Before answering the question, keep in mind that I am a second-year Biology student, with a lack of formal study in Philosophy.

Original post: I believe, all definitions, words, and concepts (abstract ideas) are arbitrary (here I define arbitrary as anything resulting from personal choice). It seems logical to me, that the distinctions humans and all other living organisms make between any two things (by using the word 'things', I am implying distinction exists outside of consciousness), must be a product of personal choice.

In other words, we (i.e., humans and other living organisms. Side note: this is itself a distinction that does not necessarily exist outside of our consciousness. I for one, personally, do not see a reasonable distinction between living organisms) make distinctions between 'things', which we arbitrarily define (perhaps for an evolutionarily advantageous reason), but the 'universe' excluding living organisms, does not.

However, under my 'logical' reasoning, if the distinction between 'life' and 'non-life' is also arbitrary, (we can be seen as a part of the universe, or indifferent from the universe; either way, our consciousness is a part of the universe, or is the universe, and thus, our concepts, definitions, and words do exist in the universe, as do the concepts, definitions, and words of other individuals and living organisms) then all of these possible arbitrary distinctions exist in the universe. This also holds that abstract ideas are not existing separately from the physical world.

Edit 1: for those arguing intuition, 'intuition' changes person-by-person and most likely, species-by-species.

Edit 2: to clarify, I am arguing that the distinctions that we make between matter (the substance of everything), which can be represented as lines we draw between stuff, are arbitrary, not just the names we have for those distinctions. This is what I believe to be a result of humans not knowing nature (i.e., everything, the universe). Since we do not know if matter is infinitely divisible, finitely divisible or even divisible in the first place (very unlikely, in my opinion), we cannot distinguish between any two things, non-arbitrarily. For example, at what point in organisation, from molecules to cells, does 'life' suddenly appear? Here is another question, if we are constantly replacing the matter, that composes 'us', how do we define or distinguish an individual organism, at the atomic scale? Again, I suspect we cannot answers these questions in a definite, non-arbitrary way, because we do not know our reality.

One Philosophy I have is: to know anything is to know everything. Which I believe is relevant here.

Edit 3: after reading the excellent response by Michael, here is what I think I understand. Firstly, in science, we can never prove anything, as we cannot test every possible hypothesis. Secondly, if we do not understand consciousness, how can we understand anything? Nevertheless, patterns exist in nature (which I interpret as nature being repetitive in some respects), living organisms form concepts (e.g., distinctions) by identifying patterns (according to Michael). Since living organisms are exposed to same set of patterns (i.e., the same reality), we form similar concepts by inevitably identifying the same patterns, every now and then. Therefore, concepts constructed by living organisms (attempting to understand their world) reflect the nature of nature. This refutes the claim that all concepts are subjective (before I used the word arbitrary, a word which I was misusing, thank you NotThatGuy for the correction). However, an interesting point to add is this, living organisms identify natural patterns via their biological senses. Because sensory capability varies from individual to individual and from species to species (due to anatomical and physiological differences between living organisms), one living organism may be able to identify a pattern in nature that another living organism is unable to identify (due to differences in their sensory capabilities). If this hypothesis is valid, one would expect individuals with similar sensory capabilities to identify a similar subset of patterns in nature (i.e., what Michael describes as 'a similar set of lower [in terms of abstraction], more concrete concepts'), whereas individuals with greater differences in their sensory capabilities (e.g., a deaf person versus a person with normal hearing, or a dog versus an echidna) would be expected to have a more dissimilar set of ‘lower, concrete concepts'. In other words, it could be expected that individual organisms have an inherent bias in the way they sense their world. Furthermore, one would expect individuals with similar sets of 'lower, concrete concepts' to have a more similar understanding of nature and thus, language and communication between these individuals would be easier, compared to communication between organisms with different sets of concrete concepts.

The question of how we measure differences in sensory capability between individuals, of the same and of different species, thoroughly, is another problem altogether. Another interesting point to add is that differences in how living organisms process sensory information (i.e., what sensory information does a specific organism decide to accept and reject, does this differ compared to another individual organism) would play a role in the patterns they are able to identify in nature (think of the senses as the hardware and the brain or processor as the software).


7 Answers 7


Concepts are relations between two or more phenomena. Distinctions are discrete concepts whose function is to classify. Concepts and language are very closely related. I discuss this in my post on the cognitive foundations of language. In short, higher concepts are abstractions of lower concepts, with among the lowest being image schemas. Because each person has more or less the same set of lower, more concrete concepts, language and communication of ideas is possible.

