This post assumes some basic prior knowledge of philosophical vocabulary and concepts.

I am a committed existence monist. In a nutshell, that means I believe there is exactly one object, and that this object is the cosmos.

Existence monism entails that all of the objects with which we are familiar, like pens and tables and people, do not exist. So the existence monist can, understandably, anticipate some funny looks. Philosophers have called this the "incredulous stare". The incredulous stare is attracted by some of the most interesting arguments of modern metaphysical exploration, not least David Lewis' modal realism.

Almost nobody's first reaction to existence monism is that it's particularly plausible. Nor is it intuitive.

But in this article, I intend to defend existence monism by overcoming some of these highly unintuitive consequences, and by showing why it is in fact better suited to explaining the way the world is.

What is existence monism?

Existence monism is the view that there is exactly one object. That object is the cosmos. The cosmos is highly varied on the inside, but no area of the cosmos is itself an object.

A slightly more technical way of putting this is that the cosmos is a mereologically simple structured whole. The cosmos can be said to have a highly varied internal structure, but no genuine proper parts. If it were to have proper parts, they would constitute objects.

Compare this with existence pluralism. If you say that tables and pens are (genuine) objects (or that mereological atoms are objects, for the mereological nihilists) then you're an existence pluralist. The base case for existence pluralism is just the view that there is more than one object.

Two big objections – I can't have an opinion if I don't exist

"Your opinion?" the pluralist says to me.

"But you just said you don't exist! If what you say is true, you can't have an opinion. You can't have written this article, which in turn cannot exist. I cannot be responding to it. Yet clearly you have written this article, which exists, and I can respond..!"

The objector points out two things.

  • First: I think I don't exist.
  • Second: I don't think everyday objects exist.

They are quite right on both counts.

I believe that when I assert that I exist, I am correct but my assertion was false. Coming back to this later.

The illusion of my existence can be attributed to spacetime subregions arranged such as to produce the emergent property of consciousness resulting in a self–aware substructure—properties which only exist insofar as it is perceptually useful (or unavoidable, in the case of our consciousness) for us to identify them.

These are both points I will clarify in subsequent passages.

What I strictly mean when I refer to "I", "you", "tables" – etc. – is a subregion of spacetime ‘arranged' (or so ’conscious' subregions perceive) x–wise.

It might seem as if I am biting a considerable bullet here. In fact though, this is a bullet I think it is a mistake not to bite — it is no genuine bullet, but a fact that contributes to the main substance of the argument. Our powerful perceptual experience is simply misleading us.

The bullets I'm biting

This bring us to the bullets. They correspond with the points the objector made.

  • First: we (people) have no special ontological privilege and, strictly, do not exist.
  • Second, Existence Monism is inconsistent with our perceptual evidence that objects exist independently from each other.

Formalising it

Our human condition predisposes us to want our best theories to respect our most obvious intuitions and perceptions. Surely we want it to be true that tables and chairs exist without need for further qualification? Surely, we exist, distinctly from other objects?

Our privileged access to our perceptual experience tells us that this ought to be true, and thus we should be existence pluralists:

Premise 1 (Existence Monism) The universe is the one–and–only object

Premise 2 It is perceptually obvious that I am a distinct object from the universe

Premise 3 The universe is an object, and I am an object

Premise 4 There are two or more objects

Conclusion Existence Monism is false

Why the objector's argument fails

It's Premise 2 I'm going to pick on here. The reason for that is it's motivated purely by excessive trust in perception.

Let me flesh this out a bit.

I'd like to divert our attention to something very everyday: water. Water is wet. But ice crystals and steam clouds are not. Yet they're all made of the same stuff – H2O.

So it can't be the particles themselves that account for their wetness or lack thereof. It's their arrangement that matters.

We can say that wetness is an emergent property. This is also true for other arrangements, like viscosity or electrical conductivity. And waves. Think about waves on the ocean – knowing what it's made of isn't enough to understand why the wave exists. We need ot understand their arrangement.

The same can be said for consciousness. Consciousness could be seen as an emergent property that arises because of an arrangement of particles which have a high level of integrated information. Integrated information is the extent to which subregions of spacetime are aware of each other. If a system passes an arbitrary threshold, we can say the system is 'conscious' in the same way that we can arbitrarily decide the point at which something becomes 'wet' or 'viscous'.

I wrote a lot about this in a previous blog which you can read here.

We don't have words for every possible arrangement of particles - just ones we find useful like "wet" or "viscous". As another example, three–sided shapes are called ‘triangles’, eight–sided shapes are called ‘octagons', but hundred–sided shapes have no name in English and infinitely many irregular shapes might by referred to just as ‘irregular polygons’.

This should indicate that emergent properties need not have genuine ontological commitments. They're simply useful in navigating the world. "Conscious" falls into this category.

This is just one route we could take to showing that there are ways to sidestep incredulous stare arguments against existence monism.

Rounding up

I have offered some argument to diminish the special status accorded to our conscious experience which we think gives us reason to conclude that I, and the objects around me, are a distinct objects in our own right. We can also see why, unavoidably, entities as complex as humans will perceive objects around them from their location–within–spacetime perspective, and want to assign names and properties to them.

The Existence Monist can answer for the unintuitive consequences if only we are open minded enough to look beyond our biased perceptual experience.

I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on existence monism. If you'd like to read it, you can find it here.

In my next blog, I'll be looking at a system of meaning for existence monists, which you can read here.


Some nerdy technical definitions

If you're into your quantified logic, I've added the QL definitions that I am using for some terms here.

Where "C" denotes being a concretum:

Existence Monism ≜ ∃x(Cx ∧ ∀y(Cy → x=y))

Existence Pluralism ≜ ∃x∃y(Cx ∧ Cx ∧ ¬x=y)

Proper Parthood: For our purposes, x is a proper part of O iff it is part of O but not identical with O. Where ‘R' is a relation denoting being–a–proper–part–of:

Proper Parthood ≜ ∃x∃y(Rxy → ¬x=y)