Why is there something—anything at all—when there could have been just nothing? The early modern philosopher Leibniz first posed this question, which Grünbaum, a philosopher of science, recently called the Primordial Existential Question. But what exactly is this question asking?
The question’s initial context is Leibniz’s cosmological argument for God’s existence. That argument is essentially that the Principle of Sufficient Reason demands an ultimate explanation that naturalistic science can’t offer. Reason cries out for a metaphysical explanation of all existence, not just for causal explanations which posit one contingent thing or state of the world to account for something equally contingent. Such partial explanations can never be fully satisfying, since if the series of natural things is infinite and so every part of the world is adequately explained in terms of some other part which causes it, one question yet remains to be answered: why is there anything in the first place, rather than nothing at all? The whole of nature must be understood in terms of something unnatural, some necessary being that lies outside the causal chain. That necessary being is supposed to be God.
The standard, logical response to this argument is that it commits the fallacy of composition. Just because something applies to a part doesn’t mean it applies to the whole; just because finite, contingent phenomena are usefully explained by positing causal relations between them, doesn’t mean the whole universe which contains all those phenomena as its parts is just as usefully explained as being an effect of some cause, a product of a necessary being. Causal explanations are inductive in that they’re based on our many experiences of regularities that hold in the interactions between finite, contingent things. You eat a hot dog, the mustard spills and lands on your shirt, staining it. The one event causes the other, under the right circumstances. But we occupy only one universe and haven’t even once experienced the whole of it. So the metaphysical or theological account that the whole of nature must be produced by a supernatural being isn’t as reliable an explanation as an inductive one of a pattern connecting some parts of the natural whole.
This response, though, amounts to little more than casting aspersions on Leibniz’s argument, since the response is consistent with Leibniz’s main point. The whole point is that scientific, probabilistic explanations are limited to the finite and contingent parts of the world, but that reason in general can ask a further, metaphysical question. The issue, then, is whether reason extends beyond science or reliable, probabilistic, quantifying, experience-based logic. If we think of reasoning pragmatically, interpreting reason as the more or less useful tinkering with mental models, we needn’t discount metaphysics or even theology because it’s not a branch of modern science. True, just because we can ask a speculative question doesn’t mean we can reason usefully about possible answers to it. Still, the point about the fallacy of composition begs this deeper question. The typical critic of the cosmological proof scientistically dismisses the metaphysical question of whether the entire causal chain making up the natural universe’s history is itself something that could be explained at all and would be explained only by positing something supernatural. Certainly, just because causal explanations work in one context, doesn’t mean they work in another. We have no experience of other universes, so we don’t know why one would have resulted rather than another; we have no objective basis for assigning probabilities to something compared to nothing, so we don’t know whether without God there should have been nothing at all, because nothingness is supposedly simpler than a natural series of causes and effects. This is all true, but is so only as far as it goes. Again, we have no empirical grounds for speaking with precision about being or of nonbeing in general. We haven’t quantified such entities and we can’t run experiments to test hypotheses concerning them. But this doesn’t mean a metaphysical question about natural things in general is irrational or irresponsible.
Theism Betrays the Metaphysical Inkling
Mind you, Leibniz’s theistic construal of this “necessary being” doesn’t inspire confidence that the metaphysical question is worthwhile, after all. His anthropocentrism begins with the so-called Principle of Sufficient Reason, “that nothing takes place without a sufficient reason; in other words, that nothing occurs for which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is and not otherwise” (Leibniz, PNG, 1714). This implies that nothing can exist unless it can be potentially understood by a sentient being. This principle is psychological, not metaphysical, since it expresses our hubris and fear of death which drive us to posit a deity to glorify ourselves who are invariably said to be made to resemble that deity. The antihumanism of what H.P. Lovecraft called the cosmicist perspective shows there’s an alternative. Not only need the world not answer to the creatures that happen to evolve within it, but this asymmetry should have a devastating impact on our comfort level.
