Saturday, September 18, 2010

Chairs Exist

The basic contrast is with imaginary objects: Pixies don’t exist, electrons do; epicycles don’t exist, bicycles do. We learn the meaning of ‘exist’ in a world of tables and chairs, trees and cars, and so when we say that electrons exist we mean that they exist like chairs do. We can spray them onto surfaces, for example, much as we might throw chairs into a van. We can catch chairs and electrons, but not pixies.
......If we doubted that chairs exist, what could we mean by ‘exist’ if we said that electrons exist? That they are in our best theory of reality? But the thing about epicycles is not only that they aren’t fundamental objects, in our best theory. It is that they don’t exist, to be further analysed, and therefore shouldn’t have been in our best theory. Of course, pixies exist within fictions, so they exist fictionally, but that is also to say that they don’t really exist.
......Some philosophers think that chairs are imaginary, that only the atoms that make them up exist, but how could that be right? A chair made of Lego bricks would still be a chair. It would still exist, wholly composed of Lego bricks. Had it been made one brick at a time, with one brick not being a chair, and with no addition of one brick making a chair out of a non-chair, it would exist. Consider how, even though orange fades smoothly into yellow and red, with no sharp boundary, that doesn’t mean that carrots are not orange.

22 comments:

Sylvia said...

Dear enigMan,

thank you for putting the two quotes side by side and adding your view to it!

My initial response to the question 'Do chairs exist?' would be 'No', but as you point out in your analysis of the question, then I am not using the word 'exist' in the meaning of the original context where we all learned to use it. Let me make two remarks.
Remark 1: asking the question 'Do chairs exist?' would be very strange if the only meaning of exist is the everyday one.
Remark 2: the original use of the word may be good for many practical purposes, but philosophically unsatisfactory, probably even inconsistent...
I would say that chairs and electrons (as well as rainbows, and numbers) are different types of concepts that we use, but that do not exist in the external world. Very probably they do relate to different types of things that 'are out there', so they are not (just) imaginary.
This relationship however is not a straightforward one-to-one-correspondence. Although we can deal with the concept chair as if it refers to an object that exists, this does not mean that there really exists an objective chair corresponding to our concept of it.

There is a contrast between pixies and chairs, but it may not be as sharp as one would initially expect! No matter how clear a concept it may seem, ‘chair’ is a vague word, as is the case for (almost?) all human concepts. I think this is also what you illustrate with the ‘adding lego bricks one at a time’ example.

My idea that a chair does not really exist (as opposed to the use of the word 'exist' for practical purposes) is independent of the question of what a chair is made of. My argument is rather that the world does not keep track of separate objects. (In fact, it does not keep track of anything at all - it just is/happens/...) 'A chair' is just a label we humans apply to a part of the world, to refer to a temporary assembly of wood and nails (or plastic, or lego bricks...) and keep track of it as someone sits on it, it is thrown in the air, etc... In reality, nobody sits on it, the chair is not thrown,... but what it is that really happens is not accessible to us. So we might as well continue saying that and acting as if chairs exist. Only we should be aware that this is only an approximated description of reality: there may be situations in which we have to refine or revise it.

enigMan said...

Many thanks for clarifying a 'No' position, which as you note in your first remark is necessary.

I'm still unclear about your sense of 'exist' however. What does something have to be like in order to exist (in your sense)? Do electrons exist, or would they be too vague (in light of quantum mechanics)?

And does orange being vague mean that things are never really orange, out there in the world? In many ways the case of orange is worse, because colours are phenomena, so that many philosophers think of them as inside our heads. But by 'the external world' I mean the world around me, which clearly contains orange carrots (and green trees and chairs). After all, what sort of external world would it be if one did not know of it through some sort of interaction?

Some philosophers even say that the world one sees around one is inside one's head, since it is phenomena, which don't exist out there. But what then, I wonder, of the head I put a hat on, and see in the mirror, and which is clearly inside the room I'm in; is that the same head? I suppose you could say that heads don't really exist, but phenomena do seem to be associated with individuals in quite a definite way. In a world of only atoms and such, to what are we to attach perceptions of orange stuff?

Sylvia said...

Maybe I can make my viewpoint more clear, but the risk is that it will just be confusing. Well, I'll just give it a shot...

> I'm still unclear about your sense of 'exist' however. What does something have to be like in order to exist (in your sense)?

I do accept the common use of words like 'exist', 'know', etc. but if you think about it a bit more (or rephrase them in a stronger way like 'really exist', 'know for sure', etc.), then less and less qualifies. In the end we have to admit that we know nothing for sure, and that we do not really know what exists out there. So if we talk about what 'really exists' in the external world, we can be very sure that we do not know what kind of structures exist in it.

