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.)