Philosophical Sundays: What Is the Meaning of Existence?

If you came here looking for the meaning of existence, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, I plan to discuss the meaning of “existence.” That is, what does “existence” mean? What do we mean when we say something “exists?” Even though most of us have an intuitively clear idea of what we’re saying, the truth is when we try to put it into words our intuition fails and all we’re left with is incoherent mumbling. I will propose several solutions and then see how each one of them fails miserably. Then I will offer my own solution, which will probably also fail miserably when people start commenting on it. We will all end up a little wiser and more confused than ever.

The first thing one comes up with when trying to define “existence” is saying that something exists if something “is” or “is the case.” As promising as that solution may look, the truth is it is circular. That something “is,” “exists” or “is the case” means exactly the same. So we’re right where we started.

existence

existence (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Another possible solution is saying something “exists” if it has a position in space (or space-time, depending on how relativistic you’re feeling that day.) Of course, an electron can have several positions at once, so maybe it would be better to define it as having some positions in space-time, which would also account for macroscopic objects. This seems to work for most particles, but how about space-time itself? Does it exist? Not according to this definition. Therefore, we would have a number of particles that exist inside something which does not.

Yet another idea: how about defining “existence” as “something that is allowed by the laws of physics?” This way both space-time and particles would exist and so would we. Since our mental states also seem to be allowed by the laws of physics, “love” would also exist according to the definition. However, how would we find the laws of physics? They would be those that apply to things that exist. And what are those? Things that behave according to the laws of physics. The definition is circular. Oh well.

Existence 1

Existence 1 (Photo credit: Vincepal)

This raises yet another question. In quantum mechanics, for example, some people argue that electrons don’t really exist: what exists is the Dirac field. Similarly, one can make the argument that space-time and fields do not really exist: that there is only the mathematical framework in which they arise. I think this is a different kind of “existence” which refers to which entity is more fundamental, so I will tackle this elsewhere.

Now my solution. I believe the only way out of this conundrum is modal realism. According to modal realism, every possible world is as real as this one. Therefore, when we say something exists, all we are saying is something “belongs in this world.” Existence, then, becomes as problematic as saying something happened “here” and “now.” It just denotes an element of the set of possible worlds. By allowing the “reality” of everything, we have solved the problem of the existence of the “something.”

Of course, I am convinced there will be a myriad of problems with my view that I haven’t considered and I am more than willing to hear them. Let the bashing begin!

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16 thoughts on “Philosophical Sundays: What Is the Meaning of Existence?

  1. The Diesel-Electric Elephant Company

    More seriously, although I have only shuffled a couple of steps down the path towards self-awareness and it’s Sunday and I haven’t had enough coffee, a lot of my problems thinking about “existence” stemmed from my initial position that my existence was somehow “mine” in any sense.

    When folk talk of infinity they do so in terms of length, breadth and width – something centred on a “me” and measured against a “me”. I’d rather define infinity in terms of possibility and not “thing”. When I then consider that at least an minuscule portion of it all is possibly directed by my choice of possibility we come screaming back to my sphere of influence, which at the moment seems sorely limited and we’re back to length, breadth and width again. It’s all most frustrating.

    That gets your argument no further past my eyelids but does at least prove that I am thinking hard and not just posting flippant comments!

    Reply
  2. DoowansGardenSupply.com

    Hi David, Thank You for your continued support. This Doowan believes the meaning of our existence is experience. We exist simply because we do. What we do with that existence is have experiences. Do we need a deeper meaning than this?

    Reply
  3. rishabhshah0330

    Hey David! It’s a really intriguing topic to talk about. I had never heard any other explanation except for the first. This article has definitely been informative.

    I have also heard a counter argument for your argument to the first solution. To put it in a little humorous way. A student stood up after a philosophy lecture and angrily asked the professor, “How can you say that I exist?! how can you prove that?”. The professor replied with a question, “Then who, may I ask, is asking this question?”

    The counter question by the professor shows the absurdness of the students question. What do you say?

    Reply
    1. David Yerle Post author

      Hi! Thank your for your comment.
      What you describe is a common objection to solipsism which comes in many flavors. The idea is that reality “reacts” to your actions and therefore must be real. However, these are two related but different problems: one is about knowing whether something exists; the other is about knowing what we mean by “existence.”

      Reply
      1. Macky

        The problem with Sceptics is the first principle assumption, by which they encased themselves in their own mind. And no one could argue with first principles, simply because they are plainly to be accepted and not proven.. The only one that can free them from the prison wall of their own mind is themselves.
        I invite you to have a look into 2 utube videos which I posted underneath some of my articles.:http://genuineuggs.net/blog/the-make-and-break-of-all/; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gc4HGQHgeFE
        I hope that it shakes you out of the prison wall of your assumption( your first principle)
        I invite you to free yourself. The truth (which you undermine by being Sceptics) will set you free. Don’t be hard on yourself. Many people love you!. Because the main Source of love loves you most.

