Pondering "Why is there something rather than nothing?" will blow your mind. This is the most common way the mystery of existence is framed, as noted in my "Existence exists. Amazing!"
But, hey, why stop there? If we're going to have our minds blown, might as well blow up what's doing the blowing up also. Bigger the explosion, the better.
This morning I plucked Milton K. Munitz' The Mystery of Existence from my bookshelf. This is a deeply philosophical book that isn't the easiest of reading. I'd read most of it before flaming out from intellectual overload on the final chapters.
Today, though, I managed to grasp Munitz' basic point that had eluded me before. Asking "why?" presumes there's an answer. You've already framed the problem by your very questioning.
Actually, he says, this is what we should be asking:
Is there a reason-for-the-existence-of-the-world?
Oh man! Before, I was standing on the abyss of our ignorance about why there is something rather than nothing. The void was unsettling enough, having no discernible boundaries. However, I had the sense that somewhere in that blob of mystery there was an answer.
Humans might never know it. It might remain hidden in the abyss forever. Yet the notion that a "why" concerning the mystery of existence itself existed—this was a lodestone offering at least some vague directionality to the search for ultimate reality.
The truth about existence was out there. Probably way out there, impossibly far removed from the ability of a Homo sapiens consciousness to know it. Still, "out there" points somewhere, even if it's impossible to ever get there.
Munitz super-sized the mystery for me. There's no reason to assume the existence of a "there" where a why resides. The problem is considerably deeper that just not knowing why there is something rather than nothing. We don't even know whether there's an answer to the question.
The void just became much voider, the mystery a lot more mysterious.
I realized that as non-religious as I am, I'd still been clinging to a traditional metaphysical assumption: there's a reason why existence exists.
That reason is said to be known only to God. Or Tao, Buddha-nature, Allah, the Great Spirit. Or to the future, when science will reveal all. Or to an alien civilization far more advanced to ours. Or even to no one, the reason being part and parcel of existence itself.
Regardless, the reason existed. And not just in a subjective mind, but objectively. Munitz says:
Of the broad possibilities canvassed earlier, according to which a reason-for-the-existence-of-the-world could be either an "assigned" reason or an "objective" reason, it would only be the latter, in the last analysis, that would count. We should want to know, quite apart from any conceptual scheme, where there is, or is not, a reason-for-the-existence-of-the-world.
Trouble is, we can't. Munitz spends quite a few pages laying out his arguments for why this is the case. At the end of his "Philosophical Agnosticism" chapter he sums up the not-knowable situation, saying that we don't even know where to begin to answer the question of whether there's a reason for the world's existence.
With other human beings, it's different. We can figure out reasons for what they did or made.
We establish that they had such reasons, and what they were, by getting evidence of the relevant kind (but not by resorting to a theory, myth, or metaphysical construction). In the simple, straightforward case, this consists in asking the person in question, or in examining some document, or other reliable source, for the required information.
The relevant evidence is obtained through some channel of sensory experience and by interrogation. These resources, however, are completely lacking in trying to establish that there is a reason-for-the-existence-of-the-world. Where, then, shall we turn?
We are completely lacking in clues. The prospects of getting knowledge from some form of "direct" inspection (without having to resort to faith, postulation, or the analogizing speculations of some metaphysical conceptual system) are simply unavailable.
Hence this avenue of establishing knowledge of the existence or absence of a reason-for-the-existence-of-the-world is not open to us. We must admit our total ignorance.
Fine with me. But not for the world's religions, spiritual paths, philosophical systems, and other claimants of ultimate knowledge. Their stock in trade is answers—or at least the promise of an answer to the mystery of existence.
The answer, though, isn't blowing in the wind. For if there's wind, or blowing, it's coming from the question side of existence, not the side where an answer may or may not be. Munitz implies that anything of this world—thoughts, perceptions, emotions, conceptions—"would provoke the very question we are trying to answer."
And not only this world. Munitz shuns mysticism in his book, but to my mind other-worldly perceptions also would be question-provoking rather than answer-providing when it comes to the ultimate mystery of existence.
I could be sitting at the right hand of God, immersed in the glories of divine light and sound, being taught how the Almighty creates creation, and I'd still have questions: "God, who created you?" "God, how do I know this isn't an illusion?"
I could hear a booming, "I am the Lord, thy God, eternal, uncreated." That voice still would be part of existence. I'd still be clueless about whether there is a why? for the existence of the world, taking the "world" now to include spiritual as well as physical reality.
