Or is it?
I’ve talked before about the issue of why the universe exists at all (1, 2), but now I’ve had the opportunity to do a relatively careful job with it, courtesy of Eleanor Knox and Alastair Wilson. They are editing an upcoming volume, the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics, and asked me to contribute a chapter on this topic. Final edits aren’t done yet, but I’ve decided to put the draft on the arxiv:
Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?
Sean M. Carroll
It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.
As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context. In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.
This perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat. I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there. Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)
The other side are those scientists who think that modern physics explains why the universe exists. It doesn’t! One purported answer — “because Nothing is unstable” — was never even supposed to explain why the universe exists; it was suggested by Frank Wilczek as a way of explaining why there is more matter than antimatter. But any such line of reasoning has to start by assuming a certain set of laws of physics in the first place. Why is there even a universe that obeys those laws? This, I argue, is not a question to which science is ever going to provide a snappy and convincing answer. The right response is “that’s just the way things are.” It’s up to us as a species to cultivate the intellectual maturity to accept that some questions don’t have the kinds of answers that are designed to make us feel satisfied.