Defining existence, like many philosophical terms, is a notoriously difficult task. Intuitively it is extraordinarily simple concept, which is a problem. When asked if anything exists anyone can give a quick binary answer: either it exists or it doesn’t. Humans exist, Unicorns don’t exist, black holes exist, and nothing that happens in a dream exists. It should be this easy, but it isn’t. Intuitive obviousness, while to some is a concrete argument, is both relative to the speaker and subject to the poorly understood complexities of the human mind. Unfortunately, intuition is also sneaky. It works its way into many arguments unintentionally, and is often difficult to uproot. The most bizarre situations happen when intuitive arguments are used to oppose other intuitive arguments. Existence is one of those concepts. The purposes of this post are not to solve the problems associated with existence, but instead to complicate it enough to shut down some of the more ridiculous arguments against the existence of god, the soul, or other equally ethereal entities.
Existence, as it is commonly thought of, is closely related to physics. If an entity exists in physics then we can say the object has material or physical existence. Therefore, a table exists because the laws of physics act on that table. If I pick it up, gravity will want to pull it back down. If I exert pressure on it, those forces will move it, and eventually break it. My body has physical existence for the same reason; everything I do with my body is subject to the laws of physics: same with trees, buildings, clouds, and the wind. In all cases, the defining quality of a physical entity is that the laws of physics govern their interactions with other physical entities. Therefore, they are quantifiable, observable, and absolute knowledge is assumed achievable through the application of the scientific method. Disproving physical existence is impossible using this definition. Just because I haven’t seen a unicorn, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. It is always possible that they do, I just haven’t come across it yet. This is the problem of induction, and is usually the argument that erupts when existence comes into question. I have no intention of discussing induction, but to merely mention that physical existence has far more worrisome problems then just induction.
How about Narnia, does Narnia exist physically? Most certainly not. Under our previous definition, Narnia cannot exist materially. It is not subject to the laws of physics, and instead is subject to the arbitrary laws put forward by the brain of C.S. Lewis. The interactions of elements inside Narnia are entirely predefined, and therefore untestable by the scientific method. For these reasons, it cannot exist materially. However, there is no reason why we can’t put forward a new definition that manages to classify this bizarre entity. While Narnia cannot exist materially, we can say that it exists as an idea. Ideas are complicated entities in and of themselves, and there is much discussion about what creates them. However, for the purposes of this post I’ll just assume that ideas are created by observing material existent objects. Therefore, C.S. Lewis created Narnia by observing things in the real world, and taking certain elements and putting them together in ways that are not always allowable by the laws of physics. Unicorns then are ideas also. Someone saw a horse and a narwhal then combined elements of both to create a unicorn. Ideas don’t have a material presence, but they do exist within our minds.
So now that we have solved all the problems associated with existence, let’s use it to answer a few questions. Obviously, everything I am capable of talking about exists as an idea so let’s just answer some questions about material existence. Do Dragons exist? Probably not. Does sound exist? Yes. Do computers exist? Yes. Do computer animations exist? No… Do Video’s exist? Yes.. Do movies exist if they were only distributed over the Internet? No… Maybe. Finally, does Juri exist?
Juri most certainly exists as an idea. I see a picture of her, I press buttons, and my eyes and ears get the impression that she moves around. I press other buttons and those same sensors get the impression that she is kicking other idea people. However, does she exist materially? This is a question that different people will intuit different responses. On one hand, she is a visual representation and nothing else. She isn’t human, but she is representative of one. On the other hand, she is still a product of, and subject to, physics. She is a product of a computer. When I push a button, a series of physical interactions take place. My actions put electrons into motion, which interact with the computers processor in a very physical manner. Eventually these electrons will make it up to my computer monitor, which outputs lights and sounds all of which happen in a very physically testable way. How Juri moves is both observable, repeatable, and subject to the same process that would allow a scientist to link it back to the greater theory of physics. The laws of physics govern everything about her, from the initial button push, to the light signal sent from the monitor, to how my eyes receive the light. Yet even now, if I ask ‘Does Juri Exist?’ one might be tempted to answer in the negative. One could argue that Juri herself doesn’t exist; however, instead she is just an idea created by a separate physical entity. The computer creates the idea of the existence of Juri, but the computer, not Juri, comprise the material presence. The problem with this argument is that it I can easily rework it to argue something intuitively absurd. I claim that the computer itself doesn’t exist materially. Molecules contain large amounts of electrons and protons. The electrons and protons bump around each other, each subject to the laws of physics, causing physical processes that send signals to my brain. These molecules, through physical interactions, are creating the idea of a computer in my mind, but the molecules, not the computer, comprise the material presence. The computer then is just as much of an idea as Juri is. However, the argument works recursively. We have no reason to stop with molecules. We can continue breaking objects down into smaller and more theoretical elements until we arrive at the limit element of that series: physics itself. In this way, the only conclusion we can arrive at, if we allow this argument, is that the only thing we can consider physically real is physics itself. Continuing this train of thought, the next question to pop into my head is, ‘What is Physics?’ If you ask a physicist, they will probably give you a long lecture of sorts. This lecture will include an argument, some tables, some numbers, the scientific method, and plenty of math all of which fail our definition of material existence. I can’t touch arguments, interact with tables, and the mathematician inside me cringes at the thought of claiming math is anything more than an idea. Therefore, we have arrived at the conclusion that since physics itself is an idea everything else is as well.
As we can see, the semantic leap between arguing Juri has no physical existence and arguing nothing has physical existence is extraordinarily tiny. Yet the idea that everything is idea is just as intuitively absurd as arguing that everything is physical. Unfortunately, the symmetric argument holds. If we argue that Juri does exist physically then the leap to argue that unicorns, ferries, and even Narnia exist physically is just as small because each idea entered our mind through some physical process. The very fact that we can put ideas into physical objects and transmit them between ourselves is extremely troubling for anyone wanting to argue that only provably physical objects actually exist.
Existence then cannot be a binary between ideal and physical. It must be seen as a gradient with connections at both ends. Things can become so physically real that they exist solely as an idea: like most of theoretical physics, and ideas can become so physical that they actively interact with the world at large: like Juri. There is a give and take relationship between the two. Sometime physics creates ideas, and sometimes ideas create physics. Ideas have such a large effect on the world that any detractor would be foolish to argue against them. Ideas start wars, rule societies, and evidently change the path of world history.
This is why I love computers. They are a gateway between the physical and the ideal. Juri is real, because the computer acts as a gateway allowing her to interact with the physical world. However, the computer has not changed physics. It has only given us a portal to see the world as it always has been. Existence then is not about physics, it is about the universe. Everything that interacts within the universe must exist in one form or another. I do not want to detract from the problem of classifying existence, but attempting to organize them into any meaningful categories is an extremely non-trivial endeavor. Right now, I can accept that all ideas are not created equal. I just have no logical method for telling them apart, if one exists at all.
Now we can answer the real question I wanted to discuss. Does God exist? Well the atheist will say he is imaginary, ideal, and therefore not real. My answer to them is, ‘He is an idea, and therefore exists.’ To the theist who demands that God must be more than just an idea I say, ‘He is an idea, what more do you want?’