Bits and Pieces — ‘Exists’ / ‘Real’


by Daniel A. Kaufman

1. You are talking with a friend who is, perhaps, a bit too taken with superhero comics. Halfway into an enthusiastic speech regarding the virtues of Captain America, you say to him gently, “You do realize that Captain America doesn’t exist, right?” What effect is this supposed to have on him?

2. Suppose your friend holds up the first issue of Captain America and says, “Of course Captain America exists. He’s existed since 1941.” Does this change anything?

3. Imagine he had confused Captain America with Superman and said that Captain America has existed since 1938. Would he be wrong in both cases or just in one? If in both, would he be wrong in different ways or the same way?

4. Assume that no one has ever created a Captain Yugoslavia comic. Both you and your friend agree that Captain Yugoslavia does not exist, yet you persist in disagreeing about Captain America. What is the issue between the two of you?

5. You tell your friend that of course, Captain America, the comic book character exists. It’s just that he isn’t real. Should this convince him?

6. Many Enlightenment philosophers used ‘real’ to connote ‘objective’, as in “colors exist, but are not real.” Does this help?

7. Your friend says: “Captain America was a model to me, during a difficult childhood. He gave me the strength and confidence to stand up for myself, when I was being bullied.” Suppose that he is telling the truth. Does this change anything?

8. Imagine that instead of superhero characters, the two of you are talking about elementary particles. Your friend claims that neutrinos do not exist. You say that they do and demonstrate your point by showing him photographs of tracks left behind by neutrinos, in a bubble chamber. In what way is this answer different than your friend’s point regarding the effect Captain America had on him?

9. What if there were scientifically sound studies showing that Captain America has had this effect on a statistically significant number of young people? Would that change anything?

10. Suppose you refine your point further and say, “Captain America doesn’t exist, in the sense that there is no such flesh and blood person in space-time.” Would this make a difference?

11. Would anything be different if the two of you were talking about God instead?

12. What is the point of trying to convince someone that something doesn’t exist or is not real, when he thinks it does/is?

13. Suppose we stopped concerning ourselves with what exists or is real and concern ourselves instead with what has efficacy? Would our lives or activities change much?

14. Is demonstrating that something does not exist or is not real supposed to undermine whatever efficacy it has?

15. It sometimes seems as if we are offended by the fact that someone thinks something exists or is real that we do not. Is it reasonable to take offense at something like this?

16. Is it the credibility of science that is the issue? That we give special credence to what science tells us exists?

17. Science has told us that any number of things exist that do not, like the luminiferous aether and caloric fluid. Does this affect science’s credibility?

18. Most people think that American states like New York and California exist. Does it matter that there is “no flesh and blood thing in space time” (or the relevant equivalent) that is New York or California?

19. American states certainly have efficacy. For example, they can tax and bring lawsuits.

20. According to political science and political economics, states are real. Does this matter?

21. Do different sciences enjoy different levels of “ontological credibility”? Which has gotten ontology wrong more often, the natural or the social sciences? Does it matter? Should it?

22. Most people think that The Tempest and Hamlet exist. Does it matter that there is “no flesh and blood thing in space time” (or the relevant equivalent) that is The Tempest or Hamlet?

23. In “On What There Is,” Quine worries about the “overpopulated universe” that results from expansive ontologies.

24. If a country is overpopulated, famine, housing shortages, and civil unrest may result. What are the negative consequences of ontological overpopulation?

25. Is the real problem a tacit fear of Platonism or other “queer metaphysics”? Is any such thing required in order for there be things like plays and states?

26. Is the problem perhaps that we take as a model of existence and reality discrete, material objects, such that it is difficult to imagine other sorts of things as existing or being real?

27. Shouldn’t natural scientists be the first to disabuse us of any such notion?


  1. A good topic.

    I’m probably a heretic on these issues. For background, I’m a mathematician, and I suppose I’m an amateur cognitive scientist. But I’m not a professional philosopher.

    I tend to agree with Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. And most of your questions relating to Captain America seem to fall within the range of usage in ordinary language, especially by someone obsessed with comic book heroes.

    I would expect the “flesh and blood” idea (in Q.10) to make a difference.

    On Q.8 (neutrinos), I would take that to be a technical discussion using technical language, so different from what is expected in ordinary language usage. I would guess that the friend was either questioning the physics, or he was committed to anti-realism.

    On Q.11 (God), that change would not much affect me. But, since I am supposedly discussing with a friend, I would tread lightly because it can raise issues and emotions.

    On Q.12 (what is the point?) – there is rarely a point in trying to persuade someone. But it can be useful to exchange ideas without concern for whether we persuade. I guess I should add that I see an existence proof in mathematics as attempting to establish an epistemic point, rather than an ontological point.

    Q.13 (efficacy). I am all for that. I’m inclined to go with efficacy as the basis for “exist” and “real”. We should accept something as existing, when that facilitates communication.

    Q.16 and 17 (science). I don’t see a credibility problem here, though perhaps that looks different to people who are less connected to science.

    Q.18-20 (states). I take it that states exist and are real. They exist by virtue of human conventions. I’m inclined to take “exists” as always connected with human conventions.

    Q.25 (Platonism). I have no fear of Platonism. I’ve already indicated, in prior topics, that I’m a fictionalist. But it doesn’t bother me that many mathematicians are Platonists. I can easily go from saying that the solution to an equation exists, to saying that numbers don’t actually exist. From my point of view, ontology seems to be greatly overrated.

    I’ll top this off with a comment about social conventions. I see it as a huge mistake of philosophy, to underrate the importance of convention. It looks to me as if the main reason that philosophers (and others) have problem understanding and explaining consciousness, is that they insist in crediting to God or to nature, what is really due to the working of the conscious mind (as in forming pragmatic conventions).

  2. What exists are mental states in my brain derived from sensory experiences. This is my most basic assumption since useful functioning would not be possible without it. They are elevated to the state of reality by
    1) consistent confirmatory experiences that result in a coherent model of the world.
    2) reports from others in the social net that consistently confirm the same experiences.
    3) we extend reality by accepting reports of others about things we cannot have confirmatory experience.
    4) in time the extended reality becomes far greater than our experienced reality.
    5) this is made possible by the trust we place in domain experts.
    6) the entire edifice can be likened to a vast tent tethered to the ground by pegs and billowing gently in the wind. The pegs are the empirical reports of science. The fabric of the tent is woven by us and represents the entire state of our knowledge about the world and ourselves. We are like microscopic creatures that populate different parts of the fabric and that gives us our local perspective.
    7) science adds more pegs in an attempt to tether down this vast, billowing tent, to give it more structure and stability. But most of the tent is out of reach of the pegs.
    8) it seems that we are running out of firm ground to peg down the tent.

  3. Dan

    Is there a problem understanding the way fictional characters or states or laws exist?

    Take fictional characters (and the narratives in which they are embedded). I guess I see this in terms of developmental psychology. Very young children have trouble distinguishing between the real and the fictional, but they gradually learn. There are some questions about linguistic usage, sure, but you seem to be wanting to go beyond such (relatively trivial) questions and make points about the relative standing of scientific versus arts-based disciplines, or about the relative epistemic authority (or “ontological credibility”) of science and religion.

    “What is the point of trying to convince someone that something doesn’t exist or is not real, when he thinks it does/is?”

    It depends. For example, you reassure a child who is afraid of the dark that ghosts don’t exist. Or a superstitious person that the broken mirror doesn’t entail 7 years bad luck.

    “Suppose we stopped concerning ourselves with what exists or is real and concern ourselves instead with what has efficacy? Would our lives or activities change much?”

    I would say we are concerned with what exists (how things are) mainly for practical reasons: because getting things wrong can have bad (as well, sometimes, as good) consequences. But there are also people who are just curious in a more or less scientific way. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Mark, part of the point of this series of questions was to make the observation that questions of what exists or is real are not scientific. Also to press the issue of why we feel the need to make qualifications regarding some of the things that clearly exist and are real, like states and laws.

      As for practical concerns, it seems to me that efficacy pretty much absorbs all of those.

      Part of what I am wondering is whether questions of existence and reality are not of somewhat trivial importance relative to other questions.

  4. Interesting questions, really sharpen the intuition about these topics. The problem with the existence of fictional entities is which entity are people referring to? Captain America is not some sort of immutable icon. As a patchwork of ideas of many writers he lacks the kind of coherency I would expect from a ‘real’ thing. Is the Caption America in fan fiction where he has sex with Tony Stark the same Captain America as affected your friend? Efficacy strike me as problematical as well. When the physical world affects us we usually have no say in the matter. For Captain America to affect requires some level of psychological conspiracy. For example, two people can both agree that Captain America influenced them as a model and helped them overcome bullying. But if one person says it was because Cap was an upstanding hero and the other says it was because he was a fascist who hurt people, it would be hard to insist that they have both been influence by the same real and external thing.

  5. Now the existence of social institutions seems to me to be entirely conventional. There is an agreement to follow certain rules ‘for the greater good’. The efficacy here seems to me to come from this agreed upon rule following. Something that does lead to institutional collapse when people decide not to follow those rules.

    • So what if they are conventional? Conventions don’t exist? Aren’t real?

      That’s sort of the whole point of the series of questions. To push on why we seem to think that the existence or reality of certain things need to be qualified somehow.

  6. What is real? One vivid and incontestable experience shattered all my certainties. This is the account of that experience, which I wrote many years ago…

    Mountain hiking is my obsession and I have always pushed the boundaries of the possible. One peak, Peak Formosa in the Tsitsikamma Mountains is the highest and most challenging in my locality. Climbing it from the North is a moderate challenge but climbing it from the South is a severe challenge. If you could climb it in two days from the south you gained entrance to the company of a select few. To climb it one day from the south was regarded as near impossible, but has been done. So I climbed it in two days, then one day and finally crossed over from the south to descend on the north side in one day and crossed back over the peak the next day, never done before.

    That is the background. Now I resolved to do the crossover, there and back in 24 hours, alone, like the other trips. More than impossible. So accordingly I trained very, very hard and, stacking the odds in my favour, chose a day with good weather forecast and full moon.

    With eager trepidation, absolutely determined to do what cannot be done, I set out and at quarter to midnight parked at the Mountain Club parking spot deep in the Tsitsikamma forest. To my astonishment I saw a VW Camper parked there and four young guys squatting next to a fire on the grassed parking area. The Camper was decorated with the flowers strongly reminiscent of the ’60s flower power era. The young guys were typical surfing dudes. They were on their way to Jefferies Bay, a surfing paradise further down the coast. I squatted next to the fire to warm myself and chatted to them briefly. They thought I was from the Forestry Department and immediately apologised for being there, explaining that they had driven deep into the forests to better see the sunset over the mountains. No, I was not from Forestry so they asked what I was doing in the forested mountain range at midnight. See that peak in the moonlight? Yes. I’m on my way to climb it. Oh, good luck then. Very casual and unsurprised, as I said, surfing dudes.

    So I set off on my long, hard and dangerous climb. As I steadily toiled up the mountain ridges in the moonlight I thought about them with dismay. The Forestry Department would find the traces of fire and we in the Mountain Club would be blamed. Too bad, nothing to be done now. And so I struggled up the steep slopes until disaster struck; heavy cloud rolled over the mountains bringing cold, wet, misty weather. With zero visibility I stopped, knowing that to continue would be inviting a sticky end. I curled up under some straggly bushes in the dripping rain and slept as best I could. The next morning I struggled back down the mountain slopes in bitter disappointment at my failed attempt.

