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Existence and Being

Human language did not evolve to enable clear discussion of the subtle nature of physical or experiential reality, let alone of the new realities that advanced technology seems likely to give rise to. Seemingly basic terms like “existence” are OK for everyday discourse about ordinary life, but when one considers them in the context of potential phenomena like mind uploading and simulated universes, they begin to seem unacceptably fuzzy. This article describes part of the author’s quest to craft a clear conceptual vocabulary for discussing the nature of reality, now and after the next decades and centuries of technological advancement. While futurist in thrust, it also hits on some age-old philosophical issues.

Let us begin with a piece of philosophy that should be well known to most transhumanists. Ten years ago Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom put forward his “Simulation Argument”, involving a tripartite disjunction of which each of the premises seems prima facie to be reasonable. The main thrust of his argument is to convince you that at least one of the following premises must be true:

(1) The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage.

(2) Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

(3) We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

While the focus on futuristic implications is new, the underlying machinery of this argument is ancient and has been thoroughly examined in the West from the times of Parmenides and Plato, and in the East by the ancient scholars and original authors of the Vedas. Plato’s parable of the cave is in essence no different from the simulation argument.

These are all articulations of the mind-body problem. What exists in the mind, what exists outside of the mind? In the West, this tradition survived intact through the Dark Ages and reemerged fully formed in French philosopher René Descartes’ program of radical doubt. Even if you knew you were simulated and everything was just a phantasm arising in your brain or a simulated central processing unit, you could still be absolutely sure of your own existence.

The perspective I advocate here is that these matters can be made clearer by carefully articulating existence and being as two separate concepts. Natural languages like English tend not to draw such a distinction clearly; but I argue that if we wish to understand our reality as technology modifies it in the next century, such a distinction will be quite valuable. For example, I contend that if one draws this distinction carefully, the possibility of assuming you are being simulated becomes at once silly and useless.

We must, I suggest, draw a distinction between the property of being and the property of existing. The great Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein was on the right course when he said in the beginning of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that the world is everything that is the case. But things can be the case whether they exist or not, and this is what we must be clear about.

An Excursion into Ontology

In order to clarify this business of existence and being, it will first be necessary to take a brief excursion into the realm of ontology. I hope you enjoy the ride!

The center of the difficulty regarding existence and being lies in how we conceive the world. Were there not a controversy about the ontological status of the external world, this distinction would hardly be interesting at all. Were it unequivocally the case that we could logically separate object and subject, then the difference between existing actually in the outside world and existing only as imagination in the subjective realm would be obvious and an uninteresting problem of philosophy.

However, this is manifestly not the case. Descartes attempted to separate mind from matter, and if this ontology held philosophical water the difference between being and existing would be plain as day. Something would exist if it was composed of matter and had a corresponding representation in the mind, and would merely ‘be’ if it only had subsistence in the mind as an imagined entity.

Unfortunately for those who relish simplicity, Descartes’ difference is vulnerable to an insurmountable argument – the interaction problem. If mind and matter are two different substances, fundamentally composed of different kinds of things, they would be unable to influence one another lest they be the same substance, for if something can interact with something else it must be of the same kind. If matter can affect it, then it must be matter as well. I am not willing, like Descartes’ fellow Frenchman Nicolas Malebranche, to invoke God as the correct reply to the interaction problem as this approach has the least possible explanatory power. Once God is admitted into ontology, logic is no longer necessary.

Since we reject the dual substance hypothesis and by extension, any hypothesis including more than two substances, we are left with either a one-substance ontology or a zero-substance ontology. Since I am unable to even attempt to make sense of a zero-substance ontology but will not assert that such a sense-making is impossible, the remainder of this paper will assume a monistic, or single-substance ontology as a viable means of exploring the distinction between being and existing.

Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and the Hindu and Jain traditions draw distinctions between realms of experience. There is one substance, matter, and consciousness somehow subsists within it. Baruch Spinoza called this the ‘two-worlds’ concept and using his terminology, it would be called attributes of God, which he identified with the single substance, though here I will refer to it simply as ‘matter’.

Spinoza’s two worlds are Mental and Physical and for him, infinite other attributes exist as well. The Hindus called these two worlds the Brahman and the Atman, Brahman being the universal, eternal substance while the Atman is the individual principle, the self that is conceived of as separate from the rest of Brahman.

