December 6, 2021
The deepest of all questions is why is there something and not nothing? Existence either sprang from nothing, or is eternal. Both possibilities make our minds go kablooey. In contrast, it might seem easier to envision a cosmic emptiness, that never had any existence in it. A total void. Yet if you cogitate on it, that’s actually hard to conceive of too. Wouldn’t even such an empty cosmos, itself, be said to exist? Thus not solving the something-versus-nothing conundrum. Can we actually truly conceptualize nothingness? And what is this thing we call existence anyway?
There is a school of thought holding that nothing really exists except insofar as it is perceived in a human mind. The bathroom disappears while you’re in the kitchen. This was actually, more or less, the thesis of the seventeenth century philosopher George Berkeley. But what is a human mind? Is thatsomething that exists? Do the neurons in our brains exist only because they exist in our minds? But don’t our minds only exist because of the neurons?
In order for anything to exist, it seems axiomatic that it must exist in Time. Something lasting for only zero seconds could not be said to exist at all. But note too that something can only exist in the present. The past no longer exists; the future doesn’t yet. The past lasted a long time; the future will too; but the present actually lasts only exactly zero seconds. There is no span of time during which the present takes place. Ending as soon as it begins. So, if nothing lasting zero seconds can exist, and nothing can exist except in the present, and the present lasts zero seconds, that proves nothing can exist.
Nevertheless, in a simple sense, you might, for example, think a chair exists. Yet however solid it may seem, we know it’s composed of atoms, which are mostly if not entirely empty space. In fact, that’s also true of the particles notionally comprising the atoms themselves; and the sub-particles comprising those particles. Et cetera. No matter how deep you go, you can never get to anything solid. There’s no there there. (Or no chair there.)
The problem is with the very concept that we call existence. As the foregoing does prove, there can be no such thing. It is an illusion. Descartes was wrong in saying, “I think, therefore I am.” And while various religions have posited various deities, their existence is obviously even more impossible than that chair’s.
But if we must therefore let go of our concept of existence, we must have recourse to a different one to replace that which we used to think of in that way. Referring to something deeper, the whatever-it-is that’s the substrate for the thing we imagined to be existence. You might consider it a mystery, yet that is a human construct. What we’re talking about here transcends not only human thought, but Time, space, and matter themselves. Even existence itself.
This renders meaningless the question of why there is something and not nothing. The fact is that the “something” at issue is only a manifestation of what is, again, a reality deeper than the question encompasses. Though even the word “reality” itself is a contradiction in terms.
Our language lacks a word or words to express what’s needed. Words like “existence” and “reality” are inadequate if not indeed false. Heidegger may have been nibbling at the thing with his “dasein.” Suppose we non-Germans use, as a mere placeholder, for what cannot be expressed, the word isness. Denoting something that just is.
However, as another famous personage once testified, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Then there was Belgian surrealist painter Magritte’s picture of a pipe labeled “This is not a pipe.” Of course it wasn’t a pipe, but a painting; yet did it actually illustrate the cosmic truth that nothing can be anything? While Wittgenstein showed us that language cannot indeed truly capture any reality. Even if there were such a thing.
But what isness is is actually not something that can be defined or described, let alone grasped. It’s the quintessential quiddity. It just is.
Yet understanding it (if only we could) would be the key to everything. Penetrating through the impossibility of linguistic meaning, and through the fog and shadows of “existence” and “reality,” drilling down beyond all that, to the ultimate underlying isness. Though recognizing that there may — or, perhaps, must — be something yet deeper still. Indeed, even isness itself cannot be, finally, the ultimate isness.
Maybe it’s turtles all the way down.