Let’s not consider the options that we are experiencing a hallucination or that everything is a malicious illusion. Then you will probably assume that when you see a chair, this is because there stands a chair in front of you. (Well, I would too.) If we want to analyze the event of seeing a chair, we need to learn about:
1) the physics of solid objects (the chair) + language and conventions (the word 'chair')
and
2) the physics of seeing + the physiology of seeing + the large part that the brain plays in the process (the seeing).

> But by 'the external world' I mean the world around me, which clearly contains orange carrots (and green trees and chairs).
> Some philosophers even say that the world one sees around one is inside one's head [...]

If you analyze 2), it indeed seems to indicate that we cannot look out into the world; we only see inside our brains. The same is true for other sources of sensory information, and we do not have any other sort of access to the external world. So to me, it is not at all clear that the world around me contains orange carrots – it just appears like that in my head.
Realizing this, we have to reconsider the value of 1): our theories are made by reasoning about information that is supposed to come directly from the world, but in fact no direct information is available ever – each time our brains select and 'correct' it, filling in the blanks etc. Being aware of this helps to avoid certain mistakes, but not all.

> After all, what sort of external world would it be if one did not know of it through some sort of interaction?

All our scientific theories assume some sort of interactions, but seeing for instance is a very indirect process. My conclusion from the above is that for us humans, with our limited faculties, it is unlikely that we can ever come to a theory that is in a 1-to-1 correspondence with the world. (Of course we cannot assess the correspondence either.)
We analyze the world in terms of objects, processes, etc. But the world does not reason, does not demarcate specific objects, etc. Everything just happens and all at once: "the world exists". This is one of the very few positive phrases in which I can use my very strict meaning of 'exist (as in 'really exist out there'). All the others are negative sentences: the chair does not exist, the mirror does not exist, numbers do not exist, time does not exist, ...
I realize that my strict sense of the word is of very limited use – I almost feel ashamed of bringing it up. Well, I only did because you asked about the chair... :)

Sylvia said...
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Sylvia said...
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Sylvia said...

After all, what sort of external world would it be if one did not know of it through some sort of interaction?

All our scientific theories assume some sort of interactions, but seeing for instance is a very indirect process. My conclusion from the above is that for us humans, with our limited faculties, it is unlikely that we can ever come to a theory that is in a 1-to-1 correspondence with the world. (Of course we cannot assess the correspondence either.)
We analyze the world in terms of objects, processes, etc. But the world does not reason, does not demarcate specific objects, etc. Everything just happens and all at once: "the world exists". This is one of the very few positive phrases in which I can use my very strict meaning of 'exist' (as in 'really exist out there'). All the others are negative sentences: the chair does not exist, the mirror does not exist, numbers do not exist, time does not exist, ...
I realize that my sense of the word is of very limited use - I almost feel ashamed of bringing it up. Well, I only did because you asked about the chair... :)

Do electrons exist, or would they be too vague (in light of quantum mechanics)?

For me, there is no good reason to give a different answer to the question "Do electrons exist?" as to that concerning chairs. As I said, my reasoning was independent of what a chair is made of. An electron is supposed to be an elementary particle, but in string theory for instance it is not so fundamental after all. But none of this matters, as I think the concepts of our theories will never be able to identify an object that is out there correctly. (Simply because the whole concept of separate objects is human and the world itself is not.) Within our theories, of course, there are additional difficulties with electrons compared to chairs, but this is another type of fuzziness.

Sylvia said...

But what then, I wonder, of the head I put a hat on, and see in the mirror, and which is clearly inside the room I'm in; is that the same head? I suppose you could say that heads don't really exist, but phenomena do seem to be associated with individuals in quite a definite way.

Hm, is your question: is an object that you observe directly, and one that you see indirectly (e.g. via a mirror) the same one? Then, I guess so (in the not-so-strict sense of 'exist'). Or are you talking about the head that seems to be behind the mirror? That head does not exist, even in a rather liberal sense of 'exist'.
I think it helps taking into account one person that can see a second person (or object) both directly and via a mirror. Physics tells us that light is (partially) reflected on one object (which exists in the everyday sense) and part of it hits the retina directly, while another part hits the mirror first and then the retina (and the major part does never reach the retina at all). Since our brain interprets light as if it came straight towards the eye, the signal produced by the light that arrived at the eye via reflection at the mirror, will be interpreted as if it came from something behind the mirror. Therefore, the head that we seem see in the mirror does not exist (although it is not an hallucination either).
To me, this has little to do with the question if the original head really exists; it's just an additional difficulty with seeing. But if we reason further along the same line, about the interaction of light with our real head, and how we come to think of it that way etc... may in the end lead you to doubt that that head exists too.