Kant, followed by Schopenhauer, delineated the two realms as the ‘noumenal’ and the ‘phenomenal.’ The Noumenon is the world of ‘things-in-themselves,’ and the Phenomenon is the world we experience mentally through perception and sensation. The relationship between these worlds is one of, as Scottish philosopher David Hume would say, inference.

There is some physical interaction between the matter that composes our bodies, and the matter that composes the rest of the Brahman, or Noumenon, and the interaction brings this information – that is, the existence of difference over local space and time – to our physical brain which then does its best to infer the location, properties, motion and trajectory of the various objects that interact with our sensory organs.

There is no absolute standard of measure between the Noumenon and our perceptions of it. Ultimately the only way to evaluate the degree of correspondence between the two worlds is Darwinian survivability. It’s ostensibly the case that those organisms with the more information-rich perceptions of the necessarily ambiguous external stimuli will better be able to make decisions about how to move their bodies through the Noumenon, with a resultant hereditary advantage.

So – wending back toward our primary point — what does all this have to with being and existing? It is necessary to establish the ontology we will be assuming when making the distinction. We have to be very clear when we are defining our terms, banishing as much ambiguity as possible. Wittgenstein was very clear in his belief that most of philosophy has been ‘bewitched’ by language, because words are signs that can be interpreted in multiple ways by different people in different contexts. It is thus difficult to rid ourselves of this Anekantavada of language (a Jain concept holding that no single version of truth can prevail since truth can be perceived in so many different ways) – but if we are clear about our ontology, it becomes much easier to draw the distinctions one wants.

Distinguishing Existence from Being

So what do I mean by existence versus being?

‘Being’ as I articulate it, is the more restricting term — referring to a noumenal object that subsists only within the brain of one or more subjects (this is not our final definition but must be preliminarily established). Something said to have being exists as imagination, that is, the actual physical brain-states in the various subjects that represent this object. For example, suppose we are thinking of a gumball with a diameter of exactly seven light years. Whether or not this object exists in the technical sense to be introduced later is unknown given an infinite universe, though we will assume that it does not in fact have existence. So what actually exists when we speak of this gumball? There are certain physical objects in the brain that are identical with this concept, and it is these objects that exist.

Moving from ‘being’ to ‘existing’ is much more difficult than it seems at first. At this point it is tempting to simply assert that if something ‘exists’ and has ‘being,’ than it must exist independently from brain-states. But since we have established that the only way we know about the Brahman, or the thing-in-itself is through inference, it is only through these brain-states that we know about anything, so trying to claim that something exists if it exists as a brain-state and also as a noumenal object is incoherent because it is only through brain-states that we are aware of noumenal objects to begin with.

We have assumed an external world and we have assumed we can infer things about it based on the physical interaction between it and our sensory organs. So how can we now draw a distinction between ‘being’ and ‘existence’?

The beginnings of an answer come from Jain philosophy. The idea of Anekantavada (literally “no-one-perspective-ism”), that there are multiple view-points into the world which is infinite, hence infinite views can be legitimate at any point. Each is no more valid than the next and only through combining them can we approach closer to the truth. We can use this to establish that the ‘being’ of fictional or imaginary objects can be moved from brain to brain through the Noumenon by means of noumenal manipulation – that is, speaking and writing or converting stored information within one brain into the proper transmission protocol to move it into another brain.

We can use language (written, spoken or signed), facial expression, body posture, gestures, etc., as the means of transmission from human to human, and basic information can even be transmitted from human to some animals, especially dogs. So if someone comes up with an idea like our galactic gumball, they can communicate this to other subjects, who will then have established within their own brains physical objects that are within their unique neural configuration identical with that idea.

We must, at this point, be somewhat agnostic as to the exact nature of this identity, though it seems certain that it is [at least as some precisely constructed network neurons with very particular configurations of receptors and ion channels distributed over the surface and inner membranes of these neurons along with exact amounts of ions, proteins, enzymes and other metabolic biochemicals and the exact time-dependent electric potential across those membranes]. The bracketed sentence will be assumed when we speak of neural objects identical with some noumenal object.

