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Remarks on existence - what it is not
and what it might be

Draft preliminary remarks dated 08/06/07 - 10/09/07

(Note - throughout this article, "classical" refers to Boolean/Russelian logic, not Aristotelian)


1. What kind of existence?

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The word "existence" is used in various ways. For example, mathematicians might use it to refer to the sorts of things that are to be found in a particular domain or range. Thus π and √2 don't exist in the domain of natural numbers, but they do exist in the domain of real numbers; there exist no prime numbers between 23 and 29; between any 2 points in a Euclidean space there exists a third point; there exists an integral solution to the equation 2x2 - 6x = 0 (see this article from the University of Toronto). So, in the mathematical realm, assertions or denials of existence are invariably relative to some concept or specific context.

Sometimes expressions containing a denial of existence are used to refer to inconsistent combinations of words or scientifically impossible states of affairs. For example, one might say "Round squares do not exist", meaning that the phrase "round squares" is self-contradictory. Or: "Weightless elephants don't exist (on the Earth's surface)" because massive objects at rest in a gravitational field necessarily have weight. This usage is in my opinion suspect, because you would not ordinarily use "exists" in positive expressions of similar type, i.e. to denote tautology or necessity. Thus, you would not say "squares with 4 corners exist", meaning that it is part of the definition of squares that they have 4 corners, or "Heavy elephants exist", meaning that elephants (at rest on the Earth's surface) necessarily have weight. These kinds of expression stand in contrast to matter-of-fact denials such as “Nuclear powered motorbikes don’t exist” or “Sparrows don’t exist in Perth” or “Dinosaurs no longer exist”, which are paralleled by positive expressions that make good sense ( “Petrol powered motorbikes exist” etc).

In the following notes our discussion will be mainly about existence in the sense in which physical objects and people exist - what you might think of as real things. Most things in this category are, well, unmistakably in it, but there are many things that seem to be on the fringe of existence - for example sub-atomic phenomena and various other "scientific" entities. And some things that we often say are "real" may exist in a different sense to which ordinary objects exist, or perhaps they don't exist at all - for example human minds, perceptions and experiences, the European Union, the current price of tomatoes, the horizon, the vacancy for the post of Senior Lecturer in the Department of Ngadjunmaia Studies. We shall be concerned almost entirely with the central, "common or garden" variety of existence or "reality", the prevailing view that there's a universe of objects and events existing in space and time, that these objects and events can (at least in principle) be experienced, but that they exist independently of one's experiencing them and mostly possess a degree of stability, forming a kind of permanent, though changing, physical environment to which we humans can relate. This kind of existence is sometimes thought of rather subjectively, as a continuum of personal experiences or possible experiences, and sometimes rather objectively, as things and events in the outside world. We shall try to remain as "objective" as possible, but the truth is that whatever we know about the world, we know (only?) through experience.

In this world view, time is of the essence. A feature of existence is that whatever exists does so for a finite length of time. Here, I'm not sure what "whatever" means - perhaps anything that conserves sufficient recognisabilty or utility to answer to a name. Another feature is that from the human perspective the present time ("now") has a special existential significance, while the future is so uncertain that we cannot now say that it exists, nor do we know how many possible futures there are. Again, here I'm not sure what "now" means - at the very least, a short period of time leading up to the present moment (or a very recent moment) and long enough for me to finish what I was thinking and saying! One thing is clear - this notion of time is eminently experiential, and to the extent that we must confront it we keep one foot in the subjective camp, so to speak.


2. The concept of existence

The first important thing we are going to have to say about existence is immediately controversial. Existence is a concept. At least, we are going to treat it this way, because there is no alternative. We can only consider existence as an idea, because ideas are all we have to work with. (This might seem to be keeping both feet in the "subjective" camp, but it may have little to do with the subjective/objective distinction referred to above. It's more like an outer shell that encloses just about everything we can usefully say about existence.)

In saying that existence is a concept, however, I imply no more than that existence is conceptual - that we must have some kind of concept of existence. And this is not to say very much at all, as almost everything falls into this category. A tree is conceptual, but this is not the same as saying a tree is a concept. The problem is that some philosophers apparently won't even allow that existence is conceptual - they won't admit that we can have any idea of existence at all. Existence, for them, is precisely something that is not conceptual, not meaningful, the absolute antithesis of thought, something that "goes on" even in the complete absence of thought. And this precludes them from saying anything at all about existence (except for a few logical frivolities about how we use the word). Existence is relegated to a no-man's land, a little black box whose contents are impossible to see. Indeed, existence becomes more or less indistinguishable from nothing!

Well, perhaps they confuse thought with imagination. For consider this: if existence were not conceptual, we would be unable to tell what exists and what doesn't. We would never be able to distinguish fact from fantasy. You can imagine, say, owning a million dollars - small change these days. But (in spite of Kant - see below) there's a lot of difference between an imaginary million dollars and a real million dollars. You can do lots of things with a real million that you can't with an imagined million. Of course, you can also imagine yourself doing lots of things with a million dollars. But no matter how creative your imagination, if you can't tell the difference between what you imagine and what actually exists, then there's probably something vitally wrong with your mind. It could lead to all sorts of trouble - I mean, real trouble! In fact it does!

This point might become clearer if you consider the difference between an actual and an imaginary bash on the head, or an actual and an imaginary loss of an arm and a leg in a road accident.

