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Why The World Does Not Exist


Why The World Does Not Exist


in conversation with Markus Gabriel

Does the world itself exist? German philosopher Markus Gabriel talks to four by three about his latest book Why the World Does Not Exist, tackling the big questions of ontology, why we should abandon metaphysics and why his theory of fields of sense can help us overcome the failures of post-modernism.

Even though you have argued that society has materially and spiritually benefited from attempting to grasp the world in its entirety, you deny that the world exists in your latest book Why the World Does Not Exist (Polity Press, 2015). What motivated you to reject the concept of the world and why should we repudiate this profoundly familiar conviction? And how does your account differ from that of other philosophers, such as Heidegger or Wittgenstein?  

Markus Gabriel: The idea that there is such a thing as the world in its entirety, in particular, very early on in Greek philosophy, comes to be understood as the view that there are overall principles/laws governing everything there is. This is the birthplace of the notion that there is a universe and that the universe is governed by exactly one set of laws. Against this background, humanity has been trying to figure out what exactly those principles were, because insight into those principles promised them some kind of omniscience. Plato and Aristotle clearly tell us that we can somehow know everything by knowing the principles of the world as such.

This form of thinking contributed to the modern ideal of science as a guide to ultimate truth about what there really is. However, the fundamental problem with the idea of a world and an associated world-view (be it scientific, religious, mythological or what have you) is that it can only allow for one set of principles or laws and, therefore, only for one kind of entity to inhabit the world. Somewhat surprisingly, even if you are a dualist and accordingly believe that there are two kinds of things, minds and mind-less objects, you will think of them along the same lines so that they can be seen as inhabiting the same realm. You will look for their causal interaction and wonder how mind and brain hang together and so on. The idea is that implicitly or explicitly existence itself is interpreted as belonging to the world and what it is to belong to the world must be the same for everything there is. It is no coincidence that Descartes, the most famous dualist of all times, argues that minded (thinking) and mind-less things are both substances and that ultimately, there really is only one substance (which he calls God). Ultimately, even Descartes is a monist, someone who believes that world-membership is characterized by a special feature of things, namely that they all be substances. I take all of this to be profoundly misguided on many levels.

Even though one might read Wittgenstein and Heidegger as pointing in a similar direction, there are many details in our accounts that differ. Both reject the position that philosophy is a theoretical activity and want to replace it by something else (Heidegger through thinking and Wittgenstein through therapeutic elucidation). Also, Heidegger never gives up on the existence of the world, as for him reaching out to the whole of beings is what it is to be what he calls a ‘Dasein,’ that is a free being like us. He explicitly writes that our freedom consists precisely in establishing criteria of world-entry (Welteingang) for entities out of nothing, what he therefore calls nihil originarium (original nothing). For him, the world is not itself substantial, but a set of overall assumptions we need to make at each point in the history of philosophy in order to make sense of non-human things being there. Wittgenstein certainly is not looking for a world-picture himself, but also gives a lot of credit to the view that we cannot help, but make world-picture-like overall assumptions about what there is and how we fit into it. In On Certainty he explicitly gives some kind of substance to notions like ‘world-picture’ and ‘mythology’ and seems to argue that we are never really able to operate outside of them. However, I disagree.

‘Everything appears against a background that does not itself appear. When we become aware of this by comprehending the movement of thought that is motivated by Malevich’s work, we understand that the world does not exist’

Why doesn’t the world exist or why shouldn’t it exist?

MG: Roughly, the argument goes like this: what it is for an object to exist depends on the domain within which it is located (I call domains: fields of sense in order to distinguish them from sets and other kinds of collections of things). For each domain there are specific rules/laws characterizing objects in a certain way (the senses of a field). For instance, the natural numbers are characterized by the laws of basic arithmetic; Germany’s government by the rule of law; the universe by the laws of nature; Sherlock Holmes by the various plays, TV series and movies within which he makes an appearance etc. If the world existed, there would have to be a universal law such that insight into that law would at the same time enable us to understand all other local laws. But there is no such universal law, no universal concept of existence that covers everything. Hence, the world does not exist.

When I say that the world does not exist, I am, therefore, arguing for the position that existence is always local in that informative claims about existence tell us something about a given field or domain, namely that it really contains something. For instance, God certainly exists, namely in the Bible. But that is usually not sufficient for someone who wants to claim that God exists. This is why we tend to say that God does not exist if he only exists in the Bible (or according to the Bible). In this way we implicitly inflate the concept of existence into some heavyweight feature that makes things really real. But this is just an overextension of the case where we insist that God does not exist or learn as children that Santa Claus does not exist.

