Awe-inspiring. Spine-tingling. Vertigo-inducing. Something frequently produces these feelings in me.
It isn’t a theme park ride. In fact, it isn’t even a thing. It is everything.
Existence. Just typing that word produced a chill up my spine — a familiar sensation, because I’ve done a lot of grokking about existence.
The usual way of approaching this primal enigma is with a question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I used to resonate with the why.
I thought that just as the things in the world we’re familiar with can be traced to a cause, so can the everything of existence. But this doesn’t make sense to me now.
There’s a difference between things that come into being, and being itself, a.k.a. existence. Positing a cause for a specific entity entails no philosophical quandary, even if that thing is the entire universe.
This caused that. No problem.
Science says, “The Big Bang created the universe.” Religion says, “God created the universe.” We can argue about the plausibility of rival explanations, but not with the logic of seeking a why for a what.
At some point, though, the chain of why reaches an end. Why the Big Bang? Why God? Why, why, why.
We can come up with possible explanations until… we can’t. Then we’re into mind-blowing territory. Terra firma not only turns into terra incognita, seemingly the very possibility of cognizing an answer vanishes.
In “The Mystery of Existence: Why is There Anything At All?,” a collection of essays edited by John Leslie and Robert-Lawrence Kuhn, Kuhn speaks to this in his own contribution, Why Not Nothing?
The question would become my life partner, and even as I learned the rich philosophical legacy of Nothing, I do not pass a day without its disquieting presence.
I am haunted. Here we are, human beings, conscious and abruptly self-aware, with lives fleetingly short, engulfed by a vast, seemingly oblivious cosmos of unimaginable enormousness.
…Now for my secret. No matter how sensible and controlled I may seem to be, Why Not Nothing still drives me nuts. Every time I revisit the stupefying question, I want to scream. Why this Universe? Does God Exist? In comparison, both questions are small beer. Why is there anything at all? That’s the magisterial Question.
…Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? Why Not Nothing? If you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.
I agree. However, I feel equally dizzy pondering a statement rather than a question: There is something rather than nothing.
Wow. The cosmos is. Always has been. Always will be. Probably.
I need that caveat, “probably,” because there’s no way to know whether the human mind is capable of coming to grips with the is’ness of existence. Most of us visualize existence as, well, existing.
In space and time, as a sort of thing. But how could existence be a thing? It’s what makes things possible. No existence, no things.
In Kuhn’s essay, he lists nine levels of Nothings. Which, in reverse, implies nine levels of Somethings. Here’s #1 and #9, the alpha and omega of nothingness.
(1) Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all visible objects (particles and energy are permitted — an utterly simplistic view).
(9) Nothing where not only there are none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 8, there are no abstract objects), but also there are no possibilities of any kind (recognizing that possibilities and abstract objects overlap, though allowing that they can be distinguished).
No possibilities of any kind. Now, that is really nothing. So much so, I can’t imagine this ultimate Nothing could exist.
Of course, that’s an absurd word to use for it: exist. Level 9 Nothing is the absolute absence of existence. There is no way it (of course, it isn’t an “it”) could have preceded existence, since that Nothing has no possibility of being other than what it is.
Or rather, isn’t.
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.
So while religious believers are awestruck at the supposed existence of God, I find an equal or greater measure of awe in the fact of existence itself.
This isn’t a feeling of being in the presence of something greater than myself. After all, I exist. A grain of sand exists. A subatomic particle exists. We all are on the same basic ontological level; we exist.
For me it’s more like looking into a bottomless pit. I feel like I’ve reached the end of my knowing. And not only that: anyone’s knowing.
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.
“It is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
“I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.”
— Bertrand Russell
Well, it’s hard to argue with these perspectives. But being more wonder-filled than Wittgenstein, I’ll end by quoting myself (one of my favorite activities):
My mind gets boggled when I try to envision existence existing eternally, outside of time. This is the far side of the mystery of existence. Endlessness. Eternity. Being without becoming. Effect absent cause. Yet I’m equally boggled by the near side of the mystery of existence.
This present moment. What’s right here, right now. The fact that I’m experiencing what I am, given how much is’ness there is in the cosmos.
Mystery doesn’t only lie beyond the horizon of my consciousness. Mystery is immediately before me. In fact, is me. Because I exist, and no one knows why anything exists, nor if “why?” is even a valid question when asked of the entirety of existence.
In between the near and far sides of the mystery of existence, knowledge can be known. Science guides us. Explorations of causes and effects can steadily enlighten the darkness of what it is possible to know, yet presently isn’t. This illuminating has no end.
Except at the near side and far side of the mystery of existence.
Here, I believe, all we can do is WOW! And that one word is, for me, all the religion, spirituality, and mysticism I need in my current churchlessness.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
About the Author
Brian Hines is a writer and blogger who summed up his philosophical state in a 2004 post called “I’ve become the person I warned myself about.” That was the year he started a Church of the Churchless blog after being deeply involved with an Indian guru and a mystical meditation practice for thirty-five years. Brian continues to explore the always-fascinating contours of what remains when faith in religious supernaturalism fades away. He is the author of “Return to the One,” a non-scholarly examination of Plotinus, a Greek neoplatonist philosopher. An avid Tai Chi student, Brian lives on ten acres near Salem, Oregon with his wife and dog. He is a Ph.D. dropout in Systems Science and has a master’s degree in social work.