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Can Reason Settle these Contentious Questions?

Is the question, Why does the world exist? or Why is there something rather than nothing?, a reasonable question?

The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Adolf Grünbaum’s contempt for those who took the question of why the world exists seriously leapt off the page. They were not just “obtuse,” but “exasperatingly obtuse.” Their reasoning was “gross,” “crude,” “bizarre,” and “inane,” amounting to “mere farce.” It was beyond “fatuous”: it was “ludicrously fatuous.”

J. J. C. Smart, like Grünbaum an uncompromising materialist and atheist, said that Why does anything exist at all? struck him as the “profoundest” of all questions.

The sheer existence of something rather than nothing simply cries out for explanation. And where are the competitors to my Platonic theory?

John Leslie

No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe; why there is anything rather than nothing.

Derek Parfit

I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.

Bertrand Russell



Does nature require a cause?

COPLESTONE: It may be that the scientist doesn’t hope to obtain more than probability, but in raising the question he assumes that the question of explanation has a meaning. But your general point then, Lord Russell, is that it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the world?

RUSSELL: Yes, that’s my position.

COPLESTONE: If it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it?

RUSSELL: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say—shall we pass on to some other issue?

Supposing you asked a question like ‘Where do all things come from?’ Now that’s a perfectly meaningful question as regards any given event. Asking where it came from is asking for a description of some event prior to it. But if you generalize that question, it becomes meaningless. You’re then asking what event is prior to all events. Clearly no event can be prior to all events. Because it’s a member of the class of all events it must be included in it, and therefore can’t be prior to it.

A. J. Ayer (during a BBC debate with Fr. Coplestone)

Wittgenstein, who listened to the radio broadcast, later told a friend that he found Ayer’s reasoning to be “incredibly shallow.”

As for what “caused” the universe to pop into existence, according to physicist Ed Tryon, that is simply a matter of quantum chance. “In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”



Did the universe have a beginning?

The Marxisant physicist David Bohm rebuked developers of the Big Bang theory as “scientists who effectively turn traitor to science, and discard scientific facts to reach conclusions that are convenient to the Catholic Church.”

The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me. . . I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. . . the expanding Universe is preposterous. . . incredible. . . it leaves me cold.

Sir Arthur Eddington



Is this world a good world?

According to Schopenhauer, we live not in the best of all worlds, but in the worst. Nonexistence “is not only conceivable, but even preferable to existence.”

If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss.

Thomas Nagel

When you have understood that nothing is, that things do not even deserve the status of appearances, you no longer need to be saved, you are saved, and miserable forever.

E. M. Cioran

Human existence is a brutal experience to me. It’s a brutal, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases.

Woody Allen



Is the ontological argument valid, i.e., can God’s existence be proved by definition?

Anselm, who originated the ontological argument, accepted it. Aquinas did not. Descartes did, although he put it into a somewhat different form. Leibniz felt it needed an extra premise, namely, that God is a possible being—which premise Leibniz easily supplied by showing that God’s various perfections were all compatible with one another. On the other hand, Schopenhauer dismissed the ontological argument as “a charming joke.” Bertrand Russell, however, describes in his autobiography how as a young man he was struck by its seeming truth:

I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: “Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.”

Later in his philosophical career, Russell decided that the ontological argument was not sound after all. Still, he observed, “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

Modal logic was developed by some of the greatest twentieth-century logicians, including Kurt Gödel and Saul Kripke. It was Gödel . . . who saw in modal logic a way of reviving the ontological argument in a strengthened form. . . Whether Gödel was convinced by his own version of the ontological argument is unclear. But he was certainly open to the existence of God, maintaining that it might be possible “purely rationally” to reconcile the theistic world view “with all known facts.”

We found it hilarious that the greatest logician since Aristotle deluded himself into believing that God’s existence could be proved a priori, that he was perhaps contemplating the day when atheists would be brought round by a good stiff course in quantificational logic.

Rebecca Goldstein



Is an ultimate explanation of reality possible?

I don’t think that an ultimate explanation of reality is possible. That doesn’t mean I think there’s a limit to what we can explain. We’ll never run into a brick wall which says, ‘NO EXPLANATION BEYOND THIS POINT.’ On the other hand, I don’t think we’ll find a brick wall that says, ‘THIS IS THE ULTIMATE EXPLANATION FOR EVERYTHING.’

David Deutsch

I do not agree with the view that the universe is a mystery, something that one can have intuition about but never fully analyze or comprehend. . . . It is surely better to strive for a complete understanding than to despair of the human mind.

