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Addressing Problems with Existence Orientation

This page illustrates how presupposing Being as the fundamental thing we can say about anything causes problems, and how Dooyeweerd's presupposition of Meaning helps address these problems.

(This initial version of this page brings together two pieces of text from two places. So their is some mismatch. Nevertheless, I trust it is of value.)

Problems with Existence Orientation

In a paper entitled "Existence assumptions in knowledge representation" Hirst identified many problems in the apparently simple notion of 'existence' or being. Here are some of them:

We can see that the notion of Existence, of Being, is not as simple as we thought. Some of those above are more about what we can make statements about than strictly existence (king of France, square circle).

Addressing the Problems

Now we address the problems cited by Hirst, which are concerned with types of existence.

  • First, it should be noticed that many of the problems that Hirst encounters when trying to set the earlier statements in formal logic are resolved if it is recognised that the quantifiers do not quantify over our world but over the universe of discourse. That is, all the statements and their logical expressions are themselves results of lingual functioning.

  • The distinction between different types of existence is easily explained in terms of the different aspects by which the things exist - the physical aspect for concrete things, the quantitative for amounts like 27 (but the lingual for the digits '27' that express that amount), the analytical aspect for ideas in the mind, the pistic aspect for beliefs held, the lingual aspect for messages sent, the aesthetic aspect for symphonies.

  • Voids are explained also by functioning in aspects. The holes in the cheese are results of certain types of physical functioning involving gases. That a lack of money led to the downfall of the company is simply economic functioning.

  • Things that aren't there are likewise explained in terms of aspectual meaning. "There's no one in the bathroom" refers, not so much to existence and non-existence as to spatial location.

  • Events that don't occur, actions that are not taken are even more clearly aspectual functioning. The (threatened) strike that was averted by last-minute negotiations refers not so much to an entity as to a process of juridical and lingual functioning, with an element of formative functioning in the planning. Indeed, Hirst notes the difference between that which involves planning from that which does not (an accident that was averted) but does not adequately explain it.

  • Existence itself as an object, as in "The existence of Pluto was predicted by mathematics and confirmed by observation", does not really refer to existence as a thing. Rather, it refers to the activities of two groups of scientists, those engaged in mathematics (quantitative functioning) and those engaged in observation (sensory functioning).

  • Fictional or imaginary objects ("Dragons like baklava", "Sherlock Holmes lived in London"). The exercise of imagination is functioning in the formative aspect. The setting down of the results of imagination, as the stories about Sherlock Holmes, is functioning in the lingual aspect (amongst others).

  • Unreal things ("Round squares make me seasick - especially the green ones"). This example raises several issues. First, it is similar to the lingual expression of imagination. But it is different in that nobody could truly imagine a round square, because such a thing would break the laws of the spatial aspect which, being determinative laws, prevent the thing occurring. What things are possible are determined by the internal structural principles for that type of thing. The reference to green gives the statement a sensory aspect, suggesting that it is not so much spatial squares but rather visible phenomena in the shape of square that are meant. If this is so, then 'round' and 'square' are now retrocipations from the sensitive to the spatial and so take on a different meaning that is not subject to the same spatial laws. From the point of view of the sensory aspect, a 'round square' could indeed be meaningful - for example, a square with rounded corners. (A similar reasoning is employed by Dooyeweerd to differentiate between space as such (spatial aspect) and the physical retrocipation of space; it is the latter rather than the former that is bent by strong gravity.
  • "The present king of France" is impossible in a different way, and this difference is because of a different aspect. It is impossible according to the juridical aspect, but this is a normative aspect, which allows freedom and allows laws to be broken. So it does not seem quite as impossible as a round square, which breaks a determinative law.

  • Claims of possibility ("It might rain tomorrow"). Rain is seen not so much as an entity as functioning in the physical aspect. Dooyeweerd saw possibility as potentiality that is guided by principles of the relevant aspect.

  • Existence at other times ("Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician") is tied up with the issue that Dooyeweerd tackled of identity and change.

  • Continued existence of some kind is again explained by different aspects. "Alan Turing is dead" refers to functioning in the biotic aspect ceasing, but functioning in the physical aspect (of the corpse) and in the social aspect (of acclaim) does not necessarily cease. So "Alan Turing is a celebrated mathematician" refers not so much to Alan Turing's functioning as the functioning of those still alive who acclaim him. (Hirst differentiates this from "Alan Turing was a celebrated mathematician", which speaks of others ceasing to acclaim him, rather than his death.)

    Reference Hirst G, (1991), "Existence assumptions in knowledge representation", Artificial Intelligence, 49:199-242.

    This page is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

    Copyright (c) 2006 Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

    Written on the Amiga and Protext.

    Created: 24 June 2006 Last updated: