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Question of the Month
Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included.
Although Heidegger described this as the fundamental question of metaphysics, the answer is quite straightforward at its base, if we are strictly examining a comparison between something and nothing. There is something because there is literally no such thing as nothing (at all), and there possibly never was. Spinoza and Einstein, among many other great thinkers, subscribed to this view that it is impossible for there to be nothing. Nothing is only ever the absence of something in particular, but it is never truly no-thing, since the very label ‘nothing’ implies ‘something’.
What we think of as empty space in our universe is not actually nothing; it contains energy, radiation and particles that flit in and out of existence. It has properties: it can expand and contract, warp and bend. Even attempting to picture nothingness is impossible for the human mind. A Buddhist monk might claim to be able to clear his/her mind of thought during meditation, but even a blank slate is still something. Even a void still has some parameters around it to contain the ‘nothing’ within it.
Given the non-existence of nothing, a similar but more pertinent question might be ‘Why does something – our universe – exist as it does, and how did it come about?’ This is clearly difficult to answer with any certainty. As an agnostic, I can’t agree with Leibniz et al that the universe exists because God made it so. Yet I also struggle with the scientific view that the Big Bang created the universe from nothing, as we have already established that there is no ‘nothing’. Lawrence Krauss’s more nuanced explanation of the origins of the universe imply that there was in fact something to begin with, namely gravity and the quantum ‘vacuum’, from which the universe was born. But of course we then wind up in circular reasoning ad infinitum with the question of where the pre-universe materials arose from… The theory that there may be multiverses that compete with each other for existence similar to natural selection, with the one(s) containing the best conditions for life to arise bringing themselves into existence for conscious beings, also doesn’t address the issue of the origins of those multiverses in the first place.
Others claim that the universe is inexplicable and there will never be an answer to the question. But Bertrand Russell’s assertion that “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all” is ultimately an unsatisfying and disappointing response. How can we, as reasoning and self-aware beings, not question how our universe came to be and why it exists at all? It’s a fascinating and mind-bending interplay between physics, theology, and philosophy, which undoubtedly the human race will long continue to ponder.
Rose Dale, Floreat, Western Australia
Four musings and one solution. (1) The question posits ‘nothing’ as the default position. Suppose there was nothing. Would we then (per impossible) ask ‘Why is there nothing?’ This question doesn’t have the same gravitas. ‘Nothing’ doesn’t seem to require an explanation: ‘There just is nothing’ appears to be adequate. But if this is the case, why isn’t ‘There just is something’ an adequate answer to our original question?
(2) Compare the Old Testament story of the burning bush, and Yahweh’s answer to Moses’ question of who He is: “I am what I am.” This has been treated as a deep and meaningful response. Why don’t we grant the same latitude to the universe and treat ‘It is what it is’ as an equally deep and meaningful response to the question of why there is something? Perhaps existence is a brute fact – the universe just is, and that’s explanation enough.
(3) Indeed, what kind of explanation could there possibly be? To explain a thing’s existence is to show what other thing or things cause it to be. But how can we explain the existence of the totality of things? By definition, there are no further things in terms of which the totality of things can be explained. To ask for an answer when none is possible seems futile.
(4) It is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is a trick question posed by theists who, when you get into trouble trying to answer it, attempt to trump you with the God card: “Ah ha!”, they say, “You can’t explain it, so the only plausible explanation for anything existing must be that God created it!”
A solution: my own route out of the fly bottle is on the wings of probability. Although there is only one possible ‘nothing’, there are an infinite number of possible ‘somethings’. Thus the initial probability of there being nothing rather than something is one divided by infinity, which is next to nothing, a virtual zero. Conversely, the probability of there being something is as close to one as you can get. So why is there something rather than nothing? Because it always was an odds-on certainty. That’s where the smart money is.
Ian Robinson, Cowes, Australia
This is arguably the most fundamental question in philosophy. I once heard a respected philosopher say it was the ‘wrong question’, without proffering a ‘right question’. I thought this was a cop-out, not to mention a not-so-subtle evasion. But there are two major aspects to this question, and most attempted answers only address one.
We inhabit a universe we believe to be around fourteen billion years old. Proto-human consciousness only came into being about six million years ago, with Homo sapiens arriving on the scene only very recently – roughly 200,000 years ago. But here’s the thing: without a conscious entity to perceive the Universe, there might as well be nothing.
