Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Sunday, January 6, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, April 10, 2016

What is it

The old metaphysical question – why anything exists at all – has perplexed and intrigued humankind for ages. It has long been a question reserved for philosophers, but now some physicists claim to have answered it. Yet these attempts have raised questions of their own: is this even a meaningful question in the first place? Can it be answered by science alone, or is philosophy necessary? And what will answering the question mean for us? John and Ken find something to talk about with Jim Holt, author of Why Does The World Exist: An Existential Detective Story.

Part of our series A Philosophical Guide to the Cosmos.

Listening Notes

Is this a serious question, a silly question or both? How might we even answer it? Do we look for reasons or causes? Even if God made the universe, then would our answer have to explain God’s existence? Even if there’s not reason, could there be a cause, like the big bang? What if the world just is, as Bertrand Russell and David Hume thought? But Ken feels that’s too big of a cop out.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (6:25): Laurence Krauss, author of A Universe From Nothing is interviewed on the topic of nothingness. Eternal void is no longer empty space, it is a vacuum of virtual particles. Space and time itself must pop out from something. No space, time, no nothing would be nothing. Cause only makes sense in space and time, so one has to think about cause before space and time which wouldn’t make sense.

John and Ken invite Jim Holt author of Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. Jim found the question when he was a high schooler and found a copy of Heidegger’s What is Metaphysics? He felt the question was at the intersection of all his interests: philosophy, science, and religion. What would even answer the question? Jim wants to refine the question: maybe the question is nonsense, and it might lead us to a more intelligent question.

John asks whether the concept of possible worlds in David Lewis’ work is similar to what theoretical physicists are thinking about in terms of the multiverse. Jim affirms that it is quite similar. Ken asks what allows physicists to think about these ideas, granted that the evidence is so sparse? Jim wonders whether there is not only something but also everything. That might be the least arbitrary form it takes, which goes back to Plato’s idea of plentitude. That tells us that we should be on the lookout for reality taking more forms than we realize now. Dark matter might be evidence of this.

Ken asks what the fundamental base of all existence is. The question of why there is something rather than nothing seems useful in terms of looking at that grandeur of it, but really in the end it seems a little unhelpful for other topics that really matter. What does consciousness have to do with our understanding of the universe? In this theory, mind is fundamental to reality. Without mind there’d be no time, since we project that, and there’d be no time.

  • 60 Second Philosopher (47:30): Ian Shoales finds the idea of nothing very unhelpful to think about anything, including nothing itself!

Comments (5)

Marcel-Marie LeBel's picture

Marcel-Marie LeBel

Monday, December 24, 2018 -- 8:12 AM

Why something exists instead

Why something exists instead of nothing.

From contemporary scientific knowledge, we may understand that the question is somehow flawed.

Physics shows that particles, waves, subatomic particles, vacuum, .. etc. Everything jiggle, vibrate, osciiiate etc. The universe does not exist; it happens! Everything does so spontaneously.

The question should be; “Why is the universe happening instead of not happening?” I surmise that it all started with some little event happening amidst nothingness or “non-happeningness”...

For existence to have meaning, or a logical value, non existence must be real. We know that existence cannot come from non-existence for it would fail the rule of non-contradiction, our sacred beacon for all our truth making activities like mathematics, logic, science etc. The universe obeys this rule and is therefore also a logical system.

But in order to discuss existence, or happening for that matter, we have to ponder the questions of what this stuff is out there and what gets it going spontaneously. Below, I offer a path toward some answers. I have been dumpster diving and I recovered the good old Substance and Cause which I relate in the end with Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Have fun!

Why is everything happening?

The answer to “Why things exist?” could be preceded by the question “What exists?” Here I trace a path toward an answer to the classic questions of substance and cause... (Essentially, ideas for discussion)

A substance is what we interact with to produce an “experience”. Essentially our reality is the sum of all our experiences.

In the present context, a cause is a logical reason for something to happen. Because it is “logical” it normally follows or is spontaneous. Then, the “Cause” is a logical reason for something to happen spontaneously.

The universe has existed and evolved for 13.8 By before we showed up to experience it. We require a substance to account for this long existence, as well as a (type of) cause to explain its spontaneous evolution, all before we started making our reality out of it.

The universe obeys the rule of non-contradiction. Its behavior is well described by mathematics which is based on logic. The universe is a logical substantial system.

