Thursday, 3 May 2012

Existence and existence

In my last post, I discussed two different types of beginnings, and in doing so outlined a new way to attack an old problem about the creation of the universe.

In this post, I'm going to talk about two different types of existence. This post isn't going to have any new ideas in it, but I want to write down my take on it anyway because I will be depending on these arguments in future posts.

Concrete existence

The everyday meaning of existence is to say that something is present within the universe, or something that can in principle be observed. I can be confident the laptop in front of me exists because I can see it and touch it. It is made of real stuff: the electrons, protons and neutrons of which matter is composed.

I would extend this, however, and say that concrete existence is not limited to purely physical items. I could also say this blog exists, even though I can't perceive it directly. I can view a computer screen which displays some of the ideas on the blog, but that's not seeing the blog itself.

Similarly, I can say the force of gravity exists, that the United Nations exists, the play Hamlet exists or that objective morality doesn't exist (as argued in previous blog posts).

Though these things are not necessarily composed of matter, and may not have a fixed location, I think we can all agree that in some sense they are present in the universe.

Abstract/Platonic existence

Does the number five exist? Does this question even make sense? It's clearly not present in the universe, so we might say no.

If we ask "Does an integer exist such that when multiplied by itself the result is 24?" we would definitely say no, but change that product to 25 and we would say yes. Clearly the number five does exist in some sense.

There's a whole class of "abstract objects" such as these that exist only in this "platonic" sense. The interesting thing about abstract objects is that they don't spring into existence nor expire. They are eternal concepts, waiting for a mind or some other process to discover them. This is often very clear to mathematicians, who deal exclusively in abstract objects as their stock and trade.

Famous mathematician Roger Penrose expressed it as follows (can't find where the quote came from!):
... mathematicians view mathematics as something out there, which seems to have a reality independent of the ordinary kind of reality of things like chairs, which we normally think of as real. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘Platonic world,’ a Platonic reality. … I like to think of mathematics as a bit like geology or archeology, where you’re really exploring beautiful things out there in the world, which have been out there, in fact, for ages and ages and ages, and you’re revealing them for the first time.
There have been many cases of the approximately simultaneous invention or discovery of certain ideas by people who were working completely independently, and sometimes there are disputes about who should own a patent or get the credit. However these disputes are resolved in the end, neither of the claimants are truly the creator of the idea, for it existed independently of either of them, waiting to be found.

In fact, all mathematical constructs, algorithms and scientific ideas exist in this sense,whether or not anybody has yet discovered them. What's less obvious is that this is also true of works of art and every other kind of insubstantial idea.

The process of creating any kind of idea at all is simply not a process of creation, as much as it might appear to be. It is a process of discovery, of filtering out all the terrible or meaningless ideas from the space of what is conceivable and selecting from the few coherent, beautiful or useful ones remaining. This may not be how we experience it, and it may not shed any light on how our brains are actually working on the problem, but it is an interpretation of the results of the creative act which makes a lot of sense.

And it is in this sense that I would argue that the play Hamlet has both a Platonic and concrete existence. It is concrete in the sense that it has been written and performed on earth, and it is Platonic in the sense that if we had an infinite number of monkeys banging on typewriters, it would eventually be typed out by one of them. It is fundamentally an idea, and ideas have no creators. It could in principle have been "discovered" by another writer (even a macaque!), and as such there is a sense in which Shakespeare didn't actually create something new when he wrote it.

This is unintuitive, or in other words, "sounds plain crazy". Perhaps, but I will try to explain by analogy.

I have no idea whether "She looked across at him thoughtfully" has ever been written before in the history of English. A Google search turns up no hits for this precise phrase. On the other hand "She looked at him thoughtfully" turns up a tremendous number of results, as does "She looked across at him".

What does this suggest about what I have done in writing these phrases? My experience of writing each was identical, and yet two of them have often been written before, and the other may never have existed before (although it probably has).

Was I being creative when I wrote the (possibly) new phrase? Did I plagiarize when I wrote the others? Of course not. You might say I was being more or less creative in some sense, but there is no absolute threshold being crossed. The reason that writing a long piece of text feels like creation is because it quickly becomes inconceivably improbable that any other author could have created the same by chance.

And yet at no point do we cross an absolute threshold where (re)use of language becomes an act of creation.

This is, of course, all entirely academic, yet there are some cases where this idea becomes a powerful tool to aid in our understanding. It helps us to understand how evolution by natural selection can appear to be a creative force while being entirely mindless. All the solutions that nature finds to the problems facing organisms already exist in the Platonic sense. Natural selection haphazardly explores the space of possible earth life forms, weeding out those that will not succeed and homing in on those that will just as mindlessly as a heat-seeking missile.

Most importantly, as I hope to explain in a later post, the idea of Platonic reality can ultimately help to explain even the existence of the physical world around us.

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