    I got back to the parking area and saw that my surfing dudes had left. Concerned about our Club’s reputation I thought that I better try to remove all traces of the previous night’s fire.
    Now I searched, and searched and searched and searched again. There was no trace of fire. All I found was lovely pristine virgin grass that had never been disturbed. Impossible, so I searched again. But there was not the slightest trace, not even tire indentations in the grass. Confused and disbelieving, I went down on my hands and knees to crawl across the area, looking for signs of the fire. But there was nothing. I crawled across again in stupefied amazement, but still there was nothing.

    Now I was confronted with a contradiction, an impossibility. Something had happened that was plausible, consistent and left me with clear, tactile and detailed memories. And yet there was not the slightest trace it had ever happened. An impossibility. A deeply troubling experience since I am a rationalist[*] who rejects any suggestion of the ‘supernatural’ together with their coterie of suggestible, excitable and mendacious followers.

    So what had happened? Was I exploring the boundaries between reality, hallucination, imagination and something else? Well, at the minimum, an event had taken place in my brain that was sufficiently detailed, intense, vivid and consistent that it was indistinguishable from reality (whatever that might be). But then, if that was the case, how much of my experience of reality was real? What could I trust and why should I trust it?

    [*] Amusingly, this was written well before my conversion to Catholicism 🙂

  7. Yes, I have no problem with saying that conventions exist, though I’m not 100% certain I know what i mean by that 🙂

    To me there is an axis of arbitrariness that needs to be considered. If I come up with a fictional entity, then it’s existence is constrained only by my thinking. Maybe then entity becomes more real if I talk about to other people an make them think about it, though we can still change it in arbitrary ways with no issues. The natural world, however, is not arbitrary. Natural laws are just rules we have discovered that do an excellent job of describing the workings of the natural world. But you can’t just arbitrarily decide how gravity is to act. Institutions seem to me ways we try to make our fictions less arbitrary by imposing rules on them. Maybe I’d be happier with a continuum approach to this – things become more real the less arbitrary they become. Personal fictions at one end, natural science and mathematics at the other.

    Anyway, probably best to stop my stream of consciousness babbling and go take another look at Searle.

  8. Now that’s an interesting way to think of it. I don’t really know how to answer that. To me, even if the natural world is arbitrary, it’s the only one we have and the rules governing it are not arbitrary. I can’t just come up with a different natural world just by convincing several people to accept my new natural laws. That certainly seem to me a major difference between the ‘real’ world and fictional worlds.

  9. Suppose that I grew up in the Nullarbor Plain, and had never seen a tree nor had I ever heard of a tree. Then trees would not exist for me. But if somebody transported me to Central Park and walked into a tree, it would still hurt.

    We have different meanings for “exist”. That words are ambiguous with respect to meaning, is a feature of a natural language. And yes, I see it as a feature, not as a bug.

    I once asked a philosopher about ontology, because I didn’t see the point. This was with respect to ontology of mathematics (Platonism, for example). He explained that you cannot talk about things that don’t exist. “The cat is on the mat” would be false if cats did not exist. But it seems to me that having the concept of “cat” and “mat” is what we need to talk about cats on mats. We don’t need physical cats. We can have true and false statements about Sherlock Holmes, even though there is no physical Sherlock Holmes.

    A child, growing up, needs to acquire many concepts. Learning by a child is primarily concept acquisition. A child can learn from tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. He can learn, because he is forming concepts. That there are no justified true beliefs in that tale is of no importance. Concept acquisition ought to be at the very core of a theory of knowledge. “Justified true belief” might make sense for religious knowledge, but it cannot come close to account for knowledge of the world. Yet very little is said about concept acquisition, and it seems to be assumed that ontology is sufficient to cover that.

    When I mentioned the role of conventions in my earlier reply, I was particularly thinking of the social conventions that establish concepts.

    Philosophers tend to see me as obviously wrong, when I bring up a role for conventions. They see conventions as having no descriptive content. Well, of course, they are right that there is no descriptive content. The conventions are serving a different purpose. They are there to solve the intentionality problem (how can we connect our words to reality, so as to make it possible for us to talk about the world).

    • Well, I am a philosopher and I think conventions are among the most powerful — and real — aspects of our world. But then again, I am out of step with many of my colleagues, who seem obsessed with playing scientist-dress up.

  10. Captain America may be a distant relation of God if he is what the Hindus call your ishta devata, your chosen form of divinity. I don’t think he has any devotees in that sense. At a certain point he drops out of reality reckoning and is seen to be a creature of the mythopoeic power. He yields to rational explanation, that is his ‘kryptonite’. The concept of god may also be stunned by the argument from evil and proofs of his existence that are not convincing. We have moved from the childish acceptance of authority to intellectual inquiry and at this point God may suffer the fate of Cap.

    Clearly it is at this point that the rationalistic attitudes of mentors and teachers can have an effect and it is a commonplace if inaccurate theory that here there is an awakening into maturity expressed by the jettisoning of the cargo cult of childhood. Is it really like that or is it an atrophying of the religious life through disuse? There are philosophers who fancy that the Argument from Evil or lacunae in The Five Ways could play a part.

    If at this point we insist on holding on to the intellectual foundations of religion then our faith can have the tinge of arid rationalism. However there is a stage past that when Pascalian heart values assert themselves in a feeling of presence, of inward counsel in short, the mystical. It’s subjective of course and therefore out of bounds for the materialist.

  11. “26. Is the problem perhaps that we take as a model of existence and reality discrete, material objects, such that it is difficult to imagine other sorts of things as existing or being real?”

    I am inclined to think that material objects which humans perceive are merely appearances in the mind of the perceiver and what exists is unknowable to humans.

  12. 14. Is demonstrating that something does not exist or is not real supposed to undermine whatever efficacy it has?

