We've moved!

Check out our new site at
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Things Really Exist?

FROM JOHN LESLIE, AN EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH: As well as such things as stones, the real world contains qualities of things: For instance, a particular stone is red. Now, many philosophers insist that though qualities REALLY EXIST, they aren’t themselves REAL THINGS. To be a real thing, they declare, a whatnot has to be able to exist all by itself, at least in theory. The redness of the stone couldn’t exist all by itself, without the stone, could it? To call it a real thing is misuse of the English language.
However, such verbal hairsplitting doesn’t interest ordinary folk. Ordinary language, therefore, takes no firm stand on the real-thing-ness of qualities. Mr. Dunce, for example, is foolish, really foolish. Question: Is his foolishness a REAL THING, or is it instead just A REALITY? Please yourself! How to use English here is entirely up to you. That’s the only answer the question ought to get.
Here, though, is a more interesting question: Was Plato right? In addition to the world of things like stones, is there a realm of abstract realities? Are there real whatnots that don’t depend for their reality on the existence of concrete objects such as galaxies, stones, atoms, or you and me?
Answer: Plato was right. There are infinitely many abstract realities. There is, for example, the reality that two and two make four. I take this to mean that—genuinely, which of course makes it A REALITY—IF there were to exist any two sets of two things (for instance, galaxies), THEN there would exist four things. This IFFY-THENNY affair doesn’t derive its reality from the existence of any concrete objects such as galaxies or humans who count them. What if all such objects suddenly vanished? In the resulting emptiness, it would still be a reality that IF any two sets of two galaxies ever were to exist, THEN there would be four galaxies. This reality inhabits the Platonic realm.
The Platonic realm contains infinitely many mathematical realities. Also, infinitely many realities of being possible, where this means being what might, without contradiction, enter into an actual, concrete situation. A trillion apples, for example, would involve no contradiction. Those apples wouldn’t be as absurd as round squares. The Platonic realm contains infinitely many possible apples. Infinitely many possible dragons, too, if they’d not be like round squares either.
Further, the Platonic realm contains infinitely many IFFY-THENNY realities of good and evil. For instance, it’s presumably real that IF there were to exist a trillion intelligent and happy beings, THEN this would be a good state of affairs.
Shouldn’t we say, though, that being a Platonic reality doesn’t make a whatnot into AN EXISTING THING? Despite the vagueness of the word “thing,” this could be wise. It could help make the point that the contents of the Platonic realm are in a way none too important. Breaking a vase could be cause for weeping. The Platonic realm contains infinitely many broken vases, but no tears need be shed over them. Almost all of them will forever remain merely possible vases, “unactualized” Platonic realities, whatnots that are non-things or at least shouldn’t be called existing things.
Maybe Plato’s writings aren’t very clear or very right on these matters. They can give the impression that the actual vases in our universe are in part illusory because they lack the eternal, unconditional reality of mathematical facts or of The Perfect Vase, which, inhabiting the Platonic realm, is a far more valuable component of Reality than any actual vase. Maybe Plato turns in his grave when I describe the Platonic realm as filled just with possibilities plus consequences that would accompany any actualization of those possibilities.
Consider the reality that red is nearer to orange than to yellow. I take this to be the reality that IF any red objects, orange objects, and yellow objects were to exist, THEN the red ones would be nearer in color to the orange ones than to the yellow ones. A reincarnated Plato might shrink from such IFs and THENs. He might yearn for non-IFFY whatnots called The Form of Redness and The Form of Yellowness, with The Form of Orangeness situated somehow in between them. However, that looks a mistake.
I like to say, though, that I’m a follower of Plato. Above all, I think Book Six of his Republic right in suggesting that the reason why our universe exists is simply that its existence is good. You could express the point as follows: As an eternal and unconditional reality, the existence of any universe like ours would be a good affair, the satisfaction of a requirement that can be called “ethical.” Now, this may well be why our universe exists.
Dealing with all goods and evils, Ethics extends well beyond Morality, which deals only with good and evil actions. An eternal, unconditional, universe-creating requirement couldn’t possibly be a MORAL requirement. Moral requirements are merely needs for people to behave in various ways. Their reality isn’t unconditional since they could exist only when at least one concrete object—at least one person—had already arrived on the scene. In contrast, the ETHICAL requirement that there exist a good universe doesn’t depend on the arrival of any person or thing. It’s simply a requirement that’s fortunately satisfied if a good universe exists, and that unfortunately fails to be satisfied if there’s no such universe. Call it an “axiological” requirement if you want, but it can be preferable to avoid such philosophically coined words. So long as you don’t treat “ethical” as always only another way of saying “moral,” “ethical” can do the job nicely.
