Saturday, February 9, 2019

Is there Something rather than Nothing?

Elsewhere I discussed the celebrated question of why there is something rather than nothing. I talked about the cosmological argument for God’s existence, and brought up the mystical, cosmicist context. But I think I failed to address the question’s immediate meaning that generates the peculiar jitters you should feel when you ponder why there’s anything. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” means: “Why is there anything specific when there could conceivably have been nothing at all?” We know that the current crop of specific things in the universe was caused by the previous one, but the initial transition, at the universe’s beginning, from X to the first specific, finite thing seems baffling.

The mystery, then, is that there could be any kind of thing, and the reason the question is so useful is that it seems like a shortcut to a mystical experience, since everyone’s familiar with the existence of things as such. Perhaps you don’t have to lock yourself in a cave for decades to learn how to penetrate the deep mystery of being, when all you have to do is use your five senses to notice the specificity of any old thing such as this table, that dog, or that leaf over by the mailbox. What’s strange is that there seem only two possible explanations of why there’s something rather than nothing, and both are mind-blowing. Either there’s an infinite series of specific things, each stage of which is responsible for the next, or all finite and contingent things come from “something” supernatural, which is to say from some infinite, unspecific “thing” that’s radically unlike anything we’ve ever perceived or are even capable of imagining, which supernatural X is as good as nothing (no thing). Those seem like the only possibilities that make any kind of sense, and again the choice between them is necessitated by the fact that there’s such a thing as things in the first place.

It’s not the quantity or the variety of finite things that makes the mystical difference, since that’s explained by ordinary causality; rather, what’s palpably strange is that there’s at least one finite thing, namely the first in the natural series. When we turn to this table, that dog, or that leaf over there, and we marvel at the strangeness of its having come to be when there could instead have been nothing—or rather when there should have been nothing, since the other two possibilities, of an infinite series of finite things or a transition from infinity to finitude both seem bizarre—that specific thing substitutes for the first thing in the natural chain of cause and effect. What’s strange about finitude isn’t really this table, that dog, or that leaf, since we have a plausible explanation of everything we actually encounter: the table was manufactured by some furniture company, the dog was birthed by its mother, and the leaf fell from that tree over by the curb, the seed of which was planted by that fellow over there. What we do when we think metaphysically or mystically about any old thing is that we wonder about the apparent miracle of finitude in general. We wonder how anything at all could have come from nothing or from “something” infinite, or how there could be a bottomless, infinite series of particular things. No answer seems able to alleviate the strangeness of being, and so the question of why there’s something rather than nothing opens the door to a mystifying suspicion that we’re somehow in the wrong when we’re overly familiar with anything.

All Things are Human-made

Some progress can be made, however, by recognizing the vanity implicit in the question. When we speak of finite things, we’re really praising ourselves for our conceptions of them, since it’s we who bind things in the act of understanding them. The limits of finite things are our cognitive limits. This is why the metaphysical or mystical sense of the question amounts to cosmicism, to an appreciation that being transcends the limits we impose by our senses and concepts and ulterior motives. In reality, there is no table, dog, or leaf, since all such conceptions are at least partly pragmatic and thus arbitrary or self-serving (and therefore dishonourable). Thus, the irony the question brings to bear is that we’re already and always in the midst of the strangeness of being. It’s not that some transcendent entity somehow created the first finite thing long ago and fled the scene, since the whole natural series of finite things is incomprehensible in its totality.

Contrary to some scientistic optimists, to know how every particular effect derives from its proximate natural cause isn’t to be in a position to answer all meaningful questions, since every part of that causal analysis is to some extent an instrumental projection. In presenting a naturalistic theory of how all the parts of nature fit together, we’d still be talking anthropocentrically about how things seem to us, whereas we have no business inserting ourselves into the center of beings; we’d still be implicitly treating things as passively awaiting for us to control or to modify them with science and technology. To really understand something is to grasp that our cognitive apparatus ultimately has nothing to do with anything else, that the proper being of anything other than us is independent of our curiosity and of our mammalian schemes, that the cold, stark, real world is the one that operates entirely without us or that exists as though none of us had ever been born. But to grasp such an alienating picture of reality is to dismiss all analytical conceptions of things on account of our extraneous motives, and so we’re back to identifying this table, dog, or leaf with nothing (with no mere thing).