In fact, the anthropocentrism extends to Leibniz’s notion of truth-as-adequacy (as correspondence or agreement). He assumes that something’s proper arrangement is to be related to a truth-teller, since truth is when a statement agrees with a fact, and this adequacy can’t be merely subjective or dependent on the teller’s purpose. Suppose, on the contrary, we say that truth is just a statement’s usefulness in achieving a goal of the person who makes the statement. Now suppose we’re confronted with something that really defies comprehension, such as an alien artifact. If the Principle of Sufficient Reason is to be understood pragmatically, in line with our supposition, Leibniz’s point becomes trivial since we could always belittle some phenomenon, reducing it to human terms to preserve the illusion that we understand what’s happening. That is, we could formulate a theory that suffices to achieve our goals. For example, the alien artifact might actually or originally be a weapon that could destroy the universe, but a human fashion designer could get hold of the object and surmise that it’s a work of art, so she hangs it in an art gallery. The statement that the object is a sculpture (rather than a weapon of mystifying potency) becomes true, but only because truth itself becomes largely subjective, a meeting in the middle between what the world shows us, and how we’d prefer the world to be. Leibniz and other rationalist philosophers don’t think of truth as being so trivial, so the agreement between symbols and fact must be objective for them.
The question, then, is whether in using our symbols to make our statements we agree with the facts or the facts thereby to some extent agree with us. For Leibniz, God created the best of all possible worlds, and rational understanding of the world by creatures is part of that plan, so truth is a statement’s helping to fulfill this underlying, supernatural purpose. For Plato, another rationalist philosopher, there’s an abstract, immaterial order which is metaphysically close to the good, beautiful, and eternal source of all beings (to the God of the Philosophers), and our objective, existential purpose is to transcend our gross materiality, to look past the illusions generated by the prison of our animal bodies, and to comprehend that source. Both metaphysical pictures give us too much credit, although Leibniz’s is egregious in this regard. Plato might say our statements are in some sense material copies of copies that are far removed from ultimate reality, but in attributing that reality with goodness and beauty, Plato nevertheless humanizes it so that the adequacy or truth relation becomes symmetrical. Our task is to transcend material illusions and approach reality so that we might more nearly agree with it, but in so far as this reality is personalized, ultimate reality must in turn agree with the best in us, and that’s a piece of anthropocentrism. Leibniz’s god is more elaborately personalized, so that the metaphysical structure (monads, best of all possible worlds, theism and intelligent design, etc.) that lends objectivity to the epistemic relation between adequate symbols and facts likewise makes nature accountable to minds.
Any such anthropocentrism is now known to be naive. For those with intellectual integrity, cosmicism is part of the default philosophical position after the Scientific Revolution. When we issue statements that we think of usefully as being accurate representations of how things are, those facts of the matter are perfectly indifferent to us, as it were. Their essence isn’t just inhuman; it’s also virtually inscrutable, as demonstrated by the extreme counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics which is the deepest-available exploration of that essence. The world begins to answer to us only when we modify it with our technology, creating artificial worlds (languages, fictions, cultures, societies, cities) that do indeed flatter us by making us central to them as the agents that assign the artifacts the functions that provide their purpose. Nature itself needn’t agree with us, meaning that it needn’t satisfy our expectations or be limited to what we can comprehend. To think otherwise is to fail to grow up.
Of course, Leibniz could say that this begs the question, since the cosmological argument is supposed to establish that nature as a whole makes sense only on the assumption that it has a personal creator. But as Kant observed, the rationalist establishes no such thing because there’s no need to assume the cosmically necessary being is a personal deity. On the contrary, any personification of something supposedly unnatural illicitly naturalizes that entity. For example, if this eternal, immaterial, ultimate reality has a mind, it must have thoughts and feelings, and the order of those mental states should form a coherent whole so that we could explain why one of the deity’s thoughts follows logically or emotionally from another. In that case, God’s realm would be psychologically continuous with nature—which is just what’s assumed when the theist says God made rational creatures in his image. Thus, the creation of nature wouldn’t be a supernatural event, since God would be creating an artifact for a reason just like we do.
