Believing in Existence

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!

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9 comments
  1. Hi Angela,

    An interesting blogpost. However, I tend to disagree with you in certain respects. You write:

    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.

    The question you ask seems to resonate with the question whether you really believe in spirits yourself. But that is not entirely true. The point is that the existence of spirits is not as obvious as the existence of e.g. a loved one in a relationship. Whether spirits exist is an ambiguous matter, and why would a professional philosopher devote her time to an elusive topic like spirits? Would you be willing to spend the same amount of time to unicorns, since, for some people, belief in spirits is on the same level as belief in unicorns. So, there is the question of legitimation.

    But the question you ask is also interesting on another level. Have you seen the film Total Recall? (Either in the 2012-version or in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-version by Paul Verhoeven.) In that film, the wife of the protagonist turns out to be not the one he believes her to be. In other words, he doesn’t question her existence as the one she seems to be, until that belief becomes contested and it turns out she actually isn’t who he believed her to be (and he has to kill her in order to survive: Hasta la vista, baby!).

    In other words, in some situations our commonsensical presuppositions can become contested and suddenly jump to the foreground of our attention. It turns out that the things we took for granted are not as they seem to be. In such situations it may be very relevant to ask whether your loved one really exist. The point is that in the case of spirits that is exactly what is going on: in encounters with spirits our commonsensical presuppositions about what the world is like, is contested. In a sense, when people ask you whether you believe in spirits, they are longing for a philosophical answer to the question whether they are justified in believing that the world is the way they think it is.

    So, I think the question about your own belief in spirits isn’t as unjustified or irrelevant as you seem to think.

    • Thanks, Taede, for your reply to my post.

      Regarding your first point I would want to point out that it is the specific ontological question regarding existence which I find not very well suited to investigate the phenomenon of relationship. Asking about spirits is only relevant when there are at least some people who claim to have relations with them, as all of us would claim to have with living people. So the philosophical question comes after the experience. I would think it more relevant then to study what relationship means, than whether they exist (the people as well as the spirits).

      As to your second point: when someone turns out to be someone else than I thought, this still does not have to raise the question whether they exist – it does raise the question of identity, however, which is a different question. It is exactly this question which becomes pressing in most encounters with spirits: who is it, ‘is it really my father’, as Hamlet asks himself? This confusion is, I think, only stronger than in our normal encounters with human beings, who can be very hard to pin down to a certain essence as well.

      Finally you point to the fact that encounters with spirits make us question the normal presuppositions about the world. That is only so when you live in a culture that normally denies spirits and the spiritual nature of things and events, not in cultures which define the world in a spirit-discourse. In that case an encounter only proves the rightness of the common view.

      I would agree if you concluded that my experience with or ideas about spirits are not irrelevant or unjustified. It isn’t. I will stick to my point however that if I wanted to claim existence of certain entities, it is not important that someone ‘believes’ in that existence. That would be like saying that it is important that physics professor x believes in the existence of the Higgs particle. I would be rather interested in her ideas or experiences with the thing.

  2. Lee said:

    Hi Angela,

    I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, not having read your book, nor attended any of your interviews in philosophical cafes, which would require crossing an ocean. However, it seems that to boil down your post, you are saying, “It is unnecessary to discuss ‘belief’ in spirits because, like a loved one, it is obvious that they exist and we can therefore simply take that as a given, and focus on their effects.” Would this be a fair condensation of what you are saying? Or am I missing something?

    If I haven’t missed your meaning, there are still questions remaining, such as, What is the nature of spirits? Do they survive the physical death of the person with whom they are associated? Do they persist indefinitely, or only for a short time after the person’s physical death? Do they have a real, ongoing influence on us here on earth after the person whom they are associated has died? And of course, Will we reunite with the spirits of those we have known after our own physical death?

    These questions are, I think, behind the persistent question of whether you believe in spirits.

    • Hi Lee, thanks for your reaction.

      As to the first paragraph of your comment: well, you missed the philosophical point of discussing ‘existence’ as such as a concept, but for what you are saying below that is not too important. The conclusion of your first paragraph I would subscribe: that it is the effect of an entity that count (in fact I go further and say, as the pragmatists do, that this effectiveness replaces existence as the ontological key concept).

