Advanced Search

A question was asked earlier, "if something cannot be defined, can it exist?". I would like a better answer to that question, if you would please. The question refers to the existence of a 'thing' that cannot be defined, the answer was given for an object that has not defined yet. These are not the same thing. If there is no possible way to define an object, ever, can that object exist? Can a 'thing' exist with no identity?

Your distinction between something not yet defined and something for which there could never be a definition is a reasonable one, and thus an answer that bears only on the former doesn't answer your question. Here's one possible approach. If something exists, it has some properties or other; for every property a thing might have, the thing either has it or it doesn't. If that's right, then we might say that nothing could be that thing unless it has that set of properties. And in that case, we might say that the set of properties "defines" the object, whether or not any finite list could capture all the properties. That's a rough sketch. It would need careful spelling out and it would also be subject to various objections; leave those aside. The point is that if we look at things this way, the notion of "definition" we're appealing to needn't have anything to do with how limited creature like us get a grip on the object. If this line of reasoning is correct, then nothing could exist unless...

I once asked a physics Q&A site, "Is physical reality possible without an observer?" They told me it was to broad of a question, and I got no answer. But from a philosophical or metaphysical stand point, is there an answer? I'm aware of the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, and it's requirement of observation and measurement for existence of macroscopic structure to be. If, in philosophy, an observer is needed, then how did galaxies, stars, planets, and the Universe itself, come into being? Also, can other organisms other than human beings, make a measurement, and thereby effect their ambient reality? Sun Flowers, for instance, follow the moving sun as it traverses across the sky, via heliotropism. Can this be considered making a measurement?

You're quite right to be skeptical of the idea that physical reality needs observers to exist. But very few people who work in foundations of quantum mechanics would disagree. Bohr never claimed otherwise. What he insisted is that in describing quantum experiments, we have no choice but to appeal to classical concepts. There's room to argue about what that means, but nothing I've ever read by Bohr suggests that measurements are necessary for the very existence of physical systems. The same is even more clearly true of Bohmian "pilot-wave" interpretations. Bohmians claim that there really are particles that really have positions and trajectories---whether or not anyone makes measurements. It's just that the details of these trajectories aren't accessible to us. Everettian ("many-worlds") accounts of quantum theory likewise don't hold that the existence of physical reality depends on measurement. It's true that "branching" in Everettian quantum mechanics has a connection with measurement, but this is...

If something cannot be defined, can it exist?

Usually, when we use the word "defined," it's about words. We might ask, for example, whether the word "chair" can be defined. If a definition is supposed to rule in exactly the things that are chairs and rule out exactly the things that aren't, then I doubt that "chair" can be defined. We can, of course, say things about what typical chairs are like. But any supposed strict definition we offer will, I'm willing to bet, have various counterexamples. Typical chairs are for sitting on. But benches aren't chairs, and we often sit on benches. And some chairs---certain works of art, perhaps---aren't actually meant for sitting on. And yet there are chairs. In fact, I'm sitting on one as I type this. However, there's another use of the word "defined" that isn't about words but about things. When we ask for definitions in this sense, we're asking for an account of the nature of the thing itself. For example: it's of the nature of an electron that it has negative charge and spin one-half. Or so we might say....

There are many fascinating views regarding material constitution. It seems to me that a car, for example, could not be one or several parts, all of its parts laid out in front of you, all of its parts put together, or enough parts put together in such a way that it allow the object to carry out its primary function (transportation). Therefore, it seems to me that a car is merely a fiction or perhaps it is better to say that the car has no independent "essence" that is separate from the parts. I often wonder if human beings are in the same situation as cars. Is it possible that we are also fictions like cars? This seems difficult to believe because we normally view ourselves as being persistent entities that remain the same. Our bodies certainly change and we might grow (or diminish) in intelligence but we still view ourselves as being the same individual. Thanks

Good question. Some philosophers would say that we really are fictions in just the sense that you suggest. In the case of our psychological being, the idea that we're fictions has a long history, going back at least to early Buddhism, featuring prominently in David Hume's thought, and continuing into the present with the views of such philosophers as Derek Parfit. The same sorts of arguments can be used to support the conclusion that composite physical objects are fictions, and in fact this idea is also very old. Over 2000 years ago, the Buddhist monk Nagasena used the analogy of a chariot, which he understood as a fiction in your sense, to illustrate the Buddhist idea of "anatta" or "no-self." Most of us probably have the sense that not all composites are equally fictitious. Some objects embody homeostatic mechanisms that help them persist in the face of influences that would otherwise tend to destroy them. Biological systems, including humans, are the most obvious examples. Some objects illustrate...

This is a two part question. I have for some time been fascinated by the idea of holism, the idea that systems must be understood as wholes rather than collections of parts. Some have interpreted this to mean a subsuming of the parts into their relations; I believe this is not the case, rather that the individual parts must be placed within the context of the whole in order to understand them fully. Could clear up the definition between these views, and elaborate? The second question is, could it be evidence for holism that things seem to be defined as wholes? E.g., when something is broken, it is because it no longer functions as a whole, or human bodies being defined as wholes (albeit a human being is arguably more than their body so as to avoid any kind of discrimination). I hesitate because it seems that I have heard of a logical fallacy of this kind, but I don't remember what it was.

