Why is there something rather than nothing? This is a question that has been asked by several famous philosophers; Wittgenstein being one of them. I have to admit that the question meant little to me until a friend, Tom Bertonneau, commented that students dislike the idea of there being any ‘is;’ that is, of any reality existing outside our egocentric desires.
Plato recommended ten years of mathematics before attempting to philosophize. As Jacob Needleman comments in ‘Why Philosophy is Easy,’ the idea is that mathematical truths are immune from human desires or, more to the point, wishful thinking. Similarly, Iris Murdoch argues that learning a foreign language is excellent practice in subordinating ego-driven desire. Meaning, in the context of learning a foreign language, is objective. You can shove letters together in a meaningless way, or you can learn what words mean and attempt to employ them meaningfully and correctly.
Plato sensibly and plausibly thought that there is a reality, a reality described in his Allegory of the Cave. Happiness depends on recognizing the structure of reality and conforming one’s thoughts and behavior to the way things are. From this point of view, there are many desires we have that turn out to be misguided and inconsistent with happiness. Like math and languages, reality is not whatever we say it is.
At the core of many wrongheaded philosophical positions is some germ of truth. The Platonic and Buddhist notion is that physical reality is illusory. Physical reality is not what it seems; a truth confirmed by physics which describes a world of atoms which are mostly nothing at all. But, physical reality is not the only reality. There is still an ‘is.’ The nothingness of Buddhism is not literally nothing at all, but a no-thingness. There is still an ‘is,’ it’s just that any particular object arises in pure awareness which is the precondition for all particularity. The real ‘is’ is the absolute; God: Spirit that transcends mind and body. Our normal conception of what is, is misguided. Among other things, as Heidegger argues, Dasein, being-there, we humans, extend into the past and into an projected future, with aims and intentions and meanings. We are not simply objects, circumscribed and contained. But, I would add, this projection is in the field of consciousness. Consciousness is what is missing in the objective perspective, in treating the world in terms of objects.
It’s consciousness that most fundamentally is. Only it’s not the contents of our minds that is this ‘is.’ The contents of our minds are frequently worthless fictions. It’s consciousness as pure awareness that is what most fundamentally is, hence my conflation of God with being. God, to risk speaking in positive terms about something ineffable, is responsible for creation. All that arises arises because of God. Nothing would exist if God didn’t exist, if God is the creator. What we experience has a degree of order and coherence, so it seems reasonable to ascribe to God an intelligence responsible for a harmonious, ordered unity – the logos. Buddhism is frequently thought of as a non-theistic philosophy, rather than a religion, but Zen Buddhism’s Shunyata (emptiness/nothingness), to the extent that it is describable, has the same important characteristics that we ascribe to God.
I remember how disappointed I was with Heidegger’s Being and Time. Like other readers, I was really looking for God. Heidegger’s original aim was to be a minister of religion. In Being and Time, Heidegger dangles the tantalizing carrot of revealing some kind of divine truth. But in the end consciousness is not mentioned, in the same way that John Dewey manages to eliminate consciousness from his discussion. One gets the sense that, searching for God, Heidegger’s followers end up finding only Heidegger’s own nihilistic personality lurking behind it all. For that reason, I have not read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, since Sartre was inspired by Heidegger and I felt that I had drunk quite enough from that well.
In one sense, reality isn’t. The is of physical reality isn’t. However, since physical reality comes from the divine, it too has a divine element. It too is good in some derived sense.
Much of intellectual modernity eliminates God from the discussion, but some of this modernity hangs on to the awareness that there is something deficient about physical reality. Its is, isn’t really. So there is no physical reality, but neither is there a transcendent spiritual reality. Physical reality goes from existing only in a derived sense, and in having goodness, also only in a derived sense, to being neither existent nor good.
This turns out to be a windfall for an unrestricted egoism. If there is no is, if there is no way things actually are, then the world is whatever I say it is. Morality is whatever I say it is; moral relativism. The morality practiced by a particular culture is correct and uncriticizable; cultural relativism. Again morality is whatever they say it is.
Of course, what is created is a shocking truckload of contradictions. Who is this self with unrestricted freedom if nothing is? How can you do anything unless you exist and there is a place in which to act or not act?
In the modern world, Descartes provides an answer. I am, at the very least, a thinking thing. Descartes intuits that this thinking thing is dependent on God, at first epistemically, but then ontologically too. There is a God responsible for my own existence and for my experience of the external world and this external world has a reality independent from me. The existence of God means that solipsism is false. I exist because God exists and the world exists for the same reason. God is the precondition for all that is.
Once God is removed from the picture, my own being is suspect and certainly the being of physical reality. God is what is. I am that I am. That’s the only answer that avoids nihilism/nothingness. That’s what we look for when we read Heidegger, only to find, as I say, Heidegger’s own nasty ego substituted in a bait and switch.
Heidegger hates Plato and hates Descartes because they both give us real Being; an is, while Heidegger gives us an ersatz is that can’t sustain itself.