It’s just that no one has ever clearly told us what the heavyweight feature of real existence would be except that some things which exist in their respective fields lack it (like Santa Claus or God)! Usually, there is just a stubborn insistence that existence is what makes things real. But in my view the real question is always: what domain or field is relevant and only then can we ask whether in that domain or field the thing in question appears. Any world-view (include the natural scientific one) is an overgeneralization or overextension of rules that work in some field over an imagined all-encompassing sphere. It’s a bit like this: if you work in a restaurant, you will see many things through the lenses of your job and what you have learned there about people; if you work in a laboratory, you will also be inclined to take this with you all the time and so on. We tend to generalize on the basis of our given experience of how things are and then believe that we hooked up with the fundamental level of reality. This is how world-views are generated and they are always provincial. I believe that metaphysics, the activity of creating world-views, is certainly not limited to (professional) philosophy, but a widespread tendency to overestimate one’s local and provincial experience.


You suggest that the desire for a unitary worldview is natural. How has that desire been realized so far and with what should we replace it when abandoning such a worldview? Will this desire simply vanish altogether?

MG: The desire for world-views is just a bad habit humanity has acquired over a few millennia, as soon as people set out (often in the form of mythology) to describe everything there is as being encompassed by heaven and earth (which raised the question what was below earth and beyond the heaven; they then just stopped pushing this further, as one would naturally want to know what is below the earth and so on). We were just wrong with our initial assumption that we are inhabiting a closed sphere of entities. We are not encompassed by one whole but are really part of indefinitely many fields. The desire for worldviews dissolves under reflective scrutiny (or so I hope) and it is important to start bringing this to the scientific community in general.

We were just wrong with our initial assumption that we are inhabiting a closed sphere of entities. We are not encompassed by one whole but are really part of indefinitely many fields.

Your account of fields of sense appears to be a theory of everything.  Yet this seems to stand in contradiction with your aim of avoiding a single worldview. Doesn’t your account amount to a worldview, which presupposes a world, namely that all that exists can be found in the infinite fields of senses?

MG: This problem only arises if we take terms such as ‘field of sense’ to refer to objects in a given domain, say the domain of all fields of sense. But the point of the argument is that no such domain can exist. Let me put it differently: there are indefinitely many fields of sense. There is no determinate number of them, as there is no operation or no algorithm, which would make it the case that there has to be a precise answer to the question how many fields of sense there are (at a given time, say). This is a sense, in which there are infinitely many fields of sense, not the sense in which there would be something like an algorithm actually generating infinitely many fields of sense. Otherwise, knowing how this algorithm works would be a successful step towards a world-picture. What it is for a field of sense to exist is a matter of fact that can in many cases only be known empirically. For instance, there are governments and nightmares. Both fields of sense exist. But what it is to be an object within these fields, utterly differs in both cases. This is why knowing that both fields of sense exist does not put us in a position, which would allow us to speak of a theory of everything. The range of ‘everything’ is not sufficiently delineated, in order for the objection to really hold.

Another way of looking at your question goes something like this: even if fields of sense ontology were a kind of theory of everything, it would at most tell us that reality is a complete mess including governments, the past, pains, numbers, illusions, Sherlock Holmes, contradictions, unobserved galaxies, multiverses etc. spread out in a domain without any substance. They would merely be there, as it were, hanging out in nothingness. Something like this (which Heidegger in an early lecture course of his calls 'metontology') would still substantially differ from a world-view, as we usually associate world-views with claims to the effect that things hang together in the world, because there are laws or principles governing it.

The question here is really how the vocabulary of the theory of fields of sense (the ontological vocabulary) works. I am not saying that everything, which exists shares a certain substantial property on the basis of which we could elaborate a world-view, which in turn is dominated by a unified set of rules that apply to everything. There are different forms of generality/universality. For instance, Wittgenstein has an interesting (but not fully elaborated) notion of a formal concept in his Tractatus. A formal concept (like that of an object) does not apply to anything in such a way that ascribing it and only it to something tells us something. If you knew of something only that it is an object you would not thereby come to know anything about it. Formal concepts cannot informatively be applied without having actual (empirical) information. So, to know that something is an object in a field of sense (and, hence, exists) carries no information whatsoever, as long as we do not know how the field actually works. And that is not an ontological question, but something that needs to be investigated locally. Otherwise put: if someone said that everything there is, is something that there is and added more things on this level of generality, this would not amount to a world-view in the usual sense of the term. I just argue that our formal ontological concepts are such that they make it impossible to achieve a world-view with any kind of substantial insights. This undermines world-views in the usual sense.