        Reply
  4. Roger

    David,

    Hi. I’m glad I stumbled across your blog because you’re raising a lot of interesting questions that I like to think about, too. One comment on your proposed solution that every possible world and every possible element in those worlds exists is that it doesn’t say:

    o What causes every possible world to exist.

    o What does it mean to say a possible world. Doesn’t there have to be a preexisting mind or set of possibilities to allow this?

    I think this also applies to mathematical constructs/frameworks. Why would these frameworks exist. Eventually, I think the most fundamental of existent states will have to be self-defining so that some property of it is what causes it to exist instead of having to be defined in terms of something else. To get around this, my solution is that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or collection. A grouping is some relationship saying, or defining, what is contained within. Such a definition or grouping is equivalent to an edge, boundary, or enclosing surface defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing. An example of a grouping, and thus an existent state, is a set. Without a relationship defining what elements are contained within a set, the set would not exist. This relationship, or grouping is shown by the curly braces, or edge, around the elements of the set, and is what gives existence to the set.

    If anyone’s interested, I’ve got more on this at my website at:

    sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite (click on 3rd article)

    Thanks for an interesting question and for listening!

    Reply
  5. prakashbeth

    meaning … or purpose…. of life.. whether we discovered it or understood there is no purpose / meaning… it is all just a thought…

    ending of questions is more important than finding answers… because… mind / thought can’t capture the moment of life …. (U G Krishnamurthi)

    Reply
  6. chaosordergnosis

    I like to think of making statements about Reality as baking a cake that I’m never going to eat. I believe that, in some frighteningly literal ways, I immediately collapse into unfathomable condensation when formulated and lose myself beyond sight. It’s a surprisingly rough enterprise to bridge the process of making statements to the process that makes statements. The possible worlds model suits me intuitively though, so I support the audacious tenuousness of its existence. Cheers.

    Reply
  7. Changqing Liu

    The answer to the question “What Is the Meaning of Existence” can be found in a recent paper here
    “https://arxiv.org/abs/1604.08148”.

    Reply
  8. Jeremy

    This question, and similar ones, launches me into an experience of mystery, and I think that puts us in a similar mind state. I want to coin a term ‘ad mysterium’ to describe the experience of following a path of inquiry until the concepts break apart, yielding an experience of mystery.

    Existence for me is conflated with concept. Concept for me is dividing reality into chunks (e.g. the green patch in front of me is ‘grass,’ but the gray part is ‘pavement,’ the blue part ‘sky,’ etc.) by drawing closed-loop boundaries and naming the inner and outer parts.

    That implies to me that without a process of boundary drawing, there are no concepts/objects; no existence. A more obvious statement to make from this premise is, ‘if humans/computers are the only things drawing boundaries, and if humans/computers are destroyed, existence is destroyed.’ That conclusion makes just about any definition of existence lose my interest and it’s an argument ad mysterium (btw, if you’re aware of an existing appropriate Latin phrase appropriate to this, please tell me). A more subtle variant of this statement is, ‘objects carry different meaning for different humans, so existence is dependent on culture’ (e.g. an iPhone is an iPhone for me and it exists, but for a recently contacted member of an Amazonian tribe the object is not an iPhone and doesn’t exist. Well, this was already covered in philosophical depth by The Gods Must be Crazy and its glass Coca Cola bottle).

    So then if no boundaries are drawn and no objects in reality exist, can we at least say reality exists? I say no. I think saying “everything exists” is as meaningful as “nothing exists.” Non-existence is required for existence to be meaningful.

    My comments, particularly this ad mysterium language, sound very reminiscent of the inquiry games Buddhists like to play drawing the inquired into an experience of emptiness. My favorite experience of this came when I was buying groceries at the supermarket. I had come in with a bottle of water and didn’t want to pay for it with my chosen groceries, since it didn’t come from the grocery store. I told the check-out clerk “this bottle is mine, but these other items are… about to be mine.” It instantly raised the question, at what moment do they go from not being mine to being mine? How precisely can the mineness transubstantiation be defined? The response to the inquiry was ’emptiness of ownership,’ and my response to your inquiry is ’emptiness of existence.’

    I hope some of that makes sense. This is tricky stuff to talk about, and I appreciate you putting your thoughts out there.

    Reply
  9. UJ

    Existence is the time expressed by light. I think so. I am the Uniontera Ja.

    “So, everything that you can touch with your hand is…”

    Reply

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