The positivists try to provide an is too. This is is merely physical reality. But this microscopic, onotologically incomplete is has no room for consciousness, just like Heidegger. Both the positivists and Heidegger intuit that admitting the existence of consciousness means acknowledging the existence of a road that if explored, leads to God. Meaning, beauty, truth, morality, feelings are all nonphysical and neither can they be reduced to the physical. Our name for nonphysical aspects of reality is typically the spiritual.
But then where is the point of view of the scientist? Who is the scientist? Where is the scientist? Outside the world looking in. A mountain load of bad faith means the scientist must not inquire into who he is or what makes is possible. He wants an is, but just a little one that won’t veer off dangerously to the divine. But he can’t stuff himself into this little is anymore. He is standing red-faced, embarrassed and naked hoping no one will be rude enough to comment on the fact. He solidifies his position by trying to make sure that all new academic appointments will be made with regard to the shibboleth of materialism.
But in some ways, positivism has become a cultural anachronism. To the extent that it admits that anything is true at all, positivism has a tiny little incomprehensible and contradictory is. Is is hanging on by its fingertips.
What has replaced it is the feel good philosophy of liberalism. No one is right and no one is wrong. There are just different perspectives. There is no is. And if you disagree we are liable to respond with an incredible degree of intolerant verbal savagery. The hypocrisy of the intolerant toleraters is pretty nauseating. The position has a stereotypically feminine quality to it. Some feminists recognize this and reject rationally derived rules against self-contradiction, or rules for logical consistency and the requirement that reasons be provided for controversial assertions as phallologocentrism, i.e., a male invention. Ian F. McNeely in “The University in Ruins? A Report on Knowledge” in Le Centre canadien d’études allemandes et européennes, Université de Montréal, Montreal, Canada, March 13, 2009 describes William Readings’ The University in Ruins as “a rejoinder from the Left to the diatribes of the Right against the evisceration of the canon of Western Civilization and the apparent abandonment of the humanistic pursuit of Truth.” (p. 1) Truth itself is declared to be reactionary and the term reactionary itself is bandied about as though it has the same moral force as racist. Now, racism is irrational right? It is an unfounded prejudice against all members of other races. But that means that racism is bad because it’s irrational. But if requiring true and relevant reasons for controversial assertions is a male plot to oppress people, then racism can’t be criticized on that basis. Is something reactionary irrational? That depends. What in particular is one seeking to protect or not to change? Simply labeling something as reactionary is stupid. It’s not an argument. It’s not evidence against a position. It’s a childish attempt to get someone you disagree with to shut up.
Liberalism itself must be an is, if it is correct. Liberalism wants to restrict all is’s to itself. Liberalism is good. So goodness exists. Liberalism is true, as opposed to all its alternatives. So truth exists. But if you want to extend truth and goodness to anything else then we will accuse you of male derived nastiness. Many false theories and no true ones fail to survive the test of reflexivity. Their theory’s assertions cannot be applied to their own theory. They get to be an exception. But of course, wanting logical consistency is just another male plot.
There is a kind of connection between what is and the male. The traditional fatherly role is to say no. It is to enforce obedience and to punish bad behavior. The male sets limits and what is sets limits too. Setting limits provokes anger. I want to fly by flapping my arms. My inability to do so is perceived as infuriating. How dare reality reject my plans for self-propulsion?
Many American schools and colleges focus a great deal of time and attention on what can be perceived. High schools with music programs might have an hour a day of orchestral practice. The Marching Band will devote countless hours to rehearsal. An eleven year old girl of no special athletic talent will practice four hours a day for her school’s swim team. Colleges spend large on buildings to impress parents and prospective students. The actual academic mission of schools and colleges is largely invisible and is neglected by comparison.
So where can I fulfill my dreams of untrammeled freedom? In the realm of anything connected to consciousness. If I contradict physical reality, the consequences are likely to be swift and potentially lethal. I’m not fooling anyone as I plummet seven stories to the ground, having decided to fly out the window. But, if I contradict the rules of logic, or the principles of morality the consequences will be much slower to arrive. The is of physical reality is begrudgingly accepted. The is of moral truths, the existence of truth and prohibitions on self-contradiction has a much slower, although more pernicious effect. The is of consciousness can be denied only through self-contradiction since someone conscious is doing the denying. And also, if consciousness exists, there must be things that are true regarding it and things that are false, and so isness reasserts itself.
The isness of consciousness can only be ignored by ignoring mental rules and self-consistency. The isness of physical reality can be immediately lethal. It’s culturally suicidal to ignore mental rules, but it’s slower. The remedy would be for the effect of mental dissolution to be immediately suicidal. But once the results were seen, it would be too late.
The willingness to go to any extreme in order to obtain an imaginary freedom from what is, means that the hoped for prize must likewise be enormously enticing. If isness is overcome, then my egocentric desires are unrestricted. No one can tell me that I’m wrong. However, unfortunately, I won’t be part of what is either and ‘I’ won’t get to do anything at all.
Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.