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In our current state of affairs it is safe and reasonable to assume something exists - be it a universe, pure conciousness, illusion or other designations. If some readers nevertheless claim something does not exist right now, then this question effectively becomes meaningless to them but for us "cogito ergo sum" should suffice.

So, let us (justifiably) assume right now something exists.

Therefore, when this something (as a whole) cannot come from nothing, then something must have always existed and cannot have a beginning. Is that entity the Universe or the Creator, is a different topic and a different question.

However, when this something can come from nothing, then this something (the whole of reality) might not have always existed and thus can have a beginning. Is that entity the Universe or something else, is also a different topic and a different question.

And here lies the apparent contradiction: between the widely-accepted axiom that something cannot come from nothing and between the present scientific view that whatever there is, it must have had some kind of an absolute beginning.

Why is it a contradiction? Well, when something cannot come from nothing, then where did our reality come from? If it can't come from nothing, then either (the fundamental) reality itself is eternal, or it emerged from something eternal. The only way for our present reality to have an ultimate beginning is when something can in fact come from nothing. Otherwise everything requires something else prior to it, thus mandating that something must have always existed.

So, which way is it? Can something come out of nothing or not?

  • Just thinking out loud here. I formalize "something can come from nothing" as ∃x∄y(x COMES FROM y), or "there is some thing x such that there is no thing y that x comes from. The negation is ∀x∃y(x comes from y). – David H Sep 17 '13 at 15:23
  • It's not clear what the notions of "appearing" and "beginning" are in this context. When you write "something just might have appeared into existence and can have a beginning", it seems you are presupposing an existence in which that something wasn't there. If you think carefully about this, you'll see that, assuming "something coming from nothing" is coherent, that something cannot "appear" nor have a "beginning". After all, for such a something, there would no time when it didn't exist. – Alfred Centauri Sep 17 '13 at 15:41
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    If there was the same amount of matter and antimatter in the Universe so that they could mutually annihilate together into absolutely nothing (this may require anti-energy, but let's pretend that's possible). Would you consider there is something in the Universe or just nothing unevenly distributed? – Trylks Sep 17 '13 at 21:19
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    @Saul No, as always the burden is on you to establish why it is reasonable to assume something exists, with a precise definition of 'exists', which you have not given and will not give because you can't coherently give one because modern physics doesn't know what the fundamental building blocks of our universe are yet. – Alec Rhea Oct 28 '17 at 22:21
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    @Saul - You cannot talk about existence and not define it. If you do, your words will amount to nothing and a discussion becomes impossible. . – PeterJ Oct 30 '17 at 12:36

11 Answers 11

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One argument is that time itself has a beginning. And thus the universe can be eternal, in the sense of being existant at all times. One could also argue that time must have a beginning, for how can an infinite amount of time elapse for it to be now (this is one half of a pair of arguments by Kant - his antinomies - with which he argues that a certain concept is beyond human reason to establish).

This still leaves begging the question what 'happened' before time began. Although naively this question looks nonsensical since we no longer have time - for then what can before mean - it still has sense in a speculative & imaginative sense. The only rational sense it seems that one can pose such questions.

In fact, certain speculative cosmologies of the Big Bang implicitly allow something to be exist before the big bang. For example, the universe began as a quantum fluctuation; one must ask in what sense physical laws exist before there is a space & time as traditionally understood. For the assertion to make sense at least this much must be true.

The argument that something cannot come out of nothing is a metaphysical one that goes back to at least Parmenides, if not earlier. In fact in the phenomenal world things always have beginnings and endings. For example, I have my hand open & then I close it: a fist has appeared and an open palm has disappeared, but of course what has remained constant between this, is my hand.

If something comes out of nothing then by what agency has it happened? from whence did it come from? If we postulate some fundamental physical law that allows something to come out of nothing, then nothing+physical laws, is not in fact nothing.

