The Mystery of Existence — From the Cosmos to God

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The question of why there is something rather than nothing is the most fundamental of all questions. This is not the question of why some particular thing exists, but the mystery of existence itself. When we stop to contemplate existence in the abstract, we find ourselves in an encounter with reality that at every moment presents us with an immeasurable paradox.

When we look at the world and turn our attention beyond the particular things which exist, to the type of existence they have, we see that everything is in a transient state of being. Everything is constantly in the process of becoming something else, and so also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is an existential fragility to everything in the world. Nothing within it needs to be here, yet there it is regardless.

And if we contemplate this mystery carefully we realize this question is far more profound that how one physical state comes from a previous state; or how physical things persist through time; or even how the universe itself was created. It is the mystery of how things which exist in such a precarious way, which are so lacking in any stability of existence, should exist rather than not.

In our own lives we ponder this mystery of existence more personally, and more directly. We all have knowledge of our own mortality, we know that one day we will cease to be. Our bodies are constantly transforming, cells within are dying and more are being born in the process of metabolism. A constant movement of energy which is necessary to hold entropy and non-existence at bay.

This question of the nature of existence holds a perennial fascination for philosophers. It’s been the subject of contemplation from the time of Plato and Aristotle and for many philosophers since.

The mystery it involves was described in more modern times by the philosopher Richard Taylor. He asks us to imagine being out for a stroll in the woods and coming across a large translucent sphere.

One would be immediately struck by its strangeness, why would such a thing be there, why would it exist? We would never accept that it was there for no reason and nothing caused it to exist to be a satisfactory response to the question of its existence.

But Taylor points out that the strangeness of the existence of the sphere also applies to all the others things in the woods. The only reason we neglect to ask the same question about the rocks, the birds, and the trees is because those things are familiar to us. We are accustomed to seeing them and so we forget to question why they exist.

Taylor goes further and points out the question is no less important, and no less strange, if we imagine the sphere expanded to the size of a universe, or reduced to the size of a grain of sand. The question which confronts us is always the same. It exists, yet there is nothing about the thing itself which answers why it does.

And this is true about everything we observe. There is an existential dependence which permeates the cosmos. Everything within it depends at every moment on a myriad of conditions outside itself. All things are impermanent, transitory and endlessly changeable. We become aware of the realization that nothing within the cosmos contains the source of its own existence within itself.

It is this fundamental mystery about existence that no purely physical explanation can solve. So it has prompted the intuition there must be something beyond the world of our senses.

Something which is the foundation of the constantly changing forms of matter. Like an unseen movie projector which illuminates the flickering momentary existence of each still frame; producing the mirage of an enduring state of being from a fleeting state of becoming.

This something else must be quite unlike all the things we are familiar with. It must be something which doesn’t depend on anything else for its existence. It must be something which is in a permanent state of being, rather than a constant state of becoming. It must be the source of the illumination, the substance behind the facade, the ground on which it all rests.

Which is why most philosophers have answered this mystery with God, or something very like him. From the observation of the fragility and existential contingency of the world, they infer there must be something which supports it all. Something which holds the entire web of nature in existence from moment to moment.

And to be the ground of everything else’s being, it must first and foremost be the ground of its own being. The question of why it exists is answered by the type of thing it is. If we know what it is, that is sufficient to also know that it is, that it exists. And it is this something else that everyone calls God.

The source of all existence. The creator. The sustainer. Both transcendent to all things, and also immanent within all things. The cause of all causes. The Supremely Real.

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