Why is there something rather than nothing?

Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or
is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Hello, Minnie. Did you come across my recent blog post ‘The One’ discussing this question by any chance?


The short answer to your question is that ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ is both senseless and profound. It is profound because we don’t know exactly what sense to make of it. It’s senselessness is not patently obvious, not even if you have an IQ as high as that of Richard Dawkins.

When we think of the way things ‘might have been’ there is always an unspoken assumption about the vantage point from which one is asking the question. ‘Might I have been an astronaut?’ is a question that only makes sense on the assumption that I was in fact born and didn’t die in infancy. ‘Might the human race never have evolved?’ is a question which assumes the prior existence of life on Earth, which might have taken a different evolutionary turn from the one it actually took.

If you ask the question, ‘Might there have been nothing?’ what exactly does that assume? The best one can say here is that it assumes a ‘picture’ whose meaning is not altogether clear, a picture of a range of possibilities (or ‘possible worlds’) one of which is completely blank or empty. By definition, there is only one such possible world (if it is possible). In the same way, there is only one ‘null set’ in set theory.

But this is where things begin to get confusing. The null set (symbolized as { }) is definitely something and not nothing. It is a so-called ‘pure abstract object’, which exists in all possible worlds. You can construct a model for the natural numbers using the null set as a starting point. Just say that zero equals the null set, and any number n is the set of all numbers from 0 to n-1. So 1 is the set containing the null set, 2 is the set containing the null set, together with the set containing the null set, and so on.

So we need to sharpen the idea of the one possible world where ‘there is nothing’ to exclude abstract objects such as sets and numbers which exist in all possible worlds, including the one world where abstract objects are the only entities that exist. Let’s call this the world where there is ‘physically nothing’ (or maybe ‘physically and/ or mentally nothing’, if you’re tempted by idealism).

A world where there is physically nothing cannot be conceived as ’empty space’, even though it is tempting to do so. Isaac Newton thought of space as an infinite container, the ‘sensorium of God’. However, since Relativity that concept of space is no longer accepted. Space requires matter, there cannot be pure empty space.

Then again, if we are considering all possible worlds, then surely we should be considering worlds where the laws of nature are different from the way they are in the actual world? In that case, there’s a whole bunch of ‘possible Newtonian worlds’, in addition to a whole bunch of ‘possible Einsteinian worlds’.

So there is after all a possible Newtonian world where God’s sensorium is empty. But I almost forgot, you still have God. Or maybe this is the possible world in which He died?

All we are doing here is playing with pictures. The mental picture of an ’empty container’, for example. You might say that something undoubtedly does exist. Descartes would reply that lacking proof of God’s existence, we are not entitled to say for sure that that ‘something’ is physical. Maybe all there is, is me and the evil demon. But even in the evil demon scenario, there is something: my mental life, my experience of ‘seeming to exist in a world’. Suppose, in this scenario, I die. Then the evil demon dies. Then what?

In my blog post referred to above, I speculated about the meaning of Heidegger’s notorious statement, ‘Nothing noths.’ There seems to be something wrong with stating that a world where there is physically and mentally nothing ‘is’ a possible world. How can we even speak or write the words, ‘Nothing is…’? The only thing one can speak or write is whatever remains after you have taken away every possible descriptive term that can be appended to the term, ‘Nothing.’ There is nothing that nothing can be or do… except noth. (Apologies to any logical positivist reading this.)

Is that it? Is that all one can say?

Taking our cue from arithmetic and set theory, if we are prepared to accept that pure abstract objects exist in all possible worlds — I mean, if we are happy with talk of abstract objects, happy using the notion of possible worlds as a term of art — why not just say that the idea that there ‘might have been nothing’ is absurd for the simple reason that the set of all possible worlds is most definitely something and not nothing.

There’s a big gap between all possible worlds, and the actual world containing you and me, and that gap has to be explained somehow. (E.g. If everything began with a Big Bang, how did ‘it’ choose how to bang?) But that question is a different question from the one that you asked.

2 thoughts on “Why is there something rather than nothing?

  1. Hi. I’m just an amateur, but here’s my view. It’s also based on your metaphysicaljournal posting. It’s kind of a long comment, so sorry about that up front. I agree with you that “something” is necessary and not contingent. But, I disagree with you that it’s not possible to conceive of , or talk about “nothing”. Of course, we can’t directly imagine “nothing” because our minds wouldn’t be there in “nothing”, but we can get close and then try to extrapolate.

