Existence, Existing, and the Philosophy of Being: What Does It Mean “To Be”?

People use various verbs for expressing “being” in the English language. The tree is. The man was. The boys are. I have been. I am being. You were. We all seem to know intuitively what it means for something to be, for something to exist. We look at a black cup sitting on the table and we assume it is a black cup. But, really, what does is mean in that sentence? Anybody who knows a little bit about the way light functions will tell you that the color black is the color being reflected; it is the color which is not absorbed by the object itself. The cup that “is” black is actually everything but black. The cup is not black. It appears black. There is no black cup sitting on the table. What you really have is an object which appears to take the form of a cup, reflecting only black light waves. These light waves hit our retina and give us the illusion that the cup is black. (But we all really mean that the cup is not black.) Confusing? Very.

The problem which any good philosopher should notice is the problem of circular reasoning. We define the verb “is” while referring to it with another “is”; that is, we are trying to pull ourselves out of the mire by our own hair. We attempt to define “is” while using the verb in the attempted definition itself. It’s like defining the color white by calling it, well, white. In other words, we are not really doing anything. We are not really saying anything about the verb “is.” This is known as the Münchhausen trilemma. I’ve made the claim that, “The cup that ‘is’ black is actually everything but black.” In making this statement, within a context where I am trying to define “is,” I am using the very verb I am trying to define. That’s circular.

So what does it really mean for something “to exist”? What does “is” really mean? Is it possible to define the verb “is” without referring to itself in its own definition? Can we ever escape making self-referential statements when discussing the philosophy of being?

The greatest mathematician and logician since Euclid and Bertrand Russell was surely Kurt Gödel. (And, if it really means anything to you, I am not a mathematician; I can only evaluate his logic, reasoning, and philosophy with any kind of “authority.”)  Gödel’s greatest contribution to logic and philosophy was his proof of the impossibility of proof for certain things. He argued, as I understand him, that all logical systems (even Russell’s mathematical-logical philosophy) were inherently flawed: all these systems which appeared “closed” actually had loop holes; they had the problem of self-reference. Any given system which would set out to prove something would either vacuously become self-referential, at some distant point, or would simply be grounded in an unprovable axiom itself. For example, similar to the Liar’s Paradox (where the sentence philosopher’s deal with reads: “This sentence is false” [if the sentence is true, then it is false; however, if the sentence is false, then it is true]), Gödel came up with the following observation, sometimes called the “Gödel sentence”: G is not provable in the theory T. If you try to prove a particular truth within a system that presupposes the existence of that particular truth, the system becomes complete and, therefore, it becomes unprovable. (And, one could add, self-referential.) For example, if I make the following statement, “This statement is unprovable,” how could one go about “proving” its validity? It’s self-referential (and, therefore, incomplete). It refers back to its own truth, being inherently grounded in the presupposition of its own truth. In his 1931 article “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of ‘Principia Mathematica’ and Related Systems” he essentially demonstrated two things:

(1) If the system is consistent, it cannot be complete

(2) The consistency of the axioms cannot be proven within the system

Is it possible to apply Gödel’s logic to the philosophy of existence? While one may find x or y statement as misconstrued or based on misunderstanding, the point here is not, ultimately, whether this is what Gödel meant or talked about; the point is this: we run into the issue of provability/demonstrability even in language and in our dealing with a definition of the verb “to be.” I am arguing that a similar problem is occurring even here. We attempt to talk about the verb “to be” in English while referring to itself. We attempt to make progress while no such progress is really being made. I attempt to “criticize” the verb “is” while using “is.”

If I doubt the meaning of “is,” why am I using “is” to talk about “is”?

Imagine a situation in mathematics. Your mathematics professor attempts to demonstrate what the plus sign (+) means in math. He begins by using the very sign itself to identify the plus sign. Surely students would find such “defining moments” (pun intended) as quite useless.

So where do we go from here? Is existence going to remain elusive forever? I’m not sure we will find an answer, but I can say one thing: Søren Kierkegaard has attempted to offer us an answer in his philosophical magnum opus: Concluding Unscientific Postscript. 

