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Philosophy and the Problem of Existence

Prof Frederick V. Rael has been teaching for almost 20 years in various local colleges and universities in the Philippines.

The Problem of Existence

The Problem of Existence

A Thought Experiment

Let's start by taking a look at a fictional scenario. In an unknown place, two characters are wandering down a long golden brick road.

Pedro: Hi, I’m Pedro. What’s your name?

Juan: I’m Juan.

Pedro: Do you know where we are?

Juan: No. Would you mind if I walk with you down this long road?

Pedro: I don’t mind. Let’s find our way out of here.

While they’re walking and glancing at the mysterious place they’re in, they begin their conversation.

Pedro: By the way, what happened to you? How did you arrive at this place?

Juan: Actually, I don’t know exactly what happened. As far as I’m concerned, I was just reading a book, and then I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was here. Maybe I am just dreaming.

Pedro: If you’re dreaming, and I’m here, does that mean that we are not real?

Juan: I think so.

Pedro: It’s hard to believe that I am just a product of your dream.

Juan: If that’s not so, then how did you arrive at this place?

Pedro: If I remember it right, I was writing a book before I ended up at this place. Perhaps, we’re just products of my imagination.

Juan: I beg to disagree. I think your story is more bizarre than mine.

In the conversation above, Juan seems to be confident that his story is more convincing than Pedro’s story. How can we know which story is true? Perhaps, the more accurate question is how can we know if they exist or not?

The Problem of Existence

I consider the problem of existence to be one of the most intriguing topics in philosophy. It is quite puzzling because answering it would help us unravel some of the hidden secrets of the universe that could touch on issues about our inner self, our existence, our souls, and the way we look at reality.

During ancient times, Greeks believed that philosophizing could enlighten us about the truths behind every mystery that we encounter in this life. In Aristotle’s words, "whether we like it or not we have to philosophize. Even if we don’t want to philosophize, we are still philosophizing. Either way, philosophy exists."

I think, therefore, I exist.

— René Descartes

What Did the Philosophers Say?

The theories of Plato (427-347 B.C.), Descartes (1596-1650), and Locke (1632-1704) can provide insights that may satisfy our curiosity about the issue of existence (Grayling, 2019). Although their theories are founded on different assumptions, their fundamental claims seem to converge on one premise, which is the existence of two dimensions in reality.

Plato refers to the two dimensions as ideas and matter. Anything that exists comes from the thinking being, which is an idea, and the material attributes of that thing. In other words, ideas and matter are two sides of the same coin (reality), and one can’t exist without the other.

Plato emphasizes that idea is perfect, while matter is characterized by imperfections. Following this line of thinking, Plato said that he never doubted that, "I am my soul, rather than may animated body" (Annas, 2003). This led him to conclude that a man exists because of their soul (a perfect idea), not because of their body. If the soul departs from the body, then the being or existence of a person also ceases to exist. Therefore, Pedro and Juan are in the world of ideas if they are unsure of their material existence.

This premise was revitalized by Descartes during his time. As a prominent rationalist, he argued that a thing has thought and extension. He considers the thought as the mind, soul, or reason that resides within the human being. The mind produces thoughts or ideas that extend to the objects beyond the thinking being (Sorell, 2000).

In other words, thought is a manifestation of the human mind that gives life or existence to the extensions (rock, trees, plants, etc.). This is expressed in his famous dictum, ”I think, therefore, I exist.” Descartes resolves Juan and Pedro’s problem by postulating that they exist if they think they do.

The mind is like a blank slate.

— John Locke

The Tabula Rasa, or Blank Slate Theory

Consequently, John Locke, a well-known empiricist, provided a counter-argument in which he considers ideas as having two distinct varieties—ideas of sensation and ideas of reflection (Grayling, 2019). His underlying proposition is that the mind is like a "tabula rasa," or blank slate. It doesn’t contain anything until the five senses provide ideas from the natural environment.

Ideas of sensation are those external attributes such as colors, sizes, shapes, and others that exist in an object. The human mind processes these ideas and creates its reality. Locke considered the results of such thought processing to be secondary qualities. These qualities are not empirical or observable because they are merely the manifestations of the human mind.

When a mind reflects, doubts, or synthesizes, it produces ideas that come from the primary qualities. Hence, for Locke, primary qualities are more real than the ideas coming from the human mind. Through this postulation, Juan and Pedro are not real since a dream and imagination are products of mental processing and don’t emanate purely from sense-perception.

Putting It All Together

To summarize, Juan and Pedro both exist in their minds (imagination and dream) from a Platonic point of view. They are already having a conversation in the world of ideas, which is the true reality. Descartes strengthens the notion of Plato by emphasizing the need for Juan and Pedro to think that they exist. However, Locke disagrees that Juan and Pedro are real. Dreams and imagination are mental constructs. Therefore, their existence should be doubted because they are not as real as the colors, sizes, textures, weight, and shapes of any material reality.

One good thing about philosophy is that it doesn’t impose one absolute answer to any inquiry. Instead, it offers various perspectives that we can choose from to satisfy our curiosity about things like Juan and Pedro’s philosophical quest of existence. Juan and Pedro are not the only ones who have to resolve the issue of existence because we all have to ask that same question: “How do we know that we exist?”


  • Annas, J. (2003). Plato: A Very Short Introduction.
  • Grayling, A. C. (2019).The History of Philosophy.
  • Sorell, T. (2000). Descartes: A Very Short Introduction.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Frederick V Rael


Ron Hooft from Ottawa on August 09, 2020:

This is a question so many people have. what if reality isn't real? My answer is: it's irrelevant. Sure, reality is more complex than what we see. We don't see the atomic world, thank goodness. And our definition of what a thing is, is obviously lacking. A thing, by definition has mass and takes up space. That leaves the quantum world with some objects that aren't things by definition, yet they exist.

So we know we don't see reality as it is, but it's pretty clear that what we see relates to reality or we wouldn't be able to manipulate it as we do.

So this is reality for us. No matter how this came to be, be it a god that created this, or it's a computer simulation or a holograph or nature or whatever the truth is; it changes nothing. You still have to go to work, pay bills, you still love, you still suffer. Nothing changes for you by knowing.

Are you real? Do you suffer? Do you interact? Do you feel like a self? Then simulation or android or rabbit or whatever, you exist, you influence everything else and everything influences you.

Be this a simulation created b a god or a computer programmer god, or I'm a product of nature, I don't care.

As for purpose, a god's purpose isn't my purpose. We create out purpose if we need one. And to me, there can be no better purpose than to try to make this, whatever it is, a better place to exist for all, and thereby a better place to exist for you.