    A religion is a complex of practices or a “form of life”. To talk about it as if it were in essence a set of claims about the world is philistine and (or therefore) fundamentally mistaken. All the more so if you pronounce (or just assume) that those claims must be (or want to be) “scientific”, and that the ultimate arbiter of their truth must be “science”. So long as you insist on treating religion as if it were mainly or only a kind of metaphysics, you and the average practitioner will keep on passing each other like ships in the night.

    Does the above paragraph fairly represent a certain liberal consensus about “movement atheism” – one shared in by many non-militant atheists (like me)?


    (1) Arguments (or “demonstrations”) that “X is/isn’t the case” don’t have to be good in order to be effective. (Fox News; Kellyanne Conway; Breitbart; £350 million extra per week for the NHS.) Repeating “But God doesn’t exist!” for more than four centuries can be effective like waves against cliffs.

    (2) How much are those “But God doesn’t exist!” arguments just symptoms or relatively articulate manifestations of what more and more of us have been thinking and feeling for well over four centuries? If each atheist polemic that gets 100,000 hits on YouTube is like a storm wave, its destructive power is as nothing to that of the wavelets the rest of us produce every time (which is almost all of the time?) we think and feel about the world as if it were explicable solely in terms of material cause and effect.

    (3) Sophisticated theologians can talk about religion as being about ritual, techniques for contemplation, the central thread in our social fabric, a conceptual language that works more like poetry than mathematics, etc. etc. – incomparably more than being about “truth claims”. But four centuries ago, people were burnt at the stake on account of differences between “truth claims”. Is it possible to imagine the energy that produced the cathedral being remotely compatible with talk like this: “Why not think of the soul as all of your deepest and dearest experiences, rather than as any kind of material or spiritual entity”?

    (4) I wonder how much the continuing “efficacy” of Christianity depends on its adherents’ continuing to feel – subliminally – the reverberations and aftershocks from the violent energy of its past (not 100% its past, of course), when “truth claims” were a matter of life or death? How much the relationship between the savage but passionate intolerance of theologians and church hierarchies in the past and their present emphasis on “spirituality” and “tradition” is symbiotic – a little like that between a cathedral and its gift shop, but much (or even) less honestly acknowledged to be such?

  13. I think that soecifying “flesh ans blood” does make a difference.

    Suppose I have invented Hesbert Heyleston in order to collect some welfare and pensions in his name. Maybe he becones a cause celèbre and inspiration – a brave wounded vet now struggling to get by in the country he made safe.

    Now suppose I give evidence under oath that Hesbert exists and is real. Clearly I am lying, I can’t claim that Hesbert exists and is real in the Captain America sense and expect to escape the penalty for lying under oath, even though he does exist in that sense.

    So it is the same words but different meanings

    With Captain Yugoslavia, would it make a difference if the people discussing him spent the night creating a detailed backstory for him. At what point does Cpt Yugoslavia begin to exist and be real?

  14. ontologicalrealist: I am inclined to think that material objects which humans perceive are merely appearances in the mind of the perceiver and what exists is unknowable to humans.

    That’s not my view. I take it that there is a reality, but that there are no objects. We carve up the world, and create what we see as objects by how we carve it up. It is said that we carve up the world at its seams. But I think we carve it in ways that we find useful and within our abilities. So there’s something unavoidably arbitrary about how we carve up the world. However, we are social creatures, and we tend to share how we carve with others, and that masks some of the unavoidable arbitrariness.

    Science also carves up the world. But the way it carves up the world is very different from the way that we do. And that’s why the scientific image is different from the manifest image.

  15. Rereading Rorty’s The Mirror of Nature at the moment. He classifies all this under “Epistemology and the Philosophy of Language” rather than ontology: mainly discussing truth and reference. “Discussions of the way in which truth is correspondence to reality float free of discussions of what there is in heaven and earth.” He spends a bit of time on what one is “really talking about” when one discusses a fiction.

    Here is one simple-minded scientific cum materialist view of Captain A: he is a property of certain comic books that has similar* effects on the reader as would exposure to information about a real-life character born in 1925 who was given an experimental serum providing “peak strength, agility, stamina, and intelligence”. In a similar way to cuckoo eggs leading to effects on birds that are similar to those if they had laid a supranormal egg. I am guessing that for a fictionalist like Neil R. above, the large numbers of physical artifacts that have the same effect on the reader or bird are connected to one another by a structural(ist) relation: correlation or identity for the stimuli, causality between stimulus and responding nervous system architecture.

    * Pace contra-causal and analogous reasoning, self-awareness of the utility of cognitive play

  16. Nick M:
    p.o.i. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination worldwide and in the U.S. If you want to know what they believe read their Catechism. I can assure you they believe in the actual Incarnation, virgin birth and resurrection. They do so not in any metaphorical sense. The Southern Baptists are the second most numerous Christian denomination in the U.S. When I googled their belief on the resurrection I found that they also believe it as an actual historical fact.

    Maybe those waves that you write about could be harnessed to produce atheist alternative energy? Suggestion for name of unit – a clifford.

  17. Thought provoking essay! Please excuse typos, I am really bad on IPAD. I like the efficacy approach. Seems to suggest pragmatism. Didn’t James think of truth as ‘what works’? I think conventions hold a lot of efficacy, but also think they are massively constrained by the way the world actually is ( nature ). Ideally I would think we would want our conventions and nature not to contradict each other, and hopefully we could be regularly making adjustments to better bring them into alignment. Thanks for the essay!

  18. Dan,
    “I think that one could very well draw Jamesian/pragmatist conclusions, upon meditating on the questions I pose.”

    Yes. What you call “efficacy,” I generally call ‘reliability,’ or just say (instrumentally) ‘it works.’ This can create its own problems in certain circumstances, but generally reduces needless bother concerning metaphysical technicalities.