  • Are we not then forced to conclude that something must have always existed or in other words, there is something eternal? – Saul Sep 17 '13 at 16:33
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    well, that was Parmenides conclusion. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 17 '13 at 17:05
  • How about Kant? Did he refute what Parmenides concluded? – Saul Sep 17 '13 at 17:28
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    In simple terms, he said that it was reasonable to say both that time had a beginning and that it did not. Thus being contradictory - or what he calls an antinomy - he says that the question is beyond our capacity to actually answer. On the whole, his project was to describe the limits of reason, and the conditions that made knowledge possible in a profound sense; he made consciousness complicit in our understanding of time and space, these are conditions which allow us to make sense of the world. – Mozibur Ullah Sep 17 '13 at 18:16
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    Much of the arguments surrouding the big bang do not argue there was "nothing" before the big bang, but that anything before the big bang is unmeasurable. (and even that has trouble) – Cort Ammon Dec 17 '14 at 3:48
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There is a scientific axiom that says 'proof lies in the assertion'. You are asking to prove a negation. Your question is asking why cannot - your asking for a proof of the negation, not an assertion. The question should be 'How can something come out of nothing' not 'Why cannot something come out of nothing'. Stephen Hawkings has recently argued as to how the universe can come out of nothing, but to my mind his argument is rather circular and it's not provable.

The Hindu scriptures say that the universe is eternal; there never was a time when it was not, nor will there be a time when it will not be. Rather they say that there are 'cycles' - the universe kind of ebbs and flows like the tides so to speak. The scriptures say there is a periods of expansion and periods of contraction, one following the other. At the end of a cycle, the universe almost completely contracts into Brahman where it rests in potentiality before expanding again. (Brahman which is by definition neither existence nor nonexistence). The current scientific theories as to a big bang, point to a beginning of the universe as we perceive it now, most people in the West get the scientific big bang theory confused with their Judeo-Christian beliefs that was taught them when they were young and lingers in all their analysis. They confuse 'beginning' with 'creation'. There is an assumption that before there was the big bang, there wasn't anything, that the universe thus came out of nothing - thus a creation. The big bang theory doesn't address what happened before; laymen assume there was nothing. Cosmologists don't know and we can never know by scientific means what came before. There are cosmologists that are now addressing that there are many universes; that we can only perceive our own. We are one verse in the mulitverse. In the Hindu scriptures it is said that our universe is like a small bubble on the ocean of Brahman, and there are many bubbles. Joseph Campbell does an excellent summary of this in the first chapter (chapter titled Eternity and Time) of the book "Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization" by Heinrich Zimmer, edited by Joseph Campbell.

For some 'thing' to come out of no 'thing' is not logical.

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See the Principle of Sufficient Reason (SEP):

The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason or cause.

Science is founded upon the idea that effects have causes which can be rationally investigated and characterized. To posit that there is no reason for something is as anathema as to say "God did it" and leave it at that. It's not clear that we could ever know that something came from nothing. Scientists often say that quantum fluctuations (our universe could be an exmaple of this) are random, but that's not a causal explanation. What we can say is that quantum fluctuations arise from a 'place' that has certain rules. But once you say that certain rules apply to that 'place' (the vacuum), is it any longer 'nothing'?

Another way to go about this is to try to construct a chain of causes, starting from 'nothing'. You essentially have two options:

  1. Anything can come from nothing.
  2. Only certain things can come from nothing.

Option #1 doesn't explain anything. Option #2 explains everything up to the set of boundary conditions. It doesn't explain the origin of the laws, but we can at least rule out the vast majority of logical possibility space, which is what science does according to Karl Popper. But does #2 really make semantic sense? How can 'nothing' have properties?

