Impressions of Existence
You wake up in the morning and you become conscious of the world again. For a while nothing existed for you, but now existence floods back. You become aware of external objects, of space, of time, of yourself, of your mental states. I shall say that you have impressions of existence. I am interested in the nature of these impressions—their psychological character. They are of a special kind, not just an instance of other psychological categories. I want to say they are neither beliefs nor sensations; they are a sui generis psychological state. They need to be recognized as such in both philosophy of mind and epistemology. Intuitively, they are sensory states without qualitative content—perceptual but not phenomenal (though these terms are really too crude to capture all the distinctions we need). Let me try to identify what is so special about them, acknowledging that we are in obscure conceptual territory.
First, impressions of existence are not beliefs: existential beliefs are neither necessary nor sufficient for existential impressions. I might have the impression that there is a cat in front of me, but actually be hallucinating, and know it. My sense experience gives me the impression of an existing cat, but I know better, so I don’t believe a cat exists in my vicinity. Just as I can have an impression of an object with certain properties but decline to believe there is an object with those properties (I know I’m hallucinating), so I can have an impression that something exists and yet not believe it does. So existential belief is not necessary for existential impression. Nor is it sufficient because I can believe in the existence of things that I don’t have impressions of existence of—such as remote galaxies or atoms or other minds. These points make it look as if impressions of existence are standard perceptual states, like seeing red things and square things. But there is no quality that I see when I have a visual impression of existence: it strikes me visually that a certain object exists, but there is no quality of the object that is presented to me as its existence (this is an old point about existence). Redness and rectangularity can enter the content of my experience, but existence can’t. It isn’t a sensory quality, primary or secondary. I have the impression that a certain object exists—that’s how things seem to me—but there is no quality of existence that is recorded by my senses. Even theories of existence as a first-order property don’t claim that existence is perceptible in the way color and shape are; and theories that identify existence with a second-order property certainly don’t regard it as perceptible. I don’t see the existence of a thing, as I see its color and shape. Yet I have an impression of existence, and that impression belongs with my experience (not my beliefs). I describe myself as “under the impression” that various things exist—my experience is not neutral as to existence—but this impression is not a belief I have, and it is not a type of sensation either.
Not all experience carries impressions of existence: not imaginative experience, for example. If I form an image of a unicorn, I am not thereby under the impression that a unicorn exists. Nor do I have existential impressions of fictional characters. There is sensory content to these experiences (note how strained language is here), but I would never say that I have impressions of existence with respect to imaginary objects. On the contrary, I would say that I have impressions of non-existence. Impressions of existence are not constitutive of consciousness as such, though they are certainly a common feature of consciousness. Do I have such impressions in the case of numbers and other abstract objects? That is not an easy question, but I am inclined to say no, which is perhaps why Platonism strikes us as bold. We might have an intuition of existence here (and elsewhere), but that is not the same as an impression of existence. We don’t say, “It sure as hell looks like there’s a number here!” Impressions of existence belong with the senses (including introspection) not the intellectual faculties. Do I have impressions of existence with respect to language? Well, I certainly have the feeling that words exist—I keep hearing and seeing them—but as to meanings the answer is unclear. The meanings of words don’t impress themselves on my senses in the way material objects do. Physical events impress me with their existence too, but fields of force not so much. We seem more or less inclined to believe in the existence of things according as they provide impressions of existence or not. We are impressed with impressions of existence, though we extend our existential beliefs beyond this basic case.
Impressions of existence undermine traditional conceptions of sense experience, such as sense-datum theory, sensory qualia, and the phenomenal mosaic, rather as seeing-as undermines these conceptions. Seeing-as is not to be conceived as a “purely sensory” visual state either. Sense experience contains more than qualitative atoms of sensation (“the given”); there is a variety and richness to it that is not recognized by traditional notions. Impressions of existence are not instances of Humean “impressions” or Lockean “ideas”. To be sure, there is something it is like to have an impression of existence, which is not available to someone that has only theoretical existential beliefs, and we can rightly describe such impressions as phenomenological facts; but we are not dealing here with what are traditionally described as “ideas of sensible qualities”, such as ideas (sic) of primary and secondary qualities. The impressions in question sit loosely between what we are inclined to call (misleadingly) perception and intellect, sensation and cognition, seeing and thinking. They are neither hills nor valleys, but something in between. It is thus hard to recognize their existence, or to describe them without distortion. Existence is woven into ordinary experience, but not as one thread intertwined with others (color, shape). One is tempted to describe such impressions as assumptions or presuppositions or tacit beliefs, but none of these terms does justice to their immediate sensory character—for it really is as if we are directly informed of an object’s existence, as if it announces its existence to our senses. As Wittgenstein might say, we see things as existing (even when they don’t). The sensory world is not an existentially neutral manifold. Seeing-as shows that seeing is not just a passive copy of the stimulus, and “seeing-existence” carries a similar lesson. It doesn’t fit the paradigm of seeing a color, but so what?
