According to Aristotle, in the Metaphysics, we desire to know. The desire to know expresses our humanity; it makes us human. By asking questions, we try to understand our world and ourselves. Questions such as “Who am I” and “What am I to do?” define us as human beings. Through these questions, we participate in the culture of the mind.
We do not need to be philosophers to be fully human nor do we need to have a philosophical system to live our life. If we do not ask or answer those questions as individuals or as a society, we cannot understand ourselves or our world. We will want to know the best way to live. In turn, this leads us to ask: “What the best government that will let us live that life?” Yet, we rarely ask or answer these questions as individuals or as society. The questions and our answers enable us to participate fully in political society. Without them, we are in danger of becoming less than human. In the West, we appear to have forgotten the fundamental question.
Anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth has the answer to the question “Why are there essents [something] rather than nothing?” even before it is asked: everything that is, except God himself has been created by Him. God himself, the increate creator, is. One who holds to such faith can in a way participate in the asking of the our question, but he cannot really question without ceasing to be a believer and taking all the consequences of such a step. He will only be able to act “as if”…. On the other hand a faith that does not perpetually expose itself to the possibility of unfaith is no faith but merely a convenience: the believer simply makes up his mind to adhere to the traditional doctrine. This is neither faith nor questioning, but the indifference of those who can busy themselves with everything, sometimes even displaying a keen interest in faith as well as questioning.” P.6
Heidegger was looking beyond the difference between believers and atheists. He was exploring the need to find a ground other than faith upon which an answer could be developed. Although his answers may not be of immediate interest or concern, the question (why is there something and not nothing) forces us to think. In trying to think, we begin to ask questions. Why do we believe as we do? Why do we accept the answers that are given? Again, the answers or the path that Heidegger found, while important, is not our immediate concern. Instead, our concern should be with why we have forgotten the question. The question forces us to start to consider why we live as we do today.
The fundamental question shapes everything else we do. Yet, we take the question and its answer for granted, if we even consider it. We may begin and end with our own self-knowledge that we exist. Alternatively, we may even argue that we know that we are created by the universe because the universe was created by the Big Bang. What is often overlooked, in that belief is the failure to understand, because we believe we know more than we do, is how these questions and our answers shape our lives.
The question and our answer means we have begun to participate in the life of the mind. We begin to consider our own society differently. We also begin to consider what the wider world society that unfolds around us is. By asking and answering these fundamental questions we begin to test whether the way we live is the best way to live and whether there are better, or worse, ways to live. In doing this, we participate in what makes us human. We begin to understand, if only indirectly, our own human nature. We may even begin to understand why we live as we do.
The questions an individual asks and the answer they find will shape society. How are we to live together? For example, how are we to organise a society if there is nothing? Can we organise a society without a set of beliefs, the something, that gives meaning out of the nothing? Once we accept that something, will we accept it as a non-arbitrary, standard that gives us the basis for understanding ourselves and everything else. What does it mean to believe in something? If we believe in something and not nothing what does it require us to do.
From the fundamental question, we derive a secondary, though no less important, practical questions emerge. For example, if there is nothing, then how are we to live our lives? If we are uncertain over something or nothing, then how do we decide? What provides an unchanging, non-arbitrary structure, the “as if”, if we believe there is nothing? What gives meaning to what we do if there is nothing? Do we simply live as we do from a random, or arbitrary, choice? Moreover, can we separate meaning in what we do from the question of something or nothing? Whatever path we follow, it will determine our lives, by giving us the something, rather than the nothing, of our existence.
The emerging world society interconnected through social media forces us to return to these questions. We need to return to these questions to understand how we are to live in this new society. Is a world culture possible if we have forgotten the question and our answers? When we do reflect on the origins of our thought? More importantly, when do we reflect on the answers that shape our lives? We know more about the universe’s origins and we know less about what it means to be human. If we are to retain our humanity, we need to begin to ask these questions. We need to begin to think. Either we can retain our humanity or we can become less than human. The choice, as always, is ours if we are ready to answer the question.
- Heidegger and Overcoming Metaphysics (theesposito.com)
- Excerpt from Der Spiegel Interview with Martin Heidegger (1966) (beyondgotterdammerungs.wordpress.com)
- No Small Talk: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists – New York Times (blog) (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Q. & A.: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- The Divinity of Human Wonder (therenaissancemind.wordpress.com)