Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?- The Best Answer

Why is there something, rather than nothing? In this article, I’ll go over what I think the best response is to what Martin Heidegger called the fundamental question of metaphysics.

Before I dive into my answer let’s do a quick analysis of the fundamental question and the categories of all the possible responses to it.

First, there are two ways to ask the question

Version A. Why does anything at all exist, rather than nothing?

Version B. Why does anything at all exist?

Both questions assume something exists, but version A presupposes that the concept of nothing is a necessary state.

If that’s the case, that means the answer to question A is limited to either an infinite series of causes or some sort of entity or fact like God, that is noncontingent and explains itself.

In other words, the very structure of question A rules out answers that question B does not since it does not presuppose that anything is contingent or not contingent. So, when formulating our possible response we should only focus on version B.

Now, there are different responses to the question ‘why does anything at all exist’ which can be divided into answerable responses, meaning there is a coherent answer to the question or not answerable responses which include that the question may be meaningful but unanswerable now, or purely nonsensible and a pseudo question.

If the question is answerable, the answer will be one of the following types: necessitarian, theistic, axiomatic, or brute-fact.

Let’s briefly go over each type of answer.

Necessitarian answers claim that there’s a logical explanation to the question. Why is there anything at all? Because it is a necessary truth that something has to exist. The most notable arguments include the probabilistic arguments for existence from Robert Nozick and Peter van Inwagen, as well modal realism from David Lewis. These all concluded that a world of nothing or nothing ‘existing’ can’t happen.

Next, there’s Axiomatic or those referred to as Nomological answers, such as those by philosopher John Leslie, Nicholas Rescher, Max Tegmark, and others, who basically claim that there is a realm of abstract concepts, probabilities, or “proto-laws” as Rescher calls them, that are separate from the realm of concrete things and are responsible for why something exists.

For example, in the case of Leslie, the “Need for a Good World” is something that existed before our Universe and is axiomatic or a matter of fact, existing outside time and space. For Tegmark, it is mathematics that explains existence and why there’s anything at all.

Theistic answers state that there’s a God that exists necessarily and it is a cause unto itself such as in the Leibniz argument for God, or does not need a cause, such as in the kalām cosmological argument revitalized by William Lane Craig. God necessarily has to exist to explain why our universe exists and exists the way it does, therefore, there was never a state of ‘nothing’.

In the brute-fact response of Bertrand Russell, no explanation is needed to be given for why something exists. For Russell, there’s no explanation needed, and “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

If theists are willing to accept the existence of God as the necessary being as a type of brute fact that either caused itself to exist or it doesn’t need a cause as in the case, why cannot an atheist accept the existence of the universe as a brute fact, as a necessary explanation for why anything at all exists, he argues?

One could think of the laws of nature, or energy, something we know exists, as being outside of time as we know it and eternal in a sense, not needing a cause yet, being able to create our universe as we know it.

But, there may be no answer at all. Either the answer is beyond our comprehension or the question just doesn’t make sense. We can divide the unanswerable response into ‘fully meaningless’ and ‘meaningful’ meaning the question still has meaning to ask, but does not have an answer.

Those that embrace logical positivism and pure empiricism consider the question fully meaningless since 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. However, logical positivism has died out for the most part because perfect, objective truth is epistemically unknowable because the world is endlessly perceived by subjects.

Paul Edwards attacked the semantics of the question, particularly the ‘why’ part. Edwards stated that for anything x why it happened or why it is what it is, we presuppose that there are conditions that existed before x which can explain x. However, when we ask the question of why there is something rather than nothing, there can be no antecedent conditions of this kind.

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

The question itself doesn’t seem to be a meaningless riddle either ie: how loud is the sound of a person clapping with one hand? So it appears it can be asked in ordinary English which does not disobey any grammatical maxims or semantical issues.

Is it possible that the question doesn’t have an answer, yet is meaningful to us somehow?

Ludwig Wittgenstein had an interesting response to the question in which he claimed it was nonsensible, yet a meaningful question.

In his Lecture on Ethics, given when Wittgenstein was younger, he writes…

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

“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 round 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 a 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 the 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.

However, because the question makes no rational sense, there is no answer available to us.

In his book, The Felt Meanings of the World of the Philosopher, Quentin Smith believes Wittgenstein was on the right track, but just didn’t articulate his position clearly.

Quentin Smith — professor emeritus of philosophy at Western Michigan University

“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.”

Smith believes there is no rational answer to the fundamental question, however, we can have a type of affective, emotional answer. 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, which gives the question meaning despite no logical answer.

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

So, those are all the types of responses. Which is the best and the most logical?

Well, here’s my take, and please note, I’m fairly young and naive so I will most likely change my stance in the coming years.

First, all the answers put forth, with exception of the Theistic and Brute Fact responses have been fully refuted by many philosophers. Russell’s brute-fact response is a more coherent, simpler, and thus better answer at this time I think than the theistic response including that of Craig’s.

However, in the case of Russell’s answer, that the universe or some aspect of it is a brute fact and eternal in a sense, is not a satisfying answer and is analogous to shoving a square peg into a round hole and calling the question solved for me. Just because we can’t think of a better answer at this point, doesn’t mean this is a good answer, if you even want to call it that.

Russell’s ‘brute fact’ response is analogous to shoving a square peg into a round hole and calling the question solved.

That leaves us with the ‘meaningful but not answerable’ response or the ‘totally meaningless response’.

I think the question “why is there anything at all? is meaningful to us because of the sense of awe we feel when asking it and rationally sensible… to a degree. It’s philosophy’s job to attempt to provide an answer to it and the question doesn’t disobey any grammatical maxims or semantical issues.

I think the best response is that if there is an answer, it lies outside of current human conception and language, at least for the time being. For instance, we run into trouble when trying to conceive of the idea of a ‘pure nothing’.

Think of “nothing” as having different levels or degrees.

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.

Then finally, we arrive at pure nothing, no abstract objects, no probability of something happening, even no concept of nothing. Are we sure we can conceive of the idea of a pure nothing? Perhaps to some degree, we can, but it seems we are beginning to seriously push the boundaries of language and logic when we attempt to dive in and answer the fundamental question or provide a space in which to answer it.

Have human language and reason have hit a black hole?

The concept of ‘pure nothing’ seems like a paradox to me. Of course, there are no just thing as paradoxes in pure nothing, so it may be better put that the answer is beyond our language and comprehension. Some philosophers like Bede Rundle argue that because it’s a paradox, that means something must necessarily exist. However, I think it’s a stopping point. Similar to trying to peer into a black hole and describe what we see, which means we can’t even begin to draw up a coherent answer.

Human language and reason have hit a black hole, which for right now, we can’t see clearly into.

And, even if we can conceive of a pure nothing, I think a coherent, satisfying answer and certainty lies beyond our understanding at the moment.

There may be a point where we as humanity can have an answer to this question and it’s something we should strive for and continue to question. Just saying that because we don’t know the answer right now, therefore we shouldn’t waste time, money, or resources pursuing an answer, is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we should continue to ask the question, but not let it totally consume our lives and get on with living.

What Do You Think?

But what do you think the best response is? Is there an answer to the fundamental question? Is it meaningful or meaningless? Let me know below.

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