So is there anything rather than nothing? This question is logically prior to why there’s something rather than nothing. The celebrated question presupposes finitude and takes it for a mystery, since finitude can’t account for itself, so finite things should depend on infinitude (on an infinite series or First Cause called God)—even though an actual infinity must be profoundly mysterious. By taking the contingency and limitations of things for granted, we’re assuming that our conceptions aren’t just useful but are true in the sense that they correspond to reality. There’s no such correspondence. Our beliefs don’t mirror the facts. In carving up the world with rational understanding, we’re like a mother bird that finds an insect, gobbles it up, vomits up the remains to its newborns and treats the regurgitated bolus as the essence of that insect. Just as the bird has an ulterior motive, to avoid the impracticality of having to carry the insect in its beak across what may be the long distance back to its nest, our knowledge is based on at least one inescapable bias, which is that we’re driven to fit reality into our heads with our evolved cognitive apparatus. This was the philosopher Kant’s great insight, that all human knowledge is only phenomenal: we understand only how reality appears to creatures like us. We carve up reality with our five senses and our modes of experience and mental processes and social filters. As a result, we conceive of the world as being comprised of a great many interlocking, causally-related things. That’s because we apply reason in our attempt to process reality, and reason proceeds in a stepwise, analytical fashion. Moreover, as rational primates, we’re largely patriarchal and preoccupied with social relations and especially with domination, and so we either personify what we encounter, pretending we can socialize, for example, with ghosts or faeries or gods, or we objectify the world to master it piecemeal. By breaking the world up in our mind, not to mention by gobbling up the wilderness and spitting up artificiality, we leave our fingerprints on the inhuman universe.   

In reality there are no things. Things as such, meaning things strictly as defined by our concepts and theories are figments. What we call this shoe or that pebble or that squirrel is only part of a nameless, unfathomable whole. Only the whole is objectively real; the parts are carved up in ways determined largely by the tools brought to the table by the carvers. By assuming reality is comprised of the things we understand, whether they’re planets or storm clouds or television shows or bubble wraps, we’re mistaking the human process of digesting reality with reality itself. Our knowledge doesn’t even represent part of the real world, since the notion of a partial representation is incoherent. The part of the world that would be mirrored would be more or less completely mirrored by that partial representation. Speaking conventionally, for example, if you were to see only your ear in the mirror, assuming the rest of your face were covered, you’d think that the image of your ear shows only part of your face but that the image might be a fair representation of your whole ear (putting aside the fact that the image would reflect only one side of your ear and would show only your ear as it exists at one moment in time, whereas your ear is entangled with the rest of the world in complex ways). Again, in reality there’s no ear. Like all our other conceptual simplifications and idealizations, the notion of an ear is a tool we use to get by. What we call your ear is a smudge on the monstrosity known as the totality of living things, the members of which are all interrelated via evolution (via the transmission of genes, or the natural selection of winners in the competition to avoid dying before the organisms can sexually reproduce themselves) and are engaged also with the nonliving world, the latter being a greater monstrosity still since it stretches back billions of years and across untold galaxies and inhuman dimensions. To think that your ear is real strictly as you understand it is as foolish as thinking that ghosts and gods are real. Your thoughts about your ear correspond not with what your ear really is (that being something united with the incomprehensible totality of the natural universe), but with a useful fiction society expects us to presume is objectively real.

The Scientific Revolution should have taught us not to be scientistic and arrogant neoliberal technocrats, like Sam Harris or Steven Pinker, but to be humble, pragmatic cosmicists. Science doesn’t get at reality any better than does primitive religion. The difference between religion and science is that religion controls society whereas science controls nature. Religious myths comfort the masses that want to be happy, while scientific theories empower us at the expense of indifferent natural forces, elements, and regularities. The difference is explainable in pragmatic terms. To go beyond pragmatism in asking why scientific theories have more technological applications than do religious creeds is fair, but the best answer isn’t humanistic overconfidence in the products of our mental labour. Instead, we should at some point graduate from pragmatism to mysticism, since the better answer lies in the nature of the unimaginable, alien All. To understand that totality would be to lose ourselves in madness. You might think theoretical physicists have a handle on the universe as a whole, but that comprehension is impossible because physics is bound by tools and methods such as mathematics and the epistemic values of science (simplicity, fruitfulness, conservatism, and so forth), which humanize the facts. The noumenal reality is that cognition is an animal’s narrow-minded business, that even our attempt to understand how nature works isn’t essential to the universe but stems from the dubious character of our species.

