Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

The best talk I heard at the International Congress of Logic Methodology and Philosophy of Science in Beijing was, somewhat to my surprise, the Presidential Address by Adolf Grünbaum. I wasn’t expecting much, as the genre of Presidential Addresses by Octogenarian Philosophers is not one noted for its moments of soaring rhetoric. I recognized Grünbaum’s name as a philosopher of science, but didn’t really know anything about his work. Had I known that he has recently been specializing in critiques of theism from a scientific viewpoint (with titles like “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology“), I might have been more optimistic.

Grünbaum addressed a famous and simple question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He called it the Primordial Existential Question, or PEQ for short. (Philosophers are up there with NASA officials when it comes to a weakness for acronyms.) Stated in that form, the question can be traced at least back to Leibniz in his 1697 essay “On the Ultimate Origin of Things,” although it’s been recently championed by Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne.

The correct answer to this question is stated right off the bat in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Well, why not?” But we have to dress it up to make it a bit more philosophical. First, we would only even consider this an interesting question if there were some reasonable argument in favor of nothingness over existence. As Grünbaum traces it out, Leibniz’s original claim was that nothingness was “spontaneous,” whereas an existing universe required a bit of work to achieve. Swinburne has sharpened this a bit, claiming that nothingness is uniquely “natural,” because it is necessarily simpler than any particular universe. Both of them use this sort of logic to undergird an argument for the existence of God: if nothingness is somehow more natural or likely than existence, and yet here we are, it must be because God willed it to be so.

I can’t do justice to Grünbaum’s takedown of this position, which was quite careful and well-informed. But the basic idea is straightforward enough. When we talk about things being “natural” or “spontaneous,” we do so on the basis of our experience in this world. This experience equips us with a certain notion of natural — theories are naturally if they are simple and not finely-tuned, configurations are natural if they aren’t inexplicably low-entropy.

But our experience with the world in which we actually live tells us nothing whatsoever about whether certain possible universes are “natural” or not. In particular, nothing in science, logic, or philosophy provides any evidence for the claim that simple universes are “preferred” (whatever that could possibly mean). We only have experience with one universe; there is no ensemble from which it is chosen, on which we could define a measure to quantify degrees of probability. Who is to say whether a universe described by the non-perturbative completion of superstring theory is likelier or less likely than, for example, a universe described by a Rule 110 cellular automaton?

It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that simplicity is somehow preferable. After all, Occam’s Razor exhorts us to stick to simple explanations. But that’s a way to compare different explanations that equivalently account for the same sets of facts; comparing different sets of possible underlying rules for the universe is a different kettle of fish entirely. And, to be honest, it’s true that most working physicists have a hope (or a prejudice) that the principles underlying our universe are in fact pretty simple. But that’s simply an expression of our selfish desire, not a philosophical precondition on the space of possible universes. When it comes to the actual universe, ultimately we’ll just have to take what we get.

Finally, we physicists sometimes muddy the waters by talking about “multiple universes” or “the multiverse.” These days, the vast majority of such mentions refer not to actual other universes, but to different parts of our universe, causally inaccessible from ours and perhaps governed by different low-energy laws of physics (but the same deep-down ones). In that case there may actually be an ensemble of local regions, and perhaps even some sensibly-defined measure on them. But they’re all part of one big happy universe. Comparing the single multiverse in which we live to a universe with completely different deep-down laws of physics, or with different values for such basic attributes as “existence,” is something on which string theory and cosmology are utterly silent.

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe.

So the universe exists, and we know of no good reason to be surprised by that fact. I will hereby admit that, when I was a kid (maybe about ten or twelve years old? don’t remember precisely) I actually used to worry about the Primordial Existential Question. That was when I had first started reading about physics and cosmology, and knew enough about the Big Bang to contemplate how amazing it was that we knew anything about the early universe. But then I would eventually hit upon the question of “What if they universe didn’t exist at all?”, and I would get legitimately frightened. (Some kids are scared by clowns, some by existential questions.) So in one sense, my entire career as a physical cosmologist has just been one giant defense mechanism.

