Looking at the Wall...


Musings One:


Let's examine the concept of 'existence'.

  1. If we ask, "what do we mean when we say something 'exists'", our concept basically boils down to the ability of something to affect us. Something 'exists' when we must walk 'around' it, when it exerts gravitational force on us (however infinitesimally small that force may be), when it sends photons out 'at us', when it 'shares' its thermal energy with us. In the case of physical objects, no matter how far away it is, somehow it creates the illusion of 'action at a distance'.

  2. As I ponder this, it seems clear to me that all I have said in the word 'exist' is 'relates to something else that exists'. All of the above examples (impenetrability, gravity, shining, heat transfer) are relationships. If we stay in the purely physical realm (assuming there is such a thing), unicorns don't 'exist' because they don't/didn't have physical relationships with other 'things'.

  3. One curiosity of this notion is that existence is RELATIVE. If something has to be related to something else that ALSO exists, then an objects' existence is dependent upon the existence of the 'other thing' (and vice versa). (Notice that the word 'relative' already has this notion of 'relationship' in it etymologically!). So, given a set of possible relationships, you must have at least two 'things' in a universe.

  4. But we can conceive of empty space with just one tennis ball in it. But in this case, the ball is not a unitary object. Parts of the ball are exerting force (e.g. relating to) other parts of the ball. Indeed, we probably cannot shrink the ball small enough to arrive at some indivisible 'thing' that doesn't have some internal relationships. (Indeed, the strange thing is that the smaller we make the particle, the more any original internal relationship (e.g. weak nuclear force) 'surfaces' as external relationships (e.g. transfer of gluons). We just slice the bologna thinner, but it still weighs the same!).

  5. But if existence of a thing requires the existence of ANOTHER thing, capable of terminating some relationship, then could imaginary unicorns be 'really related' to imaginary chocolate grass, and that existence be 'just as relatively real' as 'existence' in OUR universe? I suppose so, for illustrative purposes, but the notion of 'real relations' between imaginary (in our universe) objects seems a bit unusual at first glance.

  6. But on second glance, if I abandon the philosophically charged notions of unicorns, and talk about parallel universes that do NOT intersect (i.e. relate to!) OUR universe, the notion makes more sense. (Indeed, there are many particle physicists who believe that the universe 'splits' into parallel universes each time a Schroedinger-type quantuum event occurs!) If a tennis ball exists in another universe (named, say, in honor of Putnam), but it DOESN'T relate to me gravitationally etc., then it exists relative to THAT universe, but does not EXIST relative to me. (The relative 'nature' of existence.)

  7. So, it seems that existence is NOT an absolute -- it is a strangely 'relative' term.

  8. Now, if I back up and try this approach with the existence of "persons", where do I end up? Our first-blush 20th century, western world, modernist assumption is that a person/mind/consciousness doesn't exert gravitational force on tennis balls in this universe. But we have a folk notion that a consciousness CAN move a tennis ball (albeit through intermediate agents). I can literally pick it up and throw it across the room. We know that simple decisions can produce widespread neural and visceral effects in our body--placebo effect, psychosomatix, sheer will power, fear. So, at first blush, they might EXIST as well.

  9. What this raises is the question of "would ANY kind of relationship 'count' as adequate to ground the predicate 'exists'"?

  10. The Wittgenstein's Net principle warns us to be VERY careful about restricting arbitrarily or pre-emptively this list of relationships. For example, if we say "it MUST have mass, and therefore relate gravitationally" we may exclude a number of sub-atomic particles which are massless. If we say, "we must be able to see it--detect it by examining the tracks of particles that collide with it", we will miss most of the elemental fields of physics.

  11. Now my point here is NOT to continue probing this concept 'existence' but merely to show that it basically is a synonym to 'being in a relationship', and suggest that further 'precision' of the concept may not be possible. In other words, if I press on the word 'existence' for more precision than I already seem to have, then the word simply pushes me 'sideways' into OTHER words and complexes of meaning--such as 'relations'.

