Bryan Magee

It was astounding that anything existed at all. Why wasn’t there nothing? By all the normal rules of expectation—the least unlikely state of affairs, the most economical solution to all possible problems, the simplest explanation–nothing is what you would have expected there to be. But such was not the case, self-evidently. And yet although it was impossible to know what there was, and therefore impossible to say what it was, and perhaps therefore even impossible to assert that there was anything, something was unquestionably going on. Yet how could anything be going on? In what medium? Nothingness? Impossible to conceive: and yet undeniably something was happening.

Although more and more given to talk and discussion and argument as I grew older, for several years I never encountered anyone who felt the same fascination as I did with these questions. By the time I had grown into adulthood I had become familiar with a number of general attitudes to experience that seemed to embrace among themselves most people, at least most of those I met, but none of them was at all like mine. There seemed to be three main groupings. First, there were people who took the world for granted as they found it: that’s how things are, and it’s obvious that that’s how they are, and talking about it isn’t going to change it, so there’s no purpose that perpetually questioning it is going to serve; discussing it is really a waste of time, even thinking about it much is a waste of time; what we have to do is get on with the practical business of living, not indulge in a lot of useless speculation and ineffectual talk That seemed to be roughly the outlook of most people. Then there were others who regarded that attitude as superficial, on religious grounds. According to them, this life was no more than an overture, a prelude to the real thing. There was a God who had made this world, including us, and had given us immortal souls, so that when our bodies died after a brief sojourn on earth the souls in them would go on for ever in some “higher” realm. Such people tended to think that in the eye of eternity this present world of ours was not all that important, and whenever one raised questions about the self-contradictory nature of our experience they would shrug their shoulders and attribute this to the inscrutable workings of a God. It was not that they used this as the answer to all questions, because what such people said seldom answered any actual questions: they felt under no pressure to do so. God knew al the answers to all the questions, and his nature was inscrutable to us, therefore the only thing for us to do was to put our trust in him and stop bothering ourselves with questions to which we could not possibly know the answers until after we died. It seemed to me that this attitude was at bottom as incurious as the first; it just offered a different reason for not asking questions; and equally obviously it did not really feel the problems. There was no awareness in it of the real extraordinariness of the world: on the contrary, people who subscribed to it were often marked by a certain complacency, not to say smugness. They seemed to be happily lulling themselves to sleep with a story which might or might not be true but which they had no serious grounds for believing.

Finally, there were people who condemned both of these other sets of attitudes as uncomprehending and mistaken, on what one might call rationalistic grounds. They critically questioned both the ways things are and traditional religious beliefs, and challenged the adherents of either for proof, or at least good evidence; for some justification, or at least good argument. These tended in spirit to be either children of the enlightenment or children of the age of science, and in either case to have a kind of outlook that did not begin to exist until the seventeenth century. They seemed to believe that everything was explicable in the light of reason, that rational enquiry would eventually make all desirable discoveries, and that in principle if not altogether in practice all problems could be solved by the application of rationality. Most of my friends and fellow spirits seemed to fall into this third category, and indeed I tended to agree with their criticisms of the other two. My problem was that their own positive beliefs seemed to me manifestly untenable, and their attitudes—well, perhaps not quite as comfortable and complacent as those they criticized, but comfortable and complacent none the less. They seemed to think that the world was an intelligible place, and I did not see how in the light of a moment’s thought this belief could be entertained. […] What cut me off most deeply of all from this attitude, and what I also found hardest to understand about it, was its lack of any sense of the amazingness of our existence, indeed of the existence of anything at all-the sheer miraculousness of everything.

Bryan Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher: A Personal Journey Through Western Philosophy from Plato to Popper, London, 1997, pp. 13-15