Does the World Have Objective Existence?

Posted on 9 August 2005


Most of us are naive realists: we are convinced there are “facts” that are simply given to us, and there are “things” that really exist “out there.” We can’t walk through walls, move mountains, or make the sun rise just by wishing it. Reality has its own laws that are completely independent of what we want or think. Or so we believe. But is it really true?

Upon closer examination, those “objectively given” features of our experience are mere conventions, habitual ways of interpreting experience that are so deeply conditioned that we have become unconscious of them. We can see how this might be the case by considering a few examples, starting with an obvious one.

The border between the US and Canada is a convention. It does not exist in reality, but is a geopolitical division that people created and agree upon. It is arbitrary in the sense that the border could have been drawn somewhere else. Yet, for practical purposes, it is a fixed feature that we all live with as if it had an objective existence. Even though it is ultimately imaginary, it is a very useful thing to know about and helps us understand many things about the relationships between people who live in different parts of North America.

It is not difficult to see that the US-Canadian border is a convention, and has no objective reality. Other distinctions, though, seem very objective at first, and it takes a closer examination to see that they are really just conventions. For example, consider the boundary between land and ocean along the Pacific shoreline of North America. It seems that the shoreline objectively exists, and is not a mere convention. It seems that nature has determined where to draw the shoreline, and we can’t just move it like we could move the US-Canadian border. It seems objectively real.

To see that the shoreline is a convention, we have to look a bit deeper. It seems the border between land and ocean must be drawn in a particular place because we have overlooked quite a few implicit assumptions and ambiguities. For example, the shoreline might seem quite clear in most places, but where do we draw the shoreline at the mouth of the Columbia river? The Pacific shoreline there is no longer a border between land and ocean. We could draw a straight line across the mouth of the river between points of land on opposite sides, but nature doesn’t tell us which points to use. Or we could define the shoreline at the mouth to be a border between salty ocean water and fresh river water, but where exactly is the distinction between these types of water? The one dissolves continuously into the other. At what specific concentration of salt does the fresh water become salt water? There is no clear boundary between the two, and where we decide to draw the line is our choice, a mere convention.

Even at the boundary between land and water, if we look closely we’ll also see that the distinction there is not so clear. Consider a beach where the ocean is far out at low tide and very near at high tide. Where do you draw the shoreline? Moreover, the ocean waves are constantly rolling in and out. Where, exactly, is the border between ocean and land as the water moves up the sand and gradually sinks into it? Even if you considered it at one instant in time, there is no objective way to draw the line. If a 1/16 inch thick film of water covers the sand, is that “land” or “ocean”? What if it is 1/32 inches thick? 1/64 inches? Nature does not come with answers to these questions. It does not tell us exactly where to draw the shoreline. The “shoreline” is a convention that depends on an agreed way to answer these questions.

Try this kind of analysis yourself with anything you think is objectively “out there.” Upon close analysis, all we can find are our own decisions to agree to draw boundaries using one convention or another. Although these conventional ways of drawing boundaries help us communicate our shared experience, they are not imposed upon us by nature. They do not have objective existence in reality itself, but are part of the way we all interpret (often unconsciously) our experience.

Does this mean that it is possible to move mountains? In the framework of conventional reality, no. In a certain sense, though, it is possible to move mountains, albeit not in the usual senses of “move” or “mountain.” It is possible to experience the world in radically different ways that, although perhaps quite unconventional, are not any more or less real than other more conventional ways.

Posted in: Philosophy, Science