The universe didn't exist before it was perceived

Schopenhauer and the beginning of time

"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" For Schopenhauer, the answer is no. And he takes the reasoning even further, before there were conscious beings, the universe did not exist. While such an argument sounds paradoxical, if not ridiculous – if the universe did not exist, how were conscious beings formed? – Schopenhauer finds a grounding for his idealist intuitions in his idea of the will, writes Christopher Ryan.


According to Schopenhauer, “everyone is conscious of all philosophical truths on an intuitive level or in concrete fashion: but to bring these truths to abstract knowledge, to reflection, is the business of philosophers, who should do, and can do, nothing else.” (WWRI, 410)

Included within this set of truths cognised by everyone at the intuitive level is transcendental idealism, or the philosophical position that the objects of ordinary experience – tables, dogs, numbers, molecules, and indeed all worlds existing in space and time – depend for both the fact that they exist, and the forms under which they appear, on the mind that knows them. For Schopenhauer this truth is so close to us that it is often missed, but when we return to the first fact of consciousness, we realise that we do not encounter a sun and an earth, but an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth. “No truth”, says Schopenhauer, “is more certain, no truth is more independent of all others and no truth is less in need of proof than this one: that everything there is for cognition (i.e. the whole world) is only an object in relation to a subject, an intuition of a beholder, is, in a word, representation.” (WWRI, 23-24)

However, contrary to what everyone ‘knows’ at the intuitive level, Schopenhauer also lamented the fact that idealism, or the mind-dependence of objects, is – at the level of propositional belief – widely regarded as “a paradox of certain eccentric philosophers, hardly to be taken seriously” (WN, p.435).

It seems therefore that, for Schopenhauer, intuitive or concrete knowledge (Erkenntniß), such as the idealist contention that objects are dependent on a conscious mind, frequently conflicts with what people believe at the abstract level of propositional reason (Wissen). It is the task of philosophy to bring these two species of knowledge into alignment, deploying a technique of Socratic midwifery so that the self-evidence of idealism concerning the mind-dependence of objects, with which people are pregnant at the level of immediacy, can be brought to term at the level of reflective reason.

But given the widespread tendency towards realism, or the view that objects exist independently of being known, outside philosophy (not to say within philosophy), how can the idealist philosopher bring about this realignment of erroneous, abstract belief? Schopenhauer’s strategy for persuading reason of the truth of idealism has two prongs, akin to what has come to be known as Hume’s Fork: an argumentative strategy for the correct position – idealism – and a genetic strategy which explains the origin and force of the incorrect position – realism.

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Schopenhauer’s argumentative strategy for idealism tends to rely on proofs found in like-minded precursors. He makes use of Kant’s argument that space and time are a priori conditions for perception of objects, because although we can conceive of a space and a time without objects, we cannot conceive of the absence of space or remove the passage of time from consciousness (CPR A24/B38-9; CPR A31/B46; WWRII, 51). Schopenhauer also makes use of Berkeley’s contention that realism is the attempt to “see a thing which is at the same time unseen” (Three Dialogues, 182), by inviting his readers to imagine a world that exists independently of a knowing consciousness. No matter how certain this possibility appears to abstract reason, the attempt necessarily fails, as we realise that the alleged independence of the world so intuited is merely an appearance within our own consciousness (WWRII, 8-9).

As arguments in support of idealism, these seem spectacularly unsuccessful, since they merely beg the question by assuming what they aim to prove – that being and being-known are synonymous terms. It is merely a specific idiosyncrasy of consciousness, as a closed system from which we cannot extract ourselves, that any attempt to construct conditions apart from consciousness can only be done within consciousness.

An even more paradoxical set of considerations on behalf of idealism can be found in Schopenhauer, in which he refers to contemporary advances in the natural sciences. Departing from the observation that there is a discrepancy between the impoverished data that enters the senses from outside through the nerve endings, and the luxuriant detail experienced in empirical perception, he notes that this calls for an intermediary, active or constructive agent in the intellect. Schopenhauer located this in the immediate operations of the understanding and its application of the causal law to the data of sense, which in physiological terms he referred to as a brain function. Realists, he maintains, need to be made “aware that between themselves and the actual being of things, the brain stands like a wall” (WN, 203), for the world “can only present itself as something extended in space and acting in time because it has gone through the production machinery of the brain and passed into its forms (time, space and causality).” (WWRI, 50) One consequence of this is that scientific theories concerning the development of species are necessarily incomplete. For though it is empirically true to observe that “animals appeared before human beings, fish before land animals, plants before fish, and the inorganic before anything organic”, transcendentally this entire series depends on the forms and laws of consciousness, time, space and causation (WWRI, 52-3), so that “the existence of the whole world still remains dependent on the opening of that first eye, even if it only belonged to an insect” (WWRI, 52-3)


