Why is there something rather than nothing?

This remark is posted preparatory to a short poem to be posted tomorrow.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

A few words about this question as it’s discussed in Martin Heidegger’s philosophy (bearing in mind that this is my own hopefully non-obscure interpretation, but I think fair):

The question “why is there something rather than nothing,” has an answer, but Heidegger preferred to reiterate the question, because the answer, given bluntly, tends to close off thinking rather than expand it. Briefly: there is something because there is a consciousness that can encounter it, and as long as there is such a consciousness, there is not nothing – yet there is nothingness at the horizon of this consciousness at every turn: First, as the nothingness that always threatens to negate what the consciousness is conscious of (such as, the supposedly secure ‘knowledge’ debunked by later discoveries; or, say, the assured possessions that break, decay, disappear in crises or through theft or abandonment). Then,there is the absolute nothing, that, finally, will negate the consciousness itself (in death); and this is no threat, but an inevitability.

In this manner Heidegger hoped to reinterpret the Ego-centric epistemology of modern philosophy into a trans-subjective ontology – Consciousness and Being are intimately related as Different modes of the Same.

It’s necessary to put it this way to avoid relapsing into pure epistemology, which, in the 20th century risks folding into psychology – hence Heidegger’s rejection of Sartrean Humanism. Consciousness is not disembodied – Being and Time is the description of its embodiment – but it is not to be identified with either something generically human, nor with the Self (until carefully thinking in its concerns achieves authenticity): Dasein is Consciousness that arrives as generic (“thrown into being”), but tasked with discovery of authenticity.

On thing to add for clarity – For Heidegger, Consciousness is always culturally and historically condition; this is what sets off his theory from similarly abstract thinking on Consciousness such as we find in Fichte; but it is not as radical turn from the Idealist tradition as Heidegger believed, since the notion of socially defined thinking is implicit in Hegel, and then later emerges concretely in Dilthey and the Sociological tradition. However, in Heidegger, the situation is that the generic human – the ‘one,’ as in “anyone might say this,” is socially embedded but unaware of this; authentic Dasein, on the other hand, has accepted the burden of responsibility for living at the boundaries of this embedded condition. That boundary is also the horizon – and the horizon defines the Nothing beyond as both what is unknowable (“the abyss”), and what awaits (“The destiny of being”).

From whence we came, there we must return.

This may still seem obscure; it may be frowned upon or criticized or simply dismissed. I studied this thinking deeply for a half-dozen years, and found it useful; I have since moved on. Heidegger’s project proved largely a failure, because as with all systematizing thinkers, he could not find a way to describe a necessary relationship between the abstractions of the systematicity of the theory and the concrete particularities of experience (despite the evident intent of doing so in Being and Time). By the late 1940’s, a much disillusioned Heidegger had abandoned either the hope to find the language for such a description, and the project of systematization itself. Instead he turned to the reading of poetry, on the assumption that poetry, poetic thought, poetic discourse, drew us closer to the abstract/concrete relations of Consciousness/Being than the rationality of philosophic discourse could ever get.

There is also a problem I’ve discussed elsewhere, whether epistemology can be re-sourced into ontology at all; the epistemological split that comes to the fore in Descartes and since, may be beyond overcoming. Questions concerning knowledge itself may simply prove answerable to such a limited extent, that claims on the ‘real’ beyond ourselves will always have to be posited tentatively and contingently.

Although theology and physics approach the question from fundamentally apposite – and even hostile – positions, some – all too many, in either camp – interpret the ‘Question concerning Being’ – “why is there something rather than nothing?” – as necessarily relating to whether something can be ‘created’ out of nothing, as the Western religions claim; or whether a material universe can be generated in a seeming void (where there are yet fields of forces that can interact in order generate matter).

But as noted in the SEP entry on Nothing: “Philosophers read ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ tenselessly as in ‘Why is π an irrational number?’.”* So the question may really be asking ‘what conditions make an entity existent rather than not?’ Heidegger of course wants to move beyond questioning entities as such and question the nature of existence and existing. It is not clear that he can do this, but he does raise some interesting issues in the attempt.