Einstein famously said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the Universe is that it’s comprehensible.” Many scientists, if not most, believe that the Universe and our status within it is a freak accident. Paul Davies in his erudite book The Goldilocks Enigma calls this interpretation ‘the absurd universe’. Their standard current answer to this enigma is that there are many, perhaps an infinite number of universes. If this is the case, then there are an infinite number of you and me. The multiverse hypothesis says that all possibilities are equally valid, which doesn’t explain anything, except to say that the freak accident of our existence can only be understood within an endless sea of all possible existences. A number of physicists and cosmologists have further pointed out that there are constants pertaining to fundamental physical laws whose size permits complex life-forms to evolve. Even small variances in these numbers, up or down, could have made the Universe lifeless. And as the cosmologist John Barrow has pointed out, the Universe also needs to be of the mind-boggling scale we observe to allow time for complex life – meaning us – to evolve. Brandon Carter coined and defined two anthropic principles on the basis of these ideas. The weak anthropic principle says that only a universe that contains observers can be observed (which is a tautology). The strong anthropic principle says that only a universe that permits observers to emerge can exist. To be self-realised, a universe requires consciousness, otherwise it’s effectively non-existent; in the same way that a lost manuscript by Shakespeare would be non-existent.
Paul P. Mealing, Melbourne, Australia
As to why this something exists, we may consider the four types of causes identified by Aristotle: the material, formal, efficient, and final causes (in The Great Philosophers, Brian Magee suggested we could think of these as ‘be-causes’). Hence there is something because of its materials. These can be given structure through a formal cause – which we can perhaps think of as a definition of what makes something that very thing – by means of an efficient cause – that is, through a process or agent – for some purpose – the last being Aristotle’s final cause. The religiously persuaded have been inclined to seek the cause of all such causes – a ‘ first cause’, evoking a supernatural deity whose necessary existence and omnipotence can be seen to resolve the problem of there being something rather than nothing.
For us, ‘why’ primarily suggests purpose, intention and motive, which are distinctly subjective, human proclivities. In comparison, ‘how’ applies independently of these, objectively, to the material and efficient causes by which something exists. With the burgeoning of empirical science, such explanations of origins become emphasised, because evidence suggests that things naturally ‘just are’ rather than are consciously intended.
As to the role of ‘nothing’, at the extreme, according to New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb, among others, space and time came into existence only after the Big Bang, and before this neither existed (Nothing, 2013, p.6). Asking what happened before the Big Bang’s singularity is, says Stephen Hawking, like asking what is south of the South Pole. Furthermore, Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen (Wonders of the Universe, 2011, p.239) maintain that after 10100 years as regards this Universe, “nothing happens and it keeps not happening for ever.” After this unimaginably long time, then, there will be nothing rather than something – an eternity of nothingness. However, in the interim, even if common sense tempts us to believe that matter cannot spontaneously arise from empty space, “when we allow for the dynamics of gravity and quantum mechanics… this is no longer true” (Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, 2012, p.151).
Colin Brookes, Loughborough, UK
There seem to be three ways of answering this question posed by Gottfried Leibniz: (1) ‘Something’ – the universe – has always existed; (2) A necessary entity (something that could not not have existed) brought everything else into existence; (3) ‘Something’ – the universe – arose spontaneously.
Leibniz himself believed that “sufficient reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found in the series of contingent things” in the world, therefore “the ultimate root of the world must be something which exists of metaphysical necessity.” He concludes, the “final reason for things is called God.” This argument doesn’t cut much ice with non-believers, since it prompts the question: Why is there a God rather than nothing?
In his brilliant book A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss develops the idea of self-creating universes. First, he challenges the question itself. He suggests that people who ask the question usually mean ‘How is there something?’ (a scientific question) rather than ‘Why is there something?’ (a metaphysical question). He then describes how a quantum theory of gravity permits universes to appear spontaneously from the quantum vacuum with their own time and space. These universes, although tiny, may contain matter and radiation, as long as their total energy (kinetic and mass energy minus gravity) is zero. These baby universes normally last an infinitesimally short time. However, inflation – the force that originally powered our own universe – can cause some to expand exponentially and turn them into universes, some possibly like our own, but some possibly with completely different particles and physical laws. Krauss goes on to argue that the creation of ‘something’ is inevitable because ‘nothing’ is unstable.
