Claiming that the world does not exist is the privilege of the madman and the philosopher. If one is charitable enough to grant the latter tag to University of Bonn Chair of Modern Philosophy Markus Gabriel and settle in for some mental gymnastics, Why the World Does Not Exist makes a seductively strong case for casting aside a pervasive instinct: that there is one all-encompassing domain where the real, the imaginary, and the possible can all be defined and discussed as one.
Gabriel’s recent popular works can be seen as part of a contemporary recoil from an overly scientific, ‘Hawking and Dawkins’ approach to what is, what isn’t, and what matters. Gabriel’s writing style is fluid and conversational as far as such heady notions go, and his latest book is broad enough to offer newcomers to metaphysics a rewarding lay of the land before the cogs of Gabriel’s thesis become clear.
For Gabriel there is no such thing as ‘the world’ at large. There is the physical domain of the universe (the place where nachos, the moon, and horses exist), and there is the imaginary domain in which horses eat nachos on the moon. Gabriel mounts the case that while these and countless other fictional, private, or esoteric domains characterized by their own laws and internal relations can be said to exist in their own right–there is no one ‘world’ in which they all exist together.
Fair enough so far, you might say, given the obvious differences between extant horses and imaginary moon-horses. However, Gabriel goes a few steps further and argues that not only has no one come up with a sensible way to talk about all physical and imaginary worlds in the same breath, ‘there is no such thing as the world such that questions regarding its ultimate nature…are devoid of the intended conceptual content’.
It’s not that the conversation about what constitutes ‘the world’ is confused and waiting on some grand unifying theory of everything—for Gabriel there is simply no world to talk about in the first place. This sentiment builds on the assertion of Gabriel’s former tutor Thomas Nagel that there is ‘no view from nowhere’, i.e. no vantage point outside the world from which to view the world.
Early in the book Gabriel covers that which he believes does exist, which is a great deal. He commits to what might be called a maximalist ontology where the planet Neptune exists, the Roman god Neptune exists, and the Sailor Moon character Sailor Neptune exists too. Each of these belongs to distinct ‘fields of sense’ along with other related objects (like the planet Jupiter, the Roman god Jupiter, and Sailor Jupiter respectively).
Gabriel insists that there is nothing particularly special about any one field of sense; there is to be no privileging of one domain over another. For example, because a baker knows a great deal about baked goods, that does not entail that he now is an expert on 17th century French antiques. In the same way a physicist who insists there is a block universe cannot claim to understand everything within the universe, or to reduce the universe to his block theory. The physicist hasn’t explained through his or her block theory the world of pre-Socratic Athens, Italian neorealist film, a forward defensive stroke in cricket and so on. This idea that you can explain everything in the world through some meta-theory is what Gabriel calls an over-extension—to assume because you have some provincial knowledge of one thing that you now think you understand all things and can explain them through one theory or worldview.
With regard to whether prominence should be granted to objects with some physical aspect or quality of ‘realness’ in the eyes of science, ‘thoughts about facts exist with the same right as the facts at which our thoughts are directed’.
Hard-nosed empiricists may begin to roll their eyes at this point and might close the book for good around the time Gabriel asserts that ‘we only ever know sections of the infinite. An overview of the whole is impossible’. Rival worldviews (post-modernism, idealism, nihilism) fare no better in the second half of the book, where Gabriel defines his New Realism as unique in accounting for the simultaneous existence and value of physical horses, fictional moon horses, and horse deities alike. Physical horses might have the special quality of being explicable in material terms, but to the New Realist that’s no more or less important than imaginary horses having the quality of being central to some religious worldview or fantasy book.
Gabriel does not entertain the notion of scientific inquiry shedding any special light on settling the question of what does or doesn’t exist outside of the physical universe, and he takes the existence of the physical and the imaginary as given. Those who wish to assert some sort of ‘ladder of ontological importance’ or supervening of the imaginary on the physical may be frustrated by Gabriel’s confidence that there is simply no reason to do so.
It is not easy to see where one would start in mounting a counterargument to Gabriel’s egalitarian ontology that would not be arbitrary in New Realist terms. Realists, empiricists, and dogmatists who wish to enjoy the book beyond this point may wish to approach it with Saul Kripke’s summary of his own work in mind: ‘It really is a nice theory. The only defect I think it has is probably common to all philosophical theories. It’s wrong.”
Why the World Does Not Exist may frustrate those with little patience for European philosophy or arguments that require several thought experiments and page-long definitions to get off the ground. However Gabriel’s knack for neat summary and his enthusiasm for the history of metaphysics and epistemology make for a quite gleeful, enthusiastically rendered journey to nowhere.
Editor’s note: the editor finds Markus Gabriel’s argument extremely compelling but if you don’t want to read the book, have a listen to this podcast from Radio National’s ‘The Philosopher’s Zone’ where the author very lucidly and clearly outlines his theory.