  • Everything with a beginning or just everything? Stating things that eternal have causes seems foolish to me. How can a thing that has never not existed have a cause? – Neil Meyer Oct 8 '13 at 10:10
  • @NeilMeyer I specifically avoided that quagmire. :-p I'm not sure that science has a good track record of talking about things which have always existed, though. – labreuer Oct 8 '13 at 17:34
  • @labreuer: Another problem is that the limits of human existence cannot let us assert that anything has always existed, only that something has existed within certain bounds. The observable universe has left evidence that it has meaningfully existed for ~14 billion years, and that at that time it was so fundamentally different in many respects to how it appears today. So, barring some extremely mind-bending breakthroughs in physics and cosmology, the 'Big Bang' event is probably as far back as we can possibly go, putting a hard upper limit on how well we can know that anything has existed. – Dave B Nov 27 '14 at 19:51
  • Physics does not postulate that every event has a cause. All it postulates is that every event is caused by all events in its past Cauchy Horizon. This does not exclude the possibility of events that have nothing in their past Cauchy Horizon. For example, the Friedmann Robertson Walker metric (the metric of the Big Bang) is a valid solution to General Relativity (GR has the Cauchy Horizon constraint), and yet it has an event - the singularity, i.e. the "beginning" - that has no past Cauchy Horizon. – Bridgeburners Apr 17 '17 at 20:36
  • @Bridgeburners: And yet, we have people like Lawrence Krauss working on explanations of how our universe is a fluctuation of something, a something which can be conflated with nothing when in its ground state. It is not clear that science will ever truly rest on uncaused phenomena. Or if this happens increasingly, it may start looking like 'religion'. – labreuer Apr 19 '17 at 19:10
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Their seems to be a certain amount of confusing the issues here. Asking if something can come out of nothing is not the same asking if their is no cause. It is entirely possible than their was nothing until a transcendent causal agent came along and decided to create something.

It seems the popular intuition that something cannot come from nothing is at odds with the current scientific view that whatever there is, it must have had some kind of a beginning.

I do not think this is really true. Einsteins era of physicist where convinced of an eternal universe. Why anyone would claim that everything has a beginning is beyond me. Why would exclude things from being eternal?

However, when something can come from nothing then something may not have existed always and can have a beginning. Is that entity the Universe or something else, is also another question.

This seem right to me. Asserting that a thing has some type of cause to its existence does seem to remove the quality of being eternal from it.

Can something come out of nothing or not? Why?

Yes because a all powerful transcendent cause willed it to be.

  • In this context, a transcendent causal agent is also something and not separate from it. The above question in essence inquired whether it is logically and also empirically reasonable to say there is something eternal or not. As Mozibur Ullah pointed out in the commentary to his answer, Immanuel Kant investigated this question also and concluded it constituted an antinomy - according to Kant, it is reasonable to say both that there is something eternal and that there is not. – Saul Oct 8 '13 at 14:15
  • Yes, this would be Nagarjuna's answer as well. Nondualism is a dual-aspect theory for which, as Lao Tsu says, 'true words seem paradoxical'. It's a bit like saying that an electron is a wave and a particle or neither, where these are aspects. For Kant's view to make sense we need Nagarjuna's 'Two Worlds' doctrine, the idea that there are two levels of analysis. the the conventional and the ultimate, thus 'Two Truths'. Kant almost got there but we have to take up where he left off. – PeterJ Nov 6 '17 at 14:42
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               Can something come from nothing?

Recently a very intelligent question has been raised by a famous American atheist: how can a non-thing have any attributes? Atheists do not believe in the existence of God. So, as per them God is a non-thing, and therefore this non-existent God, or this non-thing, cannot have any attributes at all. But here I will show that even if God does not exists, still then this non-existent God (non-thing) can actually have many attributes.

For this purpose I will take the case of a stone that does not exist, and I will ask the question: can we destroy a non-existent stone? The answer is very simple indeed: no, we cannot. A non-existent stone cannot be destroyed, simply because it does not exist at all. So we can say that a non-existent stone is indestructible. This is one attribute that the non-existent stone can have. Similarly it can be shown that this non-existent stone can have many other attributes also.

The non-existent stone is not within any space, because it does not exist, and therefore it cannot have any space at all. Therefore it is spaceless.

The non-existent stone is not within any time, because it does not exist, and therefore it cannot have any time at all. Therefore it is timeless.

As the non-existent stone is neither in space nor in time, so the non-existent stone cannot change at all. This is because change can occur either in space, or in time. So the non-existent stone does not get any chance to change at all, and thus the non-existent stone is changeless.

A non-existent stone can never cease to be, because ceasing to be is also some sort of change. And we have already seen that no change can ever occur for the non-existent stone, because the necessary condition for the occurrence of any sort of change in it does not exist at all. So the non-existent stone will never cease to be. But what does it mean that the non-existent stone will never cease to be? It means that the non-existent stone will forever remain a non-existent stone.

