Jun 5, 2009
When I was 12, the summer between seventh and eighth grades, a sudden realization struck such fright that I strove desperately to blot it out.
Why not Nothing? What if everything had forever been Nothing? Not just emptiness. Not just blankness. But not even the existence of emptiness. Not even the meaning of blankness. And no forever.
Lump together everything that exists and might exist—physical, mental, platonic, spiritual, God. Everything. Call it all “Something.” Why is there “Something” rather than “Nothing”? Why does anything at all exist?
I now attack the question directly—finally in my life—by speaking with some really smart people, primarily philosophers (also one physicist) who have thought long and hard about this seemingly impossible question.
I begin with one of my favorite philosophers, John Leslie, who has been much consumed with Nothing and ultimate explanations. I ask him whether my question is a legitimate one.
“It’s legitimate,” Leslie responds, “because it can have answers. Even if one thinks the answer is ‘there just happens to be something,’ that’s an answer.”
Is it the most fundamental of all questions?
“One could argue that all one’s views about the nature of the universe will in the end depend on whether the universe, which one believes exists, could have a reason behind its existence,” Leslie says. “I myself don’t like the theory that the universe just happens to exist and just happens to have the characteristics which it does.“
At the end of all our strivings, after we have a final theory or a series of final theories, and/or multiple universes with perhaps different final theories in each, will we not still have remaining this ultimate question, Why is there Something rather than Nothing?
“I think that’s right,” Leslie says. “I don’t think it would be possible to say, for example, that because quantum physics tells us that it’s likely that a blank would at some point fluctuate into a real world that that’s our final answer. Because the question would then be, ‘Why does this kind of quantum physics apply to reality?’”
I try to progress by trying to discern the nature of Nothing. Nothing seems “simpler” than Something, I proffer, in that Something has extra stuff to be explained, whereas Nothing does not?
Leslie agrees, but amplifies. “Even in a blank, there would be all sorts of facts. Try to imagine out of existence all actual things. Is that Nothing? In a sense, yes. But that overlooks the fact that there’s an infinite richness of truths about possibilities which is bound to exist even though no actual things exist.”
So it’s impossible to have purely Nothing, Leslie says. “Because one always has possibilities. One always has facts about relationships with possibilities. And one also has the fact that certain possibilities are good and other possibilities are bad. These are facts from which one can never escape—even if there were no actualities, no real possibility of any actualities ever occurring, there would still be no contradiction in the assertion that they may possibly or potentially occur. Their occurring would not be like the occurrence of, say, a ‘married bachelor.’”
For a philosopher to assert that anything is “impossible” is an assertion of significance, and Leslie says that it is impossible for there to be a Nothing without possibilities. “One can even go further and say that the condition of Nothing would have to be infinitely rich,” Leslie adds. “There’s an infinite number of possibilities and an infinite number of facts about them [which cohabit Nothing]. And those possibilities and the facts about them will be there even if there were no actual things forever and ever.”
To Peter van Inwagen, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, Nothing is important. “What would count as an answer to the Nothing question?” he asks. “We cannot describe a way that nonexistent things interact with each other to produce existent things—the nonexistent is never going to produce the existent. This question cannot be like questions about why are there living things, answered by the ways that nonliving things may have interacted to produce living things. Explaining why we have Something would have to have a wholly different kind of answer, if it had an answer at all.”
Inwagen argues that “one sort of answer would be that it was impossible for there to be Nothing, that ‘there being Nothing’ is actually an impossible state of affairs. And that of course would explain why there was Something rather than Nothing, since the impossible cannot occur. There have been two attempts at this in the history of philosophy. One is subsumed under the name ‘ontological argument” [a greatest possible Being must exist] and the other under the name ‘cosmological argument’ [everything that exists must have a reason or an explanation for its existence; whatever begins to exist must have a cause]. But I myself don’t find either of them convincing.”
Another way of answering the question of why there is Something rather than Nothing, Inwagen suggests, would be to show that “it’s vastly improbable for there to be Nothing.” Here’s his argument: “Think of all the possible ways that the world might be, down to every detail. [There are infinitely many such possible ways.] All these ways seem to be equally probable—[which means that] the probability of any one of these infinite possibilities actually occurring seems to be zero, and yet one of them happened.
“Now, there’s only one way for there to be Nothing, right?” Inwagen continues. “There are no variants in Nothing; there being Nothing at all is a single state of affairs. And it’s a total state of affairs; that is, it settles everything—every possible proposition has its truth value settled, true or false, usually false, by there being Nothing. So if Nothing is one way for reality to be, and if the total number of ways for reality to be are infinite, and if all such infinite ways are equally probable so that the probability of any one of them is [essentially] zero, then the probability of ‘there being Nothing’ is also [essentially] zero.”
