Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?
Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz
I’m not surprised that a scientific dogmatist would wave off a truly profound issue like this, and Dawkins is by no means the first. When Leibniz put the question up, he was of course committed to putting God in the picture — why did God create an imperfect world instead of just enjoying his own perfection? And his answer (leaning on a prior formulation by the little-known early scholastic thinker John Scotus Erigena) was this: A single existent in the universe would not know that it exists, because it has nothing to compare existence with non-existence! And so Leibniz’s answer was considerably more sophisticated than our own pretty infantile supposition of a ‘big bang’: God created a kind of ‘cosmic dust’ as an analogue of himself, which we might conceive of as fundamental particles, each a mirror of the universe from its unique perspective. This can be readily translated into modern diction, as these particles comprise the underlying texture of the universe in his as well as our cosmological theories.
Leibniz called these particles ‘monads’; but the crucial difference to our present conceptions is, that his monads possess the potential, each in varying degrees, of animate and inanimate existence; and it is the manner of their congregation that results in the furniture of the world — predominantly inert monads comprising physics matter; predominantly active monads comprising the animate partition. Take note that this pathway is closed to Big Bang theorists!
Now you might cry out, “but this is metaphysics, not science!” Not so fast! Because you must not assume that any theory that happens to be the current paradigm, reigns in uncontested splendour throughout the scientific establishment.
Take Prigogine’s suggestion that in an otherwise empty universe, there must be a residual electric potential imbued with positive and negative charge from which matter can precipitate, as otherwise nothing will ever come into existence. Any now any such precipitate changes the constitution of this charged field and results in the potentiation of an accelerating cascade of further precipitations.
Although this thesis was offered by a scientist (indeed a double Nobelist), it is also pure metaphysics. But we cannot get around it; metaphysics is our only speculative methodology if we wish to find logically tight and scientifically sound theses on origins. I hope you can see from my description that Leibniz and Prigogine are not talking past each other, but propound much the same idea. For although Leibniz pays constant lip service to the theological presuppositions in his era, he occasionally lifted the lid on his own thoughts in private communications, as in this case in a letter to Johann Bernoulli, where he said: “God did not create the world — he created monads, and the monads created the world.”
This is not the place for me to go deeper into these conundrums. But a word is indispensable on why this is an issue of the utmost profundity to minds attuned to philosophy. Consider that the question refers to the fact that without life in the universe — especially intelligent life — there would be no-one to testify to its existence. Virtually all other philosophical questions, and all scientific questions as well, hinge on it. The existence of the universe is predicated a priori on there being life, as in a universe without this potential it would be indifferent whether it exists or not. So Leibniz’s question is a direct challenge to the mindless presupposition “here it is, basta!” and further to the asinine assumption that life is nothing more than a chance configuration of molecular products which we just happen to incapable of explaining in scientific terms. But also, as we saw, to the naive belief that a God may be said to exist without humans to posit such a Being as a possibility and then to cast doubt upon it.
To my mind, Leibniz holds an advantage in these stakes. His monadic cosmos unfurls with the potential for life as a residual capacity. He answers the second prong of the “existential question” by providing a pathway for the evolution of agency, intentionality, perception, awareness, intelligence etc., which tends to be ignored or confused by committed material monists like Dawkins. Leibniz knew nothing of evolution, of course; but as it turns out, it is the most exquisite argument in his favour that only intentional agents possess the wherewithal to legitimise the question under consideration here.