DISCLAIMER: IF YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA’S EXISTENCE, DON’T READ THIS.
This piece was influenced by Dr Christopher Janaway during an Ancient Greek Philosophy Lecture
We make the distinction of existence daily but its relevancy increases at Christmas. This is because of Santa. As a society, we teach children that there is a being who delivers them presents on Christmas Eve. They gain empirical evidence of this by receiving presents or going to visit “Santa” in his “grotto”. However, as they grow up, there are things that don’t make sense. How can Santa deliver all those presents in one night? How can Santa be eternal when everythingelse we perceive in the world is constantly changing? In the end, by the time we have reached adulthood, we have decided that Santa does not exist.
However, what do we mean by existence? We believe we can assert that, if we were perceiving a chair in front of us, that said chair exists. However, other objects such as unicorns and Santa do not exist. This is an odd conclusion as Santa must exist in some capacity because we have a concept of Santa within our minds. Yet, we acknowledge this existence is a different to a chair existing. What do we mean by this distinction?
This was a problem that was discussed in one of my Ancient Greek Philosophy lectures with Dr Christopher Janaway, The initial distinction I proposed was that things that “exist” are material objects existing in a world independent of the mind. That is to say, anything that is physical exists. Anything that does not have physical properties does not exist. This explains the distinction between Santa and the chair. If we apply this to the example above, the chair is in a physical world and is made of material matter. Therefore, it exists. However, while we have a concept of Santa, we cannot assert that he exists. That is because a being that has the properties that the concept of Santa has (for instance, being able to deliver presents to all children in one night) does not exist in the external world and demonstrate the physical properties Santa would have.
However, while this is sufficient for the example above, Janaway correctly pointed out that there are some things we claim exist that do not exist within the physical world suggesting this definition incorrect. For instance, we would claim that the concept of numbers exist. Also, while there are physical aspects to a university such as Kings College London including its location or the people who make it up, it is dependant on a mental concept which connects all of the physical aspects together. Both of these do not purely exist in the physical world. However, we would still argue that they exist. Therefore, my initial argument that existence is defined by whether a concept exists in an independent, material world is unsuccessful.
This, though, creates difficulty for someone defining existence because it means we cannot explain the distinction between why we would assert that Santa doesn’t exist but a chair we are perceiving does. If a concept of a university that is non-physical can be argued to exist, then why can’t we argue that Santa also exists? If there is no defining feature between them, we could conclude that both the chair and Santa exists. This is clearly a counter-intuitive position and as a result we must find a way to reject it.
There are two possible responses, the latter more credible than the former. Firstly, we could reject the existence of the examples used by Dr Janaway. To declare that numbers exist is a controversial statement to make. It is not the point of this blog to explore the philosophy of mathematics. However, a possible theory (for example) is that numbers are purely categorisations of empirical evidence, For instance, we get the concept of the number “two” from viewing couples of objects, such as two swans or two cars. In the case of the concept of the university, we could argue that it is a series of experiences instead of the university itself existing. If it is the case that neither of these exist, then they cannot be used to criticise my original definition of existence.
However, I think there is a more promising method of dealing with Dr Janaway’s criticism that doesn’t depend on an entire area of philosophy and that is to change the definition of existence to something more subtle. In order to do that, we need to make a couple of distinctions. Firstly, the idea of a concept. A concept is an idea or thought existing within our mind. This can be distinguished from what it resembles. For instance, if we have a concept of a chair, this can be distinguished from a chair that exists in the external world. The concept is able to resemble what it concerns due to reflecting the properties of the object. For instance, the concept of a chair resembles an actual chair because it resembles it having four legs, having a back and platform on the four legs as well as being made of a sturdy material. However, part of the concept of the chair is it being a physical object within the external world. If the chair, then was not within the external world, we would argue it does not exist. What this highlights is that existence is not a question of whether an object has physical properties, but whether the object it represents aligns with the expected properties of the object.
How does this apply to the examples we have used so far? In the case of numbers, it is not within their concept that they have physical properties; we would not find the number two in the middle of a field. Therefore, numbers being immaterial does not challenge their existence as their immateriality aligns with their concept. This contrasts to Santa. As part of Santa’s concept, he is expected to be a physical being in the external world. This is demonstrated by the fact he is expected to deliver presents, an action requiring physicality. However, there is no object within the external world that has the properties of Santa. Therefore, as there is no object fulfilling the conditions of the concept of Santa, we conclude he doesn’t exist. This more subtle explanation of existence deals better with Dr Janaway’s problem as it explains why we say Santa does not exist but numbers do despite both being immaterial entities.
To summarise, existence is difficult to define. Initially I proposed the definition that refers to whether an object exists in the external world. Dr Janaway correctly highlighted this was wrong due to us believing numbers exist but that they are immaterial. This challenge was successfully dealt with by suggesting existence is a method of asserting whether there is an object which resembles the concept, as it allowed for a distinction between the existence of immaterial numbers but the non-existence of Santa.