A QUINTESSENTIAL QUESTION *


True Philosophers feel most at home when they have laid their hands upon the Incomprehensible. After while, this begins to happen at every turn.

The lunatic work of true philosophy

Vale of Pewsey Loxton Knight

Loxton Knight - Vale of Pewsey


One of the few great questions that stays perpetually fresh for me is one that seems to have no answer: why is there something rather than nothing? I am older now, and I have become persistent about and habituated to asking this question, through a good portion of my waking life, and occasionally in my sleep. It is not a well-formed question, but wrestling with that is a feature of its complexity. In consequence I am more or less constantly stoned by this bobbing query as I walk through the remainder of my days. The single thought that has remained with me, spanning the years from childhood to seniority and carrying an identical payload of feeling across that span, is that same awkward, attractive and unanswerable surd. What a waste of time, eh? This is the lunacy of the True Philosopher. Yet I find that asking it bears a kind or truth and honesty about this Place, an unanswerable question that makes way for great beauty. As you may see from this description, asking the question has evolved into a kind of practice for keeping close attention on each moment.

Quintessence

The question of what something is, turns out to be the fundamental question itself. Is there a meaning or purpose in things beyond those we invent or assign? Is there any meaning or purpose in the fact that our structure enables us to ask such questions? Or [in the most brutish and confrontationally abrupt form we can muster], why in hell is there anything at all? In sum, as ruined old epistemologists we might say, "Being has made a fuss." We can propose some answers to the first version of the question: 1.) Yes, in the sense that Reality will not shut up, even when we grow quiet. And 2.) No, since even when Reality will not shut up, we're the kind who must have the last word.


"Whatever we care to call the ultimate reality, we cannot define or qualify it because the brain is incapable of processing this kind of data; thus we must ever look upon words as mere descriptions of a man's experience—the nature of which we do not really know." (Bernadette Roberts)


We create descriptions of our experience, but we know nothing about the nature of our experience. Is this not remarkable? This is another way of saying, we can talk about something nearly forever, but we can never know what it is. This philosophic occlusion can be disposed of by using the tools of linguistic philosophy, but it continues to reappear on the shelf of mind, unfazed. Its reappearance is not a defect. Quiddity moves us, however Nietzsche's postmodern minions may fuss and growl, and there is joyful freedom in it too. One of the things that bodies can do very well is call into the depths of their own being with the fundamental question, and feel thus unmoored. Why unmoored? Our paltry resources—questions, answers—have no purchase whatever in such a deep.


Some beings—us for example—arise in their worlds already geared up for chat and self-reflection, and quickly set about making explanatory models of everything they can see, and of much they cannot. Even those who think poorly are caught up in model-making, and all of us identify with our creations. There's no way out of this form of self-understanding. It operates well only within the daylight version of the subject-object manifold, but we're also provided with the dream state as a platform for taking the measure of our models. From those privileged enough to bring back useful reports on the deep sleep state, we hear less about models and more about the virtue of rest near the hearth. Every instant spent beyond our workaday domains, of course, gives a more complete account of our true estate, and models are not required. But years of work are generally necessary to reach that fabled and wordless clearing.


It may be (note the falsely tentative tone) that there's mystery in nature only because of us: we make it, deck it out to brood upon it, and if we were silent the mystery would be gone. So, why can't we just quiet down, rest easier, accept the scientific world view as a complete and accurate picture of what there is, and keep a less impractical head about us? This is an appealing account of things, yet ever since Gödel our ancient touchstone of mathematics has been violated. The meat of science and mathematics, to borrow a metaphor from Doug Hofstadter, is shot through—and bound together—with the gristle of the undecidable.


So we begin even more simply, by taking note that we are indeed here, for some unknown reason, and our hungry eyes are wide open—which is mystery enough to get any philosopher started. Just to complicate things, we might also note that some of us find riches in mystery, and some of us do not, but both conditions could use explaining. What kind of explanation would suffice for us inveterate model makers?


