Why is there something rather than nothing?

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This question is often posed by religious believers, who are under the impression that posing this question makes a compelling case for the existence of a personal God.

The usual intent of the question is to imply that, while science may be able to tell us how things came to be the way they are, it will never be able to explain why. The answer, we are expected to concede, must be because somebody designed it to be that way, and that somebody must be God.

I am frequently dismayed at how the religious are so utterly convinced that this is a deep and insightful question, and yet so utterly unable to see its flaws.

Here are the main flaws, as I see them. They are two.

God cannot be the answer

First, consider the answer we are invited to grasp – that the universe exists because God wanted it to. We only need to consider this for a wee moment to see that it cannot possibly be an answer. Presumably God is not nothing. But if He is not nothing then he is something, and that something is part, or all (depending on your view of God), of all the things that are. It is part of the something whose existence we are seeking to explain.

The religious sometimes essay an answer to this objection as follows: The explanation for God is within God himself. He is a self-explaining object. His nature is such that he could not not exist.

Now if we were able to see the explanation that is within God, for his own existence, this argument might hold some water. But we cannot. The best the religious can do is say that there must be an object that explains its own existence, and we call that object God, even though we don’t know what the explanation may be.

But if are unable to verify the existence and nature of this self-explaining aspect of God then we are free to postulate that aspect as a property of any other object, including the universe itself. That is, we can, with exactly the same logical validity, suppose that the universe is self-explaining: that part of its nature is that it could not possibly not exist.

On the rare occasions when the discussion gets this far, the religious might respond along the lines of ‘but we know about the universe, and we know that it doesn’t have that sort of mysterious property’. To this I am afraid I can reply with nothing deeper than a bald denial – ‘Oh no we don’t!’ Sure we know plenty of interesting and very sophisticated science, but there are enormous areas of what Donald Rumsfeld, in his sole useful contribution to humanity, has called ‘Known Unknowns’. And as for Unknown Unknowns: well they could be without limit! For all we know our current scientific knowledge is barely scratching the surface of what there is to be known and understood. And further, there may be facts about the universe that we could never understand, because of the limitations of our puny brains.

This is no cheap arguing tactic. I can only speak for myself but it seems to me – and I have cogitated upon it quite a bit – simply inconceivable that there could be nothing, not anywhere, not ever. The universe is, in a very real sense to me, inevitable, essential, necessary.

The answer sometimes comes back: ‘Yes but why this universe? Why does it have life in it?’ That is an interesting enough question. But it is a completely different question from the one about why there is anything at all. It is closely related to the Argument from Design, which is addressed elsewhere.

The question begs itself

Most ‘why’ questions are indistinguishable from ‘how’ questions. For instance ‘why is the sky blue’ can be rephrased as ‘how do we come to see blue when we look at the sky?’ If we want to distinguish a ‘why’ question from a ‘how’ question we need to have a way of doing so.

The usual way of distinguishing them, when a distinction is desired, is by identifying an intention. ‘Why did you get up in that tree’ is a different question from ‘How did you get up in that tree’ because it is asking about your intention in climbing the tree, rather than the mechanics of how you achieved it. Perhaps this, then, is the distinction that is sought when we ask why there is something. But if so then we are asking about an intention, which presupposes that there is a sentient being whose intentions led to the existence of the universe. The question can be entirely truthfully rephrased as ‘Given that somebody created the universe, what was their intention in doing it?’ This may be an interesting question for theologians, but not for people discussing with an open mind the existence or otherwise of a supreme creator, as it presupposes that existence.

Perhaps there is some other way of distinguishing the ‘why’ from the ‘how’ in this question, that does not presuppose an intention. I have not seen one suggested, nor can I imagine one on my own limited resources. If a religious person can suggest one, it would be a delight to consider it. In the meantime though, we seem to have no choice but to regard ‘why’ questions as simple paraphrases of ‘how’ questions, except where they are referring to intentional beings whose existence is universally accepted.

This deprives the ‘why’ questions of their specialness and undercuts the frequent suggestion that religion can answer some questions about existence, that science cannot answer.

5 Comments on “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

  1. Bob Green says:

    Excellent essay! You may enjoy the book “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed”. I find it to be compelling. It has easy to follow math in the Appendix to back up its claims. It is hard to argue with math! It’s an easy read with many pictures.

  2. Wulfyn says:

    Nice blog – I came here from the link in your philosophy forum information. I completely agree that any self-evident property ascribed to a god could equally validly be applied to the universe. What do you think about mathematics being the self-evident ‘something’? It would be all you needed to create a flat universe.

  3. jbsweenith says:

    I find a lot to agree with in this essay. But I do have one question which I think might be important to consider. Now, I agree with you, and with Wulfyn, that we are free to predicate necessity of any object we like. After all, we’re free to ascribe any property to any object whatever, so long as no contradiction is involved. But if we’re going to say that the universe is necessary, or even that a necessary universe is just as plausible as a necessary God, then I think we ought to reflect on what that would mean.

    You say, for instance, that it’s inconceivable to you that there be nothing, and hence that the universe is necessary. But I think there is a significant difference between [1] the universe is necessary, and [2] a universe is necessary. If the universe is necessary, then this is the only universe that is possible. But while [2] entails that a universe exists in every possible world, it doesn’t mean that a necessary universe exists, because [2] is consistent with every possible world containing a different universe.

    Hence, even if it is inconceivable to you that there be nothing, that might lead you to accept [2], but I don’t know why it would lead you to accept [1]. Whether or not it’s conceivable that there be nothing, it is conceivable (to me, anyways) that there be a universe which was slightly different than this one (such as, for instance, a universe in which human beings do not exist, or a universe in which this clause of my sentence is omitted).

    • The issue you raise about the difference between this universe being necessary and some universe being necessary has a number of layers and deserves a better response than I can write in a short reply. I have a number of reservations about the modal logic paradigm of thinking of objects in terms of necessity and contingency (this may seem odd, since I’ve just gratuitously used the word ‘necessary’ above, but I think – though I’m not sure yet – I mean something a bit different by it). I will try to clarify my thoughts and write an essay on that topic.

      My current speculation about why the universe is like this is that maybe the universe covers all imaginable possibilities of what it could be like, in different parts of itself. So the answer to why the universe is like this may be that that’s what it’s like where we Earthling observers are. In other parts, where there are other observers, it may be like something else. It helps in considering this to bear in mind that we can only see those parts of the universe inside the Hubble Sphere (radius approximately 13.9 billion lightyears), and that the universe is believed to extend unimaginably far beyond those boundaries, possibly infinitely so.

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