Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

What Sorts of Things Exist, and How?

This is another ‘Question of the Month’ from Philosophy Now. I’ve submitted 6 in a number of years and they’ve published 5. In this case, I suspect they want an ontological discussion, which I’ve effectively side-stepped, so it may not make the grade. I always try and write something they won’t expect, and I’m vain enough to admit I’ll be disappointed if it fails. Regular readers of my blog will see that, philosophically, it’s consistent with what I’ve written elsewhere. There is a word limit of 400, but I’ve been unusually economical with 353.

The terms, ‘Things’ and ‘Exist’, seem self-evident yet they’re not. And the word, ‘How’, whilst the apparent key to understanding this, is probably the most enigmatic part of it. What does one mean by ‘Things’? A thing can be an idea, a concept, a mathematical equation, or a tune in your head, as well as a physical object, examples of which surround you everywhere you go. So I’d divide Things into two categories: those that are constructs of the mind and those that are independent of any mind. Not surprisingly, some have an existence that seems to bridge these two worlds: the physical and the mental. Take music, which can exist as a written score on a page or as physical compressional air waves; yet we experience it as some-Thing transcendent to the physical world that elicits emotions, memories and sometimes a tendency to dance or swoon or even cry. In this case, the How is utterly unfathomable.

We all have dreams that deceive us into experiencing something that literally feels and looks real, yet when we awaken we know it isn’t. Dreams are solipsistic, which means they only exist in our minds, but so do colours even though they appear external. Then there are stories, which like music, can exist as words on a page, yet in our heads can evoke strong emotions and take us to completely imaginary worlds, not unlike dreams. In fact, if we didn't dream, I wonder if stories would have any cogency. Stories embody imaginary Things by their very design, yet they are part of being human, as is all art.

Science, over centuries, has attempted to explain the physical world, yet it’s like peeling an onion. It has reached a stage where fundamental Things are described by quantum mechanical wave functions – mathematical entities that may or may not exist in the physical world. Mathematics appears to be a product of the mind, yet there will always be mathematical Things that we can never know because they are infinite, like all the digits of pi or every prime number. So is this a third category of Things?