Although many animals cooperate, they instinctively defend themselves because they’re programmed by their genes to preserve the potential for future developments in their lineage. We not only cooperate but are curious about the wider universe, and so we might be tempted to think that our curiosity and reason are virtues. This myth of secular humanism is belied by the devastation left by our rise to planetary dominance. We torture animals in our scientific experiments and in testing our new technologies; we enslave generations of livestock to feed our burgeoning populations of infantilized consumers; and we threaten all life with our technoscientific “progress,” thanks to global warming and the destruction of natural habitats. Moreover, even as we pursue “knowledge for its own sake,” as the meme would have it, we confront the world not with genuine open-mindedness but armed with methods that work. We apply systematic observation and the brainstorming of hypotheses, as well as logic and math and experimentation, and so we ignore what stares us in the face, which is the world’s alien indifference to our interests. If we manage to exploit certain natural regularities in the names of social progress and human liberty and pleasure throughout the Anthropocene, nature will have the last laugh by obliterating all traces that our species had ever existed, before going on to endure for countless, lifeless eons. There can be no cognitive agreement between the world and our mental products, given such existential one-sidedness. Instead, there’s the comical, pragmatic scenario in which befuddled creatures make the best of their haplessness, mostly deluding themselves with fantasies or catching tantalizing glimpses of the universe’s heartless reality, all the while being ironically part of the monstrous whole.

The Mystical Embrace of Nothing

This cosmicist humility ought to be the meaning of Luke 17: 20-24: ‘Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. People will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.’

At first glance, this idea of God being already in our midst looks like the sort of mysticism that reduces literalistic, exoteric Christianity to the embarrassing charade it’s been since at least its adoption by the Roman Empire in the early fourth century CE. Even the literalistic New Testament that was meant to enforce a cynical orthodoxy is almost suggesting here that, contrary to most of the New Testament, God, heaven, salvation, and all the other exoteric religious conceptions are of so many things; that is, these notions are so many distractions from an omnipresent reality hiding in plain sight. Alas, the esoteric lesson is spoiled by Luke’s resort to eschatology, since Jesus maintains that the Son of Man will indeed one day reappear; it’s just that when God’s kingdom arrives, there will be no time to fear or to celebrate since the event will happen all at once and everywhere, somewhat like lightning.

The mysticism buried here is found in its more authentic form in the Gospel of Thomas, as in the third saying: ‘Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you” ’ (my emphasis). Indeed, the NIV translation of Luke 17:21 includes the footnote that “in your midst” could also mean “within you.” The notion that God is within us is clearly a garbled echo of the much older mystical speculations of Hinduism, so Christian Gnosticism itself is only a half-way house. In any case, this identification of the essence of reality with the experience of impersonal consciousness, with the tranquil act of observing the talkative mind in meditative moments is only a less embarrassing form of anthropocentrism. Consciousness may be strange, but it’s not strange enough to be universal, contrary to panpsychists.

There are, though, two kinds of mystics, depending on what they think it is that transcends reason. Social mystics say reason is transcended by love, while antisocial ones look to horror and embarrassment as nonrational signs of higher truth. So conventional Hindus and Gnostics, not to mention exoteric (mere literalistic, low-info) Christians say the mark of noumenal reality is what we find when we quiet our mind and attend to experience as selfless, welcoming observers. We discover we can detach from our ego and our persona and can identify with bare awareness, whereupon with the loss of our self-serving illusions, we learn to accept the world’s unity. These mystics would say that the inwardness of spirituality, not the outward search for scientific comprehension is the way to ultimate truth. The leap from the availability of impersonal consciousness to the zany idea that consciousness underlies all of natural reality is supposed to be justified not by any argument, but by a shift in the social mystic’s (bodhisattva’s) character as she comes to trust that love is more important than rational understanding.