      The further questions that you ask about spirits are of course of great importance, and are not yet addressed by me. For only if one accepts talking about spirits as sensible, one can ask those further questions.

      There is another one, I think, which comes up when one ventures into dialogue with what other cultures say about spirits: which kinds of spirits can we distinguish? In islamic cultures one talks about the ‘djinns’ which are not dead people, but who were created as spirits, as in Christian cultures one talks about the angels and demons. In traditional ‘shamanistic’ (for lack of a better word) cultures, one talks of nature spirits alongside the spirits of the deceased. Of course in modern secular culture spirits are mostly only understood to be spirits of deceased. Perhaps we have lost some refinement here? What would your opinion be, would you think the question of sorts of spirits also important?

      • Lee said:

        Hi Angela,

        Doesn’t having an effect require having an existence? It makes no sense to speak of something having an effect if it doesn’t exist.

  3. Hi Lee,

    In a sense, yes, of course. My point was the doubting of existence, and making a point of it, and feeling confirmed in accepting it when a philosopher would say that she believes in it. What is the point of saying something exists, if it is so uncertain a mode that it requires belief? I think existence is completely unproblematic, and if it is not, it is a confused concept.

    Then I also addressed the classical sense of existence meaning withstanding time, change, decay. I doubt that this is the best way to describe our way to relate to the world, and more so if it is the way of the spirits to do so. They have a strange relation to time. Perhaps a spirit could appear as a flash, or in a background mood, ‘being’ around not in the sense of having an enduring, stable identity.

    • Lee said:

      I take your point about belief implying some degree of uncertainty–presumably as compared to definite knowledge. However, I would say that both spiritually and materially, belief is often a precursor to more definite knowledge.

      Scientific experiments start with a hypothesis, which is really simply a belief in some particular physical law or explanation of how things function. The experiment then either disproves that belief/hypothesis, or confirms (but not “proves”) it.

      Belief in spiritual things such as God and spirits often take a similar path. We believe they exist, even if we are not sure. This is like a scientific hypothesis. We then proceed to engage in the “experiment” of life, by which we test our hypothesis, or belief, in God and spirits. If they have no effect whatever on our lives, then this will tend to “disprove” their existence. But if we find that they do have a real effect on our lives, then this will tend to confirm our belief.

      Though the subjects and methods are on different levels, they are analogous to one another. There are people who don’t so much believe but know that God and spirits exist because they have experienced the presence of God and spirits for themselves over and over, just as scientists have experienced for themselves the law of gravity operating over and over.

    • Lee said:

      I suppose if you are saying that spirits to indeed exist, and there is no need for “belief” as such, then the question becomes, “What is the nature of spirits?”

      That’s where the questions I mentioned in my earlier comment (and others you brought up) come in.

      To cut to the chase, my view is that spirits do have stable and continuing existence on their own plane of reality–the spiritual plane. However, our experience of them, materially focused as we are, tends to be more brief and fleeting, giving them them the appearance of being something evanescent and insubstantial.

      However, just to mix things up a bit, I do also think that spirits require a material universe to provide some fixity to their existence. The material world is like a “skin” containing them, or like a foundation upon which their reality is built. Without a material world to rest on, the spiritual world would lose its structural integrity and disperse like the helium from a popped balloon or, to use a more classical image, like wine spilling out of a burst wineskin.

      This, incidentally, is different for God, who, unlike human beings physical and spiritual, is a self-existent being, and does not require anything else other than the Deity or Godhead itself to continue in existence. Still, because of the loving and creative nature of God, it was inevitable that God would create the spiritual and material levels of reality from the divine level of reality that is God, and then inhabit them once they were created.

      Of course, even speaking of “inevitable” and “once they are created” is meaningless from the perspective of divine reality. Time as such does not exist at the divine level of reality, but comes into existence only with the creation of the physical universe. However, we humans have a hard time lifting our minds above time, so we continue to use time-bound concepts in our attempts to reach toward an understanding of the nature of God.

      Okay, I’m going to sit down now! 😉

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