Why is there something rather than nothing? That’s the big question we’re asking in this week’s show.
It’s an odd question that could be thought of as either supremely profound, or supremely silly. It’s hard to know what an answer might even look like.
To get us started thinking about it, let’s distinguish between reasons and causes. When we ask why something is the case, depending on our purposes and what kind of explanation we seek, we might be asking for a reason, or we might be asking for a cause.
For example, when we ask, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” the answer we’re seeking is one that explains the chicken’s reasons—its beliefs, desires, intentions, hopes etc. It wanted to get to the other side. We don’t say anything about the causal mechanisms that allowed the chicken’s legs to move in accordance with its wishes, as that is not part of the chicken’s reasons, though it explains how the chicken is able to achieve its goal.
On the other hand, if we were to ask, “Why is California experiencing a serious drought now?” what we’re looking for is a causal explanation, something that describes the climate and precipitation conditions in the state. We try to identify the prior events that brought about the current state that we’re asking about.
So, returning to our original question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” before we can attempt to answer this, we first need to know what kind of question it is. Are we asking about reasons, or are we asking about causes?
The traditional answer to this question appeals to God’s will. Before there was nothing, but God desired there to be something and said let it be so. The exact causal mechanism by which God’s will is capable of making something exist out of nothing is not explained, other than by saying he is omnipotent. He can bring about anything that he wills, and we’ll just gloss over the details of how. Because God.
For those who don’t believe in God, such an answer will be unsatisfactory for obvious reasons. But even if you believe in God, there’s still a problem, because if God is a “something” rather than nothing, then it’s not an answer at all. If God's existence precedes the cosmos, and God’s will is sufficient to bring a physical universe into existence, then we’ve just pushed the question back a level. Why is there a God rather than nothing at all? And surely if we’re having difficulty explaining the existence of all the random stuff that populates our world, we’re going to have even more difficulty explaining how an omnipotent agent exists that can make that random stuff exist out of nothing but his own will. We're increasing our explanatory burden, not lightening it.
Those favoring the traditional answer might try to appeal to God’s necessary and eternal existence. God is his own reason and his own cause and therefore his existence does not need an explanation beyond itself. But complicating the fairytale in this way ultimately isn’t going to make it any more believable for those not already invested in the story.
Perhaps a better approach to our original question, then, is to consider the cause of the universe instead. So, what’s our best candidate for that? The Big Bang?
I’m not a cosmologist, so I’m not sure I really understand what exactly the Big Bang is. Some describe it as the first event in the universe, the event from which all other events followed. But if we accept some version of the Principle of Causation or the Principle of Sufficient Reason, then we must ask whether the Big Bang itself had a cause.
Some cosmologists posit a “Big Crunch,” which is the super dense state that precedes any Big Bang (of which there might be many, resulting in many different universes). At the very least, there are some initial conditions that are required for a Big Bang to happen, for a cosmos to explode into existence. So, if we think of the Big Bang as an event, there was something before it that caused it to happen. But whatever caused the Big Bang must itself have a cause, and so on. The result of this thinking is that we end up in an infinite regress of causes, no further toward answering our original question.
So perhaps we ought to think of the Big Bang as a non-event. Events happen in time, and apparently there was no time before the Big Bang. Try wrapping your head around that! I’ll leave it to the cosmologists to explain how that’s supposed to work, but I don’t see how it’s going to help us answer our original question. How exactly does a non-event, whatever that is, cause anything to come into existence?
Here’s why the question we started off with is so tricky. If you start off with absolutely nothing—no space, no time, no God, no initial conditions—then how does something magically come into existence from nothing? I don’t see how we’ll ever be able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question.
Maybe, then, we should just conclude that there is no explanation for existence—it’s just a brute fact. Maybe the world just is.
This approach was favored by two great philosophers, David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and it certainly has some appeal. But for some, it may feel like a cop-out. Just because we haven’t yet been able to figure out why there’s something rather than nothing, it doesn’t mean there’s no answer to the question.
So, what do you think? Will we ever be able to explain why there’s something rather than nothing? Or should we recognize that there can never be an adequate answer to the question?
