After I published my book on Spirits, in november 2011, I was invited a lot for interviews in philosophical cafés. It was winter and during my walks in the dark and cold night back to the train station I considered, confused, the most frequent question that I was asked by my audience: ‘do you believe yourself that spirits exist?’ I was confused, as this question was not addressed by me in the book, and did not seem very relevant to me either. Not because I would think it to be a private matter what I believe, but because I did not deem it philosophically relevant. It is a question that creates – as it were – a short circuit in my head, being a nonsensical question for a philosopher. My answer to those who pose it is usually: ‘do you ever ask yourself whether you believe that your loved one exists?’ Which means: when you are in a relationship, the question of whether the other partner in the relationship exists is nonsensical, since you already live the relationship. And asking whether one believes that he or she exists is even more weird, as if my belief would be in any possible way relevant for the existence of someone or something.
Let me elaborate on this here. I will take a perhaps unexpected approach – not the direct one of trying to prove that the discussion of belief in existence is nonsensical, but the indirect one of asking why one would want to ask that question in the first place? Why is the question ‘do you believe that spirits exist?’ important to so many people (at least among the visitors of philosophical cafés)? When considering why people would bother about existence, on one of these dark wintery walks the thought came to me: they are concerned with a problem that is a survival (in the historical sense: a survival is a thing that has lost the function it had in another time but that is still around) from ancient Greek philosophy. For the ancient Greeks (and I will not try to explain why) one of the most important questions evolved around the phenomenon of change, or rather, decay: how can we be certain of something durable while everything changes constantly, and life forms that have originated and grown wither and disappear again? The concept of existence refers to this need to understand that anything whatsoever could endure this constant change: it means that some things withstands change and decay – at least temporarily. To say that this animal, say, exists, means that is has a certain durability as an individual, that we can trust it to be not only here in this moment, but in the following ones as well, and depending on its species, even for years or decades.
The concept of existence lost its importance when modern science entered the stage: a manner to understand and research the world that is interested in active force and effect. Science does not ask in the first place how it is philosophically possible that there are durable things in a world of change, it asks what things do, how they work, what effects they have on other things. Philosophically, modern science introduced the pragmatist outlook before pragmatist philosophy formulated what this is about. Within the pragmatist outlook the existence of things is irrelevant. ‘True is what works’ wrote William James, and he meant that our perception is focused on how things influence other things, how they effect them. So, when we talk about spirits, for a modern person (and the postmodern one is also still modern in my view), for one who lives in the framework of modern science and technology, the only interesting question is whether we experience some effect from those entities, not whether they endure among constant change. Constant change has transformed from being a problem, as it was for the ancients, into the steady background of our lives. We have accepted it, so to say, philosophically.
This leaves us with the question of ‘belief’ in existence. Why would it be interesting whether a philosopher, Angela Roothaan for instance, believed in the existence of spirits? One could only answer this question affirmatively if one does think a) that existence of some things (spirits) should be argued for, and b) that a philosophical argumentation for it cannot stand on its own, but needs the affirmation of an actual philosopher – which would seem a wobbly foundation to me. I do not think one wants a foundation for the existence of spirits (as I do not want one for the existence of my loved one). To my view the sceptical doubt which drove the reasoning of the ancient philosophers is no longer ours. We can still put ourselves in their place to some extent, as it is done in philosophy classes, when students are invited to think through the ancient texts. But their questions do not reflect our interests. We are not so much interested in explaining how some thing can withstand decay (an actual person, or a spirit as the remaining essence of a dead person), but in the force that emanates from some thing that has appeared in the world. The thing may wither, its force does not, as it has already effected everything with which it has been in contact. I do not believe in the existence of spirits, I see the effects, the trails if you wish (not trails that are dead reminders of some thing that has passed, but effective trails, that keep on influencing, like the waves in a pond hit by a stone) of some thing having appeared/disappeared.
A happy 2014 (a year that has appeared, although I might doubt its existence) to all my readers!