Yet some philosophers appear to have denied this fundamental distinction. For example Kant said (words to the effect of): "Do I have a different conception in my mind when I am thinking of 100 real thalers (coins) than when I am thinking of 100 imaginary thalers? In both cases I merely have an idea of 100 thalers. Existence doesn't add to my idea of what exists." (NB: This is taken out of context and might mean something different to what it seems to mean. In particular, as suggested above, the word "imaginary" is a bit suspect. Kant might be talking about imagining some particular, existent 100 thalers, in which case you can't "add on" existence. But you can in that case subtract it.)

However, our ability to distinguish really existing things from mere fantasy is by no means foolproof. Under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, for example, we could lose that ability, believing in the physical existence of phenomena that are really “only in the mind”. Idealists are apt to make hay of this irregularity, insisting that all the knowledge we can ever have of reality is of the same nature as hallucinations. I think their point can only be taken so far, and very much doubt that the possibility of hallucination and illusion has much relevance for the concept of existence. After all, we can also tell when people are hallucinating and when they are not - including ourselves, given time. If this were not so, the words hallucination and illusion would presumably be redundant.

While some philosophers might allow that existence is a concept, still they would argue that it is not a predicate. They mean, essentially, that it is not a property of anything. For example, when you say "The ball is red" or "The ball is rolling", "is red" and "is rolling" are grammatical predicates, and red and rolling are properties of the ball. But if you say "The ball exists" or "Balls exist" you are not really saying anything about the ball or balls in general. You are not describing anything. Furthermore, if exists is forced into certain predicate roles, the resultant expression often seems pointless - as in "All balls exist", "This ball exists" or "Some balls don't exist". So the prevailing view is that exists is not a predicate because it tells you nothing about anything, and it doesn't always behave as a predicate should. There's a lot of sense in this, but perhaps not quite as much as is sometimes implied - it often depends on context. What's wrong with "Some honey-eating bears don't exist, e.g. Winnie-the-Pooh"? And if we're ruling out exists as a predicate, must we also rule out (for example) extinct, absent, and < i>current?

Sensible or not, the idea that exists can't be a predicate (more accurately, a first order predicate) is built in to the standard modern theory and symbolism of logic. It is this theory which, for the last century, has been the chief impediment to progress in one of philosophy's most important quests: the search for the meaning of "existence". The main problem seems to be that the theory has led to a rather too general, ingrained acceptance of the classical roles of logical concepts such as individuals, names, negation and quantification. Thus the prevaling view of logic-minded philosophers is that existence is what is asserted by statements of the form "for some x, Fx". This is mischievously evasive, a striking example of cart before horse and a painful reminder of the abject poverty of logicism. Indeed few philosophers in the analytic/empiricist tradition have given the topic much thought, other than to examine the ways we use the words exists and existence. As with their theories of truth, much of this analysis seems to be aimed at avoiding paradox, and usually yields some cunning terminology and constructions, but entirely at the expense of meaning. It has been left largely to existentialists themselves to ponder the question in terms which, on the face of it, look full of importance, but unfortunately their background is predominantly one of metaphysical nonsense, so their discussions tend to lack not only logic but meaning too. Moreover their concern has been directed toward aspects of human existence rather than to the basic notion of physical reality.

Another indication that existence is a concept - that it has some kind of meaning - is the fact that it can be, apparently usefully, included in definitions. For example, you could define Mauritius and Reunion as existent Indian Ocean islands or David Copperfield as an existent magician, as opposed to defining Lilliput and Blefuscu as fictional Indian Ocean islands and Gandalf as a fictional magician. You can sometimes adequately distinguish two similarly named entities from one another purely in terms of their existential status, for example the fictional (Dickensian) David Copperfield and the living (magician) David Copperfield. I'm inclined to think you can even include existence in general descriptions: you could say "All existing sheep eat grass" (implying that nobody has ever come across a sheep that doesn't eat grass, but that it is not part of the definition of sheep that they must eat grass) as opposed to "All sheep are herbivorous animals" (implying that, whether or not there are sheep, it is part of the definition of sheep that they are hebivorous animals). However, it is very doubtful whether "grass eating" could be included as part of a definition of "existent sheep". On the other hand, it is also doubtful whether one could have a taxonomical definition of sheep if there were no real sheep. More on this later.

In fiction, of course, anything goes. The novelist can say things like "Mythical unicorns are shy animals, but real unicorns are exceedingly tame and will readily accept your gherkin sandwiches" with complete impunity. As we shall discover, the philosopher's situation in trying to pin down existence is little different from that of the novelist. An obvious, but important, point is that defining something as existential cannot guarantee its existence (so, one might well ask, what could such a definition possibly achieve?) Indeed no amount of talk can ever prove or guarantee the existence of anything. (Yet how much time have philosophers and theologians wasted trying to do just this!)

At the beginning of this section, we considered some examples of existential statements in mathematics, observing that most of them confine existence to a defined range, domain or context. To say that π exists in the domain of real numbers is really saying no more than that π is a real number 1, and this seems to be much like saying that the Sphynx is a monument or the Eucalyptus is a kind of tree. By analogy, one might wonder whether saying that the Sphynx "exists in reality" is saying no more than that it is a certain kind of thing (a "real" thing), as opposed to other kinds of thing such as mythical things or hallucinations. I shall later argue against this view.


3. What existence is not – the heritage of formal logic

(Some knowledge of formal logic, especially quantifiers, is needed to understand everything in this section.)

