17 October 2013

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: Is It Possible for Something Not to Exist? + Essays

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing: Is it possible for something not to exist?

We also have three essays from Temoor, Ruel and myself hope you have time to look at some of them.

In the meantime a friend of ours would like introduce his travel agency to the group:
Luis (or Silvia)
Viajes Lawful SL
Tel 9184337992 – www.viajeslawful.es

All the best and see you Sunday


tel: 606081813
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

Is it possible for something not to exist?
Existence is a tricky philosophical area. In natural language, we often treat it as a property of things. For example, we would see the sentences "the ball is red", "the ball bounces" and "the ball exists" as having the same form and function, i.e. to tell us some information about the ball. There is nothing wrong with this on a basic level. However, if we consider the sentence "unicorns do not exist", some problems arise. "Unicorns are white", "unicorns have one horn" and "unicorns do not exist" are all considered legitimate statements, but what do they mean?

When we refer to something, as the subject of a sentence, we acknowledge its existence by definition. If this were not the case, language would be empty – for our words to have meaning they must refer to something. Whether this referent is concrete or abstract is not important; the key is that its existence is a necessary result of it being named, and the name being understood to refer to the thing itself. So, when we say "the ball is red" we are actually saying "there exists a thing called a ball, and that thing is red". The problem is now fairly obvious – when we say "unicorns don't exist" we are actually saying "there exists a thing called a unicorn, and that thing does not exist". This is a straightforward contradiction, as absurd as saying "it is raining and not raining".

How, then, can it be possible for something to not exist? We know instinctively that it must be possible, yet we cannot deny the contradiction. The great analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, in one of his less poetic moments, "existence statements do not say anything about the individual, but only about the class or function". What does he mean by this? Well, for a start Russell is telling us that it is a mistake to treat existence as a property of things, i.e. we should not treat "the ball is red" and "the ball exists" as having the same function. Rather, the second sentence is saying "there exists the concept of being a ball, and this concept has an instance". Looking at things this way, it is now fine to say "unicorns do not exist", as the meaning will be "there exists the concept of being a unicorn, and this concept does not have an instance". Russell has allowed us to have the idea of unicorns, to image prancing with them in a forest glade, without the deep shame of contradiction! There is something beautifully intuitive about this view, as it separates the conceptual and the real, a distinction we as humans naturally make all the time in day-to-day conversation.

Of course, this view is not without flaws. Personally, I think it's the best solution available to the problem, but is slightly untidy nonetheless. For all its elegance, one cannot help but fear the cold steel touch of Occam's razor…

Hello Lawrence,
Below is the link to the essay I wrote re Sunday´s PhiloMadrid topic.
Thank you and see you on Sunday.


Is It Possible for Something Not to Exist?

The common use of "something" and the common use of "exist" implicitly have the meaning that if there is something it exists. In the meantime we have a word to deal with the conceptual idea that something does not exist and that is nothing.

Moreover, the logical principle of contradiction – it is not the case that A and not A- should also alert us to this validity of this question. Strictly speaking we are saying that a "thing" has the property of being and at the same time not having the property of existing. 

So just because a sentence or a speech act is grammatically correct it does not mean that it makes sense even if it does seem to have a meaning. The word "thing" is itself a language construct that only has validity in language, and in particular in the English language. Thus, something is a language construct that lives and exists in our language. This does not mean that it is not a valid word and concept, but that its properties are not like the properties of, say, my computer. My computer will still be my computer even if it scrapped or ownership passes on to someone else. In which case my computer will be mine until ownership is passed on if it is passed on.

Some might object to this point in that it is too picky and splitting hairs; maybe, but the key issue is that we are able to identify language constructs, or things that belong to the structure or norms of a language, and things that have a unique identity in nature, such as my pc. Thus, -my pc- is something that exists in nature, whilst the word –something- exists in the structure of the English language.

Would it make any difference to rephrase the debate question to something like: is it possible for something with a unique identity in nature not to exist? I am indeed assuming that objects in nature are unique. I would argue that we can safely assume this to be the case at the macro level of nature, the one where we use language to communicate, go to shops to buy computers, and drink beer with friends during a philosophy meeting. 

At the micro level, the one of quantum mechanics, concepts might be different, for example an atom can have both the property of being a wave and a particle and so on. But in this case ordinary language will create more confusion than clarify the issue, so trying to validate that something might not exist at the micro level might not take us too far. 

When the topic was presented, an example was given of something that does not exist might be Father Christmas (FC). This opens the debate on the meaning of to exist. I have already suggested that something exists if it has a unique identity in nature. I would argue that this is a necessary condition for things to have as far as human beings are concerned. However, it is not a sufficient condition since it is not clear that there is such an identity in nature. Sure my pc has a different and unique identity for us, but as I said that identity is from the perspective of human beings. From the perspective of nature my pc is just a reallocation of atoms if not simply energy. Indeed does my pc exist in nature? Or only in the macro system of today's social grouping?

