Is Existence Possible?



Is Existence Possible?


I am going to consider an argument for the conclusion that existence is not possible. Not that we don’t know that anything exists, or that nothing in fact exists, but that existence is impossible: it could not be that anything exists. This is, to put it mildly, a startling conclusion—startling to the point of jaw dropping. Yet it follows from relatively simple assumptions and requires no fancy or revisionary analysis of what “exists” means. The argument is not apodictic, but it is certainly worrying; it isn’t easy to see where it goes wrong, if anywhere. It starts with a fairly innocuous observation, namely that when new things come to exist they do so in virtue of pre-existing things, generally by being made of these things. Thus a new house is made of pre-existing bricks, a new painting is composed of paint that existed before, and a new organism is made of bits of matter that were already around. Nothing is truly new; everything is derived from something else.  [1] Let us say that things generally have a derivative existence. We can usually explain the existence of a new entity by reference to old entities that pre-date it: it is typically a matter of re-combination. Sometimes this procedure doesn’t work because there is (apparently) too much novelty in the new entity: notoriously, sentient beings have an existence not easily explained by the existence of what preceded them (insentient matter); similarly for organic beings in relation to pre-organic material. But here we generally assume that we are missing something, and it is clear that some aspects of the new entity owe their existence to pre-existing entities (such as the constituents of the body). Existing things come from other existing things, often going back a long time. Nearly all of what we observe in the way of existence is derivative existence.

            But isn’t there also original existence—things that exist without reliance on other things? What about the parts of newly existing things—where do they come from? They may in turn come from other pre-existing things, ultimately going back to molecules and atoms; and these entities may owe their existence to even earlier realities, given what we hear about the state of the universe at the time of the big bang. Maybe atoms derive from superhot plasma as it cools. But at some point we reach things that don’t derive their existence from other things: what should we say about these? Now matters are apt to turn sticky; a certain intellectual panic sets in. Our usual paradigm of existence starts to break down, since these entities don’t have an existence that can be explained in terms of antecedent entities. An array of more or less unpalatable options presents itself. The first is that these entities come from nothing at all: they simply spring into existence de novo. Not even God plays a role, since he is an existent being (allegedly) for whom the same question arises: what explains God’s existence? But putting God aside, we have the idea that the basic things of reality pop into existence from pure nothingness. This seems utterly incomprehensible: as the old adage goes, nothing comes from nothing. And if such a miracle were possible, why isn’t it still happening—why don’t we see things popping into existence out of nothing on a regular basis? It might seem that a dose of modal metaphysics could get us out of this jam: what precedes existence and provides its foundation is possibility. We might even change the terms of the discussion and describe the antecedent possibilities as themselves existing, so that the question becomes how possibilities become actualities. This is certainly an intriguing metaphysical theory: pre-existing possibilities give rise to the existing actual universe that we observe—not something from nothing but something from a possible something. There was a possible world existing before the actual world and it is the basis for the existence of the actual world; we just need to pump up our conception of reality and then we can find the basis for actual existence, thus preserving our usual paradigm of derivative existence. There are (at least) two problems with this approach. The first is that the same question will arise for the antecedent realm of existence: where do these possibilities come from? If possible worlds really exist, where do they come from—do they pop into existence from nothing? But second, and more decisive, possibilities have no tendency to turn into actualities; so they cannot play the role of existence generators. We can’t say that actually existing things are made of possibilities that pre-date them—what would that even mean? The relation between existence and possibility is nothing like the relation between a thing and its parts. This would really be another version of the something-from-nothing approach: things come to exist of their own volition, so to speak, without any earlier preparation or precursor or preamble—they just burst onto the scene at some assigned or random time.

            The obvious next move is to declare eternality: the original existences are nothing like the derivative existences, which have a time of origin and a finite lifespan, but are eternal beings without beginning or end. Thus we might suppose that elementary particles are eternal beings for which the question of origin does not arise. This is no doubt a tempting move (a knight’s move), given the unfolding dialectic, but it is far from satisfactory. First, it is flagrantly ad hoc: we are forced to make a clean break from our usual conception of existence in order to solve a metaphysical puzzle. We have no other reason to postulate eternality for non-derivative existences than to solve the problem of how certain things manage to exist; and on the face of it the idea sounds preposterous. It isn’t that these entities are like numbers in being (arguably) necessary existences: they exist contingently but eternally. So it is not in their very nature as necessary beings to exist in all possible worlds at all times; no, they are contingent beings that just happen to exist for all time. Nor is it clear that this postulation would solve the basic problem: for isn’t there still the question of what explains the existence of these entities? Let’s assume they exist eternally: we still need to know why they exist at all, given that they don’t have to. Is their existence simply a brute fact with no explanation? But why these entities and not others—why the particular types of particles that populate our universe? Their existence remains a mystery even if they exist through all eternity. We can understand the existence of most of what we observe, since we see how the existence of one thing depends on the existence of another, but with the basic entities we are confronted with things that exist for no reason—unintelligibly, by brute stipulation. Surely it would be preferable if we could give some account of their existence as contingent beings: unlike numbers they exist in time and can change over time—yet we are told they have no origin, no means by which they came into existence. Is their allegedly eternal existence any more acceptable than saying that ordinary objects could exist eternally as a way of explaining their existence? Suppose we tried saying that sentient beings exist eternally, which is why we can’t explain their origin in terms of antecedent facts—wouldn’t that be totally unbelievable, a complete abnegation of intellectual responsibility?

