Why is there Something Rather than Nothing?

Jason Dulle

Something exists. For all but radical skeptics, this much is clear. But why does something exist? Why is there something rather than nothing at all? There is, after all, nothing logically incoherent about the concept of non-existence. It seems possible, at least, that nothing exist. So why is there something rather than nothing?

Interestingly, modern science has garnered several lines of empirical evidence highly suggestive that nonexistence was a historical reality. Cosmogenists hold that the physical universe came into being ex nihilo a finite time ago. Matter, space, and time all had their beginning at an absolute point of origin, before which there was no physical reality. While the scientific evidence does point to an absolute origin of physical reality, it does not preclude the possibility of a preexistent, immaterial reality from which the physical universe emerged-and thus does not require that physical existence emerge from absolute nonexistence. That question is left open, as it is beyond the realm of scientific inquiry.

Materialists, however, are only a little hesitant to deny the existence of such an immaterial reality, and subsequently affirm that the universe popped into being from literally nothing. As atheist and physicist, P.C.W. Davies wrote, "The coming-into-being of the universe as discussed in modern science…is not just a matter of imposing some sort of organization or structure upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing." This is echoed by physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler: "At this singularity, space and time came into existence; literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated at such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo." We have then, as a matter of historical fact, a point in time in which nothing existed-at least nothing physical. And yet now, physical reality exists. But why?

Traditionally, atheists punted on this question, responding that the existence of the universe is just a brute, inexplicable fact.1 As Bertrand Russell famously quipped, "The universe is just there, and that's all." This sort of response might work given an eternal universe, but it is preposterous to pass this off as an acceptable answer if the universe is finite and contingent. Everything that begins to exist has an external cause. If the universe began to exist, it stands to reason that it, too, requires an external cause. It is unbelievable and irrational to think the universe could just pop into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.

When one reflects on it for a moment, however, Russell's response is not rational even for an eternal universe. According to Leibnitz's principle of sufficient reason, everything that exists has an explanation for its existence either in the necessity of its own nature, or in an external cause. An eternal universe cannot have an external cause, because that which is eternal is by definition uncaused. It exists by a necessity of its own nature. Given the principle of sufficient reason, then, the defender of an eternal universe must confess that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. And yet few atheists are willing to countenance the notion. And for good reason.

To say the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature does not merely affirm the necessity of a universe in general, but the necessity of our particular universe. It is an affirmation that the very fundamental particles of our universe-quarks, neutrons, electrons, etc.-are necessary, not just in kind, but in number and arrangement as well. But this is absurd. There is no reason to think the universe could not have been composed of a different kind/number of fundamental particles, arranged in a different way, operating by a different set of physical laws, resulting in a totally different kind of universe. In fact, it is quite possible to conceive of a physically empty universe, or no universe at all. There is no physical or logical law that requires the universe to exist.2 It is contingent, meaning it is metaphysically possible that it might have never been.

The defender of an eternal universe, then, is in the unusual spot of having to deny that the universe exists in virtue of an external cause, and not willing to accept that it exists by a necessity of its own nature. Whence does it exist, then? No sufficient reason is given, which is intellectually unacceptable. The atheist must offer an explanation for why the universe exists, or offer an explanation for why no explanation is necessary. Merely asserting that there is no explanation, or that the question is meaningless is not a satisfactory answer. Surely no atheist would accept this kind of answer for anything else. Indeed, atheists often challenge theists to explain why God exists, and are unwilling to accept the answer that He exists inexplicably. They rightly demand that His existence be explained, so on what grounds are they justified in exempting the universe from explanation?

To date, no atheist has provided a non-question begging explanation for why the universe does not require an explanation. Some argue that a cause of the universe is logically impossible, because any such cause would have to obtain prior to the universe. And yet, since nothing existed prior to the emergence of the universe, no cause can obtain. But this assumes all causal relations are temporal, and that the only possible state of affairs prior to the universe is a physical state of affairs. This begs the question in favor of materialism and atheism, and thus an explanation for why the universe needs no explanation still stands.

If no explanation as to why the universe does not require an explanation can be provided, then the atheist is under rational obligation to embrace an external cause as the sufficient reason for the universe, or the necessity of its own nature. Given the fact that the latter is absurd, it is more reasonable to embrace an external cause for the universe. In doing so, he will have to abandon his belief in an eternal universe, and embrace a finite universe, causing him to squarely face our original question: Why does the universe exist, rather than not?

Why and how did something emerge from nothing? The most basic ontological principle is that out of nothing, nothing comes; and yet in the case of the universe, out of nothing something came. There must be a sufficient cause for the universe to come into being, and that requires that something exist external to the universe. Given that whatever caused space, time, and matter to begin to exist cannot itself be spatial, temporal, or material, we are limited to two possible causes of the universe: abstract objects, or an unembodied mind.

Since abstract objects are causally impotent by definition, they cannot be the cause of the universe, and thus are unlikely to be that which has always existed. That leaves us with an unembodied mind as the eternal reality. This makes sense. Not only are we are intimately acquainted with the idea of minds creating things, but it also makes sense of the design and order we see in the universe. An intelligent agent best explains why the universe exists as it does.

Since an eternal, non-spatial, immaterial, intelligent mind is what most mean by "God," it is best to conclude that God is that which has always existed. He is a necessary being, who contains within Himself the sufficient cause for His own existence, as well as the existence of everything else.


See also:

Big Bang Cosmology and Atheism Go Together Like Peas in a Blender
Existence and Necessity
Is an Unembodied Mind too Abstract a Notion to be the Cause of the Universe?


1. Some have also responded to the question of why the universe exists, that such a question is irrelevant. All that matters is that it does exist. But surely this is false. Imagine walking through the forest, and coming upon a translucent ball off the beaten path. Would it be relevant to ask why it exists, and from whence it came? Of course. An explanation of its existence is in order. It would be absurd to think there is no explanation for why it is there. Explicability would still be required even if we increased the size of the ball to the size of a planet, or even the size of the universe. Increasing its size does not remove the need for an explanation. Likewise, the universe begs for an explanation. It's size does not exempt it from the causal principle.
2. Even if there was such a law, it would itself have ontological existence, and thus we would still have to ask why it exists, ad infinitum.

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