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.