  12. Let's turn now to some other primal notions.

  13. Matter "That which has mass and occupies space." And what is 'mass'? "Mass is the measure of the gravitational and inertial properties of matter. Once thought to be conceivably different, gravitational mass and inertial mass have been shown to be the same to one part in 10**11" (Johannes A. Van den Akker, "Mass", in Encyclopedia of Physics, 2nd ed).But it should be obvious that 'having GRAVITATIONAL properties' is simply a statement that something is 'in a gravitational field' or 'experiences gravitational attraction' from some OTHER matter--in other words, IS IN A RELATIONSHIP TO SOMETHING ELSE. [Remember, the unit of measurement for mass is the kilogram--also the measurement for 'weight', a clear in-relationship word.]

  14. But what about 'occupies space'? What we generally mean by this is that another 'hunk of matter' cannot 1) move through the 'space' it occupies and 2) 'occupy' the same space at the same time.

  15. Now, #1 basically reduces down to #2--the reason it cannot pass through it, is that at any given instant during the 'pass through', the two objects would be occupying the same space at the same time. Now, 'occupy' is a strange word in this context. It might seem to mean nothing more than 'exists, with a center of gravity that has a specific set of space-time coordinates.' If this is what we mean, then 'matter' has just been shown to be a synonym of 'exists' albeit with an explicit statement of location in the universe. And the phrase 'center of gravity' is clearly a statement of relationship.

  16. But what about the qualifier 'a specific set of space-time coordinates'? It has long been recognized that locus is ALWAYS relative to some other locus. There are no 'absolute locations' per se. The very use of the word 'relative to' shows this again. It is still just a statement of relation.

  17. So matter is basically the same concept as 'exists' which is the same concept of 'in relationship with something else'. And one can readily see that we don't get any more precision or 'absolute knowledge' by pressing on the word--we merely get thrown 'sideways' again, unto OTHER words and complexes of meaning.

  18. Force This is a little more obvious. Force is ALWAYS something 'between' objects, and hence is a type of relationship. In this case, the relationship might be quantifiable (e.g. 100 kg). But if we look at how forces are described, we see the basic convertibility of Force into Matter: Force=Mass times Acceleration. Mass is ALREADY a "matter" word, but has elements of delineation applied (e.g. volume, weight, etc.), and as such is already a relationship word as well.

  19. But what about acceleration? The classic definition--"rate of change in velocity"--has some interesting nuances for this argument. Consider first 'velocity', This word basically means the 'rate of change in 3D space coordinates'. The last part of that phrase was a simple relationship description (e.g. relative to some 'origin') but includes an all important assumption of 'units of distance measure'. When we say something is 2 meters away from the wall, what have we said? What is a 'meter'? It is a unit of length, convertible into OTHER units of length. But the bottom line is that somewhere, someone, sometime had a specific instance of where one existing object was separated from another object by some arbitrary distance, and this distance was called 'the unit'. All subsequent measurements were in terms of that arbitrary unit. In other words, we took a 'real' pair of 'objects' , defined ONE ASPECT of their relationship as a 'unit of distance' and then mapped all other experiences onto this experience (almost analogically, I might add).

  20. Now, I have the notion that I can conceive of distance in the abstract, say the distance between two imaginary points. But by the same token, I have injected the notion of matter, relationship, location into it (and I delude myself with the adjective 'imaginary').

  21. So, 'change in location' will amount to existence disappearing from one spot and reappearing in other, relative to some original location. And, hence 'velocity'--this change in existence normalized by the time dimension--will still be convertible to existence, relationship, matter.

  22. [There is a major issue that I have left untouched here--the question of the identity of the ball at each different location. But that issue is not germane to the argument, strictly speaking.]

  23. You can simply extend this argument to 'acceleration', by adding a notion 'change in rate of change of location' across an interval of time. (Velocity was over an interval of space; acceleration is over an interval of time). NOTICE: in all of these interval words, what is somehow 'earned' or 'accumulated' through change is 'objectified' into an 'attribute' of the object at a frozen point in time. We say "At time T1, object X has acceleration Y". This highly composite concept that spans time intervals and space intervals becomes an 'attribute' of the object. All what we have basically said, is that the object X will 'behave' in the universe in a predictable way. Given a trajectory, it will 'exist' at point P at time T. And all of the above synonyms can be used to describe it.

  24. And the conclusion: "Force"--defined in terms of two synonyms 'mass' and 'acceleration' fares no better than existence. And, practically speaking, all of our experiences of forces (e.g. gravitational, photonic) are attributed to some existent (e.g. massive body; luminous body). Force, therefore, falls into the same pattern as the above words--if we try to look farther 'behind' the word (i.e. our 'folk understanding' of it), we get diverted unto OTHER words, no more or less precise than 'force'.