Does Krauss’s argument offer a satisfactory explanation of why or how there is something? Can one not still wonder legitimately why there is quantum vacuum energy and inflation and not nothing at all? In any case, it seems that it’s science that will find the answer, and philosophy can only stand by and double-check the arguments!
Michael Brake, Epsom, UK
Why is there something rather than nothing? One might answer, simply because there is. There are many convoluted paths to this point. If the universe had no beginning, therefore there always was something – its non-existence is therefore impossible. This idea is supported by a study that predicts that the universe had no beginning yet existed forever as a sort of quantum potential, before collapsing into the Big Bang. Another approach uses the idea of ‘rainbow gravity’ to back up the notion that the universe had no beginning, and that time stretched out infinitely. Other views conclude that time did not exist before the Big Bang.
However, human nature and prior experience lead us to expect everything to have a cause – thus the need for belief in God. Yet a cause may not always be necessary, even for the formation of the universe, which is beyond our knowledge; if there indeed was a starting point of the universe at all. Of course, if we were to find a proven cause for the foundation of the universe, that cause itself would need a cause – we would be back to square one looking for that said new cause. This is true as any cause itself must have its own cause; there is no simple and confined cause for why the body works, if it is because of our organs, then our organs work because of our bodily tissues, the tissues because of the blood, and so on, until we eventually get to something we cannot explain. If there truly is a cause for the universe, the answer must be something that exists primarily without its own cause – so why can’t the universe itself exist without a cause?
To answer the question of ‘why’, one must realise that the answer may lie within itself, that the world may be a ‘necessary being’, holding its own reason for existence within itself. An example of such could be provided by arithmetic, whose underlying laws exist as of themselves. So we come back to the simplistic reason that there is something rather than nothing just because there is.
Alanna Blackshaw, Morden, UK
The easiest way to show that there must be something rather than nothing is to try to define nothing. Nothing must have no properties: No size. No shape. No position. No mass-energy, forces, wave forms, or anything else you can think of. No time, no past, no present, no future. And finally, no existence. Therefore there must be something. And this is it.
Larry Curley, Sawtry, Huntingdon, UK
Why is there something rather than nothing? I vouch for ‘play’. Bear with me. Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness that a perfect nothingness would nihilate itself. It’s as if there is something in nothingness that must become something. So imagine, if you will, a pre-Big-Bang cosmic boredom. Now imagine it, in some fundamental way, seeking to become something. This implies a kind of experimentation, or play, for the sake of seeing what happens. And how can there be any ‘seeing’ without consciousness, which is as removed from nothing as anything could be?
Everything seems to exist for the sake of being perceived. Consider, for instance, secondary qualities such as light and sound. While we can easily imagine a universe of form and extension – primary qualities – without consciousness (specifically, without being perceived), secondary qualities are different. If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, it doesn’t make sound as much as disturb the air. The same goes for light: neither color nor sound exist without being perceived.
So why all this rather than nothing? To see what happens? Experimentation, perhaps? Play? In this sense, all perceiving things can be thought of as the eyes and ears of God. This has two major implications. First, there are ethical implications concerning how we treat other perceiving things, the imperative to minimize suffering. This brings up an obvious objection: pain and suffering seem contrary to play. But experiments often go wrong. And to pose suffering and catastrophe against experimentation would be to mistake it for some purposiveness with a fixed positive outcome, guided perhaps by some higher consciousness. I’m after something more impersonal. Secondly, consciousness distances us from nothing. So we can assume that the more it evolves, the further it removes itself from that nothing. Therefore, the higher the forms of play we engage in (art, philosophy, science, etc.), the greater the distance. So what better thing could we do with our sliver of something than see what consciousness can do? And what could push us further from that cosmic boredom than play?
