Do Abstract Objects Explain Why Anything Exists At All? (Axiological Arguments for Existence)
Why is there something rather than nothing, or better put, why is there anything at all? Could the answer to one of the most fundamental questions in all of philosophy be that abstract objects actually explain existence? This sounds very strange but some very respected philosophers and physicists actually think so.
Think of the concept of ‘nothing’ as having different levels.
First, we have the world as we know it with concrete things, at the next level there are no concrete things, but maybe just the laws of nature and time or space, another level could be just abstract objects like mathematics, value, or ‘probability’ the concept that something could happen itself.
These abstract objects could be eternal, existing outside of time, and can’t really be created or destroyed.
Could one of these abstract objects or concepts be axiomatic, or without cause or explanation, and answer the ‘why’ question of existence including explaining why our universe is the way it is?
What follows is a brief exploration into the most well-known axiomatic (also sometimes referred to as a ‘nomological’ or ‘teleological’) responses to the fundamental question of existence including those from John Leslie, Nicolas Rescher, and Max Tegmark.
To learn more, I recommend you read the full arguments of each of them which I’ll link to below.
One such theory called Axiarchism comes from John Leslie, a philosopher, and expert on the fundamental question of existence who’s probably thought about it for much longer than you and I have.
His answer? The world exists because it is the product of a directly active ethical requirement, which as a matter of fact, not logic, has proven sufficient to make things exist.
Something exists in this case because it’s ethically good that it does.
In his book, Value and Existence, he outlines how ethical value is self-justifying, which means it can explain the existence of our universe and itself is a self-explanatory fact.
I summarize his argument as the following and then I’ll explain it in more detail:
- There’s a direct ethical requirement for existence which is a matter of fact, not logic.
- Some ethical requirements may overrule the need for evils like natural disasters.
- The foundation of all goodness is intrinsic goodness which is self-justifying and real. This is because ethical goodness can’t be a relative thing — a human construct for example.
- The need for goodness does not depend on anything or anyone, such as people with an ethical obligation.
- Ethical requirements may be productive and creative.
- Our world is constructed in such a way that heavily suggests there was an ethical requirement for its particular existence.
What this means is the need for something to exist because it’s ethically good to exist is axiomatic, or needing no explanation, a fact. Goodness is something real out there, not relative or can changed based on perspective either. Also, it doesn’t really depend on people or things.
Now, he’s not saying that ethical goodness can create things out of nothing per se. If that were so, something would be spontaneously created to solve world peace and we wouldn’t have to work to make it happen.
However, these ethical needs or requirements may be creatively responsible for the existence of things. In this case, mainly the creation of the universe or existence. He writes “A thing’s value is a matter of there being a reason for that thing to exist.” The universe may have value, so its ethically desirable character supplies a reason for it being there.
Why should we believe any of this? Given the way our existence is, he writes, mainly the immense fine-tuning of the physical laws of the universe, suggest that our world exists because it satisfied this ethical need. Our universe appears to have been created because of value.
One example he gives in the book is ‘time’. Time could theoretically have ended up in many different ways, yet we have these notions of a past, present, and future. If the world wasn’t created to satisfy an ethical need, we could just live in the present for instance, with no recollection of the past. However, we do have a past and memories which can create value. If there was no past then the value is wasted and the world essentially comes into being, then disappears for no reason.
We can think of Leslie’s theory like this; First, there’s the concept of absolute nothing, no objects, concepts, space, time, which Leslie says can’t exist and isn’t a possibility. Then there’s the abstract concept of the need for a good world. This can be thought of in a ‘super time’ different or outside of our own. Then regular time begins and our universe with concrete things like energy and matter begin to exist because of the abstract concept.
Just to be clear, Leslie doesn’t fully commit the ‘Good World Need’ as an abstract object. Yet, he says that it needs not to count it as an existent thing. So no one knows what else it could possibly be, as philosopher Arthur Witherall writes, and he doesn’t seem to provide a clear explanation.
The general idea behind his theory is that the universe is a free lunch. Because a free lunch is better than having nothing at all to eat, and we can choose to partake in it or just throw it away.
Axiarchism isn’t the only theory that suggests the universe was created because of value. Philosopher Nicholas Rescher also believes abstract objects and concepts could explain existence and focuses on ‘cosmic values’ in his own axiomatic theory.
This theory argues that there could be an underlying set of laws, which he calls proto-laws, that don’t just describe how nature works, but laws for nature and existence itself. This is very Plato-esque.