            So we seem to have reached the conclusion that existence is impossible. It seemed as if we could understand the existence of ordinary objects by reference to pre-existing objects, but it turns out that we have no account of the existence of those objects—which means we don’t really understand the existence even of derivatively existing objects. In the case of non-derivative existence we have only an array of unpalatable metaphysical speculations, more or less desperate and ad hoc. We really have no understanding of existence at all when you get down to brass tacks. And it looks as if any type of existence will face this critique—what to say about the existence of the basic realities. In particular, are we really committed to the eternal existence of concrete contingent beings just by the very notion of existence? Was that part of the bargain when we agreed to operate with the concept of existence? Or are we forced to accept that existence can be conferred by nothing at all, or that it springs miraculously from mere possibility? None of this is remotely attractive; it all seems like a steep and whistling descent into metaphysical nonsense. Thus the proponent of the argument encourages us to draw the obvious conclusion: existence is impossible. Nothing exists in any possible world. The idea of existence is incoherent, puzzling to the point of paradox. It isn’t just that nothing does exist; nothing could exist. For existence leads us to the problem of how the basic existences come to be—for which we have no adequate account. Maybe there is an option we haven’t thought of, or maybe existence is an impenetrable mystery; but as things stand, it looks as if we have a kind of proof that existence is impossible. We are familiar with arguments that purport to show that meaning is impossible, there being no workable account of what meaning is  [2]; the present argument purports to show that existence itself is impossible—of meanings, of material objects, of selves, of anything (except perhaps numbers). Ultimately, we have no conception of how the existence of the most ordinary things is possible.


  [1] It is an interesting fact about our universe that it permits the upsurge of new things: many things exist now that did not exist in the past. You would think that given the means at the universe’s disposal nothing new could be generated, just re-combinations of old stuff. This is why one can sympathize with the adage “There is nothing new under the sun”.  In some possible universes presumably this is the case—no new entities ever come to exist. In a sense existence is quite close to non-existence—that is, new entities are ontologically close to the entities they come from and can easily revert to them. It is surprising that they exist at all as separate things in view of this closeness. Why not just make do with the old things?

  [2] I am thinking of Kripke’s discussion of meaning in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982). This is Zeno-level super-charged military-grade skepticism: the complete impossibility of both meaning and existence.


Knowledge of Things



Knowledge of Things


In chapter 5 of The Problems of Philosophy (“Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description”) Russell writes: “Knowledge of things, when it is of the kind we call knowledge by acquaintance, is essentially simpler than any knowledge of truths, and logically independent of knowledge of truths, though it would be rash to assume that human beings ever, in fact, have acquaintance with things without at the same time knowing some truth about them. Knowledge of things by description, on the contrary, always involves, as we shall find in the course of the present chapter, some knowledge of truths as its source and ground.”  [1] He goes on: “We shall say that we have acquaintance with anything of which we are directly aware, without the intermediary of any process of inference or any knowledge of truths.” Thus Russell proposes a sharp duality in our knowledge of things: knowledge we have by bringing things under descriptions and knowledge we have by means of direct unmediated experience. As illustrations he cites knowledge of sense-data and knowledge of the external object that causes sense-data: we are “immediately conscious” of such sense-data as color and smoothness, he says, whereas we have no such direct awareness of the table itself, which we know only by means of the description “the physical object which causes such-and-such sense-data”. So our knowledge of things divides into two subspecies that act quite differently and are made possible by quite distinct mental faculties. The phrase “knowing X” is capable of two types of analysis depending on whether the knowledge relies on acquaintance or description. We might have thought we have a unitary concept here but in fact an irrefragable dualism confronts us: there are two completely different ways a thing may be known (or known of or known about).