In a world of only atoms and such, to what are we to attach perceptions of orange stuff?

As I said, my reason for replying 'No' to the question about the chair does not boil down to the observation that chairs are composed of something else. And colours are all the more difficult (and interesting) - I'd rather not go into that now.

enigMan said...

Thanks for the clarifications...

if we talk about what 'really exists' in the external world, we can be very sure that we do not know what kind of structures exist in it

But then you say "in fact [...] our brains," so you are taking us to know that that structure exists, i.e. numbers of brains. As I mentioned at the end of my previous comment, it is hard to eliminate such structures from our scientific theorising if we are to eliminate phenomena like colours (and if we are not to do that then we have selves). You reply to this of course, saying:

But the world does not reason, does not demarcate specific objects, etc. Everything just happens and all at once: "the world exists".

But the world includes you, and you reason; and we are definite individuals. And things happen over time. To make myself clearer, I'd like to begin again with something simple...

enigMan said...

Suppose that, on some beach, there is only sand, and consider some ten thousand grains of sand piled up. Is it not then true to say that there is a heap of sand there, that a heap of sand exists? That is not to say that, as well as all that sand, there is also something called a ‘heap’ there. But there is something more than just those grains of sand, there is also their arrangement into a heap. Similarly, to say there are ten thousand grains is not to say that numbers exist, as objects in some Platonic realm. And similarly, we can say that chair-shaped stuff exists, in a certain relationship with us; and do we really mean much else, when we say that chairs exist? There seems at best to be a grammatical difference.

And what other, philosophical sense of ‘exist’ could there be? There are those who want a pair-set of grains to be an extra object, over and above the two grains themselves. They want the singleton of a grain of sand to be a different object to the grain of sand itself, because they want an empty set to exist, as a basic object in their theory, from which they can build infinitely many pure sets, some of which can be the numbers. But while they can then say that numbers exist, within their theory, I don’t see how set theory helps those who say that chairs don’t exist. Two grains of sand are a pair-set insofar as we consider the elements to be grains of sand rather than atoms, and the object to be those atoms that compose those two grains. So this also seems to be a grammatical matter.

And as we study atoms we may find them to be entirely composed of other stuff. And the same could then be said of that other stuff. Now, we can certainly theorise about such stuff. And if our theories are backed by evidence, we may say that such stuff exists. So predicating existence derives from the laboratory, with its chairs and tables. Atoms exist because positing them explains what we see in the world around us, not because it is impossible to think of them as composed of other stuff.

And what if atoms are composed of strings, strings are composed of Xs, Xs are composed of Ys, and so on without end? If so then if chairs don’t really exist because it is the atoms that do, then nothing really exists. But it seems possible that the world is such that as we increase our observational powers, finer details are revealed that seem to us to be more basic particles, and that there is no theoretical limit to such observational powers. Should we say in such a world that only some unobservable and indescribable something really exists?

You would indeed say that, but it seems obvious to me that we would then have given ‘exist’ an absurd meaning, not a more precise one. We don’t just observe the world from the outside; we know what it’s like to be one bit of it. We know that orange carrots exist. Amongst other things, science describes their properties very accurately, and how they evolved. So I see your position as self-refuting if it is originally based upon part of elementary science, i.e. the biology of perception.

enigMan said...

Now, as much as responding to your sense of 'exist' I've been restating my view, since other readers may have views between our positions. But to return more explicitly to your comments, you say toward the end:

I think the concepts of our theories will never be able to identify an object that is out there correctly. (Simply because the whole concept of separate objects is human and the world itself is not.)

Insofar as you're using the concept of humanity, you're accepting that the world contains separate objects, i.e. humans. And you can, if you think about it, know for sure that you exist, as a continuant. (A continuant is an object that is wholly present when it exists, and which continues to be the same object even as its inessential properties change.) And given that we see other humans much as we see ourselves in mirrors, there is surely a high probability that we can identify other people out there correctly.

Indeed, language itself presupposes that we can. The senses of all of our words presuppose a collection of language-users, out there and including ourselves. So if your sense of 'exist' relies upon statements such as that above, it is an inconsistent sense. And so if chairs do not exist only in that sense, then we can be sure that they do exist.

Sylvia said...
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Sylvia said...

