6 Basic Kinds Of Answer To The Question “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”

by Eric Steinhart

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This question includes God in its scope: if there is a God, then God is something, so we can always ask: why is there God rather than no God? This implies that the question cannot be answered by appealing to God. It can’t be answered by saying: because God made everything. That would only be an answer to the question: why is there something other than God rather than nothing other than God? Which is not the original question. Many naïve theists fail to understand this point.

The question also includes every physical thing in its scope: if there is a quantum vacuum, or a big bang, or an eternally self-reproducing inflationary multiverse, or any other foundational physical thing, then that thing is something. So we can ask why there is that thing rather than not that thing. This implies that the question cannot be answered by appealing to any physical thing. It can’t be answered by saying: because the quantum vacuum is unstable, so it exploded in a big bang. Again, that doesn’t answer the original question. Many naïve atheists fail to understand this point (e.g. Stenger).

The question is neither theological nor scientific. It is a logical question, and it’s perfectly answerable. There are several defensible answers. The system of defensible answers has been worked out with great clarity over 20 centuries. Pretty much everybody with philosophical training, whether theist or atheist, agrees on the answers.

There are traditionally 6 answers to the question. They are each discussed in detail below. But here’s the summary:

Answers 1 and 2 are usually thought to be illogical. Answer 3 is logical and is accepted by pretty much everybody. Answer 3 divides the original question into a First Question and a Second Question. Answers 4 through 6 contain argument structures that are accepted by pretty much everybody (theist or atheist). So:

First Question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Answer: Because some abstract objects exist necessarily – it is impossible for them not to exist.

Second Question: Why are there some concrete things rather than no concrete things? Answer: Either (1) because some necessary abstract principle entails that they exist; or (2) because some concrete things necessarily exist. Note that the OR is inclusive.

As far as I know, pretty much everybody accepts both the First and Second Questions and their answers. The second answer to the Second Question may or may not involve the theistic God. That’s what people argue about.

Here are the long-winded versions of the 6 answers:

1. There is something rather than nothing because some source of being makes every being be. The source of being is beyond being. This is the type of reasoning found in Plato (the Form of the Good is beyond being) and Plotinus (Unity is beyond being). It’s perhaps the idea that lies behind Tillich’s Ground of Being theology. Note that this answer does not involve anything like the God of theism. Of course, since the source of being is beyond being, it doesn’t exist. But then we can’t coherently say anything about it, and it’s probably inconsistent to even refer to it at all. This ends up as mysticism.

2. Non-being is purely negative. As such, it negates itself. Plotinus gives this explanation at least once: he says that because Unity is nothing, it negates itself and produces all the existing things. Since non-being can’t be, something exists. This answer can be found in the Neoplatonic Christian mystics like the Pseudo-Dionysius and John Scotus Eriugena. Perhaps also in mystics like Jakob Boehme. This answer was given by Peirce. It sort of appears in Heidegger. It gets considered and dismissed by Nozick. This sort of answer seems to be found in some Buddhist ontologies: emptiness empties itself of itself (I think Nishitani talks this way). And it might also be found in Taoism. Again, it is impossible to make this answer precise in any logical way. Mystics, of course, don’t care: mysticism is knowledge beyond logic. This answer does not involve anything like the God of theism.

3. Some things necessarily exist. Suppose no physical things exist. This does not mean that space is empty; there would be no space to be empty. Anyway, if no physical things exist, then the proposition “No physical things exist” is true. And, in order to be true, it has to exist. So at least some abstract propositions exist. Logic now urges you to affirm that a very large system of platonic abstract objects exist – propositions, possible objects, and mathematical objects. After all, it’s reasonable to think that if no physical things exist, then the number of existing physical things is equal to 0, less than 1, less than 2, etc. And to think that some physical things are possible. These abstract objects (propositions, possibilities, and mathematical objects) all exist necessarily – to deny that they exist is self-contradictory. This is widely accepted, by theists and non-theists alike. The problem is now how to explain the existence of concrete things, including physical things. The question “why is there something rather than nothing?” thus becomes “why are there some concrete things rather than no concrete things?”.

4. There are some concrete things because there is some necessary abstract principle that entails the existence of concrete things. John Leslie proposes that abstract goodness itself is ontologically productive. It is good that some concrete things exist; therefore, they do. Of course, this goodness is not God; it might even produce God. Leslie’s answer is deeply threatening to theism. Especially because if you dismiss Leslie’s answer, you’ve also got to dismiss the goodness and creativity of any God.

5. Some concrete things necessarily exist. This is the traditional theistic answer, codified in the Cosmological Arguments of Aquinas, et al. It is especially clear in Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument (in his “On the Radical Origination of Nature”). Nihil ex nihil, so there has to be something that exists. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be anything at all. As is well-known, you can interpret all the Cosmological Arguments just as being arguments for the existence of the physical world, rather than for God. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because the totality of physical things necessarily exists.

6. Some concrete things necessarily exist. But now use the Ontological Argument. Assuming that the Ontological Argument is sound, it entails the necessary existence of the Maximally Perfect Being (the MPB). Theists say that the MPB is God. But atheists have a sharp reply: they can argue that the MPB is just the best of all possible worlds (what could be more perfect than that?).

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is an associate professor of philosophy at William Paterson University and the author ofMore Precisely: The Math You Need To Do Philosophy, On Nietzsche (Wadsworth Philosophers Series), and The Logic of Metaphor – Analogous Parts of Possible Worlds (Synthese Library, Volume 299). Professor Steinhart has explained many of his views on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and Richard Dawkins in an audio interview with The Pale Blue Dot. Abstracts to his papers on the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, the metaphysics of persons, Nietzsche, and analogy and metaphor can all be found here (in some cases with links to the papers themselves).  

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.