Model for Existence and Essence

Philosophers have argued for millennia over the nature of existence or being. I won’t claim to have finally resolved the matter, but I will present my own personal model that I use to think about existence, and its companion, essence.

I am not claiming to have invented anything new here, simply distilling and reformulating ideas that have been percolating for many years, in my own head as well.

Technically, we are talking about the branch of philosophy called metaphysics, and the core of that branch called ontology.

Technically, my model for existence and essence is an ontological theory, but I’ll just refer to it as my model for existence.


What is it that exists? What is it that has essence? What are these things? They are entities. An entity is something that exists, even if it may not have a material existence in the physical world. Ideas are entities as well. As are myths, law, and theories.

By definition, anything that exists is an entity. Similarly, by definition, all entities exist, albeit not necessarily as material objects with substance. Non-material entities exist in non-material domains. My full list of domains will follow shortly.

In particular, human experience is a wide range of entities, non-material entities. Human meaning is a non-material entity, or more properly a set of domains of entities, a distinct entity for each particular conception of human meaning.


At some level, every entity has a purpose, the utility, function, or value of the entity. Although purpose can be viewed as any other quality of an entity, it is a bit special and a universal quality, present for all entities. Purpose will be discussed more under essence.


Domains are the categories of existence, such that entities in one domain are not comparable to entities in other domains. So, the core of my ontological theory (model) is a set of domains.

If you can imagine it, it exists

The ontological model proposed in this paper is that existence includes everything imaginable, regardless whether it exists in material form. The physical world is of course very important, but the existence of concepts, mathematics, and human meaning matter as well.

Rather than say that human meaning does not exist as a mass of atoms, we simply say that it exists in a specialized domain called human meaning, as well as a larger domain of human experience.

Do unicorns exist?

Yes and no — yes, unicorns exist in the human imagination and in representations such as pictures and videos, but no, unicorns do not exist in the physical world.

Does Santa Claus exist?

Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus does indeed exist, but in the myth domain, and not in the domain of the natural world.

Classes, types, and species

The entities within a domain can be categorized into different classes or types or species, such that entities in different classes or types or species are fairly distinct from each other, while entities in the same class or type or species have significant similarities.

The classes and types and species within the domain of Life would of course be the standard taxonomy for biological classification of life. Note that Domain has a specific meaning in that taxonomy, distinct from its more general use in this model.

In this model, class and type and species are used as synonyms, with species more appropriate for animals, and class (or type) more appropriate in general for non-animals. Class can also be more appropriate in human social domains.

Again, to summarize, in this model of existence, a domain consists of any number of classes (or types or species.)

Hierarchy of domains?

As will be seen shortly, some domains are really specialized subsets or subdomains of larger domains. Alternatively some domains are simply umbrella domains or super-domains or parent domains that collect distinct domains that have something in common. Technically, the set of domains for all of existence should be represented as a tree, but it is simpler to present and discuss as a flat list, at least for now.

Why subdomains and super-domains rather than simply another level of class? The distinction is that distinct subdomains are very different in some major way, such that all they have in common is that they have the same parent domain. To be sure, that distinction can be somewhat vague and fuzzy. The general guide is to stick with classes to subdivide a domain unless the subdivisions are not generally comparable in any significant way.

All of existence

Collectively, the full set of domains and the entities within them can be thought of as a single, all-encompassing existence, all of existence.


We commonly use the term universe to refer to all that exists, all of existence.

Technically, theoretical physicists are also hypothesizing the concept of a multiverse, that there can be other universes besides the one that we experience.


We commonly use the term world as a synonym for universe and all that exists in the material domain. Alternatively, in context, we may use the term world to limit the context to the planet Earth and its immediate environs, or to refer to some limited social, political, or geographic sphere, even to the extreme of saying that someone or some group lives in their own little world.

In this paper, it is used in that first sense, as a synonym for the totality of the material domain, the universe.

That vs. what

One notion of existence is the simple binary notion of whether an entity exists at all, “that” it exists, in contrast with all of the details of its existence, “what” exists.

The tentative proposition put forward here is that essence describes the what of an entity, although there are qualities of essence that are shared between all entities of a class or domain. You can choose for yourself to view the shared entity qualities of a class or domain as essence or attributes of the class or domain itself. It is really simply a practical shorthand to say that the shared qualities belong to the class or domain rather than duplicate them for all entities of the same class or domain.

