Bestowed Existence

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Knives and forks are objects external to us. They have an objective - or at least an intersubjective - existence. Presumably, they will be there even if no one watches or uses them ever again. We can safely call them "Objective Entities".

Our emotions and thoughts can be communicated - but they are NOT the communication itself or its contents. They are "Subjective Entities", internal, dependent upon the existence of one observer - us.

But what about numbers? The number one, for instance, has no objective, observer-independent status. I am not referring to the number one as adjective, as in "one apple". I am referring to it as a stand-alone entity. As an entity it seems to stand alone in some way (it's out there) - and be subjective in other ways (dependent upon observers). Numbers belong to a third category: "Bestowed Entities". These are entities whose existence is bestowed upon them by social agreement between conscious agents.

But this definition is so wide and all encompassing that it might be considered useless. Religion and money are two examples of entities which owe their existence to a social agreement between conscious entities - yet they don't strike us as universal and out there (objective) as numbers do.

Indeed, this distinction is pertinent and our definition should be refined accordingly.

We must distinguish "Social Entities" (like money or religion) from "Bestowed Entities". The latter - in stark contrast to the former - are not universal, they are dependent on the society, culture and period that gave them birth. Not so with numbers. Numbers are Platonic ideas which come into existence through an act of conscious agreement between ALL the agents capable of reaching such an agreement. While conscious agents can argue about the value of money (read, about its existence) and about the existence of God - no rational, conscious agent can have an argument regarding the number one.

Apparently, the bestowed entity category seems to free itself from the eternal dichotomy of internal versus external. It is both and comfortably so. But this is only an illusion. The dichotomy does persist. The bestowed entity is internal to the group of consenting conscious-rational agents - but it is external to any single agent (individual). In other words, a group of rational conscious agents is certain to bestow existence on the number one. But to each and every member in the group - the number one is external. It is through the power of the GROUP that existence is bestowed. Judged by the individual, this existence emanates from outside him (=from the group) and, therefore, is external. Existence is bestowed merely by changing a frame of reference (from individual to group).

But this is precisely how we attribute meaning to something!!! We change our frame of reference and meaning emerges. The death of the soldier is meaningful from the point of view of the state and the rituals of the church are meaningful from the point of view of God. By shifting among frames of reference, we elicit and extract and derive meaning.

If we bestow existence and derive meaning using the same mental (cognitive) mechanism - does this mean that the two processes are one and the same? Perhaps bestowed existence is a fancy rendition of the more humble "meaning"? Perhaps we give meaning to a number and thereby bestow existence upon it? Perhaps the number's existence is only its meaning and no more? If so, all bestowed entities must be meaning-ful, in other words: all of them must depend for their existence on observers (rational-conscious agents). If all humans were to disappear (and all other intelligent observers) - numbers would cease to exist.

Intuitively, we know this is not true. To prove that it is untrue might prove to be a elusive proposition. But numbers are acknowledged to have an independent, universal quality. Their existence does depend on intelligent observers in agreement. But they exist as potentialities, as Platonic ideas, as tendencies. They materialize through intelligent agent in accord rather like ectoplasm materializes through spiritualist mediums. The agreement of the group is a CHANNEL through which numbers (and number like bestowed entities - this would include all of the laws of physics, for instance) are materialized, come into being, AS WE KNOW IT.

We are creators. In creation, one brings forth the new from the old. There are laws of conservation that all entities - no matter how supreme - are subject to. We can rearrange, redefine, recombine physical and other substrates. But we cannot create substrates ex nihilo. Thus, everything MUST exist one way or another before we allow it existence as we define it. This rule encompasses the bestowed entities.


Wherever humans are involved, springs the eternal dichotomy of internal and external. Art makes use of a physical substrate but it succumbs to external laws of interpretation and thus derives its meaning (=its existence as ART). The physical world, in contrast (similar to computer programmes) contains both the substrate and the laws of operation, the procedures to be applied, the laws of nature.

This is the source of the conceptual confusion. In creating we materialize that which is already there, we give it venue and allow it an expression. But we are also forever bound to the dichotomy of internal and external - a HUMAN dichotomy which has to do with our false position as observers, with our ability to introspect. So, we mistakenly confuse the two issues by applying this dichotomy where it does not belong.

When we bestow existence upon a number it is not that the number is external to us and we internalize it or that it is internal and we merely externalize it. It is both external and internal. By bestowing existence upon it, we merely recognize it. In other words, it cannot be that, through interaction with us, the number changes its nature (from external to internal or the converse). By realizing something and acknowledging it - we do not change its nature. This is why meaning has nothing to do with existence, bestowed or not. Meaning is a human category. It is the name we give to the cognitive experience of shifting frames of reference. It has nothing to do with entities, only with us. The world has no internal and external to it. Only we do. And when we bestow existence upon a number we only acknowledge its existence. It exists either as neural networks in our brains, or as some other entity (Platonic idea). But, it exists and no amount of interactions with us humans is ever going to change this.

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