Parenthetically, this leads to an interesting sub-conjecture: that if we identify noumenal objects with this kind of neural object, the amounts involved will be enormous owing to the assumed infinite or at least obviously preposterously large number of possible noumenal objects that even a brain with as many possible neural objects as is conjectured to exist in a human brain (100 billion neurons times the 7000 average synapses on each, ignoring the variability in the analogue strength of each synaptic connection, taking into account the number of possible arrangements of these synapses as a path through the brain, this would be 7.0 x 10^14!) can conceive of. Though one should hardly expect one brain to represent the whole of the universe, it is conceivable that enough brains could; we currently have over six billion.

So we now cut right to what our definition of existing must be. An object can be said to ‘exist’ and not merely ‘be’ if it is such that it is capable of causing a particular brain object (i.e. “neurological pattern”) to occur in the absence of any communication between subjects.

I believe this is a good conceptual definition of existence — but I must admit that it is far from a real-world metric that can be used to cut the existing from the being. It is eminently possible that people have erroneous perceptions, hallucinations, confabulations, etc. Someone can be walking alone in a field and see a mountain of gold; it exists for him since it caused a particular brain object to occur inside him which was not communicated to him by someone else. Now if he goes home and tells his wife that he saw a golden mountain, the idea for a golden mountain will not subsist in his wife, for whom it has being but so far not existence.

Existence is a property that must be inferred. Once again, it is the same as the external world as a whole. The only real way we have to deal with this is the scientific method – peer review and reproducibility are the foundations of science. Being and existence then are two aspects of the same thing, and we are left where we began, with Spinoza’s two worlds. It is up to us to reconcile them through experimental Anekantavada.

Existence, Being and the Simulation Argument

In this perspective, whether we are being simulated, living chained in a cave observing only shadows or being constantly tricked by an evil genius or even a deity, none of that matters. Those are all elaborate metaphors for the unknown realm beyond the mind, the realm we approach as an asymptote, apparently. Whether we reach this limit of absolute reality is not something we can assume at this point, but if we continue working hard and being honest with the data we collect, I am confident that one day our approach will bring us close enough to that infinite line to reach out and touch it.

In other words, Bostrom’s Simulation Argument is mostly irrelevant – it doesn’t address the core issue. If our universe was created by some alien programmer as part of a third-grade class project, that means something – if there is some way for us to observe or interact with that programmer, and learn new things about our universe or his. But if there’s no way to observe the putative “meta level” in which the creation of our universe as a simulation was performed, then the hypothesis of the universe as a simulation has no real significance. It doesn’t matter if we call the particles and fields in terms of which science models our world “simulation” or “physical reality.” What matters is whether the observations we make as individuals – from which we infer the validity of scientific models – are existent in an intersubjective sense or not (rather than merely being, in our subjective reality). Science is a way of validating the presence of existence rather than mere being – an imperfect and uncertain way, perhaps, but the best way we have. Whether our world is a “simulation” or not is a chimerical question, the point is whether it is intersubjectively existent.


  1. Seth Weisberg said: ~ Since I am unable to even attempt to make sense of a zero-substance ontology but will not assert that such a sense-making is impossible, the remainder of this paper will assume a monistic, or single-substance ontology as a viable means of exploring the distinction between being and existing.

    Neverthless, you must contemplate the possibility of the mere potentiality or the power to be, or to act, or to be acted upon, as is evident in Plato’s Sophist, in physical potential energy, in quantum fields, and even in Heraclitus’s use of Fire.

    Once you settle for a single tangible substance, or even two or four substances, you’ll find yourself in a proverbial fly-bottle.

  2. in the early days of cetaceans, what did the narwhal look like, before it returned to the sea?

