Even in ancient Greek society, philosopher-scientists engaged in heated debate about the origin, composition, and structure of our universe.
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.