    In my essay on Dr. Who, I made my own case as to how the ontology of a fictional character works. I also sometimes think of what I write as engaging what I call ‘social ontology,’ which concerns the social reality people see themselves in, in order to engage in certain behaviors or expressions. This has little to do with classical ontology, or with the kind of reality scientists discuss. In some cultures one sits on chairs, in others one sits on mats. This has nothing to do with ‘atoms’ or ‘flux’ (as per the Greeks), nor with ‘atoms’ and ‘quanta’ (as per modern science). Yet the expectations are very real to the people who live in these cultures.

    As I write this, I am sitting on something that has long been held to be ‘a chair,’ because in this culture, that’s how we get comfortable sitting. If I denied the object was a chair, or refused to sit on it and brought out a mat instead, or insisted a pile of sage brush be called ‘a chair,’ people would rightly think the matter a little odd. However such performance of the expectable behavior – ‘sitting on a chair’ – makes no claim as to the classical or scientific ontological status of the object, merely a social ontological status of the reality I share with those in my culture.

    (I confess I am not the best meditator, as I have never been able to adopt the lotus position on a mat without great difficulty, and have never held it long. I do my best meditation in a chair, as have a number of Quaker and Mennonite friends I’ve known over the years.)

  19. “Efficacy” is a pretty vague notion. It seems intuitive to me that different uses or purposes according to which a judgment of efficacy may be rendered don’t all bear on the question of the efficacious thing’s truth or existence in the same ways and to comparable degrees. That the spacetime posited by General Relativity can be used to tell a really gnarly sci-fi story seems to have much less influence on our credences than that it can be used to predict and model startling gravitational lensing phenomena. One likely reason for this is that the task of telling a gnarly sci-fi story is a pretty coarse-grained sieve; a lot of incompatible theories and ontological posits (established or wholly imaginary) could be appealed to in furtherance of this end. The particular scientific uses of GR, however, are much more specific and demanding, and thus seem to rule out a much larger set of rival theories and associated ontologies.

    For similar reasons, that God (qua object of belief) has been efficacious in helping so-and-so lead a fulfilling, morally upstanding life provides very little (though not, strictly speaking, zero) evidence for the existence of God, since plenty of other people achieve these ends with radically different beliefs. If, on the other hand, we lived in some alternative world in which organisms never evolved and had to make sense of their existence, we might well find God (or at least some sort of superpowerful designer) indispensable for the task. Now, one way we could make merely living a good life a finer-grained sieve would be to “indicize” it to the particular so-and-so making the existence claim. Maybe it’s true of Alice, owing to her particular circumstances and constitution, that only belief in God could afford her a fulfilling, morally upstanding life. But it could well be true of Bob, owing to his particular circumstances and constitution, that only an atheistic outlook could afford him a fulfilling, morally upstanding life. If one equates efficacy and “realness,” then, on this proposal, one would seem to be committed to a radical subjectivism about the existence of God.

    The point generalizes. If realness is just efficacy, with no further constraints or restrictions, then a collapse into subjectivism seems unavoidable. If we’re to be pragmatists with anything interesting to say, I think we need to maintain a conceptual distinction between efficacy and truth (or efficacy and realness, if we’re talking about the particular posits rather than the existence claims in which they figure) and have some sort of objective standard guiding our efficacy-to-truth inferences. Think more Peirce, less James.

  20. Hi Dan,
    The questions that you address are fundamental in so far as they always are at the bottom of our disagreements on the most important questions: The nature of the universe; moral and ethical questions; and how should I/we approach a solution to these eternal challenges ?

    You ask “27. Shouldn’t natural scientists be the first to disabuse us of any such notion?”, i.e. our imaginings are not real even though they obviously exist in our minds. This dichotomy has been the stumbling block for human understanding for millennia, ever since Democritus said that there are only atoms, everything else being opinion. And, judging from your Bits and Pieces, we haven’t quite yet figured out how to put this dichotomy into a coherent, rational and understandable perspective.

    As a natural scientist, but speaking only for myself, let me tender this approach for your consideration, starting at the top.

    A. We all exist with in a culture which is a mishmash of everything that humans do and say. Most, if not everything, in a culture is riddled with surreal symbolisms and abstract ideas that nevertheless have a profound impact on our behavior. Santa is not real but he exists. Values, religion, art, music, literature, poetry, tastes, wants, needs, etc. exist and appear to be ‘real’ but cannot be put into a bottle, caught in a net or put under a microscope. These things exist but ordinarily are not real. They are not made up of atoms. They are ‘ideas’ and artifacts that have a profound significance in our culture, that is to all of us individually and personally. They affect how we think and feel, they change the way our brain is structured.

    B. The brain is the seat of our mind, our most prized possession. We can survive without hearts and lungs and livers and kidneys but not the brain. And without my brain I am not me. I will have lost my mind. The simplest scientific understanding of the mind that is now emerging is that it is an organ of self-awareness generated through the interaction of billions of neurons, trillions of synapses and other cells, and unimaginable molecular mechanisms inside all of these miraculous structures. We stand in awe of the wonders of nature, but we forget that we are an intimate part of this miraculous scene, possibly its crowning glory. The brain/mind then is the place where all ideas are real, because all is finally represented in the flux of atoms, energies and forces. The virtual realities of things that exist in culture become represented in the real universe of the mind.

    C. Reality as it is. There is nothing but reality. Those things that seem to be not real but nevertheless exist, are real, but only because they are produced inside a mind/brain. All thoughts are real but what they are referring to may not be real.

    Cultural constructs are incredibly powerful and persuasive even as most of them are either completely fictitious or riddled with illusions and delusions. This division of the universe of information into fields of culture, mind and reality has powerful explanatory ability, and I suspect it will bring into question many of our assumptions about how to live and run society.