We're here without a home, a plan, or set of instructions, and we arrive already addressing our noises across time, biologically wired up to broadcast our account of things in our charming and pitiful way. One may quibble that we're born into our families and societies, and they provide us with the things we lack, but here's the real point. By our arrival the world is made, and there is no world without us. We're the needers, noticers, and talkers-about-worlds, and the form "world" is utterly dependent upon our embodied way of seeing. What home would we have unless we made it for ourselves? What heritage do we create for others, except one that we imagine—and never experience but in our imaginations? And having established it here, we can then reflect that it would be nice to have a true Home beyond this one, a primary abode without the pains of history. Yet this world works very well just as it is, as a school for the likes of us in the apparent stream of time.


See how grandly we Philosophers will pose with and inflate our modest cluster of notions, at a moment's notice! Like a universe preening, blowing out its feathers, enlarging upon itself and putting forth a display.



Cosmic gumption



COSMIC GUMPTION

How did we ever arrive at such an—exalted?—place, as to expect answers to these huge philosophic questions (as for example, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" or "What is the nature of life?"). How did we ever, of all things, acquire the boundless chutzpah to put forward such magnificently self-indulgent twaddle, and concomitantly feel somehow entitled to some kind of a hearing from God knows where as we—wait for it—expect some kind of answer? This, more than anything, may be the real ne plus ultra of philosphic buffoonery, and not stuff like WITSRAN after all. No wonder that most real worlders think of philosophers as on a veridical par with the World Wide Wrestling Federation.


More on WITSRAN

"The question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' provoked one of Sidney Morgenbesser's memorable comebacks: 'If there was nothing, you'd still be complaining!' " – Thomas Nagel

The only faith and contemplation to which we have a "natural right", and the only one that arises directly from unbiased reflections on our moment-to-moment experience, is the bald question of our existence, or "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I have kept this koan-like question with me for many years, polishing it like a ball of magnetite in my pocket, hefting it from time to time in my palm to test its mettle.


Note to any anxious reader: In reading tricksome philosophy such as this, a fitting adage would be "Watch the only," on the model of that other guiding phrase, "Watch the money." As in these writings, the outrageous use of "only" is a dead giveaway that spurious nonsense is being distributed freely, and that all around you is logical quicksand. If this is of concern, you'll find more mental solace elsewhere. There are a number of fine Web sites that champion Wittgenstein's idea that philosophy is for fighting against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language. But then again, Wittgenstein performed his own versions of enchanted language...

From the outset, let's dispense with the worries about whether this WITSRAN question is gibberish, "contradictory word salad," ill-formed, absurd, senseless, meaningless, illogical, incoherent, unintelligible, irrational, nonsensical, impossibly comprehensive, pointless, unanswerable, immoral (yes, some have held that "such questions should not be asked") and all the other approaches taken to reject or set the questions aside. Of course we can apply any and all of those descriptions and criticisms to the WITSRAN question (and as the history of academic philosophy has shown, to nearly every other question that philosophy can pose). Peeking into some of those worried discussions is like sneaking up on the campfire scene in the movie "Stand By Me"—and the debate on whether or not Goofy is a dog. None of those shrewd and prudent approaches speak to my benighted condition. Critics may therefore stride on by, reassured that I have no hidden intention to construct a neo-Parmenidean monolith on the grounds of my logical confusion over nothing.


WITSRAN is a koan masquerading as a legitimate question about the physics of the world. In truth, it is not a legitimate question at all. But that does not prevent one from asking. What true philosopher has ever been held back by such a ruling?


From a critical standpoint there are problems with the WITSRAN form of the ultimate question, to be sure, and the statement begs its very question. Like a small handful of similar questions, it's intended to be self-standing without an answer. When we compare it to other initiating forms of the religious/spiritual quest, it seems to me the least unwarranted of all. Most everything else goes too far, by introducing flagrantly civilized, anthropomorphic needs and values into the formulation. In other words, it's personal: A matter of taste.


There are countless ways we can refashion the question, and tinker with its limitations. For example, Milton Munitz has come up with an excellent version—with a different emphasis—in "Why does the observed world exist?" (from his book The Mystery of Existence). We could push back the form of the WITSRAN question to a more primitive stage, and ask "Why are there questions rather than no-questions?" This puts the human psychophysical form squarely back in the center of this philosophic entertainment, since it is humans alone who seem able to pose and await upon questions.


