I was talking to a friend, and she said: even before the Big Bang and the origin of space and time, still something existed.

That sparked the question: how would you define ‘existence’? What philosopher has found a formal definition?

  • 2
    This is a humongous question in philosophy. (here's an article on it: plato.stanford.edu/entries/existence ) – virmaior Oct 19 '18 at 6:54
  • Very very difficult concept to be defined ... You can comapre two different approaches: that of Parmenides : "What Is is; for it is to be,/ but nothing it is not." In a nuthsell "Parmenides] argues with devastating precision that once one has said that something is, one is debarred from saying that it was or will be, of attributing to it an origin or a dissolution in time, or any alteration or motion whatsoever. " 1/2 – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 19 '18 at 8:26
  • With Meinong's view about non-existence objects : "Being (or non-being) is not part of an object's nature". 2/2 – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Oct 19 '18 at 8:27
  • 3
    I would like to emphasise the comment of @virmaior - existence has been defined or at least discussed by every philosopher throughout history that did metaphysics/ontology. Regarding those we know of today, this includes virtually every single historical figure and all major contemporary philosophers. It may help to restrict the question to discussions of and positions on existence before the big bang, which would still be quite broad a field – Philip Klöcking Oct 19 '18 at 9:59
  • On the whole I find modern philosophers very vague about existence.and cannot think offhand of any who give a clear definition. But this may be an artefact of the selection I happen to have read. . – PeterJ Oct 19 '18 at 11:11

Taking a Kantian view, of "interpreting existence as relation to the cognitive faculty", the nature of the existence of phenomena pre-dating any observer is inferred. That is to say, the existence of a Big Bang singularity is inferred, not a result of contemporaneous perception.

To elaborate on Kant's view, in the following quote Heidegger develops Thomas Aquinas' ontology through to Kant's.

Existere is something other than essence; it has its being on the basis of being caused by another. Omne quodest directe in praedicamento substantiae, compositum est saltem ex esse et quod est; [de Veritate 27 i Ans.8] each ens, therefore as ens creatum is a compositum ex esse et quod est, of existing and of whatness. This compositum is what it is, compositio realis; that is to say, correspondingly: the distinctio between essentia and existentia is a distinctio realis. Esse, or existere, is conceived of also, in distinction from quod est or esse quod, as esse quo or ens quo. The actuality of an actual being is something else of such a sort that it itself amounts to a res on its own account.

If we compare it with the Kantian thesis, the Thomistic thesis says - indeed, in agreement with Kant - that existence, there-being, actuality, is not a real predicate; it does not belong to the res of a thing but is nevertheless a res that is added on to the essentia. By means of his interpretation, on the other hand, Kant wishes to avoid conceiving of actuality, existence, itself as a res; he does this by interpreting existence as relation to the cognitive faculty, hence treating perception as position.

from The Distinction Between Essentia and Existentia in Scholasticism


Etymologically speaking, existence is defined as:

the fact or state of living or having objective reality.

But that doesn't even begin to cover your question because two instant follow-ups to that definition is "what is objective reality" and "how do we know it's true".

So to stick to your question, physicists state that talking about before the Big Bang is nonsensical. At least with our current understanding of physics. Reason being that time as we know it began with the big bang. So to say that something existed before it, is equal to saying "time before there was time".

In addition, existence as we currently understand it is thought of as temporal. So unless there was some different kind of time before our time, there could be no existence before the Big Bang.

Does that make any sense?


Some references:

  • You can check out Lawrence Krauss' book, A Universe from Nothing.
  • The Universe in a Nutshell, is a relatively short video presentation of our understanding of the universe by Michio Kaku that touches on the same subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NbBjNiw4tk
  • 2
    Well, we are on Philosophy.SE, not physics, and actually, there are many philosophers pointing out that any metaphysical assertion regarding the universe before the big bang is speculative/nonsensical because of epistemological reasons. In any case, it would help to call names and point the questioners towards sources which they may base their knowledge on. It would also help in getting hold of the aspect of 'existence' if you had sources discussing that in the context of their argument. As it stands, the answer seems to be handwaving towards a possible position, nothing more. – Philip Klöcking Oct 19 '18 at 9:42
  • 1
    Hmm. I thought this was a decent answer if rather casual. It suggests that to exist is to endure in time, a idea I suspect many people would endorse, in which case they cannot argue that anything existed prior to time. . – PeterJ Oct 19 '18 at 11:07
  • Yes, I feel like I jumped the gun on this one, but to my defence, it was a short question, so I didn't want to blabber on :) – Ted Oct 19 '18 at 11:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.