As a logical system, the universe works by simple logical operations at the most fundamental level. Such a substantial logical system is allowed only one type of substance or one nature. This is because only elements of a same nature – same substance may participate in a logical operation.
Since the whole universe is allowed to contain only one type of substance, the Cause has to be some aspect of that single type of substance.

Everything in the universe is made of the same substance which may be found in different forms. For example, a clock must measure Time via a logical operation between the two of them. The clock is obviously a more complex form of the substance. Time is a simpler form of the substance. We will say Time is the name of the substance. In other words, the clock is made of time, but a more complex for of it.

We know that Time goes at different rate here and there, like in a gravitational field. This tells us that the substance “Time” is actually a dynamic process and the local rate of its evolution is a variable.

The substance has a variable. How then is the substance recognized as the same substance in all its different forms. The substance must have a property or “constant” throughout all its different forms.

If, for some of the substance A, the value of this property (you may think of something like the Planck h) somehow changes from A to B, the substance with the B value for the property becomes a different substance for it is not logically operational with substance A. Then, the substance with the B value for the property belongs to the B universe. The A and B universes could be overlapping without any logical operations happening between the two. In other words, they are non-existent with respect to each other because they are not logically operational with each other.

(Say you have a magic bottle that could contain any substance. You could fill it with substance A. You could also fill it with substance B because to substance B, the bottle is empty since it does not interact logically with a different substance. (Yes, only a bottle made of substance B may “contain” some substance B) Of course, one could imagine some sort of such magic bottle at the Big Bang where piles of universes A, B, C, D ... etc. would be filling it for the sake of squeezing as much as possible into the small bottle... Let us imagine something a bit more complicated, like the property is not constant but rather oscillates between values A and B. That substance, in our universe A, would seem to appear and disappear without explanation... Try something else and see if it fits the data... )

A substantial logical system allows only one type of cause. There is no simple logical rule to determine which of the two causes has precedence over the other one (Surely there is a better argument for that) ... One example of this only type of cause allowed involving the rate of time is known as gravity.

‘ .. A more accurate way of summarizing the lessons of General Relativity is that gravity does not cause time to run differently in different places (e.g., faster far from the earth than near it). Gravity is the unequable flow of time from place to place. It is not that there are two separate phenomena, namely gravity and time and that the one, gravity, affects the other. Rather the theory states that the phenomena we usually ascribe to gravity are actually caused by time’s flowing unequably from place to place... “Bill Unruh arXiv:gr-qc/9312027v2 17 Dec 1993

In conclusion, we have seen above a path and method for handling the concepts of substance and cause with the help of contemporary scientific knowledge. To me, Dark Matter and Dark Energy could simply be the modern names for the “Substance and Cause” of Ontology or Natural Metaphysics. Dare I say, that the original task of ontology or natural metaphysics is still up for grab? That physics is still waiting for some results from philosophy on the subject in order to move on? Carefull! It will have to be a truth, not another opinion. Nothing but a truth will cross from philosophy to science and be of any use.

With my apologies,

Roger's picture


Tuesday, December 25, 2018 -- 5:13 PM

My comments are:

My comments are:

1. I think an issue with the possible worlds idea (or that in "nothing", all possibilities exist) is that it seems like possibilities exist in the mind. In "nothing", there are neither possibilities, nor minds.

2. The mind’s conception of “nothing” and “nothing” itself are two different things. Because it exists, the mind must define “nothing” in terms of the absence of “something”, but “nothing” itself doesn’t have that constraint. Whether or not "nothing" itself exists is independent of “something”, which wouldn’t be there in “nothing”.

3. Some say that talking about "nothing" as a thing reifies, or gives existence to it. But, we have to talk about “nothing” as a “something” just in order to talk about this subject. This doesn’t reify “nothing” itself (not our mind's conception of "nothing") because our minds, and therefore our talking about it, wouldn’t be there in “nothing”.

4. If we are ever able to have a satisfying solution to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", we have to consider the possibility that there could have been "nothing". So, here's my view. Others have suggested that the seeming insolubility of the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is based on a flawed assumption. I agree and propose the following. I think the flawed assumption is that the situation we often visualize as being "absolute nothing" or the lack of all existent entities (e.g., the lack of all matter; energy; space/volume; time; abstract concepts; laws of physics, math and logic; and minds and consciousness to consider this supposed "nothing") is really the lack of all existent entities. Instead, I think this situation is itself an existent entity. If so, this means that "something" is necessary, or non-contingent because even what we used to think of as "absolute nothing" is a something. How can this be? The proposed explanation is as follows.

