12 September 2019

What is the connection between existence and reality?

What is the connection between existence and reality?

Today we accept that objects that exist do not have some property called “existence” that gives them some privilege of those “things” that do not exist. This brings us immediately to the question: how can we know anything about something that does not exist? I don’t mean no longer exists but that has never and will never exist.

Up to an extent, we can even know about things that have not happened yet. For example the expansion of our sun that will swallow the Earth and more. We can even make reasonable predictions about the past. For example, when the ice melted at the end of the ice age many coastal areas were flooded under water. So, just because today we do not have access to things that existed or will exist, we can still be satisfied that they exist.

Whilst these things might be interesting, we are more likely to be concerned and involved with a different class of “things” that cannot be found in three dimensional space. I am thinking of our ideas, our mental creations, our beliefs, our plans, our hates, our likes, our imaginary friends and so on. Do they exist? Someone like me would argue that sure these non-things in our head still exist in three dimensional space: they just have the form for brain cells, synapses, electrical and chemical events, and so on.

Without any doubt it is this observation of non-thing objects in our brain that cause all the concern about existence. By definition, a unicorn cannot fit in my brain, even a small one, this will never happen. But, however, we are convinced that unicorns exist because we easily give a full and coherent definition of a unicorn using our language without any problems. Our language can cope with us describing a thing that doesn’t exist in the three dimensional world.

Our everyday use of the word “exist” must therefore refer to things that may also include properties that in and of themselves are not physical. The computer I am writing this essay on is physical and it does exist, but the unicorn I have in my mind only exists, as far as it exists, as an idea in my brain that manifests its self in cells, electricity, chemicals and much more.

As far as we are concerned, I mean physical human beings, we live in a physical world and all information that we need to access this information must also be in a physical form. Hence the cells in my brain, the chemicals and electricity in my brain that make up my idea of a unicorn.

The electricity in my brain et al is the carrier of the information that helps me communicate (pass on information) my idea of unicorn to myself and more importantly to others. What is even more important is that what matters for us as social beings, is not the electricity et al but the idea of the unicorn. People who understand English and know the concept of unicorn can ask me such interesting question as what do you feed it? How high is it?

At best what exists, or existences of things, is what we can know, and if we can articulate that knowledge into some form of language we can interact with other people more intelligently. Sometimes we cannot articulate what we can know in a natural language so we developed artificial languages such as logic, mathematics, music and so on.

So far so good: I will also venture to argue that what exists is what we can know about and preferably we can even articulate it into a form of language which others understand, hopefully most will understand. Thus if I said I feed my unicorn green grass you’ll probably be happy with that. Now image how you would feel if I said I feed my unicorn a load of bull shit!

We are happy to talk about existence, to talk about things that exist and we are even better with non-things existing in our brain. The issue is that we tended and, maybe still do, to assume that if certain things exist in the real world than everything has the propensity of existing out there in the world. And from there treating our non-thing objects in our brain as if they were objects in the world or universe: this fallacy may also be called “history by Hollywood”. It will take some effort to keep track of what we know about the world and what was created in our brain or someone else’s brain.  Mind you existence is a state of our brain and nothing to do with the state of the world out there.

This issues led to the problem of reality: what is real? What are we saying when we say that xyz is real, or reality is xyz?  How do we distinguish between the unicorn in my head and a horse in the meadows? If existence is about us, then surely reality is about how the world out there. Reality is the world of science and life itself. My unicorn will never die or gets sick, but my pet cat, when I had one, did get sick and did die from cat flu. We can say that reality is what we can confirm by objective means with verifiable methods that are sound.

One implication of this mix up with language, exist vs real,  is that language itself might lead us into a false sense of reality by believing that what can be described can also exist and thus is real. Just because some things that can exists and be verified as real, it does not follow that all things that exist and described can also be objectively real.

This is then compounded by unscrupulous people who use their position of influence in society. The argument from authority is a fallacy that relies on the person arguing for something existing and is real not from evidence or methodology, but merely because they hold a position of authority. This abuse of concepts has lead to religious wars, racial conflict, and world wars. Politicians use the terms existence and reality to formulate policies that abuse human rights and rob the wealth of the nation. Patriotism is a very powerful argument from authority not to mention brimstones from hell.

What is clear is that language can be a powerful instrument in communicating information with others, but it is also a dangerous instrument that can easily be used to influence people to harm themselves and others. In short, linguistic concepts have consequences in the world out there and the terms existence and reality are language concepts first.

Best Lawrence

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