Kierkegaard makes a very strange argument for helping us understand what it means for a human being to exist. He observes casually that existence is really, in the here-and-now, a becoming. “Since the existing subject is existing (and that is the lot of every human being, except the objective ones, who have pure being to be in), he is indeed in the process of becoming.” Kierkegaard is saying one thing here: existence, as we know it, or think of it, is not really a thing to be grasped but only partially understood. Existence is a becoming. In this imperfect world, we really don’t exist. We are not anything definite, concrete, unchanging, set in stone, etc. We are always becoming something else, physically and emotionally. Our atoms are constantly rearranging themselves; our bones are constantly remineralizing; our thoughts and actions are always becoming something. We are already-and-not-yet, to use a theological term.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard writes:

“Every subject is an existing subject, and therefore this must be essentially expressed in all of his knowing and must be expressed by keeping his knowing from an illusory termination in sensate certainty, in historical knowledge, in illusory results…In historical knowledge, he comes to know much about about the world, nothing about himself; he is continually moving in the sphere of approximation-knowledge, while with his presumed positivity he fancies himself to have a certainty that can be had only in infinitude, in which, however, he cannot be as an existing person but at which he is continually arriving. Nothing historical can become infinitely certain to me except this: that I exist…”

What Kierkegaard is getting at is the fact that existence involves certainty. However, in this world we don’t have certainty. If one documents even such things as the atomic weight of gold or uranium, and if one documents all their properties, all such properties are continually open to change. The gold can rust. The uranium can decay. They, too, are in a state of becoming. But Kierkegaard isn’t through just yet. The problem isn’t just the issue of existence; we have another problem too: the problem of infinity. In order for something to be certain – that is, static and unchanging – it must be eternal. In order for something to exist, to really exist, it must be unchanging and eternal. It must simply be. Kierkegaard is certain that our idea of existence originates with God. We have this notion of things that are. But we also know that the things which are are continually changing. This brings us to the problem of the “Ship of Theuseus.” If a ship has had all of its parts replaced over a number of years, is it still the same ship? Likewise, if a human being is continually changing, is our calling him “Peter” warranted throughout all the changes? People go through physical and emotional changes all the time. Are they different people? If so, do they exist? I mean, at which point do we say that Peter, who is always changing, moment to moment, is really “Peter”? I mean, if he’s “Peter” right now, but two seconds later he is in some ways different, is he still “Peter”? Does “Peter” even exist? Kierkegaard is arguing that the idea of being is essentially proof of infinity, certitude, and, because of this, proof of God.

If one is not having a sense of awe at this moment, one should simply go read something else.

“To be continually in the process of becoming in this way is the illusiveness of the infinite in existence. It could bring a sensate person to despair, for one continually feels an urge to have something finished…”

In our very notions of existence and being, we find “the illusiveness of the infinite.” The problem with humanity is that it is stuck in this limbo. We are stuck in the stage between mortality and immortality, temporality and infinity. We are here because God is there. We do not exist because God does exist.

I think our ideas of being and existence are inherently tied, as Kierkegaard points out, to the existence of that Ultimate Mind, which most of us call “God.” Not only is existence tied to God: it is God. “To be” is to be God.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Soli Deo gloria 

2 thoughts on “Existence, Existing, and the Philosophy of Being: What Does It Mean “To Be”?

  1. Actually, as best we can determine/conceive at this point, the cup is not black or not NOT black or even the cup at all, in any objective sense. Photons are colorless. Color is the creation of the mind. Indeed, the cup itself is nothing but a swarm of potentialities, which have the ability to become actualities (meaning emerging into common experience in a manner we do not and may never understand) when observed or interfered with, directly or indirectly, by mind/consciousness/awareness. The same is true for the photons themselves.Not only do we not know what “is” is, but what we DO know indicates that there is no “is.” Beyond the problem of self-reference, as Kierkegaard knew so well, the far deeper problems of subjectivity and paradox. For someone like Richard Conn Henry, professor of physics/astronomy at Johns Hopkins, this blur of being, its lack of coherence (existence) apart from observation, forced him into Deism after decades of traditional scientistic atheism. He saw only two options.The first was the despair of solipsism, which would mean that there is no mysterious process leading to common experience, because there isn’t any common experience, just one’s own experience of one’s self-created world (Descartes’ baseline being the only line). The second option, which Henry felt compelled to embrace to remain sane, was to accept a world of common experience, which required, for him, the positing of an infinite, omniscient, omnipresent mind/consciousness. Only through such transcendent awareness of everything at once could there be anything at all that we could experience in common.The subjectivity and paradox underlying quantum physics, at least as I have come to understand it, calls into my limited mind two provocative entries from Kierkegaard’s Journals. “God does not exist; He is eternal. God does not think; he creates.”

    • Thank you for the comment; it was very thoughtful. I’ve not heard of Richard Henry. I will have to look him up and research him a bit later on. Currently, I’m already slammed with books to read for the summer (Voltaire, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Oxford just released a massive tome on Kierkegaard too, etc.). This is true that color is the creation of the mind. I’ve always found this fascinating. Nagel comes close to this subjectivity in “What’s it like to be a Bat?” and so does Erwin Schrödinger:

      “The sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.”

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