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240 Responses to Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

  1. jeff says:

    The question (as normally stated) doesn’t make much sense because the attribute “is” (existence) is already presumed in “something”. Nothingness does not exist, by definition. Therefore, there cannot “be” nothingness. So logically, nothingness is unstable. Physically, perhaps it is as well. Virtual particles appear from nowhere, don’t they? An entropy-like probability argument might also say that “something” has many more states than “nothing”.

  2. Sam Gralla says:

    Reading this post I was suddenly reminded of Leibniz and his “best of all possible worlds”. The modern reenactment of this principle in the form of anthropic science (the latter word in optional quotes) would be a great dissertation topic for some physically-inclined philosopher. Or a post by Sean Carroll.

  3. Jesse Fagan says:

    You know, this reminds me of one of the questions of consciousness. “Why am I in this body and not another body?” Another meaningless question.

    I think the existential dilemma is a motivator in my chosen field as well.

    But as a side note, you have to admit, Rule 110 is an amazing automata.

  4. Anthony A. says:

    Perhaps you should combine this point into your ongoing series and argue: “There is nothing, rather than something”. Haven’t your forays into the arrow of time shown that really there is just Minkowski space, but that it looks rather complicated to its residents as it sits there? You’re halfway there!

  5. Michael T says:

    Ah, the fear of nothing.

    When we die do we not return to nothing? Is death a natural state? The duality of something and nothing is just how things are as unsatisfying as that may be to some, I find it quite refreshing. There is no competition between the two, one does not seek to overcome the other. If you see it that way then you miss the point. It is also quite rational to substitute the “universe” for “me” and the same questions hold and even more profound ones emerge.

    Science will provide no answers here as they would be what a Buddhist would call “Mu”, questions which have no answers in such context.

    Eastern philosophies have no problem with the idea of nothingness. It is actually quite central to their framework and core to their metaphors. This discomfort is a likely product of our Western bias.

  6. George Musser says:

    Sean, you write:

    Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense.

    Nozick, in his article on the question, had a direct retort:

    The question appears impossible to answer. Any factor introduced to explain why there there is something will itself be part of the something to be explained…. Some writers conclude from this that the question is ill-formed and meaningless. But why do they cheerfully reject the question rather than despairingly observe that it demarcates a limit of what we can hope to understand?”

    He goes on to suggest that an explanation is indeed possible and outlines the forms it might take, most famously the principle of fecundity, which addresses your point about the multiverse by extending the concept to other possible laws of physics.

    In denying that an answer might ever be found, you give religious believers a big crate of intellectual ammunition. One of their complaints about science is that it just chalks the universe up to brute fact. It may well be a brute fact, but that shouldn’t close off rational inquiry into the question.

    George

  7. Matt says:

    Interesting post. Though I find the dismissal of the question as senseless rather…”hand wavish”, same with Grunbaum’s discussion. It seems that if this question keeps coming up in the human psyche, as evidenced by the question being posed (not for the first time) by Liebniz and subsequently coming up even in Seans’ childhood here that either the question has some inherent sense to it, or it points to an interesting defect in the human conciousness, perhaps both?

  8. PK says:

    Sean, check out Gruenbaum’s paper on the conventionality of simultaneity in special relativity: Phil. Sci. 36 pp 5-43 (1969). This should be right up your street.

  9. Count Iblis says:

    I like the idea of nothing. By this I just mean that the universe we think of being physical is nothing more than an abstract mathematical object.

    By postulating another type of existence, i.e. a physical existence which is supposed to be more than just mathematical existence, we create a lot of philosphical problems. This is similar to first postulating a God and then wondering about who created God etc. etc.