By contrast, you might recoil from the mushiness of that social form of mysticism, suspecting that it’s not nearly radical enough, since love is biologically a genetic defense mechanism and the love of life must embrace the evolutionary horror show of killing and cannibalism—life’s feeding on itself—which has perpetuated the incarnations of consciousness. If love is too sentimental a refuge for the true subversive who follows reason to its hypermodern deconstruction, this radical will likely feel that horror, disgust, and embarrassment are more honourable paths to existential authenticity. If you’re humiliated by an awkward, ironic turn of events, reality (as opposed to a human-centered illusion) is afoot; if something disgusts you, you might have just been struck by nature’s monstrous anti-character. Note, by the way, that disgust isn’t the same as hatred. A racist believes she hates a foreign population, whereas what she’s dealing with is a phantom concocted by her fear and ignorance. The concrete facts of those foreigners—their skin colour, ethos, economic status, and so forth—will be worthy of disgust only in so far as they attest to the wider incursion of nature’s indifference. Needless to say, all individuals and societies are thereby disgusting, but it takes a cosmicist saint to be constantly disgusted for the right reasons.    

Saintly Horror

Return, then, to the question why there’s something rather than nothing. The mystery of how finitude can follow from infinity isn’t the true mystery; instead, the question should be how the illusion of thingness can occur within the no-thing which is the entirety of nature. Pragmatism explains thingness in terms of utility and empowerment: we conjure objects so they’ll submit to us, but this assumes that we, the conjurers, are impetuous primates, and primates, socializers, and dominators are yet more finite things. In other words, pragmatism is itself a naturalistic theory that objectifies us. Meanwhile, cosmicism or semi-Nietzschean naturalism posits a horrific reality that necessarily transcends our comprehension. Where do we as the vaunted knowers and users and victims of self-serving appearances fit within the monstrous totality? We needn’t ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” since the true first thing wasn’t temporally first at the Big Bang; after all, space and time are unified in the fabric of spacetime. Rather, the more relevant originator is the measure of all things, the upstart species that belittles the cosmic beast to avoid the sorrow and madness of attempting to encompass the universe’s oneness.

As far as we can tell, things proceed not from an infinite God but from us, from godlike creatures that nevertheless confuse utility with epistemic adequacy. One day we’ll know how life arises from nonliving processes, and that will be yet more pragmatic empowerment or “empirical knowledge.” Even then we may be plagued with the eerie misgiving that we ought to be both practical and burdened with a dark faith in cosmicism. We should be humble about the merits of our theories, philosophies, and other artworks, since reason itself teaches us not to idolize it. We must, then, be nonrationally steered, and that’s where honour and aesthetic standards dictate that we reckon with the horror that will outlast any call for love.

To love the universe is only to unwittingly project an irrelevant trick of the genes onto the most appalling monstrosity. Love of nature is akin to the racist’s hatred of foreigners, since in both cases the emotion is directed to a mental projection. But to fear and be disgusted (as well as awed) by nature is to recognize we’re of no account, because we too are nothing. Disgust and righteous anger are deeper than love, the mystical bromide notwithstanding. We don’t dwell within the best of all possible worlds, since there’s no supernatural judge that could affirm that value, and to base nature’s goodness only on our self-interested preference for a world that could produce us would of course hardly be admirable or any feat of wisdom. True, life emerges from nature, and life is in part lovable, but nature also tortures and kills living things, so the proper estimation is that nature is amoral and alien (inhuman). Hence, some fitting emotional responses for the mystic who sees through the matrix are fear of and disgust towards reality’s being other than the collective daydream of our artificial things.


  1. Indeed, the most troubling features of the universe, for the human perspective, are its absolute lack of purpose and the absence of a rational design. To even posit the question: 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is pointless and absurd. Things don't need ultimate reasons or motives to exist at all, they just do. Purpose is a man-made construct. We're like semi autonomous puppets of blind and irrational natural forces.
    If this perspective was more extended across the different cultures or societies, much of human folly would be reduced or limited.

    1. But I wonder how folly would be possible for puppets. I think the situation is more dire than the determinist would have it. We have some freedom from our puppet strings--indeed, just enough freedom to see the strings and be anxious about what we should do when we're not being controlled by them. We have a tragicomic kind of freedom that allows for folly, but any anti-natural (artificial) response to the wilderness might seem foolish from the universe's point of view, as it were.

      That's what a Daoist or a Stoic would say, but who says following the monstrous dictates of a deaf, dumb, and blind tyrant is our best course of action? If submitting to the highest power is wise, who says it's heroic? Is the devil an arch villain or the prototypical hero? Has that hero only been demonized by those who are ashamed of their freedom?