Although objects exist only because of the forms of the knowing mind, their real, inner kernel, of which they are objectifications, is a blind, striving principle, to which Schopenhauer gave the name ‘will’


These extra considerations seem even more viciously circular than the previous set of arguments, with their reliance on nerve-endings, brains, the eye, and the emergence of life from the inorganic. Nietzsche observed that the idealist argument that the external world is the work of our bodily organs is a “complete reductio ad absurdum”, since it entails that our organs are the work of our organs (BGE, 15). Oddly, Schopenhauer didn’t shy away from such antinomies, and even relished in the paradox that transcendentally “[s]pace is indeed only in my head; but empirically my head is in space.” (WWRII, 23)

Given the weakness and paradoxical character of the case that Schopenhauer makes for idealism, it is doubtful that he considered its elements to be rationally efficacious. Schopenhauer was generally sceptical about the validity of demonstrations that merely combine abstract concepts without referring to perceptions or intuition. Even the very paradigm of rational deduction, the proofs contained in Euclid’s Elements, Schopenhauer considered unpersuasive in the absence of spatial intuition (FR, 128). It is likely, therefore, that the aim of these arguments is not to prove the propositional truth of idealism to the realist’s reflective reason, but to bring his readers back to the first facts or intuitive bases of conscious experience. In the light of his aforementioned conviction that the intuitive premises of idealism are self-witnessing and known independently of proof, such an encounter ought to result in an immediate seeing, realising, or intuition of the self-luminous truth of idealism.

However, if, as Schopenhauer thought, idealism is the default and original position, known immediately at the intuitive level, why do most realists remain unconvinced by idealism, considering it an eccentric paradox? Here is where Schopenhauer makes use of other features of his system to explain the genesis and persistence of realist belief.

Initially, according to Schopenhauer, we are innately disposed to cling to the view that the objects of experience are extra-mental (WWRI, 17). Although objects exist only because of the forms of the knowing mind, their real, inner kernel, of which they are objectifications, is a blind, striving principle, to which Schopenhauer gave the name ‘will’. The will as thing-in-itself posits the independent, and hence extra-mental character of objects so that they presage some prospect of its satisfaction through their consumption. But the insubstantial, rainbow-like character of the world of phenomena, which are taken to be ultimately real by an intellect shot through with will and eager to feast on them, is one of the reasons why, for Schopenhauer, life is so unsatisfactory, and hence painful.


Acknowledging the truth of idealism, therefore, constitutes the first step toward realising that the world and life are nothing but an insubstantial show


A wise culture would construct techniques to counter-act “that natural and childish realism into which we are all born” (WWRI, 17), but in Schopenhauer’s view the dominant metaphysics of Europe has tended to flatter the realist yearnings of the will. The cosmogony of Judaeo-Christianity depicts an Almighty Sky-God of infinite power creating an extra-mental world out of nothing. This cultural narrative, working in tandem with the innate disposition towards realism stemming from the will, has resulted in idealism’s cultural marginalisation and confinement to philosophy alone.

By contrast, the dominant metaphysic of India has successfully corrected the innate tendencies of an intellect determined by the will. India’s wiser religious mythologies and metaphysical systems, grounded on the idealist intuitions of the ancient seers who composed the Vedas (WWRII, 171), have reconstructed the subcontinent’s inhabitants as cradle Kantians (FR, 36). Its philosophical systems and popular mythologies together convey the truth that the world is “māyā, the veil of deception that covers the eyes of mortals and lets them see a world that cannot be described as either being or not being: for it is like a dream; like sunlight reflected off sand that a distant traveller mistakes for water; or like a discarded rope that the traveller thinks is a snake.” (WWRI, 28)

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In Schopenhauer’s view, a recognition of the idealist account of the status of the external world of objects encourages us to cease investing our hopes in it, and so leads to detachment. For though he considered the entirety of the material world and all the objects appearing in it to be dependent on a knowing mind, he similarly considered the knowing mind to be dependent upon and unthinkable without the objects that it knows. What underlies these twin, mutually conditioning poles of experience – matter and mind, object and subject – is a blind, unified but hungry principle to which Schopenhauer gave the name ‘will’. The geological upheavals and evolutionary stages that took place before the appearance of knowledge with the opening of the first eye, were merely so many convulsions in the will itself, bifurcating itself in a vain attempt to satiate its hunger. The opening of that one eye, and thereby the opposition between knowing minds and material objects that constitutes experience, was merely one further advancement in the will’s quest for final gratification, which we observe to be the war of all against all that is nature, just as futile as all previous convulsions, for the will without intellect is unaware that it merely thereby feeds on its own flesh. Acknowledging the truth of idealism, therefore, constitutes the first step toward realising that the world and life are nothing but an insubstantial show; the next step is to realise that the subject, or knowing mind, is equally empty and insubstantial. The ultimate goal is to turn away from the world and the will that animates it, including the will that is the inner kernel of one’s own material body, as well as one’s conscious mind.



