Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?



“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Tractatus logicophilosophicus, 6.44.

Jim Holt’s recent book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, tackles the question that Martin Heidegger characterized as the greatest in all philosophy—why is there something rather than nothing? To investigate this question Holt consulted many of the world’s foremost thinkers. Here, in brief, are their answers.

The first person Holt visits is the physicist Andrei Linde who thinks the universe was created in a lab by a physicist hacker. (This suggestion should caution all those who assume the designer of the universe was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.) Next, he speaks with the philosopher, atheist, an ardent critic of religion Adolf Grunbaum who thinks the very question is misconceived. The idea that the world needs an explanation assumes that without one nothingness would prevail. But why do only deviations from nothingness need explanations? Why can’t somethingness be the natural state? Grunbaum believes that the idea of nothingness as the natural or simplest state came from the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo—it is a vestige of early Judeo-Christianity and no longer needed. Furthermore, Grunbaum doesn’t believe there is any reason to be astonished by the existence of the world as compared to nothingness. Nothingness wasn’t more likely to be than somethingness, in fact, “What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other does exist?” (Holt, 69) Grunbaum also balks at the idea that nothingness is a simpler explanation or a more natural state of affairs than its opposite—hence there is no need to explain somethingness.

Next up is the Christian apologist Richard Swinburne who argues that the Christian god is the simplest and the only adequate explanation for the universe. His argument is that the god of traditional theism is infinitely good and concerned about the world unlike other conceptions of gods. (The objections to this line of thinking are self-evident. If they are so good and so concerned, why is there so much evil?) Swinburne argues that evil is necessary for certain goods to be possible, primarily the good of free will. “Now a good parent allows his children to suffer, sometimes for their own good, and sometimes for the good of other children.” (Holt, 102) (You really have to be determined to believe something like this.) Swinburne concludes by arguing that the existence of his invisible god is a brute fact. Still, he claims: “As to why God exists, I can’t answer that question…” (Holt, 106) This is the most humble thing Swinburne says.

David Deutsch is a physicist who rejects any foundation for our existence. Deutsch doesn’t think we’ll ever discover an ultimate explanation for everything, since if we did we wouldn’t know why that was the true explanation—hence the problem of the ultimate explanation is insoluble. As Deutsch puts it “I do not believe that we are now, or ever shall be, close to understanding everything there is.” (Holt, 129)

The Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has spent much of his life searching for a “theory of everything.” Weinberg believes that a final theory may shed light on why there is anything at all—maybe the laws of nature dictate it—but still we can ask why the laws are that way and not another. He also argues that belief in a god doesn’t help. If you believe God is something very definite—say loving, kind, or jealous—then you must answer why your god is that way and not another. And if you don’t mean something definite by god then why use the word at all? Moreover, Weinberg doesn’t think we know enough about physics to answer these ultimate questions. In the end, he says “we’re faced with a mystery we can’t understand.” (Holt, 155) But he also thinks our search for truth is noble. “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (Holt, 163)

Next Holt talks with the physicist and mathematical Platonist Roger Penrose. Penrose posits that there are three worlds: the physical world, the world consisting of consciousness, and the Platonic world of pure forms.  Penrose believes there is a connection between the physical world and our minds, which themselves connect us to the Platonic world via mathematics. “It’s out there, the Platonic world, and we can have access to it. Ultimately, our physical brains are constructed out of material that is itself intimately related to the Platonic world of mathematics.” (Holt, 178) Penrose believes this Platonic world is more real than the physical one, and that our world arose from bits of mathematics, although how it did so is a mystery. But Holt doesn’t believe that mathematics gives rise to life or answers the question he has posed; nor does he believe that logic guarantees the existence of the Platonic world or assures us that reality emanates from that world. And no amount of feeling that mathematics has such powers confirms that it does.

But what of Plato’s idea of the Good? Might it have the creative power to give birth to the world? The philosopher John Leslie believes something like this. Leslie claims there is something rather than nothing because it’s better that there is something. He calls his idea axiarchism, “the view that values rule or explain the natural order. Things are as they are because that is the way they ought to be.”1 Goodness or value create the world from among the infinite number of logical possibilities; the world exists because of a need for goodness. But Leslie is not done: “In my grand vision … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything that is worth knowing.” (Holt, 200) Leslie claims that our physical universe—and all other logically possible universes—results from the contemplation of just one of those minds.