Phenomena come in perhaps two broad flavours -- abstract, logical; and experiential. Since the former would be basically synonymous with concepts, the latter is of interest in trying to define concepts. Experiential phenomena are essentially the most immediate of what can be seen or experienced. They are the essence of knowing or awareness. We can speculate about whether anything exists outside of experience; but either way, there is experience, and that experience has apparent patterns.

Relations, in turn, are recognised patterns within information substrates -- including within and between experiential phenomena. Hence, the question of whether concepts exist comes down to whether patterns exist. As the universe appears to follow rules, rather than being random, it would seem that patterns exist. Hence, concepts would seem to exist, along with specific types, such as distinctions.

As for the connection between patterns "out there", and ideas "in the mind", the relation appears to be analogical. That is, patterns within the brain are activated by patterns received through sensory and perception. Thinking is the process of relating or analogising one pattern to another.

  • I like the approach of this answer, but I wonder if it’s maybe talking past the questioner by glossing over “Phenomena”, which hints at sensory observation specifically rather than covering both stuff “in here” and “out there”. Is there a way of drawing out a bit more detail or explanation for the things in the world that are pattern-forming?
    – Paul Ross
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 15:37
  • @PaulRoss -- I have added a paragraph on phenomena. Not sure whether this is enough, but it at least kicks the can down the road.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 16:12
  • what about extraordinary phenomens? Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 16:56
  • @Michael thank you for the excellent response, please see my third edit at the top of my original question. Keep in mind that my interpretation of the terminology you used, may be different from what you intended to communicate. This is unrelated, can I ask, what is your background in academia? Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 12:02
  • @Simon -- Sounds like you understood what I was getting at. I noticed no discrepancies in interpretation. My limited academic background is in biology actually, with some psychology. But I further studied psychology afterward. Despite that, my career has been in IT. Neural networks seem to be open-ended perceptual, conceptual translators. Their main function looks to be in translating patterns. For example, a binary classifier -- distinction maker -- is translating a potentially complex, often organic pattern into a simple bifurcation.
    – Michael
    Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 18:21

What you are asking about is the place of abstract objects in our universe.

There are basically three approaches to abstract objects:

  • Nominalism holds that abstractions are invented by us. This is basically what you are advocating for. Reductive materialists are almost all nominalists relative to abstract objects, as there isn't any other place for them in a reductive material ontology. WHAT such a "nominal" is -- is something few nominalists can explain. "It is only a model, a tool" -- OK, what KIND of tool? Do these tools have energy, mass or information content? Are they causal? Information plus causal seem to be true -- which leaves nominalism with some open questions it has trouble answering.

  • Emergence from human social interaction. The most straightforward explanation of this is Berger and Luckmann's "The Social Construction of Reality". An competing explanation is John Searle's "The Construction of Social Reality". Emergence of higher tier structures, that cannot be understood or characterized in reductionist terms, is something science has had to grapple with over the last century. The current consensus in philosophy of science is that emergence is real, and has to be integrated with reductionism in our worldview. IE GLOBAL reductionism such as is assumed by reductive materialism, is false. This leads to pluralism IN science -- where there are other sciences that study real phenomenon besides physics, and none of the others reduce to physics. See section 5 of this SEP article: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/ As an aside, this concession also refutes scientism -- the belief that science encompasses all knowledge. Once emergence and pluralism is accepted, then art, and other non-science methods of investigation (math, history for example) also lead to non-reductive knowledge. The problem for the "social reality" emergence thesis, is that so many abstract objects do NOT seem to be limited to our conventions. Energy, entropy, and information for instance, seem to be both an abstraction, AND intrinsic to our world. It is really only the "social" realities that seem to emerge from social interactions, while there are other "real" abstractions that seem to be intrinsic to matter. This "social" emergence conception therefore may only be at best a partial explanation of abstractions.

  • Modern platonism (lower case p, just the belief that all abstractions are "real", NOT Plato's view that FORMS are the only thing that is real). The clearest articulation of this is from Frege and Popper, who were not just platonists, but also dualists about consciousness. Their view is called Triplism. Most platonists today are not triplists, and only hold that worlds 1 and 3 of Frege and Popper are "real", but Frege's and Popper's explanations of world 3 are a good explanation of modern platonism. https://vdocuments.net/popper-karl-three-worlds.html?page=1 Basically, the physical world has properties, and we construct a model from world 3 objects that we think correctly depicts the behavior of the physical world. The model and its constituents exist in a world 3 space of pure abstractions.