Similarly it can be shown that the non-existent stone will always be unborn, uncreated, without any beginning and without an end. This is because it has already been made very clear that no change can ever occur for the non-existent stone. But to be born is some sort of change. Being created is also some sort of change. Having a beginning is also some sort of change. Coming to an end is also some sort of change. As the non-existent stone can never change at all, therefore it will always be unborn, uncreated, without any beginning and without an end.

But what does it mean that the non-existent stone is without any beginning and without an end? It means that the non-existent stone is everlasting. But if the non-existent stone is everlasting, then the next question will be: is it everlasting in its existence? Or, is it everlasting in its non-existence? As the stone does not exist, so here we will have to say that it is everlasting in its non-existence. But if it is everlasting in its non-existence, then we can also say that it is everlastingly non-existent. But if it is everlastingly non-existent, then that will mean that it can never come into existence from its everlasting non-existence. It will forever remain into its everlasting non-existence. This will further imply that something can come from something only, and that something can never come from nothing.

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    Who is that famous atheist you're mentioning? Your answer could use some sources or references. – iphigenie Nov 15 '13 at 11:42
  • "For this purpose I will take the case of a stone that does not exist" - You posit something that does not exist. Then you attribute to that concept positive judgements in the form of negations (non-temporal, non-spacial, etc). Isn't this a mistake? Because what you are describing is not simply "a non-existent stone", but non-existence itself. You can replace the stone with apple, orange, man, vehicle, etc but don't need to change the logic. What would the answer be if I ask if your non-existing stone is rough or smooth? What colour is it? – nakiya Dec 4 '14 at 8:13
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"Can something come out of nothing or not? Why?"

Our "laws of physics" are actually just observations of the world as we currently experience it. One of them is "Nothing can come from nothing".

If there is nothing, then there are also no 'laws of physics' - meaning the statement "nothing can come of nothing" has no meaning, and so in those circumstances, all our humanly assumptions are null.

  • Thank you for the answer. The word "assume" in the question is meant in a different sense -- in the sense of taking existence for granted and justifiably so. The goal was to investigate the apparent contradiction between "nothing can come from nothing" and "everything must have a beginning". The thing is, either something can in fact come from nothing or otherwise something must have always existed. The question was, which way is it. That's all. To that question, Mozibur Ullah has provided both an excellent answer and an excellent commentary also. I recommend reading it, it is very accessible. – Saul Nov 26 '14 at 16:42
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We have never observed "nothing". Actually, we will never and cannot ever be able to observe "nothing", because this would imply that we exist and therefore there isn't "nothing".

In physics, we observe things (sometimes by making experiments and observing the results), and then we create theories about laws of physics which would hopefully be consistent with our observations. We then design often clever experiments that would let us observe things inconsistent with the theory if the theory is wrong, to get more confidence with the theory. If we are reasonably sure that the theory matches reality as far as observed, we accept it.

Since we can never observe "nothing", we cannot use this method to create theories in physics describing what would happen when there is "nothing".

We also have mathematics. Many physical theories can be matched with mathematical models. Actually, all physical theories that I know of can. But we can create mathematical models without having a theory. So we could create mathematical models that would describe what happens if there is "nothing".

The two simplest such model will say that if we have "nothing", we will have "nothing" forever. Or that if we have "nothing", we don't even have time, so we will have "nothing" (not forever, because there is no time).

Now we observe that there isn't "nothing" now. And we can postulate that there was always something, but we could also postulate that at some point there was "nothing". Which means that "something" has come from "nothing". We don't know. Since we cannot observe back in time infinitely far, we don't have physical theories for that postulate either.

We can then try to create mathematical models: Mathematical models that describe how there was always something, or mathematical models that describe how something came from nothing. If one model is significantly simpler (or we can only find a model for one case), we might declare this model as likely correct. But really, at that point we are only guessing.

