Alternative Responses

Now that I have put my own view on display (See parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series), let us take a look at how a few philosophers have answered this puzzling philosophical question. We will explore the views of Quentin Smith, John Leslie, Colin McGinn, Hubert Dreyfus, and Bede Rundle.

Quentin Smith, philosopher at Western Michigan University

According to Quentin Smith, the answer to why there is something rather than nothing is so simple that it seems rather trite: The reason Y exists at time t4 rather than nothing is because X existed at time t3, and caused Y to exist.  Likewise, X exists at time t2 rather than nothing because W existed at time t1, and caused X to exist, and so on.  In other words, the present something exists because a previous something caused it to exist.  Why did that previous something exist rather than nothing?  The reason is that it, too, was caused by something that existed before it, and so on.  The answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then, is simply that something is always preceded by something else.

The problem with Smith’s answer is two-fold.  First, he shifts the locus of the question from why anything has ever existed to why something exists right now.  The question, however, seeks a reason for the whole of reality, not just each temporal state of reality. 

Secondly, his answer implicitly assumes that for any state of existence X, there is always some prior state of existence W.  But this would require an infinite regress of contingent existents and causes, which is metaphysically impossible.  Physical reality cannot extend infinitely into the past.  Cosmogonists have come to the same conclusion based on the empirical data.  The fact of the matter is that when we traverse the historical regress we will eventually come to a state of physical existence that is not preceded by another state of physical existence, at which point Smith’s explanation for why there is something rather than nothing runs out of explanatory steam. 

Smith admits that it could have been the case that nothing exists, and thus he implicitly affirms every existent to be a contingent being (since only contingent beings can possibly not exist).  Given the fact that contingent beings derive their existence from an external source, there must be an explanation for why contingent beings exist rather than not.  If the universe was eternal, Smith’s explanation that contingent beings exist because they are preceded by, and caused by prior contingent beings would at least be plausible, but we know the universe began to exist in the finite past.  If we go back in time far enough we will eventually come to a point when there are no contingent beings.  Things that depend on other things for their existence cannot come into being on their own, so from what did the first contingent being(s) derive its existence?  The only rational conclusion is that it must have been caused to come into being by another being which is not contingent, but necessary and eternal.

Smith has two options at this point.  If he is to be true to his materialism, he will have to admit that the universe just popped into existence uncaused from nothing.  But that is metaphysically absurd.  Out of nothing, nothing comes!  Furthermore, this fails to explain how and why the first something came into being.  Given the fact that the question of why something exists rather than nothing is what needs to be explained, if Smith avails himself of this option he will have miserably failed at providing an answer to the question at hand.  The alternative option is to affirm that something existed prior to physical reality which is non-physical, necessary, and eternal.  This conclusion follows from the evidence and is consistent with his principle that something exists because it is always preceded by something else.  The problem with this response for an atheist like Smith is that this immaterial, necessary, eternal cause looks too much like a theistic being!

If you are interested in reading about another attempt by Smith to explain the origin of reality, go here

John Leslie, emeritus philosopher at the University of Guelph, Ontario

John Leslie thinks certain abstract truths such as ethical and mathematical truths exist necessarily, independent of any concrete existents.  So even if no concrete/physical entities existed (including space and time), something would still exist.  Accordingly, absolute nothingness is impossible.  Something must exist. 

I agree with Leslie that certain truths seem to be necessary, and that absolute nothingness is metaphysically impossible.  I would not, however, identify mathematical and ethical truths as necessary beings.  While these truths are eternal, they derive their being from the nature of God, the only necessary being.

Those who ask why something exists rather than nothing are usually seeking an explanation for why the universe exists.  How did contingent, physical reality come into being?  Why did it come into being?  Leslie’s view is that an eternal, abstract ethical principle (similar to what Plato called “The Good”) brought it into existence.  See J. J. C. Smart’s evaluation (pp. 26-32) of Leslie’s view for a good critique.

I will explore the answers provided by three other philosophers tomorrow in my final post in this series.  Stay tuned.