  25. But what of motion? Surely it is not interchangeable with existence or force.

  26. Well, actually, we already covered this in the concept of velocity. And again, motion is always produced by a force, and always is an 'attribute' of an existent. And a moving existent is how we measure force!

  27. Now, at this point we need to address the concept of 'change'. What is it? We don't have a clue! The history of philosophy proper is a long-drawn out witness to this! At a 'folk' level, we know EXACTLY what 'change' is, but when we try to get much more precise than this, we run into difficulty quickly. "Change" is "when something is different now than it was at some other time." Think about this--defining change in terms of difference. Now, 'difference' looks ALOT like a relationship word and when we get serious about pressing on 'difference' we get lost in the abyss of 'attributes'. We are tempted to adopt an illusion of technical precision, by defining change something like this: "change is the disappearance of a specific attribute from a real object, over time." Does 'disappearance' look odd to you in that sentence? It is not perceptual disappearance that is meant, but the 'real' presence or absence of an 'attribute'.

  28. But what is an 'attribute'? Historically, philosophy has classified attributes in categories. Some were sorta 'absolute' (not requiring an observer, like 'having mass') and some were 'relative' requiring an observer or a reference point (e.g. heavy). It seems to me that in ALL cases an 'attribute' describes 'how' an entity 'relates' to something else. In the case of the 'relative' attributes this is obvious, but the case of the 'absolute' is not quite as obvious.

  29. But consider the examples of these. "Having mass"--is EXACTLY what we discussed above. I cannot think of ANY 'absolute' attribute that does not display this relative character. (Or, to put it another way, "that does not 'push us sideways' when we 'press on it'). The theoretically most 'neutral' and 'empty' of attributes--existence--was shown at the beginning to be a prime example of a supposedly 'basic' term that was interchangeable with another 'basic' term--relationship.

  30. Now, it should not be too surprising that our words are 'interchangeable' with other words--a simple glance at a dictionary shows this. Each word listed is defined in terms of other words...Even basic, primal terms still refer us to other words.

  31. (Many of us have had the frustration of trying to learn a new word by looking it up in the dictionary, only to find that the unknown word is defined in terms of OTHER, equally unknown words. The circularity of words around a subject area is quite well known.)

  32. But surely there are some ostensive words? What about the word 'fear' for example? If we look it up in a dictionary we get something like this "fear is an emotion in which..." An emotion? A category word, eh? So, what is an 'emotion' ---"something you feel", eh? What is 'feeling' (non-perceptual, but, say, visceral)? GOOD QUESTION! All we end up doing is 'pointing' to an internal state or external state of affairs, and saying 'that is fear'. We presuppose an intersubjective continuity between humans, when we try to give fear some 'content' by "fear is what you feel when you think a big monster that is under your bed is going to pop out while you are asleep and eat you". This is ostensive, of course, but not in the same sense as when we point to a cat and say 'cat' for our babies.

  33. Or is it? (OOPS, I am jumping ahead.)

  34. Anyway...if we simply try to push on the basic words: exist, matter, mass, force, attribute, essence, nature, class, etc., (in spite of the fact that we seem to have a 'working' knowledge of their meanings, even though intellectual technicians might scorn us by labeling us as having a 'folk theory' of these), they simply push us sideways to others equally basic, equally 'understood', equally elusive, equally imprecise.

  35. But there are 4 words I want to think about in a bit more detail: thing, event, relation, pattern.

  36. What is a 'thing'? If I abandon the notion of a thing is an 'object' (obviously circular!), and hunt for some other equivalence, I personally relate this term to 'that which can be intended or attended to', an almost phenomenological notion. Something that can be 'aimed at' or 'focused on' ...the terminus of a cognitive relation, say.

  37. But did I just define 'thing' in terms of 'relation' (even though the relationship is 'cognitive' and not gravitational or physical)? Now I really have to be careful here. On one hand, I want to honor the Witt-net principle (and not arbitrarily ignore significant parts of reality), but at the same time, I do not want whole herds of unicorns invading our universe and stampeding through my tiny living room!