Aristotle was the first person to use the word metaphysics [‘Ta meta ta phusika’] and since then it has been understood as the inquiry into anything from ‘being as such’, ‘that, which not changes, ‘first cause’, ‘abstract concepts’, or generally speaking inquiries into the most fundamental principles, such as ‘time’, ‘space’ and ‘identity’. However, your definition of metaphysics seems to deviate from this, as you argue that metaphysics is the discipline, whose aim it is to produce a coherent and unified view of the world. Based on your definition you dismiss metaphysics in favor of ontology. Would you say that you deeply deviate from the traditional definition of metaphysics and if so, where do you place its beginning?

MG: Here, by ‘metaphysics’ I refer to the theory of absolutely everything which exists. This is also often labeled ‘reality,’ ‘the cosmos,’ ‘the universe’ etc. and then metaphysics is introduced as the most general investigation into the ‘furniture of reality’ and so forth. This is all misguided. Ontology, on the contrary, is the systematic investigation into the meaning of ‘existence,’ or rather into existence itself. It is conceptually independent from the idea that there should be an all-encompassing domain or that there is a reality ‘out there’, in which we find ourselves such that we now try to accumulate true statements about.

Turning towards the post-Kantian idealists, they went wrong in that they all thought that there was a whole and that insight into the structure of the whole was the main driving force of philosophy. They just thought that the whole had interesting features such as the one that it only realizes itself if creatures start making sense of it from within. They all thought (like Kant) that human beings were essential for what there is and therefore put us centre stage in a metaphysical story. I believe that this is where they go wrong. We are not metaphysically special, but that is also not necessary for us to be as special as we are.

Illusion and reality are not two realms which are opposed... Rather, illusion and reality are features of how someone comes to believe something.

You argue that it is impossible to draw a distinct demarcation between illusion and reality. Could you elaborate on how you conceive of the relation between existence and imagination, as well as existence and appearance? Would you ascribe different ontological states to the aforementioned categories? Do you believe that existence is a property and if not, why couldn’t it be one?

MG: ‘Illusion’ and ‘reality’ are not two realms which are opposed. You can easily see this by asking the question how many things Macbeth hallucinates. In one sense, Macbeth is an illusion (sustained by our habits of attending theatre performances where we look at an actor as if he was Macbeth). In another sense, namely in Macbeth, Macbeth is certainly real. There are embedded illusions of all sorts, which should tell us that there is no unified reality, to which an imaginary realm is opposed. Rather, illusion and reality are features of how someone comes to believe something. It is not a metaphysical, but always an empirical question, a question of what the facts are, whether something is an illusion or a reality. We have many means to figure this out depending on the relevant field. Criteria such as: illusions are mind-dependent, reality isn’t, fail, as mind is not just an illusion.


What does it mean for a thing to exist? Some philosophers draw a distinction between existence and being, but you seem to suggest that there is an important difference between these two modes. Could you elaborate on that and why this is of significance to you?

MG: On my account, for something to exist is for it to appear in what I call a field of sense, where these fields are objectively constituted by rules/laws that unify things into things of certain kinds. For instance, the number 3 exists – in the field of natural numbers –; protons exist – in the universe –; Angela Merkel, the chancellor, exists – in the course of European history etc. It's just that there is no field of all these fields, which settles questions of existence, no rule/law, under which everything which exists is a subject. ‘Being’ in the tradition of philosophy means all sorts of things. In Parmenides and also Plato (with whom I disagree) it is both a highly universal feature of all things whatsoever and also the name for an all-encompassing domain, for what we might now call ‘the world.’


You dismiss a Leibnizian position of pluralism, dualism, as well as monism, going even so far as claiming that metaphysical monism is a contemporary disease. How many substances do exist according to your theory and how does it differ from the aforementioned positions?

MG: Well, a lot depends on what you mean by ‘substance’ here. In one sense, according to my theory, there are infinitely many substances. Yet, the problem is that the notion of substance itself is quite problematic. For instance, Leibniz thought that substances had to be simple (whatever that means) and it is a classical criterion for substantiality that something is a substance only if it exists independently of everything else, which is why Spinoza thought there could really only be one substance. In my view, nothing exists independently of everything else nor is anything simple in a metaphysical sense.


You also reject idealism, anti-realism and believe that postmodernism has failed us, arguing for a novel orientation towards the world through New Realism, which you believe overcomes the obstacles of our post-modern society. Could you elaborate on what this new position exactly entails and how it differs from these other conceptions of reality?