  21. I think that most of the people usually thought of as being the “sophisiticated theologians” of Christianity, say Plantinga, Pruss etc, are definitely making truth claims – at least the Incarnation, the Resurrection, that Christ is the only path to Salvation.

    • What would be the point then of expending all this effort in drawing a precise and rigorous distinction between, to put it very simply, the universe of stuff and the universe of the mind?

      The answer is quite simply that these two universes overlap in creating a third universe which is that very difficult to define entity, our culture.

      For me these distinctions have been very helpful in allowing me to better understand my fellow human beings individually and the culture in which I exist. I have become much more tolerant of the perceived problems in others. I also understand now that this powerful culture in which we socially interact is extremely powerful and determines to a very large degree what people think, feel and pursue. This is the positive side.

      On the negative side, it has become pretty obvious that humanity is not really in charge of its own destiny. Perhaps there is hope in that the people may now come to the realization that unless we ‘get serious’, we’re in for some very difficult times. I’m not too optimistic.

  22. I’ll bite…
    1 thru 4 – It’s a peculiar question one asks of a friend in #1 unless it is meant humorously. It would be very odd if either you and your ComicCon friend could not distinguish between purely conceptual things and actual beings who’ve had physical existence. Let’s call an object of sensory perception, which is physically objective, a ‘percept’. Then percepts and concepts need to be regarded with differing rules when it comes to speaking of them with reference to things like existing or being or ‘having reality’. Not only ‘need to’, but actually do in normal non-pathological practice.

    5-6 – Objective seems a clearer term than real, so I would not endorse the Enlightment philosopher parlance. If by this one is referring to Kant’s ding-an-sich dualism, I think Kant was wrong.

    7 – No, for same reason explained in (1-4)

    8-9 – Whereas 9 collapses into the (1-4) case, I believe, #8 introduces a new wrinkle. This is because science as currently modeled and practiced presumes physicalism as an unexamined axiom (and has achieved great technical momentum therefore). It is possible
    to conceive a science which eschews this assumption but retains the logical rigor in it’s methodology, in which case purely subjective concepts would be neither denied reality nor be seen as not deserving scientific inquiry and analysis. Nagel hints at this & I think the world is crying out for it. Anyway, since scientific convention as currently constituted honors the objective legitimacy of the neutrino track photos (and they are reproducible, I presume), we have the physical difference between C.A. and theoretical particles.

    10 – Yes, I think so; further I think this is the linguistic-semantic-conceptual scenario most people operate under.

    11 – No. Short of the objective/subjective gap having been bridged, even if friend A has verified according to his own thinking that God exists, subjectively, friend B, who let us say for the moment is hardcore objectivist, will not be able to stomach acknowledging the validity of A’s truth claims.

    12 – Of course this is too general a question to answer for all cases, but in the obj vs. subj reality example running through this thread, the only point is to argue and try to ‘win’. Which often means the convincer is also stuck at one pole of a long spectrum unwittingly, and that only by rising above this to a higher perspective would he see that his pole and the opposite pole which he formerly regarded as ridiculous form aspects of a unified whole.

    13-14 – I’m a little suspicious of substituting efficacy as a successor yardstick… I mean, I do not want to have any implication that consequences (or not) become the reliable and only indicator about what matters and how we spend our time. Maybe a different word is needed, not sure. In reading some of your recent writings concerning differences of opinion and stance between yourself and Massimo (especially about stoicism, virtue ethics, and so on), I’m left with too strong a taste of utility sometimes. Things and deeds and inner stances can and do have important effects in the world that we do not see in the immediacy of considering only pragmatism. Especially this kind of problem arose for me when you were talking about thriving (eudamonia) meaning succeeding (result) as opposed to simply doing. Like where you are going with trying to de-emphasize ontology debates, and admit of course that substituting ‘efficacy’ would amount to a difference, but it leaves some things out which are too valuable.

    15-16 – Well, the offense taken is very often on the part of the science nerd mentality, which as I said, is beholden to objective physicalism. So round and round the circle.

    17 – Science doesn’t tell us anything. But you know this. It just broadcasts intermittent results, findings, and thus places them at the mercy of the community for further deliberation. (And often money or politics decide when and if further deliberation will be happening.) Where truth concerning existence enters in has to do with interpetation, usually metaphysical and opinionated in nature and not actually demonstrated, or not demonstrated, by any experimental findings. Again, science has backed itself into a corner over nearly 400 years by taking a fork in the road which treated all things mental, internal, intentional, and subjective as out of bounds for study or within method. But a scientist or science journalist must employ these eschewed factors when arguing any meaningful stance about anything, and so the schism persists.

    18 – No.

    19-22 – No argument.

    23-24 – I haven’t read Quine, but his concern sounds like the concern of an avid reductionist.

    25 – Maybe. I think people (who do fear metaphysics) fear metaphysics because they want to resist kicking and screaming the idea that their abstract worldview is pretty thin in the face of current events and easily imagined near future events. In reality, we are constantly employing metaphysics all day long, so it would be pragmatic to delve into how and why a bit. Plato’s ideas, if ideals, were motivated in pragmatism.

    26 – Yes, that is a bigtime problem. Especially because we do so unconsciously without any skeptical scrutiny.

    27 – Only if the naturalism underlying the methodolgies of contemporary natural science can revolutionize itself so as to overcome the failed assumption of physicalism.

  23. Hi ontologicrealist,
    “The Cosmos represents Reality as it is, it is the foundational and generative basis of everything, including each one of us. With time (Evolution) it directly gave rise to Life.” Johannes Lubbe, WordPress, my associate.

    Before about 5 billion years ago our solar system was inanimate. And since then it has evolved into what we see now. All this was due to the processes inherent in reality as it is. We have, as human beings, an extremely limited understanding of all of this, despite the tremendous amount of information that has come to light in the last hundred years or so.