  38. Now my initial modus operandi is to be "reverse-reductionistic". So when I see the pair (gravitational, cognitive) instead of trying to REDUCE the cognitive (the 'looser' concept of the two--supposedly!) to the more 'modern' and quantifiable one (gravitational), I WILL TRY TO FIND A WAY to 'derive' the gravitational FROM the 'broader' concept (cognitive). This is similar to the way I 'derive' inanimate objects (e.g. rocks) from sentient beings (e.g. people--at least some of them ;>)) by varying the 'attribute' of volition or sentience.

  39. So, for example, how could gravitational be a 'subset' of cognition? Is there an element of 'attractive force' inherent in cognition? Strangely enough, there might be. When I 'intend' or 'focus on' or 'attend to', I do seem to 'draw' the object (in my cognition) to my consciousness. I am exerting some analog of gravitational attraction. And just because I may not be able to be much more precise than this, doesn't mean that the concept is vacuous. I am 'drawn' to it; and it to me. We have already seen numerous occasions where precision beyond some intersubjectively-authenticated 'core' is unattainable.

  40. It is interesting to note that from a neurobiological standpoint, we do not know why we 'attend' to one pattern of data (sensory or visceral) among the multitude of sensations we experience at each moment. All the data seems to present in the sensory and association cortices in the same 'level' but we somehow 'hold' one set of data/images in dispositional representations for 'longer' or 'louder'. We somehow 'hold' this image--as if by some 'force'--in 'front' of our 'inner eye'. So, I personally see enough similarities to not consider this not altogether unreasonable. [For some data on 'attention', see the discussion in Demasio, Descartes' Error, pp. 184-186; and chapter V, "Attention" in The Cognitive Sciences, ed. Gazzagna, pp. 613-750.]

  41. Let's try a more difficult one--"event". 'Things' sorta sit still; 'events' happen. If you think about it, 'event' looks a lot like movement--a change of state. (We have talked about movement above). Consider the seriously useless dictionary defn of event: "anything that happens or is regarded as happening; an occurance". And, lest we think that this is just a POPLULAR definition, with all its imprecision, let us cite the meaning under Philo: "something that occurs in a certain place during a particular interval of time." Now, THAT's MUCH CLEARER! ;>)But what is significant in this arena (more so than in the generic category 'movement') is how 'events' are composed of 'smaller' events, held together in some unity. A gestalt, perhaps, in which the pattern of the whole CANNOT be reduced to a 'sum of the parts'. The individual units 'disappear' into micro-infinities as one attempts meta-reality levels of precision and definition. One can 'see' the whole, but cannot 'construct' the whole from the parts.

  42. But events are somehow made up of intendable micro-events--the 'sales meeting' included 'conversations' but was somehow 'bigger than' the sum total of all such sub-events. And the 'sales meeting' itself was a sub-event in the first quarter 'new sales program roll-out'. A gestalt can be an 'ingredient' in a larger gestalt as well.

  43. So, the pattern holds. We cannot drill down farther on the concept of 'event' without ending in other terms such as 'movement', 'change', 'groups' etc. We never get to something 'behind' the language. It is as if the language which is pointing to something beyond itself doesn't allow the focus to get any clearer. It simply points to something, and WE are somehow built to apprehend the core--indeed, the useable core--of that language. We never get to something 'behind' the language, but we DO get to something 'through' (or maybe even 'linked to') the language.

  44. And 'relation' is another such term. We sometimes convert relation to attribute, or sometimes force (or potentiality of force). This seems, again, to be irreducible (but obvious in meaning to us) for further precision. The dictionary defines it as 'a connection, an association with something'--and I think we are back to existence again...

  45. What about 'pattern'? This is a really difficult one. Again, we know 'intuitively' what it is. This notion is so much like that of 'grouping'. We normally think a pattern is a group of things, that are related somehow, and with some kind of 'structure'. A series, a sequence, an image, a tune, 'warming', etc. all seem to fall into this category. Some of these look like 'events'; others, like "things" Of course, it is typically extremely difficult (often impossible) to delineate an 'organizing' principle (with the possible exceptions of mathematical structures). The dictionary graces this 'structure' with the term 'arrangement'--a notion of multiple relationships, and maybe even 'conceptual location'. But we have demonstrated the 'convertibiliy/irreducibility' of the word 'relation'; pattern is likewise such a term.


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