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To be or nought to be

Updated: Jan 20

This moment was extraordinary. I was there, motionless, paralyzed, plunged in a horrible ecstasy. But at the heart of this ecstasy, something new had just appeared; I understood the Nausea, I possessed it. To tell the truth, I did not formulate my discoveries to myself. But I think it would be easy for me to put them in words now. The essential point is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. I believe there are people who have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being. But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float  …

Jean-Paul Sartre (translated by Lloyd Alexander), Nausea


Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn’t be satisfied.

Sidney Morgenbesser, late Columbia University philosophy prof and legendary wag


Earl Fowler


My favourite joke about religion, possibly blasphemous, consists of a single proposition: God is so perfect He doesn’t have to exist.


Not sure who said it first, but it stands the ontological argument on its head and subverts a bedrock assumption in Western thought, viz., that it is better to exist than not. Nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, along with enjoying all the good things in life, than never being required to take arms against a sea of troubles by the simple expedient of never coming into being in the first place.


If you’re Roman Catholic or took an introductory philosophy class back in the day, you’ll likely remember the ontological argument, first propounded (in the Western Christian tradition, anyway) in Anselm of Canterbury’s celebrated 1078 meditation, Proslogion. Saint Anselm’s reasoning (similar to that of Avicenna in the Muslim world and memorably elaborated upon by René Descartes in the 17th century and Gottfried Leibniz in the 18th), can be laid out in a bare-bones, no-frills fashion like this:


  1. God is the greatest being we can imagine.

  2. A being that exists is greater than one that is merely imaginary.


Therefore:


  1. God exists, Q.E.D.


Essentially (no pun intended), the argument attempts to bootstrap God into existence as a simple matter of squiffy logic and sleight-of-hand delineation. More sophisticated (read sophistic) versions of the ontological argument have been tendered in the last 100 years by the likes of logician Kurt Gödel and philosophers Norman Malcolm and Alvin Plantinga. But at the end of such bravura performances, we’re still being proferred a dodgy, tautological divinity as the warp and weft, fons et origo, of everything there is.


I’m with Benedictine monk Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, a contemporary of Anselm, who pointed out that the ontological argument could be used to prove the existence of anything: for example, a perfect undiscovered island somewhere out there in the deep blue sea.


Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant all offered refutations of the supposed proof: Aquinas on the ground that humans cannot know the nature of God; Hume rejecting the idea that anything, including God, could exist necessarily; Kant on the eminently sensible ground that existence is not a legitimate attribute or predicate (like being red or tall, say) and adds nothing to whatever is being described.


There are, of course, other arguments for the existence of God (causal: the idea that everything must have a cause, going back to the First Cause; i.e., the Big Guy; teleological: the idea that the universe shows clear signs of having been designed by an omniscient and omnipotent designer; evangelical Christian: the Bible is true because it says so in the Bible and Donald Trump is the new and improved Orange Jesus).


My own take is that Molly Bloom knew what she was talking about (by not knowing what she was talking about) in the soliloquy that wraps up James Joyce’s Ulysses:


… well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah they dont know neither do I


If you’re religiously inclined, you’ll want to believe God started the whole shebang, either working with a pre-existing chaos of earth and water “without form, and void,” when “darkness was upon the face of the deep,” as in the book of Genesis, or ex nihilo, out of nothing, as Christian church fathers decided in the second or third century CE. The doctrine of creation out of nothing was later incorporated into Islamic theology and adopted by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides in the 12th century.


If you’re of a more scientific bent when it comes to cosmogony, you might incline to the view that the universe — or perhaps an infinite multiverse of universes, why not? — sprang up through a quantum tunnel from nothingness into being via chaotic inflation of a chance fluctuation in a false vacuum.


It’s a living.


Either way, you have problems. A deity that somehow bootstrapped Himself into existence as the ens realissimum, the most real being, and the ens necessarium, the necessary being —  and, in short, as causa sui, the cause of Himself — would have to be at least as complex and elaborate as His creation. And if God is eternal and “always was,” as my Catholic friends used to say, adding St. Aquinas’s ominous warning that we would all be instantly vaporized if God stopped thinking about us for even a millisecond, one could postulate an eternally existing cosmos with just as much evidence.


That is to say, diddly-squat.


