The Many Things That Don’t Exist

by Charlie Huenemann

Lots of things don’t exist. Bigfoot, a planet between Uranus and Neptune, yummy gravel, plays written by Immanuel Kant, the pile of hiking shoes stacked on your head — so many things, all of them not existing. Maybe there are more things that don’t exist than we have names for. After all, there are more real objects than we have names for. No one has named every individual squid, nor every rock on Mars, nor every dream you’ve ever had. The list of existing things consists mostly of nameless objects, it seems.

So there also must be a lot of nameless things that don’t exist. The collection of two marbles in my coffee mug — call it “Duo”. Duo doesn’t exist. Nor the collection of three marbles (“Trio”), nor the collection of four marbles, etc. Beyond Duo and Trio, there is an infinity of collections of marbles in my coffee cup that don’t exist, and the greatest portion of them, by a long shot, are nameless. Think of all the integers that don’t exist between 15 and 16. None of them have names. The world is full of them, or it would be, if they existed.

My guess is that there are more nameless things that don’t exist than there are nameless things that do exist. I have read that there is a finite number of particles that exist in the universe, and that’s probably going to limit the number of nameless existing things, somehow. But think of all the particles that don’t exist! There are far more of them, right?

How do we distinguish the nameless objects that do exist from the nameless objects that don’t exist? We could just say that the ones in the first group exist while the other ones don’t, and we would be right, but that doesn’t really explain how we tell the difference between the two.

I suspect there are probably multiple explanations. If you ask me how I know my coffee mug exists, and how I know there isn’t a one-centimeter-long pterodactyl perched on its rim, my answer in each case will be the same: “I can tell by looking”. I can also tell by looking that the puppy running on my desk doesn’t exist (though I’m sure it would be cute if it did), and that the alligator in my pantry doesn’t exist (though I will have to get up and have a look, if I really want to see it not existing, and yes, I am very interested in seeing that it does not exist).

In other cases we distinguish the nameless existers from the nameless not-existers by some manner of inference. There are zillions of nameless molecules in my sock, or so I infer from what I have read about molecules. There are zillions of nameless Vikings not existing in the Sahara Desert, or so I infer from what I have read about Vikings and about the Sahara Desert. In each case our knowledge implies things not existing just as much as it implies things existing. It’s impossible to have one without the other.

Indeed, things that don’t exist have monumental consequences. Wars have been waged over tributes that didn’t exist, and over offers to share resources that were not made. Romantic relationships fail over things not done. Exams have been flunked over answers that did not exist. Lives are shaped as much by what is in them as what is not.

Philosophers tend to get skittish when they’re around things that don’t exist. They worry that they might get caught saying something exists when it doesn’t, or saying it doesn’t when it does, and either way gets them in trouble. Normally to say something true about things that do exist means arranging words in a way that somehow reflects what is happening among those things. Parallel reasoning suggests that saying something true about things that don’t exist means arranging words in a way that somehow reflects what is happening among those things. But the problem is that nothing is happening among things that don’t exist. So there isn’t anything there to reflect. Of course, things are not happening among things that don’t exist all the time, and we can at least speak the truth about them.

We spend much of our time, probably too much of our time, thinking about things that don’t exist. It is surprising how much effect a thing that doesn’t exist can have, or how much worry or anxiety it can cause. But it can cause delight as well, as novels and films demonstrate. If we had to spend all our time only on existing things, we might have fewer worries, but we would be bored.

What’s the point of this short essay? Well: isn’t it obvious?