Is Existence Possible?



Is Existence Possible?


I am going to consider an argument for the conclusion that existence is not possible. Not that we don’t know that anything exists, or that nothing in fact exists, but that existence is impossible: it could not be that anything exists. This is, to put it mildly, a startling conclusion—startling to the point of jaw dropping. Yet it follows from relatively simple assumptions and requires no fancy or revisionary analysis of what “exists” means. The argument is not apodictic, but it is certainly worrying; it isn’t easy to see where it goes wrong, if anywhere. It starts with a fairly innocuous observation, namely that when new things come to exist they do so in virtue of pre-existing things, generally by being made of these things. Thus a new house is made of pre-existing bricks, a new painting is composed of paint that existed before, and a new organism is made of bits of matter that were already around. Nothing is truly new; everything is derived from something else.  [1] Let us say that things generally have a derivative existence. We can usually explain the existence of a new entity by reference to old entities that pre-date it: it is typically a matter of re-combination. Sometimes this procedure doesn’t work because there is (apparently) too much novelty in the new entity: notoriously, sentient beings have an existence not easily explained by the existence of what preceded them (insentient matter); similarly for organic beings in relation to pre-organic material. But here we generally assume that we are missing something, and it is clear that some aspects of the new entity owe their existence to pre-existing entities (such as the constituents of the body). Existing things come from other existing things, often going back a long time. Nearly all of what we observe in the way of existence is derivative existence.

            But isn’t there also original existence—things that exist without reliance on other things? What about the parts of newly existing things—where do they come from? They may in turn come from other pre-existing things, ultimately going back to molecules and atoms; and these entities may owe their existence to even earlier realities, given what we hear about the state of the universe at the time of the big bang. Maybe atoms derive from superhot plasma as it cools. But at some point we reach things that don’t derive their existence from other things: what should we say about these? Now matters are apt to turn sticky; a certain intellectual panic sets in. Our usual paradigm of existence starts to break down, since these entities don’t have an existence that can be explained in terms of antecedent entities. An array of more or less unpalatable options presents itself. The first is that these entities come from nothing at all: they simply spring into existence de novo. Not even God plays a role, since he is an existent being (allegedly) for whom the same question arises: what explains God’s existence? But putting God aside, we have the idea that the basic things of reality pop into existence from pure nothingness. This seems utterly incomprehensible: as the old adage goes, nothing comes from nothing. And if such a miracle were possible, why isn’t it still happening—why don’t we see things popping into existence out of nothing on a regular basis? It might seem that a dose of modal metaphysics could get us out of this jam: what precedes existence and provides its foundation is possibility. We might even change the terms of the discussion and describe the antecedent possibilities as themselves existing, so that the question becomes how possibilities become actualities. This is certainly an intriguing metaphysical theory: pre-existing possibilities give rise to the existing actual universe that we observe—not something from nothing but something from a possible something. There was a possible world existing before the actual world and it is the basis for the existence of the actual world; we just need to pump up our conception of reality and then we can find the basis for actual existence, thus preserving our usual paradigm of derivative existence. There are (at least) two problems with this approach. The first is that the same question will arise for the antecedent realm of existence: where do these possibilities come from? If possible worlds really exist, where do they come from—do they pop into existence from nothing? But second, and more decisive, possibilities have no tendency to turn into actualities; so they cannot play the role of existence generators. We can’t say that actually existing things are made of possibilities that pre-date them—what would that even mean? The relation between existence and possibility is nothing like the relation between a thing and its parts. This would really be another version of the something-from-nothing approach: things come to exist of their own volition, so to speak, without any earlier preparation or precursor or preamble—they just burst onto the scene at some assigned or random time.