  10. Incubator says:

    The question, as it is stated, and as it is discussed, e.g., at the Encyclopedia of Philosophy site, is meaningless and pointless, and so is your treatment of it. I must say that I am very disappointed by your post, since here, unlike elsewhere, you discuss the question not as a scientist, but as an armchair philosopher, and it appears that you are entirely comfortable with all the philosophical non-scientific bullshit.

    How are multiple universes etc. are even relevant? Isn’t it plain obvious that the real, and very hard question, is how is it possible for anything physical to exist? In other words, what is the nature of the physical universe? Is it some abstraction come to life? How, what is the process, and is it inevitable? Can it be shown to be inevitable using a mathematical model? What is then the nature of our prejudice which causes us to ask a question such as PEQ?

    You sir, did not even attempt to answer these questions. In this, you are no different from religious obscurantists.

    And pardon my English.

  11. island says:

    The anthropic relevance is our evolutionary leap.

    This increased our ability to *efficiently* increase entropy, which is the same thing that a “low-entropy” expanding universe does that a wide-open expanding universe cannot… it conserves more energy and better maximizes work.

    So the false assumption is that our expanding universe is not heading for another leap/bang, and the erroneous conclusion is, therefore, that “nothing” is or was ever a natural state.

    The philosophical problem arises from physics that’s derived from non-evidenced projections, instead of the face value of the second law, which notes that the entropy of the universe ***always*** increases.

    Simple-stupid, stoopid.

  12. Sean says:

    I probably wasn’t very clear in the original post. The argument is that we can only talk about the “likeliness” of one thing or another when we have an ensemble and some sort of measure defined thereon. Which, when it comes to ways that the universe could or could not exist, we don’t. There is no entropy-like argument (since there is no phase space), and there is no “principle of fecundity.” You could make up something like that out of your own imagination, but if I choose not to go along there’s no evidence you can point to that would change my mind.

    The argument “that leaves a brute fact without explanation” seems utterly misguided to me. There is no way to do away with a certain number of brute facts, if you believe that there is more than one conceivable universe (and I do). If you were able to show that our universe maximizes some certain property, than the claim that universes should maximize that property would be a brute fact. Invoking God just changes the nature of the brute.

  13. Zorro says:

    The real question is: why is there some nothing rather than no something?
    Answer me THAT, my good man!

    Z

  14. quork says:

    Edward Remler used the PEQ (which he terms the FQP) recently to purportedly establish that atheism is not rational: Do science and rationality support atheism?
    His reasoning gets ripped apart in the comments, which Remler blithely ignores in his summing up just before comments were closed.

  15. Christine says:

    As a child, the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” also occured to me. (I wrote a little about this in the “inspiration series” over at Backreaction blog).

    Many people will not agree with me and say that the question does not make any sense at all, etc. I do not concur with the arguments that I know of.

    I think that question is by far the most fundamental one there is to be made. Any other question made by our intellect ultimately ends on that one.

  16. George Musser says:

    Well, even if there are brute facts, it’d be nice to pinpoint exactly what they are. We should never settle for saying that such-and-such is a brute fact so let’s go home now. Lots of things that people used to consider brute facts aren’t. More precisely, they can be traced to a smaller number of such facts. The entire physical world can be reduced to the free parameters aka brute facts of cosmology and the Standard Model. I suspect the question of “why is there something rather than nothing” opens up so many avenues that it probably reduces to some other, more sophisticated brute fact.

    My point is simply that we don’t profit by saying that the question is meaningless. And you DEFINITELY don’t want to walk down that road if you see yourself as a public advocate for atheism. Your goal should be to put forward a metaphysics more compelling than those of religion, not to surrender the metaphysics playing field altogether.

    George

  17. Scott says:

    Jeff, quantum mechanics and the concept of entropy are both something and hence don’t exist if nothing exists. Infact would nothing exist mean no universe and not an empty or nonexisting universe(whatever that would mean). In fact no concept could exist since they are things, meaning that “not existing” would have no meaning as would “meaning,” “concept” and “thing.” Or in other words the set of all allowed concepts being the null set implies that a null set is not a valid concept and hence contradicts itself.

