations and scientific laws may be other examples.

Is it useful to say these aspects of reality exist, but not in the same way that the Moon exists, or is it better to reserve the word exist for the material world?

It seems to depend on one's personal philosophy.

To my mind the word exist is best kept for the material world. It leaves us with aspects of reality which are real but don’t exist, which may seem odd but at least it leaves the word exist with a much clearer meaning. All one has to swallow is that some realities neither exist nor need to exist.

Otherwise we have problems with, for example, scientific laws, because unlike stereotypes, they are not supposed to be human constructs. Scientific laws are supposed to be aspects of reality in the sense that allowing for developmental differences, an alien intelligence would see reality via the same scientific laws we do.

So some aspects of reality don’t need to exist in a material sense and we have to make them up, discover them or simply find them useful – it isn’t always clear which. Another oddity noted by philosophers such as Spinoza is that some of these realities are not time-bound.

Spinoza called them eternal, not in the sense of lasting forever but in the sense that time is not relevant to what they are - time is not germane to their definition as he might have said. Pi for example.

We use our language in one way or we use it in another, but our aims tend to be much the same. We wish to understand reality in a personally satisfying manner.

So in some ways, the problem of materialism is a decision – am I a materialist or not? What are the pros and cons? Which works best for me? Both positions have advantages and disadvantages because both are incomplete, as are all personal philosophies.

For example, take Santayana’s description of truth. To my mind, one cannot easily be a hard-line materialist and also go along with Santayana, yet it is surely an attractive and appealing view.

The eternity of truth is inherent in it: all truths—not a few grand ones—are equally eternal. I am sorry that the word eternal should necessarily have an unction which prejudices dry minds against it, and leads fools to use it without understanding. This unction is not rhetorical, because the nature of truth is really sublime, and its name ought to mark its sublimity.

Truth is one of the realities covered in the eclectic religion of our fathers by the idea of God. Awe very properly hangs about it, since it is the immovable standard and silent witness of all our memories and assertions; and the past and the future, which in our anxious life are so differently interesting and so differently dark, are one seamless garment for the truth, shining like the sun.

It is not necessary to offer any evidence for this eternity of truth, because truth is not an existence that asks to be believed in, and that may be denied.

It is an essence involved in positing any fact, in remembering, expecting, or asserting anything; and while no truth need be acknowledged if no existence is believed in, and none would obtain if there was no existence in fact, yet on the hypothesis that anything exists, truth has appeared, since this existence must have one character rather than another, so that only one description of it in terms of essence will be complete ; and this complete description, covering all its relations, will be the truth about it.

No one who understands what is meant by this eternal being of truth can possibly deny it ; so that no argument is required to support it, but only enough intensity of attention to express what we already believe.

George Santayana - Scepticism and Animal Faith 


James Higham said...

Influencing worldly affairs would seem a good definition of "exist" too. Can't influence without existing.

A K Haart said...

James - explaining influence is tricky for materialists.