The Self and Other Things that are Real but Don’t have Existence

A couple of years ago I read a book by Tom Christenson called Questioning Assmptions. Christenson argues persuasively against the assumption that the existence of God is the main “problem” religion must address. He compares the concept of God to space and time, things that have no material existence and that we know by their effects and our relationship to them. God, he says, can be real without having existence.

Space is certainly a considerable reality. But is it a thing that exists? In some ways, space is such a fundamental reality that we understand the word “exists” in terms of it. To exist means to be over time in some space. Space and time are dimensions of existence, but it’s misleading to say they are things that do (or do not) exist. The debate the philosophy students are pursuing is interminable because it is mis-framed. Rather than asking, “Does space exist?” or “Does time exist?” it would be much more profitable to ask “How are the reality of time and space manifest?” Then we could talk about clocks, calendars, meters and miles, light-years, aging, cosmic expansion, acceleration, speed limits, music, dance, and so forth.

Theistic arguments assume that “Does God exist?” is the right question. But I doubt very much that it is. God is not some thing or class of things, like unicorns or men from Mars, that we can assert or doubt the existence of. God is much too fundamental a reality for that… Like space and time, it’s more appropriate to think of God as a measure of existence rather than a thing that may or may not exist.

I found the idea of things that are real but which do not have “existence” to be quite fascinating. I was reminded of the concept when reading Into the Silent Land by Paul Broks. The self is another reality that does not have existence. As Broks points out, there is no area in the brain that is the center of the self. The self is a measure of existence not a thing that may or may not exist.

Broks put it this way:

So you will search in vain for any semblance of a self within the structures of the brain: there is no ghost in the machine. It is time to grow up and accept this fact. But, somehow, we are the product of the operation of this machinery and its progress through the physical world. Minds emerge from process and interaction, not substance. In a sense, we inhabit the spaces between things. We subsist in emptiness. A beautiful, liberating, thought and nothing to be afraid of. The notion of a tethered soul is crude by comparison.


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