‘What is’ is a question that may be re-phrased as ‘what is there?’ But we may equally ask the question, what is ‘is’? It is the second question that I will address in this article.
‘Is’ can be described in terms of three associations. ‘is’ is associated with being, with identity, and with existence. I will discuss each in turn. I’d be grateful for any comments and feedback.
Being. We say, a pen has the property of being blue. In other words, a pen is blue. If I ask the question, what is blue? The answer is, the pen. Yet, it is not at all clear that it is the pen that is blue. For colour is light reflected into our eyes, and every other colour is absorbed by the object. Blue is the colour that is not absorbed by the pen. The reason why we say the pen is blue, then, must be because we are describing the appearance of the pen, rather than the pen itself. It might well be the case that we live in a colourless reality, since colour is not exactly part of the object. Being, in this case, has to do with the appearances of things, rather than reality. As the philosopher Berkeley famously said, to be is to be perceived.
Identity. When we say that Mary is a female, we are making a statement about an individual’s identity. What is Mary? Mary is a female. The question that arises is what properties are essential to Mary’s identity. What is the essence of Mary? If Mary no longer wears spectacles, as she has changed to contact lenses, it seems that Mary would nevertheless still be Mary. But if Mary changed gender and became a male, would Mary still be Mary? This question is a lot trickier to answer. What is a person, or a self?
Existence. We say, ‘There exists a book’. This can be para-phrased as saying that ‘There is a book’. So, the question of existence is closely related to the question, ‘What is?’ Existence is about what is real. Existence is about reality. We might therefore ask, what are the constituents of reality? Are they properties- the things that we see? For example, solid, rectangular objects with four legs (tables). Or are they atoms- things that are invisible to the naked eye? Or information that somehow transmits itself to the brain? A monkey has no pre-conceived theories about physical reality- does that follow that reality is subjective? i.e. that reality is made of atoms or information to a human being, and that reality is somehow different for a monkey? Or can there be common ground, the same reality for both the monkey and the human being? Is reality theory-laden, or is reality just, what is there?