  • As I already pointed out, the main goal of this question was not to speculate anything but to investigate the apparent contradiction between "something cannot come from nothing" and "everything must have a beginning". The thing is, either something can in fact come from nothing or otherwise something must have always existed. It is one or the other, but not both. The question was, which way is it. That's all. To that question, Mozibur Ullah has provided both an excellent answer and an excellent commentary also. I recommend reading it, it is very accessible. – Saul Nov 26 '14 at 16:46
  • Where is my answer speculating about anything? It takes your question, re-phrases it in a meaningful way, analyses it, and tells what we can and what we cannot say about an answer. – gnasher729 Nov 27 '14 at 11:03
  • Thank you for the clarification. I simply referred to your choice of arguments and the concluding remark of your answer. One of the reasons I asked my question in terms of metaphysics and ontology and not physics or mathematics was precisely that gaining knowledge through direct observation or mathematical models is sometimes not possible. However, that doesn't mean truth in such matters can't be discovered. It can, through logic and metaphysical proofs by contradiction. That is why I am objecting here. A question of ontology is not a question of physics. The path it treads is a bit different. – Saul Nov 27 '14 at 14:06
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"Can something come out of nothing"? It certainly is a possibility for the Creator, since that is one of His powers.

However, even the Creator did not "abuse" His powers and created "something from nothing." He created the Universe from His "essence".

Since the Universe was created from His essence, it is eternal. Only the form of the Universe had a beginning. Just like ice, even though its form has a beginning, it is still the same water molecules that existed before becoming ice.

In conclusion - no, something can not come out of nothing!

  • Thank you. The thing is, my question addresses Creation and its Creator as a single unified whole. So, I am not sure if conclusions that pre-suppose a fundamental separation between the two can answer such an inquiry. Nevertheless, you are welcome to continue and improve on your initial thought, in case you feel like it. Cheers! – Saul Dec 16 '14 at 22:30
  • @Saul: From my perspective, I am addressing the Creation and its Creator as a "unified whole." The best way to explain this is that since infinity + 1 is still infinity, like wise the Creator + the Creation is still the Creator. This is a direct consequence of the Creator being eternal. – Guill Mar 26 '15 at 5:00
  • Yes, but that does not really answer the question. You're simply postulating that something (the Creator) is eternal. That, however, gives us very little information as to why such a postulate is correct or useful to adopt in the first place. If you happen to be interested in expanding your current thoughts even more, you might want to re-visit the question -- it has been clarified and (hopefully) improved since the time you posted your original answer. – Saul Mar 26 '15 at 8:47
  • Saul, I reviewed your clarified statements and I come essentially to the same conclusions. It is precisely because "something" can not come from "nothing," that one thing (a Creator) that exists eternally, is required! Your statement, "The only way for our present reality to have an ultimate beginning is when something can in fact come from nothing," is in fact not true. Scientist use the term "vacuum" when referring to "nothing," philosophers use the term "nothing" when referring to the absence of every thing (including a Creator)! – Guill May 26 '15 at 4:13
  • Continuing with my comment, it is not the same thing to say "our universe was created by/from a vacuum fluctuation" as to say, "our universe was created from nothing." – Guill May 26 '15 at 4:26
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The problem of your question is the idea of "nothing".

It is neither nothing nor any particular thing.

What is nothing? Is it some blankness?

Where does that come from and from whence does this order come from?

The only answer to your question is to posit a Quantum Sea of Unknowability.

Consider it like heat or Hiesenberg's Uncertainty.

Or, you can view it like S in physics describing Boltzmann's Entropy where S = k log W, where W is the number of states.

The universe is probably something like infinity, but you also don't know the base of the log, and k (the Boltzmann constant) is a bias in present science in favor of the atomic model of matter.

So, in the end, you can't actually quantify it.

Get it?

  • You are not answering the original question and you are ignoring the labels the question has -- it is not possible to argue against a question of metaphysics and ontology using arguments of physics. To have some sense what this discussion is about you can start with considering an object that has no properties whatsoever -- no mass, no charge, no awareness and no position. A complete and absolute ontological zero instead of whatever there is at the moment. The question is about the contradiction between "ex nihilo nihil fit" and the rather undeservedly famous "Big Bang". – Saul Mar 8 '17 at 15:31
  • @Saul: No you are wrong. You cannot consider an "object that has no properties at all", because that is a logical impossibility. – TheDoctor Mar 10 '17 at 14:39
  • That is the whole point. If such an object could exist then it would have properties which is the opposite of our premise. Nothing does not exist. Nothing "does" the opposite of existing. However, the above question is about something else. Please stay on topic and find some way to contribute useful information. If you don't like the question then please do find another one as this question already has its topic and limits in place and they are not going to change. – Saul Mar 10 '17 at 18:58
  • @Saul: okay, i've edited my answer. I still reference physics, but only analogically. – TheDoctor Oct 26 '17 at 21:20
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I believe the current theory of Quantum Mechanics is that some particles pop into and out of existence all of the time. I think they call that a "quantum fluctuation".