Most modern physicalists are non-reductive physicalists, which is a worldview compatible with the second or third answers on abstractions.

Me, I accept the 3rd answer, triplism. I did not list objections to the plationism aspect of triplism, as I am not familiar with them. I welcome other posters suggesting additions to this discussion.

  • 1
    Can you tell more about 3 worlds? You give a refer, but you say that you think same, why you didn't tell about it as you did about other concepts? Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 19:22
  • @άνθρωπος -- I am a spiritual dualist and an abstract object realist, which makes me a triplest. Karl Popper was an abstract object realist and an emergent dualist, which also make him a triplest. Most physicalists are emergentists about consciousness, and are willing to accept emergence for abstract objects. This makes them -- possibly -- world 1/3 dualists or at least emergentists about abstract realism. There are enough variants on abstract/material monism+emergence, abstract/material dualism, and abstract/matter/consciousness triplism, that overall ontology is a side question.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 20:18
  • is it possible to explain without term congestion? any examples? Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 20:22
  • @άνθρωπος Did you follow the link to Popper's Tanner Lecture? That was a good explanation. In short, there are objects with location and time, objects with no location but with time properties, and objects with neither location nor time properties. Popper holds that location + time stuff can't interact with the abstractions with neither, so consciousness which can interact with both is needed to do hypotheses in this world. I disagree on "no interaction between worlds 1 and 3", but that is dispute over details.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 20:45
  • i love to much talk with people and like to know what thay are thinking about, how thay are thinking about. i like to create the models of people mind in my head. i can create an image of Popper's mind or thoughts, but he is an old deadman, i love alive people. can you give examples to these time(no time) and location(no) objects? Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 21:01

Your question and its wording reminds me of the Heart Sutra, which I posted an excerpt from here. Eventually you may see the truth of it, but then it is no longer a subject for discussion.

Body is nothing more than emptiness, emptiness is nothing more than body. The body is exactly empty, and emptiness is exactly body.
The other four aspects of human existence -- feeling, thought, will, and consciousness -- are likewise nothing more than emptiness, and emptiness nothing more than they.
All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, nothing is pure, nothing is stained, nothing increases and nothing decreases.
So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind. There is no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no imagining. There is nothing seen, nor heard, nor smelled, nor tasted, nor touched, nor imagined.
There is no ignorance, and no end to ignorance. There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering, no path to follow. There is no attainment of wisdom, and no wisdom to attain

The word for emptiness is 'Shunyata', and it means that existence is empty of concepts.

I hope this contributes to your peace and well-being.

  • A more poetic rendering of the first line is: "Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 19:15
  • 1
    But you need to explain what empty of concepts really means - that existence precedes our interpretations of it, and precedes the concepts we build to parse it. The apophatic method in that sutra aims to deconstruct our concepts to get back to existence as it is.
    – Frank
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 0:18
  • 1
    @Frank Thank you, yes it would be an addition to this Answer. Lots of people have probably dealt directly with this topic in their blog posts, books and videos about Nonduality. I was mainly intending to bring awareness of the idea.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 5:02
  • A late but heartfelt, thank you @ScottRowe! Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 6:05

I'm going to work on distinctions. Are they all in the head (arbitrary) or are they really out there and we merely discern them (justified). I'd say a little bit of both: distinctions do exist in the stuff of reality (it seems impossible that we made them up/imagined them), but what's whimsy shmimsy about it is which distinctions we consider essential/incidental. For example, we don't look anything like fish e.g. they don't have hands like we do, etc., but is that the difference we should focus on? Carnism vs. veganism boils down to which distinctions are deemed significant/insignificant.

  • I think that it is Agent Smith's super-Ego is trying to moderate all to one super biological himera, why only biological, why not minerals too? If rocks haven't hands why they are not a people? Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 21:16

Your 'logical' reasoning is undermined by the fact that you are using words too loosely, and you are conflating different aspects of their meaning. For example, the distinction between life and non-life is not arbitrary. Life has a well defined meaning. Sure, a physicist regarding the world through a particular lens might draw no distinction between a mushroom and a rock, considering them both as collections of atoms, but that does not mean there are no distinctions between the two. Likewise you say the meaning of words is a matter of choice- that overlooks the important point that they are not a matter of choice in most circumstances. If the tax man tells you to pay £1000 and you interpret that as meaning you should not pay it, you will eventually find yourself in prison as a consequence of your arbitrary interpretation.