Naturally, this raises the question of why, from an infinite number of possible universes, one like ours exists, with its apparently arbitrary amount of goodness and badness. Why would an infinite mind conjure up a universe as imperfect as our own? Leslie replies with an analogy. The Louvre has paintings of various quality, not just multiple perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa, and this makes the Louvre a more interesting museum. (I don’t think this analogy works, nor does it justify evil.) But why does goodness give rise to infinite minds in the first place? Why does ought to exist, imply, does exists? Leslie replies: “Goodness is required existence, in a non-trivial sense.” (Holt, 203) The evidence for his view, Leslie claims, is the fact of the existence of the world—an existence which cries out for an explanation. Of course, this argument is circular—goodness creates the world and the evidence for goodness is the existence of the world. (I find Leslie’s philosophy too mystical and speculative, and the idea that goodness explains the world unsatisfying and trivial. Holt appears to agree.)

The last philosopher Holt speaks with is Derek Parfit, one of the giants of contemporary philosophy. Parfit starts by considering that reality could have turned out differently—it could have been like the reality we live in or it could have been a different reality. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Each of these different possibilities Parfit calls a “local” possibility, and the entire ensemble of these possibilities Parfit calls “cosmic” possibilities.2 The cosmic possibilities range from every conceivable reality existing (the all worlds possibility) to no conceivable reality existing (the null hypothesis). In between there are an infinite number of possibilities such as: only good universes exist, only 58 universes exist, only worlds that obey string theory exist, only bad worlds exist, only red worlds exist, etc. Of all these cosmic possibilities at least one of them must obtain. So the question is, which one and why?

Parfit believes the null hypothesis is the simplest and least puzzling since we don’t have to answer the question of why anything came to be. But the existence of our reality contradicts this hypothesis. This leads Parfit to conclude that the all worlds hypothesis is the least arbitrary since with any other hypothesis one has to ask further questions like: why do only good worlds or bad worlds, or worlds that obey string theory exist? As for our own reality, it may be part of the axiarchic or good worlds, or the string theory worlds, or the bad worlds, or some other world. Parfit concludes that the null hypothesis is the simplest, the all worlds hypothesis the fullest, the axiarchic hypothesis the best and so on. Now Parfit wonders if a cosmic possibility obtains because it has a special feature like fullness or simplicity or goodness. Now, what if that feature chooses reality? If it does Parfit calls it a “selector.”

Now if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the 58 worlds or the all red worlds that would appear arbitrary. But if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the fullest, simplest, or best that would suggest that this was not due to chance.  Rather the cosmic possibility became reality because it had the feature of fullness, goodness, or whatever. So in such cases, reality had to be one way or another as a matter of logical necessity, and the selector just tips the outcome one way or the other. But which selector? With the null selector already dismissed, Parfit proceeds to excoriate the idea that goodness is the selector: “We may doubt that our world could be even the least good part of the best possible Universe.” (Holt, 228) Parfit concludes that the most likely selector for our reality is that we are among the possible universes that are governed by relatively simple laws.

Of course, this raises the question of whether there is some deeper explanation of why there is one selector rather than another. Is there a meta-selector and a meta-meta-selector ad infinitum? Parfit acknowledges that the ultimate selector would have to be a brute fact—to stop the infinite regress—but that this is better than no explanation at all. But Parfit also believes that the simplest explanatory possibility at the meta-level is that there is no selector! This does not mean there would be nothingness—that would be a special outcome best explained by simplicity as the selector. Rather no selector leads to a mediocre universe with nothing special about it—the way things turned out would be random. “Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything. It’s a cosmic junk shot.” (Holt, 236)

The final person Holt visits is the novelist John Updike. Updike says “I am part of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle.” (Holt, 248) Updike says that the ultimate questions are beyond us, as the idea of an internal combustion engine is beyond a dog. But he conveys the feeling that it’s not that bad that we don’t know all the answers. In fact, nothing seems to bother the contented Updike. He ends his conversation with Holt by telling him how out of breath he gets when playing with his grandchildren. The chapter ends thus: “A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.” (Holt, 252)

The final chapter tries to unite this philosophical discussion with the fact of our deaths. Holt admits to dread when thinking of death, and he appears to subscribe to what philosophers call the depravationist theory of death—death is bad because it deprives us life’s good things. But he admits that other philosophers do not find death troubling, and the Buddhists seem to think of the state of near nothingness as the best state one. Holt concludes that the endpoint of our life’s journey seems to be … nothingness. His book ends, not with subtle intellectual ruminations, but with a moving account of witnessing his mother’s final hours.