This has a bearing on skepticism. It is not merely that the skeptic questions our existential beliefs; he questions our existential impressions. We don’t feel a visceral affront when someone questions our belief in galaxies, atoms, and other minds—we feel such things to be negotiable—but we jib when we are told that the very nature of our experience is riddled with falsehood. Our galaxy without other galaxies is one thing, but a brain in a vat is something else entirely. The brain in a vat is brimming with impressions of existence, as a matter of basic phenomenological fact, but these impressions are all false—there are no objects meeting the conditions laid down in its experience. Here, we want to say, the skepticism is existential—it shakes us to the core. How could our experience mislead us so badly, so dramatically? It is like being lied to by an intimate friend. How could experience do that to us! It seduces us into believing that things exist, but they don’t! So the shock of skepticism is magnified by the experiential immediacy of impressions of existence; it isn’t just theoretical, academic. It is different with skepticism about other minds, because in this case we don’t have such impressions of existence; so the skeptic isn’t contradicting ordinary experience, just commonsense assumption. We assume other people have minds, but we don’t have sensory impressions of other minds (pace Wittgenstein and others). We might then say there are two kinds of skepticism: belief skepticism and impression skepticism. The skeptic about other minds is a belief skeptic, but the skeptic about the external world (or the self) is an impression skeptic. Skepticism about the past, the future, and the unobservable falls into the former category, while the latter category might extend to include skepticism about our own mental states, as well as the self that has them. And certainly we have a very strong impression that our own mental states exist (not merely a firm belief). Of course, there is always a distinction between actual existence and the impression of existence, but it is surely indisputable that we have an impressionthat our own mental states exist—whether they really do is another question. In any case, the skeptic who questions the veridicality of our impressions, as opposed to our beliefs, is always a more nerve-racking figure.
I will mention a few issues that arise once we have accepted this addition to the phenomenological inventory. First, animals: I take it that sensing animals enjoy impressions of existence, even though they may not be capable of existential beliefs. They may not have the concept of existence but they have a sense of it—the world they experience impresses them as real. If they have mental images, there will a contrast in this respect in their mind. This shows how primitive and biologically rooted impressions of existence are. Second, training: is it possible to train someone out of her impressions of existence? We can’t train someone not to experience perceptual illusions (the system is modular), but could we train someone to cease to experience the world as existing? It’s an empirical question, but I doubt it—this too is part of the encapsulated perceptual system, hard-wired and irreversible. Of course, beliefs can be readily changed by suitable training—as by pointing out their falsity. The brain in a vat will never be able to reconfigure its perceptual experience to rid itself of the impression of existence, even when thoroughly persuaded of its true situation. No matter how much it believes its experiences not to be veridical they will keep on seeming that way (we could always do an experiment to check my conjecture). Third, are impressions of existence capable of varying by degree? Can we have stronger impressions of existence in some cases than in others? A Cartesian might think that the impression is at its strongest with respect to the self, with external objects trailing. A Humean might deny any strong impression of existence for the self, but insist on it for impressions and ideas. Judging from my own case, it seems pretty constant: the impression itself is always the same, though the associated beliefs may vary by degree. Even when I know quite well that an experience is illusory, it still seems to assert existence, just as much as when I am certain an experience is veridical. So I am inclined to think the impression doesn’t vary from case to case. It is all or nothing. Fourth, are there other cases in which we have sensory impressions that fail to fit traditional categories? Are there impressions of necessity or identity or causation or moral rightness? That would be an interesting result, because then we could claim that these cases are still sensory in the broader sense without accepting that they belong with impressions of color and shape. We could thus widen the scope of the perceptual model. I leave the question open.