My chief contention is that quantification confounds many different concepts, of which existence is one, and this has led some people to believe that various concepts are the same, or necessarily connected, when really they are very different or only contingently connected. On top of this, there are a number of other general concepts that are not normally handled by quantification at all, but which probably could be, and which have an “existence-like” flavour but are not the same as existence.

First I will list all these concepts (all the ones I can think of, anyway) and then I will attempt to make my case as briefly as possible by giving examples of their application to illustrate how they differ from existence. During the course of this exercise I will also try to get the message across that much of the confusion stems from a widespread but primitive obsession with drawing a sharp distinction between sense and reference (intension and extension, connotation and denotation*), which in the context of the real world has very little justification. Unfortunately this dichotomy now forms the nucleus of standard logic and set theory, the new testament of analytic philosophy, resulting in the perpetuation of a religion-like mindset from one generation to the next. (*Currently philosophers give all these words, and many similar words besides, different shades of meaning, adapting them to fit their own theories.)

It should by now be apparent that we are going to be concerned not so much with the concept of existence itself as with the way we handle it in language; that is to say, in propositions of various kinds. With this in mind, I should mention that in the following notes the word "existence" may occasionally be used obliquely to mean "existential import" (or "ontological commitment"), an attribute of propositions that entail or presuppose the existence of whatever their subjects mean (or appear to refer to). So I will be attempting to distinguish between the existential import of certain logical expressions and various other functions of those expressions, without getting too involved in formal logic as such.

Here is the list of logical concepts which may be confounded with real existence but which in fact are free from ontological commitment; or which are distinct from the concept of existence but may or may not be existentially significant. Some may require a short explanation, others will be dismissed quite summarily.

1. Positive number (singularity, finite number)

2. Regular (“distributive”) uses of some

3. “Aboutness” – being the logical subject of a statement

4. “Competence” – other kinds of presupposition/currency /adequacy/groundedness

5. Membership of a set

6. Being the referent of a proper name

7. Being the value of a variable

8. Whatever possesses a property (or attribute)

9. Instantiation, exemplification

10. Particularity 1 - individuation

11. Particularity 2 - referential v attributive (definite descriptions)

12. “Accommodation” – context/collection/external relation

13. Quantity and extent (non-numerical – mass terms)

14. Extension

15. Analytic generality/”intrinsicality”

16. Other kinds of “existence” – relative “existence”, meaningfulness, consistency, definition, hypothesis, fiction

17. Probability, prediction and prophecy

1. Positive number

The expression (∃x)Fx, generally read as “For some x, x has F” or “Something F’s”, can be interpreted either as “There exists something with the property F” or as “At least one x has the property F”, both versions being considered perfectly legitimate and effectively identical. The first interpretation is associated with a number of problems concerning existential import and ontological commitment, while the second interpretation is central to attempts to derive numbers and arithmetic, if not the whole of mathematics, from logical concepts alone. However, in common parlance the two interpretations certainly do not mean the same and neither one implies the other.

Not everything that exists is denumerable. Water and air, for example, undoubtedly exist, but cannot be counted. Conversely, one can imagine denumerable collections that don’t exist. Snow White’s dwarfs are seven in number but don’t exist. At least one kind of bird (the Phoenix) is born from the ashes of its parent’s funeral, but no such creature exists in reality. The sentence “One heliotrophoid crystal would be enough to power three spacewinders” does not imply that either heliotroph crystals or spacewinders exist.

If a concept is signified by the number zero, this might be taken to imply that nothing of that sort exists. But this would be to accredit the number zero with a kind of significance that it actually lacks, as it cannot stand in contrast to any number that does imply existence. One might as well argue that negative numbers imply negative existence. The number zero is not necessarily connected with the negation operation in e.g. “Flamingoes are not blue”, “Hobbits do not exist” and (the allegedly illformed statement) “The Golden Mountain does not exist” (see below).

Besides, the notion of existence in the abstract world of mathematics is one thing, in the real world quite another. In particular, the temporality of real existence creates some serious complications.

2. Regular (“distributive”) uses of some – overlapping concepts

In common parlance some has no necessary connection with existence. As a pronoun its primary use is to refer to an indefinite part of a whole (collection, quantity or extent, named or described). Thus “Some Hobbits live in holes” means precisely “Either all Hobbits live in holes or some Hobbits live in holes and some don’t” and “Some water is salty” means precisely “Either all water is salty or some water is salty and some is not”. The logic of this usage, which could be called distribution as opposed to quantification, is captured by Euler circles (disjoint, overlapping and contained areas), not by Venn diagrams or classical quantifiers. Accordingly “All bugweed stinks” entails “Some bugweed stinks”, both these propositions are existentially uncommitted but, if some kind of existence is presupposed, both have the same existential status.

The relation between the distributive usage of some and number is that, if the class comprises denumerable members (individuals), some implies at least one, and if the class comprises subclasses, some implies at least one subclass. (Note that in “Some species of wasp have red stripes” it’s the wasps that have the stripes, not the species, whether or not there exist any wasps of that species. What this really says is “Some wasps have red stripes and all those wasps belong to certain species”.)

In summary, formulae of classical logic such as (∃x)(Fx & Gx) confound the idea of overlapping (or intersecting or conjoined) classes or concepts with that of existence, but in fact the two ideas are quite distinct.

