Why is there anything at all?


Perhaps the most basic question that we can ask is why does the world exist? In other words, why is there anything at all rather than nothing? This is a matter every child ponders at some time and which adults may dismiss as unanswerable or irrelevant to getting on with life. Yet, philosophers, theologians, and even scientists have posed the question seriously and proposed various answers over the ages. Let us back up a moment, however, to realize that questions are not simply mental wonderings but also a certain kind of statement in language, which is notorious for shaping as well as reflecting how we think.

The first questionable element of the question is ‘why.’ What kind of explanation is expected? Answers fall into two broad categories: causal and intentional. Why did the doorbell ring? Well, because electricity flowed in a circuit. Alternatively: because someone at the door pushed the button. Sometimes the difference is not so clear. Newton wondered why the apple fell to the ground. Obviously, because of “gravity,” which he conceived as a universal force between all matter. But he was reluctant to speak of the nature of that force, which he privately identified with the will of God. What guides planets in their orbits around the sun? Well, maybe angels? So, perhaps his answer to our question—like many of his contemporaries—is that the world exists because God created it. But then, child and adult may reasonably wonder where God came from. On the other hand, we now view human, if not divine, actions more like the doorbell: in terms of neuro-electrical circuitry.

The second element to question is ‘is.’ This little verb can have rather different meanings. “The apple is on the tree” tells us about location. “There is an apple on the tree” asserts its existence. “There are seven apples on the tree” identifies a collection of things (apples) with a number. This identity can be more abstract: “one plus one is two.” Which sense is intended in our question?

The third questionable element is ‘anything,’ which suggests a contrast to ‘nothing.’ It raises another question: can we really conceive of nothing? And this raises yet another question: who is asking the question and how are they implicated in any possible answer? We begin to see the question as a set-up, in the sense that it is inquiring about more than just the dubious existence of the world. It tacitly asks about us, the questioners, and about our patterns of thought as not-so-innocent bystanders.

The theological answer (the world exists because God created it) includes his having created us within it—that is, two kinds of things, matter and souls, or things and observers of things. A more existential or phenomenal version of the question contains the same dualism. “Why is there anything (for me) to experience?” implies the question “Why do I exist?” It opens the Pandora’s box of mind-body dualism: how can there be minds (or spirits) in a physical universe? Or: how can consciousness (phenomenal experience) be produced by a material organ, the brain?

Such considerations shape the kinds of arguments that can be made to answer our question. One approach could be called the Anthropic Argument: We could only be here to ask the question if there is a world for us to exist in. That world would have to have specific properties that permit the existence of organisms with conscious minds. The most basic such property of such a favorable world is “existence.” Therefore, the universe must exist because we do! Admittedly, that’s an odd sort of explanation—a bit like reasoning backward from our existence as creatures to the inevitability of a Creator.

A different approach might be called the Argument from Biology. Just as the world must exist and be a certain way for us to exist, so must we see the world in certain ways in order for us to exist. For example, we must view the world in terms of objects in space (and time). Our categories of thought are derived from our cognition, which is grounded in our biological (survival) needs. The concept of nothing(ness) abstracts our actual experience with things and their absence (for example, an empty container). But the container itself is a sort of thing. The idea of ‘object’ for us implies the idea of ‘space’, and vice-versa, so that we cannot really imagine empty space—or truly nothing. At least for our mentality as a biological organism, there cannot be nothing without something. The fact that language can posit the world not existing is paradoxical, since the thought is based on experience of something. Therefore, the world exits because we cannot conceive it not existing!

A similar argument might be called the Argument by Contradiction: perhaps one can imagine a universe without physically embodied minds, and perhaps even a universe that is entirely empty physically (the empty container, which nevertheless leaves the container existing). But, in any case, these are the imaginings of a physically embodied mind, living in the one universe that we know does exist (not empty). We exist, therefore the world does!

Perhaps, similarly, one can imagine a phenomenal blankness (an empty mind), devoid of sensations, thoughts and feelings, and even any conceivable experience. But there is still a point of view from which “someone” is doing the imagining, which is itself a phenomenal experience, so not empty after all. (Nor can it be empty of matter, since we are material beings here imagining it and thinking about it.) With a nod to Descartes: I think, therefore the universe is!

It is not only philosophers and theologians, with their sophistry, who have weighed in on our question. Modern physics and cosmology have posed the question in a scientific form—that is, potentially in way that is empirically testable, if only indirectly. We could call this the Argument from Modern Physics. It proposes that the physical universe arose, for example, from a “quantum fluctuation” in the “vacuum.” (This process traditionally involves a Big Bang.) Given enough time, some random fluctuation was bound to produce a state that would eventually lead to a universe, if not necessarily the one we know. And here we are in the one we know—so at least it exists. (There might be others “somewhere else”?) The argument could be stated thus: there is something because the state of nothing was unstable.

Of course, there are a few conceptual glitches with such schemes. What is the unstable something from which the universe emerged? What exactly is the “vacuum” if not literally and absolutely nothing? Where did it come from? What could be the meaning of time before there existed cyclical processes (before the universe “cooled” enough to allow electrons, for example, to adhere to protons?) How much of such “time” is required to produce a universe?

One might also wonder what causes quantum fluctuations. The current idea seems to be that they are random and uncaused. But randomness and causality are notions derived from common experience in the world we know. The very idea of ‘random fluctuation’ raises questions about our categories of thought. Does “random” mean there is no cause, or no known cause? If the former, can we even imagine that? Moreover, probability usually refers to a sequence of trial runs, as in the random results of repeated coin flips. Could there have been multiple big bangs, only some of which produced what we know as a universe—and only one which produced this universe? What, then, is the probability of existing at all? Such questions boggle the mind, but have been seriously asked. Physicist Lee Smolin, for example, has proposed a theory in which new universes emerge from black holes that produce a new big bang. Each of these events could result in a re-setting of basic parameters, producing a different sort of world. But, what then accounts for the pre-existence of such “parameters,” other than the imagination of the theorist?

The logic in such arguments may be no more impeccable than arguments for the existence of God. But, then, logic itself may have no absolute sway outside the one-and-only real world from which it was gleaned. Does logic represent some transcendent Platonic realm outside nature or does it simply generalize and abstract properties and relationships derived from experience in the world we know? If the former, what accounts for the existence of that transcendent realm? If the latter, how can we, without circularity, apply ideas that are parochial products of our existence in the world we know, to understand how that world could arise? We can only imagine the possible in terms of the actual. The world exists, therefore the world exists!