Inwagen argues that because there are an infinite number of potential worlds, each specific world would have a zero probability of existing, and because Nothing is only one of these potential worlds—there can be only one kind of Nothing—the probably of Nothing existing is zero. A clever argument. But doesn’t it assume that the prior probability of Nothing is precisely the same as that of every one of the infinite number of possible ways the world might have been? Inwagen’s argument turns on the assumption that a “Nothing Total World” is equally probable to every kind of an infinite number of “Something Total Worlds.”
But, to me, Nothing seems different. Nothing seems simpler in that all the other kinds of worlds would require Something more, with additional explanations required for whatever constitutes those Somethings.
Some people would answer the question glibly and say “God”—there is Something because God created it.
“Either God is a necessary being or he’s not a necessary being,” Inwagen responds. “If God is a necessary being then there isn’t any possibility of there being Nothing.” (This, in essence, is the ontological argument, which almost every philosopher rejects as deficient and spurious, though determining precisely why has proved to be maddening.)
“If God is a contingent being,” Inwagen continues, “then we still have the question of, ‘Why is there Something rather than Nothing’ because one of the possible ways for there to be is that there is Nothing, not even God. The doctrine of divine creation would then be, well, if God exists and if anything else exists, that anything else must be because God created it. This may explain why there’s a physical world, but not why is there Something rather than Nothing.”
At the end of all disputations, Inwagen himself says, “I know what I think is the right answer: I think God exists and that God is a necessary being, and therefore it’s not possible for there to be Nothing.”
As for God being the answer, I put the question to University of Oxford atheistic philosopher Bede Rundle, whose book Why There is Something Rather than Nothing rejects the God hypothesis.
“The question is fascinating in that it seems impossible at first blush to give any sort of answer at all,” Rundle says. “It’s had a longish history, starting with [Gottfried] Leibniz; many philosophers have tried their hand at giving an answer. St. Thomas Aquinas worked out his answer: There is God and God has to exist—God exists necessarily.
“Now what I’m interested in,” Rundle continues, “is whether or not that makes sense and can be substantiated.” He believes that those who “in effect think that ‘there being Nothing’ is not a genuine alternative because there has to be Something because there has to be God” are on the right track—except for the God part. “I’m trying to agree with the general petition that there has to be Something or other,” Rundle explains, “but the theistic solution seems to me to have its difficulties.
“Well, what are other conditions in which you can speak of Something as beginning to exist?” Rundle asks. “Isn’t it that there has to be a time when it [the Something] doesn’t exist followed by a time when it does exist? But if you don’t have anything at all, then you don’t have ‘enough time’; so it doesn’t make sense to think of a state of affairs of Nothing being followed by a state of affairs of Something.”
Rundle concludes that, “Perhaps we just have to confront it [the fact of Something] as brute fact—that there is Something. One can’t get beyond that, there’s no explaining it, and that’s that.”
To me, to accept “brute fact” as the final explanation of Everything—All-There-Is—is maximally unsatisfying (which doesn’t make brute fact wrong, of course). Is this just a defect of human cognition? Certainly evolution would have no reason to select for capacity to understand this question.
Rundle answers me thus: “If it’s a conceptual truth that there is Something, and if there has to be Something, then that’s an end to your agonizing, surely. And if you could refute all the arguments that say, ‘We can make sense of the state of affairs which is Nothing at all,’ then there is no alternative. … There’s no such thing [or possibility] as there being Nothing.”
So Rundle believes that there must be Something or other. There cannot be Nothing: Nothing is an impossible state of affairs.
Is this progress? Or word games? I can’t decide.
“Nothing” still haunts me.
“God” would close off debate. What are alternatives?
Quentin Smith, an atheistic philosopher who is fixated on the riddle of existence, has his answer.
“The first thing is to recognize that when people have tried to answer this question,” Smith says, “they have defined Nothing as this very thin sort of Something, like empty space, quantum vacuum, the null set, a point, and the like—but few have really talked about Nothing.” A better way to define a real Nothing, he says, “is ’Not Something,’ so the question becomes, ‘Why is it the case that it is false that there is not Something?’”
There is an answer to this, Smith continues, “but it’s rather trite and trivial, whereas we’ve associated this question as having some great, grand, magnificent metaphysical answer—but the answer is just logically trivial and then really quite uninteresting.