We’re back to Molly Bloom’s dread question, the one every precocious child eventually poses: “But who made God?”


If you believe that the universe arose from quantum foam saturated with energy fields seething with virtual particles briefly popping into and out of existence, you’re stacking the game with a proto-cosmos that itself requires an explanation. Why is nothingness unstable? Why is the Abyss pregnant with Being? Where did the bubble of false vacuum, out of which the cosmos was born, originate? To put it in stark Heideggerian terms (c’est-à-dire, nonsensical gobbledygook), why does the nothing noth?


Don’t take it from me. Here’s theoretical physicist Alan Guth, who pioneered the theory of cosmic inflation at the core of orthodox thinking about the Big Bang and the early universe:


A proposal that the universe was created from empty space seems no more fundamental than a proposal that the universe was spawned by a piece of rubber. It might be true, but one would still want to ask where the piece of rubber came from.


As the apocryphal old woman who believed a flat Earth is being held up by an elephant standing on the shell of a turtle retorted to Bertrand Russell when he asked her, provocatively, what the turtle was standing on: “Nice try, buster. It’s turtles all the way down.”


More seriously, as William James concluded in his last book, Some Problems of Philosophy, published after his death in 1910: “The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy. All of us are beggars here, and no school can speak disdainfully of another or give itself superior airs.”


When we were boys and my two besties and I talked about deep questions like the origin of the universe and why anyone would want to put an anise seed at the centre of a jawbreaker, one of them — let’s call him Bob since that was his name — advanced the theory that maybe God had a friend who introduced evil and suffering to the world when He wasn’t looking. More of a frenemy, really.


My buddy Paul and I found this hilarious, and yet it is essentially the esoteric doctrine of Gnosticism, which flourished in the second century CE before being purged by the Christian fathers as heretical.


A central tenet of the Gnostics, as critic Harold Bloom rendered it in his 1997 book Omens of the Millennium, was that our fallen world of “death camps and schizophrenia” was created not by the real, hidden God, but by a dastardly bungler, a demiurge responsible for our fall from grace. Please allow him to introduce himself as a man of wealth and taste who’s been around for a long, long years (but still has a precarious grasp of elementary English grammar).


Unlike the major Abrahamic religions today, the Gnostics had an easy answer to why there is so much evil in the world if God is as good as they say He is: He didn’t create this mess. If He dreamed up and fashioned the iniquitous demiurge to assuage His loneliness, then maybe God bears a responsibility similar to Victor Frankenstein’s for unleashing a monster, but this is not the place to embark on an odyssey of lost-at-sea theodicy.


I rather like the “useful compromise” between Gnosticism and Christianity that journalist Jim Holt tendered (facetiously, I think) as his own position in his terrific 2013 existential detective story, Why Does the World Exist? Holt submits “that the universe was created by a being that is 100 per cent malevolent but only 80 per cent effective.”


(A better description of the first Trump presidency you will not find. Thank God, so to speak, that the demiurge had only one turn at the plate.)


In a similarly semi-serious vein, here’s my random thought of the day: With conscious, artificially intelligent beings created by human scientists no longer exclusively in the realm of science fiction — sentient entities presumably capable of experiencing pain and suffering like us as well as in, for all we know, horrific new ways we can only imagine — maybe we should give the butterfingered demiurge a break. Fearing not that we’ll become our enemy in the instant that we overreach, we might be more of a threat to artificial intelligence than it is to us.


So ...


Back to the real and unreal worlds.


What I wanted to get at here is not why there is something rather than nothing (or why we’re so sure there is, for that matter): Pourquoi y-a-t-il quelque chose plûtot que rien? in polymath Leibniz’s classic formulation from three centuries ago. Instead, let’s simply concede The Great Chain of Being author Arthur O. Lovejoy’s point that attempts to answer this constitute “one of the most grandiose enterprises of the human intellect.”


We’ve got a head full of quandary and a mighty, mighty thirst.


But my question circles back to that joke about God that I opened with: Why presume that something is better than nothing? Why, wondered cosmologist Stephen Hawking, “does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”


These might strike you as properly the province of philosophers and theologians, but in my experience, the queries have been put more plaintively — and effectively — by literary figures:


Tennessee Williams was on to something (and nothing) in this fevered exchange from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:


BRICK: Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.


