What is existence?

It's is a simple yet profound concept - something we intuitively grasp yet cannot by definition fully comprehend.

I'll throw out a partial, inexact definition - limited by the English language and by the limited capacity of my mind. Simply put, by existence I mean everything. That includes:

  • time, space, and matter
  • life and death
  • the Universe
  • our minds and consciousness
  • God / gods / spirit / belief
  • everything you can / might / might have / will / did think of
  • everything that has ever happened / is happening / will happen / might happen / might have happened
  • everything that has ever existed or will exist

And the list goes on infinitely, with everything included in it. Everything is part of existence. If you're wondering if something is included in the definition of existence, the answer is yes. These words and the thoughts that inspired them are part of existence. Your reading this (the action, the time you spend doing so, and the thoughts that pass through your mind) and the Web page itself are parts of existence. The concept of existence is part of existence.

How can we fully understand existence? Well, we can't, given our limited capacity for knowledge. (This is not false humility but a recognition of both physical reality and first-hand experience). To fully know everything (and thus fully know existence) is known as omniscience. This kind of knowledge, if it exists, is reserved only for an infinitely knowledgeable being. And for something (say we call it God) to know everything, that thing must itself be everything. After all, the only way to know everything about something is to be that thing and think about itself (known as meta-cognition). To use an example at a much smaller scale, there's an old aphorism that the only person who can truly know oneself is oneself. In short, the only thing that can fully know existence is existence itself - which would make existence conscious. I find this line of thought compelling, and tend to agree with spiritual folks (or "mystics") who talk about the fundamental divinity of the Universe (known sometimes as God) as being consciousness itself.

Although we are finite and individual, and are thus not existence, and thus cannot fully understand existence, we can gain a partial understanding. We can each tap into knowledge of existence - because it is all around us and we are in fact part of it. There's various names for this - "God" in religious terms, the "fount of wisdom" in literary terms, "consciousness" in spiritual terms, or simply "truth" in a term we all recognize. "Truth" is just another name for existence. To tap into existence is to know. To know in every sense of the world - to understand / comprehend / believe, both rationally and intuitively.

I believe there are five fundamental components: the physical, the social, the emotional, the spiritual, and the mental. To use an overused analogy, it's like the layer of an onion. Dig deeper and you get to the true essence of who we are and what it (existence) is all about.

I use adjectives to refer to these concepts because they are not really separate "things," but rather different filters for looking at the same thing (i.e. existence). In many ways they are overlapping and interchangeable. They're ways of categorizing existence, of putting it into buckets, of dividing it up into chunks that human minds can comprehend. You'll also notice that I take a decidedly human-centered approach here. This is no coincidence. I am certainly biased toward my own race and my own way of thinking. I'm also cognizant that my way of thinking is the only one I can utilize; since I am human (and not, say, inanimate matter) I can only use human perspectives and abilities. As much as possible, though, I've established definitions that apply to all of existence and not just to the human experience.



Being: what is observable and tangible.

The outermost, superficial layer.

This involves things that can be measured or verified. It is by definition objective, because there can be no disputes about what can be sensed (seen, touched, and so on). The physical world is a pretty mundane thing, because it is fixed. There is a finite amount of matter that has never and will never change. There are fixed laws of physics. We can change the configuration (move around the pieces, for example by building and destroying) but we cannot change the underlying structure.

It's a very boring and simple one, but it's also the most familiar. And it's the one we have no choice in; we can't opt out. We exist in a physical world and there's no changing that. Even when we die the matter that comprised our bodies still exists. It's the same exact matter that existed before we were conceived.



Interacting: Relating to other things.

A bridge between the mental and physical domains, rooted in the physical.

You and I are not alone in the Universe - or, if we are, we at least imagine the existence of other things. And when there are other things we tend to interact with those things. In common parlance we use the term "social" to refer strictly to human-to-human interactions (with friends, romantic relationships, coworkers, etc.) But any interaction with another thing is by definition social. Anything tangible that goes on between a subject and an object is social.

From the human perspective, anything with an external consequence (that is, a thing that extends beyond our private mind) is social. Examples include picking up a rock and talking over the phone. In the broader sense, any way in which things relate to one another is social. This includes gravity pulling objects together and matter colliding.

Social things are in their essence physical, because they occur without necessarily requiring any thought. Some social interactions, we choose. But we also can and do engage in social interactions by accident or by force. We inadvertently touch the glass of a sliding door, not having realized it was there. We do not choose to be mugged but it happens anyways.



