Friday, September 20, 2013

Existence, Abstraction, and Doubt

A proposition expressing existence takes the form "X is". This form of proposition is the most basic form and can serve as a building block from which other, more complex propositions can be constructed. Let us examine more closely the nature of existence and the implications for the use of existence as the lowest-order proposition.

Any animate being can be shown to demonstrate the awareness of existence. Animals, though they are not self-aware and thus may not be cognizant of the concept of existence, will nevertheless react to stimuli in a manner consistent with the awareness of this concept. A dog, for example, will not attempt to run through a wall; it recognizes the existence of the wall and can understand that its efforts would be in vain. It, perhaps, does not know this innately, but through experience it becomes highly confident that the wall exists. Similarly, its eyes will follow an object that it is interested in, such as a ball or a morsel of food; this action directly represents the recognition of the existence of those objects.

It should be noted that, simultaneously in these previous examples, the dog does not simply react because of the mere existence of objects, but also some properties about them: the wall is hard and steadfast, the objects desirable (either due to entertainment or taste, or even some characteristic which cannot be so simply described). 

Perhaps more directly, reaction to a basic stimulus such as light or motion isolates the existence of an object; the observer may not have enough information about such a thing to draw more detailed conclusions than to simply believe in the existence of it. Nevertheless, in order to categorize an object, that object must necessarily be thought to exist, though it need not actually exist (the belief of existence may be in error); thus, existence is a necessary condition for categorization. 

Two tangential topics should be touched on to complete our discussion of existence: absence, which represents the negation of existence; and from this, the application of negation to knowledge, forming the concept of doubt.

Continuing with the example of man's best friend: While it easily recognizes existence as the cornerstone of its world, does it understand absence, or the negation of existence? Consider a dog that suspects you are concealing food in your hand. It is confident in the existence of food. Yet, if you were to reveal to it an empty hand, would it see the absence of food, or only an empty hand? It seems likely that absence is a concept also available to some animals: A dog in this situation seems to express surprise, whether because the hand is absent food, or because the hand as a whole is not what was expected, and thus, the hand is absent some property. Dogs also generally demonstrate the recognition of absence when their owner is away.

Absence represents the logical negation of existence. Negation is a concept of logic which can be generalized to other concepts (but not to any tangible object). One may not negate a chair; one may negate "fear" (confidence) or "left" (right). The nature of negation as a logical construct is beyond the scope of this topic; it is merely mentioned here to note that negation of a concept represents a relationship between that concept and its negation, and thus, introduces additional complexity into any proposition where it is introduced, if only at the margin. Negation is an absolute abstraction away from a concept; the ability to negate concepts, or more generally, to abstract away from them by varying degrees, belongs to a higher state of consciousness than to simply recognize those concepts. It is less clear that an animal is able to negate concepts generally, although they may be able to for existence and absence.

The negation of certainty is doubt: To be uncertain, one must recognize what it would be to be certain. If we believe that true knowledge is unobtainable, then we have only more or less certainty; and, abstracting away from our certainty, we introduce various degrees of doubt. Thus all problems, in theory, are somewhat more complex than we give them credit for in practice. However, introducing practical doubt into our consideration of every proposition we encounter would leave us powerless to act on our well-founded, and rather certain, beliefs. We therefore act without considering our doubt, if the doubt is small enough; and, even where the doubt is quite large (and sometimes, larger than we give it credit for), we typically are able to act after only brief consideration.

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