Why Is There Anything?

Why are there essents rather than nothing? That is the question, Heidegger asserts. This is a dangerous question. I am reminded of the Peano axioms for the construction of the natural numbers. If one believes these axioms, then a countable infinity of integers springs to life. Occasionally, a simpler, more fundamental set of axioms are proposed, or possibly a more powerful, more encompassing set. On such is J.A. Conway's extension of Dedekind sections that generates not only integers but all (real) numbers, and a few things more. One of the axioms is to the effect of "start with nothing" or "the empty set exists", an assertion of the existence of nothingness. In what sense is Heidegger's question axiomatic? Might there not be more fundamental approaches, or at least, alternate, equally simple approaches?

I am also reminded of a popular, but flawed, construction that goes like this: "There exists something. There is a border between this and everything else. When this border is crossed twice, you are back where you started." Of course, any serious student of Boolean algebras will also know of Heyting algebras, and thus know that the Heyting algebra has a more general construction where "crossing the border twice" doesn't get you back to where you started. What I mean to insinuate is that one must be careful with these sorts of assertions: mathematicians study constructions of axiomatic assertions, and as a result sometimes have a broader view than the naive philosopher. Some may point at some Zen koan of similar value: that thing which is and isn't. The Zen statements may be mind-opening, but seem to lack the concreteness, the manipulability, the usefulness of similar mathematical statements. In general, the history of philosophy seems to be a movement from general musings and questions to more concrete discoveries in the hard sciences (physics, math, cognitive psychology) that answer or at least give insight to particular philosophical questions. To illustrate this with a dumb example: "When a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear the noise, does it make a sound?" Of course, from physics, we know that it does, and from Piaget's experiments in cognitive science, we know that the human mind is is born with certain physical expectations wired into its neurons. Scientific developments have a way of gutting the power of philosophical questions (and that is good). Although Heidegger would not doubt rap my knuckles, it is non-the-less time to ask "When can we start updating Heidegger's question with some less-metaphysical ground?"

Why the Why?

Why does the question exist? Heidegger seems to enjoy painting his questions as absolute, Kantian imperatives. But his first-ranked question already implicitly assumes something deeper: the existence of intelligence, the ability to ask questions. What I want to know, is what happened to the precedent: Why is it possible to ask questions? Undoubtedly, I misread Heidegger's intent, but I do so in the fashionable way: sure, things exist, but why are they self-aware?

At this point, an aside is in order (and I can't help but note that most of Heidegger's discourse is a series of irrelevant asides). The popular reading of 'essents' is, of course, 'the universe'. There remains, however, the little difficulty of defining what the universe is: is it that physical thing, consisting of quarks and photons? Is it that discursive thing, consisting of utterances and arguments, statements and communications, from one human to another (surely, if we believe we are made of quarks and photons, then we must also believe that our utterances, indeed, all of 'cyberspace', is firmly rooted in 'the universe', viz. reality. Or do you wish to argue that cyberspace is 'unreal'?) By likewise extrapolation, personal, subjective human experience seems to objectively belong to the very same sphere, assuming, that is, that you believe that I exist. :-) I do not wish to make light of deep subjective questions, such as 'how do I know I'm not dreaming?'; rather, I propose that in order to progress in the traditional scientific, analytic sense, one must do so in the traditional, sober, objective fashion. Along with most of humanity, I take cognitive reality for granted. By extrapolation, I can safely confuse 'essents' with 'the universe' with 'anything that can be thought of, imagined, or discussed'. Whether this keeps one out of the muddy waters of 'category theory' remains to be seen. Thus, the popular misreading is 'why is the universe self-aware'?

To better illustrate the point, consider this nonsense assertion: "Suppose there were essents, rather than nothing, but these essents didn't ask questions." That this is nonsense is demonstrated by the fact that you are reading this: "I think therefore I am" seems to establish (meta-)physical existence, and so of course, it is subjectively and phenomenologically true that the universe is aware of its own existence. But why? The question remains: why? (and, of the scientific question that we ultimately hope to answer, "How?")

Physis, Thought Follows Language, Language Follows Thought

(this section under construction). Lets remind ourselves of the mathematical act of 'closure of sets' or 'recursive sets' in the same way that Roger Penrose does in 'emperor's new clothes'. Of course, isn't such nuancing of language exactly what poetry aims to do? By brushing up close to the ineffable, poetic (and mystic) language aims to evoke something that is not directly expressible in words, no more than 'non-recursive sets' are Turing computable. In one certain sense, it is indeed true that the use of words & language calls into being; yet it is undeniably true that there is a long mystic tradition that no amount of rational argument will dispell. That is 'merely' because we use words in an attempt to evoke the ineffable in others, much as mathematicians use words to evoke platonic realities in other mathematicians. The use of language is like iterating to find the boundary of the Mandelbrot set: one can come close, but ultimately, one must leave communication in the hands of the subjective interpretation of the listener.

Physis, the 'comingness-into-being', the 'manifestation', 'revelation', 'in-sich-aus-sich-hinausstehen', often done through a sheer act of will (an ancient human tradition acknowledged by Heidegger), is not unlike the stuffing of one more guest into another guest-room at the countably-infinite hotel. The cantor slash tells us that we cannot count all the irrationals, even as it leaves us with an algorithm to stuff a finite number of them into the list. In what ways might an act of will be analogous to the (meta-)algorithmic generation of new irrationals by means of the cantor slash? When we 'will things into existence', what might we actually be doing? Note that 'willing into existence' implicitly assumes the need for an immutable past, a malleable present, and an unknowable future. 'Willing into existence' happens in the here and now, and is how unknowable future is transformed into a fixed past.

References, Bibliography, Footnotes

Copyright (c) 2000, 2001 Linas Vepstas