3. “Aboutness” – being the logical subject of a statement (subjectivity)

Classical logic confounds existence with “subjectivity”, that is, with being the logical subject of a statement. In my view, however, the subject of a statement differs logically from the predicate only in that it is what the sentence is about. To be more exact, in statements of subject/predicate form, whatever the subject term stands for is what the statement is about. (In fact I am strongly of the opinion that whatever the subject means is what the statement is about:  subjects and predicates are essentially the same sort of thing, only their roles differ.)

Aboutness is a simple concept. The subject of a statement that is unambiguously in subject/predicate form is the extra-argumental part of the statement. Any argument applied to the statement affects only the predicate (as it relates to the subject). For example, the negation of “Tom Brown drives a Jaguar” is “It is not true that Tom Brown drives a Jaguar” and this is equivalent to “Tom Brown does not drive a Jaguar”. It is not equivalent to “Somebody other than Tom Brown drives a Jaguar” or “Nobody drives a Jaguar”. These would be appropriate arguments only if the statement was not about Tom Brown, i.e. “Tom Brown” was not a logical subject. This concept of subjectivity applies to both particular and universal propositions. If "All kangaroos hop" is in subject/predicate form, the proposition is about kangaroos, not about hopping. But since in classical logic only particular propositions are supposed to have existential import, for the time being we shall ignore propositions of the universal kind.

Some simple statements in grammatical subject/predicate form might be considered to have two logical subjects and (more commonly) some to have none. Thus “Tom hit Mary” is about both Tom and Mary if either “No, it was Bill who hit Mary” or “No, it was Flo whom Tom hit” are acceptable rebuffs. On the other hand, “A bell is ringing” has no explicit logical subject:  it is about an unspecified present situation and is therefore wholly “predicative” or descriptive. The proper denial of this statement is “It is not the case that a bell is ringing” (or very loosely “No bell is ringing” or “Nothing is ringing”) and not “A bell is not ringing”. Of course “The bell is ringing” is entirely different as it is presumably about some particular bell.

Ostensible subjects and predicates clearly do not always have unambiguous subject and predicate status. Furthermore both subjects and predicates often change their roles during the course of a narrative or argument.

Now, in the context of classical logic it is often said that one of the salient characteristics of the logical subject of a particular statement is that the existence of what it refers to is presupposed. Thus “Tom Brown drives a Jaguar” presupposes the existence of a certain person named Tom Brown and “John’s children are asleep” presupposes not only that there exists (or once existed) somebody named John but that he has some children, i.e. that John’s children also exist. So, on this theory, if Tom Brown doesn’t exist and John has no children these statements are neither true nor false but simply fall by the wayside - a condition that can befall many kinds of statement for various reasons and which I call "incompetence" (see #4).

An alternative (more usual) way of handling “John’s children are asleep” is to reformulate the statement so that the existence of the subject’s referent is explicitly asserted, thus:  “John has children and they are all asleep”. Under this formulation (which originated with Russel’s theory of definite descriptions) if John has no children the statement is false. This approach clearly takes away from “John’s children” what seems to me to be the critical feature of a subject term – that it is extra-argumental. So whatever merits the formulation may possess, it has the great weakness of destroying the subject/predicate structure, and therefore will not be considered here.

However, the reason for the definite descriptions approach is just that those who believe that the subject of a statement must be existential find difficulty with statements such as “The Golden Mountain does not exist” (which appears to them to be self-contradictory) and “The King of France is bald” (which appears to them to presume the existence of a monarch who in reality does not exist). But I doubt that there’s any good reason for encumbering the subject with “existence”, whether real or of some other kind, so their worries seem to be needless. Clearly, aboutness or subjectivity, as I have defined it, is conceptually different from existential import, especially if the latter is understood as the function of referring to an object in the real world.

In fact, the very existence of sentences having non-existential subjects, yet which are nonetheless perfectly meaningful, is evidence enough that subject terms, whether names or descriptions, do not denote in this sense at all (a view which receives some support from examination of the structure of certain Indo-European languages which lack much of the apparatus for referring or denoting found in English and the modern Romantic languages). And while a logical subject might sometimes fail to sustain a competent proposition (one which is true or false), this is because it is meaningless or its meaning is inadequate or inappropriate in the current context. Such failure might or might not be associated with non-existence in the real world (see #4).

Subject terms are often proper names, as in “Tom Brown drives a Jaguar” and “Gollum lives in a dark, damp place”, and seem to create a host of problems – in the minds of many, anyway. The theory of proper names is indeed in a total muddle, with some utterly incredible ideas floating around (e.g. Kripke, Burge). Whether or not they are subjects, proper names are usually assumed to refer to existing individuals (so some would say Gollum doesn't count as a proper name). I will return to this dubious supposition below (#6) and possibly at some later date in a separate article.

Then again, as has already been mentioned, subject terms can be general. Both "This rabbit eats lettuce" and "A rabbit normally eats lettuce" would be subject/predicate statements in most contexts, and there is no reason to assume that they are existentially different from one another. "Trucks are noisy" is about trucks, "Hobbits live in holes" is about Hobbits and “Smokeless cigars are good for the lungs” is about smokeless cigars, regardless of considerations of existential import. By the same token there's no reason to suppose that singular terms can't be predicates. If "The best restaurant in town is the Rising Sun" is about best restaurants then that is the subject and the Rising Sun is predicate.