MG: I draw a distinction here between three overall stances: old realism, constructivism and new realism. Old realism claims that realism is a commitment to ‘the world without spectators’. To be real is to be mind-independent, to be out there, ready to be discovered from the standpoint of uninterested science. Constructivism overreacts to this by arguing that there really only ever is ‘the world of the spectators’. The very idea of an unobserved world is indeed a construction hinging on a number of posits, telling you which elements from your actual experience can be mapped onto any alleged world without you. This is what constructivism gets right, but heavily overextends into a world-view. New Realism consists in the claim that there are objects and fields of sense, which have a full-blown realist shape and others, for which this does not hold without either of those enjoying any kind of metaphysical or overall explanatory primacy. Governments or mental illnesses are no less real or exist no less than bosons or the moon. Mind-independence is just not a necessary criterion for realism nor does mind-dependence undermine it.

Skepticism, the position or worry that we cannot really ever know anything, is completely unjustified, even though it is a very useful tool against dogmatic metaphysics.

As you just referred to, you agree with Nagel, who argued that a ‘view from nowhere’ is unattainable, as we always view reality from some standpoint and from some perspective. In your system, what are the consequences for truth and knowledge? Can we ever have complete true beliefs of our external reality independently of ourselves?

MG: Of course, we can! I think knowledge is the most mundane thing. I know that I am typing these words right now, I know that I am using the script ‘Garamond’, I know that the moon has been around for much longer than any person I am acquainted with and so on and so forth. What we need to give up is the idea that we are in some overall epistemic situation, such as: trying to find out what is going on in the external world by interpreting the information our brain delivers to us in our internal mental sphere or whatever. Skepticism, the position or worry that we cannot really ever know anything, is completely unjustified, even though it is a very useful tool against dogmatic metaphysics. One source of skepticism (among many others) is precisely the introduction of skeptical scenarios: how can you know that you are typing these words if you do not know whether you are in the Matrix? But given that I know that I am typing these words I thereby know that I am not in the Matrix. I am just not. If I were, you could also not raise a skeptical worry to this effect as I could not even hear you for I (the author of these lines) would not even exist in any of the ways required for anyone to be worried by skeptical scenarios. Notice that in Ancient and modern philosophical culture skepticism is first a side-effect of religion, theology, then of metaphysics and nowadays of science. We are worried that it is hard to know anything because we constantly watch movies or read novels etc., which make it look very hard for us to know anything. But this is just ideology: we want to give ourselves a hard time with knowledge, so that it is easier to repress some actual knowledge, like, knowing that immoral child labor produces our cell phones, that exploitation of poor and ignorant people makes it possible for some us to wear expensive clothes and so on. This is why we love to dream and hallucinate, so that we can convince ourselves that there is nothing to be known out there.


You have argued in Why the World Does Not Exist that ‘[b]efore the Reformation [the expert] spoke in Latin: today he speaks in mathematics’ (p. 159). According to your theory, does language discover or invent the world around and within us? And do you believe that there is a limit to that, which we can express in language?

MG: I do not believe that there is a limit to what we can express in language. However, there are many limits depending on what you mean by a language. I want to emphasize that the only meaningful use of ‘language’ I accept, is one, in which there are languages such as Hindi, French, Mandarin, or Suomi. These languages have a history. For instance, Plato could not express what we express when we talk about cars or bosons. However, he could have easily extended his language. Remarkably, Plato invented the word autokinêton (that which moves itself), in order to refer to animals. In modern Greek the word refers to cars (to automobiles). But none of this means that there is a kind of epistemic, metaphysical or semantic gap separating speakers of a language from those of another language. Language neither discovers nor invents the world around and within us in general. Some things are invented by language: legal institutions like constitutions, insults and jokes, etc. Others are not: the moon, pains, itches, minds and bosons, etc. What I mean in my quote is that there is a misguided idea of a privileged language (the language of God and the angels, as it were). There is a widespread tendency to think that somehow God must speak in mathematical symbols or rather that mathematics has some kind of secret power to unravel the mysteries of the universe and so on. Think of the movie πhere. Philosophers both dead and living are often prone to the illusion that there must be a privileged language: Greek, Latin, German, French, English or some kind of formal language. What cannot be said in German (or any other natural language), just cannot be said at all. It is often helpful to look at other languages and at what and how they have expressed something, in order to extend your otherwise more limited horizon. Philosophers should really be forced to study and teach philosophy at least in three different actual languages!

The first step towards enlightenment is to give up on the idea that our lives only have meaning if there is a meaning outside of our lives.

You have claimed that ‘Philosophy arises from the desire for self-knowledge and not from the desire to erase ourselves from the world formula’ (p.98). But does the infinite, which is implicit in your theory of fields of senses, not destroy all sense and meaning? How do you avoid that everything collapses into nothingness?

