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Noboru Nakamura

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Why does the world exist?

Noboru Nakamura
Professor of Modern Western Philosophy, Linguistic Theory and Time Theory, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Philosophy and the existence of the world

One of my areas of expertise is the philosopher Wittgenstein (1889-1951). When he was young, Wittgenstein wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and made the following statement:

“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” (6.44)

There is not much mysticism in the form of our world. However, mysticism is found in the fact that there is a world; in other words, in the world’s existence.

The superstring theory, a concept which may unify quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, asserts that this world has 10 dimensions. If that is true, the world is certainly mystical. Furthermore, if the many-worlds interpretation is proved to be correct, it would clarify a dazzling universe structure (parallel worlds). Mysticism is not limited to such recent theories. Indeed, when giving thorough consideration, the law of universal gravitation proposed by Newton is fantastically mystical.

However, these various matters are limited to the conditions inside our world. No matter how surprising such forms may be, they are limited to the questions of how. Despite being filled with unrivaled wonder, they are not mysticism which is excluded from question. The laws of this world can be clarified and understood (there is such possibility) by human beings.

Why does this world exist? In the first place, why does the universe exist? What is the meaning of this world’s existence? No matter what perspective may be taken or logic exercised, there is no answer to such bottomless questions (in the sense that they are not supported by the base of the world). No one understands the meaning of our existence here on earth. This, as Wittgenstein says, is true mysticism. Consideration of this profound question leads us to the field of philosophy.

Methods of philosophy

How should we address this type of question? Is there any foothold or reliable method for considering such a fundamental question? After all, I have just written that no matter what logic may be exercised, there is no answer.

This type of question may spur my interest in the field of philosophy. However, no matter where I searched, there was no method for considering the question. Therefore, once I entered the field of philosophy, the question of the world’s existence suddenly vanished like smoke.

When conducting philosophical research, it is first necessary to gain knowledge by studying the theories of famous philosophers from the past. Next, that knowledge should be used as a basis for conducting research based on facts. Such research is extremely time-consuming and there is no chance to return to the original question of the world’s existence. In some cases, philosophers’ lifetime may end before they return to this original question.

I refer to this dilemma as the fallacy of forgetting the origin. This fallacy exists when a philosopher forgets the question which was their original impetus (the philosopher would not be conducting research if it were not for the original question) and becomes infatuated with some other relatively unimportant concept. How can we—how can I—escape from this fallacy?

Moreover, even if we are capable of returning to the original question of the world’s existence, how will we be able to arrive at an answer? There are no apparent hints. The mystery of existence is the most pressing question for philosophers, but there are absolutely no clues for a method which can be used to delve into the core of this question. For that reason, philosophers fall into the fallacy of forgetting the origin. Is there any way that we can find a hint for the mystery of existence?

Time

Our existence is a complete mystery. However, in the current world of the earth following our evolution, we cannot arrive at this initial mystery. Of course, it is possible to ask your parents and relatives about the facts which led to your birth. To a greater or lesser degree, we grow up listening to such a tale. Still, this is nothing more than the state of being born as a living organism and lacks relation to me existing in the current world of the earth (it may look like so). Moreover, just the same as you, your parents’ and relatives’ only option for confirming their birth was to rely upon the statements of others. Nobody understands anything. In other words, no matter where we look, there are no hints for answering the question of existence.

This type of question is formed by contemplating the past from this moment in time. Why, which is used in the question why their existence is instead of nothingness, is always an interrogative directed at the past. We assume that an answer to this why can be found by traveling back in time from the present. A cause can be found at some point in the past and the accompanying result has created the conditions at the present time. Indeed, the question of existence cannot be formed without the prerequisite of a correlated series of events.

This precondition states that time is constantly flowing and that the law of causality can be found within that flow. In other words, we can say that the flow of time is another prerequisite. Is this really a self-evident prerequisite? In truth, causality within the flow of time is supported by our memory. Based on the ability of memory, we write history and conduct everyday affairs.

