Thursday, March 31, 2011

Is there anything at all?

It is the philosophical consensus opinion that something exists. This view has gone so long unquestioned that it goes without a name in contemporary philosophy. I will coin the term 'Reism' for the position that at least something exists, that there is anything at all. That anything exists at all is not, I suggest, remotely supported by the available evidence. Indeed, it is likely, given the manifest problems with the position, that it is not true at all.

The near-total lack of evidence for the claim has, mysteriously, gone unnoticed. The reasons given in support of this claim are not remotely strong enough to explain the certainty with which philosophers accept the claim. This relative lack of support, coupled with the subjective certainty with which most philosophers hold the position, suggests that it is more a matter of dogma or religious conviction than philosophical ratiocination.

We might consider it our philosophical good fortune that virtually all philosophers accept Reism as true. One might even be tempted by the fallacy of appeal to popularity to think this consensus is some reason to accept the view. But it is more philosophical to question the consensus opinion than to blindly accept it, and so, notwithstanding my stronger claims to follow, if the present work at least undermines this sense of certainty, then I will have accomplished at least part of my task.

The philosophical literature contains nothing remotely supportive of the idea that something exists. It is surprising that philosophers would take something for granted when there is essentially no evidence presented in the philosophical literature in support of it. This speaks of a need for criticism. Indeed, you can experience philosophical prejudice first-hand by raising the issue at a local philosophy conference or by questioning your local philosophers on the issue. Let us say, charitably, that the typical response is not the serious consideration one's arguments ought to receive.

Surely, one might suppose, there are arguments for a position so universally adopted. Peter van Inwagen, in his introductory text on Metaphysics, addresses the possibility that there is nothing (a view he calls nihilism), and attempts to show that it is not true that nothing exists. Indeed, it might be thought paradoxical to claim that nothing exists. Appearances aside, however, we need to exercise caution in making these arguments from elimination. Arguing against nihilism does not in itself constitute a positive case for Reism. Whatever concerns one might have about alternatives to Reism, it is simply unacceptable for philosophers to take Reism on faith.

Perhaps, one might say, there must be something in order for us to have this conversation. It is impossible to talk about something without there being something to talk about. It is now widely recognized that this reasoning is fallacious. Since it is easily possible to talk about things that do not exist—e.g. unicorns, Pegasus—and indeed things that could not exist—e.g. round squares, the fact that I am presenting an argument against Reism does not in any way imply that Reism is true. It may be that I am not saying anything about anything at all.

You will often hear, in conversation, but rarely in published form, arguments that, pragmatically speaking, we must believe that something exists, otherwise what are we to do? How can we operate without an assumption that there is something? We might even suggest, in a Kantian vein, that the belief in something constitutes part of our noetic or conative architecture, that it is a necessary precondition for rationality or action. Perhaps it is such a precondition, but it does not follow that it is true. There is no guarantee that the universe will meet our epistemic or conative requirements.

As I noted above, the evidence in favor of Reism is remarkably limited for such a widely held position. There are, however, arguments for particular things, and if such an argument were successful, it would support Reism. Nonetheless, one must admit that the history of arguments for the existence of things—such as God, immaterial souls, properties or universals or other abstract objects, necessary connection, bare particulars, possible worlds, the Absolute, etc.—is in fact a litany of abject failure. Induction over these examples suggests that no adequate reason can be given in support of the existence of anything at all. There might, of course, be compelling arguments yet undiscovered, but as of now, one can have little confidence that such a proof is forthcoming.

The only argument I know of to show that Reism is true is Descartes’ cogito. Here Descartes attempts to find one thing he knows with certainty and ‘discovers’ that the one thing he can know for certain is that he exists whenever he thinks. Cartesian is widely in disrepute these days, and taking such antiquated arguments seriously is difficult. I, myself, have doubts about Descartes’ existence and, thus, his argument for his own existence. But, if one needs a refutation of the Cartesian method, one must say that Descartes’ criterion of evidence, that a belief must meet his standard of self-evidence or clarity and distinctness, is insufficiently strict. Descartes did not show to an objective standard of evidence that he exists; all he showed is that seeming-to-be-true-to-Descartes is sufficient to convince Descartes.

