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Existence & explanations

There’s a great deal we don’t understand. Science has explained a whole lot, but not everything. Some events may require new and better technologies or theories to explain, some we may never be able to explain. Should we therefore deny the existence of the latter?

“Explaining” is defining an event in terms our human brains can comprehend. One plus one is two, we get that. Gravity, cause and effect, chemical reactions, we get it. But what about human consciousness? Movements of particles on the quantum level that we cannot explain with our knowledge of natural laws? Unicorns?

Yes, unicorns. We can’t explain them, can’t find scientific proof for them, can’t dissect them in plush laboratories and subject them to clinical examination. Does that mean they don’t exist? Where exactly do we draw the line? Is a mental existence, in the human mind, enough for something to exist? Is it enough for me to experience an event, for that event to exist? When does a belief exist?

Our minds are constantly deceived. We see a stick half submerged in water, and think it is bent. We see two people laugh out loud, and think they make fun of us. We think it’s Friday but it’s actually Wednesday.

For something to exist, a personal, easily deceivable experience cannot suffice. That is the difference between belief and knowledge. So when does a belief turn into knowledge?

As is usual in thinking about thinking, there is hardly an original thought. Someone has thought about this before. Philosophers have come up with two categories of thinking. Experiential states are raw feelings, like feeling cold, hearing a sound or being in love. Propositional attitudes define our attitudes towards an event. I believe there is an apple in front of me, is an example. It expresses an attitude (belief) and a content (an apple in front of me).

Experiential states (“qualia”) are what they are, they don’t refer to a separate content. You have to experience them yourself to know what they’re like, there is no other way. They are necessarily personal – your experience of seeing red may not be my experience, your experience of being in love may be very different from mine. Experiential states say nothing about the world, but only something about how I experience the world. That’s not helpful in finding an answer to our initial question. You may feel cold, I may not, so what have we said about the weather? Nothing.

Propositional attitudes don’t stand on their own, they refer to a separate content, they are about something else. And because they are, our human minds subject them to rational relationships. We need to, to make sense of the world. An example of such a rational relationship, is “contradiction”. I cannot make sense of the world if I believe that there is an apple in my hand, and believe at the same time that there isn’t an apple in my hand. My beliefs, in other words, must be consistent with one another. It does make sense for me to believe that there is an apple in my hand, and at the same time believe that my hand is holding an apple. Another example is “entailment”. If my dog only barks when it sees a cat, and my dog barks, then I’m bound to believe that there is a cat.

Rational relationships between propositional attitudes limit the claims we can make about the world, if we want to make sense in terms our human minds can comprehend. But is this right? Should we subject the entire world to propositions that we can actually grasp with our rational minds?

The Scottish philosopher David Hume ( † 1776 ) famously stated that we make a mistake to try and explain everything in terms the human mind can grasp. To the question “If everything started with a big bang, what came before the big bang?” Hume replied something like “Why try to mould everything in causal relationships? Why should there have been something that came before the big bang. Cause and effect is a natural law we humans apply to the world around us, in an attempt to explain the world in terms we can grasp. To assume that something caused the big bang, is assuming that everything can be moulded in terms we can grasp. But isn’t there a world out there, outside of our intelligent minds, that we simply cannot comprehend? And should we not simply accept that fact?”

Why speculate about what we cannot know? One possible attitude is to explain what we can’t understand in a language we can understand – analogies and metaphors. We don’t explain the events directly, but represent them in symbols and rational relationships that we can grasp and explain. I reject this. There is too much margin for error, too much opportunity and leeway for deception and corruption. I cannot explain why an identical idea occurs to two different people at the same time. I cannot explain why some people are lucky and others aren’t. I can’t even explain quantum physics. But I accept my ignorance. I reject the speculations, the imaginary analogies.

The attitude I argue for is to  resist the temptation to explain what we can’t. We can be amazed and curious, and should never stop to wonder, explore and learn, but should accept that the world is not made on our terms. The world outside our minds is not meant to be moulded in categories and bulleted lists that we can look at, file and comprehend. Applying our rationality to the world around us, is arrogant, and assumes once again that we humans are the centre of the universe, that the universe is made in our image. It is a fundamentally wrong way of looking at the world.


Hello, I'm Jeroen. I study philosophy at the Universities of Oxford and Stellenbosch. I use this website to gently wrap my head around the new concepts I learn, to practise my writing skills, and to occasionally vent an opinion. Here's one: I like hats. [+]