Don’t ask

I’m pretty hard on philosophy, but I’m even harder on pseudophilosophy, the practice of asking questions that aren’t even comprehended or, much worse, are asked for the sake of asking. Unfortunately, quite a few people still seem to fall for this, and we have been treated to countless instances – blogs, articles, books, etc. – where someone has taken the bait; in several recent cases, it’s the burning, super-important, fundamental question of, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Short answer: There’s both. Longer answers tend to revolve around the nature of energy and the gravitational properties of space, usually indicating that ‘nothing,’ as a state, is impossible to achieve. Both of these can, and should, be followed up with this question in return: “What’s your point?” Asking “why?” isn’t really meaningful in any way unless you actually know what the answer can do for you. Notice that there isn’t one-tenth as much effort put into questions like, “Why gravity?” or “Why quantum behavior?”, which are actually far more interesting, and meaningful. But seeking information isn’t the goal – in most of these cases, the ‘something or nothing’ question is actually being posed in a theological framework, presuming that it leads to the existence of a deity. There should be nothing by nature (so we are expected to believe,) thus having something means that it was created somehow. But theology assumes a deity as a default answer anyway, so no surprise there. If you want to have some fun, simply rephrase the question as, “Why is there a god rather than nothing?”, which is no less profound. This takes the answer that they were hoping to establish – that something must be causing everything – and asks what then caused god? Watch how quickly their views on causation reverse. Or how quickly they run away.

Anyone honestly asking the question of nothing or something, however, starts to consider what the question even means. While we ask similar chestnuts very often regarding our existence as human beings (usually believing we’re somehow different from every other living thing on the planet,) we never stand at the edge of a stream and ask, “Why is there this rock rather than a bush?” We’re perfectly happy with the existence of rocks being explained by simple physics and the semi-random nature of erosion. We don’t look at a particular point in the sky and wonder why there are no birds right there. These are no less deep than the ‘nothing or something’ question, but we tend to think that questions of our existence deliver special profundity. Savor for a moment the thought that the average person who finds meaning in their own special existence isn’t bright enough to recognize a question born only from their own ego…

We are a species driven by curiosity, and it’s very likely that this is what fueled our evolution into the tool-using, communicating, space-exploring people that we are. Curiosity produces answers and understanding and knowledge, so it’s a good trait to have. But there is a difference between honestly seeking understanding, and attempting to justify one’s pre-existing conclusions. In the face of extraordinary achievements from the structured curiosity that we call science, the god hypothesis fails to have any relevancy or application, and those who are far too insecure to cope with this must then struggle to find something that science cannot do for us, believing that this opens the door for their god (and by extension their own special privilege.) When they think they’ve found a way to justify their belief, the ‘questions’ stop dead, demonstrating that they never really wanted answers, just validation. While science has yet to provide us firm answers to questions such as gravity and quantum dynamics, such questions are about properties, not the all-encompassing topic of existence (that has its own name provided by philosophers, since this is what they live for: “ontology”) – so such questions aren’t useful in the attempt to leverage faith. As with ‘meaning,’ and even ‘love’ and ‘morality,’ they’re trying to find the value that religion imparts to the human condition – always ignoring the myriad times when it fails to, often pathetically. One must wonder why the quest for meaning goes on when we’ve had religion for several thousand years, while the love and morality displayed during religious wars represent fish already impaled on the arrow, no need for barrels…

Mind you, I’m not disparaging the efforts made by those that have answered the “something over nothing” question, as if it was being asked with honesty – they’ve produced some great explanations about our understanding of physics and the conditions of the universe, and may even have reached a few of those querists who thought they’d produced a stumper. However, I suspect the majority of those asking this burning question never actually wait around for an answer, and simply congratulate themselves for their self-indulgent perspicacity – this is a pattern that’s all too easy to find. For my part, I can only go on to the next question in line, which is, “Why is there ignorance rather than intelligence?” and wait patiently for that to be explained.

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