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The Paradox of Existence

  1. Mar 17, 2003 #1
    The Paradox of Existence

    Existence is demonstrably paradoxical, that is, it does not make rational sense. Nature makes abundant sense but existence itself is patently irrational and, thus, possibly supernatural. So profound is this paradox that it may be forever beyond our ability to comprehend much less articulate clearly. Nonetheless, attempts to rationally explain existence have proliferated since the dawn of humanity, but all of these have led back to paradox rather than resolving the paradox of existence.

    One commonly proposed explanation of existence is that it just is. The reality of our existence is self-evident, so the rationale goes, and to think otherwise is pointless and often destructive solipsism. As Aart Van Der Leeuw put it succinctly, “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Whether true or not, this decidedly pessimistic and anti-intellectual attitude fails to resolve the paradox in any intelligible manner. Rather than supplying an explanation for the origin, disposition, and authenticity of existence, it perfunctorily dismiss the wisdom of exploring the mystery while asserting the validity of existence and experience without providing the slightest evidence.

    Along similar lines, many have proposed that paradoxes and the mystery of existence are not real but, instead, are entirely the result of the natural limitations of language, abstract thought, and perception. It could well be then that humanity is simply incapable of rationally conceptualizing its own existence. However, this remains unsubstantiated and summarily denies the manifest empirical evidence of the paradox of existence.

    Infinity is one of the more popular accounts of the paradox of existence. Uncounted multitudes have argued that if existence is infinite some respects this somehow makes it rational. Unfortunately for such arguments the concept of infinity itself is paradoxical. Lao Tzu expressed this conundrum of infinity and the paradox of existence with elegant classic flare some twenty-five hundred years ago:

    The mother of nature.
    It has no name,
    But I call it "the Way";
    It has no limit,
    but I call it "limitless".

    To declare something is infinite is to assert that it has no limits. However, this presents a paradox because the statement contradicts itself. Specifically, it imposes the limit on itself that there are no limits. Because of this irrational self-contradictory and self-referential statement we can interpret infinity any way we so desire and none can prove us wrong. All they can do is point out the inherent paradox and its irrational nature.

    This inability to rationally express much less prove or disprove the reality of infinity, has not prevented people around the globe from using the term for everything from casual everyday use to elaborate engineering designs and obscure theological debates. Infinity, for example, is central to the Calculus, which has revolutionized modern science. Thus, paradoxes and infinities are not so easily ignored as meaningless, trivial, or useless. Nor for that matter, can they be casually dismissed as manifestly wrong, misleading, or vague.

    Now there is little doubt that when people normally use the word infinity they are referring to something so vast it may be impossible to measure. Even so, like countless reflections in a house of mirrors, with infinity you can never be quite certain if what you are looking at is real or just a reflection. Whichever way you turn looks the same and where exactly we are within the maze of reflections, much less if there is a way out of the maze, cannot be determined by just looking around. William Blake expressed this somehow flowing yet timeless, comprehensible yet incomprehensible quality of infinity in his popular poem, “Auguries of Innocence”:

    To see a world in a grain of sand
    And a heaven in a wildflower
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
    And eternity in an hour

    Over the millennia these often confusing paradoxical images of infinity have been logically and mathematically manipulated to prove an incredible number of absurdities including, for example, that one plus one equals three. Eventually now famous mathematicians and philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell and Kurt Godel, finally established that mathematics and logic could not be used to prove the validity of infinity without producing paradoxes. In other words, if the concept of infinity is not irrational or just so much illusory smoke and mirrors no one apparently can ever prove it logically or mathematically.

    In an actual house of mirrors we can walk right up to the nearest image and touch it to see if it is the real McCoy or just another reflection and, using this hands on method, we can find our way out of the maze. Unfortunately this direct approach is evidently impossible in the case of infinity. No one has ever scientifically proven any kind of infinity exists in the real world much less that the concept is logical.

    Everything science has investigated to date has eventually turned out to be, by the standards of science itself, rational and finite or presumably irrational or paradoxical. This continuing failure to prove anything in nature is infinite leads, once again, inexorably back to paradox. If existence is finite, then how can it have any reasonable causal origins? If it is infinite, then how can it be rational? As a result, classical science seems has been just as helpless to clarify the situation as everyone else.

    For all these reasons and more, existence presents the astonishing likelihood that at least one paradox is real and not merely the result of ignorance on our part. Whether invoking eternity, oneness, or the supernatural each new explanation proposed for existence has inevitably lead back to paradox. For something to be eternal, God-like, or all encompassing invokes logically impenetrable paradox. If God or eternity really can explain and validate existence, then where did they come from? If everything is profoundly unified, than logic is the illogical. Coherent explanations to this puzzle of existence are impossible by the very definition of logic if, indeed, existence truly is a paradox, as it certainly appears to be.

