“Existence" Revisited | Feb 2005

FMBR Editorial: Feb, 2005

“Existence" Revisited

Paul Malo, Paul Malo, Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, NY

It's heartening to hear philosophical questions. Philosophy should ask questions, not simply provide comforting answers. Too commonly we hear philosophy asserted as a rationale for beliefs, or find philosophy functioning as mere belief, serving as therapy. I find Mitchell's query in your November 2004 Newsletter to be genuinely thoughtful and intellectually honest, to be inherently philosophical. The dilemma posed seems to be rooted in a common conceptual paradigm. We are widely conditioned by a purported "scientific" acceptance of a reactionary positivism, intended to avert "superstition" about what is unverifiable. I refer to a popular but naive notion about science, of course, since science is inherently metaphysical.

The very mention of anything "metaphysical," however, suggests to many a reversion to "superstition," to belief as therapy. Hence there seems to be a perceived dichotomy between the notion that we can only truly know merely what is verifiable by quantitative measurement -- which is to say that all we can know is "matter" -- versus a priori beliefs, which are intuited or revealed by authority, but require a "leap of faith." Those are not the alternatives. This is not to say that the third way is some sort of reconciliation of science and religion. That weary project generally seems to seek science as support for a priori matters of faith, just as philosophy may be sought to provide assurances. What is suggested is recognition that science is not materialistic, but is metaphysical.

Mitchell's quandary seems to be rooted in the popular notion that "existence" is limited to the realm of material things. Of course it is natural for us to see our world as material objects. That's what's out there for the eyes to behold. Hence a naive materialism is not an aberration. When physicists transcend our sense experience, suggesting that what was accepted as the genuine "matter" of our accepted materialism really is not there, then we may be all at sea, adrift in the realm of metaphysics. This is not to say we enter the realm of religion, however. There is nothing self-evidently "spiritual" about the metaphysics of science. It merely continues the same process of abstracting principles that we learned when recognizing that 2 + 2 = 4 (or, to avert a linguistic critique, that a + a = 2a).

What is such a principle? Some argue that it is merely a mental construct. If there were no minds, they assert, there would be no mathematical principles, or if there were no material objects, there would be nothing to count. Those are familiar but silly contentions. Paradoxes of this sort have been the game of clever philosophers throughout history -- the "tree falling in the forest" sort of thing we heard as youngsters. Such arguments seem readily dismissed.

Suppose all human observers disappeared from the planet, would "a + a = 2a" cease to EXIST as a principle? If one argues that the principle has ceased to exist because no one was present to think it, can one propose that if some human observers should return to the planet, there would be no such principle? Of course the principle would survive without human observers. Similarly, if all matter were to disappear from the cosmos, would the principle vanish? We may reasonably suppose that if matter were to reappear, the principle would preexist its return. Of course "space" likewise would survive, and with space, "time." They are absolutes.

Principles of this sort are preconditions of existence. They are not physical, but metaphysical. To consider the immaterial realm of principles abstracted from material reality is not to question "existence" of reality itself -- merely to recognize the limits of materialism as a paradigm. Reality is much larger than matter. Consequently, when Mitchell asks, "Does a definitive foundation exist?" the answer is affirmative. There ARE immaterial absolutes as metaphysical realities, which are preconditions for what we know as material reality. In other words, there is a POTENTIAL that not only makes possible what materializes, but limits what can materialize. Put as a simple analogy, a blueprint precedes construction (or perhaps more aptly, the possibilities and limitations of materials and techniques determines what can be built).

So when speaking of "existence," the term should not be regarded as meaning "material" existence. This may help to answer Mitchell's question, "... How do I describe existence?"

This editorial response was submitted by Paul Malo, Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University, NY. Dr. Malo's area of expertise is the theory and history of architecture.

Please send comments to William C. Gough, billgough@fmbr.org