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then, as I was standing directly over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes opened wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds, her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and whispered that I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse, “I think she just died.”

… I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness…

I would like to thank Jim Holt for his wonderful book.  As for me, I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing or whether the question even makes sense. What I do know is what Socrates taught me long ago—that I know very little. We just don’t seem to be able to penetrate this deep mystery. But we should keep on trying.


1. From the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
2. Parfit’s exact words, open to interpretation are: “It will help to distinguish two kinds of possibility. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. Only one such possibility can be actual, or the one that obtains. Local possibilities are the different ways that some part of reality, or local world, might be. If some local world exists, that leaves it open whether other worlds exist.” ~ Derek Parfit, “Why Anything? Why This?” London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998, pages 24-27.

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

  1. Very interesting essay!

    The description of Parfit’s idea reminded me somewhat of an optimization problem. In numerical optimization, one constructs a mathematical model of a complex system such that inputs to the model produce outputs that can be compared to system measurements. After constructing an objective function that compares the outputs of the model to the measurements, the inputs are varied by the optimization algorithm until a minimum in the objective function is obtained (best fit). The goal is to find the “global” minimum of the objective function, which implies that those particular input values represent the optimal solution to the problem. For a very complex model, there may be many local minimums (non-optimal solutions) that the algorithm may get trapped in. It may be difficult or impossible to find the global minimum (the truly optimal solution).

    Returning to the description of Parfit’s answer: “There are an infinite number of possibilities. Each of these different possibilities Parfit calls a “local” possibility, and the entire ensemble of these possibilities Parfit calls “cosmic” possibilities. … Now Parfit wonders if a cosmic possibility obtains because it has a special feature like fullness or simplicity or goodness. Now, what if that feature chooses reality? If it does Parfit calls it a “selector.” … Parfit concludes that the most likely selector for our reality is that we are among the possible universes that are governed by relatively simple laws. … But Parfit also believes that the simplest explanatory possibility at the meta-level is that there is no selector! … Rather no selector leads to a mediocre universe with nothing special about it—the way things turned out would be random.”

    To make the comparison of Parfit’s answer to an optimization problem, the “model” is a set of “relatively simple laws” of physics that describe a universe, the inputs to the model are all possible initial conditions and constants that could be varied within those laws, features of “goodness, or whatever” are like the measurements in the objective function that are compared to ideal notions of “goodness, or whatever” and the “selector” is like the particular optimization algorithm being used to vary the inputs.

    Many of us would think that we are living in a sub-optimal world (i.e., there are a lot of good things but also bad things in our universe). So, maybe Parfit is right that the “selector” made just one random shot at the inputs; or maybe our sub-optimal world is the result of the optimization algorithm getting stuck in a local minimum; or maybe our universe represents one iteration of the algorithm; or maybe there needs to be more complex laws in the model; or maybe there needs to be a better optimization algorithm. [OK, maybe this is pretty goofy!]

    Having said all that, I totally agree with John’s final assessment in his concluding paragraph.

  2. Jim – Really appreciate your teaching me something about the optimization problem. And all of the possible solutions you offer in your last paragraph seem reasonable to me. But I also feel that the issues here are just too complex for my brain. All the more reason for augmenting our brains.

  3. The world exists as divinity’s experiment to materialise HShimself.

    As the eternal divine is infinite, the world is an infinitely transient tragicomic experiment.

    The divine yearns to materialise HShimself constantly rather than staying merely immaterial that is why HShe constantly creates, maintains, destroys and re-creates the world in a permanent impermanence of change.

  4. Sounds like Derek Parfit’s my man.
    The only thing I know exists is that I am conscious.
    If something exists, then there is at least one set of things that exist.
    The simplest possibility is that a single point exists. (What that point is composed of is the ultimate unknowable, per David Deutsch.)
    A zero-dimensional point is a field with infinite curvature. Thus, the point interacts with itself geometrically in infinite ways.
    We have a symbolic system for representing all possible geometric relationships in all possible dimensions. We call it mathematics.
    We already have plenty of examples (explored more fully with modern computers) of simple mathematical systems that lead to complex phenomena. The laws of physics that lead to my consciousness would be one such set of mathematical relationships.
    And now we’re back where we started.