MG: Why would it? Indeed, what I do is to happily destroy the illusion that there can only be sense and meaning to our lives, if there is some grand scheme involving us. The first step towards enlightenment, if I may use such a high-flown term here, is to give up on the idea that our lives only have meaning if there is a meaning outside of our lives. We are all alone and nothing out there guarantees that we live under the impression that what we do has any value. That does not mean that it does not have value. Value is really there to be discovered by us, but only in our lives. That there are rocks and stars and bacteria has no meaning whatsoever. Nor does the universe. But that should be evident. Yet, being in a meaningful relationship with other human beings has. Also, being healthy or eating good food is valuable. Avoiding or fighting depression is valuable or helping others to achieve their goals and so on. However, life itself has no meaning beyond itself. Once my life will suck beyond repair (which will happen sooner or later and be it for the five minutes or so when I die of a heart attack), it will not have any more meaning to me. So what! This is how things are. This does not undermine the sense and meaning we actually find or create for ourselves in light of additional ethical considerations.


You have argued that artworks reveal features of our understanding, thereby contributing to our self-understanding and you reference a plethora of artistic artifacts throughout Why the World Does Not Exist, especially that of films, as opposed to more established forms of ‘high art’. Where do the goals of art and philosophy converge and diverge? And would you argue that film is an aesthetic medium especially apt for philosophical investigations?

MG: One of the major difference between art and philosophy is the role of concepts. Concepts are the objects under investigation in philosophy and through them also that, to which they apply. Artists often reject this approach, because they create new objects, for which no concept yet exists. They try to change structures radically and create room for new concepts, whereas philosophy first and foremost wants to understand given concepts better and only replaces them in careful ways, so as not to overhastily distort them and throw away good material beyond necessity. Philosophy is less individualistic, because it addresses reason as such, even if only ever reason in a historically manifest shape, for reason has a history (which does not undermine true claims about it).

However, art and philosophy also profoundly hang together, as art also deals with philosophical questions (including: what is art?), albeit in different ways. This regularly leads to breakthroughs on the level of art, which philosophy then can reflect on a conceptual level (think of the relation between Greek tragedy and ethics; modern painting and philosophical perspectivism; music and the theory of agency and emotions etc.).

There is no reason to believe that science could ever achieve an idealized state of close-too-omniscience.

You don’t believe that philosophy is dead or that science will come to replace all of philosophy at some point in the future. Independently of an academic perspective on it, what role does philosophy play nowadays? And if we were to give up, as you suggest, the idea of unity altogether, what do you believe the purpose of philosophy is going to be the 21st century?

MG: Philosophy is not all dead, as has been claimed by a few ignorant physicists. One can ignore it (like Hawking), but this does not kill it. Of course, if ‘philosophy’ boils down to its most boring academic aspects, where nothing is at stake and people often even do not try to answer major philosophical questions, then it is dead, because its practitioners are walking dead trying to repress their real philosophical urges by telling themselves that their arguments are much more sophisticated than those of Plato, Hegel, Judith Butler or whatever. However, philosophy right now boosts with wonderful ideas and arguments coming from all sorts of academic directions. I believe many philosophers by now have realized that philosophical questions do not simply go away due to scientific progress and that the natural sciences are often profoundly confused about philosophical issues. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream philosophy is still dedicated to creating the illusion that philosophy is exactly like what they think 'science' is like.

If I am pointing in the right direction with my theory, this means that we have a chance to completely redesign the way we think of philosophy and its integration into the public sphere, the university system, education in general and so on. For instance, there is no more reason to believe that ‘science’ could ever achieve an idealized state of close-too-omniscience. We can also learn anew that philosophically relevant insights can come from going to a museum, studying how people study proteins, watching the news, talking to someone with a completely different cultural background or answering interview questions like this one. Also, it is time for philosophy to really go global and to give up various distinctions that do not really work anymore (like Western vs. Eastern philosophy or analytical vs. continental philosophy). In a sense, my denial of unity on the metaphysical level is accompanied by a commitment to universalism in the realm of reason. Reason is more unified than we might have thought before – even though it has manifold voices (as Habermas once put it). But that precisely does not mean that reason consists in trying to carve nature/the world at its joints and that there is a unified single reality, into which we happen to be thrown.

Markus Gabriel studied in Heidelberg, Lisbon and New York. Since 2009 he has held the chair for Epistemology at the University of Bonn and with that is Germany’s youngest philosophy professor. He is also the director of the International Center for Philosophy in Bonn.