On what exists

by Neil Rickert

I follow the philosophy blog of Ian Wardell via my RSS reader. I disagree with some of what he posts. And I find myself not very interested in others of his posts. But at times he posts things that interest me.

Checking, this morning, I found his latest post:

and that just happens to be right up my alley. It is a topic that I have posted about from time to time. So I suggest that you read his post.

As an example, physics describes the world in terms of mass, distance and time. Ian is arguing, in effect, that it is legitimate to doubt whether mass, distance and time actually exist. And I agree with him about that.

The way the world is

Ian asks “Do our theories in physics mirror how reality really is?”

I have been posting my ideas about this for some time. And my general view is that there isn’t a way that the world really is. There is a way that we describe the world. There are ways that we experience the world. But there is no human-independent way that the world is. No matter how we describe the world, we can only describe it in terms of our own interactions with the world.

Ian quotes physicist Mano Singham on the question of how extraterrestrials would see the our world. He then goes on to say:

I think most probably that the aliens conception of reality would be very different from ours. It is my suspicion that it’s not truth that physics is revealing, rather physics merely provides the means for improved engineering. Hence, despite their usefulness, the theoretical entities conjured up by physicists, such as the various subatomic particles, do not have a literal existence.

I pretty much agree with Ian about this. I look at it as a mathematician. Our standard physics describes the world in terms of mass, distance and time. But, as a mathematician, I could reformulate that description, using a change of variables, so the transformed description did not reference mass, distance or time, but instead used completely different variables. And if our physics had, instead, been done in the transformed way, it would be those different variables that we took as referring to existing things. The way that we describe the world is, to some extent, an accident due to historical decisions.

Ian goes on to say:

Indeed, I am inclined to think that what theoretical physicists allege exists and doesn’t exist gets it precisely the wrong way around. Hence, it seems to me that the various hypothetical entities employed in physics might well not literally exist. Contrariwise, that colours, sounds, and odours do exist*.

I don’t completely agree with Ian here. Many people question whether colors really exist. They tend to say that wavelengths of light exist, but that color exists only in the mind. But I think Ian has at least half a point. Our perception of color is anchored in our biology. But mass, distance, time, wavelength, etc, are anchored only in our imagination and our scientific instrumentation.

What exists

What does it mean to say that X exists?

As best I can tell, it only means that we can talk about X in certain ways.

I can illustrate this with mathematics. When I am doing math, I might be talking about whether a solution exists for a particular equation. So it is very useful to use the word “exists” in that sense. When I am doing mathematics, I talk about numbers as if they exist.

When I am not doing mathematics, for example in an ordinary conversation, I tend to say that numbers do not exist. I see them as abstraction that we pretend exist when doing mathematics. But they do not exist in the way that trees or dogs exist. So, outside of mathematics it is better to say that they do not exist. But, within the context of doing mathematics, it is better to say that they do exist at least in some mathematical sense of existence.

I’m inclined to think that too much is made of the question of what exists.

12 Comments to “On what exists”

  1. There is a whole world of difference between what is, and what words we use to describe what is. Many of us have merged the two to be the same. So that the tree and tree mean the same thing, while one just describes something we see.

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  2. I really like this post and agree with Ian (and you for a change) 😁
    I would think color is relational to wavelengths and an eye, like sound is relational to vibrations and ear drums.
    If a tree falls in the forest and nothing is there to hear it does it make a sound? No. It only makes a vibration. Without eardrums there is no sound.
    I’m curious why all the pushback from physics and science in general about this approach. It seems rather obvious to them nothing exists outside of form—forms of energy. When we get right down to the base element everything is supposed to be made of, we don’t find any concrete or dirt, only a buzz of energy.
    Maybe pretending there is more to it keeps the game in play.

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  3. While I find all this fascinating, I’ve always had trouble grasping it all. I’m thinking if you got some animals together, some humans and a few aliens from various planets that aware and self aware of their surroundings. Then take them all on a tour of our planet (the natural world). You would place probes in their brains that could somehow signal back to computers that could project what they see, hear, colors if any, smell, any emotional responses etc. and all this without using language, unless some of the aliens had language that they would think in like us.
    So I would expect all different kinds of results..very different views, colors, feelings, visions etc. and while that could mean there is no absolute reality of what really is there. But wouldn’t they in fact be sensing (seeing) something was there and the closer the different images etc. correlated, the more the likelihood of the reality of what “really” is there? If half saw nothing, then you might wonder about reality.

    A hugely magnified variation of this would be eye witnesses seeing different things in a crime, but that they do all see something. And if 8 out of 10 said the killer had on brown pants and 2 said red, he most likely had on brown pants…
    Sorry for the weak analogy, but it’s all I could come up with.

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  4. WHOA! Pretty heavy stuff here!

    My thoughts echo your last statement: “I’m inclined to think that too much is made of the question of what exists.”

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  5. Your last statement (made tongue-in-cheek?) reminded me of Jesus’ frustration in Luke 17: “The kingdom of God doesn’t come with observation.. it’s here-and-now within you!” The evidence is right under my nose. Subjective.


  6. >>> And my general view is that there isn’t a way that the world really is. There is a way that we describe the world. There are ways that we experience the world. But there is no human-independent way that the world is. <<<

    Yeah, this! I don't think it even makes sense to talk about what the world is *really* like outside of conscious experience. For example, asking what the world looks like (absent a conscious looker) in and of itself is no more coherent than asking what the world smells like, or sounds like, or even feels like, absent a smeller, or hearer, or feeler.

    What exists "out there" is an abstract landscape of mathematical relationships between entities. Even shape (as it appears to us in experience) might not be an objective property of objects outside of consciousness, difficult as that may be to grok.

    It's a difficult concept to wrap one's brain around, but if you think about it, it's the *only* thing that even can make sense. Appearances are only appearances if they appear to something that can experience those appearances. Things don't just "appear" in the abstract any more than things can be experienced without an experienceER.


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