A Word on Our Being Here

The Marvelous Fact of Being

It’s a marvelous fact that there’s anything at all.  All of this, somehow, is.  How is that?  This is generally considered to be one of those “deep questions” in philosophy.  Nowadays, many philosophers seem to have have grown tired with it.  Still, there is a sizable chunk of philosophers who think that the question is deep.  My own thoughts on the matter is that, in a sense, there is something deep here, but I think that there’s some real progress to be made in the task of articulating a satisfactory answer to it.  Let me sketch a few thoughts on how we might approach such an answer.

What Makes a Question “Deep”?

First thing’s first.  What does it mean to say that a philosophical question is deep?  Well, let’s contrast a deep question with a shallow one.   Consider the question “Is there milk in the fridge?” This is a rather shallow question.  In most cases, if I ask you if there’s milk in the fridge, you’re not going to be particularly puzzled by what I ask.   Of course, we can conjure up a scenario in which you would be puzzled by my question.  Suppose we’re both lactose intolerant and that neither of us drinks lactose-free milk.  If this were so, then, were I to ask, “Is there milk in the fridge?”  you might think that it to be rather puzzling that I’d ask it.  Still, even in this scenario, it wouldn’t be so much the question itself that puzzles you.  Rather, it’d be my asking it that you were puzzled by, and, if I could explain why I was asking that question, your puzzlement would be resolved.

Consider now the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly reasonable question to ask.  Clearly, there is something rather than nothing, but it’s not immediately obvious why things had to have been this way.   It seems like a genuine possibility that there could have been nothing rather than something.  As such, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask why the possibility of there being something obtained rather than the possibility of there being nothing.  Now, presumably, if there had been nothing, we wouldn’t be around to ask the question of why there is nothing rather than something.  Indeed, it’s impossible to even imagine a scenario in which we’d be asking such a question.  Still, we shouldn’t be so hubristic as to think that saying this counts as an answer to the question of why there’s something rather than nothing, for this would imply that the reason why there is something rather than nothing is so that we could ask the question of why there’s something rather than nothing, and that seems rather silly.  Or does it?

Regardless of what your thoughts on the above matters 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.

The Marvelous Fact of Our Being Here

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 also be nothing (once again, at least for you).  Finally, it seems possible that things could have gone in such a way that you would 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?

Fair enough.  Consider, however, what happened after that sperm and that egg met up, you developed in the whom, and you were born.  You came to be.  You were not, and now you are.  You’re here in the world.  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.

An Argument for Our Being Here

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.  Now, the context in which Descartes originally articulated his argument was somewhat different than the present one, but still, the same argument applies here.

The argument 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 about it, and if you’re thinking about something, then you’re thinking!  As soon as you have the argument’s in mind, it succeeds.  You can’t possibly deny it.  Here you are, thinking about it.  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.

An Open Door Policy

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 speak a language. By “language” here, I don’t simply mean a “means of communication,” the sort of thing that bees have.  In some sense, we can talk about bees “having a language” that is composed of different kinds of dances, but we’d be using this term analogically here.   What I mean by “language,” as I use it here, is a capacity to articulate what things are and thus think about what it is that something is, thinking in the terms of the words that one would employ in saying what this thing is.  Our “having language,” as I use this expression here, is our having the capacity to speak about what things are, meaning to be as articulate as we possibly can be.  It is only in virtue of our having this capacity that we can ask ourselves who we are, what we’re doing here, and what we ought to make of ourselves.

Language is something that many philosophers have puzzled about.  Some have come to surprisingly bold claims about the importance of language.  The early 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is “the house of being.”  That’s the funny sort of thing that a philosopher who fancies himself a poet would say.   That’s why Heidegger, a philosopher who fancies himself a poet, said it. According to Heidegger, philosophers are those who think with words and poets are those who make with words.  Philosophers use language to think about what things are, and poets use language to make things the ways that they will them to be.  It’s a nifty little trick of language that Heidegger employs here, making a distinction that blurs itself to make what he says sound deep.  This is not a jab against Heidegger.  Rather, the fact that he has the capacity to do such things with words is a testament to his being the genius philosopher and poet that he is.

Philosophers and poets, Heidegger says, are the guardians of the house of being, the house in which we language speakers like us dwell.  This, I find, is a rather odd turn of phrase.  On the face of it, it’s not at all clear why it is that language is supposed to need guarding.  Guarding from what or, more properly, who? Presumably, language cannot be guarded from particular people who speak it.  We speakers of language can only guard language with language, so the house of we speakers dwell isn’t something that you can tell people to get away from.  If you tell someone to get away from language, then, since you’re talking to them, you’ve already let them in!

As I understand it, language, the house of being, has an open door policy.  Our job, we who think and make with words, shouldn’t be to guard the house of being, but to let everyone in and show them around!  We should say,

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.  These are some of them . . .

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 the words we are able to think and speak.  We’re the builders of this house, a house that, ultimately, has no walls.  It’s a neat place.  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.