It is there, but not really no
March 25, 2018 9:25 PM   Subscribe

What are things the exist and don't exist at the same time?

I'm looking for examples of concepts, ideas and even material stuff that exist and don't exist at the same time.

For instance, the idea of "race". Scientifically, race doesn't exist. Yet, as a concept, not only it does exist in society but it totally dominates discourse, relations, politics, and all of our social fabric, including our psyche and private lives, with very clear and material results.

Similarly, other identity signifiers such as "gay" or "queer". They were invented over time in some societies, and became "real". Engaging in same-sex intercourse and relationships became an identity issue, not something you do but something you are (hi Foucault).

Does the colour blue exist? Not in Japanese language, so arguably it doesn't exist in Japan (true?).

I am looking for more examples of that. Anything works! I'm coming from a perspective of what is "different" or "other" but I'm equally interested in concepts outside of that perspective.

I'd be happy with super mudane stuff, and also with references for readings about this.
posted by TheGoodBlood to Religion & Philosophy (47 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Is Schroedinger's Cat too obvious?
posted by bleep at 9:36 PM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Fish don’t really exist.
posted by itesser at 9:49 PM on March 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Centrifugal force Is not a real force, it’s a convenient fiction when looking at a situation with a certain frame of reference. Yet the average person is way more acquainted with the idea of centrifugal force—having personally experienced it—than the real thing, centripetal force.
posted by ejs at 9:49 PM on March 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

How about the concept of a species? We all have a pretty clear idea of what it means in regular discourse but in science there are a ton of ways to define it and no one way that is really accepted or satisfactory for all.

The Wikipedia article for "species" basically starts out talking about this from the get go because it's so slippery. There's even an article for "The Species Problem."
posted by primalux at 9:50 PM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

All fictional characters count.

Maybe, the feeling of being at rest in a moving vehicle (or the feeling of being at rest ever). Really, with relativity, all motion is real and not real depending on the observer.
posted by dis_integration at 9:53 PM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Money is the classic example, I think!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 9:54 PM on March 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

Private property. (Also public property! Property, I guess, is what I'm saying.)
posted by Polycarp at 10:05 PM on March 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

There are seemingly lots of things that people believe in, and therefore act as though they exist -- ghosts, karma, angels, god, for example, that others believe do not objectively exist. Many philosophical concepts could be viewed this way as well, as they are metaphorical or semantic in nature.
Math is full of these things -- manifolds in N -dimensions for example.

Are these what you are looking for?
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:06 PM on March 25, 2018

Objectivity? It exists as a concept, sure.... but can it actually exist, y'know... objectively?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:18 PM on March 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Reality doesn't exist except when we measure it, but we all seem to go around interacting with reality for the most part without bothering much about measuring it.

Sanity has an even more tenuous claim on existence. What is sanity, or insanity for that matter? There is no satisfying definition of sanity - the words commonly used, like "normal" and "rational" are so intrinsically subjective that they are really meaningless. And yet, most of us probably consider ourselves either sane or insane, and don't have much trouble distinguishing one from the other most of the time.
posted by Athanassiel at 10:33 PM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Given a consistent referent for X, the pair of statements

1. X exists.
2. X does not exist.

are trivially contradictory; if one of them is true then the other must be false regardless of what it is that X refers to. Note well: this conclusion has no bearing at all on another statement, namely

3. X might exist.

All of the examples that others have given above are in fact of the form

4. An idea labelled "X" exists.
2. X does not exist.

The idea labelled "existence" is far slipperier than it first appears to be. It's arguable that there is a sense of the term "exist" in which statements 4 and 2 are both true for every X, with the sole exception of the raw, undifferentiated, brute fact of being that is an implicit precondition for any ability to observe anything at all, let alone construct claims about those things.
posted by flabdablet at 10:35 PM on March 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

In particular, I don't exist.
posted by flabdablet at 10:39 PM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Justice, Love, Mercy, Worth... All those kinda things?
posted by The otter lady at 11:01 PM on March 25, 2018

I agree with flabdablet's answer about the structure of your question.
To add on to that: really your question tries to separate representations from their objects. Everything that is a human category (or concept or social construction) fits. Yes, objects exist independent of human consciousness. But we reify things into objects through language.
Example: The category of "Things that exist but don't exist."
posted by velveeta underground at 11:03 PM on March 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Are legal fictions something like what you're looking for?
posted by Trivia Newton John at 11:08 PM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

we reify things into objects through language

...and then we habitually fall into the trap of speaking of those things as if that very act of reification had actually conferred a prior objective existence independent of us upon them, as if we hadn't just made up 99% of them on the spot. Drives me nuts.

Even respectable physicists and philosophers do it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:10 PM on March 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think the umbrella term you are seeking for "things [ like race and sexuality ] which have real social effects which are themselves intangible" is CULTURE.

