Ouroboros, birth and death

Betty asked:

Hello! I am a philosophical Luddite so please excuse my lack of correct language or whatever…

I’ve been doing some rather tangential research for an art project and I keep hitting things like — the cosmic egg and Phanes, Ouroboros, cosmological pessimism, anthropocentrism etc. This had led to me to marvel at the idea that, the two most solid truths for an anthropocene are Birth and Death, conversely, the two most popular unanswered queries when investigating the cosmos or non-human existence is; the Big Bang and the Black Hole. I’m interested in the symmetry and wondering if there is a particular tract of study that examines these things as a unity of opposites or sumfin sumfin? I’m not sure if this makes sense…

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The notion of a ‘unity of opposites’ first appeared in Presocratic philosophy with the thinker Heraclitus. Hegel’s dialectic is distantly inspired by Heraclitus, and in turn inspired Marx’s dialectical materialism and — possibly most interesting from your point of view — the Dialectics of Nature (1883) of Friedrich Engels. That may be what you are looking for.

I’m not really into that stuff (dialectics, dialectical logic etc.) but like you I do see the idea of a birth and death of the Cosmos, and the birth and death of the individual as being linked, although I wouldn’t use the term ‘identity’ or ‘unity’.

Whatever else you say or believe about it, the Cosmos, our ‘universe’, is contingent. The idea of a ‘beginning in time’ as this is normally conceived may be a red herring (if time comes into existence along with the Cosmos, see Hawking A Brief History of Time) but two things we do know are that: (1) assuming a Big Bang, there is the contingent possibility if not the necessity of a Big Crunch (or ‘Black Hole’ as you call it), (2) the Big Bang could have banged differently, it is a contingent fact that it banged in exactly the way it did — in order to produce this Earth, your question, my answer etc. etc.

For anyone with a sense of reality, contingency is anathema. Einstein, commenting on Niels Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, famously said that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. Whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be intrinsically random. That, in essence, is the motivation for the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God.

As an atheist, I’m not the least bit tempted by the God theory. But nor do I think that Einstein was necessarily appealing to the existence of God when he made his comment. Even if he was a believer, that was not the point. Einstein was expressing an intuition: the intuition that whatever is, in the ultimate sense, cannot be contingent and must be necessary.

According to the God theory, this universe is necessary because, in the words of the philosopher Leibniz, it is the ‘best of all possible worlds’. God, being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good could not have created any other universe than the one He did create. On the no-God theory, the only candidate I can see for a ‘necessary universe’ is the sum total of all possible worlds. All possible worlds are equally real, and this world of ours is just one of the uncountably many possible worlds. (See David Lewis On the Plurality of Worlds.)

Problem is, that doesn’t get us off the hook of contingency. And this is where you and I come in. Your existence is an extraordinary, fantastic accident. As is mine. Even if we assume the extraordinary accident that a habitable planet came into being and moreover life evolved eventually leading to the evolution of homo sapiens, the fact remains that in order for you or I to have been born, our parents had to meet — and their parents had to meet, and their parents and their parents all the way back to the emergence of life itself.

But here you are! and here I am!

If all possible worlds are real, one might well come to the conclusion that someone exactly like me — someone satisfying the totality of descriptions that apply to me — had to exist in some possible world. But why did I have to be that person? Why is there I in the world, rather than no I? That question is impossible to answer — or even coherently express — because I am the very one asking it.

What do you or I know about reality or ‘necessary existence’? I know that I exist, and whatever ways the world might have been (whatever possible worlds exist) this world is the actual world because I am in it. Full stop. And you can say the same. We are unutterably contingent, you and I. There is no link back to what is ultimately necessary, no possible explanation why there is I rather than no I, or you rather than no you.

Being contingent, there is nothing to prevent this universe, the actual world, coming to an end. And the same applies to you and me. Whatever discoveries may be made in the future that lead to the extension of human life, possibly its indefinite extension, you and I will die. Maybe sooner, maybe later.

But if you really think about it, the fact that you were born at all is as scary as the fact that you are going to die. Your two states of non-existence — before birth and after death — are indeed ‘the same’.

The mythical creature Ouroboros is a powerful, pungent image of self-sufficiency, the idea of a being that is not dependent on anything outside itself. It is, perhaps, the first or at least one of the earliest depictions of a neccessary being. It is also the stark opposite of what you and I are. We are fragile, contingent, dependent on external conditions, utterly unnecessary. There is no reason why we are here, just as there is no reason why our world is the way it is.

Learning to deal with that realization is the beginning of philosophy.

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