Philosophy Fridays: Are Numbers (etc) Real?

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble on some idea and maybe even interact with something I might be reading. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and speak into it offering a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it is Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll answer the question “Are Numbers (etc) Real?”  in under 700 words. Heh.

“Now,” the reader says “of course they’re real, look here, you just wrote the number 700 up top which consists of a 7 and a 0—and you did it again!” In fact, if numbers weren’t real go ahead and add a few zeroes to the end of my sevens in my bank account.But I’m not talking about numerals. I could’ve written the numeral as DCC followed by an explanation of how this is really made up of several VII’s. What I’m wondering is if there is Something Out There that gives meaning to our concept of 7. So if you point at a table that has some dudes sitting on it, you can count 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7 and say “there are seven dudes on that table” but why? Do they invoke the actual number seven from the ether and evidence that number in our reality?

And this doesn’t only apply to numbers. For example, if I say the phrase “Rey is an artist”, it seems to be only true if there is a Rey who actually has the universal property of artist (in whatever sense someone uses that term). So Artist really does exist, somewhere, even if it’s not a tangible thing. Just like the perfect triangle exists, somewhere, even if all triangles that pop into being (via a kids drawing or architecture) isn’t that actual triangle. What they have is the property of triangles.

Maybe it’s easier to get with colors. You tell a kid, what color is this ball and they’d say “red”. But you know that the ball is crimson red and not cadmium red. Now let’s say you examine the ball with photoshop’s eye dropper tool and we get the CMYK values of 2, 99, 95.2, 10. But it’s still red. Well, it’s not the actual red—but we don’t even know what that is, right? We just know that the ball has the property of redness.

Going back to numbers then, maybe there are actual numbers somewhere but when we look at that table with 7 men we’re not seeing the actual 7, we’re seeing these men portraying the property of seven—say, seveness.

Maybe this is all baloney though. I mean, if these things were real we would have to have an infinite amount of real immaterial things existing so that we can explain anything around us. The Number 1 would have to be as real as the number 1.273×10^45. And if these things are immaterial and have no real power, how is it that we’re summoning their property into being just by doing things a certain way (say using the CMYK values of 2-99-95-10 or seating 7 men on a table).  And worst, where do these things even exist? There would have to be somewhere to house this infinite number of immaterial and abstract objects.

Or maybe these things do exist in the mind—either ours or God’s. Of course, if they exist in God’s mind, we’re left wondering how to get access to them, but if they’re part of our mind then we can access them immediately. But if they’re part of our mind, then why bother saying they’re real at all? Maybe they’re just constructs that we categorize things by in which case the terms exist (because we make them exist) but the actual being of numbers or colors or triangles don’t exist.

It’s definitely easier to think that, and then we don’t have to worry about an infinite number of objects or scratching our head if something is red or not.

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