You have make several remarks that point in the same direction. Let me put them together:

- But the world includes you, and you reason; and we are definite individuals.
- So I see your position as self-refuting if it is originally based upon part of elementary science, i.e. the biology of perception.
- Insofar as you're using the concept of humanity, you're accepting that the world contains separate objects, i.e. humans.


If I would need eyes, brains or humans to really exist (in the strict sense) to start doubting their existence, then my argument would be self-refuting, but I don't need this. I just take contemporary science as the best available description of the world, but with the reservation that it may be (and is very likely to be) wrong.

Sylvia said...

And you can, if you think about it, know for sure that you exist, as a continuant.

Biology can explain to us that our bodies continuously change (exchange water, carbon etc. with the environment). Psychology can explain us why we nevertheless have the impression that we are the same person over time. To me, a human is even less convincing as a separate object than a chair. You may call it a continuant, an emergent property, ... but this is just our patternicity: we see a feature, recognise it, give it a name... None of this implies or requires that we are identifying something that really exists. My conclusion is rather that I do -very probably- not really exist. (This sentence is only strange if you take 'really exist' to be something else than what I want to use it for.)

Sylvia said...

Since I have also very probably not convinced you, let's take a look at your view.

Atoms exist because positing them explains what we see in the world around us, not because it is impossible to think of them as composed of other stuff.

This is problematic too! Suppose that there are two rivaling theories that are about equally good at explaining things, but posit different objects. (Think of the question regarding the nature of light -wave or particle?- before we had quantum mechanics.) Which one exists?

Our theories change over time, but it is strange to conclude from this that different objects exist in reality accordingly. You may say that atoms already existed before we had theories that posited them for adequate explaing, but I foresee further improvements in physics and no promiss of a final and fully correct theory, so very probably atoms do not exist. There is something else that -if we knew about it- could be used to explain why certain interactions with the world appear to us as if there where atoms in it.

True, atoms exist more likely than many other things (such as phlogiston, spirits, etc) but nevertheless it is very likely that atoms really exist.

And also true, saying this does not learn us much. It is just a continuing exercise in being humble about our own mental capabilities.

Sylvia said...
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Sylvia said...

Funny that you bring up the sorites example as a test case. It is something that I have been working on, though not from the viewpoint of existence.

I would rather agree to there is also something called a ‘heap’ there than to there is a heap of sand there . In our theories the grains may be considered more fundamental than the heap, but grains are just heaps of Si and O atoms. In any case the heap appears at a different scale than the grains. The point is that neither grain nor heap (nor Si-atom or any other word) succeeds in aiming precisely to something in the world. At best it just slightly off, but more probably it is completely wrong to even try to separate the world into objects. Therefore, I think it is very likely that atoms, grains and heaps do not really exist in the world, but only play a role in our description of it.

Sylvia said...

There are those who want a pair-set of grains to be an extra object, over and above the two grains themselves.

Clearly, that is just the opposite of my position. Any object you add is one step further away from reality, which contains no objects.

[My apologies for needing so many entries for one reply - apparently, the message size is quite restricted.]

enigMan said...

The message size is a bit small, which makes comments easier to read... I'm still not sure what sense you are giving to 'exist' but I think that it must be inconsistent anyway, for the reasons given.

You say: I just take contemporary science as the best available description of the world, but with the reservation that it may be (and is very likely to be) wrong. But you also say that: it is completely wrong to even try to separate the world into objects

But why do you think that science gives us a good description of the world? Scientists looks closely at the world, and give a coherent account of what they find, using induction when it is obvious that they ought to. Looking at the world and using induction as required are things people do all the time. And it all relies on identifying objects of various kinds, and on using language to talk about them.

A scientific theory cannot overrule the evidence that justifies it, even if it can make us question individual observations. The evidence for atoms includes the chemical explanation of the ordinary properties of matter. So a picture of the world as composed of atoms that conflicts with the general data that we observe coloured objects is simply an imperfect picture. It is not the science that has a problem with consciousness, but such pictures.

It seems to me that it is just such a picture, perhaps a philosophically sophisticated one, that leads to your conclusion. My view is that our best scientific theory ought to have an us-shaped hole in it (as with the original Copenhagen interpretation of the quantum theory of chemistry:)

enigMan said...

In your first comment, remark 2, you say that the ordinary sense of 'exist' is probably inconsistent; I wonder why. I wonder if you are mistaking the 'is' of exists with the 'is' of identity, which Sorites paradoxes do show to be philosophically troublesome.

A chair might be repaired so much that all its material has changed. Still, with each repair it remains the same chair. And yet all that new material could have been made into a new chair in one go, making a different chair. Still, I would say that the our totally repaired chair is in a sense the same chair as our original chair, and in another sense a different chair (since it is identical to a different possible chair). Either way, it clearly exists in the ordinary sense.