However, memory contains many errors and is fundamentally related to the individual. It is not possible to fully share the same memory with another person. In that respect, we are forced to admit that memory is extremely vague and subjective. Of course, if each person presents their own memory, it is possible to construct a shared past (this is often done in courts of law). Still, such a constructed past is nothing more than a hypothesis. After all, no person is capable of returning to the past. In this way, it can be seen that the question of why has an extremely vague foundation.

This state can be described as a structure composed after the fact. This is true because we start from results in the present and travel back to find causes. We constantly live in results and are forced to construct causes. This means that we are always retrofitting the present. When we ask the question of why and search for answers on the assumption that the time flows, we are working to create an after-the-fact structure. This is a very arbitrary process. Since we constantly live only in the present moment, there is no way that we can verify the correctness of this process.

Language

Language is probably the reason why we are faced with such a difficult question. If it were not for language, the question of existence would never arise. We would simply proceed matter-of-factly with our daily life in silence (and most likely, in happiness).

Some scholars of literature referred to our situation as absurd. However, we are only able to recognize our situation as absurd because we possess a sense of reason, or logic. Logic appears in definite form through language. In other words, we possess language and logic, causing us to label this world as absurd and struggling with questions such as that of existence.

This line of thought leads to several possibilities. We possess language and logic, so we noticed the mysticism of this world. This means that the world’s mysticism is nothing more than a phenomenon found within language and logic. In reality, mysticism cannot be found anywhere. Or, perhaps true mysticism can be found by surpassing language and logic. That is something which we absolutely cannot recognize.

Then again, the very fact that we possess language and logic may be the sublime form of mysticism. The world could be in complete chaos. Isn’t it mystical that we are able to discuss (analyze) such a world through language and logic? The mysticism of this world can be found in the structure of language, logic and the world.

It is plausible that a method which comes before language and logic, or comes after language and logic, could be used to obtain an answer to the question of why for a world formed through language and logic. However, even if we were able to obtain such an answer, it could not be expressed through language. Therefore, no one would understand the meaning of that answer. Indeed, the state of understanding would be at odds with the method.

Things which cannot be discussed

Of course, several philosophers have directly confronted this question. However, their work could not be discussed in language which can be shared by many people. It is not a matter which is readily understandable to anyone.

For example, in his later work, Heidegger used esoteric jargon to create an impasse through language. Another example is Levinas, who, in his work Autrement qu'être ou au-delà de l'essence, constantly unsaid what was said (dédire) and attempted to vaguely reveal unexplored regions of beyond essence which is neither existence nor anything. However, in both cases, these philosophers were attempting to shatter the limits of language (although only from the inside). Their work was totally unintelligible to the general public.

Wittgenstein firmly states that while Heidegger’s work is an extremely precious document, it is all meaningless. Wittgenstein makes the following statement in a famous passage at the end of his work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which I quoted in the introduction of this article.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent.” (7)

This means that any use of language to discuss the world and existence would be meaningless and that we therefore must remain silent. Perhaps this attitude is the most sincere approach to the question of existence. Or perhaps, we have no other approach to considering the question. After all, no matter what we say, we will never arrive at an answer; no matter how we debate, all our words are meaningless.

Even so, we cannot simply gaze at this mysticism of the world existing before our eyes. We must pierce the core of this mysticism.

This is my research theme.

Noboru Nakamura
Professor of Modern Western Philosophy, Linguistic Theory and Time Theory, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Born in Nagasaki Prefecture in 1958. In 1994, completed the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University. Served as full-time instructor and Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University before assuming his current position in 2005. His current research themes include the linguistic theory of Wittgenstein and the time theory of Whitehead, Bergson and Kitaro Nishida, and so on. His written works include My Infatuation with Philosophy (Shunjusha Publishing Company, 2003), Hideo Kobayashi-Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (Shunjusha Publishing Company, 2007), The Philosophy of Whitehead (Kodansha Ltd., 2007), Wittgenstein—The Philosopher who Refused to Wear a Necktie (Hakusuisha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2009), and Bergson—Philosophy of Time and Space (Kodansha Ltd., 2014).