Questions for Atheists: Why is there Anything?

This is part of a series of posts answering Michael Egnor’s eight questions for atheists. I am taking the questions out of order, as suits my fancy, but you can see all questions and my responses here.

On the question Why is there Anything? my answer is nearly identical to Luke’s from Common Sense Atheism:

I will say it has always struck me as an odd question. The assumption seems to be that non-being (“nothing”) is somehow more fundamental than being (“something”), and that we need an explanation of why there is being instead of only non-being.

But this supposition must be another strange intuition of the human species, because I see no evidence for it. We have never discovered non-being. Even the blackest depths of outer space are filled with a soup of quantum fluctuations. Perhaps non-being is impossible! I don’t know. But all the evidence we do have can only suggest that it is being that is more fundamental than non-being, in which case the whole question is wrong-headed.

I’ll take a crack at explaining why I agree in more detail, and apologies if the language gets a little muddled.  In one draft of this post, the phrase ‘that which had it’s non-existence embedded across from the existence region‘ appeared, and I’ve tried hard to clean it up, but please ask for clarification if necessary.  Here goes:

What would it mean for there to ‘be nothing?’  To me, the idea of nothing existing only makes sense to me if something (or Someone) exists outside of the nothing, to observe its nonbeing.  Without that deistic view, the other option I’m presented with seems empty.

Let’s assume that the Universe is a closed space (i.e. has a boundary) whatever shape or dimension is contained within that boundary.  Perhaps whatever is on the other side of that boundary could be described as nonbeing.  Perhaps the idea of nothing rather than something is just a question of allowing whatever lies on the other side of the universe to rise up and over the boundary, sweeping over and extinguishing our universe like a tidal wave.

I still don’t think this is a particularly coherent idea.  I think it’s a mistake to assume that a boundary only imposes structure and order on that which is contained within it.  If the substance of nonbeing or universal substrate, or whatever you wanted to call it ever overwhelmed and erased the boundary, I’m not sure it could exist unbounded, and I think it’s up to the other side to convince me that this is a likely proposition that I’m obliged to consider.

For a very prosaic example, imagine a shape made out of silly putty:

I can imagine the putty not having this particular shape, but I cannot imagine the putty existing without a shape at all.  To lose all shape, the putty would have to be annihilated.  For non-being to ‘exist’ it couldn’t just erase the matter space currently contains, it would have to annihilate space and location altogether.  I have no idea what that would entail or if it’s a remotely plausible configuration for the world.

Thus, I can say only that something exists, and I have no way of speculating about the relative probability of Something versus Nothing.

Check out this post from Nova for some interesting speculation on the size of the Universe and any possible boundary.

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  • gallagherkevin

    The putty example is very apt. It's quite true that we can't imagine nothing; all our thoughts of blackness or of empty space are already thoughts of existing things.But traditional metaphysics has always emphasized the importance of thinking things which cannot be imagined, and the consideration of nothing falls into this category. To rise to the level of a metaphysical concept, the idea of nothingness must be purged of any idea of time, or space, or quality. When we have done this, we are left with something unimaginable–but logically possible. And it is with this possibility that the classical treatment of the question "why is there something rather than nothing" begins.

  • CM

    For me, everything that I see comes from somewhere or something. I have a hard time imagining that there is no origin of it all.

  • Christian H

    Perhaps relativity is relavant, here? All of our metaphors and examples so far imply that space is a background to stuff, whereas space itself actually is that stuff? Thus there can only be "emptiness" if there is space unfilled, but space cannot exist without stuff, so there can be no nothingness? That doesn't really address the question at all (then again, I'm not an atheist, so the question is addressed at me); I just thought I noticed a trend of assuming that space is an inert background when it isn't. (Einstein, not Descartes!) I don't really know where I'm going with this. Maybe someone can pick up where I left off… otherwise ignore my babbling.Word Verification was "sadiva," a combination of saliva and Godiva.