A final example: “Ill health is depressing”. Although (in keeping with Gilbert Ryle’s opinion) this should probably be rephrased as “Whoever is ill is depressed”, nonetheless it holds up as a subject/predicate statement. The point of the translation is obvious (ill health is not an existing object but an attribute predicated of people) but when formalised as (x)(Ix ⇒ Dx) the subject/predicate format is lost. At the same time the non-correspondence of the subject of the original expression (ill health) with the referent of the translated version (people) becomes immediately clear. This gives weight to my contention that logical subjects need not be existential or denoting.

4. “Competence” – other kinds of presupposition: currency/adequacy/groundedness

Competence is simply the opposite of propositional incompetence, which is more or less any condition of an intended proposition that prevents it attaining a truth value - or, one might say, a statement that fails to meet the conditions for being a genuine proposition. For example it isn't a well-formed expression, it is meaningless, its subject is irrelevant in the current situation or context ("ungrounded" - see
here - groundedness is more limited than competence or adequacy and has stricter conditions) or any other tacit background assumptions are found lacking. Here I am just making the point that there are many conditions that could be said to fall under the "presupposition" label apart from the Strawsonian one of the so-called "existence" of the subject. There's no reason to suppose that groundedness or other kinds of presupposition imply the real existence of anything, other than, possibly, the existence of the sets of propositions that characterize those presuppositions. And while it would also be reasonable to suppose that these propositions should be true, as with other propositions their truth does not necessarily imply the existence of corresponding real world facts. The main problem with presuppositions, however, is that there seems to be a large, indefinite number of them, and they in turn are supported by presuppositions, and so on and so on. Does every proposition need a pre-defined language for its formulation? Is the existence of human beings a prerequisite for every proposition? If groundedness is supposed pin down a proposition to reality, then it is a chimera. On the rare occasions when they are called into question, we should be content to reach agreement on the adequacy of the first layer of presuppositions. (see #3).

5. Membership of a set

When a set is deemed to be empty it is often said that the objects answering to the set definition don't exist. But this can be taken to imply that if the set does have members those objects do exist. Clearly this kind of "existence" is relative to the set definition. As sets can be sets of anything whatsoever, nothing ensues regarding the real existence of their members. (One could, of course, refer to the set of all really existing objects, which would give that set genuine existential import, assuming thesome objects do qualify.)

6. Being the referent of a proper name

One of the most persistent and bewildering fantasies of western philosophy is the widely held belief that proper names work differently from general nouns, seemingly just because they apply to singular entities or, according to most accounts, unique existing objects and beings. The chief characteristic of names of any kind is that they are associated with recognising objects and other entities, whether one or many, in recurring observation situations; therefore they are essentially general or conceptual in character. As this is not the place to embark on a discussion of the proper names bedlam*, suffice it to say that, strictly speaking, proper names do not refer, they only connote; that is, they only have sense and no reference external to their sense. (This echoes our resolve to conceptualise reality, not stuff it into box-files never to be opened.) But assuming the reader is one of a majority who believe that proper names refer, and only refer, and possibly that they are rigid designators, please consider whether this is an insight into their natural behaviour or rather a construct designed to support a preconception or definition of proper names. I'd suggest the latter is more likely. Whatever, if it were possible for language alone to inform us whether a name stands for a really existing thing, one might expect this capacity to be just as true of general nouns as of proper names. The main feature of proper names is, not their existential import, but their singularity, a factor which (like the implied plurality of general nouns) is included in their meaning.

*However, as an aside the following example (adapted from Henri Bergson who used it for another purpose) might help. A farmer has a flock of sheep. At first sight they might all look the same, but the farmer soon learns their differences and gives some of the sheep names, such as Matilda, Hop-along and Spotty. Some sheep, however, he cannot identify separately but only as classes, to which he gives names such as Woollens, Stubbies and Grandmas. The farmer also has some cattle. Is there any significant difference between his distiguishing the sheep from the cattle, the woollens from the stubbies, or Matida from Hop-along? No. Is there any significant difference between calling certain farm animals sheep and cattle, woollens and stubbies, Matilda and Hop-along? No. (Do any of these names merit capital initial letters?). Is there any significant difference in the way proper names arise and the way universals arise? No.

7. Being the value of a variable

Contemporary western philosophy has increasingly sought to knead its subject matter to fit preconceived theories, frameworks or formats, whether they be the whim of some academic, a passing fad or an entrenched convention. Those who go down this path distance themselves from scientific authenticity, often unwittingly violating an agenda which they themselves seek to promote. A good example of this reverse thinking is V.O.Quine's adaptation of Russel's theory of descriptions, resulting in one of the most dispiriting expressions in the recent history of philosophy: To be is to be the value of a variable. A far cry from Berkeley's To be is to be perceived but the intent is clear - that we are "ontologically commited only by claims that comply with the canon: There is something (bound variable) that is ...". This prevents us saying things like The Golden Mountain doesn't exist, a format that is problematic for classical philosophers. But for us it is problematic because it invites us to import any kind of entity we like for the value of a bound variable, and to commit ourselves to the existence of that importation, thus effectively disposing of any useful idea of existence in general.

The mistake here, in my opinion, is the failure to separate the idea of existence from the ideas of aboutness(#3) and extension (#14). As we have seen (#3), putting something as the logical subject of a statement ought not commit us to any presupposition of the existence of that thing. But in the classical system, logical subjects are tied to the deployment of little x's in their role as bound variables; quantification involves an indestructable conglomerate of concepts, including existence and extension. And so it goes.....