But here, it’s important to see that the questions raised by Heidegger’s consideration of the ‘Question concerning Being’ have not much at all to do with any question concerning the origin of the universe, which Heidegger was satisfied to leave to scientists. It should also be noted that the kinds of issues raised by Heidegger’s “Question” can be very useful in thinking about the ‘human condition,’ and about problems of knowledge considered from a phenomenological/existential perspective. It is also useful because it does link in interesting ways to a number of historical lines of thought. Of course Heidegger draws on Leibniz; although not having read much Leibniz, I cannot say how successfully. There are also good doses of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to be found in it, although, again, Heidegger is placing himself (whether he wants to admit it or not) in the line of German Idealism of a century earlier.

That means that Heidegger’s thought can be used as a gateway to history; to epistemology; and of course to unearthing the general unease a conscious mortal might feel when confronted with the inescapable inevitability of existence disappearing into the not-knowable void of nonexistence that is death.

* http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/#WhyTheSomRatThaNot


6 thoughts on “Why is there something rather than nothing?

  1. I have to confess that my own thinking seems to be incompatible with Heidegger. He is leaving me scratching my head. I am perplexed. 🙂


    • A line from an old Grateful Dead song: “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world.” (I’m sure they were quoting somebody, but not sure who.)

      Think of looking at a sunflower; and we say: “I see a sunflower.”

      Now think of a photograph of a sunflower. Because the common assumption is that photographs are accurate representations of the object photographed; so most people would again respond: “I see a sunflower.” And they would be wrong. They are looking at a photograph of a sunflower, and the existence of the photograph assumes the apparatus that manufactures the photograph, and the person who uses the apparatus and decides that it should reproduce the image of the sunflower -all of which are implicated as the being of ‘sunflower’ we perceive – and the next step of course is to recognize that our perception is also part and parcel of this being.

      Now think of Van Gogh’s painting of a sunflower; here, the artistry is obvious; but its obviousness conceals the being of the whole. We see the painting, we also therefore see Van Gogh, and through his talent, his skill, his poetic insight, only then do we see the sunflower. And through this encounter we see the sunflowers we experience without art or artifice in a different way – we bring a more authentic consciousness to the experience and this too is part and parcel with the being of the sunflower. Thus our seeing is part and parcel of the being of what we see; and this unity the moment of this encounter is the unity of being.

      The next step is to recognize that Van Gogh’s poetic encounter with the sunflower is the achievement of ‘his’ authentic Dasein, as answering “the call of being” – his consciousness, manifest in the work of art, is Dasein purified of the generic. The being that is Van Gogh merges with that of the sunflower, and offers itself to us as an encounter with Being just as such.

      So where does Nothing come into play? Van Gogh might never have become van Gogh; sunflowers could have gone extinct before Van Gogh was ever born; a myriad social, economic, political, personal concerns could have intervened before Van Gogh painted. His paintings could all have been destroyed; some catastrophe could still destroy them. Another, more insightful artist could paint sunflowers in a way that would lead us to say, “Van Gogh, poo! – he wasn’t the artist X is!”

      And of course – Van Gogh died. So will all who ever looked on any painting he ever accomplished. We do not ‘take this experience to our graves,’ it simply disappears.

      But the baseline is that Heidegger is indicating that all these concerns go into even the experience of sunflowers themselves, without art or artifice. There is no sunflower without a consciousness perceiving it. Without consciousness, without the possibility of Dasein, there is simply – Nothing.

      All religious or scientific assertions that there is some ‘something’ whether there is consciousness or not, completely miss the point. Without consciousness there would be no language; without language there could be neither poetry to speak the being of sunflowers, nor reason to assert that such exist; so whether sunflowers existed or not would be of no concern. Which happens to all of us eventually, in any event.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you for this very clear explanation.

        I have no problem with all of that except for parts of the last paragraph. Without consciousness, the sunflower as we experience it and the painting do not exist (as composite entities defined by our perception and thought), but there is not nothing. There was something before the first conscious being emerged. This is where my way and Heidegger’s way part, I think.
        You may take my last post (http://asifoscope.org/2015/07/13/in-which-sense-does-this-blog-post-exist/) as my answer to this. I am using concepts and ideas derived from my praxis as a programmer there. You may find my thoughts flawed, you may totally disagree, but that is the direction into which my thoughts are cureently moving.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you touch on it, but the very idea that there is some sort of reconciliation, even in a ‘i disagree with Hiedegger’ only occurs in a misapprpriation of the facts. I think u just gave me a blog posting topic. 😀


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