  3. Did Platon said our senses are being fooled ? our experience is not the ‘ultimate” truth ? a simulation means its “fake” ; When I say something, it’s an imperfect expression of my thoughts somehow, but it’s not fake… (an old post from cosmist influenza) I’ll try to understand your point later… promise !


    just a bit of wisdom to start the year…………

    Some children were playing beside a river. They made castles of sand, and
    each child defended his castle and said, “This one is mine.” They kept
    their castles separate and would not allow any mistakes about which was
    whose. When the castles were all finished, one child kicked over someone
    else’s castle and completely destroyed it. The owner of the castle flew
    into a rage, pulled the other child’s hair, struck him with his fist and
    bawled out, “He has spoiled my castle! Come along all of you and help me
    to punish him as he deserves.” The others all came to his help. They beat
    the child with a stick and then stamped on him as he lay on the ground….
    Then they went on playing in their sand castles, each saying, “This is
    mine; no one else may have it. Keep away! Don’t touch my castle!” But
    evening came, it was getting dark and they all thought they ought to be
    going home. No one now cared what became of his castle. One child
    stamped on his, another pushed his over with both hands. Then they turned
    away and went back, each to his home.

    Buddhism Yogacara Bhumi Sutra 4

    Happy 2011!!!
    il y a environ 4 mois
    Takah Toukité Nice one. We could adapt it to a more occidental audience for example… So it goes… It was the complete dark night over the world of animals. Each of them had read Platon (well the first pages) and knew the tale of the cave and shades. You know, what we see is the shade on the wall of the cave, but the truth is behind that, in fact it’s the fire that creates shades that we think are the ultimate reality etc. (that’s why he said ideas come first, but thazt’s an other level…) So there were many caves in those times, and each inhabitant was trying to convince his neighbour that his shades were the true shade… Then the sun came, suddendly (that’s us, modestly). Of course people instantly stop staying in the caves and came playing outside !
    4 janvier, 17:42 ·
    Neil White Very good! You should be a guru.
    4 janvier, 18:12 ·
    Takah Toukité Thanks. I’m not serious enough to be guru, I barely know how to lie…

    • Simulation is REAL, dear

      You cannot say you are living in a real world, you cannot say the real world is real, even history, even other people

      all that can be true is you

      And we are the problem of our own existence : that the crazy part of human history before singularity

      But we also are the solution


  4. Plato’s cave allegory says that real reality exists in the forms, the realm of Ideas. Objects that exist, like a chair for example, are imperfect copies of the form of Chair. This implies our senses are being fooled, in some sense – by nature, god, a big computer, whatever.

  5. i don’t understand much of this article, starting why the cave story of platon would be comparable with an illusion of reality : platon is making a double reference if i’m not wrong, about the truth on a first easy to understand level (don’t necessarily believe what appears to be true at first sight) and well, ultimately the “world of ideas”, in which sense some comparison could be made, but if ontologically the “world of ideas comes first” it far from meaning that our world would be a “simulation”…

  6. The most intuitive and (I think) best way to define reality is to simply define it as “everything”. It may seem stupefying and simplistic initially, because by defining reality as “everything” one may say this term is useless or even meaningless because it doesn’t differentiate anything from anything else and thus lumps everything together into one indistinguishable “blob” without any explanatory power, but I think that is precisely the point of what reality is. If something “exists” in any imaginable sense of the word, it is automatically part of reality, although if it doesn’t exist, it’s not part of reality.

    Unicorns don’t exist within our reality, but there are degraded models of unicorns (unicorns that are not made of atoms, but depicted in imagination and art) that are very much within the realm of reality.

    So reality is ultimately the all-encompassing megastructure, and within this all-encompassing universe (or multiverse) there exist simplified models or simulations of this same reality – which may or may not be accurate to some degree. But models are never perfect and never completely replicate “everything”.

    So if we are all in a horrifyingly complex simulation inside a meta-supercomputer which we can never detect or transcend (for example because the simulation defines our physical laws and boundaries and we cannot do anything to venture beyond them), then we are still part of some all-encompassing reality (just like a virtual reality inside our own computer is a small part of our reality). Living inside such a simulation would simply mean that we likely do not have access to the fundamental, all-encompassing reality that the creators of our hypothetical simulation may have. But we would all still be perfectly real inside this simulation, it’s just that the “all-encompassing reality” would be much bigger than we ever thought and may be dramatically different from our simulated world.

    So even if we live in a simulation, we’re still a part of a bigger reality, in spite of the fact that we may never be able to access or comprehend that fundamental layer of reality.

    I guess my point is this: You simply can’t define reality by means of differentiation or by distinguishing it from “something else”.
    That “something else” (whether a complex simulation or a simple model) is always automatically a part of reality, no matter what.

