The Three types of Existence

I know that I promised a post about process composition and software architecture, but this just can’t wait. Last night I had a really nice conversation with one of my high school friends about the nature of existence. It all started off with my unsubstantiated claim that “the self does not exist.” As a philosophy major, he immediately started grilling me about what I meant by ‘self’, and then, as we descended into an argument over semantics, what I meant, by ‘exist’. Unlike most semantic arguments, this one actually had a beneficial outcome. Together, we discovered that there are at least three different types of existence.

  • Physical Existence
  • This is the existence of all physical objects; cars, planes, computer hardware, chairs, tables, bodies, etc. One aspect of the nature of physical objects is that they cannot be exactly duplicated. (well, technically subatomic stuff like a photon can, but my arguments are all about the macroscopic realm). You see, when a physical object, such as a car, is duplicated you end up with two different cars. You do not end up with two instances of a single car. That is, physical objects cannot share identity.

  • Virtual Existence
  • This is the existence of all virtual objects; computer software, digital content, the conscious self, etc. These objects have an entirely different nature of existence from object in the physical realm. These objects can potentially be copied (to enough precision) that we’d call the result identical. Not only that but, virtual objects are conceptually removed from the physical media used for their instantiation. If I make two copies of a movie onto two different physical CD’s, it’s still termed the same movie, they share identity (with respect to the interpreter that defines the virtual objects). My conscious self must be a virtual object, because I can survive the Dan Dennett teleporter.

  • Platonic Existence
  • Quite naturally, this is the realm of Ideas. We know that Ideas are an existence level removed from the virtual realm because a single Idea can have multiple virtual instantiations. That is, in order to communicate an idea, it is first instantiated into words/diagrams/language, but if I can still communicate the same idea via a different language or different wording.

Note that the very essence of this distinction is predicated on whether or not we are inclined to apply identity to two different instantiations of a thing. I therefore say there are at least three different types of existence, because I wish to leave open the possibility of a whole hierarchy of existences like a hierarchy of types. In fact the virtual realm seems particularly flexible because of its dependence on an interpreter (is it DeCSS or a prime number?). In summary a Platonic Idea can have multiple instantiations in the virtual realm, yet retain identity; while a virtual object can have multiple instantiations in the physical realm, and still retain identity.

We should also recognize that Plato would never have thought up the idea of a Virtual realm in between that of the Physical and Platonic, because there were no computers in his day. This is only one way in which the creation and cultural acceptance of a computer has fundamentally changed the fundamental philosophy with which we view and analyze the world. The virtual realm is really very new, and mostly unexplored (at least in a legal sense). In fact there are still many of us that are all too willing to take the laws formulated about one realm (ownership of physical objects) and apply it to another (digital objects) without first examining the very existential nature of those objects. We’ve really got to get our act together, or we risk imposing on the virtual world those limitations present in the physical world.

I unfortunately haven’t seen much in terms of exploration of these three different types of existence, but then I just really discovered the difference yesterday. (well, I always knew that there was a difference, and that it was based somewhere on the ability to generate copies, but I didn’t recognize that that was the real fundamental difference, the very essence of existence in each of the realms).

See also:
The Digital Imprimatur
The Right to Read