8. Whatever possesses a property (or attribute)

This suggestion appears to be virtually useless for many reasons. There are many kinds of properties and many points of view as to their status. Philosophers cannot agree on seemingly basic issues, such as whether properties (some or all kinds) are universals. Most, however, agree that they are predicable, so what I've already said about predicates is relevant here also. Nonetheless, the difference is that in normal circumstances properties are ascribed to existing objects and the statements that do the ascribing are therefore existentially significant. But if one subscribes to the view that objects are bundles of properties, and that objects are what there is, the proposition that existence is whatever possesses properties is circular. And if not, metaphysical. The main questions are: (a) can we ascribe properties to non-existent things? and (b) do properties themselves exist? (a) There are several kinds of proposition that ascribe properties to non-existent things, including vacuous definite descriptions, fictional statements and properties belonging to entities (such as numbers) whose existence is questionable, and I very much doubt whether conventional logical means of evading this fact succeed in doing so. (b) I don't know, but believe the answer is "yes", in some sense of existence.

9. Instantiation, exemplification

In its equivalent usage to exemplification ("the representation of a universal or abstract idea by a concrete example") instantiation is essentially another way of expressing #8 and needs little further comment. But perhaps this is the place to give an example of "the so-and-so" not implying the so-and-so exists. I can't see any reason for creating a big commotion over the perfectly good statement "It should be easy to blow out the candles" when the cake has no candles on it.

10. Particularity 1 - individuation

A very brief explanation may be necessary. Consider the proposition: Every girl loves a sailor*. This is ambiguous. It could mean Every girl loves any sailor that comes along, or it could mean Every girl loves the same sailor, or it could mean Every girl loves a certain sailor, but a different one for each girl, or it could just remain vague, as suggested by Every girl loves some sailor. The second and third cases exemplify what I'll call particularity. There are even simpler examples. Compare Somebody has stolen my watch (implying that anyone might have stolen it) and Somebody forgot the key (referring obliquely to muggins or maybe his partner); in other words the second case could be rephrased: A certain person forgot the key. Doubtless classical logic possesses the wherewithall to handle all these cases, though I believe there are some that are quite problematic. The above examples are instances of external particularity, commonly typified by propositions in which the use of the existential quantifier, "Some...", begs the question "Which..." or "Who...". But classical logic also has internal problems of particularity. A simple example involves the supposed equivalence of (∃x)(Fx v Gx) and (∃x)Fx v (∃x)Gx, instanced by Some switches are either up or down and Either some switches are up or some switches are down (clearly not equivalent, substituting "certain" for "some" might sharpen the problem a bit, and possibly it's open to an "external" interpretation); this leads to problems of particularity often being construed as problems of quantifier scope.

The point is that particularity seems to be an issue of quantification that's distinct from any of the concepts so far mentioned; in particular it is unrelated to existential and numerical uses of "∃" and to "aboutness". Though many might argue to the contrary, to my mind there's no good reason to think of particularity as boosting the existential status of propositions in which it plays a part.

(* This example is probably taken from P.D. Shaw's 1968 article in "Mind")

11. Particularity 2 - referential v attributive (definite descriptions)

Although I have not familiarised myself with this supposed distinction it does seem to me that there are not two, but several trivially different uses of definite descriptions which may be pertinent. The original distinction (as recounted by Donnellan, 1966) went along the lines of: a speaker who uses a definite description attributively wishes to assert something about whatever or whoever fits that description, while a speaker who uses a definite description referentially wishes to call attention to a particular person or thing (regardless of the accuracy of the description, and notwithstanding that the same intention might well have been communicated by other means).

to All definite descriptions are supposed to refer to something and it may be coincidental whether a particular object is picked out. For example, "the currently tallest building in the world" will pick out the tallest building (it exists and presumably has a proper name), but "the animal that ate my breakfast" may not identify any particular animal and "the elephant that killed Beethoven" probably doesn't identify anything at all, as does not (for other reasons) "the currently tallest heffalumposaurus". As far as I can tell, in normal usage all these examples would fall under the attributive banner. The poorly named "referential" usage appears to have problems. Sometimes it seems to be the same as pointing to a particular person or thing in a situation where some kind of pointing is possible. In those situations I doubt whether the term "definite description" is appropriate. (Compare "the guy standing on his head in the corner" and "the upside-down idiot over there" and "look at that guy".) At other times the referential use is barely distinguishable from using a proper name, bearing in mind that (1) indefinitely many descriptions may succeed in referring to a particular person or thing and (2) in my view proper names and universals are used in a similar way to one another (see #6), both could be called one-word descriptions and the convention that descriptions usually comprise more than one word is of no consequence.

Therefore I suspect there's no clear-cut difference between the various attributive uses and the various referential uses of definite descriptions. Some uses of both appear to be existentially significant, some not. The argument boils down to whether or not a description picks out a particular person or object, regardless of the speaker's intention, so we should be thinking of it as just another slant on the particularity issue outlined in #10 above.

12. “Accommodation” – context/collection/external relation

This refers to any purely verbal attempt to pin down an object, x, in a spatial environment and historical context by elaborating its relationships to other objects in the same context, until a stage is reached where one can say with certainty that x exists. In other words accommodating the object in this way is taken to be equivalent to proclaiming its existence.

The problem with this is that, in the case of really existing objects, there's no limit to the number of external relations that could be called upon to support the thesis that x exists, yet at the same time there always comes a stage when one can go no further, owing to limits on what is known about x. When elucidated verbally, the notion of prophecy as opposed to statistical prediction (see #17) runs into similar difficulties.

