Lots of Things Exist, but You and I are Not Among Them

by Charlie Huenemann

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Of course, it pays to be cautious when you read philosophers writing about what exists. They are slippery, weaving in and out between “in one sense” and “in another” like clever eels wearing togas. The fact that we can talk about what doesn’t exist has long been a problem for philosophers: for what are we talking about? Surely what doesn’t exist must exist in some sense!

So, of course, in one sense just about anything we can talk about exists: it exists even just as a concept, or a figment, or a thin abstraction, or some ghostly possible being. But, in another sense, when we really get down to it, and wrestle to the ground the protean stuff that really does exist — the stuff that even God would be forced to recognize as existing (that is, if God really did exist) — well, there’s not as much of it. We can talk about more than there is.

Good thing, too, as I think that most of the things we concern ourselves with — including ourselves — don’t really exist. Bruises, cancers, headaches, memes, bars of gold, economies, jobs, gods, angels, souls, friends, enemies, alliances, and wars: none of these things exist. Not really, not ultimately, not as God sees the world (assuming, again….). All of those things depend crucially on cognitive systems which construct models satisfying their experience, and which project those models onto the so-called “world”, which, whatever it is, does not contain the elements postulated by those models. And — you probably guessed it — cognitive systems don’t really exist either. Now comes the part where I try to explain myself.

Ultimately, I think, what exists is possibility and energy. (I write more about this in another essay.) By “possibility” I mean mathematical possibility: groups and structures and entities that can in principle be described through their mathematical properties. The realm described through mathematics is more expansive than we can possibly imagine or describe. It is unlimited by dimensions or materials; it is limited only by a narrow band of internal consistency. We can think of it as Plato’s heaven, if we like (Julian Barber calls it “Platonia” in his book The End of Time), though we had better give Plato a crash course in modern topology, as well as abstract algebra and the whole of contemporary mathematics. And even that won’t be enough, as there will always be more mathematical possibilities than any finite group of axioms or theories will allow (as Kurt Gödel once showed).

Some of these mathematical possibilities get real when they are married up with energy. Don’t ask me how a possibility gets “energized”, and don’t ask me why some possibilities become real and others don’t. Maybe all possibilities exist in some universe or other; or maybe only some of them do. (Leibniz thought just the biggest coherent set of them, bound by the simplest laws, became real, and that helped to make them the best of all possible collections of entities.) But, at the very least, some merely possible entities become something more than merely possible. The difference here — between the merely possible and the actual — is not a difference that can be articulated, except by grunts and pounding the table and deploying wondrous words like “oomph”.

So, ultimately, what exist are mathematical structures. As you can imagine, these structures can become very complicated and can interact in complicated ways. Eventually emerging from these complicated interactions — to make a too long story too short — are cognitive systems. Those systems set about interpreting their interactions as experiences, and modeling the world, and blahblahblah, there you have it: out pops all the stuff we are tempted to call “existent”. The manifest image, or what the world seems to us, is a layer cake of interpretation, supported at the bottom by energy and bare mathematical possibility.

And we’re not exactly wrong. In one sense, what we think exists does exist. As Leibniz would say, the objects of our experience are “well-founded phenomena”, which means they have at least one foot in genuine reality. But in another sense, what we think exists is only some sort of interpretation or projection of what is really “there”. An accurate account of what’s really there can be given, if at all, only in the language of mathematics.

For an analogy, imagine entering into a metaphysical dialogue with a group of NPCs (non-playable characters) in your favorite content-rich computer game. Ultimately, you explain to them, the objects they interact with, their worlds, and even they themselves do not exist except as manifestations of some computer code that is deeply unlike anything they think they experience. “But what about the blue sky, that brown cow, and this iron bar?” they ask. “They sure seem real. They must be something. Don’t they exist in some sense?” Well, yes, you answer; in one sense they do exist, as apparent entities surfing upon some deeper set of structures that somehow determine how they seem. But in another sense they are fictionalized projections out of those deeper structures. Ultimately, it is the code that exists in the universe of the NPCs. Everything in their world, including themselves, is only a projection and interpretation of that code. (If you are successful in your explanation, one of the NPCs might go on to write this very essay.)

So what? Who cares? Why bother with all this in-one-sensing and in-another-sensing if, in the end, we still have to deal with the clunky world as we find it? The point of this discussion might be better appreciated when we see that it is at its core a very old philosophical school of thought known as neoplatonism. The Neoplatonists similarly insisted that reality is a coherent mathematical unity, and everything that seems to us to be something more than mathematical is a kind of illusion or shadow of what truly is. From this cool insight the neoplatonists found a certain measure of peace in themselves and patience with the world. They knew that they were living in a kind of illusion, one that demanded their attention, but was not a final story.

Neoplatonism does not drive us irresistibly into a world-denying and apathetic asceticism (though it can, if that’s your thing). It moderates the extent to which we attach ourselves to our hopes, irritations, dreams, and fears. The view serves to remind us that reality is not what we usually take it to be, and that understanding it might mean that we have to re-evaluate what is important, or why it seems important to us. It reveals the world of our concerns as a bit more tenuous, improbable, and fragile, which may well encourage us to be more careful with it, and more appreciative of it. When duly appreciated, realizing the truth and depth our own non-existence sure takes a load off.