Philosophy and religion have long debated the meaning of existence as it relates to form and essence.
The Islamic concept of wahdatu’l-wujúd uses a Quránic verse to claim that nothing can have positive existence but God Himself, and that therefore, everything which claims to have existence must in some way refer to His being. If only God exists, the meaning of “to exist” must have several shades of meaning depending on its context.
In the weakest sense, a thing exists if has an impact on consciousness. That is, it may not exist per se, but simply as a perceived effect itself. When we watch a movie, we are only seeing light reflected from a white screen. None of the forms we see “exist” in the common sense of the word; they are only illusion. However, the movie has an impact on consciousness almost to the same extent as watching such events in real life. These events may be said in a sense to exist, even if they exist only in our consciousness of them, and not by themselves.
The next degree of existence relates to consistency of transient forms. The images on the movie screen are highly impermanent, lasting only as long as the projector reveals the same image. The chair I’m sitting on, meanwhile, continues to exist while writing this essay without need of a constant projection. It answers to all five of my senses, and repeated experiments yield consistent results over a long period of time. This is the existence of durable forms.
Yet the chair is also an artefact of time, just as the images on the movie screen were. If time were slowed enough to halt the chair’s atoms, the “chair” as I know it would disappear, leaving a near-vacuum of space and undefined, raw energy. Since the shape and properties of chairness are due to the interaction of electrons as they spin about the nucleus (producing the senses of solidity, color, shape, etc.), there is little difference between the images made up of light on the movie screen, and the chair made up of energy underneath me. The chair has a firmer order of existence than a movie, but both are only artefacts of time, differing in their degree of transience – but not in any more fundamental sense, since both involve quantities of the same basic energy.
The next order of existence departs from the realm of perception and is therefore not really considered existence from a human point of view, since the experience of perception is our primary means of interacting with the world. This order refers to the “chairness” that survives all modifications of the chair I’m sitting on. Even if time were slowed to the point that the physical chair disappeared, since the same atoms and structures remain the chair as I know it would pass from actuality as a function of time to a functional potentiality independent of time. That is, the frozen atoms would no longer present a “chair” in the normal sense, but as time is resumed the chair reappears just as it was a moment ago. I cannot say that “chairness” had disappeared when time stopped; only that the phenomenon of the chair has momentarily ceased to be. This actually happens between every instant of time, which is why we implicitly say of the energy of the chair that it reserves a certain potential to “remain a chair” beyond the actual forms that it presents over time (cf. Sartre’s notion of the plural phenomena to “transcend” toward a being that presents itself to consciousness).
Chairness as an essence is thus inferred, and saying that it is noetic only is little different than claiming that it endures beyond the phenomena of the chair. Both conceptions yield the same result. Because the being of the chair transcends immediate perception, there is no way for humanity to reckon its being without resorting to the intellect – in which case we must wonder if such a being is not actually a product of the intellect, rather than an independent reality now the object of contemplation.
Chairness, as a potential to manifest a chair, can be called an accident of a deeper potentiality from which all essences (or beings) are born. The naming of something as “a chair” is arbitrary: we define its unity in terms of how we use it. A bird might use both its nest and a chair in the same way, and correctly group the two under the name “nest”, thus identifying the chair as a manifestation of nestness. Both chairness and nestness are essences with respect to the observer, but neither has sufficient existence to claim itself to be the “true” essence behind all the presented forms. Thus our third order of existence must give way to a fourth, which is: that potential, nameless essence from which all cognizable existences are derived.
This fourth order existence has no form, since the essences we associate with particular forms are but faces of itself. Taoism might call this “the mother of all things”, and claim that whenever we speak of it we have missed it, since speech requires a subject and all possible subjects are born of this essence though none of them contain it singularly.
Even this existence is not the highest or most fundamental form, since, although it cannot be conceived of directly, it stands apart from the forms and essences it lends its being to. There must be an even deeper reality to which this scheme of separation itself refers. That is, a universal essence that contrast cannot be used to describe, not even abstractly. Otherwise how could being, which is the relationship between these essences and their derived forms, itself have being? We might say that “a chair” has being as a transcendent reality behind its transient forms, and that as such it preserves a mode of existence with respect to our perception of it in the form of a chair – and possibly other modes of existence, such as “nest”, etc. – but how can we describe that being which expresses the unitive being of chairness and nestness and their expressions in form? There is an existence implied by the process of being itself, not as an essence which stands apart from being, but which is the being of being’s beingness. It does not exist apart from the operation of being precisely because it is the being of the operation of being. That is, a mode of existence to which all things refer in the unitive aspect of being but one thing: form, essence and the existence of all essences as one reality.