There's also a slight resemblance between this exercise and the Dragon in my Garage metaphor conceived by Carl Sagan to demonstrate the futility of arguing with religionists!. (I shall assume familiarity with this story.) But let's suppose there really is a dragon in my garage - what would give me the right to make this claim? From my side, I would most certainly not be tempted to pursue the same course as the person who believes there's a dragon in his empty garage, for to do so would appear to be even sillier than it would be in our believer's situation. And much the same goes for the notion of accommodation. For there's an immediacy about existence that does not oblige us to go down roads of this kind - indeed that does not oblige us to use words at all. If there's a dragon in my garage, then just come and look at it. If x exists, then go and find it. The accommodation exercise is futile, sniffer dogs would do a better job.

13. Quantity and extent (non-numerical – mass terms)

There's little to be said here, except that some philosophers have difficulty handling mass terms with the standard logical apparatus. Well, that's hardly surprising considering the shortcomings of classical formal logic, but it is surprising that they seem unable to escape from its clutches. Nothing of logical importance - and perhaps nothing to do with existence - hangs on the fact that some substances, like air and water, are spread out, some, like gravel, occur as collections of little pieces, while some, like people and Lamborghinis, occur as organic complexes that cannot be chopped up with impunity. And of course there are intermediate grades, the clouds, corals and choirs of the logical universe. Most of these entities are measured as scalar quantities (areas, weights etc) rather than by numerical (integral) counts. These considerations might bring us to think about the manner of existence of things in space and time, questions which will be briefly addressed later on but which may turn out to have little bearing on the question of what it means to exist.

14. Extension

"Extension" here means the set of objects or other entities to which a concept applies. In the case of really existing objects, therefore, the extension of a concept implies existence unless there are no objects answering to the concept. But "extension" does not mean "existence". For example the extension of "Snow White's seven dwarfs" is "Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy....", none of whom exist. The extension of prime numbers is 2,3,5,7,11,13...ad infinitum but in what sense they exist is a moot point. And what about the sheep you count when trying to go to sleep - are they extended sheep, concepts or something else? It's possible that Quine's maxim "To be is to be the value of a bound variable" (see #7) either confuses existence with extension, or limits existence to extension because no greater worth can be conceived for existence. Extension barely scratches the surface of what it means to exist.

Which came first, the concept or (some of) the things falling under the concept? Unless one believes in the Almighty, the answer is surely the latter. A psychological answer? Well, which came first, the class or (some of) its members? If "class" is not a psychological notion, there's no difference between the class and all its members. A class or set is either a collection of things with the same name, or a mental concept (in whose mind?) of the kind of objects that answer to a given name. I very much doubt that the mere application of the same name to the members of a class is of much importance, other than helping to identify those members for communication puposes.

But if one subscribes to the Kantian view of reality, or perhaps if, less radically, one accepts the maxim No perception without conception, then one might think of real things in extension as being fundamentally mental, making it unclear, firstly what the extension of a concept involves, and secondly whether it makes sense to ask which came first, the concept or the objects falling under it. It all goes to show what a befuddling notion extension is. Let's leave it alone for now!

(Perhaps the guy who paid $1000 for a full-page article about classes in the Sydney Morning Herald back in the late 1970's was right after all. If my memory hasn't failed me: The class "cat", he argued, is a cat - any cat, I think. At the time it seemed a preposterous view, but now I'd probably allow him considerable credit. I believe I still have a copy of that article hidden away somewhere. Will keep on hunting.)

15. Analytic generality/”intrinsicality”

Well, it's now 2016, I started writing this article about ten years ago, it's based on notes written in the early 1980's and my memory is fading. Why would I include intrinsicality in this list? Doubtless I would not have had in mind any deep distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, rather only the glib observation that some of the statements we make about entities look like tautologies but also look informative. In Six kinds of propositions...(2) such statements fall mainly in the constitutive and diagnostic categories, and my chief aim there is to argue that none of them is analytic. However, it's unlikely that anyone would refer to any of them as existential, even though it's sometimes difficult to fathom how intrinsic properties could be attributed to an object if it did not exist.

16. Other kinds of “existence” – relative “existence”, meaningfulness, consistency, definition, hypothesis,
      fiction


Let's by-pass this lot for now as I've covered most of them in Six kinds of propositions..., even if not from the present point of view.

17. Probability, prediction and prophecy

This topic has been left till last because it illuminates the relationship of language to the real world and makes a useful lead into the question "what existence might be". Apart from various abstruse applications of the word, for example in mathematics and quantum science, probability usually relates to the expectation of a real event taking place, or to an expected average of events or numbers of things of a certain kind being found in a given zone or time frame. These days a statistical approach is commonly used, but it can also be discursive or intuitive. Probability, in this sense, refers to the chances of a particular state of affairs existing, now or in the future, and so would appear to hold a passport to physical reality. And so it does, so far as it goes.

