It’s a marvelous fact that there’s anything at all. All of this, somehow, is. How is that? This the strange sort of “deep question” that philosophers tend to wonder about, at least those philosophers who tend to wonder about those so-called “deep questions.”
What does it mean to say that a philosophical question is deep? Well, let’s contrast a deep question with a shallow one. Suppose I ask “Is there milk in the fridge?” This is a rather shallow question. At least if I ask it in a normal context, you’re not going to be particularly puzzled by it. Consider now the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This question, at least on the face of it, seems perfectly reasonable to ask. It does seem like there just as well could have been nothing. Or does it? Presumably, if there was nothing, we wouldn’t be around to ask that question, but we shouldn’t be hubristic as to think that there only is anything at all so that we could ask that very question. Or should we? Regardless of what your thoughts on the matter are, it seems clear that this question is deep in a way that “Is there milk in the fridge?” is not. At the very least, it is puzzling, or, at the very very least, it seems puzzling. It seems to need some untangling in order to be made sense of, and it seems that you can really dive into the tangles of it. That’s what makes it a paradigm philosophical question—it’s deep.
A deep question is often dismissed too easily. You might be tempted to answer as follows:
The question of why there is something rather than nothing assumes that nothing could have been, but nothing could not have been, since, if nothing was, then it would be, and then there would be something, not nothing. Case closed, right?
Well, maybe. But maybe not. Let’s consider the question from a different angle. It seems that, before you were born, there was nothing (at least for you). It also seems, at least to many people, that, after you die, there will be nothing as well (once again, at least for you). Finally, it seems possible that you could have never been born, for instance, if your parents had never met. So, we can reframe the question with respect to each of us. Each of us can ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing for me? Why am I here at all?” Now, on some interpretations, this question might not seem deep at all. You might think,
I’m here because things went the way they happened to go. One particular sperm met up with one particular egg, and that’s why I’m here. Things could have gone countless other ways, but, fortunately for me, they went the way they went. Why should this be puzzling?
Well, consider for a moment what happened after that sperm and that egg met up. You came to be. You were not, and now you are. You’re here. What’s the deal with that?
Once you find yourself puzzling over this question, it’s hard to deny that there’s something there. This “something” is the marvelous fact of our being here. Here we are. That’s something.
* * *
Perhaps you’d like to deny the fact of our being here. I don’t know why you would, but perhaps you would nonetheless. Regardless of your thoughts on the matter, there’s really is no denying that you’re here. Don’t just take my word for it—there’s a pretty good argument. It comes from the 17th century philosopher Rene Descartes, and it goes like this: To doubt that you’re here, you’ve got to doubt that you’re thinking, since, if you’re thinking, that’s something you’re doing here, and, if you’re doing something here, you’re here. However, you can’t doubt that you’re thinking, since, to doubt that you’re thinking, you must entertain the thought that you’re thinking, but to even entertain such a thought is to think it! As soon as you have this thought in mind, the argument succeeds. You’re here.
Philosophical arguments are rarely so powerful that there is simply no denying them, but I take it that this is one of those arguments. It’s not that no one should deny it. Rather, it’s that there is literally no such thing as doing so. If you think you’re denying it, you don’t actually know what it is that you’re doing, because . . . well . . . that’s the argument again.
I don’t think that Descartes’ argument should be particularly controversial, but I do think it conclusively shows that we can’t possibly deny the fact that we’re here. This is an interesting fact about us. No other animals in the world find themselves in such a predicament. Other animals have to worry about not being able to eat something, not being able to run away from something, or not being able to mate with something, but they never have to worry about not being able to deny something. No lizard, rabbit, or chimpanzee has to worry about anything like Descartes’ argument. Perhaps we should take a hint from them and not worry about it, but now what is this it that we’re worrying about? Once you get it, you can’t really forget it, not actively at least.
Once you start thinking in this way, you realize that it’s something rather strange to be us. We’re the weird sorts of things that ask questions like,
Who are we?
Why are we here?
What’s the point of all this?
We are the ones who concern ourselves with ourselves, the ones for whom our very being here is an issue. As far as we know, we’re the only ones on Planet Earth who are like this. Perhaps there are some aliens out on some far off planet like us, and, of course, we should keep these potential friends in mind as we think about ourselves, but, at least for the time being, we’re on our own here.
* * *
What is it about us that makes us all alone here on this planet of ours? I take it that the answer is straightforward: Language. We’re the only creatures here on Earth that have a language. By “language” here, I don’t simply mean a “means of communication.” Lots of creatures on this planet communicate with one another in all sorts of complex and fascinating ways. What I mean by our having language is our having the sort of language by which we can talk in this way, the way that I’m talking now. We can ask ourselves who we are, what we’re doing here, and what we ought to make of ourselves.
The early 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is “the house of being.” That’s the funny sort of thing that philosophers who fancy themselves poets say. According to Heidegger, philosophers and poets, people who think and make with words, are the guardians of the house in which language speakers like us dwell. Now, it’s unclear to me precisely why language needs guarding. Guarding from what? Presumably, it cannot be guarded from particular people who speak it. Language can only guard language with language, and language itself isn’t the sort of thing that people can be told to get away from. If you tell someone to go away from language, the house of being, then, since you’re talking to them, you’ve already let them in!
As I understand it, language has an open door policy. The job of philosophers and poets, those who think and make with words, shouldn’t be to guard the house of being, but to let everyone in and show them around! Welcome to the house of being! In our house, there are many mansions. With our words, we speak of many things and go to many places. There are all sorts of things we can say and do with language. By saying and doing these things we make ourselves who we are by taking ourselves to be who are. Who are we? We’re us—the speakers and thinkers of these words. We’re the builders of this house. Let’s make ourselves at home here.
I haven’t posted on this blog in quite some time. Mostly, that’s due to being a full-time Ph.D. student now, with most of my philosophical efforts being focused on papers that I’m writing for my program. Still, sometimes I’m able to find a bit of time to do some philosophical writing for a more popular audience, and this is the result of some of that time. It was just published in the Winter 2016 volume of Property Zine, a really cool little zine published by some really cool people from Boston.