Finally, you dismiss time as a 'concept' and yet you concede that one consequence of that 'concept' is that you will die. It seems to me that you are conflating the idea of time with time itself.

PS what does your being a second year biology student have to do with your question?

  • Firstly, at what point in organisation, from molecules to cells, does 'life' suddenly appear? Secondly, just because a great number of people can use the same language, does not mean that the words they use are not arbitrary, for example, the word apple could have been renamed to 'dsdskldmd' or our letters could have been represented by completely different symbols. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 12:07
  • We must learn the arbitrary 'rules' of society in order to not be 'outcast'. I fail to understand how this disproves the point that language is arbitrary. Especially, in Biology the distinction between apples and oranges and any two taxa is considered arbitrary, as we have reason to believe all life is related. Thirdly, it has to do with my point because it implies I have no formal study in Philosophy. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 12:07
  • 1
    By my own logic, every word I have used is both meaningful and meaningless, I thought it would go without stating that I am using words not in order to contradict myself (which I am not, see my third last paragraph), but as the only means I have with communicating with other Homo sapiens. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 12:14
  • You are arguing with yourself at cross purposes. The spelling of a word is indeed entirely arbitrary- we could spell apple xptryd. However, regardless of which spelling we adopt, once a large number of people start to use a word it acquires a certain meaning, and if you decide arbitrarily to interpret it in a different way you are no longer using the word in the same sense as everybody else- you have created a homonym, which is a different word altogether that happens to have the same spelling. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 12:35
  • 1
    So you are confusing the arbitrary nature of the spelling of a word with the non-arbitrary nature of its meaning as understood by most people. Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 12:36

It depends on what you mean by exist. If you mean, can one engage in the act of arguing over concepts or buy books that are filled with them, it would seem yes is the answer. And they are not arbitrary, but rather exist as they do because of certain conditions. Let's explore

Concepts (SEP) are often taken as mental representations. From SEP:

The first of these views maintains that concepts are psychological entities, taking as its starting point the representational theory of the mind (RTM). According to RTM, thinking occurs in an internal system of representation. Beliefs and desires and other propositional attitudes enter into mental processes as internal symbols.

Today, in analytical philosophy, neural correlates of consciousness seem to suggest that when people are examining or using concepts and language, something is occurring in the brain at the same time. 'Concept' then is just a linguistic label for this phenomenon. One can reject mental representations, including a representational theory of mind. John Searle in his theory on perception does. But it's overwhelming accepted by philosophers that concepts, which might be seen as components of meaning, exist as mental representations (SEP).

Let's now tackle your heavy use of use-mention distinction and the claims that categories are arbitrary. Let's talk about 'hot' and 'cold'. Philosophers ever since Frege have been distinguishing between sense and reference. How does one go about understanding and using the conceptual category of 'hot' is very much a question of philosophy of language and is still investigated by philosophers of language and linguists today. English 'hot' and German 'heiß' can be invoked to show that the typography and phonology is somewhat arbitrary. They don't resemble Spanish 'caldo' because they come from a proto-German and Spanish comes from a proto-Italic language. So, the label or utterance for a concept is very arbitrary. But usage is not, and here is why.

'Hot' serves a function. For instance, I once taught my daughter by letting her touch a hot dish after I repeatedly warned her, "No! Don't touch! Hot!". She persisted, tears ensued, but moving forward, I need only say, "hot" and she would withdraw her fingers without an argument. Thus, while the label 'hot' is arbitrary, the semantics or meaning is not. In the use-theory of meaning, meanings are not arbitrary because they are used by similar people in similar ways. And according to the theory of embodied cognition, most of our meaning is shared because we have similar bodies. So for many concepts such as 'hot', 'sexy', 'tall', there will be a general consensus of sorts around them because humans can endure a range of temperatures comfortably, have similar sexualities and sexual biological tissues, and persist in a relatively normal range of heights.

It gets a little more complicated for abstractions like 'alive' which are generally properties labeled by evidence afforded by dispositions (SEP). Here, there is an extended political element to use such that how a term is used may have implications of utility and political advantage. A fetus is alive, but is it a 'person'? This is a contentious issue, today, between more secular thinkers who are at ease with not granting a zygote "personhood", and religious fundamentalists who are absolutist in extending the category to zygotes.

