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Does a concept exist?

Updated on March 27, 2013
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There is nothing wrong with using the same word to apply to different contexts. We don't have enough of them in our grasp, so that's what we do. Many languages are all about nuance and context. The English language tries to be more precise then most, but it is difficult to be absolutely precise because of the nature of truth and fact.

Perhaps we need to invent more words. But the way we do things generally turns out fine, as long as we explain context.  While it would be nice to have every word symbolize a single specific meaning, I’m not in favour of reducing words to a point that they no longer reflect the nuance of reality.

Evolution takes care of this sort of thing over time. Being in a rush to get it all done now is a fool’s game. I offer a case in point:

There is a growing trend in philosophy these days to reduce the universe to two categories:

1: Only physical objects exist.

2: Everything else is a concept, and concepts do not exist.

What I am arguing is that existence is not just a physical presence but anything that affects the physical world. Effects have cause and cause/effect is physical. I'm a materialist so I am not postulating anything non-material in the origin of phenomena or effects.

Running is not an object but it is the behaviour of a physical object. Behaviour is not a concept, it is observable physical phenomenon. The behaviour of an object is an inseparable part of what the object is.  The study of the physical world is the study of physical behaviour. To say that behaviour does not exist is indefensible.  

The idea that only physical "objects" exist, and that everything else is concept, is too simplistic and deletes at least this one entire category; probably more.  To say something does not exist renders it ‘nothing.’

All existing things are real by definition. But not all real things, or phenomenon, exist as objects.

To exist is to be actual, or to be real. Those are standard definitions of the word exist. Anything material is, of course, actual. But behaviour is actual as well. It can be observed, and it affects the material world. Therefore there is nothing wrong with saying it exists.

That’s where context comes in.  

We can formulate it this way: Cause (behaviour, for example) is real but does not exist on its own as a physical object. Rather as part of it.  That way, we are separating the word real from the word exist; noting that nothing which is unreal can exist. I think that is accurate, and a sensible way of dealing with the situation.

I think it is clumsy, lazy, and inaccurate to say cause does not exist, or even that a concept does not exist.  A concept does exist as a physical pattern in the brain. But it may not exist outside that reality, and it is obviously not the physical reality it is a concept of.

What is so hard about explaining context? It is reductionist and illogical to want simplistic categories that do not fully explain the situation.

A concept can reflect real or imagined phenomena. The imagined phenomena do not affect the material world directly. An animal with the head of a lion and the body of a horse is not a real or existing thing. So the thought alone does not reflect reality, and such imagined animals have no effect on the material world. If you want to make an animal with the head of a lion and the body of a horse, you have to take concept to genetics and create one. You have to "do" something. Action is real, not just a concept.  You can argue that it does not exist "as a physical object" and then you have defined your context, which is fine. Just saying it does not exist leaves the context up in the air and "non-existent."

Truth is relative. That is another reductionist phrase. But if you understand the context, it makes sense. Relative truth means that truth can only be arrived at through relative means. The context is: Truth is relative to a set of specific variables being true, for as long as they remain true. An example would be: If today I turn on my bathroom tap and get water, I will get water the next time I turn it on, and every time I turn it on, as long as nothing in the system has changed. If a change has occurred in the system it may no longer be true that I will get water until the problem is fixed.

Most people think water boils at 212 F. It does, but only under specific conditions. Those conditions are that you boil the water at a specific altitude, and that the water is of a specific purity.  Were you to boil water at high altitude or add impurities, that number may no longer be valid. But at that point, water will boil at another absolute value for as long as you do not change one of the two variables again.

The way you can get to absolute truth through relative truth, is context. Context is that sets of specific variables you use to get at truth. There are no simplistic short cuts that make things easier; you always need to account for the specific variables.

In conclusion, it seems to me that it is time young materialists and philosophers start understanding and using context again, and not worry so much about dissecting every word we use in an attempt to find single hard and fast meanings for each. Words have nuance for a reason.  The reason being: truth is a very real but complex thing.

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