“The answer would be this,” Smith explains. “Right now, Something is the state of affairs. The universe is Something. So why does this Something exist? Well, it was caused to exist by the previous state of the universe, which is also Something, and that previous state was also caused by a state previous to that, which again is also Something [and the infinite regress, the endless series of causes backward, can continue without end]. … And so the reason why there is Something is that each Something that exists has been caused by a prior Something, and if you ask why there is Something at all, I say that I just confine myself to one example, this state of the universe.”
After he first realized this, it took him a while to recover from the disappointment, Smith says with some regret: “I thought to myself, ‘I spent all my life wondering why there is Something rather than Nothing … and this is the answer?’”
Smith concludes that to call existence a “brute fact” is a more logically complete explanation than either theism or any other theory because there are no questions left unanswered in the “brute fact” explanation.
So he contends that while “No Thing existing” might have been the case, “Some Thing existing” is the case. And the reason is trivial: Each and every thing was caused by a prior thing.
That can’t be the answer … but might it?
I still want to scream, “Why Not Nothing?”
Every time I return to it, the question drives me crazy.
To conclude, I consider God. And then no God. In each case, I address the question, “Why Not Nothing?” In each case, I ask one of the world’s most profound thinkers.
I put the question to Richard Swinburne, one of the foremost Christian philosophers, thus: “I am astonished that there is Something, anything at all. Nothing would seem to have been the most likely, perhaps most logical, state of affairs.”
“I share that intuition,” Swinburne begins. “It is extremely puzzling.”
Swinburne’s approach is to first discern the essence of “explanation.”
“All explanation,” he says, “consists in trying to find something simple and ultimate on which everything else depends. And I think that by rational inference what we can get to that’s simple and ultimate is God. But it’s not logically necessary that there should be a God. The supposition ‘there is no God’ contains no contradiction.”
I ask the traditional skeptical follow-up question, “So why is there a God?” Swinburne is clear. “There is no explanation of why there is a God. And it would be theologically problematic if there were [such an explanation of any kind]. If one were to say, well, as a matter of fact, it is logically necessary that there is a God, [that would be a theological problem] because that would mean that the existence of God depended on some principle of logic which was somehow superior to God.
“If God is defined as ‘explaining everything else,’” Swinburne continues, “then God wouldn’t be God if there were an explanation of his existence. God to be God is ‘the ultimate truth.’ That’s just how it is. We can’t go further than that.”
To Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics, the question, “Why is there Something rather than Nothing” is “just the kind of question that we will be stuck with when we have a final theory [of physics]. … We will be left facing the irreducible mystery because whatever our theory is, no matter how mathematically consistent and logically consistent the theory is, there will always be the alternative that, well, perhaps there could have been nothing at all.”
In modern physics, Weinberg explains, “the idea of empty space without anything at all, without fields, is inconsistent with the principles of quantum mechanics—[because] the [Heisenberg] uncertainty principle doesn’t allow a condition of empty space where fields are zero and unchanging.”
But why, then, do we have quantum mechanics in the first place, with its fields and probabilities and ways of making things happen? “Exactly!” Weinberg says. “[Quantum mechanics] doesn’t answer the question, ‘Why do we live in a world governed by these laws?’… And we will never have an answer to that.”
“Does that bother you?” I ask.
“Yes,” Weinberg says wistfully. “I would like to have an answer to everything, but I’ve gotten used to the fact that I won’t.”
Here’s how I see it: The primary questions people pose—Why the universe? Does God exist?—are important, sure, but they are not bedrock fundamental. “Why anything at all?” is the ultimate question.
I’ve come to only two kinds of answers.
The first is that there is no answer. Existence is a brute fact without explanation. Something or Other has to exist. I don’t like this, but I must accept that it may be so.
The second is that at the primordial beginning—whatever that may mean—Something was self-existing. The essence of this Something was its existence, such that nonexistence to it would be as inherently impossible as physical immortality to us is factually impossible.
Candidates for essential self-existence? These include:
• matter-energy and space-time.
• natural laws of physics or higher-order laws that generate quantum mechanics and perhaps multiple universes.
• forms of consciousness, cosmic or otherwise.
• a creator God or an ultimate cause beyond the physical.
• some overarching principle or value, like Plato’s “the good,” which somehow has causative powers.
There are no doubt other candidates. And the argument that our human brains/minds are incapable of answering this question, or even properly addressing it, cannot be refuted.
Why is there Something rather than Nothing?
If you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.
Nothing is … closer to truth.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with John Leslie, Peter van Inwagen, Bede Rundle, Quentin Smith, Richard Swinburne, and Steven Weinberg in “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” the 39th—and final—episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series (directed by Peter Getzels). The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Three new series of Closer To Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God —13 episodes each, 39 all together—will begin around January 2010.