The conflict over concepts can accumulate and manifest itself as cultural war where such normative claims of concepts can result in homicide or even open warfare between people. The US Civil War in the nineteenth century revolved around the maintenance of the institution of slavery where slaves were not granted personhood, and were the bedrock of the economic profits of the South. When states in the North argued that slavery of people should be outlawed, and they had state rights under the US Constitution, the South simply attempted to seceded from the Union rather than allow a pluralist interpretation of slavery (the compromise between granting Africans and African-Americans personhood extended back to the 3/5th compromise during the Constitutional Convention).

Are definitions arbitrary? No:

Arbitrariness is the quality of being "determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". It is also used to refer to a choice made without any specific criterion or restraint.

In fact, concepts are highly dependent on reason, principle, and necessity. But are they capable of being controversial? Absolutely. The Civil War example shows that whether or not an African was a person determined whether or not they could be exploited for financial gain, and so one factor that can explain why the concept of person may be this or the other is the benefits of definition. Philosophy then, under the view of some such as Deleuze and Guattari, is the process of creating and maintaining these sorts of definitions and providing an adequate justification. Thus, ethical arguments against slavery maintain that slaves are people. To be a person then is a biological fact, not a social fact like under societies that deny personhood. In fact, according to the philosopher Walter Gallie, some concepts are essentially contested.

  • Since you're a biology major, you'll be interested to know that there is no such thing as a fish, at least according to Stephen Gould:
    – J D
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 17:50
  • It should be noted that there is a politics to scientific definitions too. This sociological dimension of truth and concept in science was broached by Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 6, 2023 at 17:56
  • 1
    Concepts exist for use, they serve a purpose in our thinking and communication. This is why I often say that something "doesn't exist" if we can't use it consistently. If it is useful, it matters much less whether it 'really' exists or not. This could save us a lot of debating.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 0:09

Shortening the OP's question:

under my 'logical' reasoning, if the distinction between 'life' and 'non-life' is arbitrary then all of these possible arbitrary distinctions exist in the universe. This also holds that abstract ideas are not existing separately from the physical world.

However, since time is a concept and since we die, did the ideas we made in our living form, ever exist?

Living thought is the arbiter, which makes life non-arbitrarily distinct from non-life. It has its own time within which it can create synthetic, abstract concepts like space-time. After someone is gone their ideas may be remembered.

A sterile, scientific point of view that attempts to see life as no different from non-life is reminiscent of McTaggart's excision of agency in temporality resulting in his problematic B-theory of time.

Follow-on from OP's 2nd edit

"Do distinctions and concepts exist? [since] the distinctions that we make are arbitrary."

Characterising the OP's position thusly : The scientific point of view is taking things as a collection of facts; humans are catalogued with these facts, then the facts are found to be mutable, unreliable. Nothing is solid ergo nothing exists. Instead proceed from Cartesian doubt: “I think” – there you have as sure a fact as possible. The value judgements that follow are just that : those distinctions do exist, however fagilely, sometimes reinforced by scientific rigour. Their mutability may be disconcerting but ultimately there is the “I think” (at least while you are awake). That concept exists and is not lost in the mutability of facts on the ground.

  • 1
    I think we have to come to grips with the fact that about 30 billion humans have been born, most of whom died long ago and are utterly forgotten. We need to realize well that life is fairly short and "You can't take it with you", meaning anything, to anywhere. Even people born in the past 3 centuries, most are known only as a name in a register. We have consciousness and agency for only a while, and hordes of smart people are continually trying to deny even that. Strange game. You were editing as I commented. Great minds and all that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 23:16
  • 1
    "and hordes of smart people are continually trying to deny even that." Yes that is something worth tackling. Commented Feb 5, 2023 at 23:19
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    @ScottRowe Re. "30 billion, most forgotten" : the incalculable otherness and vastness of nature. "Man will know, i.e., carefully safeguard into its truth, that which is incalculable, only in creative questioning and shaping out of the power of genuine reflection. Reflection transports the man of the future into that "between" in which he belongs to Being but remains a stranger amid that which is. (Heidegger, GA7 The Question Concerning Technology, p.136)" - from blogspot The Gigantic Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 16:36
  • p.136 continues with a poem from Hölderlin: "How narrowly bounded is our lifetime / We see and count the number of our years. / But have the years of nations / Been seen by mortal eye? . . . " Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 16:44

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