The Oneness of Supernatural Being and Nothingness
When the theist declines to indulge in personifying the First Cause, to preserve the coherence of her cosmology, she’s left with the implication that this necessary being is equivalent to nothing. The idea is that all things we know of, including persons, are natural and can be used to explain each other only so far until we ask for an explanation of why there’s anything at all rather than nothing. Since something can’t come from nothing by itself, some other type of being had to actualize the world we have, which is why there’s not nothing. But there’s no non-silly description of that supernatural being. Indeed, “nothing” applies to both the potent First Cause and to nonbeing, in that neither consists of finite, contingent things. The difference is supposed to be that there’s a metaphysical level of understanding the necessary being, whereas with absolute nothingness there’s nothing to understand on any level. But we’ve just confirmed the illegitimacy of literalistic personification of the necessary being, so that on a mystical view of this supernatural cosmology, the necessary being becomes as inexplicable as absolute nothingness. There’s exactly as much magic in nature being begotten from nothingness as there is in nature issuing from an impersonal, unnatural “being” about which nothing can be meaningfully said.
The necessity of this First Cause is supposed to follow from the Principle of Sufficient Reason, since reason demands that all contingent things be caused by something not itself contingent, in which case this supernatural thing must have its own reason for existing so that it doesn’t depend on anything else; otherwise, this cause of nature would be just another part of nature. But the same can be said about absolute nonbeing. Nothingness is just as supernatural as God, assuming that nature can’t be produced from nothing alone, nor can nature turn into absolute nothingness. So nothingness is hardly just another contingent, finite thing that depends on something for why it is the way it is, such as for why it lacks any positive attribute. Pure nonbeing, then, should be just as metaphysically necessary as the vacuously-powerful necessary being that’s hastily construed as God. The necessity of either is entirely negative in that the necessity consists of this entity’s difference from the contingency of natural things. Both the necessary-being-mistaken-for-God and pure nonbeing differ from any particular thing in the universe in that respect, and once we strip away the illusion of theistic understanding of the former, the two might as well be the same, for all we can say or fathom.
The rationalist theologian might say at this point that of course the necessary being and nothingness are different, since only the latter precludes the existence of nature. Pure nothingness can’t be anywhere, nor can pure nothingness have ever been, since we know there’s a universe here that actually includes myriad things within it. But our universe of contingent things might coexist with a more positively-construed supernatural being or with a metaphysical structure that subsists beyond the natural dimensions. However, I don’t think this response takes us far. The upshot is supposed to be that nothingness would be omnipresent, so that if something comes from what’s called nonbeing, that initial state couldn’t have been absolutely empty after all. If pure nonbeing were supposedly outside the confines of our universe, that so-called nonbeing would have special properties since it would be spatially related to us, and so it wouldn’t be entirely empty. Pure nonbeing would be permanent, eternal and everywhere, and it would make anything else impossible. (And so a deity would have been needed to decide between creating something other than him, leaving him as the only thing, or committing deicide to let absolute nothingness reign forever.)
Notice, though, that once again the same is said about God. God, too, is supposed to be omnipresent and eternal, which leads many theists to suspect that nature is an illusion, that only God is ultimately real. So both positive and negative metaphysically-necessary or simple beings, the typically-personified First Cause or pure nothingness should preclude the reality of a universe of finite, contingent things. If any timeless, supernatural order is real, nature should be illusory and unreal, whether that higher order is worthy of being anthropomorphized or is more despairingly thought of as being utterly empty of being. In fact, from our perspective as metaphysically-independent, finite beings, a supernatural order could seem either godlike or wholly empty, since the difference would speak only to how we choose to project our preoccupations onto something that would be entirely alien to us. The self-sustaining First Cause, construed as nothingness, would seem empty to us because we would have no way to positively differentiate it from anything else; we could say only that it’s not any particular thing we know of, which leaves us with exactly nothing (with no thing).