Or "God" could laugh and say, "Fooled you. You're right, everything I've shown you is an illusion—the Matrix, a computer simulation. It looks just like a real universe, doesn't it? I'll show you how the programming works."
Now I'm zapped into another dimension where I see God, and me, and universes being formed out of cyberspace and cyberenergy. But I still have no way of knowing whether there is a why? to that.
I don't know whether I've reached really real reality, or even if there is such a thing, because I'm still stuck in existence. It's impossible to get outside of existence and learn about it objectively. Like everybody else, I'm always on the inside, looking in, even if I were able to reach a spiritual realm.
Munitz speaks of religious experiences:
To say that these experiences are genuinely revelatory of an independently existing, transcendent Being, and are not merely expressions of deeply felt human yearnings, or the projections of human imagination and its myth-making propensities, is precisely what needs to be established.
One cannot appeal to the experiences themselves to establish this; they are not self-authenticating…What supporting, public tests, or independent criteria of corroboration are there, by which to separate the spurious claims of the visionary from the possibly authentic?
None. Yet it could be argued that the mystic doesn't demand any proof of what is being directly experienced. Fine. I'll agree with that. Experience is its own corroboration for the experience.
The fact remains: it isn't possible to experience anything other than existence. No one can step outside of existence and ask it "Why?" The question always reverberates inside the mystery. We don't even know whether an answer exists, much less what it might be, if it does.
Meditating this morning after reading Munitz' final chapters, I felt strangely peaceful. Looking into the darkness of my clueless consciousness, for a moment I was relieved of the "What's it all about?" that has gnawed at me for most of my life.
Some questions are unanswerable. Some questions are so questionable, we can't be sure they are valid questions. Such is the mystery of existence.
Floating free in perpetual ignorance—that struck me as not so bad. Maybe better than being lashed to a time-bound pseudo-truth. And there's always the bit of hope that Munitz left me with, near the end of his final chapter.
In saying that the mystery of existence is unanswerable, I mean "unanswerable relative to the already known methods of achieving knowledge of reasons." If "reason" is understood in its ordinary uses—as "purpose," "scientific explanation," or "evidence"—then it makes no sense to say there is a reason for the existence of the world.
…I should not wish to dogmatize about the possibility that some other "rational method," not hitherto known by man, might be developed in the future course of human evolution, or perhaps is already possessed by some special type of "mind" wholly unknown to us.
But we, now, have no knowledge of such a method: nor do we have any rational method within our present resources by which we could undertake to establish the existence or character of this "method."
Well, I guess the method, if it exists, will have to come to us—not us to it.
I'm here. Surprise me.
(If this post leaves you hungry for still more confusion, "Something's happening here: Existence" contains the thoughts of Will, a fellow admirer of existential mystery.)
Looks like a good time to stop thinking. Or at least thinking while trying to explain the unexplainable. But, then again, what happy diversion there is in pondering....Entertainment supreme.
Posted by: Pam Holten | March 24, 2007 at 09:22 AM
Existence is a conceptual objectivisation of some 'thing' that is or appears to be. In the abstract, i.e. not objectively applied, it has no meaning. Therefore existence is a concept relative to non-existence.
If existence were taken to imply 'appears to be', or 'appears to have being', it would then become equated with appearance, cease to denote whatever object appears, and all appearance could be said to exist. But that would be a contradiction in terms, for 'appears to exist' implies its opposite 'does not appear to exist', which requires potential non-apparent existence. Therefore, apparent existence cannot connote existence as such.
Existence and its opposite 'non-existence' remain objective and realtive concepts, so that whatever is said to exist or not exist must necessarily be an object in mind.
An object, however, is by definition apparent, and what cannot be apparent cannot be an object. It follows that what is objective may exist, but that what is not objective cannot exist. Therefore, though objectivity may exist, subjectivity does not.
In short, 'you' may be thought to exist-either conceptually or materially-because 'you' are my object, but I do not exist as 'I' because as I, I am your subject. I could only exist as I if I were an object, but an object cannot be subject, or subject an object, so that as subject I cannot exist.
Therefore, as I, no thing (object) exists, but things (objects) may appear to exist, and their subject neither exists nor appears to exist.
Existence as such is a conceptual illusion, an appearance in mind only.
Posted by: TB | March 24, 2007 at 10:13 AM
Idiot Mob Religion Part I
What I hate most about being dead is a newspaper everyday.
I put it on the TV stains and thin out like a crowd.
I hate to make the whole maelstrom,
and its maintenance, tailgating myself.
And the stupid orange neons,
burrowing further into the busy siren.