There is no way to talk about this highest form of existence, because even the process of talking about it is it. We cannot separate our discourse from the subject, making any analysis impossible. We can, however, examine the lesser forms of existence as elements of this ultimate being and perhaps develop some intuition of its reality.
Again, the fourth order of existence, although it implies that all things – both form and essence – refer to a common essence, is still contrastive. Physically speaking, the fourth order is something like the pure energy from which all other types of energy have their being: the basis of all the many forms assumed by that energy throughout the universe. This does not consider, however, the void which allows us to know such energy as energy and not a further extension of void. Yet the highest unity, or fifth order of existence, includes energy and void both and as such can never be a subject of consciousness – since consciousness itself is also an aspect of its existence!
So how can there be any value in talking about something which cannot be discussed? Because although we cannot immediately examine it in any way, there are implications to such a reality that do affect us. I will use the individual as an example of this, since nearly all points of my argument can be found there and everyone has had immediate experience with it.
From infancy to adulthood we claim that a certain individual exists as the same person throughout. We make this claim by referring to a common essence – some might call it a “soul” – which endures beyond all the changes in quality an individual might undergo. This “soul” itself does not change, but refers to the “personness” of the person beyond whatever qualities they might temporarily possess.
This soul cannot be identified, since it is never predicated (meaning it never takes on qualities which might cause it to change from one state to another). It simply represents the unity of an individual’s diverse forms.
Since it cannot be depicted in any way, it may be reasonable to assume that the soul does not exist for an individual in any normal sense, but is mereley an abstraction derived from his forms (an analysis which Aristotle might agree with). This defines the soul as a noetic existence operated on by those who meet the same individual at various times, yet remaining imaginary even to the individual himself, who can observe even the operation of his own consciousness over various times.
And yet our social laws operate as though the soul were a concrete feature of the individual and not an artefact of transcendent perception. Take the concepts of ownership and culpability, for example. If there were no soul – no enduring element common to all forms of an individual – where would be the dividing lines between sameness and difference? If a child owns a piece of property, the adult is also held to own the same property, even if there is little in common between these two phases of growth. One’s figure, ideas, language, etc., might all have changed during adolescence, but still we hold that an “individual” owns the property, and as such changes in form have no affect on the binding nature of ownership.
This word “individual” implies a point of unity not divided among multiple beings. Although the child and adult are highly dissimilar, there exists a sameness which does not allow the child and adult to be considered as two different individuals. One might claim that “individual” refers to whatever is common among a person’s forms, but this presupposes the very commonality it seeks to define. Why not include other forms in the definition beyond corporeal identity? Why are two adults never confounded to be a single being in the same way? This actually happens in the case of corporate entities, yet no one believes that entity to possess a “soul” apart from its members in the way that an individual’s soul is thought to transcend all temporary forms.
This example so far includes the first four orders of existence: the fleeting forms of self, which might be represented in fantasy or literature; the concrete forms of the individual, such as childhood or adulthood; the abstract presence of self, which is the subject of livelihood and law; and the unitive conception of soul, by which “selves” are believed to be actual realities (whether we answer the question of the soul’s independent existence or not).
There remans the fifth order of existence, which “soul” must derive from to have any meaning at all. It is apparent as a functional reality, but in what sense does it exist? If purely functional realities also exist, then the idea of a soul is little different than the thing itself. What really separates the one from the other, and moves us from the functional to the actual? Is that nothing at all exists, or are “things” really outgrowths of a singular essence which does in fact have true existence?
Thus we find that the grounding of the soul cannot be defined itself, but is assumed by believing the soul to have an actual reality beyond mere ideation. What is it? I cannot say what it is, but I have a feeling it alone deserves the word “existence” we use so freely, but which hardly applies to the objects we refer it to.