I now wish to extract from (with modifications) a rather lengthy footnote in My philosophical outlook. There’s a crucial difference between prediction in the mathematical sense of the probability of an event occurring at some time in the future, and prediction in the prophetic sense of visualizing the future. We'll call the first formal probability and the second prophecy (disregarding its unsubstantiated status). For example, the betting odds of a particular horse winning a race refer to the discrete fact of its winning (formal probability), and such a fact can be expressed by a simple proposition. If the horse wins, the proposition is true, if it loses, false. On the other hand, a competent seer foretelling the event might well form a picture of the “whole scene” and should be able to provide a lot more detail - that the horse won by a nose and a half, that the jockey wore red and white checks, that the track was slippery, that the onlookers were noisy... (in theory, ad infinitum). But putting this in words, as I have just done, opens up the prophecy to a formal interpretation, and the formal probability greatly diminishes with each successive qualification. The odds of a horse, not only winning, but winning by (approximately) a nose and a half would be very poor. (The probability of a horse winning by any exact length over the next horse is zero, since the number would have an infinite number of digits after the decimal point,even if only zeros.)

A proposition, like a formal probability statement, represents only a kind of throttled abstraction from experience or reality (See #12 above). Now, some philosophers say a fact is what makes a true proposition true. But the “what” here is a mysterious entity. Clearly it is nothing like the situation or event that the seer claims to witness or, for that matter, any actual situation experienced by anybody. Indeed the “fact” expressed in a true proposition seems to be nothing more than what is expressed. So a “fact” in this sense is identical with a true proposition, or a truth. This points strongly to a coherence theory of truth – the truth of “facts”/propositions/truths can only be established in terms of other “facts”/propositions/truths. For the persistent philosopher this scenario is clearly unsatisfactory, because one seems to end up with a web of words or ideas that are cut off from reality, from existence. Real situations apparently don't answer to verbal descriptions. One possible direction out of this dilemma is summarised in the My philosophical outlook footnote. Perhaps we shall find another in the following discussion.


In progress: ......

What existence might be

It seems safe to say that one cannot capture the idea of existence in descriptions, definitions or logical contrivances. But, as I shall later suggest, it doesn't follow either that existence (or existing entities) is non-conceptual or that language has no way of nailing it at all.

I remain of the opinion that there are two very distinct kinds of existence, objective and subjective, or actual and apparent, though the use of those terms should not imply precedence of one over the other. (Indeed it's probably frivolous to apply the word "existence" to two entirely different concepts.) The main reasons I don't believe the whole universe is in my brain are, firstly, because the universe has other people in it with their own brains/minds, and secondly I have difficulty with the idea that my brain, or your brain, being part of the universe, contains the whole universe within it. Rather, my brain contains a quite limited, interpretive model of part of the universe, highly dependent on my sensory apparatus and the way I interact with my surroundings (that's what my brain is telling me, anyhow!). But I realise that here I should be talking about my mind rather than my brain, so the argument would depend on the relationship between brain and mind. The prevailing view is that mental activity begins with the development of the brain and ceases abruptly with its death. This view would appear to back the second of my concerns. And as for the first - well, there are certain leaps of faith we must all take!

Let's be quite clear about one thing: subjective existence is the only kind of existence that human beings know; actuality is "hypothetical". I do not for one moment doubt this ground-breaking insight of Kant. I can see no reason for investing actuality with properties other than mathematical, with the possible exception of temporality. That is to say, the actual universe is a bundle of mathematics, indeed an extremely complicated bundle, and possibly a temporally developing bundle, though time itself may be included in the equation. Human beings along with their brains are components of this actual universe and our individual subjective existences are grounded in it. We are thrust into that world and do not exist independently of it. But while actuality may be primal, little is gained by referring to it as existence, a concept that would then be totally devoid of human content. To speak of existence in any profitable way, surely, is to speak of ourselves, our lives as experienced by us.

Some inkling of the profundity of the concept of subjective existence can be gathered from the following pseudo-ethical question - a question which I believe cannot be answered by science, philosophy or gods. Consider the plight of the most unfortunate individuals in our world. Does the mere fact of a person's existence outweigh the suffering he or she might endure? Is it better to live a thoroughly miserable life or not to exist at all? Or is this a silly question and, if so, why? Is there any relevant information that can be brought to bear on the problem? The surprisingly low rate of suicides, for example, might suggest that lives are worth living even in horrendous circumstances. In that case, one might think, the world should be populated to the hilt - the more lives the better. But that seems ludicrous, for one could hardly say the more lives the merrier! Again, what's the difference between an extinguished life and a life that never was? Although I have always claimed that the world is over-populated and birth rates need to be controlled, it seems I can only defend this contention with common sense and not by appealing to any higher principle.

The remarks in #17 above might be taken to imply that ordinary language remains aloof from objective or actually existing entities. But they might also be taken to imply that language fails to hook up with subjective or apparently existing entities. For, let's be quite clear about this, subjective existence is the only kind of existence that human beings know; actuality is hypothetical. I do not for one moment doubt this ground-breaking insight of Kant (although, as we shall see, I do consider his notion of "noumenal existence" was wanting).




[dreadful experiences, wretchedness, anguish, grief, suffering, agony, misery) NOTES: Objectivity – not same as existence. Note that some autistic savants appear to treat numbers objectively in the sense of things out there that are simply “experienced”. They seem to see numbers, and the relations between them, almost as we see a landscape, yet even more sharply. One can easily talk about particular kinds of stuff even though nothing of that kind exists, for example “Mechanic’s sponge cake is made from a mixture of flour, treacle and car grease”, and one can just as easily talk about instances of the same without imputing existence (“Winnie-the-Pooh accidentally swallowed some mechanic’s sponge cake mix instead of honey”). An important remark on the fabric of existence is in RB2, 6-9 Apr