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I'm new to philosophy so bear with me. I've been reading Martin Heidegger (An introduction to metaphysics). In the book he claims that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is the root of philosophy. I've read this book three times and cannot perceive what he is getting at. I'm not sure I even understand the question.

To me on the surface it seems to be a silly question but it did make me ask myself what really is at the root of philosophy and what is it supposed to be doing? When I first started reading philosophy I thought of it like this: philosophy is to science as science is to religion. Is this anywhere near correct?

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    Hi Vincent, welcome to Philosophy.SE! I retagged your question and added a line break for readability, I hope you're okay with that. On the contents: I don't know Heidegger, but it may be worth it to read some other writers as well, just to have some broader view ;) – user2953 Mar 19 '15 at 18:37
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    maybe "something" is less unstable than "nothing". like reality has lotsa states, all but one are something or 'nother. only one state, out of a zillion or more, is nothing. whenever nothing exists, quantum fluctuation happens and poof! you have something! (like a Big Bang.) very unlikely that the following state is back to nothing. the union of all states of something is a stickier state of being than is nothing. once you're something, pretty hard going back to nothing. – robert bristow-johnson Mar 19 '15 at 22:05
  • While that claim is fascinating (why can't Heidegger be readable?), this seems to suppose that there's one integrated thing called philosophy, rather than a set of questions probing into the fundamental issues of life. Having said that, I wonder if the question works out to the fact that once you get something (or rather a multiplicity) you end up with items relating to each other, which brings up questions of causality, hierarchy, choice and so on. – R. Barzell Mar 20 '15 at 1:09
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    "Something rather than nothing" is the realm of cosmology, if anything. Big Bang and all that. If I had to guess, I would say linguistics and ethics (maybe religion in some locales) are at the root of all modern philosophy (my inexpert opinion). – Dan Christensen Mar 20 '15 at 3:08
  • Personally, if I was told by someone, he/she knows about "nothing", I would be prompted to ask "And then what was/is it?". My mother said same thing when the big bang theory quoted the universe was born from "nothing". In "ordinary" dialect, I think "nothing" can be spoken because there is "something" on the other side. – Kentaro Tomono Mar 20 '15 at 7:34
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The question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' is a question from Leibniz (Warum ist überhaupt etwas/Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts?), but in Heidegger's reading it can be considered the root of philosophy.

This means two things. Chronologically, the Greek philosophers were struck by an experience (Plato: Greek 'thaumazein', usually translated as 'wonder') that is expressed in this question: why is there something rather than nothing? This is the defining philosophical question, rather than a empirical/scientific question. An empirical question asks about a certain character of a certain being, e.g. why does an apple fall to the ground. The philosophical asks about being in general.

Secondly, in Heidegger's reading, this experience based philosophical question of Being/beings is the basis of the entire philosophy until himself. This question was elaborated and formalized by Plato and especially Aristotle. There this question takes a narrowed turn. Aristotle focuses not on Being as such, but the Being (Sein) in general of a being (Seiendes). He asks what a being is qua being, what the essence (ousia) of a being is. For example, his 10 categories are about this essence, and so are the 4 causes.

Heidegger assesses this critically: this essence is again assumed to be a certain being (the form, and finally God). So rather than asking after Being as such, the philosopher asks what being is fundamentally the essence of beings. This, according to Heidegger, determines the rest of philosophical history, where these basic assumptions are not questioned, but merely go through certain variations. E.g. essence of being becomes representation (Vorstellung) in Descartes and Kant, becomes will to power in Nietzsche.

For Heidegger, Leibniz' question is therefore a formulation of the root question of philosophy, especially formulated somewhat sharper as 'why there are there beings rather than nothing?' rather than 'why there is something rather than nothing?'. In the essay (Introduction to metaphysics), Heidegger himself stresses this question differently: rather than beings, he stresses the nothing. For him, one should not ask about the essence of beings, but about the (apparent) opposite of Nothing, Being as such.

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I think in a very general sense this is true. Philosophy is essentially about the big picture questions, and this is as big a picture question as you can get. You get back to it eventually, whether you take a theistic or non-theistic view. If you say "God created the universe, and that's why the universe exists," then the next question is "Why does God exist?" If you say "the Big Bang created the universe, and that's why it exists," then the next question is "and why did the Big Bang happen?" Why is there something instead of nothing?

As far as your analogy, I wouldn't agree with it -- you might try this instead:

Philosophy: Science: Engineering :: Theology: Religion: Ritual

Philosophy is to science as theology is to religion. Science is to engineering as religion is to ritual. Or, if you prefer:

Philosophy: Theology:: Science: Religion

Philosophy is to theology as science is to religion.

  • To the downvoter --I'd appreciate an explanation. – Chris Sunami Mar 21 '15 at 0:15
  • Answer does not address Heidegger. – jeroenk Mar 23 '15 at 12:10
  • @jeroenk If you read the OP carefully, the poster describes Heidegger only as the inspiration for the question. The actual inquiry is referenced to the field of philosophy as a whole. – Chris Sunami Mar 23 '15 at 13:42
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If you look in Russells History of Western Philosophy you'll see that he posits Thales as the first Western Philosopher; Thales said everything is made of water. Quite what he made of it is difficult to say. Still, Russell suggests that this description meant that there were no supernatural explanations - Thales didn't say that the gods were behind everything. Russell also suggests that it is also a monistic theory, meaning only one principle behind the world; in the sense that everything came from water.

This then (skipping a few other philosophers) brings us to Parmenides; who said nothing is not; and using this provides a strong argument (half of which has come down to us) shoring up Thales monism; according to him all is one, eternal and without motion.

This now might sound ridiculous: but here is one interpretation - the laws governing physics were many in the 16th Century - Gravity, Electrical, Magnetic, Heat and in the 20 Century a couple more were added - the Strong and the Weak.

Now, all of these forces have been slowly combined into one theory - first Heat was identified with motion; and then with energy. The electrical and magnetic force were combined into electromagnetism; and then this with the Strong and Weak force.

Quantum Gravity is an umbrella term which combines everything into one theory - or as it was jocularly named - TOE - The Theory of Everything; there are a few results in this direction; but most of it is quite uncertain.

Now let us take this progression and look at it with a philosophical eye on Parmenides (and therefore Thales)

All is One we see the many laws being slowly eroded in number; so we posit that there is one universal law.

There is no motion Not only that, this law must be unchanging - ie without change, without motion (motion was understood differently by the Greeks; if one looks in Aristotles Physics for example - motion in its widest aspect is change).

It is eternal Finally one aspect of its universality, is that it must be eternal - that is valid for all time.

Thus we've provided an interpretation of Parmenides notion that links up with Modern Physics.

But consider now, not an interpretation but its importance. Historically some philosophers were uncomfortable with the vanishing of change, and posited atoms; now each atom is a Parmenidian One - eternal and unchanging; and the atoms move in the Void.

This concept, is of course one of the most important ones in Modern Physics - and there has been much work around this notion; so an argument against Parmenides was significant in the development of Modern Physics.

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I recently took an introductory Philosophy course at my college and the professor told us that Philosophy is the attempt to rationally explain the phenomena of the world. And if ever such a description becomes formalisable then it comes to be called science. This last part also addresses the analogy you had in mind. I would say, as understood by the layman at least, Philosophy is closer to religion than it is to science.

As others might have mentioned, an accessible and worthy introduction to Philosophy is Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy. There Russell addresses, among other things, this problem of what Philosophy is and in what light it may be understood.

protected by user2953 Jan 27 '16 at 0:18

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