A Critique of Orwell’s Definition of Existence In 1984

At the end of Orwell’s book, 1984, we face a dichotomy in the understanding of ‘existence’. A collision between the subjective view and the objective. 

Laid out in this story is the idea that 2 + 2 can equal 5, if an authority, big brother in this case, wants it to be so. Interestingly, I believe that the reasoning of this philosophy sheds great light on our societies current denial of biology when it comes to the transgender and race question.

Under the pressures of war, or in other fields such as medicine, one’s mind is forced into the objective realm due to the instant feedback and potentially fatal consequences if one deviates to subjectivity.

However, this case is not the same in fields without instant feedback. Instead, due to the slow and often indirect consequences most are unaware of, it is easy to convince oneself and others that what is real is their subjective understanding.

After all, if a bridge engineer makes a wrong calculation, it could end the lives of others. Whereas, denying the existence of biological reality, due to its slow and indirect effect difficult for many to see the consequence, is something a nation can ultimately convince itself of.

The definition it seems Orwell presents here is that ‘something exists as far as it is understood, impacts belief, and therefore action’. This position is common within social constructionist thought, which currently dominates the mainstream narrative of modern society. The idea that people are infinitely malleable and are simply outcomes of belief systems rather than any other cause.

This definition is of course a very simple one to disprove as our understanding of something has no effect whatsoever on its existence. Instead, whether or not something exists is based purely on whether or not it has an effect on the surrounding environment. After all, at one point we didn’t understand anything about atoms. However, they didn’t simply appear when we discovered them. Instead, they were always there because they had an effect.

Thus, I present an alternative definition of existence from the one above, ‘something exists when it has an effect’. This includes all realms both material and non-material. Therefore, the definition Orwell presents partly holds true, as that which is understood does have an effect. However, using this as your entire definition of existence is only seeing a partial picture.

We can therefore conclude that existence is both objective and subjective as the subjective certainly has an effect, sometimes even larger than the objective. Such is shown by the belief that the world is flat, or that we are in a post-biological age.

Because of the tendency towards a lack of direct feedback, as we mentioned before, ideas which exist in the subjective realm exist until being sent back to hibernation either by being destroyed by the natural world or stomped out by another idea which holds objective truth. Why? Because you’re asking reality to bow down to subjective whims.

When asking if 2 + 2 = 5 you may be able to convince people of it. But the subjective interpretation of mathematics will not stop bridges falling down and buildings collapsing. Reality will not change the nature of itself simply because you wish it. 

To further prove the definition I have outlined above, we simply must look at the way we use the world when speaking in different tenses. We say things ‘exist’, because they currently have an effect, we say things ‘existed’, because they previously had an effect, but no longer, and we say ‘will exist’, because they don’t have effect now, but will in the future.

This same train of thought however does not occur with ideas. We do not say an idea existed or will exist. Instead, we reserve that for an action or thing. We can instead view ideas as hibernating to appear and reappear for the context in which the ideas present themselves.

In conclusion, it is proper to view the interpretation of existence presented by ‘big brother’ in 1984 as true. However, only a partial view of the whole story. Instead, the complete picture is that something exists when it has an effect. However, ideas come and go as they’re required for the context in which they present themselves, and thus always are existing, even when in hibernation.

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David-Lee-Richardson

David Lee Richardson – DQSH Volunteer

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