Monday, 18 February 2019

What Truly Exists?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Magritte’s iconic painting of a man looking in a mirror,
reminds us that the world we perceive is not real,
but rather constructed

A core question of ontology, or theories about the nature of being and existence—and perhaps its most pressing question from a practical point of view—is which individuals or 'things' are really real. What truly exists? It seems that there are three broad possibilities:
  • material entities alone (which is materialism),
  • mental entities alone (which is idealism),
  • or both (which is dualism).
However it is very difficult, as the cognitive scientist Aaron Sloman has put it, to distinguish between ‘real existents’ and ‘useful fictions’—or for that matter, useless ones. As philosophy professor Simon Blackburn notes:
‘Everything you can think of has at some time or another been declared to be a fiction by philosophers bent on keeping a firm check on reality—among them matter, force, energy, causes, physical laws, space, time, possibilities, numbers, infinity, selves, freedom of the will, the will itself, desires, beliefs, identity, things, properties, society, language, and money.’
Intuitively, we feel that what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch—or perceive in any way with our senses—is real. Yet what are we to make of things we do not perceive—either because, momentarily, we find that they lie beyond our senses, or because they are what we call ‘constructs'—compound ideas which may lack empirical evidence?

The problem strikes close to home. Take the one hundred most commonly used nouns in English. The first on the list is ‘time’. You cannot see it or touch it or anything like that. The second is ‘year’. The same applies. The third on the list is ‘people’. Now here is something we can see and touch—at least when those people happen to be around. The fourth term, though, ‘way’, is both real and unreal. And so, depending on how we categorise these nouns, fully half of them may not be ‘real’ at all.

It would be helpful to start with the simplest distinction—namely that which we make between real things we experience directly, and real things we do not.

Imagine that I am cycling down a narrow cycle track under some coconut palms. I see the world in front of me as I go—but do not see the world behind me. I saw it a moment ago—a thicket of breadfruit trees, and children playing. But I know that they are there. I saw them, heard them, smelled them. Besides, I could easily stop my bicycle now and look back to confirm it.

In what sense, then, are those things there, which are now behind me? After all, I do not directly perceive them.

We may conduct a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that, as I ride my bicycle under the coconut trees, we switch off my senses and freeze this moment in time. Without my senses, the perceived and the unperceived look largely the same in my brain—namely, arrangements of synapses in a vast network of neurons.

In my brain, then, there is little difference between the seen and the unseen (or the heard and the unheard, and so on). Both exist in the vast neural network which is or contains the mind. Everything, whether real or imaginary, ends up there. The question now is not so much whether my mind contains things perceived or unperceived. In the first case, my senses are activated; in the second, they are not—but in both cases, they are as real to me as anything possibly can be.

This becomes important now for the more vexing question as to how we are to understand constructs. There is more to riding my bicycle than what I see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. If there were not, I would be wobbling on my bicycle without anything left to orientate me:

Does this outing fit my purpose? Did I steal this bicycle? Do I need a passport here? Should I turn around now? And so on. None of these ‘surplus’ things—purpose, ownership, citizenship, and so on—is immediately real to me, yet all of them are vital. My mind is filled, not only with the things that I see, or saw a moment ago—but with many things which are in a sense unreal. One could say, things which are lacking empirical evidence, although in every case, they can be tested in some way.

Are these constructs real? In fact they are real—at least, as real as the coconut trees before me, and the breadfruit trees and the children behind me, given the fact that I arrange them, too, in my mind—each as a distinct concept with a unique label. As such, they do not fundamentally differ from those things which ‘exist’.

It would be wise for us to pause for a moment. We know well that we are capable, as human beings, of thinking of fictions which are not so. On the one hand, fictitious concepts—say magic spells, or the quintessence—on the other hand, fictitious entities—say the planet Vulcan, or fairies and gnomes. Sometimes, too, we believe that our fictions exist—or that they will exist at some time in the future.

Yet the separation of the real and the fictitious would seem to be fairly straightforward. ‘Real’ things correspond with the reality we perceive, while pure fictions do not. Does time therefore exist—or identity or society or any one of hundreds of thousands of constructs there are? Given that they correspond with the reality we perceive, we can only say yes.

The ultimate question is, does God exist? Given the right conditions, the answer to this, too, could be yes. The ‘right conditions’ for God’s existence would be threefold:
  • that he is not purely ideational
  • that the concept ‘God’ corresponds with the reality we perceive
  • and that this concept is not invoked arbitrarily.
Or put it this way—for God to exist, there needs to be something permanent in our experience which necessitates him.


docmartincohen said...

"‘Real’ things correspond with the reality we perceive, while pure fictions do not."

I'm not sure about this. A lot of 'reality consists of experience which is vague and subjective. Plato pointed out many things that we experience or perceive that are not real. And a fiction might be, for example, a land where the swans are black. But there 'really were' such things.

Keith said...

“The ‘right conditions’ for God’s existence” would include “that he is not purely ideational.” This goes to the very root of the conundrum, doesn’t it? By that I mean, hasn’t categorically evidencing that in fact God “is not purely ideational” teased millennia of well-intentioned folks who earnestly tried to settle this very point? Including, perhaps, via the ontological-sounding argument evinced here by the phrase “something … which necessitates him”?

Tessa den Uyl said...

Thank you for this nice post Thomas which is filled with topics for discussion. I guess everything we think and therefore imagine is real, in a sense that, whether fictional or not, we have brought ideas into existence. Then it is how our memory works that continues distinctions. If we learned money is real in our memory we will ascribe real to money in the future. Though that doesn’t make money real. In a way this applies to everything, if God is thought off as real, then it is how this thought can be managed. The distinction can be made that a coin we can touch while God not, physically. Does that make God less real? A tumor can be seen by using high technological scans, and we might be carrying a tumor without having any symptoms. Is this real? Apparently yes, but not for you the day before you took a scan, for you were not conscious of any such situation. If we can feel healthy while being ill, then are we truly ill? This questions health prevention, which is seen as real while many of the illnesses we do carry would never be noticed during a lifetime. We become ill by prevention. Then that becomes real. We live in a time where even what cannot be seen by the human eye evokes distinction making between real and unreal, and what is real now wasn’t fifty years ago. Then how to manage our perception within the landscape you describe is one to take at heart and deserves deeper insight.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Martin: there has to be some traction with reality, if we claim to speak about something real. So we have had N-rays, the Allison effect, mitogenic radiation, and so on, but these did not have traction with reality -- about on the level of the bunyip or the gremlin. As for black swans, I may postulate that they are real without having the basis to do so. In that case, I made a mistake, even if they do exist.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Keith: the crucial point is that God should not be purely ideational. In many schemes, this has been so. In that case, it is a useless concept, and can be discarded. If there is something which necessitates him, then there must be a well grounded necessity, which lies within our human experience. A possible example would be that there is nothing in this world that motivates us -- unless he acts through the things we see and touch etc.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Tessa: I am still thinking on your comments. The words we use speak of real 'things', and they are real to us individually. However, they may not have the traction with reality that makes them 'really real'.

With regard to 'God', there are many things we cannot touch etc. per se, yet treat as real, because we can touch aspects of them, though not the core. A syndrome, for instance, a movement, or a complex. However, if we could not touch any aspects of them, then they could no longer be considered real.

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