            The distinction appears robust when we follow Russell’s way of articulating it. We do know about sense-data by the faculty of introspection, which is different from the faculties of external perception and associated inference; and description is a linguistic matter while immediate awareness is not. There is also certainty concerning our acquaintance with our own minds, whereas we have no such certainty with respect to the external world.  Further, it sounds intuitively correct to say that we have “direct” knowledge of some things and “indirect” knowledge of others. So Russell seems to be barking up the right tree when he announces a clear-cut distinction between two types of knowledge of things—as clear as the distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, say. We are accustomed to such dualisms in philosophy and we can add this one to our stock. Certainly the distinction has been warmly received and smoothly transmitted down the philosophical generations. But is it as sharp and principled as it is easy to suppose that it is? Are there really two completely different ways of knowing about things with nothing to unify them? First, let us note two features of so-called knowledge by description as characterized by Russell: it is linguistically mediated, and it is dependent on knowledge of truths (propositions). These would certainly mark a key difference, but both are questionable, and indeed clearly wrong. It is not necessary to have and deploy a language in order to have so-called knowledge by description, or else animals and small children would have no such knowledge; what is necessary is the possession of concepts—ways of thinking about things. I can think of an external object as the cause of my sense-data without putting this thought into words—I just need to deploy the appropriate concepts. We can call these concepts “descriptive” if we like but that does not imply that they take a linguistic form (not in a public natural language anyway). Knowledge by description is therefore no more language-dependent than knowledge by acquaintance. Second, it is not part of the idea of knowledge by description that any knowledge of truths is essential: for a description is not a sentence; it does not express a proposition. Of course, if we accept Russell’s theory of descriptions, we get that result; but it is no part of the idea of knowledge by description itself. If we thought that some knowledge necessarily depends on names (“knowledge by naming”) that would not imply that such knowledge requires knowledge of truths (propositions). So again, that mark of distinction lapses. We are left with the claim that some knowledge of things is based on concepts—ways of conceiving of things, constituents of thought, elements of the reasoning faculty.

            Attention now shifts to knowledge by acquaintance: is it not dependent on concepts? Russell appears to think so, but the question is debatable. He seems to think that our knowledge of sense-data has no conceptual component—that sense-data just loom up and slap us in the face, so to speak. But surely introspection involves bringing sense-data under concepts: I think of my sensation of red as a sensation of red when I introspect it. This means that I conceptualize sense-data according to their intrinsic character: I classify them, relate it to other sense-data, and have truth-bearing thoughts about them. I don’t just gaze at them blankly in uncomprehending wonder, as I might gaze at some strange animal quite unknown to me (imagine seeing an octopus for the first time). So when I am acquainted by introspection with my sense-data I apply concepts to them—whatever exactly concepts turn out to be. I am not cognitively void with respect to them. So isn’t knowledge by acquaintance a species of knowledge by description, i.e. concept-mediated knowledge? Consider your knowledge of the color red: you are acquainted with red and know what it is—is this knowledge completely independent of any means of mental representation? No, because you have to perceive the color in order to know what it is—it has to come before your mind. There must be some sort of intentionality involved: no cognition without mental representation. It isn’t that red just grabs your mind; your mind has to grab red, i.e. mentally represent it. There must be a mental act of grasping or perceiving or apprehending—some sort of intentionality. But then knowledge by acquaintance is like knowledge by description in that both involve a faculty of mental representation. It isn’t that knowledge of external objects requires intentionality while knowledge of internal objects doesn’t (which appears to be Russell’s view); both require it. The dualism totters; the distinction collapses; the division disappears. There is really only one type of knowledge of things—the type that builds in a system of mental representation. To be sure, we can distinguish different objects of knowledge, and record differences of epistemic status, and observe variations in the type of mental representation involved: but there is no deep distinction of the kind Russell claims—no difference of fundamental structure.

            Interestingly, Russell himself essentially gives up on the contrast when he notes that all knowledge by description depends on knowledge by acquaintance. As he famously states: “Every proposition which we can understand must be composed wholly of constituents with which we are acquainted” (his italics). This means that all knowledge by description is reducible to knowledge by acquaintance—just not always acquaintance with the thing known. He should really have distinguished two types of knowledge by acquaintance: acquaintance with the thing itself and acquaintance with other things connected to that thing in various ways (as sense-data are connected causally to external objects). He could have called these “knowledge by direct acquaintance” and “knowledge by indirect acquaintance” or “knowledge by acquaintance with connected things”. If he had done that he wouldn’t have overdrawn the contrast with simple acquaintance by supposing that somehow language is essential to indirect knowledge. What he didn’t see is that acquaintance itself is also a matter of mental representation, and so is always a mode of “description”. All knowledge by description is knowledge by acquaintance and all knowledge by acquaintance is knowledge by description (in the wide sense). To put the point differently, some knowledge is by denotation (as applied to concepts as well as words) and some is by perception or introspection, but both of these are semantic relations in a broad sense. For example, I may know of a person merely by being told about him and I may know of a color by seeing it, but both of these relations involve a structure of intentionality: the distinction between methods of knowing is real, but it doesn’t entail the kind of cognitive duality postulated by Russell. Denoting and perceiving are indeed different relations, but both fall under a broader concept—and that concept unites the different instances of knowledge of things.

