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Are You Real?

An introduction to the vast world of ontology
Ryan Sarapa

Are you real? Is the room you are in right now real? Can anything truly exist?

To many, these questions come off as futile. Obviously, you exist; how else would you be reading this article? Of course the room you are in is real; it has four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. The question “can anything truly exist?” appears to have a ridiculously clear answer: yes.

However, many different philosophical ideologies show that answering questions of this nature can be much more complex than one may think.

Ontology, or the philosophical study of existence, is a field that offers different answers to these types of questions. But the amount of answers and differing viewpoints on the subject of existence can seem overwhelming and complicated, so let us start with something simple and familiar: lakes.

Lakes, large bodies of water surrounded by land, are as recognizable as any other common geological feature. The composition of a lake is quite straightforward: a large hole in some land and water to fill said hole.

Despite its simplicity, this description already opens doors to a few ontological topics. 

One such topic is the concept of composition. As seen in this instance, composition is the description of a thing’s parts that make it a whole. Water and a sizable hole act as the parts that form a lake. These two components can exist as their own separate things as well. In addition to parts, a lake’s existence also depends on a property. It is typical for properties to describe objects, but they are usually not the deciding factor in a thing’s existence. A boulder, for instance, may be given the property of being heavy relative to human strength, but this property is not responsible for its existence. 

However, the property of being filled with a certain amount of water turns an empty hole into a lake. Without the property, it simply remains a hole. Islands are another good example. We call a piece of land in water an island simply because of its relation with water. If the land is completely submerged in water, there is no island, but if that land has the property of being above the water’s surface, we call it an island.

So who’s to say this same concept of properties cannot be applied to any ordinary objects? Can an “undertableshoe” be a thing? I say why not? By utilizing the same determining process used to identify a lake (that is, one based on the properties), an “undertableshoe” could exist. In the instance of lakes, a relation between water and a hole is what determines their realness. The existence of a lake is based solely on a hole’s property of being filled with water, and an “undertableshoe” would work the same way. If a shoe has the property of being under a table, one exists; if the shoe has no such property, the two remain separated as just a table and a shoe.

One philosophical ideology that supports such things as “undertableshoes” is ontological antirealism, a perspective that disagrees with the idea of there being a definite way to say what things there are. Rather, it claims that the universe and all it encapsulates can be split in any way to make a thing. This ideology allows not just all ordinary things in the world, like lakes, to exist, but also any other single thing or combinations of two or more things like a “bock” (a rock under a bush).

Now, it is understandable to conclude that the idea of a “bock” makes no sense, but think about a cell phone. Before one is constructed, it exists only as individual components. Each part of a cell phone is its own thing, yet when organized in a specific way, we call the thing a cell phone. Like a cell phone, each part of a “bock” could exist by itself and also be organized to make a new thing.

Of course, there is still the argument that a “bock” cannot exist because it does not connect a rock and a bush in any way; instead, the two simply sit next to each other. But think about a galaxy — it exists on a much bigger scale than a “bock”, but the same principles can be applied. All the different planets within a galaxy are completely separate and do not touch, yet practically everyone acknowledges that galaxies exist.

Such a belief perfectly aligns with the antithesis of ontological antirealism, ontological realism.

Ontological realism claims that there are discoverable and certain ways to decide what is and what is not. This ideology supports the notion that there is a correct way to cut up the universe into real objects and that humans have discovered it.

However, though it is comfortable and familiar, ontological realism is not necessarily the correct way to determine existence. Think about it, what if someone was born into the world and never got accustomed to what humans say is and is not real? If that person was later taught the way people come up with things like lakes, tables, or computers, they could claim something like a “bock” would exist, and it would make sense. The process of determining a computer as a thing would not be any different from the process of determining a “bock” as a thing. Each one has parts that exist independently until someone claims a specific arrangement of them to be a thing.

Ontological realism is useful for us humans, but it is also biased. Why are we allowed to say a computer is a thing but a “bock” is not? There is no difference in their methods of composition, they are both groups of objects with some made-up relations to each other.

As previously stated, the existence of lakes can lead to several different ontological subjects. Rather than a lake’s composition of two different things, constitution is a different way to explain a thing’s method of existence. Let’s take a completely wooden table, for example. One may think that such a table’s existence is a result of composition — it’s got four legs and a flat top piece. However, in this instance, constitution can be applied. Constitution is when one object constitutes another, meaning, one depends on the other to exist. Unlike our lake example, constitution does not allow both things to exist individually. In the instance of an all-wood table, the wood constitutes the table. Without any wood, there is no table, but without a table, the wood remains.

This sort of object relationship boggles the mind further, making the answer to the question “What really exists?” even more elusive. Can an all-wood table be a thing, or would that be considered a bunch of wood acting as a table? How far does this idea of constitution go? Are those pieces of wood just a bunch of atoms acting as wood? Can those even be considered atoms, or just subatomic particles acting as atoms? Just where is the stopping point for such a chain of parts? The philosophical idea of a gunky world claims to have the answer to this pressing question. 

The belief in a gunky world is that everything in the universe has a proper part in something else. A gunky world supports the idea that the answer to our question “Where does the chain of constitution end?” is nowhere. Due to the limits of modern technology, as well as many opposing claims about what defines existence, there is no way to prove this way of thinking wrong, but of course, skepticism remains.