    My proposed answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is that, as others have suggested, the seeming insolubility of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is based on a flawed assumption. I think the flawed assumption is that the situation we often visualize as being “absolute nothing” or the lack of all existent entities (e.g., the lack of all matter; energy; space/volume; time; abstract concepts; laws of physics, math and logic; and minds and consciousness to consider this supposed “nothing”) is really the lack of all existent entities. Instead, I think this situation is itself an existent entity. How can this be? Two arguments are:

    1. In regard to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, two possible solutions are:

    A. “Something” has always been here.

    B. “Something” has not always been here.

    Choice A is possible but doesn’t explain anything; although, more will be said about it at the end of this paragraph. Also, in order to ever answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” in a satisfactory manner, I think we’re going to have to address choice B. People think there must be a reason why “something” is here. So, let’s address it. If we go with choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it (by “before”, I don’t mean “before” as in time, but “before” as in a perceived transformation from “nothing” to “something”). If this supposed “nothing” were truly the lack of all existent entities, though, there would be no mechanism present to change, or transform, this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now (e.g., “out of nothing, nothing comes”). But, because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice is that the supposed “nothing” we were thinking of was not the lack of all existent entities, or absolute “nothing”. There must have been some existent entity, or “something”, present that could either have been the “something” we see now or that would have contained the mechanism needed to cause that “something” to appear. Because we got rid of all the existent entities we could think of, the only thing that could be an existent entity would be the supposed “nothing” itself. That is, it must in fact be a “something”. This is logically required if we go with choice B, and I don’t think there’s a way around that. This idea leads to the result that “something” is necessary because even what we used to think of as the lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”, is a “something”. Ironically, going with choice B leads to choice A. If what we used to think of as “absolute nothing” is actually an existent entity, or a “something”, this would always have been true, which means that this “something” would always have been here.

    2. How can what we used to think of as “nothing” actually be a “something”? I think it’s first important to try and figure out why any “normal” thing (like a book, or a set) can exist and be a “something”. I propose that a thing exists if it is a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing. In the case of a book, try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist. The surface is what groups the individual atoms inside together into a new and unique existent entity called the “book”, which is a different existent entity than the individual atoms inside. As a different example, consider the concept of an automobile. This is a mental construct in the head that groups together individual concepts/constructs labeled “tire”, “engine”, “car body”, etc. into a new and unique entity labeled as the concept “automobile”. Here, the grouping is represented not as a physical surface but as the label “automobile” for the mental construct. But, this construct still exists because it’s a grouping defining what is contained within. One last example is that of a set. Does a set exist before the rule defining what elements are contained within is present? I don’t think it does. So, in conclusion, a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within is an existent entity.

    Next, let’s apply this definition of why a thing exist to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” To start, “absolute nothing”, or “non-existence”, is first defined to mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this “absolute lack-of-all”. Now, try to visualize this. 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 minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing” (here, I don’t mean our mind’s conception of this supposed “absolute nothing”, I mean the supposed “absolute nothing” itself, in which all minds would be gone). This situation, 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. That’s it; that’s everything; there’s nothing else. Is there anything else besides that “absolute nothing”? No. It is “nothing”, and it is the all. An entirety/whole amount/everything is a grouping defining what is contained within and is therefore a surface, an edge, and an existent entity. That is, this supposed lack of all existent entities is itself an existent entity. Because the “absolute lack-of-all” is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as both what is contained within and the grouping defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/surface/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the “entirety”, “the all” relationship inherent in this “absolute lack-of-all”. What this means is that “something” is necessary, or non-contingent, because even what we previously, and incorrectly, visualized as the lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”, is a “something.

    This is related to your point about the null set. The null set is a something, but the reason it is a “something” is because the “nothing” that composes the null set is the all, or the entirety, and therefore, a “something”.

    Some related ideas about visualizing and talking about “non-existence” are:

    1.) It’s very easy to confuse the mind’s conception of “non-existence” with “non-existence” itself, in which neither the mind nor anything else is present. Because our minds exist, our mind’s conception of “non-existence” is dependent on existence; that is, we must define “non-existence” as the lack of existence. This is why, to the mind, non-existence just looks like nothing at all. But, “non-existence” itself, and not our mind’s conception of “non-existence”, does not have this requirement; it is independent of our mind, and of existence, and of being defined as the lack of existence. “Non-existence” is on its own and, on its own, completely describes the entirety of what is there and is thus an existent entity.

    This is kind of related to the idea of negation in the metaphysicaljournal posting. We are forced to think of “nothing” as the negation of “something”, but “nothing” itself (and not our mind’s conception of “nothing”) doesn’t have this constraint.

    2.) Some might say that in the above, just by using the word “nothing”, I’m reifying, or giving existence to, something that’s not there at all. But, that ignores the whole point about our mind’s conception of “nothing” (and therefore the use of the word “nothing”) being different than “nothing” itself, in which no minds are present. Additionally, in order to even discuss the topic, we have have to talk about “nothing” as if it’s a thing. It’s okay to do this because our mind’s conception of “nothing” and, therefore, our calling it the word “nothing”, are independent of “nothing” itself and would not even be present in the case of “nothing” itself. This means that calling it “nothing” has no effect on whether or not “nothing” itself is actually a thing. That will be determined by “nothing” and not by our talking about “nothing”.

    3.) It’s very difficult to visualize “non-existence” because it entails visualizing, with our mind, what it would look like if everything, including the mind, were gone. But, only once everything is gone, including the mind, does “non-existence” become the all, the entirety of all that is present, and thus an existent entity.

    If you’re interested, I’ve got more on this at my website at:

    (click on 3rd paper down)

    Thanks for listening.


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