    It may seem too simplistic a definition to be respectable, but reality is simply everything. And our models of everything are by necessity always less than “everything”, no matter how many brains you have to do the modeling.

    So does it make sense to define “everything” by saying that degraded (or even wrong) models of “everything” are themselves not part of everything? Or does it make sense to define “everything” or “reality” (or as in your case “existance”) as that thing which causes the emergence of models in the absence of communication (aka other models)?

    Not really I would say.

    Models are real constructs within brains, or encoded in signs (letters/numbers) on paper or hardware – but a model will never ever replicate “everything”, although a model is simultaneously always part of “everything”.

    It’s real craziness alright, but that’s naturalism for ya. No duality permissible, everything is part of just one reality and either our models are somewhat “realistic” representations of it or not.

  7. This has to be the most convoluted explanation of the simple “map vs territory” analogy I’ve ever read. It’s perfectly correct but I’m just amazed by how complicated some people can (or try to) articulate this idea – as if it’s rocket science.

    Still, I have one problem with this explanation – although it may be semantic in its nature:

    “Though one should hardly expect one brain to represent the whole of the universe, it is conceivable that enough brains could; we currently have over six billion.”

    We must sharply divide between the two words “represent” and “replicate”. There is no amount of human brains that could ever REPLICATE the whole universe, because every human brain itself is already necessarily part of that universe. Thus it cannot even be perfectly replicated inside itself.

    “Replication” implies a perfect and functional copy, while “representation” implies a simplified, degraded model – a cruder simulation of the underlying reality. (Map vs. Territory).

    I know you used the word representation, but a representation aka. model of the whole universe is still a degraded and simplified version of reality. No matter how many brains you take, you will only achieve a simplified model of reality.

    What you are dealing with is ultimately just the distinction between model and reality, map and territory. The strange part here is really that any model of reality is always simultaneously a physical construct within reality itself.

    “An object can be said to ‘exist’ and not merely ‘be’ if it is such that it is capable of causing a particular brain object (i.e. “neurological pattern”) to occur in the absence of any communication between subjects.”

    Let’s reexamine that idea through the lens of a more intuitive terminology: What do we get from defining “existence” aka “reality” by saying that reality is simply what causes (or enables) models of reality to arise inside brains? (Excluding communication between subjects, which would give rise of “free-floating” models that are potentially divorced from reality)

    While in some sense this is true, it seems to be a terribly arbitrary measurement of what is real. Reality exists, and within this reality simplified models of that reality exist as well, along with completely wrong models of cause.

    If there were no brains and thus no models, reality would still exist. So in the end we may say that we as subjective beings can recognize that there is a reality only because our brains make models of it (often independently of communication with other brains)… but that still feels like a very primitive explanation of reality from our purely subjective POV.

    This idea explains how we know that there is reality, but it doesn’t define to a satisfactory extent what reality is all on its own.

    • In other words, what you are saying is that we can distinguish parts of the territory from mere maps (which may or may not represent the territory to some degree of accuracy) by dividing maps into two heaps – on the one hand there are those maps which came into being by a cartographer (direct subjective experience of reality) and on the other hand there and handmade copies of those maps (models of reality created through communication instead of direct subjective experience).

      But at the end of the day BOTH are still maps, and a map that originated from copying/communication can still be more accurate than one based on direct experience.

      Defining the territory through the existence of a map is simply… strange. Sure, we can infer that SOMETHING exists, simply because we know that models of something exist inside our own heads. That’s for sure.

      But the only thing one needs to grasp in order to distinguish reality from models is to know the distinction that no model can ever be a complete replication of reality. Its really all that’s necessary to draw the line.

  8. What about time ?

    ANd what about a time singularity passing the mirror of infinite

    time is all that exist

    I bend 10 buck “we” will not create a computronium converting the mass of universe in the futur … I mean not this way : because

    HUMAN and cousciousness is NOT a meme machine, no replicator needed

    This is the end of growth

    i hope i am right by the way

    • In other word

      Nobody will want to go in a sub space, a sub reality

      Created in a computer, a black hole or whaterver

      this is not intelligence

      times end : there is no need to have billion and billion of people per cubic meter

      • the problem is how do we get out of here ?

        If we are in a simulated reality how do get out of here ?


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