I have heard it postulated that the Big Bang was a sorta helluva quantum fluctuation. Very improbable to happen, but if you can wait around for eternity, I guess anything can happen.

Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer was asked about this and he said something sorta intriguing: "Perhaps something is more stable than nothing."

If nothing is a state, then all possible states that this can transition to is either the same nothing (which might be virtually 100% likely, but not exactly 100%) or many zillion possible states of something. But once we've transitioned from nothing to something (despite the unlikelihood, but eventually even the unlikely will happen as long as it is possible) then, when the state is something the likelihood to transition back to a state of nothing (amidst the zillion of other something states) is also tremendously unlikely.

Nothing is a state sorta like perfectly balancing a pencil on its tip. Theoretically, if you get it to balance perfectly and if there are no disturbing forces, the pencil should stay balanced on its tip. But if, for whatever reason, including randomness, it were to tilt slightly in any direction, that unstable state of balanced on its tip will transition to a far more stable state of lying on its side in some a priori unknown direction. I think this is sorta what Shermer means when he says that the union of a zillion different states of something is far more stable than the singular state of nothing.

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The problem is caused by the assumption that anything fundamentally, metaphysically or independently exists. Clearly many things seem to exist but what exactly do we mean by 'exists'. We usually mean 'appears to exist'. A common metaphysical view would be that nothing really exists and this changes the nature of the question being asked here.

The problem goes away if we adopt a certain view of existence. It will continue to plague us while we do not adopt this view. The Perennial philosophy deals with all such problems but for some reason this is not enough to make it plausible to most of those who cannot solve them.

  • Well.. I think you're collating existential experience with a purely logical deduction. You can observe something. That's a fact. The question, however, wasn't about existential experience which is already a given. The question is about what can be deduced from it. The term "assume" functions simply as a placeholder for the fact of observation, it's not there in any speculative capacity. I recommend reading the (accepted) answer Mozibur provided. It's quite excellent. – Saul Aug 2 '18 at 15:08
  • @Saul. I see. So you think it is a good approach to using your reason to deduce the truth about existence to start by taking existence as a given rather than examining it? Descartes must be turning in his grave. I wonder what you mean by 'existence'. It is not difficult to deduce that nothing really exists for if it did the paradox you're trying to solve would arise, as you are discovering. – PeterJ Aug 2 '18 at 19:13
  • I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be a good approach. Cognition requires both a subject and an object, hence at least something indeed exists (Q.E.D.) So yes, I think the approach is quite solid. By existence I mean the object of "cogito", whichever it may be. As you argue, one could simply declare that nothing really exists and find the question meaningless but that particular view doesn't explain any of the observations I've highlighted in the question. In contrast, the limits to reason as described by Kant explain them quite succinctly. – Saul Aug 2 '18 at 22:28
  • Kant was a good philosopher and did not make the mistake of taking anything for granted. The fact that cognition requires a subject and object tells us nothing about what exists. Kant concluded that existence outruns cognition. , You have thrown out this possibility without examination. Where assumptions give rise to a intractable problem it's a good idea to investigate whether dropping the assumption solves the problem. – PeterJ Aug 3 '18 at 11:17
  • I must say, you're strangely insistent about a question that (according to your view) doesn't really exist. Existence might indeed outrun cognition and probably does but that doesn't make cognition invalid within its limits. Nor would I say that undecidability is a sign of a problem. Undecidability is a sign of a limit. I understand that you want to reframe the question here but as far as I can see, there's no reason for it. If you want to answer a different question, you can just create it and continue your thought over there. The question on this page is already written, and answered. – Saul Aug 3 '18 at 15:52

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