–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

‘Exists’ and ‘Real’

by | May 13, 2023


[1] You are talking with a friend who is a bit too taken with superhero comics. Halfway into an enthusiastic speech regarding the virtues of Captain America, you say to him gently, “You do realize that Captain America doesn’t exist, right?” What effect is this supposed to have on him?  

[2] Suppose your friend holds up the first issue of Captain America and says, “Of course Captain America exists. He’s existed since 1941.” Does this change anything?

[3] Imagine, alternatively, that he confuses Captain America with Superman and says that Captain America has existed since 1938 (which is when the first Superman comic was published). What is the difference between being wrong in the first way and being wrong in the second way?

[4] On the shared knowledge that there has never been a Captain Yugoslavia comic, you and your friend agree that Captain Yugoslavia doesn’t exist, yet you continue to disagree about Captain America. What is the issue between the two of you?

[5] You tell your friend that, of course, Captain America, the comic book character, exists. It’s just that he isn’t real. Does this change anything?  

[6] Many Enlightenment philosophers used ‘real’ to connote ‘objective’ or ‘perceiver independent’, as in “colors exist, but are not real.” Does this help?

[7] Can being real and existing come apart? If so, in what way(s)? 

[8] Your friend says: “Captain America was a model to me, during a difficult childhood. He gave me the strength and confidence to stand up for myself, when I was being bullied.” Does this change anything regarding the dispute between you?

[9] Imagine that instead of superhero characters, the two of you are talking about elementary particles. Your friend claims that neutrinos do not exist. You say that they do and demonstrate your point by showing him photographs of tracks in a bubble chamber. What is the relevant difference between this answer and your friend’s point regarding the effect Captain America had on him, during a difficult childhood?  

[10] What if there were (methodologically sound) studies showing that Captain America has had this effect on a statistically significant number of  young people? Would that change anything?

[11] Suppose we stopped concerning ourselves with what exists or is real and concern ourselves instead with what has efficacy? What about our lives or activities would change? 

[12] It sometimes seems as if we are offended by the fact that someone thinks something exists or is real that we do not and vice versa. What might motivate such “ontological offense”?

[13] Would anything be different if the two of you were talking about God (whichever one) instead?

[14] Science has told us that any number of things exist that do not, like the luminiferous aether and caloric fluid. Does this affect science’s ontological credibility?

[15] Political Science and Political Economics “ontologically commit” to states, municipalities, and economies. Is this analogous to physicists ontologically committing to neutrinos and quarks?

[16] Do different sciences enjoy different levels of “ontological credibility”? 

[17] Who has gotten ontological questions wrong more often, the natural or the social sciences?

[18] There is no science that ontologically commits to cups and saucers. Do neutrinos and municipalities exist, while cups and saucers do not? Are the former “more real” than the latter?

[19] How would one distinguish a case of “different degrees of reality” from a case of differences in framework/conceptual scheme/analytical hypotheses?

[20] What in either “pure” or applied mathematics depends on settling the question of the ontological status of numbers?

[21] In “On What There Is,” Quine worries about the “overpopulated universe” that results from expansive ontologies. If a country is overpopulated, housing shortages, famine, and civil unrest may follow. What are the negative results of ontological overpopulation?

[22] Some say that ontological extravagance runs afoul of Occam’s Razor; i.e. the parsimony principle. The parsimony principle is supposed to (methodologically) safeguard truth. Does this make sense, if one hasn’t already decided that the world is parsimonious (i.e., rejected ontological extravagance)?

[23] Natural selection only requires that a particular comportment be “good enough,” not that it be ideal or even optimized, which means there are a lot of useless and/or marginally efficient biological systems, attributes, entities, etc., around. Is there any reason to think the universe isn’t like this, more generally?

[24] Must a Rube-Goldberg be man-made?

[25] Are worries about Platonism and other “queer metaphysics” – and all the epistemic and “interaction” problems that follow – really what is at issue, rather than concerns about “overcrowding” or parsimony?

[26] What is connoted by “there is an X”? (And yes, I mean connoted, not denoted.)

[27] When we say, “there are neutrinos” and “there are municipalities,” is the same thing being connoted by ‘there are’?

[28] Are numbers “in” a set, the way bats are “in” a belfry? If not, how should we understand the difference between the relations?

[29] If one is unconfused by the fact that the statement “3, 5, and 7 are in a set” does not imply that if you look inside some container or other, you’ll find three things, why are we confused about what “there are numbers” implies?

[30] With respect to [28], does it make any more sense to say that the three numbers are inside a container, but the container is non-physical, and we look for and find them a priori?

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