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Why anything? Why this?


Derek Parfit died on 1 January. Bernard Williams reviewed Reasons and Persons when it came out in 1984:

Derek Parfit has written a brilliantly clever and imaginative book which treats in a very original way a wide range of ethical questions. It spends virtually no time on meta-ethics (perhaps too little), but it avoids many of the deformations that sometimes afflict first-order ethical philosophy. It makes contact with other subjects, such as welfare economics. It is deeply involved with some other parts of philosophy, in particular with questions of personal identity and of what a person is. It also starts the subject, rightly, not within the sphere of morality but in the wider area of practical reason, setting out from the question ‘what have we most reason to do?’ rather than from any distinctively ‘moral’ question.

Parfit’s essay ‘Why anything? Why this?’ was published in the LRB in two parts in 1998:

Why does the Universe exist? There are two questions here. First, why is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Second, why does this Universe exist? Things might have been, in countless ways, different. So why is the Universe as it is?

Comments on “Why anything? Why this?”

  1. streetsj says:

    Two topics I rarely read in the lRB are Philosophy and English Literature. The former because I can’t understand it and the latter because it generally seems to have lost sight of the plot. So I hadn’t heard of Parfit until yesterday when, following a Twitter link, I read this
    Now I’m thinking I might give him a go. But I’m going to start with the 1998 LRB essay…

  2. dcuprichard says:

    Read 1998 LRB essay part 1, and the 2011 New Yorker article. It’s a rabbit hole, but I’ve seen worse.

  3. lagan says:

    john berger has been been one of my most beloved writers for a long time including his video discussions as well as his wonderful singing, describing and playing with words and drawn images … one of my favorite videos is of john sitting in his kitchen with the wondrous brazilian photographer, sebastiao salgado, two of my creative, intellectual, spiritual heroes in my 78 years of living in those same ways … i love you, john, thank you … your dear friend, lagan

    • streetsj says:

      I can’t find that video but i did come across Ways of Seeing on You Tube
      Only meant to watch a minute or two – watched the whole half an hour and then had to consciously stop myself feeding on Part 2 as there is “work” to be done. It’s gripping and there’s nothing distracting in it – dressing up, walking and talking, music etc etc.

  4. Joe Morison says:

    Parfit was the great moral philosopher of out time (with a deferential nod to Tom Nagel’s The Possibility of Altruism). Although Reasons and Persons is a monumental achievement, I think it too granulated and technical for non-experts. But if anyone wants a brilliant clear survey and criticism of modern moral theory, they could not do better than the first volume of his final great work On What Matters. His aim is to show that the three most influential approaches to ethics -the Kantian, the Contractualist, and the Consequentialist- are not in conflict in the way most of their proponents think, but are in fact ‘climbing the same mountain on different sides’. It’s truly beautiful (I think he’s a bit unfair to Act Consequentialism, but that’s another story).

    • Joe Morison says:

      Unification is always beautiful (look at physics) but what he does in On What Matters is especially so in that he’s taken a lot of people arguing about what the goodness of a good act consists in, and told them that they are all right. To understand goodness philosophically; it’s not enough to look at just one of these theories, you’ve got to understand all of them – and, presumably, more yet to come.

  5. Ron5 says:

    The question “Why does the Universe exist?” is a non-question, despite Bede Rundle calling it “philosophy’s central, and most perplexing question”.

    It is nonsensical to state that “It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time.” How could that have been “true”. True in which sense? How could it be tested? What is “truth” when there is nothing around?

    This is a theological question, not a philosophical one. The only answer can be given by believers. If one believers that God exists, then there is no problem. For others, it is (or should be) a non-problem.

    • Joe Morison says:

      If there was nothing, it wouldn’t be true that there was nothing; nobody is suggesting that it would be. The possibility of there never having been anything is an object of meditation not something to be proved, and that such meditation can produce a profound awe and perplexity that there should be something rather than nothing is a deep fact about people. To say that it shouldn’t be is a bit like saying a stone shouldn’t fall. (And it’s a bigger problem for the religious, not no problem: if it’s odd that there should be something rather than nothing, how much odder that that something should be infinitely good and powerful. – And even odder, why did it wait forever to create us?)

      • Ron5 says:

        The fact, as you say, that meditation can produce “profound awe” about why, what and how, is no more surprising than the fact that drugs can produce similar thoughts (even though I thought that meditation produced no-thought).

        It is the non-religious who consider it to be a big(ger) problem for religion. The questions you ask are not considered questions at all by believers. For them, there is nothing odd about the phenomena you mention: it’s simply that that is what God decided.

        • Joe Morison says:

          I didn’t say awe at the very fact of existence is surprising, I said it is fundamental to being human, the root feeling at the heart of philosophy, religion, and much great art (if not awe then, at least, deep perplexity – as those still waiting for Godot can testify).

          It’s a while since I’ve read much theology; but as I recall, questions as to the necessity of God’s goodness and omnipotence are at its heart. And as for deciding, I’m hardly the only one (non-believer or not) to find the idea of waiting forever before choosing to do something problematic.

      • John Cowan says:

        The Creator, if there is one, didn’t wait forever to create the universe, because “forever” is a temporal concept that applies only within the universe. Either the Creator has a completely orthogonal time to ours (as human creators do, who are perfectly able to write novels from the end forwards or in any other direction), or has no sequential time at all, like the heptapods in Arrival.

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