The domains of existence (existential domains)

The main organizing principle behind this list of existential domains is to distinguish the physical, material world from both the conceptual world and the world of human experience, as well as the many distinct, incomparable worlds of human experience. The living versus inanimate worlds is a basic distinction as well.

  1. Concepts. No physical manifestation, except representations. This is really two subdomains, natural concepts such as Plato’s Forms, if they do exist at all, and human conceptions of concepts, which may or may not align with natural concepts (if they exist at all.)

States, the experience of existence

Regardless of the entity, domain, or type (class) of entity, the existence of any entity can be in a number of states or experiences, even all at once, including perception and conceptualization of the entity. These states include:

  1. Creation. Bringing an entity into existence.

Existence vs. essence

Which is which and which comes first, existence or essence (the chicken or the egg)? I’ll sidestep the grand philosophical debates and try to focus on the heart of the matter.

First, existence and essence appear to be joined at the hip — we can’t really talk about one without the other. Sure, we can discuss details of one or the other, but we can’t have one without the other, separately.

Two levels of existence

Existence needs to be thought of and discussed at two levels: existence by itself, separate from essence per se, as well as existence at a higher level which includes both existence at the lower level combined with essence.

At the lower level, existence is a simple boolean answer to the question of whether something exists at all — either it exists or it doesn’t, in some particular domain. The details of that something are not relevant at this level since those details are covered by essence.

Our existence

Casually, when we speak of our own existence we are mostly referring to that outer, top, higher level meaning of existence, the combination of the mere fact that we exist and the details (essence) of our existence.

Essence as details

Essence is essentially the details of existence (at the higher level.) If something does not exist, it has no details at all. If something does exist, one can then inquire into and describe its details.

Essence as qualities, attributes, and values

The details of the essence of an entity are commonly referred to as qualities. For any given class of a domain there will be some typically long list of attributes for entities in that class. Each attribute will have some value, the value of that quality. Commonly we will speak of the qualities of an entity as the values of the attributes for that entity.

Essence of essence

Each entity has an essence, consisting of:

  1. Its existential domain (physical manifestation, concept, mathematics, human social experience, etc.) — each domain may have various qualities (attributes, properties, characteristics) which are common to all entities in that domain.

We can also speak of essence for each domain and each class or type or species in a domain, in the sense of all aspect of essence shared by all entities in that domain, class, or species, and possibly the range of values of those qualities that are not absolutely identical between all entities in that domain, class, or species.

Purpose as essence

Every entity has a purpose, the utility, function, or value of the entity. Although purpose can be viewed as any other quality of the essence of an entity, it is a bit special and a universal quality, present for all entities.

One can also view purpose as the reason for the existence of an entity. Again, a very special quality, very different from more mundane qualities. One might want to associate purpose with existence rather than merely another quality. But with the two-level model of existence we sidestep the issue, with purpose covered under the upper level sense of existence regardless of whether we technically consider it part of the lower-level sense of existence or lost in the great bag of qualities called essence.

Generally, purpose is defined at the class level — all coffee cups have the same purpose, although subjective purpose can exist as well — to hold pencils, to promote a brand, or a marketing message.

Purpose can also be viewed as the ultimate essence of an entity. Although we may form attachments to specific, non-essential qualities or an entity, in theory, any entity which has the same purpose can be a valid substitute, in theory — a ceramic mug, paper cup, or styrofoam cup are equally useful for drinking coffee.

Soul as essence

The existence of souls in a spiritual sense is a matter of debate, but even absent a spiritual world, the concept of soul refers to the essential essence of a person — their essence minus any superficial qualities, including their worldly body.

Three views on essence

One can choose which of three ways to view essence:

  1. All attributes which member of the same class have in common, such as what all people have in common, or all frogs, or all trees. Those qualities that are essential for an entity to belong to the class.

Technically, I would break the detail view into two sub-views, the first first stopping at the mere state of a cell without the physical cell itself or the state of all molecules or atoms without the physical molecules or atoms, and the second going all the way down though the actual molecules and atoms. Or maybe that is three sub-views — down to cell state, down to molecule and atom state, and down to actual molecules and atoms. And maybe even a fourth sub-view to include the superficial, external details such as fashion and appearance. But for the purposes here, the essential distinction is a view that includes all details rather than only a very limited subset of details.