You mention Foucault, but a basic grounding in Cultural Studies could give you more specific language for this "it is there but really no"-ness. You could start with Stuart Hall, or Raymond Williams, or Pierre Bourdieu, or start with your favorite piece of the puzzle (nations don't exist! cultural memory doesn't exist! women don't exist! whiteness doesn't exist! money doesn't exist! globalization doesn't exist! technology does not exist! numbers don't exist! medical conditions don't exist!) and go from there.
posted by athirstforsalt at 12:32 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

What we, on the macro scale, think of as "touching" (as in 2 surfaces in contact with each other) on the atomic scale is nothing more than a repulsion effect between electrons. Nothing actually "touches", as we understand it on our scale. The further down you go in scale, the further apart things are from each other.

also @ejs - relevant xkcd (for those who don't know it, remember to mouseover!)
posted by alchemist at 12:48 AM on March 26, 2018 [8 favorites]

What you're describing kind of reminds me of the concept of a sign in semiotics.

For a very abstract perspective, you could also look into distinctions drawn between syntax (the presentation of an idea) and semantics (the actual meaning of an idea) in fields such as math and linguistics.
posted by jv776 at 1:00 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does the colour blue exist? Not in Japanese language, so arguably it doesn't exist in Japan (true?).

Yeah, to further flabdablet's point, colours don't exist - its is not just blue. They are an internal representation. We don't have scientific tools that can measure the 'redness' of an object.

Our brain's representation of reality, of space and time is at odds with what space and time seem to really be. The assumptions that help us navigate daily life are for the most part social constructions that allow us to continue living together. There are large gaps between the so-called signifier and the signified. Things like 'success' are ideas that attempt to fly in the face of the fact that we are all headed to the same place - in the ground as earthworm fodder.
posted by vacapinta at 1:01 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Colour is basically a construct, essentially we (humans at least) are monochrome beings and our brains are painting us all in real-time. And then we fade as we move apart...
But, too much science makes Jack suicidal so I have a quote on my wall that "we need art so we do not die of science" a Belgian artist whose name I can't recall right now.
posted by unearthed at 1:03 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

The binary gender system. There are lots of people who either don't perceive themselves as men/women, or who have bodies that cannot be unambiguously classified at birth. Society doesn't really like it, to the point of subjecting infants to surgery to align their bodies with the "system".
posted by Vesihiisi at 1:22 AM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

My Dad used to say clouds "aren't really there".
He probably has a different opinion about the "surface" of a body of liquid water, which is really a statistical threshold, so do with that what you will.

Even solid objects, especially but not exclusively living bodies, viewed on a long enough time scale, are really just slow-motion hurricanes.

All these questions of existence are about perspective and reference frame. Time can even be said not to exist, which necessarily affects some of my other examples.

People differ on the existence of free will, consciousness, the self...
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:53 AM on March 26, 2018

Also laughter and air quotes as necessary around my use of the word "really"...
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:54 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

A rainbow really only exists in the viewer's mind, you could also say that no two people see the same rainbow. I've spent too much time looking at rainbow - try living @ 46South in NZ - and they are very weird real/not real things.
posted by unearthed at 2:54 AM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

This from Wikipedia on the subject of the cat:

"Schrödinger did not wish to promote the idea of dead-and-alive cats as a serious possibility; on the contrary, he intended the example to illustrate the absurdity of the existing view of quantum mechanics."

And it has a citation.
posted by yclipse at 4:11 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Our brain's representation of reality, of space and time is at odds with what space and time seem to really be.

One might also think that there's no compelling reason to believe that our intellectual representation of space and time, as constructed by physics, are what space and time are "really" like: if our sensory experience is illusory, that does not mean that, out of some kind of appeal to epistemic fairness, our cognitive experience is not.
posted by thelonius at 4:30 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Qualia Is the concept for things like color discussed above.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:09 AM on March 26, 2018

Does Time exist?
posted by Lanark at 6:11 AM on March 26, 2018

posted by lampoil at 6:33 AM on March 26, 2018

Terms like "existence" and "real" are themselves topics of philosophical inquiry. So you might try reading some stuff on those topics. Here's some:

Entry for "Existence" in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Existence is not a predicate
posted by crLLC at 6:56 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also from physics, particularly quantum mechanics and quantum field theory:

Virtual particles. They are terms in a mathematical expansion and can be thought of as possible particles that statistically affect outcomes but that individually don't have definite existence.

The concept of a "gauge" underlies our modern understanding of forces. This is a generalization of the idea of potential energy. When something falls a distance it has lost gravitational potential energy. But what amount of potential energy does it have at a certain height? You can define the zero of potential energy to occur at any distance you choose, because it's only differences of that energy that are real, that turn into kinetic energy.

