So, I asked you here because I have an idea for a paper. I might call it “On Things” or maybe, “On the Essence of Things” or even “On the Quality of Thingship.” I like using “On” at the beginning of the title because it makes it sound like it’s going to be about something intelligent. The fact that I’ll spend the whole paper talking about such a simple topic as what a thing is creates a nice contrast. But I’m afraid it’s going to be a rather ridiculous paper.
Anyway, I don’t know if it’s any good or not, so I’m asking you to read over it, and to tell me what you think of the idea. Be critical. It’s a work in progress, and I don’t plan on finishing it any time soon. In any case, every bit of criticism helps push it along.
I would start my paper by asking a question or two, and then I’d ramble on and on until I’ve explained what I’m thinking to myself (because if I understand what’s going on in my head, it’s finally coherent enough to share with the public). It’ll go like this:
What is it to exist? For the sake of being able to start somewhere, let’s just assume existing has to do with being able to interact with other stuff. If this is so, then a definition of “existence” might go something like this:
Existence: n. the quality of being able to interact with other things.
However, something seems wrong with this definition. It contains the words “other things.” For those other things to be things, they have to exist, don’t they? So it feels a bit impossible for our definition not to be circular. It might just as well read “the quality of being able to interact with other things that exist” or, more interestingly, “the quality of being able to interact with other things that also possess the quality of being able to interact with other things that possess the quality of being….” I think you get the idea. There’s a circularity here. It goes on forever. Our definition of reality is a dog chasing its tail.
That’s alright. It just means that based on this definition, nothing exists independently from other things. Existence depends completely on a thing’s ability to interact with other existing things. However, my saying it’s alright doesn’t mean it should sit well. We need to do more thinking about why this circularity occurs, and maybe glean some more insight along the way.
So, why might we end up with this circle of a definition? Sometimes if definitions are unfavorable, I’ve found that the definer just isn’t working with the most fundamental set of terms possible, or at very least isn’t focused enough on the single most fundamental term (the idea that causes, rather than being caused by, the other ideas). Since existence is the thing we end up redefining over and over, and “thing” is the word that we keep using, I’m going to take a philosophical leap: things aren’t the fundamental part of existence. Actually, I hope to show that this is completely rational and not a leap at all, but first, let that idea sink in, and let yourself reject it, maybe even angrily, resulting in you spitting out a vaporous cloud of whatever you may have been drinking as you realize the implication of what I’m saying: things aren’t what existing is about. Existing isn’t about being a thing. Isn’t that ridiculous? Yes, it is, and it’s true, and it’s marvelous.
What is this existing thing all about? If being a thing isn’t the most fundamental part, if it isn’t the nitty-gritty of existing, then what is? Well, what else is there to existence? Not much, right? It seems like all there is to it is being a thing. And just to beat a dead horse, that isn’t what existence is all about any more than being a cotton ball is about being a ball made of cotton. That doesn’t really tell us what a cotton ball is, essentially. We have a definition, but it isn’t an elucidatory one. You see, existing and being a thing are somehow like being a cotton ball and being a ball of cotton. I can describe one in terms of the other, but it doesn’t do anything to breed greater understanding of either term. So, we need another term, something fundamental to existence and therefore also fundamental to being a thing.
I ask again, what else is there to being a thing? Well, we had another term in our original definition that may be of some help: interaction. Anything you say exists or is a thing, you call such because it can interact. I want to avoid going back to the circularity, so I’m going to make a serious attempt at being concise: Everything that exists can interact. Everything that can interact exists. If it can’t interact, it simply doesn’t exist. Think about a tiny pebble, all by itself, so far from anything that it doesn’t even share a gravitational pull with any other object. Does it matter if the pebble is there or not? No, it doesn’t, because the pebble can’t interact with anything. The universe would be no different if the pebble were there or not there. It may as well not exist. And if you want to say “No! The pebble still exists even with nothing else around,” that may be because you’re thinking of the pebble as a bunch of parts (which interact with each other) rather than a singular object. If you aren’t following my absurd argument, here’s another:
I could tell you I have a rock in my hand. You might look in my hand and notice that you don’t see anything there. I would respond by telling you it’s invisible. You try to touch the rock, but I tell you it’s intangible. Long story short, there’s no way for you to interact with the rock, through senses or otherwise. If this is the case, does the rock exist? I’m proposing that the answer is “no.” If you can’t interact with it, it doesn’t exist. So, the essence of what it is to exist is to be able to interact. Think about a table in front of you. How does it exist? You interact with it. You put your hands on it, and it pushes back at you. You look at it, letting light reflect off of it and into your eyes. You might smell it, or lick it (which I don’t advise unless you’ve cleaned it very recently and it is a privately owned table). In any case, saying the table exists is the same as saying you can interact with the table, a common sort of interaction being the sensing of the table.
However, I want to take it a step further. What about periods of time in between interactions? What form does existence take then? To answer these questions, we need to hone in on the very small, the reason being that big things are actually collections of little existences, all interacting with each other (it is thus that they are allowed to exist). Imagine something so small that it’s illogical to talk about breaking it down any more. I’m going to talk about an electron, but you don’t have to know anything about electrons to understand my argument. Just assume that the thing I’m talking about isn’t made up of other (interacting) things. Imagine that our electron runs into another electron. I think it is safe to say that at that instant, both electrons exist. But what happens right before, or right after, the collision? Does either electron exist? I’m going to make an outrageous claim: no, neither electron exists in any frame that doesn’t involve interaction. Allow me to make that more general: existence isn’t just the potential for interaction; it’s the interaction itself. Just because something has the potential to interact doesn’t mean it exists. We can only really definitively say it exists during interaction.
So, that’s the paper. I know it doesn’t end with much of a conclusion, but I really couldn’t think of anything else that needed to be said. I hope you don’t think it’s too crazy, even though it ends with such an absurd claim. It still boggles my mind. Things only exist when they interact. It has interesting implications. What’s more, I couldn’t find any counterexamples. After all, it’s tough to name anything that exists and isn’t interacting with anything. But if you can think of such a thing, please, let me know. There’s no hurry, though. This paper doesn’t have to be done for a very, very long time.