The Inner and Outer Limits

What is the most challenging question ever asked? Easy. It is: Why is there anything rather than nothing at all? Some say, “That’s not difficult; it’s easy. We have something because God created everything.” But, then the question becomes: Why is there a God? Why isn’t there simply nothing, not even God?

Years ago, I read the answer to this question in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, whose 2nd edition editor, Donald Borchert, was the chair of the department where I did graduate work in philosophy. As I recall, the answer was written by a renown scholar who I respected. I can’t remember who, but I have the first edition of the EoP at work, and I’ll reread it some day. Gilbert Ryle, perhaps. Anyway, I do recall the author of the article talked around the question, exploring it from several angles if my memory is correct. It was a good response to the most difficult question there is, but it was not an answer. I actually have a better response. There is probably no other entry in the entire eight volume encyclopedia I could write better than what has already been published. Maybe I could publish something worthwhile on a new topic or provide a more contemporary view, but the EoP is well done. I doubt I could write something better. Dr. Borchert would probably agree. But, I have a better answer to this one philosophical question about the nature of the entirety of existence. It really does not matter what Ryle or whoever wrote the response said. My answer makes better sense.

So, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (If there is a third edition, Dr. Borchert, please keep me in mind.) My answer is: “Who knows?” That’s it. End of answer. If pressed, I would add “Maybe it is not possible for us to answer this kind of question. It hurts my brain to even think about it.”

Immanuel Kant wrote about what he called the antinomies of reason in his work, The Critique of Pure Reason. If you are in the mood for some light reading, pick up that work, but plan on spending a day or two on every page. The antinomies section, however, is not quite as dense. In that section, Kant makes arguments on opposite sides of the same question. He argues, for example, that God exists and that God does not exist. He believes he proves both sides of questions like these. Based on these contradictory proofs, Kant concludes that there are limits to the power of reason. Reason can extend only so far, then it generates contradictions. Reason, one might say, only makes sense within a human framework. It is powerful when we use reason to think about the objective and subjective worlds, but we can’t think about the objective world without thinking about it from our point of view, nor can we think about our point of view without some way to consider it objectively.

There are boundaries to where reason can travel. Whenever we try to move outside reason’s limits, it’s best to say, “I don’t know.” This is not the “I don’t know” of ignorance; it’s the “I suspect it may not be possible for us to know the answer.” It’s like looking at a two-dimensional Escher print and tracing the image with your finger to discover where the third dimension comes from. The moment you think you have uncovered the origin of the third dimension, the picture (or is it your perspective?) changes. You never get to see exactly how the picture creates the illusion. You can’t see it in two dimensions and in three dimensions at the same time. You have to shift from one perspective to the other. It’s an antimony of perception.

This embrace of ignorance has no bearing on the question of whether God exists or not. It may be possible to know the answer to that question, but we may not be able to know why God exists or does not exist. It’s simply beyond our power. Reason has its limits. A hammer is a great tool, but it won’t do you much good if you need to cut something. And even when you are pounding nails, the hammer can’t tell you whether the project is worthwhile. My dog has no idea why the back windows open when she wants to stick her head out and sniff. She doesn’t even understand how to form the right questions to ask. At best, she suspects that I am making it happen. One of my favorite philosophical journal articles is entitled, “What’s it like to be a bat?” The best answer, once again, may be: “Who knows? Maybe we can’t know.” We can speculate, we can imagine, we can suppose what it is like to experience the batworld. But, maybe we can’t argue about what it is like to be a species that may not think, perceive, or feel in the same ways we do. We can’t ever step outside of how we perceive the world and experience it. We can simulate how a human would perceive the batworld if humans gained the ability to echolocate, for example. But there will never be a way to tell if bat constructs the world and “makes sense” of it in the same way.

I guess some could argue that Democrats and Republicans politicians are antinomies of reason or some unintelligible form of life. What’s it like to be a politician? Ethical thinkers need not apply. I wonder if the EoP has an entry on the question of whether it is better to be a human being dissatisfied or a pig satisfied? Most Democrats and Republicans have seemingly made the same choice. Oink, oink. What has happened to our government is absolute proof of the limits to reasoning by some individuals. God, if you exist, help us all.

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