Stephen Hawking

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to govern? Is the ultimate unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Although science may solve the problem of how the universe began, it cannot answer the question: Why does the universe bother to exist?

Stephen Hawking



Can science answer the deepest questions?

Science cannot answer the deepest questions. As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science.

Allan Sandage (the father of modern astronomy)

The clear light of science, we are often told, has abolished mystery, leaving only logic and reason. This is quite untrue. Science has removed the obscuring veil of mystery from many phenomena, much to the benefit of the human race: but it confronts us with a basic and universal mystery—the mystery of existence. . . . Why does the world exist? Why is the world-stuff what it is? Why does it have mental or subjective aspects as well as material or objective ones? We do not know. . . . But we must learn to accept it, and to accept its and our existence as the one basic mystery.

Julian Huxley

My encounter with [Steven] Weinburg had deepened my understanding of how scientific explanation works. But it had also left me in agreement with him that no such explanation could dispel the mystery of existence. The question Why is there something rather than nothing? lies outside the ambit even of the final theory.

Jim Holt



Can science explain the existence of moral values?

According to Jim Holt, Steven Weinburg does not think that science could ever explain the existence of moral truths, owing to the logical gap between the scientific is and the ethical ought.



Are moral values objective?

According to the value sceptics, our moral judgments have nothing to do with objective truth, or even with reason. As Hume himself famously put it, “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

Unlike many moral philosophers these days, [Derek Parfit] said, he believed that we have objective reasons to be moral, reasons that do not depend on our inclinations—adding that he would be “embarrassed even to have to defend that claim before a non-university audience.”

Jim Holt



Is the hypothesis of many worlds (aka parallel universes) a reasonable hypothesis?

The hypothesis of many worlds was evidently quite congenial to some of the thinkers I’d encountered. Steven Weinburg, despite his generally sceptical turn of mind, had not been shy about embracing it. Nor had (the rather less sceptical) David Deutsch. Both thought that the existence of multiple universes would render less mysterious certain deep features of our own universe: its otherwise inexplicable quantum behavior (Deutsch), and its improbable suitability for life (Weinburg).

Richard Swinburne, by contrast, had denounced the postulation of “a trillion trillion other universes” as “the height of irrationality.” And he is not alone in taking this dim view. The great science-popularizer and fraud-debunker Martin Gardener insisted that “there is not a shred of evidence that there is any universe other than the one we are in.” Theories of multiple universes, Gardner said, are “all frivolous fantasies.” And the physicist Paul Davies . . . declared that “invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator.” Each, Davies said, requires a “leap of faith.”

Jim Holt



Is mathematics invented or discovered? or Do mathematical objects have an existence independent of the human mind?

We do have something like a perception [of mathematical objects] despite their remoteness from sense perception. . . . I don’t see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of perception, i.e., in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception.

Kurt Gödel

I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts. The mental images that each [mathematician] has, when making this Platonic contact, might be rather different in each case, but communication is possible because each is directly in contact with the same eternally existing Platonic world!

Sir Roger Penrose

Mathematics has ceased to seem to me non-human in its subject-matter. I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-footed animal is an animal.

Bertrand Russell

If all the assertions which mathematics puts forward can be derived from one another by formal logic, mathematics cannot amount to anything more than an immense tautology. Logical inference can teach us nothing essentially new, and if everything is to proceed from the principle of identity, everything must be reducible to it. But can we really allow that these theorems which fill so many books serve no other purpose than to say in a roundabout fashion ‘A=A’?

Henri Poincaré



Does reality have a mental (or subjective) part as well as a physical (or objective) part?

At the most basic ontological level, the physical universe is a concept.

Frank Tipler

As far as Daniel Dennett is concerned, “qualia” are a philosophical myth. If something cannot be described in purely quantitative and relational terms, it is simply not part of reality. “Postulating special inner qualities that are not only private and intrinsically valuable, but also unconfirmable and uninvestigatable is just obscurantism,” he declares.

Maybe all of reality—subjective and objective—is made out of the same basic stuff. That is a pleasingly simple hypothesis. But isn’t it a bit crazy? Well, it didn’t strike Bertrand Russell that way. In fact, it was essentially the conclusion Russell reached in The Analysis of Matter. Nor did it strike the great physicist Sir Arthur Eddington as crazy. In The Nature of the Physical World (1928), Eddington ringingly declared that “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”

Jim Holt

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