D.E. Tarkington, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA
That there is something rather than nothing I take as proven by the fact of a question having been posed. The nature of nothingness is more problematic. If by ‘nothingness’ we mean an everlasting void incapable of change, we have no evidence such a state could exist. Even a vacuum we now believe maintains a propensity to generate something via the laws of quantum mechanics. Those laws also apparently determined the nature of the fundamental constituents of matter and the energy fields that emerged 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang that initiated the ‘something’ of our Universe. These in turn exhibit propensities to interact in specific, definable and repeatable ways with each other, causing a dynamic of change of the something, from which increasing complexity can develop. One outcome of this increasing complexity, in at least one region of the Universe this process created, has been the development of self-replicating assemblies of matter, which, under the influence of competition for the fundamental materials with which to replicate, results in further complexity over time. The conclusion of this, over 300,000 years ago, was the emergence of a life form that approximately 2,500 years ago was capable of recording questions of the sort this response seeks to answer. Since then we have further developed the capacity to offer credible answers to such questions. Using a unique combination of tool-making, observation and deductive and inductive reasoning skills, we have developed the remarkable understanding I just outlined. Unfortunately, many of our species will still challenge this understanding. They may concede that while this line of argument may address the ‘how’ of something rather than nothing, it fails to produce the reason, purpose or cause that the word ‘why’ in the original question implies. But I’m afraid that attributing a purpose to the laws of nature fails to appreciate the sort of thing those laws and the Universe that results are. The seeking of a purpose for all things, by the questioners we have become, reflects not something out there in what led to our creation, but something internal we use to organise our short lives within this magnificent creation.
Mike Addison, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK
This is one of those questions which, as the Buddha says in a sermon attributed to him, “tends not toward edification”, if by edification we mean achieving a final answer. Perhaps one is possible, but attempts to answer the question by appeal to the principle of sufficient reason devolve quickly into infinite regress: God created everything, but who created God? Appealing to multiverse cosmology, we might say that we happen to live in a universe finely tuned for existence of certain particles and, especially, stars. Other universes may be an absence of things. But what created the multiverse?
Perhaps then the question tends not toward edification, toward a final answer; but the asking of it can nevertheless be edifying because beneath the query there seems to be an attitude of awe that there are things and here they are and here we are as things too, among the others. Would we be right in saying that awareness of and immersion in this ‘thisness’ (or haecceity) – not among the things themselves as struggled-toward essences or concepts, but among the things as we live with them, with all their particularities in all this dizzying scope and precision – is the foundation of Freud’s ‘oceanic feeling’? This is the kinship selves feel for what is real and bigger than they are. The poets have been particularly good at describing this, haven’t they?
So in asking the metaphysical question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’, perhaps we can forego the apparently impossible answer in favor of how the questioning itself is inherently ethical. Knowing the ‘I-thou’ relationship begins here.
So I’m not interested in trying to justify an answer to a seemingly unanswerable question. I’m saying that the motives for asking it mean we are enraptured by the material world – a world which too many philosophers, beginning with Plato, have denigrated, much to the detriment of reason, understanding, compassion, reverence and equity.
Christopher Cokinos, University of Arizona, USA
My baby daughter is starting to babble. Soon she will mouth her first word, and then… Well, then come the questions. She will be asking why this and why that, so the powers of my knowledge and patience will be stretched to new limits. I have tried to prepare myself for that most puzzling question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing? She will, no doubt, phrase it differently, but I will know what she means. I close my eyes and begin to imagine what the wise men would say…
Professor Broot says, “There just is”; and Professor Endelez that “The universe was caused by a Big Bang, and before that was a Big Bang, and so on.” My daughter still presses her whys, even though the former dismissed the question and the latter dodged it by swapping nothing with infinity. That does not sit well with myself or my daughter. So my daughter swamps the pair with a stream of whys, and then I notice Professor Broot beginning to twizzle and tug at his moustache, and I know it is time for us to go. We move on to Professor Gottluv, who tells us that “Everything in the universe has a cause and the ultimate cause must, by necessity of avoiding an absurd regress, be uncaused, and we call this thing God.” Yet my daughter continues to ask why, and so do I. It sounds like our concept of nothing was now swapped for a kind of infinity called God. Meantime, rumours have been going around about our endeavour. A host of Professors are swarming around us now, and we are overwhelmed by ever more exotic definitions of nothingness and time, and pedantry about the question’s wording.
Enough! We go somewhere quiet, sit down and break bread. Here we munch over the problem that has been bothering us the entire time. There never seems to be a way to satisfactorily end the whys. All answers, discounting the cop outs, somehow end up either becoming circular, turtles all the way down, or dogmatically cut short at an arbitrary point. I ask my daughter, “What do you think about all this?” With bits of cheese on her chin she says, “Dish shammich ish sho good!” So it is, my love, so it is… a good ploughman’s for common folk with common sense. Amen!
Eneree Gundalai, Hannover, Germany
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: What Are The Moral Limits To Free Speech And/Or Action? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 11th June 2018. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. Submission is permission to reproduce your answer.