    Among the many ramifications of this enduring base ignorance is that the very foundations of logic, philosophy, and science have remained dubious. Despite innumerable attempts by extremely sincere, capable, and dedicated people throughout history the paradox of existence has consistently defied all rational and objective investigations for obvious and self-evident reasons. The humbling and mounting realization accompanying this failure is that, in addition to existence, everything else may ultimately be paradoxical.

    Once we have accepted and acknowledged this simple fact of life, we can then move on to more easily and objectively explore how best to approach, conceptualize, and use paradoxes and the irrational like any other handy and ubiquitous tools. By further extending this pragmatic approach we can adopt the position that we do indeed exist in some sense, but that the precise nature of our existence is fundamentally impenetrable to reason until proven otherwise. In fact, whether or not we ever solve the mystery of life, the universe, and everything may be irrelevant. Obviously there is still a great deal more we can learn about life and, in the process, about ourselves.

    In fact, although the paradox may be illusory and ultimately beyond reconciliation in light of these historical failures, dramatic progress has been made in this century. Superficially from these tired old arguments it may appear unapproachable, but this is simply not the case and I expect progress in this area to accelerate in the near future. Quantum Mechanics, for example, also deals with another enigma that may even be closely related.

    The Quanta and mass-energy of modern physics are every bit as mysterious as the paradox of existence. Exactly what these “things” are that particle physicists study is a matter of debate, but their behavior is decidedly irrational. Despite this ignorance of what their equations describe, using statistics, multidimensional mathematics, and experimental data physicists have managed to narrow the field of reasonably likely possibilities considerably and, in the process, helped to narrow the likely possibilities for explaining the paradox of existence. However, before discussing such abstruse modern developments further, it is helpful to first understand more pedestrian paradoxes.
    Last edited: Mar 17, 2003
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2003 #2
    Sounds like he's talking about the "experience" of God to me. If he is, then I think what he's saying is pretty darn close. If so, then it begs another question, "Why aren't we willing to go through the experience?" Why must we insist on the "cold hard facts?" Is life supposed to be sanitized (hey, that's where the word sanity comes form) and only observed through a beaker?

    From the post (below), Whaddya know?

  4. Mar 18, 2003 #3
    I see nothing wrong with the idea that existence just exists. By trying to explain why it exists you may be addressing something as fundamental as why 1 + 1 = 2. Does that make me lazy? Perhaps. I suppose I do find the origins of the universe interesting. But I do think that some things are just fundamental. It has to be that way.
  5. Mar 18, 2003 #4
    If memory serves me right, he was not talking about God, but was an Atheist. Amazing how powerful context is.

    As for our willingness and unwillingness to accept existence or God or whatever fully its just habits. Everyone learns to play make believe as a child, but eventually we start to call our make believe truth and enshrine it in habit.
  6. Mar 18, 2003 #5
    Exactly James, I am addressing something as fundamental as 2=2. That's what philosophy is about, metaphysics. The foundations of mathematics that say 2=2 cannot be proven by the way, as I mentioned in the original post.

    Such may seem senseless, meaningless, nonsense and a complete waste of time to you, but it is essentially the same kind of logic used in Quantum Mechanics. As Lao Tzu said

    When the great man learns the Way,
    He follows it with diligence;
    When the common man learns the Way,
    He follows it on occasion;
    When the mean man learns the Way,
    He laughs out loud;
    Those who do not laugh, do not learn at all.
    Therefore it is said:
    Who understands the Way
    Can seem foolish;

    Einstein ranted and raved that Quantum Mechanics must have an explanation, Max Planck begged his colleges to disprove his nonsensical results, etc. Logic such as this is incredibly complex, but also incredibly useful even if it makes one look foolish sometimes. :0)
  7. Mar 18, 2003 #6
    I just don't believe that something being fundamental qualifies it as a paradox. And yes, I did say believe. But it seems to me that for something to work without breaking down, there simply must be fundamentals from which that system is created. Can I prove that? I suppose not, since proofs are based on fundamentals as well. To me, a paradox is a logical contradiction, not something which can't be explained logically. I don't think that just because 2=2 cannot be proven, that it qualifies as a paradox.
  8. Mar 18, 2003 #7
    I don't believe it either, that's the whole point.

    The point is to not take a stand on the issue. If Physicists had insisted out of belief that nature, existence, and reality must make sense before they could invent Quantum Mechanics from the nonsensical experimental results it would have never happened.