Gauges are a generalization of this idea. In electromagnetism, there's an electric potential that's similar to gravitational potential but also magnetism has a vector potential. Both together have meaning but it's not uniquely defined, so in that sense isn't "real".

Another way to look at this: the Schrodinger equation which others have mention in reference to the cat, actually describes a complex number. How do complex numbers describe probability? You have to get rid of the complex information and turn it into a real number, but in doing so, you get rid of some information. That "phase" of the complex number at different places affects things (there can be quantum interference), but again, only a difference in phase is real, not the phase itself.
posted by Schmucko at 6:59 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've liked to puzzle about the tangibility of kisses. Does that fit here? You feel them, for sure, and you can give and receive them, but you can't hold them in your hands or put them in a box. And the act of pressing sets of lips together isn't enough to make a kiss; both the intent and the context inform its meaning.
posted by juliplease at 7:57 AM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I would be careful with some of this "well, actually" stuff if you're going to whip it out in casual conversation.

For example with race, just because something is socially constructed doesn't mean it's not real.

It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.

But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.

The orthodoxy goes further, holding that we should be anxious about any research into genetic differences among populations. The concern is that such research, no matter how well-intentioned, is located on a slippery slope that leads to the kinds of pseudoscientific arguments about biological difference that were used in the past to try to justify the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews.

I have deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism. But as a geneticist I also know that it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among “races.”

This is coming from arguably the most influential geneticist alive today.

Race does not validate a genetic basis for all the other sociocultural baggage (achievement/behavior) we associate with those categories but it is scientifically real.
posted by laptolain at 8:25 AM on March 26, 2018

Does the colour blue exist? Not in Japanese language, so arguably it doesn't exist in Japan (true?).

Not true.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:26 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Abstract nouns.
posted by penguin pie at 9:38 AM on March 26, 2018

posted by fingersandtoes at 10:39 AM on March 26, 2018

As a not-physicist, I would say there are many more examples in physics. Energy in general, and heat in particular, are useful generalizations of other particular (pun?) phenomena.

And, as a mathematician of sorts, I'd say that most of mathematics qualifies. Pick a number, say 37. Does it exist? To the average person, it doesn't. It's merely a descriptor for a group of things. To a mathematician, it does exist because it's a part of something he works with all the time: the set of integers. But that set is an abstract idea, so it can be argued that it doesn't really exist.

And let's not get started on the degrees of infinity.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:00 PM on March 26, 2018

Natural rights don't actually exist. What we call "rights" are just the agreement to collectively use force to compel behavior.

Same thing with laws and ownership.
posted by FakeFreyja at 12:14 PM on March 26, 2018

The present moment -- the now, or whatever you want to call it.
posted by ananci at 1:47 PM on March 26, 2018
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 2:57 PM on March 26, 2018

A common declaration on my team at work is "Time isn't real!"
posted by rhiannonstone at 6:36 PM on March 26, 2018

I'm going to say time as well! But because how we define time is bound by the environment we're in (here on Earth), and so a day anywhere else in the universe may be a wildly different measurement.
posted by Halimede at 9:44 PM on March 26, 2018

"Cold" isn't really a thing. Nothing is "cold". Things (bath water, air, baked potatos, beer) have a "level of heat" (level of kinetic energy actually) that is higher or lower than other things, or what we are comfortable with, or we would like, etc.etc..

We just say "it's cold" to shorten the explanation. Cold is a constructed adjective, it is not a "thing" (phenomena) that exists.

Same thing for "dark". There is either "light" or "absence of light".
posted by alchemist at 2:51 AM on March 27, 2018

Absences in general are detectable (and therefore in some sense existent) nonexistences.
posted by flabdablet at 4:55 AM on March 27, 2018

Whoa whoa whoa. Social constructs absolutely exist (money, race, property, whatever). Things that don't exist can't, for instance, kill you, but these things definitely do. Also emotions exist, and intangible things exist, and things that are absences of things also exist (cold kills you, and it's meaningless semantics to say that it's really the absence of warmth that kills you). The state-of-X-being-absent is the thing that exists.

To me existence is defined as "is it detectable" i.e. does it have a discernible effect on anything. So I'm parsing your question as "what is something which seems like it's detectable but isn't really, but we can't be sure?"

And my brain moves automatically into particle physics and quantum theory; let's say, for instance, LIGHT AS A PARTICLE. Exists, but not really. I know some popular physics textbooks etc say light is both a wave and a particle but the thing is we don't fucking know what it is. To call it a wave or a particle is an APPROXIMATION, like saying a unicorn is a type of horse. It's not really in that category. We only say so because we don't have a better way to describe it.

So I think that fits.

The answers I agree with on this thread are the ones that say "fictional characters": but in the case of those, "they exist but they don't exist" in a TOTALLY different way.

Very interesting Q.
posted by MiraK at 11:57 AM on March 27, 2018

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