    2. Yes, by folly i mean all the delusions of grandeur our species seem so particularly fond of. I don't see anything wrong in having myths, stories and such, per se. And, as you say, maybe that's our best shot at overcoming nature's monstrosity. A truly existential heroic Endeavour.
      The problem arises when we take seriously the myths we have created, and we take them for real. That's religion, in any of its forms.
      I guess the conundrum is how can myths be effective as aesthetic creations which help us bear a horrible existence, while at the same time knowing they're false?
      It would be like maintaining a sense of wonder and awe after the magician explains exactly how he did the trick. The age of reason gave us science and technology at the cost of our mental health, precisely because it obliterated our mythical view of nature.

    3. There's suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of art. I know for me, at least, my favourite stories (novels, music, and especially movies), which are the ones that make the biggest impact on me, help shape my character by forming background illustrations of ideas I come to take seriously. So stories can be important even though we know they're not literally true, because they dramatize or otherwise evoke powerful ideas we think should be true. These stories are often normative (prescriptive) rather than pseudoscientific models of how natural mechanisms work.

      I think the rise of science has had a disastrous impact on Western religion that's often overlooked. It's not just that science has refuted certain religious doctrines, but that the standard of scientific truth has forced nonspiritual religionists (especially exoteric Christians and Muslims) to treat their religions as mere pseudosciences. Scientism is thus the culprit here. These theists have forgotten how to read myths, just as lots of people don't know how to read poetry because they've read too many junk texts on social media.

      Myths might originally have been understood as cultural branding, as Yuval Harari speculates. So religion was about identifying with your favourite story or brand, because it expresses your values and a way of life. Whether the story is literally true is as irrelevant as whether The Wizard of Oz or Stella Artois commercials are literally true. You either gravitate toward the story or the brand or you don't. And if someone doesn't care about art, because she's something of a Philistine, that's another problem.

    4. I think there's a link between scientism and the cultural decadence of our Zeitgeist. For example, today a person can read and appreciate Homer, Shakespeare, Horace, or just art and philosophy in general, but that would make him or her a sort of an outsider, a 'rara avis', assuming one really cares about it and is not just a cultural snob or a philistine.
      But it wasn't always like this. I think art really got a chance to flourish when it was not that separated from myths, I mean when people really believed in them.
      After all, a technologically advanced-sceptical society is not likely to build pyramids or the Parthenon, or have great theater festivals where epic cycles are represented, because it considers beauty as subservient to utility and business. To our society, art is just a commodity and is linked to the entertainment industry, whether is so-called high culture or popular culture. And i think the rise of scientism or the disenchantment of nature, along with the erosion of social links, may be one of the causes.
      That's just my view.

    5. I'm not sure scientism would make us elitist about art. If anything, as you suggest, scientism would make us Philistines who don't appreciate art at all. Scientism would turn us into consumers with low expectations about the purpose of art. That's certainly happened in science-centered societies.

      One other factor is our deference to experts, which contributes to our infantilization. True individualists, such as those who lived in Paleolithic tribes, couldn't afford to defer much to the elders, since any one of them could have been caught alone in dire circumstances. They had to know how all their tools work, for example. By contrast, we're safe and secure in civilization, so we don't have to read the experts ourselves or learn how computers or cars work or even learn how to spell or to do basic math, because the machines or the experts will give us the answer at the touch of a button. We often brag about being individualists, but the more we rely on the internet, social media, and the dictates of political correctness, the more we seem like the Borg.

      The thing is, even our infantilized, scientistic Western societies produce all kinds of art. Indeed, the internet, self-publishing, and other technological advances have democratized the process and eliminated middlemen. So all by yourself and almost for free you can film a movie, publish a novel, or create music and put it up for sale or consumption. There's so much art available for free that we suffer from data glut. We don't know what to do with it all. It's a little like Trump's lies and crimes: you can be gaslighted by the surfeit, because you lose all sense of normality, proportion, and absolute value. Art becomes disposable. If biologists and technologists crack the neural code and learn how to create artificial intelligence, human life might become disposable too.

  2. brilliant.
    i wonder if a mixture of valerian tea and sleeping/antihistamine pills can make an average person see the real situation better...
    i recommend you the book "when the stars are right" by sr jones. would be interesting to read your opinion about it...

    1. That book of cosmicist spirituality looks quite interesting. I wonder how the author gets around the potential difference between spirituality and insanity. I'll see if I can give it a read.