In many places, but in most detail in my book Infinite Minds, I’ve argued that there’s no absurdity in the idea that an ethical requirement is responsible for the existence of our universe. It would make no sense to say that the reality that two and two make four, or redness, or loathsomeness, had created a universe. In contrast, the ethical requiredness of that universe could be in the right ballpark because ethical requirements are requirements for things to exist.
All the same, it can be difficult to sell the idea that one such requirement did create our universe. For a start, there’s the knee-jerk objection, “Only concrete objects ever create anything. An omnipotent divine Person could create everything apart from himself, but first he’d have to exist for some reason unknown. Some reason, anyway, having nothing to do with the abstraction that his existence would be something good. We all know that abstract realities exert no power!”
“Sez who?” could be the best reply to this objection. It’s a thoroughly question-begging objection, isn’t it? And don’t many theologians write that God is an abstract creative principle, not any kind of person? IF a universe of a certain type existed, THEN a requirement would be satisfied—now, why couldn’t this be a reality that created a universe? Why would it be obviously preferable to suppose that the big bang simply happened to happen? How could it be more than just question-begging to protest that the requirement in question would be “only ethical”?
More forceful is the following objection: Many reasonable folk consider our universe rather an unpleasant affair, perhaps actually worse than a blank. How could “being ethically required” explain anything so disappointing?
The answer, I suggest, lies in picturing our universe as immensely interesting, tremendously complex, yet at the same time unified in its existence. Its parts simply couldn’t exist each in isolation from the others. In that respect, they are in the same boat as the redness of the stone. Unity despite complexity characterizes minds, and our universe is mental through and through. The patterns of its events are simply patterns in an infinite mind, a mind that contemplates everything that’s worth contemplating. It contemplates not only those patterns, but the patterns of many other universes as well: perhaps infinitely many. It contemplates them eternally.
This may strike you as a strange picture. Still, it can seem compatible with what physicists say.
First, physicists say they investigate the patterns into which events fall. They aren’t trying to discover whether those patterns exist inside some super-gigantic computer or in an infinite mind that contemplates them. No possible physical experiment could settle such questions.
Second, quantum physicists often suggest that the events of our universe are so much tangled up with one another that they couldn’t exist each in isolation from the rest. They seem to occur inside a single Existent that stretches across billions of light-years.
Third, relativity theory suggests that all the successive events in our universe exist side by side and eternally in an interesting sense. As Einstein put it, the universe would seem to have “a four-dimensional existence” so that the distant past and the far future are just as much existent as the present. True, they aren’t existing in our NOW. But neither, when a man’s in California, is New York existing in his HERE.
Fourth, many physicists have concluded that our universe is only one among countless universes, all of them equally real. Here are patterns that an infinite mind could find worth contemplating.
According to my world-picture, what things really exist? Please remember that ordinary talk about “things” commits us to very little. Do I say that our universe consists of hugely many real things? Or, since I’m picturing an infinite but unified mind as generating all of the universe’s patterns just by thinking about them, must I instead be declaring that the whole shebang involves only a single real thing, the mind in question? Please yourself, for all that’s at stake is how you personally want to use the words “single real thing.” Just don’t accuse me of denying that individual stones, trees, birds, humans, can be real things! They could be worth calling real things, say I and says Ordinary Language, even if they are simply patterns in an infinite mind. The idea that every real thing must in theory be able to exist all by itself isn’t forced on us by Standard English.
Have I joined the pantheists? Do I think that our universe is, if not God, then at least part of God? Talk of an infinite mind that carries the universe’s patterns could certainly sound like God-talk. And the suggestion that this mind exists for a Platonic reason, namely, that its existence is good, could sound like God-talk also. The theory that why God exists is that God’s existence is supremely worthwhile—mayn’t that even be fairly standard theology? Still, the word “God” tends to carry a great deal of religious baggage that I reject. Do I believe in God? Unclear question!
Does only one infinite mind exist? No, there are infinitely many. You can never have too many good things, not even when each of them is infinitely good.
Could immortal souls exist? That depends on what you mean. An infinite mind inside which your mind existed might well not stop thinking about your experiences at the point where your life on Earth ended. It might think of them as continuing onward, no longer controlled by Earth’s physical laws. This would give your mind one of the three kinds of immortality discussed in my most recent book, Immortality Defended.

John Leslie appears with Roger Penrose, Peter van Inwagen, John Searle, Huston Smith, and William Lane Craig in "What Things Really Exist?" the 32nd episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.