A Reist might argue that critics bear the burden of proof—or, more accurately, disproof. The view that there is something is so overwhelmingly plausible that we must take Reism for granted until evidence shows it to be false. This attitude might account for the incredulity with which my remarks are often met. Nonetheless, this attitude is wholly unbecoming the philosopher or thinking person. No view in philosophy should be accepted on faith; no view must be considered true until shown to be false. Anyone making, or implicitly endorsing, a philosophical claim bears the burden of proving it. There is no room for special pleading by the Reist; basic fairness and free inquiry require that she meet the same burden as every other philosopher. If the Reist can make such a claim for herself, what is to stop the theist, dualist, materialist or any other -ist from doing the same? No, the only rational attitude is at least to withhold judgment with respect to a claim until sufficient evidence is presented.

More positively, or perhaps negatively, I believe there are two overwhelming difficulties with the Reist position. I will sketch out these difficulties, having to do with paradoxes of truth and existence, in the remainder of this post.

First, paradoxes of truth lead to the conclusion that Reism is false. If Reism is true, there must be facts, reality or truths. Yet, it is hard to make sense of any such concepts, and close examination renders all of them paradoxical and suspect. For example, the sentence, “This sentence is false,” involves a paradox of truth and self-reference. If it is true, then the assertion it makes is false. Hence, if it is true, then it is false. If, on the other hand, it is false, then the assertion it makes, that it is false, is true. Thus, there appears to be no such thing as truth, and, hence, Reism cannot be true.

Similarly, there do not appear to be facts. A fact is supposed to be something that is the case. Now consider the sentence: the fact that renders this sentence true does not exist (or, to use the technical term, ‘obtain’). If this sentence is true, then there is no such fact underlying it, and, therefore, this sentence is not true. If this sentence is false, then there is such a fact. But if there is such a fact, then the sentence is true. The only reasonable conclusion is that there is nothing that renders sentences true, or: there are no facts. The only way for there to be no facts is for there to be nothing at all.

One might say that the non-Reist has no account of truth or facts either. Obviously, a non-Reist has no need for such an account, and, moreover, even if another view has no explanation for some phenomenon, this is hardly relevant to the first view's failure. Any putative non-Reist's failure should be cold comfort to the Reist.

The second problem with Reism is that the concept of existence itself is paradoxical. Suppose the Reist is correct and at least some things exist. What can we say of existence itself? In order for Reism to be true, there must be such a thing as existence. To say that existence does not exist is to say that there isn’t anything at all. On the other hand, to say that existence exists is self-contradictory. Existence cannot exist or be since existence is what things that exist have, exhibit or are. Existence cannot have existence; existence cannot be predicated of existence without contradiction since this would imply that something has itself as a property.

Perhaps, as Kant said, existence is not a predicate at all. To say that something exists is not to attribute a property of existence to things but to say that there is something that exhibits or has properties. Intuitively, to predicate something of an entity (as Aristotle noted) is to say something about it. Hence, on Kant’s proposal, one cannot say of anything that it exists. And this is precisely my point.

In slightly different terms, if to say that something exists is to say that there is something that has properties (rather than to attribute a property of existence to them) is to deny that existence is anything at all. But if existence is not anything, there is no such thing as existence. And if there is no such thing as existence, then nothing exists.

I hope in this brief discussion to have at least cast doubt on the ‘common sense’ consensus among philosophers that there is something. Indeed, if one views the Reist position objectively, without Reist-colored lenses, Reism fails to withstand scrutiny. Reism cannot be rationally supported. We cannot say with any confidence that anything exists at all.

*Bonus points to anyone who can identify the article of which this is a parody. Also, no corrections, please.

1 comment:

  1. I hold a slightly different view to Nihilism: Potential Reism. Nothing exists until the moment when it is proved something exists, and then only for that moment.