However, this latter form of the question seems to me less dramatic than the WITSRAN version, since it no longer indicates much ultimacy. In this self-referencing form it seems too much like other bits of one-man sock-puppetry playing off the dualistic habits of language. Aggressively applying such critical constraints, we could handily dismiss the whole of philosophy. Yet if we do so, it seems we must also dispense with the critical apparatus itself, or else we're left with a primary question in this form: "Why are some texts/discourses absolute while others aren't?" Perhaps we've gone too far into contextual dhimmitude, so let's step back and look at the ultimate question more closely, and from a gentler vantage point.


When we pose WITSRAN (or any of its better variants), we're asking the question of ourselves, certainly. It's a question we pose to ourselves. We have small purchase on the nature of things here, and this is our small estate: To prop up, amidst all the noise and distraction of this world, an occasional question that shines and stands just long enough to be truly seen. Perhaps we may also agree that we ask the question because we like the asking process, with any concomitant shivers it may produce if our mood is right. For some philosophers the asking is a Good Thing.


For me, asking the WITSRAN question resembles standing upon an alpine precipice, or a jumping-off point into the empyrean. At the very least we can affirm the pleasures of working out the phrases for talking in this philosophical fashion. Ordinary language is jam-packed with nonsensical bits about existence; out on the margins, where we are standing when we pose WITSRAN, language is aflutter with preposterous organisms. Let's accept the case that, out on the fringes of language, things are by nature paradoxical, poetic, purely metaphorical, wacky or nonsensical, and everything that comes to mind here "rests on false supposition."


To take one example, when we pose WITSRAN we are implying that nothingness is a more natural condition than somethingness, etc. Yes, that flagrant bit of attractive nonsense and all the rest is completely unwarranted, and that is how we want it. We need to get at what is compelling and exciting for us in the WITSRAN question. As a question it becomes far less interesting if we must first remove its value to us.


There also seems to be another implication to get at: By the act of asking the question, we instantly acquire some form of a longer view or a greater grasp of what can be seen into in this place. Another feature of this question is that, like all questions, we can pose it for others, including the Void/System/God that birthed us. In this framework, we loft our question, then imagine the vasty reply that might come from utterly beyond ourselves. Or, from the deepest silence that we have ever heard, rising perhaps from within.


Douglas Hofstadter poses an intriguing speculation at the close of his restatement of Gödel's Theorem: "There are many people who believe that the human mind, based on neurons and physical principles, is just a very sophisticated formal system. Does Gödel's theorem imply the existence of facts that must be true, but that our minds can never prove? Or even stronger, that our minds can never believe? Or strongest yet, ever conceive?"




To be continued...


WITSRAN and cosmology

Erich Buchwald-Zinwald Sternennacht 1919

Erich Buchwald-Zinnwald - Sternennacht, 1919


WITSRAN and Cosmology
"Foo foo foo!" – Zdran Pilth of Korm

For some reason, and perhaps for no reason, the laws of this universe allow for reductionism. Lucky for us, reductionism works here. Not a bad metaphor, either, for our selves when we attempt to contemplate our great estate: in its own operations, and in its most inflated speculations about our nature, despite our fascination with the apparent complexities of mathematics, the self is perfectly at home with the simplicity of emblems. As Douglas Hofstadter has eloquently described in "I Am A Strange Loop," as superordinate processes and effects, we're not so effective down among the relentless billiard balling of our countless subsystems, but we thrive on short cuts—are, in fact, the short cuts.

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Science is predicated on the belief that the Universe is algorithmically compressible and the modern search for a Theory of Everything is the ultimate expression of that belief, a belief that there is an abbreviated representation of the logic behind the Universe's properties that can be written down in finite form by human beings.

– John Barrow, in Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanations, p. 11.

My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all. — Stephen Hawking

The trouble with the Hot Big Bang model is the trouble with all cosmology without a theory of initial conditions: it has no predictive power. Because general relativity would break down at a singularity, anything could come out of the Big Bang. So why is the universe so homogeneous and isotropic on a large scale yet with local irregularities like galaxies and stars? And why is the universe so close to the dividing line between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely? In order to be as close as we are now the rate of expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically accurately. If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been less by one part in 10
10, the universe would have collapsed after a few million years. If it had been greater by one part in 1010, the universe would have been essentially empty after a few million years. In neither case would it have lasted long enough for life to develop. Thus one either has to appeal to the anthropic principle or find some physical explanation of why the universe is the way it is.

