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A Dialogue on Metaphysics
Dale Jacquette listens in on an argument about what can be deduced from the fact of our experience of a complex world.
Adam: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Brenda: By ‘something’, do you mean what you can see and hear, and experience by your other senses in the world around you?
Adam: Yes that, and our awareness of things.
Brenda: Ah, then the answer to your question is that in the past there has been nothing – no separate, individuated things – and eventually there will be a return to the oblivion of nothingness. You are also asking why there is consciousness. But consciousness has not always been, and in the future it will undoubtedly again cease to exist. With the last spark of thought, the only world we know will be extinguished like a snuffed candle.
Adam: You speak of the mind and its ideas. I agree that there need not be a world present to any form of consciousness, as there may not be consciousness. But what of existence itself? Why is there a world for thought to think of?
Brenda: Are you asking why existence exists? I don’t find such questions particularly helpful, but if you do, there is an easy demonstration. The truest form of ontological proof, is that there must be something rather than nothing even if there is no contingent consciousness, finite or divine, just because it is the nature of existence to exist, just as it is the nature of non-existence not to exist. This is a purely logical point. In these terms, the reason why there is something rather than nothing is that for existence not to exist is a contradiction in terms. It is a logical necessity that existence exists, if you want to put it that way. The better course would probably be to stick with the question we started with: why does consciousness and the world of appearances we experience exist? That’s the only interesting problem here. And the world of appearance exists by virtue of the fact that consciousness exists. Appearances have to appear to something.
Adam: And consciousness itself? Why does that exist?
Brenda: Oh that? Well, thought is an accident of existence. It need not and has not always belonged to the world. There is a scientific and a metaphysical story to be told about the existence of minds.
Adam: Then what about the first mind? The existence of nature as we perceive it, including rocks, plants, and pre-sentient living things, presupposes a world of appearance. Yet before the accident of consciousness, there is no world of appearance, as you said. Yet if in the absence of consciousness there are no things as the mind individuates them, how can minds evolve? What do they evolve from? Until there are minds, how can there even be time during which the emergence of awareness can occur? Isn’t time itself a form of thought?
Brenda: I’m uncertain… there are certain difficulties…
Adam: Forget about time then, for the moment. The point is, if there can be no natural explanation of the mind that first brings the world of appearance into existence, then there must be a First Mind that transcends the natural world of appearance. Wouldn’t that fit our definition of God? Then your argument for the necessary existence of existence is also an ontological proof for the existence of God.
Brenda: It’s not Anselm’s argument.
Adam: No, obviously not.
Brenda: And it’s not really a proof for the existence of God in the usual sense either, is it? All it proves is that there must be a first mind that brings the world into focus as a world of appearance. For all we’ve said, it could be the mind of a grasshopper. Don’t you recall what Schopenhauer says in The World as Will and Representation, Book One? He writes: “the existence of this whole world remains for ever dependent on that first eye that opened, were it even that of an insect. For such an eye necessarily brings about knowledge, for which and in which alone the whole world is, and without which it is not even conceivable.”
Adam: The First Mind can’t be a mind as feeble as a grasshopper’s. It has to be powerful enough to comprehend every part of the world of appearance to which a scientific explanation of subsequent minds must appeal. Doesn’t this ultimately include everything knowable about the universe? So the First Mind must include the entire world of appearance – all of which plays a part in the complete scientific explanation of the existence of the second and third (etc.) mind, down to and including our own. Whatever metaphysical razzle-dazzle you want to throw in, you can’t get around the problem of giving a natural explanation of mind without presupposing the existence of the world of particular physical entities, the world of appearance. Existence exists: but the individuation of things needs a mind, and the First Mind cannot be explained by reference to anything from the world of appearance. To exist, the world of appearance needs a very powerful mind. Nothing less than our idea of the mind of God will do.
Brenda: My ontological proof proves the existence of existence and answers the riddle of why something exists rather than nothing, albeit in a somewhat disappointing, purely ‘logical’ sense; but it also shows that mind must always exist, whether distinct from the universe as God, or as a cosmic self-consciousness. If we go back to the first meaning of the question, why there is something, in the sense of the perceived world, rather than nothing, the answer can only be because there is a First Mind.
Adam: But it’s not enough to prove the existence of a First Mind to prove God.
Brenda: I think that anyone who understands these concepts recognizes the First Mind as God. Isn’t this the point of Berkeley’s philosophy? And what about Schopenhauer? Why else does Schopenhauer, despite his atheism, distinguish between appearance and the thing-in-itself ? And why does he use a mental or psychological word such as ‘Will’ for the transcendent ground of our experience, if not to indicate that what is presupposed by there being the world as it appears to us is some sort of all-powerful mind?
Adam: I don’t know.
© Prof Dale Jacquette 2012
Dale Jacquette is Senior Professorial Chair in Logic and Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Bern, Switzerland.