Why is there Something, Rather than Nothing?

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This is considered by many to be the most fundamental of all philosophical questions. The question, however, presumes that “nothing” and “something” are two equally possible states – that nothingness is a genuine alternative to something.  If what I have argued thus far is sound, nothingness is metaphysically impossible, and thus it is not a logical alternative to something.  Something must exist.  But what if my reasoning is flawed, and it turns out that non-existence is logically possible?  How would we answer this long-standing philosophical question, then? 

To answer the question we first need to be clear about what is being asked.  For example, what is meant by “why?”  Are we seeking to discover the cause of existence, or the purpose for existence?  If we are seeking a purpose for existence, then we are already presupposing the existence of some supreme mind, because only personal agents create things for particular reasons and with some purpose in mind.  Without access to that mind, it is difficult to discover what purposes it had for creating.  It is much simpler to identify the cause of existence: the what rather than the why. 

We also need to clarify what is meant by “something.”  Do we mean physical reality (the universe), or do we mean any existent at all (whether it is physical or non-physical)? 

There are, then, four different ways our question could be understood, each of which has a slightly different answer:

  1. What is the cause of physical reality?
  2. What is the cause of all reality?
  3. What is the purpose of physical reality?
  4. What is the purpose of all reality?

I would argue that it is only meaningful to seek an explanation for physical reality (1 and 3), not all reality (2 and 4).  While it is possible for there to be some existent beyond the universe that can explain why the universe exists, it is logically impossible for there to be some existent beyond the sum of all existents that can explain why everything exists, because there cannot be any existent beyond the sum of all existents.[1]  Let me explain in more detail.

It makes sense to ask why a car exists because its existence can be explained in terms of some other existent (a prior “something”).  But as philosopher Colin McGinn points out, when we ask why everything exists rather than nothing at all, we are seeking an explanation for the whole of existence, not just some part.  In essence, we are looking for some reason or explanatory entity outside the whole of existence that can explain the whole of existence.  The problem with such an inquiry should be clear: The whole of existence includes every existing entity, and by definition there cannot be additional entities outside the set of every existing entity.  To think there could be something that exists beyond the sum of all existents is just as incoherent as thinking there are additional numbers outside the set of all possible numbers.  Nothing exists outside a set containing all things.  What we are looking for simply cannot exist.

We have two options at this point.  We could either conclude that the causal form of the question (1 and 2) is incoherent and thus unanswerable, or we could explore the possibility that the explanation for the whole of reality is itself part of, or contained within the whole of reality.  It would be rash to dismiss the question before all possible answers are explored, so let us explore the possibility that the explanation for why there is something rather than nothing is itself part of the something we are trying to explain.

On the face of it, this option seems incoherent.  How could A explain the set of A,B,C,D,E,F,G… if A is part of what needs to be explained?  Wouldn’t that require self-causation, in which A pre-exists itself as its own cause, as well as the cause of B,C,D,E,F,G…?  Not necessarily.  It depends on the kind of being A is.  There are two types of beings: contingent, necessary.  Contingent beings derive their being from some other existent.  They are caused to exist by some transcendent existent.  Necessary beings, on the other hand, have being in themselves.  They are not caused to exist by something else, but are self-existing, and hence eternal.  The nature of such a being requires that it exist.  It cannot not exist.  If every existent within the whole of existence were a contingent being, including A, then there cannot be an ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing because every existent within the whole of existence would need a transcendent explanation, including A.  The question would truly be meaningless and unanswerable.  If, however, at least one existent within the whole of existence is a necessary being, such as A, the question is both meaningful and answerable.  A necessary being needs no explanation.  It must exist, and must exist eternally.  So why is there something rather than nothing?  It is because the very nature of A is such that it must exist.  As an eternal, uncaused being, A is the transcendent source of all contingent beings within the whole of existence. Theists identify this necessary being as God. He is being, and the source of all contingent beings.  

While we have concluded that it is only meaningful to seek a cause for physical reality rather than all reality (since there cannot be a cause outside all reality), what about seeking the purpose for physical reality?  As stated previously, to discover the purpose for why the universe exists presupposes the existence of a personal agent who created the universe.  Unless we have access to that agent’s mind, it would be difficult to ascertain the purpose it had for creating.  The only sure way to know the agent’s purpose for the universe is if that agent reveals his purpose to us in some fashion.  As a Christian, I would argue that the agent has done so in Scripture.  God created everything for His good pleasure, to display His power, and so we could enjoy Him forever.  Such purposes, however, are not discoverable by reason or through empirical investigation.  So while I think question three can be answered, it cannot be answered philosophically or scientifically. 

In summary, the reason there is something rather than nothing is because existence is metaphysically necessary.  Something must exist.  Nothingness is logically/metaphysically impossible.  At least one existent within the whole of reality is a necessary being who has always existed, who carries in himself the sufficient reason for his own existence, and is the source of being for every other existing thing.

Stay tuned for a look at some alternative explanations for why there is something rather than nothing.

[1]To make a distinction between physical reality and all reality as I have requires that I presuppose physical reality does not exhaust reality (i.e. it is only a subset of all reality).  Obviously, a materialist would disagree.  But that disagreement need not detract from the key point I am trying to make: there cannot be something that exists beyond everything that serves to explain why everything exists, because that “something” would be one of the existents that needs to be explained.  If I were a materialist, then, I would have to say it not even meaningful to ask why physical reality exists (#1), because this presupposes there is some physical reality beyond the sum of all physical reality which is incoherent.  There cannot be something outside of everything to explain everything, otherwise everything isn’t everything!