  • Leah

    @Kevin – I can imagine a lot of logically consistent things (especially given that I was almost a math major :) ), but the fact that it can be framed as logically possible doesn't require me to assume it as the default or explain why it doesn't exist.@Christian – Yes! That's a lot of how I think about it. I can only imagine Nothing as a dimensionless singularity, since if included any dimensions of Spacetime, it would be Something. I have no idea is zero dimensional points are possible/probable relative to Spacetime.

  • Kevin

    I think Christian and I are getting at the same point from very different directions–basically that nothingness would be very hard to understand.Now you have no obligation whatsoever to be curious about why that nothingness happens not to be the case. But when people start asking inconvenient questions along these lines, they either have to (artificially and theophobically) cut off the train of thought, or else find themselves in a dangerously theological area of inquiry.Back in the day, they probably would have said that the existence of things requires more explanation than a (hypothesized) nothingness would, for reasons similar to Ockham's razor. That is, they wouldn't want to assume the necessity of finite, contingent, and specific things without necessity. But now that the atheists assume that Ockham is working for them, another line of argument might be more prudent.

  • Northlander

    I don't think that "New Atheists," or old atheists, for that matter, have or need to have an answer to this question. Indeed, it is difficult to see its relevance to a debate between theism and atheism, unless it is claimed that some version of theism has an irrefutable answer to the question, an answer based on the premise that God exists.To ask "Why is there anything?" is to ask, among other things, "Why does God exist?" After all, theism presumes that God is something (that is, something real) rather than nothing. Theists might attempt to answer the question by trotting out some version of the old Ontological Argument in an attempt to prove that God is a "necessary being," who just has to exist, but in the end the Ontological Argument invariably seems to be be a form of verbal deceit (perhaps even verbal self-deceit) rather than something that one can take seriously.Consider the question, "Why does the light in the refrigerator go on when one opens open the door?" Now consider two different answers: (1) A homunculus living in the refrigerator turns it on and then scurries away to the back of the freezer so fast that you can't ever see him," and (2) "I don't know." Which is the better answer?The New Atheists, as I understand them are firm believers in science and the scientific method, and in science "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer when one doesn't know. Indeed, it is the only rational answer.

  • Grotus’ Acorn

    New to your blog – great blog. The interface between theism and atheism is an interaction that is ripe for interesting thought – and unfortunately, one that is often squandered. Fantastic to find someone who puts this much mental energy into arguing their point by understanding their opponent. For the record, I'm a theist. And I'm not sure the question here is easily asked. To wit, Luke (and by proxy, you) said :" The assumption seems to be that non-being (“nothing”) is somehow more fundamental than being (“something”), and that we need an explanation of why there is being instead of only non-being. But this supposition must be another strange intuition of the human species, because I see no evidence for it. "Strictly speaking, neither do I. In fact, some people have the interesting idea that our observable universe is merely a region of a much larger space, which could be large enough to describe all possibilities, imaginable and unimaginable. Given enough space and enough time, everything will happen. If that's possible (and why not?) then it's not really germane to discuss whether non-being is more likely than being.But it's not really the idea behind the question, either. That sufficiently-huge universe is a good eradicate from our discussion the red herring of what objects exist and what objects do not. So imagine we are in it. Everything that can happen does happen, and everything can happen. (Such as, somewhere out there in a location unobservable to us is a devoutly Catholic Leah with an atheist boyfriend and a blog about it.)The nature of the universe is process, IE, a system with a history and a future (though not necessarily a goal.) From the perspective of our hypothetical universe, that process consists of the interaction between dimension, energy, and probability, yielding the full expression of all possibilities.The question could therefore be : why is there a process? But even that presupposes the existence of concepts which could serve as its components.So, why is there such a thing as a concept?

  • AnonymousFem

    ‘Nothing’ must be an infinite void to qualify as nothing – without boundaries of any kind as a boundary would indicate that ‘something’ in addition to nothing existed on the other side of the boundary (not to mention the existence of the boundary itself). ‘Nothing’ could not have existed in the distant past either because an event would have to take place to end nothing and an event would be impossible in nothing.

    So yeah. The universe came from something dude.