Recently I got this email from a fellow marveler at the inescapable fact that existence must always have existed in some form, or the universe we are a part of couldn't have come to be.
Hello Brian, I recently read this article of yours and was amazed how precisely it described the issue that's been on my mind for a long time. It seems inescapable to posit that something has always existed, something that never had a beginning. And as you point out in the article, trying to conceive and imagine that seems impossible: "the very possibility of cognizing an answer vanishes".
And I agree with that, but the reason I'm writing you is that this realization is a source of great anxiety to me. I can't seem to accept this incomprehensibility of existence. Do you have some word of advice or maybe some resources that could help me deal with this?
Thus I’ve lost interest in the why of existence. Why is there something rather than nothing? is a meaningless question. As Kuhn points out, absolute nothing contains no way for existence to exist.
I could be wrong, an ever-present possibility.
Perhaps some human with a consciousness far different than mine, or an alien being with abilities beyond my capacity to fathom, would be able to look upon the mystery of existence and see it as…
Words fail me. Unsurprisingly.
I simply am open to the idea that however dizzying I find the notion of ever-existing existence, the necessity of existence having always existed, the blunt facticity of the cosmos that is at odds with my experience of everything else having a why, a cause — my mind could be as incapable of grasping the essence of reality as a chimpanzee’s is incapable of grasping calculus.
There’s another possibility: the mystery of existence is a non-existent problem.
So that's the easy answer to the question I was asked about how to deal with the incomprehensibility of existence: accept that some things defy human understanding, leaving open the possibility that some other form of consciousness could grasp a notion like existence has always existed.
Assuming there is anything to grasp.
My suspicion is that existence is simply a given, a brute fact incapable of being delved into. For any delving presupposes the existence of the entity wishing to grasp the existential nature of existence.
In other words, there is no place to stand other than existence if one wants to ponder existence. Anything nonexistent isn't going to be doing any pondering, whether of existence or something else.
The way I see it, existence stands alone in this regard.
Consciousness might seem to be similar, in that any investigation into the nature of consciousness requires that someone be conscious. However, it's possible to study non-conscious entities, such as someone in a deep coma, in an attempt to learn what differentiates consciousness and a lack of consciousness. .
It may also be possible for machines to become conscious, which would provide valuable insights into the foundation of consciousness.
But it isn't possible to do an experiment that compares existence with non-existence, since a comparison requires two existing things. Nothing obviously isn't a thing.
I've been dancing around the question I was asked because it is so difficult to talk about the anxiety of being confronted with an unanswerable question. Unanswerable, at least, by us Homo sapiens, whose sapience is bounded by the limitations of the human brain, as marvelously complex as it is.
For me -- and naturally I'm speaking only about myself here, not the person who wrote to me -- I find considerable comfort in simply acknowledging, "I don't know, and I never will."
How is it that existence has always existed? I don't know, and I never will.
It is difficult for me to feel anxious about something that I'm incapable of grasping. My anxieties relate to what could have been, but wasn't; to what might occur, but probably won't; to what is happening, which I wish wasn't.
The idea that existence always has existed fills me with awe, not anxiety. I'm fine with living from birth until death with some Big Cosmic Questions unanswered. And not only unanswered -- incapable of any steps, even tiny ones, being made toward an answer.
If someone said to me, "Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you never existed?" I'd say, "No."
After all, if I had never existed, there would be no me to wonder about this, nor about anything else. Likewise, if existence hadn't always existed, there would be no anything. Something can't be produced from absolute nothing.
I don't think I've done a great job responding to the person who emailed me. But this is the best I can do.