Perhaps the best response is simply to gaze with awe and wonder upon the cosmos we are lucky enough to inhabit.
In an ideal world, every extraordinary philosophical question would come with an extraordinary story telling the tale of how someone first thought of it. Unfortunately, we can only guess at what led a German philosopher, perhaps today best known for the Choco Leibniz biscuits later named after him, to come up with what is often described as the greatest philosophical question of all, namely: why is there something rather than nothing?
The philosopher was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the man who also bequeathed us calculus and the binary system at the heart of modern computers. He died 300 years ago, on November 14, 1716.
Many earlier thinkers had asked why our universe is the way it is, but Leibniz went a step further, wondering why there is a universe at all. The question is a challenging one because it seems perfectly possible that there might have been nothing whatsoever – no Earth, no stars, no galaxies, no universe. Leibniz even thought that nothing would have been “simpler and easier”. If nothing whatsoever had existed then no explanation would have been needed – not that there would have been anyone around to ask for an explanation, of course, but that’s a different matter.
Leibniz thought that the fact that there is something and not nothing requires an explanation. The explanation he gave was that God wanted to create a universe – the best one possible – which makes God the simple reason that there is something rather than nothing.
In the years since Leibniz’s death, his great question has continued to exercise philosophers and scientists, though in an increasingly secular age it is not surprising that many have been wary of invoking God as the answer to it.
One kind of answer is to say that there had to be something; that it would have been impossible for there to have been nothing. This was the view of the 17th century philosopher Spinoza, who claimed that the entire universe, along with all of its contents, laws and events, had to exist, and exist in the way it does. Einstein, who counted himself a follower of Spinoza’s philosophy, appears to have held a similar view.
Other scientists, such as theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss in his populist book A Universe from Nothing (2012), offer a more nuanced version of this answer to Leibniz’s great question. Krauss claims that our universe arose naturally and inevitably from the operation of gravity on the quantum vacuum, empty space teeming with virtual particles that spontaneously pop into existence before disappearing again. Krauss’s theory implies that there could not have been nothing because there has always been something: first there was gravity and the quantum vacuum, and out of that was born the universe as we know it.
Other theories in cosmology also seem to presuppose that there must always have been something in existence from which our universe arose, such as strings or membranes.
The trouble with such scientific answers to the question of “why there is something and not nothing” is that it is not clear why we should think that there had to be gravity, or the quantum vacuum, or strings, or even a universe at all. It seems entirely possible that instead of these things there could have been absolutely nothing.
Another response to Leibniz’s great question is simply to deny that it has an answer. The philosopher Bertrand Russell took this line in a famous radio debate in 1948. He was asked why he thought the universe exists, and responded “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all”.
On this account, the universe would be what philosophers call a brute fact – something that does not have an explanation. Russell’s point was not that humans hadn’t yet explained why there is something rather than nothing but that there is no possible explanation. Those who believe that our universe is part of the larger multiverse also take this line, suggesting that the multiverse – and hence our universe – has no ultimate explanation. Although it is now a popular response to Leibniz’s great question to say the universe is ultimately inexplicable, it does have the drawback of being intellectually unsatisfying (though of course that does not mean the response is false).
The most novel answer to Leibniz’s great question is to say that our universe exists because it should. The thinking here is that all possible universes have an innate tendency to exist, but that some have a greater tendency to exist than others. The idea is actually Leibniz’s, who entertained the thought that there may be a struggle for existence between possible worlds, with the very best one coming out on top as if through a process of virtual natural selection. In the end he did not accept the idea, and retreated instead to the more traditional view that the universe exists because God chose to make it so.
But the idea of a virtual struggle among possible universes has appealed to some modern philosophers, who have followed it to its logical conclusion and claimed that the possible universe with the greatest tendency to exist – which might be because it is the best, or because it contains some important feature such as the conditions that permit life to arise – will actually bring itself into existence.
According to this theory, our universe becomes actual not because God or anything else made it so but because it literally lifted itself out of non-existence and made itself actual. Weird? Yes. But we shouldn’t let that put us off. After all, an extraordinary philosophical question might just require an extraordinary answer.