BIG DADDY: That's what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.


Williams was hardly alone. We’ve already checked in with Sartre, whose autobiographical character Roquentin finds himself in Nausea being “choked with rage” at monstrous lumps of “gross absurd being.” (Tip of the day: Do sit under the chestnut tree with anyone else but he.)


As Holt writes in Why Does the World Exist?:


John Updike channeled his ambivalence about Being into his fictional alter-ego, that blocked, priapic, and despair-prone Jewish novelist Henry Bech. In one Updike story, Bech is invited to give a reading at a Southern girls’ college, where he is regarded as a literary star. At a dinner in his honor after the reading, he “looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through the orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles.” Bech has a nihilistic epiphany: “the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and, worst, of consciousness.”


All existence, declares Blech (modelled in part, it is thought, on such famous writers as Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud and the thoroughly WASPY Updike himself, Dutch name notwithstanding), is but a “blot on nothingness.”


Updike put the Bech in Blech.


Suggestions that non-existence is a consummation devoutly to be wished, because it would put an end to the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, have appeared through the centuries with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger.


After his closest friend died suddenly in 1833 at age 23, Alfred Lord Tennyson repurposed a Shakespearean line in his elegy “In Memoriam” into the much parodied “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”


Debatable. Speaking of Judas after his betrayal of “the Son of man,” the author of Matthew 26:24 thundered: “It had been good for that man if he had not been born.”


Sticking with the Bible, this is Ecclesiastes 4:2-3:


And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.


That withering idea — ’Tis better to have never lived than to have loved at all — reverberated throughout the ancient world.


Here’s an excerpt from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written shortly before the playwright’s death in 406 BCE:


Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. For when he has seen youth go by, with its easy merry-making, what hard affliction is foreign to him, what suffering does he not know? Envy, factions, strife, battles, and murders. Last of all falls to his lot old age, blamed, weak, unsociable, friendless, wherein dwells every misery among miseries.


Here’s a similarly cheery thought from Theognis of Megara, a Greek lyric poet active in the 6th century BCE:


Best of all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all

Nor ever to have set eyes on the bright light of the sun

But, since he is born, a man should make utmost haste through the gates of Death

And then repose, the earth piled into a mound round himself.


This is from Seneca the Stoic’s De Consolatione ad Marciam, written about 40 CE:


Nothing is so deceptive, nothing is so treacherous as human life; by Hercules, were it not given to men before they could form an opinion, no one would take it. Not to be born, therefore, is the happiest lot of all.


In the words of existential boulevardière and fervent Kansas City Chiefs fan Taylor Swift, all any of these fellows ever asked of us was to be “sweet nothing.”


The West has never had a monopoly on Weltschmerz. Hence the allure of Nirvana in the major Indian religions/philosophical traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism). They differ in their conceptions of how Nirvana is to be achieved or attained, but all conceive of it as a state of perfect quietude, freedom and highest happiness via liberation from attachment, suffering and samsara, the cyclical round of existence linked to beliefs in karma and reincarnation.


We ourselves are the illusion. Nothing could be finer than to not be in Carolina, or anywhere else, as we finally break on through to the other side and turn off our dharmic hamster wheels. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now!


Was thinking about this when I turned on my TV last night and caught a few minutes of the great 1976 satirical drama film Network, which at one point has “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale, played brilliantly by Peter Finch in his final movie role, telling his vast television audience: “We are the illusion. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now! Turn them off right now! Turn them off …”


(Feel free to open the window, stick your head out and yell: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take these asinine asides and dithering digressions any more!”)


But wait! There’s more! Phone now and get more vapid philosophical twaddle while tightening your abs, shrinking your prostate and learning all about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.


Founded in 1991 by American environmental activist Les U. Knight (I am not making this up), the movement — which, according to Knight, boasts millions of supporters the world over — contends on purely environmental grounds that ceasing to exist would be the best thing we rapacious humans could do for the planet. Here’s a motivational quote from the group’s website:


We’re the only species evolved enough to consciously go extinct for the good of all life, or which needs to.


Even if you harbour Unabomber-level reservations about the harm humans have done to the Earth since the Industrial Revolution, you might be relieved to know that the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement doesn’t advocate a Jim Jones-level Kool-Aid kumbaya conclave.