In regard to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", two possible solutions are:

A. “Something” has always been here.

B. “Something” has not always been here.

Choice A is possible but doesn’t explain anything; although, more will be said about it at the end of this paragraph. If we go with choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. In other words, there was "nothing" and now there is "something".

While the words "was" and "now " imply a temporal change, time would not exist until there was "something", so I don't use these words in a time sense. Instead, I suggest that the two different words, “nothing” and “something”, describe the same situation, and that the human mind, after the fact, can view the switching between the two different words/perspectives as a temporal change.

Now, if this supposed "nothing” before the "something" was truly the lack of all existent entities, though, there would be no mechanism present to change, or transform, this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. But, because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice is that the supposed “nothing” we were thinking of was not in fact the lack of all existent entities, or absolute “nothing”. There must have been some existent entity, or “something”, present that could either have been the “something” we see now or that would have contained the mechanism needed to cause that “something” to appear. Because we got rid of all the existent entities we could think of, the only thing that could be an existent entity would be the supposed “nothing” itself. That is, it must in fact be a “something”. This is logically required if we go with choice B, and I don’t think there’s a way around that. Another way to say this is that if you start with 0 and end up with 1, you can't do this unless somehow the 0 isn't really 0 but is actually a disguised 1, even though it looks like 0 on the surface. Overall, this idea leads to the result that “something” is necessary because even what we used to think of as the lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”, is a “something”. Ironically, going with choice B leads to choice A. If what we used to think of as "absolute nothing" is actually an existent entity, or a "something", this would always have been true, which means that this "something" would always have been here.

How can what we used to think of as “nothing” actually be a “something”? I think it's first important to try and figure out why any “normal” thing (like a book, or a set) can exist and be a “something”. I propose that a thing exists if it is a grouping that defines what is contained within. By defining what is contained within, it groups what is contained within into a single unit whole. This grouping together of what is contained within provides a surface, or boundary, that defines what is contained within, that we can see and touch as the surface of the thing and that gives "substance" and existence to the thing. In the case of a book, the grouping together of all the individual atoms and the bonds individual atoms creates a new and unique existent entity called a “book”, which is a different existent entity than the atoms and bonds inside considered individually. This grouping provides the surface that we see and can touch and that we call the "book". Try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist. As a different example, consider the concept of an automobile. This is a mental construct in the head that groups together individual concepts/constructs labeled “tire”, “engine”, “car body”, etc. into a new and unique entity labeled as the concept “automobile”. Here, the grouping is not seen as a physical surface but as the mental label “automobile” for the collection of subconcepts. But, this construct still exists because it’s a grouping defining what is contained within. One last example is that of a set. Does a set exist before the rule defining what elements are contained within is present? No. So, in conclusion, a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within is an existent entity.

Next, apply this definition of why a thing exist to the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To start, "absolute nothing", or "non-existence", is first defined to mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this "absolute lack-of-all". Now, try to visualize this. When we get rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or "absolute nothing" (here, I don't mean our mind's conception of this supposed "absolute nothing", I mean the supposed "absolute nothing" itself, in which all minds would be gone). This situation is very hard to visualize because the mind is trying to imagine a situation in which it doesn't exist. But, once everything is gone and the mind is gone, this situation, this "absolute lack-of-all", would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. Is there anything else besides that "absolute nothing"? No. It is "nothing", and it is the all. An entirety, whole amount or "the all" is a grouping that defines what is contained within (e.g., everything), which means that the situation we previously considered to be "absolute nothing" is itself an existent entity. The entirety/whole amount/"the all" grouping is itself the surface, or boundary, of this existent entity. Said another way, by its very nature, "absolute nothing"/"the all" defines itself and is therefore the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. What this means is that "something" is necessary, or non-contingent, because even what we previously, and incorrectly, visualized as the lack of all existent entities, or "nothing", is a "something. While this is not a new idea, the current paper presents a physical mechanism for how this can be and uses this mechanism to build a primitive model of the existent universe, which is made of "something"s.

If anyone's interested, there's more at:

(click on first link down)

Thank you for listening!

