Is the Question, “Why Is There Anything At All” Meaningless?

Why is there something rather than nothing, or, better put, why is there anything at all? What if the best response to this question is that it’s unanswerable?

I’ll explore a variety of unanswerable responses to the question, including analyzing if the question itself makes sense and if it’s meaningful or not meaningful.

First, we can divide the “unanswerable response” to the fundamental question into two categories: Those who think the question is meaningless and those who think it is meaningful but still unanswerable.

Meaningless responses just mean the question is nonsensical or a pseudo question. It can’t be properly asked; thus, there’s no logical answer.

Is it Philosophy’s Job to Answer the Question?

Is it philosophy's job to even answer the fundamental question?

Those who embrace logical positivism consider the question fully meaningless. These folks believe that only statements verifiable through direct observation or logical proof are meaningful.

The “why” question can’t be taken seriously or even considered since there are no observations that can be taken that will lead us to an answer. It’s not even worth contemplating and totally meaningless.

However, logical positivism and pure empiricism has died out for the most part as it’s a self-defeating philosophy that drains philosophy and science of their true purpose: to understand reality better. The statement that says “only statements which can be verified by experience are meaningful” is in itself not verifiable. Perfect, objective truth is epistemically unknowable because the world is endlessly perceived by subjects.

Think of it this way: A logical positivist wouldn’t think we could make any claims about dinosaurs existing since no one has empirically observed one. Yet, we have good reason to think that the existence of dinosaurs is our best description of reality.

Is it a Pseudo-Question?

Another claim that the question is meaningless comes from philosopher Paul Edwards.

Paul Edwards — 1923–2004 Image via

Edwards claims that when we ask for anything, such as why did x happen or why is x what it is, we presuppose that there are conditions that existed before x which can explain x. However, when we ask in the case of the question of why there is something rather than nothing, there can be no antecedent conditions of this kind, because they too must be included in the “something” which must be explained. Thus, Edwards concludes the question is meaningless since it violates conditions in which we normally ask “why” questions.

But, as we went over already, the question may invoke conditions that are self-explanatory or have an abnormal answer. It appears Edward’s response is too strong of a conclusion.

Is it a Meaningless Riddle?

Finally, one could just claim the question is a type of meaningless riddle. An example of this type of question would be: How loud is the sound of a person clapping with one hand?

But, upon analyzing the question “why does anything exist at all?” it seems sensible to ask. We can certainly conceive of something existing. It can be asked in ordinary English, which does not disobey any grammatical maxims or semantical issues. I don’t see any reason why this could be illogical to ask.

Is the Question Unanswerable, Yet Meaningful?

Ludwig Wittenstein (1889–1951) Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who we discussed in the first video as noting how philosophers can quickly become confused and lost in language, had an interesting response to the fundamental question. He remarks that the question itself is nonsensical, and an answer, if even possible, lies beyond our grasp. Yet, he thinks the question is meaningful.

In his lecture on ethics, given when Wittgenstein was younger, he writes:

“If I say ‘I wonder at the existence of the world,’ I am misusing language… it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world because I cannot imagine it not existing. I could, of course, wonder at the world around me being as it is. If, for instance, I had this experience while looking into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it’s clouded. But that’s not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not blue. But then it’s just nonsense to say that one is wondering at a tautology.”

Here, he thinks the phrase “something existing” is tautology or nonsensical to contemplate as he can’t think of something not existing. If there isn’t a space to even logically ask the question, then we certainly can’t come to an answer he surmises.

However, his response is a bit different from the meaningless responses outlined above, because in that lecture he gave, he also talked about how “absolute” expressions, such as “absolute good,” have an almost supernatural meaning that something can lie outside the world. They transcend the language of fact, and one of these expressions includes the feeling of wondering at the world.

For Wittgenstein, the sense of wonder is clearly significant, invoking feeling in us, and he suggests that it may have an even greater significance than factual or scientific information.

Unfortunately for him, because the thought is also nonsensical, we have to “pass over it in silence,” but there is a type of meaning we feel to this question that seems to reach beyond human limits that ties into emotion, not just rationality.

Now, as far as Wittgenstein’s rational position on the question, later in life, he changed his mind and acknowledged his initial theories of meaning and language were flawed, making his position on the question inadequate.

However, this is an interesting response as it suggests the question is meaningful to us even if there isn’t an answer or maybe can’t ever be an answer.

The Felt Meanings of the World

Quentin Smith — professor emeritus of philosophy at Western Michigan University

Philosopher Quentin Smith, in a similar way to Wittgenstein, argues that the question is meaningful but also nonsensical in his book The Felt Meanings of the World.

He believes that in addition to a metaphysics of rational meaning that describes what reality is from a rational, cognitive point of view, we can also a metaphysics of emotions. This is a metaphysical theory based on felt or emotional meanings, separate from reasons; a metaphysics of feeling if you will.

Philosophers have been treating emotions as “inferior versions of reason,” Smith writes, which is incorrect.

He argues that ”there is no knowable reason that explains why the world exists and has the nature it does.” So perhaps there isn’t and can’t ever be a pure rationalist explanation for existence. Trying to answer this question using causes and purposes has failed and will continue to fail.

However, the question can be felt as meaningful as we can feel an appreciation for existence even though we can’t rationally understand it or answer it. Existence is just sort of a brute fact that we can feel is there.

Smith writes that existence is just sort of a brute fact that we can feel is there.

He says this is what Wittgenstein was trying to convey but got wrong.

“Wittgenstein failed to realize that he could, from a different perspective, have interpreted the extraordinariness of the world’s existence as a felt meaning of the world and the wonder as an appreciation of this meaning. By interpreting them as pointing to a God and Goodness, he revealed that he was interested in them only from the viewpoint of a metaphysical reason.”

There are many things in the world we feel are important to us, which makes us appreciate life and makes existence meaningful.

In the end, Smith dismisses the question of existence as unanswerable rationally. But the fact that something exists rather than nothing is something that we appreciate and brings us a sense of affective meaning before we truly understand it, if we ever will.

In Conclusion, Meaningful or Not?

So, is the question meaningful or not meaningful?

It appears we can formulate the question coherently, and it certainly invokes emotional meaning in us, even if there is no rational answer.

This seems to point to the conclusion that the fundamental question of existence is meaningful to us even without an answer.

Ok, so we’ve covered all the types of responses you’ll hear, including many different answers to the fundamental question of existence. Which is right or, at least, the most logical?

Well, I’ll be giving my own take article in this series on the fundamental question, so make sure to subscribe for the ‘stunning’ conclusion.

But, let me know what you think of the issues presented here. Is the fundamental question really meaningless and people are wasting their time contemplating something they can’t even formulate coherently?

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):

Part 3. Modal Realism and Probable Worlds Argument (David Lewis):

Part 4. Necessitarian Theistic Argument (Leibniz & Craig)

Part 5. The Brute Fact Argument (Hume & Russell)

Part 6. Axiological Arguments (Leslie, Rescher, Tegmark)

Part 7. Is the Question Meaningless? (Wittgenstein, Edwards, Positivism, Smith)

Part 8. The Best Response:

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