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.
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?).