Specifically, these proto-laws could describe the laws of nature, but also maximize impersonal values like harmony, simplicity, systemic elegance, and more.
Why should abstract objects or proto-laws maximize values you ask? It’s similar to Leslie, it’s just axiological or self-explanatory and that’s the final answer. No need to investigate further. He writes…
“It is the great advantage of a principle of axiology to be in the position to provide the materials of its own explanation. Principles of economy, simplicity, etc. are literally self-explanatory by virtue of being optimal on their own footing… A value principle… must validate itself”.
In this case, value validates itself. There’s something rather than nothing because something fulfills value… or ‘maximizing values’.
Now before I go any further, you’ve probably begun to question how exactly an abstract object creates something physical like this chair I’m sitting in. If you’re not sure how then welcome to the club. Leslie’s theory and Rescher’s theory are very murky when it comes to the details of the creation of material things and it makes no ontological sense that an abstract concept can create anything material.
So these theories are pretty much meaningless?
Well, there’s a theory by MIT physicist Max Tegmark that details how abstract objects do have some creational power. More specifically, the universe and existents are an abstract object, that of mathematics.
The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis, also known as Ultimate Ensemble Theory, states that our physical universe and all of existence is a mathematical structure. Meaning it’s literally math, not just mathematical description.
What about people? Apparently, we’re math too and any mathematical structure complex as ourselves “will subjectively perceive themselves as existing in a physically ‘real’ world”.
His argument can be put as the following:
- Our best physical theories give a mathematical representation of the world and math can explain every part of existence.
- An interpretation of existence being purely mathematical should be preferred over other theories-of-everything by Occam’s Razor. It is not just that it can be represented by mathematical objects in our best physical theories; it is (and we are), fundamentally, those mathematical objects.
Tegmark argues that everything can be described by math including emotions, textures, and thoughts.
Because everything in the universe is made up of fundamental particles like leptons, quarks, forces, etc., and physicists use math to describe these fundamental building blocks, we can think they actually don’t have any other properties other than mathematical ones. Therefore we can think of everything as actually being math.
Something exists rather than nothing for Tegmark because perhaps we can think of math as axiomatic and not needing a creator. It’s something that has always existed and can accurately portray why our universe exists the way it does.
Now is there any truth at all to these abstract object, axiological arguments? Well, there are many ways to refute them. The Leslie argument is self-contradictory as it says that ethical value both can and can’t create anything. One can argue the Rescher argument is circular and Tegmark’s argument utilizes bait and switch, replacing a representation relation with an identity relation, aka just because something can be represented mathematically doesn’t mean it is such. Plus, none of these arguments makes much ontological sense.
I think the creators may understand this as well to a degree but are committed to their ideas as I think they believe the answer to existence lies down this particular path of thinking somehow.
So I think we should applaud them for pushing the question forward and being brave enough to throw their own unique ideas out there for intense scrutiny instead of hiding behind their computers and publishing safe, boring papers.
But what do you think? Let me know.
Make sure to follow me on Medium as I’ll be exploring more responses to the fundamental question of existence coming up soon.
The Rest of the Articles in This Series Including the Best Answer:
Part 1. Questioning the Question and Types of Responses:
Part 2. The Probabilistic Argument for Existence (Nozak & Van Inwagen): https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/the-probabilistic-argument-for-why-anything-exists-at-all-examined-van-inwagen-nozick-6fd7f209d11d
Part 3. Modal Realism and Probable Worlds Argument (David Lewis): https://medium.com/curious/does-modal-realism-explain-why-anything-at-all-exists-db3c43a45df9
Part 4. Necessitarian Theistic Argument (Leibniz & Craig) https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/does-god-explain-why-there-is-something-rather-than-nothing-1ba79fd90639
Part 5. The Brute Fact Argument (Hume & Russell) https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/does-the-brute-fact-argument-explain-why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing-189eb0289aa9
Part 6. Axiological Arguments (Leslie, Rescher, Tegmark) https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/do-abstract-objects-explain-why-anything-exists-at-all-axiological-arguments-for-existence-fc9b194a3af9
Part 7. Is the Question Meaningless? (Wittgenstein, Edwards, Positivism, Smith) https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/is-the-question-why-is-there-anything-at-all-actually-meaningless-1c8f2ce96703
Part 8. The Best Response: https://thinkingdeeply.medium.com/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing-the-best-answer-e568f468459a
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