            The same applies to knowledge of meanings: there are not two types of semantic knowledge, description-based and acquaintance-based. It isn’t that names are grasped “by description” and demonstratives for sense-data are grasped “by acquaintance”. In both cases we have mixture of direct acquaintance (possibly with universals) and indirect description (i.e. conceptualization); even when I grasp the meaning of “this pain” I invoke my introspective conception of pain, not just the pain itself. Nor are there two types of meaning corresponding to the different ways meanings are known—descriptive meanings and acquaintance meanings. A description theory of names will require a bedrock of acquaintance for the elements of the description; and a direct reference theory of mental demonstratives (“this pain”) will require a mode of conceptualization. Linguistic understanding is fundamentally uniform not divided into two completely different forms—the aloof inferential verbal form and the slap-in-the-face confrontational nonverbal form. This bears on the question of whether there are two types of definition, often labeled “verbal” and “ostensive”. I can give you some words to define a given word (e.g. “unmarried male” to define “bachelor”) or I can direct your attention to something in the world by pointing at it (e.g. I can point to something red in order to define “red”). So it is supposed that something fundamentally different is going on in the two cases: the word “definition” denotes two completely different procedures. But this distinction blurs when we examine things more closely: verbal definition depends on a prior grasp of the defining words, ultimately tracing back to something non-verbal; and so-called ostensive definition (as Wittgenstein taught us) is enmeshed in a sophisticated matrix of pre-existing conceptualization. The former is not so purely verbal as it might appear, and the latter is not so purely confrontational as we are inclined to suppose. We must already categorize the world in order to benefit from acts of ostensive definition, as we must already know the meaning of words non-verbally in order to benefit from acts of verbal definition. And doesn’t a verbal definition tacitly point to words in order to convey a meaning (“bachelor” means this: “unmarried male”)–as an ostensive definition converts the world into samples in order to convey a meaning, where samples act like elements of language? There is pointing in verbal definition (the “paratactic theory of definition”) and there is symbolism in ostensive definition (the “semantic theory of samples”).  [2] These activities are not as distinct as we might casually suppose. There is no deep dualism of definition of the kind we tend to think. Distinctions can doubtless be drawn but they don’t add up to the sharp division by which philosophers are prone to be enchanted. Definitions are not cleanly divided into “definitions by description” and “definitions by acquaintance”, though words and perceptions can play different roles in different ways of getting meaning across in different contexts. It isn’t that some definitions involve simply pairing words with other words while others involve pairing words with chunks of reality, as if neither activity presupposes anything of the other. That would be an untenable dualism, a typically philosophical piece of distinction mongering. Acquaintance and description (so-called) bleed into each other. The terminology itself should be abandoned as misleading.  [3]


Colin McGinn                        



  [1] The book was first published in 1912 and has, I believe, exercised an enormous subliminal influence on the course of subsequent analytical philosophy, so much so that Russell’s distinction is taken for granted (I myself took it for granted until very recently). It is beautifully, and deceptively, seductive, largely owing to its confident and limpid style.

  [2] On samples as parts of language see Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, sections 16 and 50. The paratactic theory of definition would mirror Davidson’s paratactic theory of indirect discourse in “On Saying That”: “Oscar said that: We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”. That is, that-clauses are analyzable as involving a demonstrative directed at a subsequent piece of discourse, as in “’Bachelor’ means that: ‘Unmarried male’”. In general, indexicality and description are closely intertwined.

  [3] The terminology applies quite reasonably to another distinction, not Russell’s distinction–that between knowing about a thing by testimony and knowing about it by sense perception. Of course, it is true to say that testimony knowledge is acquired by means of “description”, i.e. verbal report, and also true that you can be “acquainted” with a person or place by actually seeing him, her or it, thereby acquiring knowledge: but that has nothing to do with Russell’s distinction. This is one of those cases in which a perfectly legitimate distinction drawn in ordinary language is used to confer spurious legitimacy on a quite different philosophical distinction. One always needs to study the fine print carefully and not be carried away by putative vernacular precursors.