Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

There is a new book out by journalist and former philosophy grad student Jim Holt called Why Does the World Exist? It’s worth reading if you’re interested in questions like that.

Nowadays, when people ask why the world exists they are generally asking why the Big Bang occurred. Unfortunately, nobody knows. The most common answers are that either some random quantum event or some higher being made it happen. Some physicists think that our universe is just a small part of reality and that the existence of a vast, possibly infinite, collection of other universes explains why ours is here and/or why ours is the way it is. 

As soon as a particular cause or reason for our universe to exist is suggested, however, it is natural to ask why that cause or reason is the explanation, rather than some other cause or reason. Why are the laws of quantum mechanics in effect? Where did God come from? Where did all those other universes come from?

This is why the answer provided by a Buddhist monk at the very end of the Why Does the World Exist? is my personal favorite: “As a Buddhist, … he believes that the universe had no beginning….The Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense….A billion causes could not make the universe come into existence out of what does not exist”.

Perhaps the reality that exists beyond our universe or that preceded the Big Bang (the super-universe, the multiverse, the quantum foam, whatever it might be) always existed and always will. It simply was. Or is. It never came into existence, so no cause, reason or explanation is necessary or even possible. Perhaps it’s cyclical. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s always changing. Perhaps it isn’t. But it had no beginning and might have no end.

The great 17th century philosopher Spinoza referred to all of existence as “God, or Nature” (Deus, sive Natura): “That eternal and infinite being we call God, or Nature”. I prefer “Nature” to “God”. To Spinoza, it was the same thing and it was eternal.

4 thoughts on “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

  1. It’d be amazing if he could answer that question. Suppose there are no ‘why’s. Would there be, in a timeless universe? Is time what makes the difference between cause and consequence? Your post’s making me think about it.

    • Hi. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Mr. Holt discusses time and whether it makes sense to talk about anything happening before the Big Bang, since time supposedly began with the Big Bang. Personally, I don’t see the problem with time occurring before the Big Bang — it just wouldn’t be our time. It would be, for example, some separate space-time separate from ours.

      He also tries to answer the big question. One chapter is called “The Proof”. He tries to show that the universe (or set of universes) must be infinite and also mediocre or average, instead of it being the best or worst possible universe. I didn’t think his proof was convincing at all. Like you say, it will be amazing if anyone ever answers this question.

      • I think this is the single unanswerable question. There will always be another “why?” that you could ask. For example, if you accept that there is a creator, a god, who brought this world into existence, then the question becomes, “why does God exist?” Let’s say, for sake of argument, the answer is that He is omniscient. Then the question becomes, “why is God omniscient?” It is a never ending line of questioning. You cannot penetrate beyond “the root” of it. It’s a paradox. It’s the unmoved-mover of Greek philosophy. Our brains are wired to understand cause and effect. Every effect has a cause, every cause is the effect of other causes. Where does it BEGIN?
        Yes, physics can help explain the localized “beginning” that we experience, as the cause of some quantum fluctuations, but why does a world exist and why does it have properties that allow those random fluctuations to occur. It can’t be answered. The only possible explanations involve a broadening definition of “the universe,” in which case you just must ask why once again!
        That’s why I tend to agree with the idea that an infinite and timeless universe IS, and always will BE. The idea of a cause, or of a time before, in itself implies our definition of the universe is not broad enough. For certain, science today does not understand the true depth and breadth of “the universe,” but in the future we could possibly achieve this degree of understanding. Once we do, the only explanation for its existence will be that it does exist. The concept of explanation will no longer apply.

  2. I kind of like this youtube video when it comes to explaining things like what was there before the big bang or what came before that and before that etc..

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