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Saturday, 14 February 2009

Existence

(For previous sections see below)
Title
            God II: a God for atheists
2. A digression on existence
Existence
Does God exist? Some say yes, some say no. I don’t think anyone, even a traditional God-fearing Victorian, should say “Yes, God exists”, because that it exists is something I would say of everything else, everything created, but it is not something I would say of the creator; otherwise we get in a circular problem; “Did the Creator create Himself?”, and can he pull himself up by his own bootstraps?. There seems to be something very ordinary about created matter; and something very extraordinary about creating matter out of nothing. But before we go into that, let us admit that we do not really know what we mean by ‘exist’ and ‘existence’. Not only do we not understand ‘existence’ and ‘non-existence’; we also find that our everyday vocabulary is inadequate to discuss the matter.
The layman, the man in the street, will understand well enough statements like “I exist” and “The unicorn does not exist” (as it is an imaginary beast). But when we think about it, we find that we do not know anything that does not exist, except for imaginary things like the unicorn, or the centaur; or impossible thing like a square triangle. If a thing ‘does not exist’ we find it impossible to observe, impossible to study. All the things we know anything about belong to the category of things that do exist. Furthermore, we know nothing about how an object can move from non- existing to existing. To understand that would be to understand creation.
However, our problems go further than not understanding the physics of creation. I believe most of us don’t even understand the words ‘exist’ and ‘existence’, and how to use them. Not that we often discuss existence, and when we do it seems it is only the existence or non-existence of God that is in debate. We lay people do not spend time discussing the existence or otherwise of centaurs, or the dodo, or ‘the integers between two and three’; or whether ‘exists’ is a predicate; all that is left to philosophers. On the other hand, the layman does seem to be concerned about the existence or otherwise of God. Books are written on the subject and advertisements placed at considerable expense in prominent places by concerned citizens, both for and against. And I also like considering and discussing the question ‘does God exit?’ However, the point here is not to make God exist, or not exist, simply by changing the meaning of the word ‘exist’. It is to strengthen our vocabulary so that we can discuss in what way God II might be said to exist, and in what way God II might be said to ‘not exist’. It is possible that all disputants might be right, but each be using a different concept of existence, let alone a different concept of God.
Let us take, as an example, a knot tied in a piece of string. Let us ask: does the piece of string exist?; to which we certainly answer ‘yes’. Then let us ask: does the knot in the string exist? The existence of the knot is clearly of a different type. I would like to say that the knot does not itself ‘exist’(as a primary substance); it presents as a property, or form, of the string on which it is dependent. If we were to adopt such a narrowed application of the word existence (call it ‘primary existence’ if you like) we would be able to say that existence entails finite mass, and extension in space and time. We would confidently say that the string exists, but the knot does not exist, for if you untie the knot there is no change in mass. 
Philosophers have discussed existence, but only add to the confusion, for there are so many different views. Our intuitive view (above) is very much the same as that of Aristotle, who came to a similar conclusion when he considered the matter of existence. He regarded ‘substances’ as basic. ‘Substances’ exist independently. Other entities such as qualities, quantities, relations, etc., all inhere in something or are said of something. They do not exist independently. Red cannot be said to exist; you can say a red rag exist, but that is because the rag exists; redness is a property of the rag. Kindness does not exist, except as a property of a person. Nor does ‘three’ exist; it is a concept that needs something else to embody it (three gold rings, for example). It is apparent already that the word ‘exist’ is inadequate to distinguish the many types of object, thing, concept, or word we wish to talk about, and of which we wish to distinguish the many types of existence, or reality, or meaningfulness that these objects exemplify. .
Objects
Rather similar to our problems with the concept of existence (and bound up with it) are problems with the concept ‘object’. How shall we talk about the entities (objects, things, etc) that are not substances, and do not have primary (i.e. independent) existence? In the late nineteenth century C.S. Peirce used the term ‘object’ very widely; thus he said “By an object, I mean anything that we can think, i.e. anything we can talk about.”[CS Peirce, “Reflections on Real and Unreal Objects”, MS 966]. He thus included properties, relations, abstract concepts, numbers, universals. (He may even have included contradictions and impossible concepts, for we can talk about square circles, though we cannot perhaps think about them.) We can then subdivide Peirce Objects into special types, and see if we think it appropriate to ascribe to them existence (See Table).
 
Type of object
Included
Excluded
Peirce Objects
Anything that we can talk about; things, properties, abstractions, universals (contradictions?)
Is anything excluded? Perhaps contradictions (square triangles; integers between 2 and 3)
Aristotle Objects
Anything having properties and relations, (e.g. things, but also numbers, emotions)
Properties and relations (redness, superiority, evenness [as of the number 2])
Frege Objects
Singular nouns (A horse, a theory)
Concepts (A mammal)
Real Objects
Things located in space and time including mind, life etc
Imaginary, mythical, fictional, abstracts, numbers, ideas, etc
Material objects (existent objects)
Things possessing mass and existing in space and time (e.g. atoms, and electrons )
Life, mind
Abstract objects
Platonic forms (e.g. the idea of a table)
Real objects
Imaginary objects
Centaur, golden mountain
Material objects

Alexius Meinong, more or less contemporaneously with Charles Peirce, developed his own Theory of Objects (Gegenstandstheorie, 1904) and introduced two useful words. He realized that he could think about objects that did not exist – like a golden mountain or a centaur. He therefore suggested that only material objects exist (in a material and temporal sense), but that concepts, numbers, imaginary objects, etc. subsist. For his third category, of impossible concepts (such as square circles, or the integers lying between 2 and 3, etc), he coined the verb to absist).
God II, when we come to think about it in a later section, may turn out to be not a material object, but a concept. It may even turn out to be an impossible concept. So God II may not so much exist, as subsit, or even absist.

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