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, December 26, 2018 -- 10:11 AM

It is, indeed, an old

It is, indeed, an old conundrum that we re-visit time and again. I have not (yet) tried to add my two-cents worth to this, but will submit the following excerpt, by way of analogy (the entire essay is under consideration by several publishers):
... In his 1689 treatise, Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke waxed abundant on the subject of infinity. That he did so was 'au courant' for the time, as are such discourses today. I'd very much like to clear the air and flush the toilet on this matter, once, if not for all. Infinity, I assert, is a nebulous construct from human reason and language. Mulling and muddling it over is about as productive as counting clover leafs in a midsummer meadow. It is a long haul, past and future, and only incidental to the scheme of human evolution, history and affairs. If you have pondered the 'present' as a stage of infinity, rest easy. 'Present' is as a subatomic blip, gone in less than an eye wink, never to 'be' again; as if it had never 'been'. Human consciousness, demands a higher level of comfort that that afforded by such ephemerality. And so, we invent constructions to extend experiences and enhance nanoscopic moments. The illusions created help us imagine savings of time, making us feel better about 'when', not just 'where' we are in the totality of life as we wish it to be. Philosophers regularly systematize their thinking in the analyses of these sorts of issues. Those analyses, too, are constructs after a fashion, built upon past and present thinking, rather than any grounding of comfort or expediency. But, had you not already noticed, the act of 'living in the moment' is also a rather nebulous notion.

John Merryman's picture

John Merryman

Sunday, January 13, 2019 -- 12:14 PM

If I may appropriate space

If I may appropriate space back from the mathematicians and theoretical physicists; If we were to eliminate all physical contents from this void, it would still have two non-physical properties. Infinity and absolute equilibrium. Basically zero.
While infinity seems obvious, the absolute is implicit in Relativity, as the frame with the fastest clock and longest distance would be closest to the equilibrium of that vacuum through which light travels at C.
The contents of this vacuum are energy and the forms it manifests, aka mass and information. Energy radiates to infinity, or as far as it can, say 13.8 billion years. Meanwhile form tries to coalesce to perfect equilibrium/balance/zero.
Galaxies are the resulting balance, as radiation expands out, while mass coalesces in, creating a cosmic convection cycle.
So nothing is the vacuum, as any form, energy, platonic information, etc. would be something. So something, the actual mass/energy filling this space, is a feedback loop between everything and nothing. Infinity and zero.

Marcel-Marie LeBel's picture

Marcel-Marie LeBel

Thursday, January 17, 2019 -- 3:10 PM

John Merryman, nice to see

John Merryman, nice to see you here! Keep thinking!

The point I make in the above post is that we may understand the universe from a point of view that does not include our experience. That is metaphysics. This is “natural” metaphysics which is concerned with the same subject matter as physics and cosmology but from a different point of view. This is not to be confused with any metaphysical discourse pertaining to God, soul, meaning of life etc.

How did I come to metaphysics? For years I tried to understand gravity using physics. But all I was getting was a description of gravity. Even with the explanation of space as a distorted rubber sheet did not explain it logically. Even the geodesic version was not acceptable.
Then, 5 am some day of February 1998, I realised that gravity could be understood logically if we admitted that Time was not just a measurement on a clock but some actual stuff or process out there that the clock responded to. This stuff or substance that exists by ltself, outside or without the clock, is the metaphysical concept of “substance”. So I stepped back and look at the knowledge landscape and sure enough, these non physical or metaphysical questions about the universe were not being addressed and studied anymore. Also, because they were non physical concepts they were not part of physics.

The situation is that an important aspect of the possible knowledge about the universe was/is missing and remains unattended. I found this very exciting! When science was born with the likes of Descarte and Newton, these metaphysical questions were essentially placed on a shelf and forgotten. Finding these questions anew was like discovering a lost treasure! (This is the subject of one of my FQXI essays).
When we discovered that there was a speed limit in the universe we understood that space did not exist. The concept of “Space” comes from perceiving and/or conceiving an object like a ruler as being all at the same time when any part of the object are actually some time away from any other part. This means that “space” does not exist and what is left out there is Time.

We keep the concept of “space” in space-time in order to be able to keep doing physics. “Space-time is a bridge concept between our reality and the actual universe out there. The thing is that the universe does not have this requirement and has no use for “space”.

The two main questions of natural metaphysics are about the Substance and cause in the universe. In other words, “what is the universe made of (Substance)?” and “what type of cause gets it going spontaneously”?

I have the answer to these two questions and much more. Properties and shape of the time process. Logical operations between different forms of the time process as in gravity and inertia.

I am alone plowing this new field. My hope is that the produce of this field will help physics move on.
With any luck, it will help us stop sending good women and men in space sitting on tons of explosives and come back burning like meteors.... And that would be something.




Author and Essayist Jim Holt


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