Or maybe the alternative view is that there may be any number of views of essence, each having a specific intent or purpose.

Time machine and matter transmitter

One interesting thought experiment is pondering what a time machine or matter transmitter would need to do in order to transfer the essence and existence of an entity to another time or place. If you accept that these machines would not transfer the actual physical atoms and molecules, the question is what information about the body and mind of a person or details of a physical object would capture enough of their essence to transfer the essence of themselves to some remote time or place.

As noted previously, that represents only one of the three views of what constitutes essence, but it does represent a practical perspective.

One might insist on a 100% replication of the original entity, or one could insist only that the replication be accurate only to the human eye or to some chosen level of magnification of a microscope. One could choose to transfer actual cells, or simply use cells on the other end that have the same function and state of the original cells.

Your entire liver could be transmitted, or a (brand) new liver could be used on the receiving end. Ditto for heart, lungs, hands, feet, muscles. How much of an individual is their a personal attachment to? The user could decide where to draw the line as to how much of the detail of essence should be retained and how much could be substituted.

Conceptually, one might even consider transferring only the human mind (and soul) and accept a completely new body.

Nonessential details and essential essence

Technically, essence of an entity is all detail of all aspects, but we commonly speak of essence as essential qualities to the exclusion of superficial or nonessential details. If I get a haircut or add a few words to my vocabulary, has my essence changed? Well, technically, yes, but in everyday life we would say no.

Maybe we should speak of full or complete essence and essential essence.

Are details essence or existence?

Does the existence of an entity include all of the details of that particular entity, or should we relegate such details to essence, so that existence is merely a placeholder which marks where the detailed essence exists?

Honestly, you could look at it either way and define it either way.

In truth, we commonly look at existence and essence together, as integrated, so that any distinction between the two are lost to the casual observer.

In the two-level model of existence, details are indeed part of existence, but at the upper level of existence, but not at the lower level, where they constitute essence. So, we can have it both ways, details as essence and details as existence.

Which comes first, existence or essence?

The Existentialist philosophers assert that essence proceeds from existence and that traditional philosophy is based on essence preceding existence. We won’t attempt to definitely resolve that apparent contradiction, which may be more of a word game than issue in reality, but simply make a few notes.

First, is the conflict essentially analogous to answering the question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? It would seem so.

Could it be that existence and essence are so intertwined that separating them is a fool’s errand? In other words, that they come together. I think so.

I think the suggestion by Existentialists that traditional (mostly ancient) philosophers view essence as preceding existence is a reference to Plato’s concept of Forms, that Forms have an eternal existence that by definition would precede coming into existence of any instance of a given Form. But I would note that the ancient philosophers were more concerned with physical objects and what we call human nature (genetic programming) rather than the more subjective and creative aspects of human experience.

Meanwhile, Existentialists seem to be more concerned with human experience rather than the nonhuman world of rocks and trees and birds and bees. So, in their view, human will allows us to layer meaning and essence onto our existing existence.

Even if the Existentialists are right that humans create their own meaning in life through acts of will, they may be blind to the fact that much of human experience and even meaning is driven and pre-determined by human nature, primarily our genetic heritage, as well as our cultural heritage.

I would quibble with the Existentialists and assert that an act of will that changes our physical existence (existence at the upper level of the two-level model, with details at the lower level in essence) would amount to essence (our plan for how we want to be) preceding our existence (the outcome of exerting our will.)

DNA as human essence

Is DNA the essence of an individual, so that the essence of an individual does indeed precede their existence? That depends on whether you interpret essence as all detail of a person as opposed to their essential and core qualities.

Existence and essence as a unity

My tentative conclusion and belief is that existence and essence are so integrated and intertwined that we gain little by trying to keep them separated as if they were independent variables that could be independently changed. So, I’ll assert that existence and essence are a unity, in the two-level model where we have a full existence at the upper level and a lower level that includes both the nominal existence and the detailed essence. Yes, we can look at the division of labor between the two, but we cannot envision one existing without the other.

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