This equality of godlike supernatural being and pure nothingness shows up in scientific cosmology. In quantum mechanics, nothingness is construed as a quantum field that includes zero particles. This is the vacuum state or zero-point (particle) field that has the lowest possible energy. It’s as close to nothing as physical things can get, and yet Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle implies that this vacuum wouldn’t be entirely empty, but would be filled with zillions of virtual particles as the field fluctuates. The vacuum would be structured by possibilities, namely by the superpositions of these virtual particles that very rapidly pop into and out of being. Likewise, in Relativity Theory, the universe originated from an infinitely dense and hot point called a gravitational singularity. Both the quantum field and the singularity have supernatural properties: the virtual particles are ghostlike and divinely creative, giving birth to infinite universes according to the Eternal Inflation model of the Big Bang, and the posited singularity isn’t subject to laws of nature. And yet the vacuum state is treated as the physical equivalent of nothingness, while the singularity is likewise no particular thing. Nonpersonified but positively-construed supernatural being, such as the vacuum state of the quantum field or the gravitational singularity, can each be conceived of negatively, as nothingness, by a gestalt switch of conception.
But neither physical description of how being could have come from nonbeing provides for an answer to the eerie metaphysical question of why there’s something rather than nothing. Physicists like Lawrence Krauss would say this is because
When we ask, ‘Why?’ we usually mean ‘How? If we can answer the latter, that generally suffices for our purposes. For example, we might ask: ‘Why is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun?’ but what we really probably mean is, ‘How is the Earth 93 million miles from the Sun?’ That is, we are interested in what physical processes led to the Earth ending up in its present position. ‘Why’ implicitly suggests purpose, and when we try to understand the solar system in scientific terms, we do not generally ascribe purpose to it. (A Universe from Nothing)
The problem, though, is that if “Why?” questions presuppose purpose, as Krauss says, “How?” questions presuppose mechanism. Thus, neither sort of question is useful in grappling with the metaphysical conundrum at hand. Asking why there’s something rather than nothing will lead to a theistic answer, which answer would have only subjective value. But asking how something could have come from nothing would require that the initial state of nonbeing be quantified and that various natural laws be presupposed (such as the Uncertainty Principle) so that pure, wholly unnatural nothingness, being equivalent to that which could be easily mistaken for God, would likewise not be in view on this physical approach to the metaphysical question. The metaphysical something and nothing aren’t like the theistic or the physical versions of them.
The Metaphysical Question is Cosmicist
What, then, is really being asked by the metaphysical question? The something at issue is any possible particular thing, and the nothing is some “thing” other of which we have no easy conception. The question is whether natural causality goes on forever or whether nature begins from something else, something unnatural and thus potentially divine or nonphysical. We err, then, in trying to explain that transition, since we either personify or instrumentalize the supernatural starting point. That’s because our two predominant forms of explanation fall back on our instincts either for interpreting each other’s minds or for surviving by positing mechanisms which can be controlled by our tools. (As Krauss says, answering the “How?” question “suffices for our purposes,” the latter being instrumental ones, meaning those that are wise in a progressive, capitalistic society.) Both sorts of explanation are things that mere humans would offer, whereas the metaphysical question demands that we lay aside our humanity and imagine a scenario that isn’t in our interest. “How could any natural thing have come from something unnatural?” is just as incoherent as “Why is there any natural thing rather than nothing at all—unless a deity chose to create nature?” The scientist’s question would betray the hypothetical unnaturalness of the starting point by positing some mechanism, since “How?” assumes methodological naturalism. And the theist’s question likewise betrays the otherness of that starting point, by projecting familiar mentality onto it.