    Being open minded is more powerful than believing.

    Existence is paradoxical because every attempt to explain it and, in fact, every way you can conceptualize an explanation for it leads to paradox. Not simply because it is a mystery.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2003
  9. Mar 18, 2003 #8
    When you put it that way I find myself agreeing with you. I guess I more or less think the same way, I just didn't know we were saying the same thing. Not to make too much of it. Not to take a stand on it. Alright. I get it now. :wink:
  10. Mar 18, 2003 #9
    So what do you know? ... If it isn't by virtue of the experience itself? ...
  11. Mar 18, 2003 #10
    I don't know, but that could be a form of knowledge itself.
  12. Mar 18, 2003 #11

    What is your essential paradox about existence?

    Does it drop down to the issue of why there is something rather than nothing?

    Or are you referring to another paradox?

    The problem in explaining existence is that it needs to explain why something (anything at all) exists, and it must do so without any reference to anything existing.
    So, any logic in the scheme of ... A is the case, because of B ... is doomed to fail in this case, cause there isn't any B.

    Existence just is, it cannot be explained.
  13. Mar 18, 2003 #12
    If you would please read the thread you'll find the answer there already along with perhaps a few others.

    Any attempt people make to rationally explain existence leads to paradox, hence, the paradox of existence.
  14. Mar 18, 2003 #13
    Just because we obtain a result that "apparently" is a paradox doesn't mean that existence is something peculiar...Maybe our logic is self-contradictory...or there's a "small" mistake in our way of thinking...
    Don't forget...logic is a representation of the "reality"...a crude representation...like a scientific theory...it has many lacks...
  15. Mar 18, 2003 #14
    Once again, I implore you to read the thread carefully. Just as oratory is an art, so is listening well. You are just making a fool of yourself and acting contentious in my opinion.
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2003
  16. Mar 18, 2003 #15


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    Of course if you try to explain existence, you're going to find it paradoxical. That's because you would be trying to explain that which has no cause, was not created, and has ultimately no reason for being. Asking the "why" of something, implies some kind of prior being responsible for the existence of that something. So of course it sounds like nonsense to ask about the why of existence.

    Likewise, the question "why does the universe exist" is the same, and any attempt at an answer will yeild nonsensical paradoxes. But the idea of something just existing without an external reason is unsatisfying to most people. Hence the ultimate question of "why" will probably never go away.
  17. Mar 18, 2003 #16
    And yet, I - as always - disagree with applying the paradox of limitlessness to infinity. (I also disagree with the paradox of existence, but I'll post my disagreement with that later). If you would like to know why I disagree with applying the "limitlessness paradox" to infinity, just read my post in the thread, "Infinity is NOT paradoxical".
  18. Mar 18, 2003 #17
    Yes, of course you still disagree and are still using the same essential argument. As I have pointed out before, your arguments fly in the face of thousands of years of philosophical and mathematical work on the subject, but I look forward to your post. You help me to clarify my own arguments.

    Once again, here is one of countless webpages on the long and detailed history of rational and mathematical arguments demonstrating infinity is paradoxical:

  19. Mar 18, 2003 #18
    Originally posted by Eh,
    To say there is something that has no cause, reason, or creation is to utter a paradox so, yes it is very much like that. It's along the lines of liar's paradox:

    "This statement has no cause, reason, or creation."

    Exactly, but that does not make the pursuit useless or counterproductive. Small children often ask "why".

    Why is the sky blue? Why do I feel this way? Why do I exist?

    Often they seem to understand and know something profound adults appear to often have forgotten. :0)
  20. Mar 18, 2003 #19
    Ok. I read the link. I found no proof of anything, except that people have struggled with infinities in the past - which I already knew.

    I think it was Russel (but I'm not sure) who showed that infinity could never be proven. However, that does not mean that it is paradoxical, merely theoretical (as no theory can ever be proven).

    You have also brought Godel's Incompleteness theorems (and the like), in past arguments. However, all that they proved was that if you try to prove infinity, you yeild paradoxes. But, then you are supposed to yeild paradoxes just by trying to prove mathematics (within it's own framework). So, this does not prove that infinity is paradoxical, merely that it is unprovable.
  21. Mar 18, 2003 #20
    Exactly so. I don't claim infinity is definitely paradoxical, just that it is a paradoxical concept. Again, neither do I claim infinity definitely does not exist in the real world, just that it has never been proven to exist in the real world.

    Science uses varifiable evidence that can be proven and disproven. Infinity does not fit into this catagory as a scientific concept. Nor does it fit into the catagory of a logical concept.

    It remains, demonstrably irrational just as the paradox of existence does.
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