    Understanding the nature of reality as it is would require a very concerted creative imaginative effort based on all the available information about objective reality around us. It is doubtful that any one human being could ever succeed in doing this. Perhaps some computer generated virtual reality my help in this regard. A view from everywhere would be required, except that most of the universe is not amenable to visualization. How could one visualize gravity or dark matter or dark energy?

    Normally we talk about objective reality in plain language. This is essentially an anthropocentric projection of our surroundings. We have no direct phenomenal access to reality as it is. So, on the one hand we are entirely made up of, entirely dependent on and entirely surrounded by reality as it is, but our conscious awareness of it is by means of an indirect representation. And most of these representations have little to do with what is being represented. They are primarily means of codification so that our understanding can access them.

    It is therefore not possible to give examples of reality as it is. We see, taste, smell and hear reality as it is but these sensations are entirely created by us in response to certain physical stimuli that do not contain these representations at all. To put it another way: red, sweet and perfume are not features of physical objects, but are generated from within.

    I have been agnostic about religion my entire adult life, but could not help noticing the parallels between this proposed tripartite division of reality and the Holy Trinity of the Roman Catholic Church: reality as it is corresponds to God the Father, life and consciousness corresponds to the Holy Spirit, and the teachings of Jesus addresses the problems and challenges of culture and society.

  24. OR,
    What is your definition or meaning of…reality, existence

    Reality is our experience of whatever it is that exists. We do not have direct access to existence, only to reality, and that only through experience, which masks reality while reality in turn masks existence). We have immediate experience(our own), vicarious experience(that of others) and extended experience(observations through instruments).

    We have developed a set of codes(language) to transmit and share experiences with a result that has transformed our species since our shared experiences are immeasurably larger than our immediate experiences. Our shared experiences validate our immediate experiences, grounding our understanding of reality. That is their immediate utility. Extended experiences impart depth to our understanding of reality(science).

    But along the way our coded representation(language) of our shared experiences has revealed something much more than shared or extended experiences. It has acquired a life of its own, independent of reality, that has some very strange properties(I use the terms reality and material world interchangeably).

    1. Efficacy.
    The Universe runs immutably according to a set of regular, mathematical laws of nature and yet ideas have an independent causative power.

    2. Fecundity.
    Ideas can beget entirely new ideas, something that does not happen in reality where we find that only transformation is possible, not creation.

    3. Infinitude.
    Moreover there is no limit to the ideas that can be created, unlike the world of reality where the number of particles are always fixed.

    4. Immateriality.
    While ideas are represented in material ways they are independent of the manner of their material representation.

    5. Persistence.
    Ideas do not naturally degrade or change as the material world does. They are not subject to entropy, while the material world is always subject to entropy.

    6. Transcendence.
    Ideas give us access to properties that cannot be found in the material world. At the highest level these have been identified as the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

    These six properties of the conceptual world are either derivative of the material world or they have a source independent of the material world. Today’s card bearing materialists believe that they must somehow be derivative of the material world even though this cannot be shown. It is an article of faith. On the other hand, if they have a source independent of the material world we must accept that existence is more than perceived reality, something that today’s materialists instinctively reject. This explains the unease with which the writings of Chalmers and Nagel have been greeted.

    • “Reality is our experience of whatever it is that exists”

      Our experience? Are you saying that your experience, another human’s experience and an insect’s experience are all exactly the same? If not then are you saying that every being has his own separate reality? Please clarify.

  25. ainsophistry: If realness is just efficacy, with no further constraints or restrictions, then a collapse into subjectivism seems unavoidable.

    What do you mean by “subjectivism”? And why would this be a collapse, rather than an ascent into a better understanding of our relation to the world?

    I used “google” to look up “subjectivism”. And there was very little consistency between the different accounts. I could mostly agree with some versions of “subjectivism”, while strongly disagreeing with others. So it is far from clear that you have identified a problem.

  26. OR,
    Are you saying that your experience, another human’s experience and an insect’s experience are all exactly the same?

    No, each person’s experience is private.

  27. labnut, Thank you for your clear and to the point answers.

    You said, reality is the experience of whatever it is that exists.
    then you said, each person’s experience is private.

    So are you saying that every being has his own private, separate reality? Please clarify.

  28. Neil Rickert,

    I was hoping the intended sense of “subjectivism” would be clear from context. If I take truth to simply be efficacy (without specifying some 3rd person standard of efficacy), and if p is efficacious for some and ~p efficacious for others, then either we have a contradiction on our hands or we have to say that p is true for some and ~p is true for others. For some classes of propositions, of course, this is not problematic, but when it comes to a lot of existence claims or claims about what sure seem like public, 3rd-person-accessible facts, then we run into a host of difficulties, one of the more mundane but important of which is that it becomes much harder to have meaningful conversations with each other.

  29. ainsophistry: If I take truth to simply be efficacy …

    Nobody has suggested that, as far as I can tell. For sure, that is not what I mean by “truth”.

    Dan was proposing efficacy for how we decide what exists. Or, at least, that was my reading. And that’s not at all the same as what we take “truth” to be.

    We use truth as a vital part of interpersonal communication. It could not be efficacious for truth to be entirely subjective, because that would destroy its value as used in communication. And, for that matter, it cannot be efficacious for what we take to exist to be entirely subjective, particularly if we want what we take to exist to be part of our communication with others.

  30. OR,
    So are you saying that every being has his own private, separate reality?

    No. Each person’s experience is private but not separate. They are not separate in the sense that we align our memories of our experiences with the reported memories of other people’s experiences.

    Let’s say we are discussing Sauvignon Blanc wine. You tell me of a particular fine variety you had tasted and I recognise your description because they evoke similar memories. You say that its’ aromatic signature of citrus, boxwood, and fig leaves is particularly pronounced but unusually with a strong hint of candied orange. I recognise your description because I have memories of the smells of citrus, boxwood, fig leaves and candied orange. When I sample a wine I might recognise it as the same(or similar) Sauvignon Blanc because I recognise a bouquet that matches your description.

