Isness: What is existence?

The deepest of all questions is why is there something and not nothing? Existence either sprang from nothing, or is eternal. Both possibilities make our minds go kablooey. In contrast, it might seem easier to envision a cosmic emptiness, that never had any existence in it. A total void. Yet if you cogitate on it, that’s actually hard to conceive of too. Wouldn’t even such an empty cosmos, itself, be said to exist? Thus not solving the something-versus-nothing conundrum. Can we actually truly conceptualize nothingness? And what is this thing we call existence anyway?

There is a school of thought holding that nothing really exists except insofar as it is perceived in a human mind. The bathroom disappears while you’re in the kitchen. This was actually, more or less, the thesis of the seventeenth century philosopher George Berkeley. But what is a human mind? Is that something that exists? Do the neurons in our brains exist only because they exist in our minds? But don’t our minds only exist because of the neurons?

In order for anything to exist, it seems axiomatic that it must exist in Time. Something lasting for only zero seconds could not be said to exist at all. But note too that something can only exist in the present. The past no longer exists; the future doesn’t yet. The past lasted a long time; the future will too; but the present actually lasts only exactly zero seconds. There is no span of time during which the present takes place. Ending as soon as it begins. So, if nothing lasting zero seconds can exist, and nothing can exist except in the present, and the present lasts zero seconds, that proves nothing can exist.

Nevertheless, in a simple sense, you might, for example, think a chair exists. Yet however solid it may seem, we know it’s composed of atoms, which are mostly if not entirely empty space. In fact, that’s also true of the particles notionally comprising the atoms themselves; and the sub-particles comprising those particles. Et cetera. No matter how deep you go, you can never get to anything solid. There’s no there there. (Or no chair there.)

The problem is with the very concept that we call existence. As the foregoing does prove, there can be no such thing. It is an illusion. Descartes was wrong in saying, “I think, therefore I am.” And while various religions have posited various deities, their existence is obviously even more impossible than that chair’s.

But if we must therefore let go of our concept of existence, we must have recourse to a different one to replace that which we used to think of in that way. Referring to something deeper, the whatever-it-is that’s the substrate for the thing we imagined to be existence. You might consider it a mystery, yet that is a human construct. What we’re talking about here transcends not only human thought, but Time, space, and matter themselves. Even existence itself.

This renders meaningless the question of why there is something and not nothing. The fact is that the “something” at issue is only a manifestation of what is, again, a reality deeper than the question encompasses. Though even the word “reality” itself is a contradiction in terms.

Our language lacks a word or words to express what’s needed. Words like “existence” and “reality” are inadequate if not indeed false. Heidegger may have been nibbling at the thing with his “dasein.” Suppose we non-Germans use, as a mere placeholder, for what cannot be expressed, the word isness. Denoting something that just is.

However, as another famous personage once testified, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Then there was Belgian surrealist painter Magritte’s picture of a pipe labeled “This is not a pipe.” Of course it wasn’t a pipe, but a painting; yet did it actually illustrate the cosmic truth that nothing can be anything? While Wittgenstein showed us that language cannot indeed truly capture any reality. Even if there were such a thing.

But what isness is is actually not something that can be defined or described, let alone grasped. It’s the quintessential quiddity. It just is.

Yet understanding it (if only we could) would be the key to everything. Penetrating through the impossibility of linguistic meaning, and through the fog and shadows of “existence” and “reality,” drilling down beyond all that, to the ultimate underlying isness. Though recognizing that there may — or, perhaps, must — be something yet deeper still. Indeed, even isness itself cannot be, finally, the ultimate isness.

Maybe it’s turtles all the way down.

