Friday, August 7, 2009

The wonderful puzzle of being

When I was a small child, one question kept me awake at night: "How is it possible for anything to exist?" The short answer that everyone seemed to want me to believe was that God makes this possible. But, I didn't buy that. It simply pushed the question further back: "How is it possible for God to exist?" I didn't see the justification for giving God special existence privileges so that this question doesn't arise. "Even granted that God is a necessary being, how can there be such a thing?"

I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that existence is impossible, and I never found an adequate explanation for the fact that it so obviously false. In later years, I noticed that some scientists believed 'a singularity' (a unique event that somehow started the ball of the existence of our universe rolling) provides the answer. I wasn't impressed: "How is it possible for there to be a singularity?"

There are various ways of tackling the puzzlement that is generated here: by talking about different senses of the words "being" and "existence", by trying to show that the philosophical language game generated by asking fundamental questions about existence is a pseudo-language game, and so on.

Perhaps I will discuss those moves another time. Right now, I want to talk about something that probably derives from, but is not necessarily caused by, the puzzlement I have referred to.

This is the sense of wonder at the very existence of things. Such a sense of wonder plays quite a big part in my own psychological make-up. And, it has taken me a long time to realise that it does not play the same kind of role in everyone's make-up. I have come to accept that, but I still find it hard to deal with at times. "How can you be so concerned about all that stuff, when it is so amazing that you and the things that are bothering you even exist?" I find myself thinking all too often.

Many people, probably most, have a tough time getting through their lives so we should not expect them to be bolstered up by sheer the fact of existence itself. They don't have that luxury. Against this background, the sense of wonder that I have invoked seems a quirky, personal matter, something that has little social value.

However, this is unfair. Wonder need not be obliterated by adversity. In the midst of a raging tooth ache, I have found myself pondering how incredible it is that this pain and my shuddering reaction to it should exist. At some later stage, I will probably say a bit more about the phenomenology of wonder, about what it is like to experience other creatures as pockets of the mystery of existence.