    Of course some people might maintain that abstract ideas have some existential existance seperate from reality. However all of the abstract ideas we know are capable of being described within reallity.

    In any case lets assume there is some simplist universe that comes closest to the concept of nothing. Even if we think this state is preferred a god does not explain why this universe exists instead since god would also not exist in that state.

  18. island says:

    Surely there is evidence for a “fecundity principle” if particle creation from vacuum energy affects the gravity and expansion of the universe, where “low-entropy” structuring is necessary to produce far-from-equilibrium dissipative structures, like, black holes, supernovae, and us, that are capable of making these particles.

  19. Reginald Selkirk says:

    George Musser: My point is simply that we don’t profit by saying that the question is meaningless. And you DEFINITELY don’t want to walk down that road if you see yourself as a public advocate for atheism. Your goal should be to put forward a metaphysics more compelling than those of religion, not to surrender the metaphysics playing field altogether.

    Say what? Does religion offer an answer to the question? Suppose you propose (with no supporting evidence) that a god created the universe. The PEQ then changes from “Why is there something rather than nothing?” to “Why is there God instead of nothing?” This is hardly progress. Acknowledging that the PEQ does not currently have an answer, and perhaps may never have an answer, does not damage atheism, and leaves only a “god of the gaps” for the theist.

  20. jeff says:

    You know, this reminds me of one of the questions of consciousness. “Why am I in this body and not another body?” Another meaningless question

    Ah, but “meaning” is such a personal thing, is it not? The meaning of these deep existential questions can also depend a great deal on the precise diction and phrasing used when they are asked, to constrain meaning properly. The above question could be rephrased as, “why is reality being experienced as me and not as someone or something else”? Personally, I think it’s one of the most profound questions that can be asked (unless of course, you’re a solipsist).

  21. Ken Muldrew says:

    “the question can be traced at least back to Leibniz in his 1697 essay”

    Surely Parmenides answer to the question implies that the question was asked?

  22. Toni Petrina says:

    If mathematicians can construct entire real numbers using only nothing i.e. empty set and sets why can’t we build something out of nothing? Can we prove that once we have nothing we have everything?

  23. jeff says:

    Jeff, quantum mechanics and the concept of entropy are both something and hence don’t exist if nothing exists

    Well in my (partial) defense, I was not assuming entropy or QM, which is why I said “entropy-like”. Still though, I see your (and Sean’s) point – there is no “something space” to select from.

  24. Brian says:

    Some attempt to investigate the nature of existence through “introspection” (maybe this is not the right word) rather than thought. Since I exist, maybe I can understand my existence directly.

  25. TP says:

    “So in one sense, my entire career as a physical cosmologist has just been one giant defense mechanism.”

    I think all us do that. All of us try to rationalize, create a defense mechanism, to stop us from worrying or to at least ignore such existential questions. Science is a body that has evolved from the combination of defense mechanisms of many people over the centuries. So is religion or any belief system. And that is because, as you rightly say, there can be no answer to this question.

    Comment #15 Christine: “I think that question is by far the most fundamental one there is to be made. Any other question made by our intellect ultimately ends on that one.”

    It is definitely the most fundamental one and if one tries to seek an answer to any question (be it scientific/physical or philosophical) and not be satisfied with any intermediate answers (all of the scientific theories and religious beliefs are definitely intermediate), i.e. you keep asking why to every answer, you finally end up with the basic existential question. And precisely because it is the most fundamental question, it cannot be answered.

    Comment #17 Scott: “In fact no concept could exist since they are things…”
    Concepts are not things. They don’t exist as you and I exist. And even assuming so, “a null set is not a valid concept and hence contradicts itself.” the conclusion is incorrect. Suppose I modify it to: null set is a valid concept, then in that case it is no longer null because the set has been defined to be that of all concepts, and then there is a contradiction. If however, null set is not a valid concept, then there is no problem, there are no concepts – including the concept of existence of no concepts.