Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Degrees of being

I have been reading a lot of philosophy recently, and that has got me thinking about the meaning of "existence" and "being."  Some philosophers make a great deal of existence (e.g. Heidegger, whom I have not read), and of course some of the great debates of history have concerned the reality of concepts (Plato and Aristotle, Realists and Nominalists).

I have always thought that existence is synonymous with physical existence. What does it mean for non-material objects (Congress, the mind, a word) to "exist"? They exist as a series of relationships, e.g. Congress is a building associated with a number of people who are related by their position and responsibilities. In that sense, it can be said to exist only relatively, i.e., to the extent that the relationships may be considered coherent. (In other words, Congress exists "more" than society, because there is a relatively clear set of rules defining Congress, whereas society is a much looser concept.)

But physical objects are really the same. I really exist in that I am made out of matter, but to what extent is the matter related enough to say that "I" have a meaningful existence as an agglomeration of matter? If I lose an arm or a hand, do I still exist? What if my brain stops functioning? Is it meaningful to say that I am no longer a person because of what I no longer do, even though all the same matter is present? This is known in philosophy as the ship of Theseus thought experiment.  Suppose Theseus had a ship that had to be maintained by replacing rotting boards with new ones; and suppose that, eventually, every board had been replaced.  Would it be the same ship?  If not, at what point did it cease to be the same ship and become some other ship?  The only sensible solution to this, in my opinion, is that the ship has degrees of existence.  It is not quite the same ship after replacing one board, but it is close.  After replacing half the boards, it is much less the same ship that it was before, although I would stop short of calling it a different ship altogether.  After replacing all the boards, it is not the same ship at all, but the change is only relative, since it had very little of the original ship in it before the last board was replaced.  There was not a magical moment when it moved from being Theseus's ship to being some other ship.

Like Theseus's ship, all things are really agglomerations of molecules, molecules of atoms, atoms of protons and electrons, those of quarks...surely a proton has a meaningful existence, as does an atom, an element, or a piece of wood, but they are all relative and subject to edge conditions.  Here is another example:  a set of tools.  If a store sells a set of, say, ten tools in a box, I don't think anyone would deny that it is a "tool set."  Nevertheless, the tools have no relation to each other besides physical proximity. If you take away a tool, it's still a tool set, not a tool set minus one tool. But if you take away all but one tool, it's no longer a set. What about all but two tools? If I throw a non-tool into the toolbox, does it cease to be a tool set because it now has something else, e.g. a phone, in it?

So when I say "I" exist, clearly the matter that constitutes me exists, but the question is, to what extent does that matter form a coherent "me"? And what would we say that I am? I am an organism, of course; an animal; a mammal; a human; a male; an adult; a father, son, husband, and brother; a programmer, an historian...Does it matter which of these we use to describe me? Clearly we wouldn't say I'm a spaceship, ergo, I don't "exist" as a spaceship. I do exist in clearly classifiable categories, but does something cease to exist if we can't classify it? No, but what does it mean to say "it" exists if we have no classification? It might not be an "it" at all but a "they," an agglomeration of unrelated things that happen to be together, without meaningful relationships among themselves.  (For example, the "sewer creature" discovered in Raleign, NC about 5 years ago.) On the other hand, if we have lots of classifications, as we do for me, does that alter tha nature of my existence? It doesn't alter me as in the matter that makes me up, but does it change how we define that matter?

I'm applying this to matter, but I'm thinking of it more in terms of ideas and institutions. Thatcher said "society doesn't exist, only individuals and families." I'm inclined to agree with her, but by my definition there definitely is such a thing as society. It is less real than families, which are less real than individuals, but it would be silly to say that these things don't "exist." It's strange, though, because some things have only mental existence, i.e. a friendship can cease to exist simply because one person decides it does; a society can slowly become less of a society, or more, as people's relationships change. No physical changes are necessary to alter the "existence" of a concept.

I wonder how this applies to words. We may debate whether "love" exists by some standard definition, but there are clearly some emotions that establish relationships among people. The idea of "triangle" exists even if we have never seen three lines connected to form one. But this seems to be a different kind of existence, although I'm not sure how.