Do you think that it is necessary, for existence, in your sense, that the standard logic of identity be satisfied? In particular, that if A is the same as B and also the same as C then B is the same as C? It is clearly not sufficient, as imaginary objects can easily satisfy such standard logic (which is perhaps the origin of the attraction of standard logic). Is it necessary? I think that, as above, it is not necessary for existence in the ordinary sense, which is not shown to be inconsistent by Sorites paradoxes.

Sylvia said...

You ask "But why do you think that science gives us a good description of the world? ... And it all relies on identifying objects of various kinds, and on using language to talk about them."

Actually, I don't think that science gives a good description of the world in the sense that it comes close to the actual nature. It is just a property of our biological make-up that we tend to look for simple relations, conserved properties, etc. Of all the human explanations of the world, science provides the best one we have come up with so far. This just means that all the others have been refuted, not that it is close to identifying how the world really is. So, I see the scientific description of the world as the least bad one.

You also ask "Do you think that it is necessary, for existence, in your sense, that the standard logic of identity be satisfied?"

Hm, I am not sure this question is relevant for my interpretation of 'really exist'. Let me try to explain why. I read the soritic 'is' as 'is indistinguishable from'. This is clearly related to our limited perceptual abilities; it related to an underlying model in which two objects, quantities, ... are actually different, but we cannot observe the difference. But since all objects, quantities are elements of our model of the world, rather than of the world itself, the sorites is a problem with our model of the world too, not necessarily of our interaction with the world itself.

My reason for doubting the inconsistency of the usual 'exist' (of macroscopic objects such as a chair), is not one that stems from the definition directly, but rather in combination with further observations. If they become more precise, the object that was initially thought to be existing, becomes more and more blurry. If we trace with our fingers the outline of a chair, this is not very precise, it does not indicate the outermost boundary of the chair. If you look at the surface of a chair under a microscope, it turns out to be a very complicated surface, and if you look at an even smaller scale, it turns out that you have to keep track of individual molecules. Even if we could store the position of so many molecules, we have to keep track of the temporal behavior as well: some molecules adsorb to the surface, or some desorb from it (if you can smell the wood or the paint of the chair, this is definitely happening). So, if you say that "the chair exists" it is not really well-defined what exists...

My conclusion is not that actually molecules exist, or something even smaller, but that all these objects are somewhat arbitrarily chosen parts of a whole; if you investigate them further, cutting out a part of the world as a separate entity will never do. (This is sorites-like, but even worse: the heap is supposed to consist of grains of sand, which you could count to avoid vagueness, but I also deny the existence of the grains. There is not firmer ground for existence at the bottom.)

Humans are open systems, interacting with the rest of the world in complex ways, so a theory that leaves an us-shape hole is suspicious, because the outline of the hole can never be nice and clear... I think it is closer to the truth that humans do not exist. There are just spatiotemporal parts of the world that resemble our naive picture of what a human is, but the overlap can never be made perfect, the outer boundaries of a human never well-defined, because in the world there are no such boundaries.

enigMan said...

...is it not too odd to be held down by gravity and say that planets are just somewhat arbitrarily chosen parts of a whole? I think I see what you mean, but I wonder if vagueness means inconsistency rather than equivocation...

enigMan said...

...incidentally, one reason why I'm tempted to think that that our ordinary concept of 'exist' is, as you say, incoherent, is an option you passed over (in your second comment), i.e. that everything is a malicious illusion; in particular, the bit in the film The Matrix where they say the fictionally virtual chair doesn't exist. That is when Neo and Morpheus are outside the Matrix but still in virtual reality, and presumably none of the chairs in the Matrix before then existed either (in the sense that in the fiction it would've been true to say they didn't).

Naturally, I tend to agree that there is an obvious sense in which such chairs did not exist. But since Neo was born into the Matrix and learnt to use 'chair' there, I think there is a sense in which he would have been right, when in the Matrix, to say that they existed, because that is so much like our own situation. Do we need to know that there is no afterlife in some transcendent world before we say that chairs exist? Obviously not.

So there is that inconsistency: There is a sense in which we would need to know, by analogy with the Matrix. Still, I would say that introducing such contexts introduces new senses to such words as 'exist'. So I take this to be a subtle case of equivocation. I think that while 'exist' may be a bit fuzzy (what isn't?), it's not incoherent for such reasons as the Matrix. (Ironically, the Matrix is one context in which 'chair' would have a definite, non-fuzzy objective meaning; so if existence required such precision then it would be the chairs in the Matrix that did exist!)