Feeling: Mental states and expressions.

A bridge between the mental and physical domains, rooted in the mental.

Emotional things are subjective, temporary types of thinking. We often see them expressed as "moods" (how a person is feeling or behaving in general), and "mood" is a good description of what an emotion fundamentally is. An emotion is a "mood" of the mind - something that the mind feels at a given time. It may feel this way for a short period of time, and in rarer cases it will feel this way for an extended period of time. It's unrealistic but not impossible for a mood to persist for the entire life of the mind. We generally consider emotions fleeting, because they come and they go.

Emotions are not purely mental because they have external effects and are caused, at least in part, by physical phenomena. They are heavily influenced by external factors such as environment, brain chemistry, and social interactions. Although we can influence them, it's not clear if we can completely control them. They often feel inescapable, as if they have a mind of their own. (If you've experienced clinical depression, you'll understand this perspective). Yet they are still at their core mental, because they are states of the mind. They may or may not be expressed externally - they are often subconscious (mental without being actively realized) or repressed (intentionally unrealized).



Understanding: Things related to meaning.

The most basic way of thinking about external things.

Spiritual things involve questions and answers about meaning. A spiritual thing, at heart, is a "why." It's a line of inquiry, generally without a clear answer, about a concept. The idea here is that things might have meaning and that we work to discover it, or at least think about it. If something involved questions of "why," however it's phrased or through whichever lens, it's spiritual.

Philosophy and religion are two form of spiritual inquiry. So, is the fundamental way to find truth through religious or secular means? That's the debate we've been having since the Enlightenment. And really, all humans throughout history have tried to understand why the Universe, we, and existence in general exist; using both intuitive and rational explanations.

I think it could very well be that our Universe is one created by and/or guided by a deity. It's also possible that secular philosophy is the only source of truth. The Enlightenment brought about new types of philosophical thinking, especially from humanist/rational/scientific perspectives. The movement was about broadening the scope of human thinking and considering new alternatives. In many cases this meant rejecting old ways of thinking (perhaps prematurely or crudely).

Just as religious conservatives have attempted to explain any and all physical phenomena using spiritual thinking, many people today (especially the militant atheists) have suggested that meaning can be reduced to the physical. This would mean that there is no meaning to things, and that they only are. If one assumes there is no such thing as meaning, the spiritual domain does not exist. If, however, you believe there is some sort of meaning somewhere, physical methods have limited or no use in such inquiry. Scientific inquiry answers questions of what, while spiritual inquiry answers questions of why. The two domains are suited to entirely separate questions and we should not conflate the two or suggest that one encapsulates the other. Instead, we should recognize the interdependency of the two. They each serve their own purposes and each provide important tools in our understanding of things.

I myself am inclined toward a middle ground, which is spirituality. It's a coexistence of the two - the divine and the secular - all centered on understanding. It keeps an open mind toward multiple explanations for things and attempts to harmonize all these explanations. My own spirituality is inclusive - it recognizes that most things can be explained in terms of opposition or contrast (dualism), while acknowledging that such contrasts ultimately collapse to the same thing. A great example is the realization that love and hate are simply different expressions of the same thing.



Thinking and experiencing.

The core. The innermost layer. the source of everything else. "I think, therefore I am."

Everything can be reduced to the mental. What we experience - the physical world we observe, the social interactions in which we partake, the emotions we feel, the meaning we seek and find - all exists by the power of thought.

All we can be sure about, if we can be sure about anything, is the mental. This is the source of many aphorisms, like "it's all in your mind"; "mind over matter"; "perception is reality."

Everything else may be a lie - an elaborate creation or hoax. It may be that the other layers are fundamentally just imaginations. (I have become somewhat convinced this is true, considering how illusory many things turn out to be). I am inclined to view the mental domain as the source of everything because I'm intimately familiar with thinking - it's what's most important in my life and it's what I spend most (or really, all) of my time doing. Thinking is just who I am. I don't find the same appeal in empirical inquiry (measuring and observing things). I know first-hand the power of thought.

Thoughts are the most important component of existence. They may be the only component.


Every component matters. Each is integral to existence and to our lives. Elsewhere, I talk about how genius is the integration of the two extremes, the physical and the mental. Everything exists along this spectrum.

Existence is everything. Everything is existence.