Posted by: Edward | March 24, 2007 at 10:59 AM
ashes to ashes ... dust to dust
Posted by: tao | March 24, 2007 at 02:40 PM
When I finally have all the answers. These answers will be totally truthful, accurate, factual and complete.
Then, "What shall I do?"
Maybe, I could take all that information and store it in my attic.
WOW, sounds like a fun idea.
Posted by: Roger | March 26, 2007 at 11:27 AM
Great post and a great blog, Brian. Thanks for the introduction to Munitz, I'll add him to my reading list.
In Book III of Will to Power, Nietzsche says something similar to Munitz about how our questions 'why' reveal that the inner phenomenology of cause and effect are actually the exact opposite of what we think they are. We identify a "thing" as a discrete piece of reality and ask "why" and "how" of its being and motion (both of which we impute to it in thought and language). Thus we look for the cause of "things" we caused because we ignore that we caused them.
Perspective defines "reality," not the other way around. Since separation between "things" is a matter of perspective and interpretation (which is driven by its usefulness to me in my life), perceived separation between "things" (including self-identity) depends on the frame of reference from which one views them. For example, if I stand in a large "crowd" of people, a person looking down from a helicopter may not perceive that I am separate from the "crowd." My good friend who is standing next to me having a conversation with me probably would.
Posted by: Brendan | March 26, 2007 at 01:14 PM
To reach a valid conclusion, one must start with a valid premise. If the "why" of existance can ever be determined, "what existance is" must first be known.
Is "existance" a physical "place" or a "condition" of being, an experience, or a concept, or an illusion, conjured up by imigination?
(Or perhaps, none of the above!)
Posted by: Arlo R. Hansen | March 28, 2007 at 05:06 PM
If only the "Toilet Flushing" cat had the answers?
What a discovery.....
Posted by: Roger | March 29, 2007 at 08:25 AM
Dear Brian, just wanted to state again I enjoyed your posts.
From Beingness flows the entire creation, in my experience.
I've heard all kinds of conceptual explanations, scientific and religous, for the why and wherefore of this beingness & creation. Most of these seem to state that it is creation that arose first, then beingness? I don't know about these, as these are all concepts & knowledge I loaded on my back subsequent to my Being arising?
Simply sitting in Beingness, aware that 'I' am aware, not meditating on this object, or with that thought, or with this intention, or with that goal, Beingness became to shine and deepen.....without either light or depth.
It was here that it is was understood that Beingness pervades the entire creation. It cannot be found by scientists however, as it is precisely that which is searching.
Tantra (such as the mild form taught by RS groups) can be powerful, and give can give one intense experiences of bliss, innumerable universes, physical charisma, ability to identify with other persons minds, almost incessant synchronicties etc etc, but this is ultimately useless, as you still remain apart from ones own Beingness. or rather, the illusion of being apart from ones own Beingness, which is ever with us...IS us.
Tantra is the product of subtle thought. An idea or thought of 'I' arises, then an thought of a world, then an idea of uunhappiness and happiness, then an thought of eternal happiness and bliss, then a thought of meditation practice, then a thought of a goal, then a thought of attainment etc. These are all as real as the world around us, as that is also a product of thought. If you don't believe that, tell me where the world is when you're not thinking about it? This is Tantra, the creation of realities with subtle movements of thought. The closer to Beingness, the more profound the scope or power of those thoughts to manipulate 'reality'.
However, the most profound 'practice' is that of no practice. Don't sit with a goal, with expectations, with an idea of what a successful meditation session is etc. Simply SIT. Don't want or expect bliss, or cessation of thoughts, or peace or whatever. Simply sit, and be aware that one is aware. And that that awareness pervades every moment, whether thinking about god, sex, or nothing!
Then let Beingness reveal the entire creation, and the 'fruits' of countless years of tantric practice, in a moment.
But then, I am a little bit nuts, so I've been told. Perhaps best to not listen to a word I say!
Posted by: Manjit | March 30, 2007 at 04:36 PM
Great post. I have come to the conclusion that this is a question that cannot be "answered".
Once I had a mystical experience where I thought that myself and everyone was God. At one point I kept repeating the following "We exist... because!"
Naturally one asks, because what? But there is no what. There just is what is.
Why does existence exist? Because it does. There can be no deeper answer. It's impossible.
Posted by: Andy | March 16, 2015 at 08:07 AM
Good description Andy
Solopism, nothing else and you saw That
And How Great He is, , , , You are
Did You cry ?
Posted by: 777 | March 16, 2015 at 03:46 PM