Galvanized by the vaguely Vulcan-sounding slogan “Live long and die out,” all the coalition is calling for is for people to voluntarily abstain from having babies, thereby leading to the gradual extinction of humankind. According to adherents, this would be a far, far better thing than we have ever done, ensuring a far, far better rest than we have ever known.


I promoted the slogan “Knight, Knight, sleep tight” at a focus group, but hey. Nobody listens to me.


No pun intended.


Nanu nanu. Mork calling Orson! Mork calling Orson! Come in, Orson!


Not all proponents of human extinction via an end to reproduction, known collectively as anti-natalists, are as misanthropic as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.


South African philosopher David Benatar’s 2006 book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, is a sort of anti-bible for folks who share his view that the world is so “permeated with badness” that people should stop having kids, but mainly on compassionate grounds.


In a follow-up book published in 2017, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions, Benatar argued that the cold, dead answers to life’s big questions …


… reveal that the human condition is a tragic predicament — one from which there is no escape. In a sentence: Life is bad, but so is death. Of course, life is not bad in every way. Neither is death bad in every way. However, both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful. Together, they constitute an existential vise — the wretched grip that enforces our predicament.


Benatar, an intensely private, elfin presence who also musters an effective environmental argument against our continued presence on sweet Mother Earth, has plenty of adherents and allies. Sarah Perry’s 2014 Every Cradle Is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide and Thomas Ligotti’s 2010 The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror come pretty much as advertised, both suggesting that people experience far more agony than ecstasy in this veil of tears. We live in a neighbourhood rife with chronic pain, not chronic pleasure.


And as with the ancient corollary that it would be better never to have lived at all, anti-natalism has a distinguished pedigree.


From The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830–1857:


The idea of bringing someone into the world fills me with horror. I would curse myself if I were a father. A son of mine! Oh no, no, no! May my entire flesh perish and may I transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.


This is the always sunny Arthur Schopenhauer, from whom Friedrich Nietzsche stole most of his nihilistic shtick and existential Eeyore-ism, in 1851’s Parerga and Paralipomena:


If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence?


Immersed in Buddhism, Schopenhauer (who, like Nietzsche, Plato, Hume, Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baruch Spinoza and Søren Kierkegaard, remained childless) argued that the ultimate goal of the self should be annihilation and absorption back into the waters of oblivion. Mind you, he waited until he was 72 and safely ensconced on his couch to shuffle off his mortal chesterfield coils:


Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness.


Even if you don’t share the distempered outlook of a moody 19th-century German curmudgeon and are still partying like it’s 1999, anti-natalists point out that you can’t guarantee the same for your descendants. Therefore, to procreate is to gamble with other people’s suffering. Can you live with that?


I have friends whose adult children have decided that they can’t and will therefore remain childless, notwithstanding what fabulous grandparents those imaginary kids would have had. Our son, now in his mid-forties, is also of that tribe.


It’s hard to argue with anyone who thinks this way. Good luck making the case that the world isn’t already vastly overpopulated or that cataclysmic armageddons don’t loom on multiple fronts in the face of wars, ethnic cleansing, religious intolerance, climate change, environmental degradation, famine, floods, fires, epidemics, pestilence, plague, alcohol and drug addictions — all seasoned, leavened and driven by staggering human avarice, cruelty and stupidity. The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of Malthusian intensity, and if there’s one thing that we don’t need it’s another hungry mouth to feed in the ghetto. (In the ghetto.)


Even if you take humanity out of the equation, as Richard Dawkins did in his 2010 book The Greatest Show on Earth, “the total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation”:


During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are being slowly devoured from within by raping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.


Nature, red in tooth and claw, is indifferent to the sum total of suffering. Survival of the fittest, baby! Evolutionary theodicy comes down to a cold calculus of gene transmission. However pretty it would be to think so, good and evil, empathy and mercy, simply don’t come into it.


The late, great theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg wasn’t wrong when he famously declared, in his 1977 book The First Three Minutes: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”


Hume, a Scottish enlightenment empiricist and as rational a man as has ever lived, wasn’t wrong when he wrote in his classic 1739-40 Treatise of Human Nature: “’Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”


Canadian philosopher and writer John Leslie didn’t err when he told Holt: “Suppose you had an empty universe — nothing at all. It would be a fact that this empty universe was a lot better than a universe full of people who were in immense misery.”