Yes, my pc does exist in nature, but the language identifier – my pc – is only valid in our modern society. It seems that at the human language we can change some properties of natural objects without changing the natural properties of the object: my pc has certain natural properties which do not change when I pass it on to someone else. Sure there is the issue of ROM and contents of the hard disk, but I could have changed these and still be my pc. 

These external physical objects are easy to determine whether they exist or not, even when we don't have direct experience of them either because of time or their nature. But this still leaves the issue of whether Father Christmas exists. Of course, the Hollywood type of Father Christmas does not exist; there isn't a physical object with a unique identity that is Father Christmas (unlike say Napoleon). Although some might say that there was a character in history that may (or may not) be the model/role model of modern Father Christmas. But that a different matter. 

Of course, it might be argued that Father Christmas and any other fictitious character do exist and they do as mental states. Thus, it is not that Father Christmas exists out there in the world in the same way that my PC or mount Everest exist out there in the world. But if we allow mental states of an idea, say the idea of Father Christmas, to take the property of existence (Father Christmas exists) then why shouldn't we bend the meaning of to exist enough to make the debate question acceptable? Thus, FC is something but FC does not exist.

Indeed we do accept mental ideas to have a meaning that includes existence even though they do not have an objective identity in the world. The advantage of overruling the strict meaning of to exist, to include non physical objects, is that it gives our imagination an enormously wide scope of what we can think of. Thus, although Father Christmas does not exist, we can still make films about him, write books, employ people as Father Christmas during the relevant season and so on. 

But this still leaves us with the little question of what are mental states and ideas? And then the other question: what is the difference between something existing in our mental state (Father Christmas or Natural Justice) and things existing objectively in nature (My pc or Mt Everest)?

It has taken humanity a long time to accept that mental states are really brain states, and the language identifiers (or names/nouns) "mind" and "brain" are simply language constructs. It is not that we have two states, a mental state and a brain state, but rather that we have a language versatile enough to capture the functioning of a single entity into different ways thus we are able to talk about the same thing (the brain) in two different context. But in nature, and there is nothing other than nature, and as far as we, human beings, are concerned, there is only one entity: the brain. Basically, unless something has physical properties we cannot know about because our brain is only equipped to deal with information in a physical form.

Therefore, we are able to talk about Father Christmas, because we have developed a language structure that enables us to talk about this personality in the same way that we have developed a language structure that enables us to talk about my pc. But what is not in doubt is that our ideas are no less physical objects (they are chemicals, electricity or whatever in the brain) as much as my pc is a physical object in the world. 

We can now promote the question "Is it possible for something not to exist?" into the question "Where is it possible for something not to exist?" What seemed like a philosophical question is in fact an empirical question. But the philosophical import of this change is that any existence must take place in the physical or natural world (call it what you will). As far as we are concerned we only have access to things that exist in the natural world, which is why we have access to ideas like Father Christmas. But FC is only a state of our brain and not an objective state of nature. Without our brain FC cannot exist, not considering, that is, written text or films. And probably outside our culture neither PCs exist; maybe for a Roman centurion my PC is just a very curious lump of matter. And in the physical state of nature both the idea of FC and my (physical) pc are reduced to atoms and energy.

From my arguments above, whatever exits must have a unique identity in nature (at leave at the macro level) including, of course, mental states. And a 'Unique identity' because at the macro level we know that two things cannot be in the same place at the same time; laws of contradiction and identity. Furthermore, language does not have truth priority over objective entities in nature: thus the morning star (planet) and the evening star are the same astronomical object and calling it with two different names does not mean there are two distinct objects. It is not the language that makes something true but the facts, even if they are probabilistic facts.

This leaves us with FC. The other category of things that might exist are things we conjure up in our mind or brain. But this is not exclusive to FC, language probably has the same property, maths is a code that clearly exists in our brain. In other words we do not mine languages from the ground like copper, they is passed from one person to another; something like genes are passed from one person to another, language is certainly a meme.

So what seems to be a philosophical question, is it possible for something not to exist?, must either be a limitation or structural flaw of our language or of our idea that are converted into language. Just because an utterance takes the form of a grammatically correct and maybe even understandable speech act, it does not follow that it is meaningful or a valid philosophical question. 

But the real value of our debate question is precisely that it brings to the fore the difference between speech acts that are grammatically correct and understandable but sometimes are meaningless and philosophical questions. But it is not surprising that some language structures make sense and others don't. As I have just said, what matters are the ideas we transform into language; language is the mould not the pie.

Best Lawrence

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