Saturday 7 April 2001

Possible Worlds (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIX No.1 Spring 2001

Stars coming into existence in a nebula


By Stuart Cooper

One cause always begs another cause. This is true whether the cause is supernatural or natural. A question similar to 'if God created the world who created God?' could be asked of a natural origin to existence. Except if the world is wholly natural its cause must lie within it rather than outside it. Anything outside the natural realm must be defined as supernatural. So an entirely natural world could not have been formed from nothing by anything but itself.

However, self-propulsion from nothing is hardly plausible. It is plausible, though, for existence to form a natural contrast, a contrast not from but with nothing. In so doing it looks only to itself and its counterpart, not to anything beyond. It is this that breaks the sequence of cause and effect. No question is begged. Existence and nothingness - 'non-existence' - give and take meaning from each other. Neither can be defined without the other. They are bound together in an inescapable relationship. In support of this is the fact that we have a concept of nothingness. If it had never occurred to us that instead of what exists there might have been nothing, then undoubtedly existence would have been of a different kind from what it is. But the concept has occurred to us and that in itself points to an association between being and non-being.

Yet it is often said that there might have been simply nothing. The statement suggests that existence and nothing are not inseparable. Existence might be dependent on nothing, but nothing is independent of existence. What, though, if there had been simply nothing? Of the impossibility of anything existing? It means there must be two kinds of nothingness: one that does not allow the possibility of something existing and one that does - from which our world gained its actuality.

It might be thought that there is little to be gained by conjecturing two types of nothingness, but it is a way of questioning the nature of possibility. Is it all pervasive or can there be a condition without possibility? If the latter is the case, it implies that where possibility does obtain it has been made to do so, in some way. Is there anything to say about the progenitor of the notion of possibility? There is one thing. And this is that a characteristic it cannot possess is possibility. A conceiver of the notion cannot be dependent of it and, at the same time, responsible for it. Something which generates the notion of possibility, is not itself a possibility. And can a notion that is not made be un-made? More likely, it has a buoyancy that cannot be suppressed. Consequently a nothingness that excludes the possibility of something existing, is not feasible.

In the same way if we conjecture a state of existence which disallows the possibility of there being nothing, we create an identical situation but in reverse. Possibility's buoyancy prevents it from being discounted from any condition. Existence without the possibility of nothing is no more feasible than nothing without the possibility of existence. We are left with just two possibilities and brought back to the natural contrast discussed earlier. Effectively this is a contrast between two alternative possibilities. One: for there to be existence in some shape or form; and two: for there to be nothing. In seeing that we are seeing what cannot be otherwise. Which, of course, is not the case with a supernatural creator who might or might not exist. Nor is it the only thing we are seeing. We are seeing too the world of our experience.

Not surprisingly, for something founded on a contrast it has contrast ingrained into its fabric: light and dark, wet and dry, soft and hard, good and bad, happy and sad. But there is one contrast that stands out above the rest: life and death. Everything that lives, plant or animal, also dies. The universe itself, if we listen to the cosmologists, had a birth in the Big Bang, and will eventually die, even if the manner of its death is not as certain as that of its birth.

It appears to us as though the rival possibilities of existence or nothingness have been resolved in favour of the former. But it might be a deceptive appearance. Death accompanying life enables one possibility to be poised against the other without either ever being the one that obtains. It is as though the world asks the question we have always imagined God must have asked: creation or nothing, which should it be? Only the world is the question's manifestation, not its answer. Things existing do not cancel out nothingness. Our world is not one possibility, existence, and nothingness the other. The world incorporates both. It might be described as an instrument that examines the two possibilities.

For this examination conscious thought is required, but conscious thought is not required to conceive what is being examined: the ineluctable contrast between there being something and there being nothing. A phenomenon embodying that contrast will unfold by way of an evolutionary process, much akin to the biological evolution we observe on our planet. Emerging from the process will be the mental and emotional life - fettered, of course, to death - capable of apprehending and contemplating the irreducible nature of something juxtaposed with nothing, life that can absorb and come to terms with what it means for there to be a symbiosis between things existing and nothing existing. In such a world we see ourselves differently. Instead of being a feature of creation, each one of us is an instance of the very thing that creation is founded on. There is existence or there is nothing. In our lives we are the exponents of the former: in our deaths of the other.

So there is no escaping mortality; immortality breaches a truly natural world. But in our mortal lives we can ask this question: in what form would the contrast with nothing be worthwhile despite the fact that by its nature it cannot endure? Then we can try to shape existence in the way that we answer the question. Obviously we cannot change the physical structure of the universe, or only in a very limited way, but we can map out the landscape of thoughts and feelings which that physical structure sustains. It is what we have done throughout our history, in fact, even if we have not had quite the purpose in mind that is a part of this world-view.

Nothing comes from nothing. Taken at face value this statement, whether or not it is seen as such, is a paradoxical one. Did something not have to come from nothing for the statement to be made? But in the view presented here making the statement does not undermine its meaning because the point is never reached where something coming from nothing is an issue. Existence and nothing are complementary possibilities. Existence accommodates the idea that it is not the only possibility, nothingness is the other. The world encapsulates the idea, makes it tangible.

However this may be, the fact remains that the experience of living in the world has not attuned our minds to thinking of it in this way. Perhaps one beginning does beg another, but the phrase 'In the beginning ... ' still has a powerful resonance. It suggests there was a point where existence and nothing were at issue, and in what has followed the nothingness there might have been is not the actuality. Against this it can be argued that how things look is not necessarily how things are. The sun looks as though it goes round the earth. Perhaps existence and nothing have not been seen for what they are: two possibilities, the only possibilities, each one incomplete on its own. Possibilities so basic, so elemental, as to be impervious to any determination that there should be the one rather than the other. If this is so, then what else but that the world is the means by which they are expressed - and life and death are the means by which they are experienced?

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