French existentialist Albert Camus tied a bow on this whole discussion when he wrote in his landmark 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”


To be or not to be. That is the only question.


But I’m just as certain that I was whining like a candy-ass poltroon a couple of years ago when I was seriously ill and sincerely maintaining that I wished I had never been born.


Whacked out of my head on anti-depressants, I greeted the perimeter-hugging sunlight that crept along our bedroom window frame each morning, flummoxing the blinds and defying the drapes, with a miserable groan: “Scarlett O’Hara was right after all. It is another effing day.”


This went on for way too many months. I will never be able to repay my wife for her kindness, patience, forbearance and selfless love in putting up with this kvetching while I was a shattered hologram of myself, a shadow within a shadow, a blasted Buddha of Bamiyan. The same goes for my children and the fabulous friends who regularly just checked in to see what condition my condition was in, knowing they were in for a pity party.


Call it cynicism, defeatism, pessimism, depressive realism, dystopian doomerism, fatalism, Murphy’s law-ism, paranoia strikes deep in the heartland-ism, shot glass half empty-ism, it is the evening of the day-ism, this could be the last time, maybe the last time-ism, I don’t know. But I knew it was bullpucky the minute I surfaced with the hyperbolic gasp of someone finally breaking free from the tentacles of ghostly eldritch creatures of the deep, dragging in my wake a whirlpool of heating pads, weighted blankets and matted magazines.


The thing about recovering from a grave illness — especially at a time in life when, as the Red Queen told Alice about her world, one has to run as hard as one can just to stay in one place — heck, just to retain the ability to chew solid food — is that you gradually get your life back in a marvellous, sweeping U-turn. You might even find Zuzu’s lost petals in your pocket.


“My mouth’s bleeding, Bert!”


It may not be It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s your life (suddenly I’m hearing bells ringing, wings unfolding and strains of Willie Nelson). And in the absence of unremitting agony or unbearable tedium, there’s no urgent need to expiate the mysterious crime (if it is one) of existence, to atone for preferring a warm bath to an injection of Nothingness. Won’t you come home, George Bailey?


I won’t say I wasn’t tempted by the glass of water and the full bottle of pills at my bedside when I was at my despondent and disconsolate worst. And when it comes to this being the best of all possible worlds, my sympathies lie wholly with Voltaire, who mocked the notion, not Leibniz, who developed it.


“Filth! What rotten filth!” shouts Roquentin.


I also believe that in the not too distant future, I and everyone who reads this (all 10 of you) will necessarily be back on Grub Street, fluttering like empty sleeves in the guttering void. As Holt jokes: “Nothing is impossible for God, yet it is a cinch for the rankest incompetent.”


Is it better to exist than not? Like Newton, I frame no hypotheses: Hypotheses non fingo.


But I do think we’ll all leave an awful hole when we’re not there. (With the possible exception, that is, of helicopter parents in Lululemon activewear who lip-synch to Katy Perry songs while driving by in an adjacent lane.)


Clarence Odbody said it best: “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.”


E.M. Forster expressed it gnomically in that recurring refrain in Howards End: “Only connect!”


But it turns out American freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll had already put together the whole creed in the 19th century:


Happiness is the only good.

The time to be happy is now.

The place to be happy is here.

The way to be happy is to make others so.


“Be here now,” said Ram Dass.


Wherever here is. Whatever now is. Whatever Being is.


How in hell did Ram Dass get into this? Me, I’m a subscriber to Big Lebowskianism when it comes to describing the nature of ultimate reality: Strikes and gutters. Ups and downs. Turtles all the way down.


Maybe it’s true, as stuffed shirt T.S. Eliot groused fuddy-duddily, that humankind cannot bear too much reality. But if that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Against the giddy, mind-blowing mise-en-scène of incalculable chance events and innumerable historical contingencies — you staggeringly improbable fellow terpsichoreans and seamstresses for the band in this cosmic gavotte — we all somehow made the existential cut. The Dude abides.


Say, friend, you got any more of that good Sioux City sarsaparilla? These pretzels are making me thirsty.

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