Holism is a pretty puzzling concept. I'm not sure the bit about "defined as wholes" necessarily gets it. Suppose I have a chair and I break one of the legs. Then I can't use it as a chair anymore, but if there's a holism here, it seems to be a thin variety. Unless we insist that spatial relations are automatically holistic, then for something to be a chair, it suffices for it to be made up of parts that have a certain spatial configuration. Of course, we single out chairs among various possible configurations because they suit certain of our purposes, but an intact chair seems to me to be no more or less a "whole" than a chair with a missing leg. The broken chair isn't a whole chair , but there doesn't seem to be much metaphysical significance there. Here's the only case I can think of that seems to me a clear case of holism. In classical physics, the state of a whole physical system is just the aggregate, so to speak of the states of the parts. If we're given the position and the momentum of...

The big bang theory says that time began with the big bang. Is that correct? Then does that mean that those who describe the big bang theory as an idea that something comes from nothing are incorrect? If time began with the big bang doesn't that mean there never was a time when there was nothing?

Not quite correct. Cyclic theories still posit a Big Bang, but they also posit a cycle of expansions and collapses. This is not something I know much about but you can read a bit more here If we suppose that the non-cyclic Big Bang model is correct, then in at least one sense, the universe isn't a case of getting something from nothing: it's not an example of matter appearing uncaused in a universe where there are earlier times with no matter. Of course, that's consistent with there being no explanation of why there's matter/energy at all. That may not quite amount to getting something from nothing, but it's an idea that doesn't sit well with everyone. Some versions of the Cosmological Argument are meant to explain why contingent things (like the physical things we're familiar with) exist. The explanations typically appeal to the existence of a Necessary Being—one who's very nature requires that it exist. If there's no such being, then it might be that there's no explanation for why contingent...

Hello everyone. Quixotic Question: has anyone written anything on a materialist versions of reincarnation? I mean, suppose you cut all the baggage, from karma to "reincarnation research" and the like, and keep strictly to a physicalist worldview (particles and field, say). If you do this necessary surgery, is there anything left to say on the subject (if so, I'd be happy to read about it, so long as the aforementioned surgery has been applied)? Gracias, just a bit curious...

I'm not sure who has written on the topic under the specific guise that you ask about, but a good deal of work on personal identity certainly bears on it. The philosopher's question would be whether reincarnation (or something like it) is possible on a physicalist view. And on at least one important account of personal identity, the answer is yes. That account is the "psychological continuity" view. It would say that if there's enough psychological continuity (apparent memories, beliefs, attitudes...) between an earlier person and a later one, then (depending on the version of the view) we either have a case of one and the same person at two different times or of two stages of one and the same person. This would be so regardless of whether we had bodily continuity, though there might well be added clauses about the later person/stage being causally connected to the earlier in the right sort of way, and/or that there not be any "competition" (i.e., no duplicates). For example: suppose you step into a...

I've always thought it odd that rivers are said to have a single "source". Isn't a river the result of all its tributaries? What gives one source priority over the other tributaries to a river? Isn't the distinction mostly made-up?

An interesting question. Start with an artificially simple example: a stream system with the branching structure of a simple "Y." If the two upper parts were equally wide/deep, equally far from the intersection point and at more or less opposite angles to the lower stream, it's hard to see why we'd say that one was a mere tributary and the other the main stream. If one of the upper branches started much farther from the intersection, and was much wider/deeper at that intersection we'd likely say that the other branch was the tributary. Other cases might be harder to classify. All this suggests that there's a strong element of convention in the river/tributary distinction. But there's a caution. If we asked a relevant expert — a hydrologist — s/he might have things to say that wouldn't occur to casual observers such as you and I. Whether there's a more interesting distinction that hydrologists make between source and tributary for real-world rivers is something I can't say; my knowledge of hydrology...

Hello Philosophers! Can anyone defend the Ontological Argument against Kant's criticism that existence is not a predicate?

Sure. Even if existence is not a predicate, it's at least arguable that necessary existence is. (As Norman Malcolm pointed out years ago, there really are two versions of the argument, and the second one deals with necessary existence.) We doubt that existence is a predicate because, roughly, saying that something exists tells us nothing about what it's like. Not so for necessary existence. Not just anything could exist necessarily. The computer I'm typing on is the wrong sort of thing to be a candidate for necessarily existing thing. Assuming that some things are of the right sort to exist necessarily, necessary existence would be a predicate. Whether this is a defense of the argument all things considered is another matter. But I think the point made here is fair as far as it goes. A being that merely happened to exist wouldn't be a being than which none greater can be conceived.

Is it a common belief among philosophers that the external world does not exist independently of consciousness? That consciousness creates the material world rather than the other way around? How can anyone believe this?

I'd say it's an extraordinarily uncommon view among philosophers. Very few philosophers have believed it throughout the history of the discipline (Bishop Berkeley is the most obvious exception) and I can't think of any contemporary philosophers who do, though I'm sure there are some somewhere. Berkeley was an idealist (that's the usual name for such views) because he thought the conception of matter found in Locke, Newton and other thinkers of the time was incoherent. If you read his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philnous, you may find some of his arguments more interesting that you would have thought. We could add: orthodox theological views hold that not that our minds make matter, but that God creates the world. And accordng to that same orthodoxy, God isn't a material being. So the view that some mind may be the source of matter is actually not at all uncommon. And for various reasons, contemporary New Age and Magical thinkers often favor a view that puts mind first. If you want...

Pages