12 June 2007

Abracadabra, the problem has vanished



Why is there something rather than nothing?

A C Grayling 'proves' — to his own satisfaction at least — that the question is meaningless:

The vacuous hypothesis that there is something because it was created by a supernatural agency can be dismissed. The hypothesis in effect says that the reason there is anything at all is that something else made it, which is either question-begging or invites an explanatorily null regress. It is one of the most persistently lingering human fatuities that the origins of the universe (or indeed anything else) can be explained by arbitrarily invoking an entity equally arbitrarily defined as fully equipped to be the explanation of what is to be explained. ...

A second and better answer is to point out that the question is unanswerable. This is not the same as saying that it is pointless — though it is, given the brute fact that there is indeed something, and that the really interesting questions relate to what exactly that something is, and what if anything in it is valuable from the perspective of conscious experience. ...

Rather, it is unanswerable because it is radically unlike questions that, like "Why do elephants have trunks?" validly prompt an expectation of informative answers. "Why does anything exist?" does not do so because it is like "What colour are ideas?"— it makes a category mistake. For "nothing" denotes privation or absence relative to something, not a state or condition existentially on a par with somethingness. When all the chocolates are eaten, there is nothing in the box because there was something there before; you cannot introduce nothing ("nothingness"?) to a box other than by not putting something in it, or by taking everything out. So the primitive condition is that there is something, and we only understand "nothing" relatively and locally by its absence.

It is quite something to say that there is nothing more to the problem than something like that: but nothing, I submit, is a better answer.
"Better", perhaps, because it enables us to stop worrying that we don't know the answer to what might be an important metaphysical problem? Certainly that quintessentially modernist philosopher Wittgenstein would think so.

"For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear." (Investigations I, 133)