You may be thinking it’s obvious that such a world can’t exist. and that scientists have already discovered the world’s smallest particles. But a gunky world supporter would argue that there are smaller parts, parts that can never be discovered because of their infinite number. 

Though some might call a gunky world preposterous, it is not fair to dismiss such an idea simply because it may seem implausible given our current understanding of the world. When it comes to how far the parts of any certain thing may go, numerous ontological ideas may be valid. There is no single perfectly correct answer to such a question due to the incredible amount of contrasting viewpoints on what makes a thing a thing. I say all of this to explain that even though I have more than a smidgen of doubt regarding the idea of a gunky world, it should not be completely dismissed. It is fair to argue against the idea of a gunky world. Personally, I can not see how others accept this viewpoint, as I believe there is a finite amount of parts in all things. But despite my beliefs, I still keep an open mind, as there is no real way to disprove or prove a gunky world. 

On the other hand, a viewpoint that directly contrasts the beliefs of a gunky world is mereological nihilism. Much like nihilism in an existential context, mereological nihilism makes a seemingly extreme and radical philosophical claim. Mereological nihilism in its most extreme definition is the philosophical theory that nothing exists. 

Most mereological nihilists agree that the world is composed of simples (partless microscopic particles) acting as things. For instance, rather than a table existing, the mereological nihilist would see a cluster of simples arranged “tablewise”. In my eyes, such a theory is hard to dispute but also hard to agree with. I would say it is even fair to argue that the beliefs nihilists hold contradict their way of thinking.

As most mereological nihilists claim that simples exist, the acceptance of mereological nihilism supports the notion that there are infinite things, or that there is one massive thing. This “one massive thing” theory is called monism, a branch of mereological nihilism, claiming that there is one all-encompassing simple that spans the cosmos. This simple has been given the somewhat humorous name of “the blobject”.

To me, monism makes much more sense than mereological nihilism because it acknowledges simples to be things rather than saying there is absolutely nothing. I still cannot say I fully agree with either of these viewpoints, but they both contain some elements of existence I agree with. One such element is the mereological nihilist’s claim that there are simples arranged “thing-wise”.

***Let’s take the idea of things existing “thing-wise” into a different light. If it is argued that tables do not exist and that there are only simples acting “table-wise,” doesn’t that statement in and of itself disprove the initial claim? The word “table” is used to describe how the simples are arranged, so there is some concept of a table.

Does this mean that all the simples in that one place are a table, in other words that a table is a word for many rather than a word for one? Do they all impossibly fuse together and become one, similar to the idea of monism? Can a table and its parts coexist?

Of course not. There cannot be a huge number of simples, as well as a table in the same spot. Also, if the idea is that tables are just a cluster of simples arranged in a certain way, that would mean some cut-off point exists that separates non-tables from tables. How could such a point be discovered? Some omnipotent power would have to assign it, as it would be impossible for humans to make one without bias.

The human body is a perfect way to delve further into this problem. It replaces billions of cells each day, and everyone’s body is constantly changing. So do we become new people after some time? Are you the same person you were a month ago? Such a question is impossible to answer and is ruined by vagueness. The phrase “the same” leaves too much to interpretation. This same predicament happens when anything’s realness is questioned. Such questions require more questions to answer.

So let’s go back to our table’s problem of existence. If someone asked, “Are wooden tables real?” and they meant something relatively hard by human standards, in our determined table shape, and composed of what we call wood, then yes, there are things that fall under that description. But if they meant a certain indisputable thing called a table, they just do not exist. There are only innumerable simples and we categorize some of them as a table. Because there are no definite things, we get to decide what is and isn’t real based on our understanding of the world. The nonexistence of definite things results in the possibly infinite existence of made-up things. 

The most basic answer to a question like “What makes a thing real?” lies in the definition of what is meant by real. Real can mean several things, but not one definite thing. I accept the idea that there are an infinite number of simples acting as things we have made up. There are no you’s or me’s, only simples “meing” and “youing”. 

After all of this, you may be thinking, “What’s the point? Why does answering these questions matter?”

And I would say you are valid in your questioning. No true benefit comes from debating objects’ realness, but I still think curiosity is a great fire to feed. The rabbit holes of ontology go much deeper, and if you have viewed this article as anything more than just a teenager’s overly deep questioning of the world, then I encourage you to research it. There is much to discover.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Sarapa
Ryan Sarapa, Staff Writer
Ryan Sarapa is a junior at North Allegheny Senior High. He enjoys listening to and making music. He hopes to create meaningful and engaging articles for the uproar website.

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    GeorgeJan 4, 2024 at 8:32 pm

    Thorough and thought provoking. So what happens if we view the world we perceive from micro and macrocosmic perspectives ? In this case, there are infinite sub, sub atomic particles yet to be discovered constituting matter just as there is an infinitely expanding universe at the other end of the spectrum…can both coexist ? And what is the university expanding into, exactly? Is existence a thing within the realm into which the universe is expanding?
    Or,is universe ‘making’ the space into which it expands? Perhaps this is unknowable or at least inconceivable by a human mind which is bound to a euclidean perspective of existence. Regardless, cool article. Thanks for taking the time to develop this!