  5. Mr Rogers:

    The “local minima” in your analogy could represent the various sets of comprehensive laws of physics that are compatible with the emergence of consciousness.
    The highest order definition of the multiverse (aka all cosmic possibilities).

  6. Andris takes the analogy of the optimization one step further than I was willing to do: the “divine” that he describes is the “engineer/programmer” behind the scenes that is running the optimization for whatever purpose it was developed for.

    One thing is for certain: “tragicomic” is the right adjective. As John’s summary of Steven Weinberg’s answer concluded: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” Good quote.

  7. There is so much speculations with little foundations upon which to speculate.

    To start with Martin Heidegger’s cry; “why is there something rather than nothing?” does not make sense contrary to what some of us believe because ‘nothing’ is a state which man has never experienced physically or in thoughts. Nothing is not empty space with quantum fluctuations. It is no space and no time and therefore no quantum fluctuations either, a reality that might have existed at or before the Big Bang and that was it!

    We can ask intelligently; why there is life on earth rather than no life, because we understand what life is, and we understand what life is not. But we do not understand what nothing is. Therefore, the question cannot be handled even in theory. I think the closest answer to the real situation is in what the novelist John Updike says “I am part of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle” and that the ultimate questions are beyond us (in the present time), as the idea of an internal combustion engine is beyond a dog.

  8. For alhazen:

    If you don’t start with the assumption that there is more you can understand, you’ll never learn.
    There was a point in Earth’s history when a dog’s level of intelligence was the highest level of intelligence … yet here we are, understanding internal combustion. How did that happen?
    There are most likely many things beyond our current cortex’s ability to process, but we can ask the questions and propose solutions while we work towards improving our processing powers through artificial and augmented intelligences.
    Questioning steers improvements in investigation, and those improvements resolve the questions we should ask.

  9. To Len Arends;

    I agree with all you say. However, I didn’t mean that we will never know how to come to grips with the mystery of the universe and its beginning. We came to understand quantum and relativity phenomena which are completely different from the everyday phenomena that shaped our minds and we could do the same about ‘nothing’. All I meant was that presently, we are unable to even formulate the question properly let alone answer it.

  10. While Parfit’s idea seems reasonable, it seems like when you say “reality… could have been like the reality we live in or it could have been a different reality. There are an infinite number of possibilities”

    1. These possibilities seem to be thoughts in the mind and not necessarily mind-independent physical possibilities.

    2. Even if these are mind-independent physical possibilities, why do these possibilities exist? And, then why the selector of possibilities. Parfit seems to admit that there must be some brute fact at the very bottom.

    My view is that there is a brute fact at the bottom, and that the reason this brute fact exists is contained within itself. This brute fact must somehow be self-defining. What I think is that in order to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, we should try to answer the question “Why does a normal thing, like a book, exist?”. What seems like a possibility to me is that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or something that ties stuff together into a unit whole. One could also say that a grouping defines what is contained within and groups what is contained within into a single unit whole. This grouping together or definition of what is contained within is visually seen and physically present as a surface, or boundary, that defines what is contained within and that gives “substance” and existence to the thing. Some examples are 1.) the definition of what elements are contained within a set groups those previously individual elements together into a new unit whole called the set which is visualized as the curly braces surrounding the set and 2.) the grouping together of previously unrelated paper and ink atoms into a new unit whole called a book which can be visually seen as the surface of the book. This idea that an object exists if it’s a unit whole isn’t new, but I think we can apply it to the title question.

    Next, in regard to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, when we get rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as all minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing”. This situation is very hard to visualize because the mind is trying to imagine a situation in which it doesn’t exist. But, once everything including the mind is gone, this “absolute lack-of-all”, would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. By its very nature, it defines exactly all that is present (e.g., nothing). Is there anything else besides that “absolute nothing”? No. It is “nothing”, and it is the all. An entirety, whole amount or “the all” is a grouping that defines what is contained within (e.g., everything), which means that the situation we previously considered to be “absolute nothing” is itself an existent entity. The surface of this entity isn’t some separate structure; it is just the entirety/whole amount/”the all” grouping itself that is the surface, or boundary. Said another way, by its very nature, “absolute nothing” is a grouping (it’s everything/the all) and therefore defines itself and is the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities.

    It’s very hard to visualize “nothing” in which the mind is gone because our minds exist. But we can try to extrapolate and then use any resulting properties of a resulting existent entity to build a model of existence and see if it can make testable predictions.

    Anyways, that’s my thinking. Thanks.

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