8 Responses to “Isness: What is existence?”

  1. d Says:

    Bravo. Descartes shooda said, sum ergo cogito [mind is artifact], but letz kuttu the chase. Nothingness is impossible. Somethingness is ineluctable [JP Sartre: L’Etre et Le Neant, Paris, 1943]. Einstein said all time is simultaneous [past, present, future = One]. The Kosmos is precisely half-real, half unreal: it is perpetually becoming because it cant be an entity–it lax the properties of entitiousness. Reality can never be more than a conundrum. Mors/mortis will assuage us w/nontos. The wise pursue not filosofi, but the rescue of H. unsapiens for his destiny as a stellar machinoid.

  2. Andy Arclight Says:

    If we say that that this universe is “something,” i.e., the things here “exist,” then “nothing” is nonsensical because nothing is nowhere in a universe of something. Can anyone show us nothing? No, because nothing as a thing doesn’t make sense. If you open your hand and say, “Look at my elephant,” and I say, “There’s nothing there,” that still doesn’t show us nothing because we are not speaking of the the world, but our perception of the world.

    If “nothing” is nonsensical in a universe of “something,” then wouldn’t “something” also be nonsensical because we lack an opposite to produce a plane of sense? One cannot produce anything in the world that shows us what “nothing” is. It’s a word without any referents. On the other hand, everything is an example of something, thus it loses its meaning. A word only has meaning when it includes some things and excludes others. If everything was an “apple,” we would rarely have a reason to use the world. But the fact that “apple” is an exclusive filter of objects, is what gives the word meaning and a use in our daily lives.

  3. Lee Says:

    For reasonable definitions of “exist” the present does exist. For reasonable definitions of “zero” the present is of zero duration. I thus conclude that “Something lasting for only zero seconds could not be said to exist at all” is false.

  4. Don Bronkema Says:

    Colleagues: Sartre’s Being & Nothingness [Paris, 1943] clarifies all nuances of the conundrum. Get on w/purging Trumpism, Putinism, Modi-ism, Xi-ism, Bolsonarism. Cool Earth, restore extinct species, terraform Mars ad inf [viz. 158,410 pp previous]. We nonagenarians are growing impatient…

  5. John Walker Says:

    Hi Frank, in one of the upanishads i think there is a definition of AUM as the past, the present, the future, and that which is beyond the three-fold division of time. “That which is beyond the three-fold division of time” is a remarkable concept. And as I understand (poorly) the goal of meditation it is to transcend this world, to be at one with the universe, a timeless at-one-ness with everything. I wonder what your experiences are regarding meditation or transcendental drugs. I have very little experience of such things but i find it fascinating to read of a compound as simple as dimethyltryptamine which is found within the mammalian brain and is closely related to serotonin and which can apparently give people access to this sense of timelessness (and is illegal despite being present in the brain!). best wishes, John

    On Mon, 6 Dec 2021 at 22:49, The Rational Optimist wrote:

    > rationaloptimist posted: ” The deepest of all questions is why is there > something and not nothing? Existence either sprang from nothing, or is > eternal. Both possibilities make our minds go kablooey. In contrast, it > might seem easier to envision a cosmic emptiness, that never had” >

  6. Don Bronkema Says:

    Eastern spiritual methods strike this respondent as buncomb. Why would anyone in possession of his or her faculties want to space out or space in? Yoga mite be proprioceptively utile, but no more. Mind & soul are fictive: their desiderata illusive. Siddartha got it backwards: we can’t despair if we are in motion, creating ‘objets de merite’ or persuading H. unsapiens to slake his esurience for wealth & power. Pax et meditatio ad mortis portabunt. The prophet boasted he alone was awake. Sed contrario: dormavit…

  7. Stephen Chernicoff Says:

    Time present and time past
    Are both, perhaps, present in time future,
    And time future contained in time past.
    If all time is eternally present,
    All time is unredeemable.
    What might have been is an abstraction,
    Remaining a perpetual possibility
    Only in a world of speculation.
    What might have been and what has been
    Point to one end, which is always present.

    —T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

  8. Don Bronkema Says:

    Respondent told his post-docs: kosmos & consciousness are co-emergent in static spacetime. Make sense? Never. Reaper bringeth surcease.

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