            The obvious next move is to declare eternality: the original existences are nothing like the derivative existences, which have a time of origin and a finite lifespan, but are eternal beings without beginning or end. Thus we might suppose that elementary particles are eternal beings for which the question of origin does not arise. This is no doubt a tempting move (a knight’s move), given the unfolding dialectic, but it is far from satisfactory. First, it is flagrantly ad hoc: we are forced to make a clean break from our usual conception of existence in order to solve a metaphysical puzzle. We have no other reason to postulate eternality for non-derivative existences than to solve the problem of how certain things manage to exist; and on the face of it the idea sounds preposterous. It isn’t that these entities are like numbers in being (arguably) necessary existences: they exist contingently but eternally. So it is not in their very nature as necessary beings to exist in all possible worlds at all times; no, they are contingent beings that just happen to exist for all time. Nor is it clear that this postulation would solve the basic problem: for isn’t there still the question of what explains the existence of these entities? Let’s assume they exist eternally: we still need to know why they exist at all, given that they don’t have to. Is their existence simply a brute fact with no explanation? But why these entities and not others—why the particular types of particles that populate our universe? Their existence remains a mystery even if they exist through all eternity. We can understand the existence of most of what we observe, since we see how the existence of one thing depends on the existence of another, but with the basic entities we are confronted with things that exist for no reason—unintelligibly, by brute stipulation. Surely it would be preferable if we could give some account of their existence as contingent beings: unlike numbers they exist in time and can change over time—yet we are told they have no origin, no means by which they came into existence. Is their allegedly eternal existence any more acceptable than saying that ordinary objects could exist eternally as a way of explaining their existence? Suppose we tried saying that sentient beings exist eternally, which is why we can’t explain their origin in terms of antecedent facts—wouldn’t that be totally unbelievable, a complete abnegation of intellectual responsibility?

            So we seem to have reached the conclusion that existence is impossible. It seemed as if we could understand the existence of ordinary objects by reference to pre-existing objects, but it turns out that we have no account of the existence of those objects—which means we don’t really understand the existence even of derivatively existing objects. In the case of non-derivative existence we have only an array of unpalatable metaphysical speculations, more or less desperate and ad hoc. We really have no understanding of existence at all when you get down to brass tacks. And it looks as if any type of existence will face this critique—what to say about the existence of the basic realities. In particular, are we really committed to the eternal existence of concrete contingent beings just by the very notion of existence? Was that part of the bargain when we agreed to operate with the concept of existence? Or are we forced to accept that existence can be conferred by nothing at all, or that it springs miraculously from mere possibility? None of this is remotely attractive; it all seems like a steep and whistling descent into metaphysical nonsense. Thus the proponent of the argument encourages us to draw the obvious conclusion: existence is impossible. Nothing exists in any possible world. The idea of existence is incoherent, puzzling to the point of paradox. It isn’t just that nothing does exist; nothing could exist. For existence leads us to the problem of how the basic existences come to be—for which we have no adequate account. Maybe there is an option we haven’t thought of, or maybe existence is an impenetrable mystery; but as things stand, it looks as if we have a kind of proof that existence is impossible. We are familiar with arguments that purport to show that meaning is impossible, there being no workable account of what meaning is  [2]; the present argument purports to show that existence itself is impossible—of meanings, of material objects, of selves, of anything (except perhaps numbers). Ultimately, we have no conception of how the existence of the most ordinary things is possible.


  [1] It is an interesting fact about our universe that it permits the upsurge of new things: many things exist now that did not exist in the past. You would think that given the means at the universe’s disposal nothing new could be generated, just re-combinations of old stuff. This is why one can sympathize with the adage “There is nothing new under the sun”.  In some possible universes presumably this is the case—no new entities ever come to exist. In a sense existence is quite close to non-existence—that is, new entities are ontologically close to the entities they come from and can easily revert to them. It is surprising that they exist at all as separate things in view of this closeness. Why not just make do with the old things?

  [2] I am thinking of Kripke’s discussion of meaning in Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982). This is Zeno-level super-charged military-grade skepticism: the complete impossibility of both meaning and existence.

1 reply
  1. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    I disagree with your statement that eternity is unsatisfactory and ad hoc. Furthermore, I do not see the necessity of non-derivative eternal entities. What if change is eternally taking place? Things exist because they derive from pre-existing things, that in turn derive from pre-existing things, and thus ad infinitum. Yes, weird, but not more than the impossibility of existence…


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