Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

In circles wherein I tend to travel, this existential question, along with its companion query on human consciousness, serves as a theological bulwark against which atheism crumbles. So naturally I was drawn to Jim Holt’s bestseller on the question. Serving as an “existential detective,” Holt seeks first to define “nothing” (no small task), and then proceeds to engage a number of philosophers and others regarding our existence.

It’s been a mind-numbing slog, mostly because what may be a simple question to ask proves almost impossible to frame.

One issue that Holt takes up in the assumption that the simple answer is most likely the truer answer. Again, theologians have counted on this maxim for centuries since to say “God did it” serves as the simplest answer of all (unless you actually believe in God, that is). The theological assumption follows the existential premise that nothingness is simpler than something and therefore must be the default state of things. Philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum from the University of Pittsburgh forcefully pushes back. The existential premise is itself theological, deriving from the second century doctrine of creation that asserts the Lord created the heavens and earth ex nihilo, out of sheer nothingness. Grünbaum complained:

“I’ll grant that nothingness may be the simplest conceptually. But even if it is, why should this simplicity— this presumed simplicity— mandate the realization of the Null World in the absence of an overriding cause? What makes simplicity into an ontological imperative?” It has become a “veritable mantra that the simplicity of nothingness makes it objectively more probable. “Certain scientists and philosophers gawk at the world and say, ‘We just know that simpler theories are more likely to be true.’ But that’s just their psychological baggage, their heuristic mode. It has nothing at all to do with the objective world. Look at chemistry. In ancient times, Thales held that all chemistry was based on a single element, water. When it comes to simplicity, Thales’s theory wins hand over fist against Mendeleyev’s nineteenth-century ‘polychemistry,’ which posits a whole periodic table of elements. But Mendeleyev’s theory is the one that matches reality.” Holt, Jim (2012-07-09). Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (pp. 69-70). Norton. Kindle Edition.

I find some comfort in this. As one who has never thought God to be a simple answer to anything, I appreciate that the complex reality we inhabit might actually (and more accurately) testify to a God whose ways defy my own ability to explain. Grünbaum, of course, would ask why we need explanations? Not a bad question coming from a devout atheist.

  • abb3w

    Actually, there is a relation of simplicity to the objective world, but the math is trickier than the informal concept of “simple” — the hard part being at “explanations should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. When you formalize the mathematics of complexity, “God did it” is less simple than “it happened”.

    As near as I can make out, physics currently answers “Why is there something rather than nothing?” with “Because having Nothing is unstable under the first two Laws of Thermodynamics, and thus tends to explode At Once into Something.” Or at least, something like that once the math gets translated back to something resembling English.

  • bob green

    For the answer, read “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed”. It explains everything.

    • Steve

      The case is never closed. The mind may close, but the case continues to be improved and modified by new insights, new data, new techniques. I don’t want to read an author who fails to understand that.

  • Ben

    It seems a strange kind of question to me. If there was nothing we wouldn’t exist to ask a question like that, or any question. I doubt there’s an actual reason. Just because a question can be asked, doesn’t mean it can be answered.

    The book sounds interesting, I’ll look out for it.

  • Dorfl

    I’d recommend Krauss’ “A Universe from Nothing” lecture. Or the book, but I think he’s a better speaker than writer, really.

  • Mike

    The Greeks and others discussed the same or similar conumdrum – how can anything (the universe) pass through the infinite set of changes (cause-effect events) of the past to reach the present moment? On the other hand, if everything began somewhere, you have a new set of problems. Being bi-nomial, I only have two hands.

  • Simon

    Maybe nothing is something, maybe there’s nothing but something, maybe we shouldn’t be tacitly drawing a line between nothing and something because to do so is not only to, apparently innocuously, delineate between reality and non-reality but also, definitely not innocuously, delineate between people – those who draw the line and those who don’t. To kill people on this default holier-than-thou basis is the primary characteristic of modern war and derives from such line-drawing.

  • Sam

    Actually, this question is in large part why I am an Atheist: do numbers exist ? Does the addition exist ? They do in a sort of abstract/function space. Now, if you take a function much more complicated that can lead to consciousness/self-awareness (whatever this function might be), would this function exist ?
    The answer is yes from the point of view of this function, as that function itself would believe that it exists and reality is whatever this consciousness perceives it to be.
    This leads to the answer that the universe exists *because* its function leads to consciousness, and we perceive it to be *something*.

  • disqus_EmX9qtITZJ

    Perhaps so abb3w, but we could then ask why that happens. For me, the sheer improbability of existance gives rise to feelings of awe, but I recognise that existance cannot be improbable at all. In fact, it must be most likely. For a quasi-pseudo-mystic like myself, this is problematic. Where is the (simple) explanation that makes sense of a self-evident universe? Only that can return the universe to the mundane, where it must actually belong.

  • Don in Uganda

    a scripture comes to mind..”the wisdom of man is foolishness to God”