Berkeley, G. (2009). ‘Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous’, published in Philosophical Writings, edited by D.M. Clarke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1998). Critique of Pure Reason, translated and edited by P. Guyer & A.W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1990). Beyond Good and Evil, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, with an Introduction by M. Tanner. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Schopenhauer, A. (2012). ‘On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason’, published in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and Other Writings, edited and translated by D.E. Cartwright, E.E. Erdmann & C. Janaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(2010). The World as Will and Representation Volume I, translated and edited by J. Norman, A Welchman & C. Janaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(2012). ‘On Will in Nature’, published in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and Other Writings, edited and translated by D.E. Cartwright, E.E. Erdmann & C. Janaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

(2018). The World as Will and Representation Volume II, translated and edited by J. Norman, A Welchman & C. Janaway. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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Nick Standlea 29 March 2024

Have you seen Dr Donald Hoffman's work on consciousness existing before space & time? I think you might be very interested in this YouTube episode interview with Donald Hoffman -- the show even begins with a quote from Schopenhauer!

To find it search "Donald Hoffman Nick Standlea Show". Enjoy!

David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class 29 March 2024

P.P.S. Schopenhauer contradicted his own claims when using life to even imply that the possibility could exist that life and living life has no meaning or value. Unfortunately, it appears no one was there to point out to him his error. I can do it now because of all of the hard work and thought and science and education that was already done and shared with me.

Sentient life has the capacity to love and love can make possibilities exist that would not otherwise exist. While there may be death and suffering and that may always continue, the needless and preventable suffering and death, has a cure. It isnthe very Truth of the Importance of Life itself shared in my first comment. We really do have the cure for that. Currently, the vast majority of people who are themselves claiming to represent life's truthful interests and leading in life causes that I have already shared this knowledge with did not want the general public to have the cure and have withheld the knowledge of its existence from their peers and have done so without a single substantiated logical and ethical reason ever once being presented to justify doing that. To so say "we have rampant fraud leading in our life causes" must be the biggest understatement of the entire millennium. Not only did Inplace the very Truth that is the cure freely in their hands, they either didn't have a clue that they should care about that and takenit seriously or they intentionally withheld it. Neither person should be claiming to represent life's truthful interests. Those are cery people who actually do hold the complete and total responsibility for causing every single case of needless and preventable suffering and death that never occurs ngoing forward. They have already judged themselves guilty with the authority that having knowledge of this Truth grants, againts my repeated attempts warn them not to make that mistake and how to avoid it by genuinely inviting our Master: Truth and Life into their hearts. A person who does that will never and can never dismiss and stifle the very Truth of the Importance of Life itself and simultaneously claim to represent life's truthful interests. e.g. judge themselves guilty of the only unforgivable sin and the single act of the most wicked and soulless pure unforgivable evil ever possible.

It's widespread . A person claiming to represent life's truthful interests whontakes any sort of issue with this Truth, even by not responsibly publicly affirming it and sharing and endorsing it going forward, has no legitimate ethical business leading in life causes or claiming to represent life's truthful interests. Not ever. There are no exceptions. They don't want the general public to have knowledge of a Truth so high, ues it is the very highest self-evident truth that we all share is common, that their fraud is revealed. They don't nhave a higher truth to present and they don't have a single rebuttal between them all or anyone else to justify withholding the cure while simultaneously claiming to represent life's truthful interests. They need to go. Life causes are not for them to be leading in. They are actually doing the greatest harm of all

David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class 29 March 2024

P.S. Mr. Christopher Ryan,

This is one of the best pieces of work I have read on the internet written by someone in journalism.
Great job by your and your team to explain this all as well as you you did. Thank you for trying so hard.

David Wishengrad Exorcist, 1st class 29 March 2024

e.g. "Life is Most Important in Life is The Most Important Truth in Life" and "The Most Important Truth in Life is Life is Most Important in Life"

Those are two correct wordings of the very Truth of the Importance of Life itself.

Needless and preventable suffering and death can only occur after the Truth that Life is Most Important has been dismissed and stifled.

The human race currently has the knowledge of the very Truth that is the cure and what it is and how it is correctly worded. A person who does not agree with that Truth and endorse it going forward once shared it is choosing to not honestly care about the very Truth of the Importance of Life itself, and so cannot be a person who is choosing to honestly care about Life and Truth and so should not be claiming to represent life's truthful interests because they either have no clue that they should be taking this information seriously and doing the most with it or do and have chosen the side of evil. Neither person should be currently claiming to represent life's truthful interests and for them to do it anyway is lying and fraud.