    We have aligned our private experiences by appealing to experiences of similar things. That is the best we can hope for because I can never have direct access to your private experiences of the bouquet of Sauvignon Blanc.

  31. Neil,

    I don’t really see how confining the discussion to questions of existence gets us out of the woods. For every putative existent x, it seems, there is a possible claim of the form “x exists” (or “something exists that is x” or “there exists a y such that y=x”) with a determinate truth value. In my original post, I cautioned against conflating efficacy with both truth and existence/reality for precisely this reason.

    I actually don’t think Dan makes this sort of inference (he seems to be suggesting that questions of efficacy are more important, day-to-day, than questions of existence), but you puzzled me when you said, in your first reply: “I’m inclined to go with efficacy as the basis for ‘exist’ and ‘real.'” I’m happy to see that you don’t want to subjectivize these things, but it seems to me that your preferred criterion of “facilitat[ing] communication” is an exceptionally low bar that would still admit way too much and thus fail to keep the general spectre of relativism at bay (we’d just be relativizing what exists to groups playing a shared language game rather than individuals). I’m also wondering how this could be reconciled with your later denial of the existence of objects (a claim with which, for what it’s worth, I have quite a bit of sympathy). Very few things likely do more to facilitate communication than objects.

    I should clarify: It’s not that I don’t think efficacy has nothing to tell us here. It’s an indicator of what exists (or what is true), but an imperfect and defeasible one. We have no god’s eye view of the fit between the world and our representations of it, so we must assess the accuracy of those representations by seeing what can be done with them. So we test them, make them pay rent, use them as predictive and explanatory tools. But not all efficacy tests are equally difficult, and so not all of them are equally informative. Those that are the most revealing are those that make the truth of our representations (and the legitimacy of their posited ontologies) the best available explanation for their performance on those tests. That’s really my big-picture point here. If we treat every test as equally relevant and discriminating, then we’re going to run into situations in which we’ll have to choose between embracing contradictions or relativizing ontology.

  32. For every putative existent x, it seems, there is a possible claim of the form “x exists” (or “something exists that is x” or “there exists a y such that y=x”) with a determinate truth value.

    You have made a decision about existence before the possibility of a claim even arises. So existence and truth are separate issues.

    As I see it, we carve up the world. And then we decide that the parts, into which we carved, exist. It is said that we carve the world at the seams. But the world does not dictate to us, how we should carve it up We carve the world in ways that are within our abilities and that are useful to us. We can come up with principles that we claim to follow in our carving. But those principles all seem to be ad hoc. I can’t see how it is anything other than efficacy and our abilities that are involved.

    This seems pretty obvious for geographic states.

    Why do we say that dogs and cats exist? Why not, instead, say that small animals exist. I can’t see that it is anything other than efficacy that leads us to distinguish between cats and dogs. Or take Quine’s “gavagai” argument. Does the field linguist conclude that “gavagai” mean rabbit, or rabbithood or undetached rabbit parts. He will probably go with rabbit, because that seems most efficacious.

    If I replace the wiper blades on my car, is it still the same car? If I keep the wiper blades, but replace everything else, is it still the same car? I doubt that there is anything more than efficacy involved in how we make those decisions.

  33. You have made a decision about existence before the possibility of a claim even arises. So existence and truth are separate issues.

    You’re speaking of temporal causation while I’m speaking of entailment.

    As I see it, we carve up the world. And then we decide that the parts, into which we carved, exist. It is said that we carve the world at the seams. But the world does not dictate to us, how we should carve it up We carve the world in ways that are within our abilities and that are useful to us. We can come up with principles that we claim to follow in our carving. But those principles all seem to be ad hoc. I can’t see how it is anything other than efficacy and our abilities that are involved.

    This seems pretty obvious for geographic states.

    Why do we say that dogs and cats exist? Why not, instead, say that small animals exist. I can’t see that it is anything other than efficacy that leads us to distinguish between cats and dogs. Or take Quine’s “gavagai” argument. Does the field linguist conclude that “gavagai” mean rabbit, or rabbithood or undetached rabbit parts. He will probably go with rabbit, because that seems most efficacious.

    I agree with the general anthropological point that this is, in fact, how we tend to go about things. But there seem to me two distinct senses of “exist” in play here. There’s the sense that’s grounded in this practice of making efficacious use of certain concepts and categories, but you also seem to hold to a sense in which these things (e.g., objects) don’t really exist. Is this a fair characterization, and if so, what do you take the relationship to be between efficacy and this second, more restrictive sense of “exist”?

  34. But there seem to me two distinct senses of “exist” in play here. There’s the sense that’s grounded in this practice of making efficacious use of certain concepts and categories, but you also seem to hold to a sense in which these things (e.g., objects) don’t really exist.

    Then I think we don’t really disagree.

    I began my first reply to this post by mentioning Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”. And I thought I was clear that my comments about “exist” were based on that.

    Suppose some tribe did not distinguish between cats and dogs, but referred to them all as “small animals”. For members of that tribe, small animals would be in their ontology, while neither cats nor dogs would be. But, as outsiders describing their way of life, we would simply say that they do not distinguish between cats and dogs. We would not say that they deny the existence of cats and dogs.

    As for the kind of “exist” that you use at the very end of that quote: it seems to me that an uncountable infinity of things exist in that sense, but we can only have names for finitely many of them.

  35. labnut,

    I think that your example shows only that several subjects can have similar realities but not the same reality (to which I certainly agree). Then there will be different degrees of similarities between different subjects, for example, there will be more similarity between your reality and another human’s reality than between your reality and an insect’s reality.

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