– Stephen Hawking, "Quantum Cosmology," in The Nature of Space and Time, pp. 89-90.


Stephen Hawking once said "My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all." If he is truthful in his book The Grand Design (written with Leonard Mlodinow), he seems to have attained a major portion of his goal, for he writes:

"Because there is a law of gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist."

"… it is not only the peculiar characteristics of our solar system that seem oddly conducive to the development of human life but also the characteristics of our entire Universe, and that is much more difficult to explain." Now why would Hawking not see the shortcomings of this observation? Perhaps he is just doing cocktail philosophizing, and does not care too much what he says... Hawking provides a showcase example of confirmation bias here, of what is called "motivated reasoning." For starters, he seems to accept without question the value of the term "explain" here as if it were still protected by the special sense in which it applied in science. By his methods here, he also supplies himself with working access to "our entire Universe," which certainly must make his philosophic task easier... I am being ornery with Hawking here because I wanted more from this brilliant man than this easy cosmic gum-flapping. God knows, I can do that.

The experience of nothing

Markus Pernhart - Großglockner
Markus Pernhart - Großglockner

"Keep your shirt on!" – Moe


Why is there nothing instead of something, sometimes? What's behind that one? This passage is about how nothing is the irreducible basis of everything else (and we're not talking pop cosmology or quantum physics here). That's how it seems, anyway, once this communication has been personally received, and when that happens one is hard pressed to deny it. If you're wondering what this might mean, here's a way to look at it. It is possible for someone to make the insightful discovery that this entire display of world-stuff and self-stuff (I repeat myself) is afloat upon and issues from or within nothing—that discovery is the working definition of "nothing" as it is used in this passage.


Do the preparatory work and see for yourself. Remember, this is old-form Philosophy, the stuff about life and experience in all its purity, directness, and simplicity. When the rambunction of daily life calms down, and the mind coasts to a stop, and the balloon of self floats off, lost in the deep sky of mind, then nothing may announce itself by simply erasing all names, things, views and places. Take note: we're talking about an experience—of some kind— here. It's possible for people to learn their way to this; it's something a body can do, or undergo, while it is alive. Liken it to what you get when you take all the ink away from a work of art on paper. Here's another analogy for describing this most ancient of yogic forays. It's as if the mind, all of mentation, stands in a well of brightness.


This can also be a harsh and scouring interlude for some, and is not sought out lightly, but there's nothing like it for getting your attention. It may inoculate you with a grand dose of compassion, or set you apart from others for a time by purifying all your old ways. Its effects may last for months or years. It does make you sit up and think, which is kind of funny. It bears mention too that there is a whirlwind of interpretation that ponies up in the aftermath of this experience, urgently attempting to classify the memories and connect the meanings. Anything one does to try and fit it into some larger religious or spiritual scheme does nothing to dispel the majestic and faceless astonishment that accompanies the realization. Many lustrous and beautiful things have been written about this, even by the occasional neuroscientist. So here's a question—what is this possibility doing in the human experiential kit? It's fun to speculate how this might be analyzed from the stance of evolutionary psychology.


No wonder people just keep busy.



Nothingness: a miscellany




Nothingness: A Miscellany

The Stanford Encyclopedia's entry on Nothingness, including a section on the question "why is there something rather than nothing" has 38,741 words, plus a lengthy bibliography. This alone tells us something about philosophers.


I notice that whenever philosophers want to treat the WITSRAN question, they wheel into the room whole wagonloads of tools and equipment before they start.


In responding to this question, why do so many philosophers seem to assume that one is "worried" if one poses it? Are they trying to help me? I don't care to see what's hidden beneath their curious succor.


And why do some reply in that disdainful tone? Philosophy for me is rarely about takedowns. This peculiarly aggressive and pugnacious academic form, first encountered in college seminars, holds no interest unless I'm drunk and careless, after which its rigid passions resemble the shopping channel.