Brian and John asked:
Why is there anything at all?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
Most of the questions I receive through the Blogger form on my home page at https://www.geoffreyklempner.net I have seen before during the 22 years that Ask a Philosopher has been running since 1999. So there are not that many I choose to answer.
This time, the question comes from two of my former students. John was one of the original members of a small group of adult learners who over three decades ago came to my apartment to hear chapters from the book which was eventually published as Naive Metaphysics: a theory of subjective and objective worlds. He is now a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. John teaches English to foreign students, attends conferences on Linguistics and reads Philosophy. He also attends Philosophy evening classes run by the Workers Educational Association now given by Brian, who first came to my WEA classes many years ago after the A-Level (pre-university) class he was attending was discontinued. Brian’s day job is running the Porter Bookshop, a business which he took over from the previous owner, and which he has expanded to include a considerable online presence on Amazon.
Both John and Brian went on to take their Philosophy degrees at the University of Sheffield.
Last term, Brian based his evening classes on a set book, The Mystery of Existence: Why is there anything at all? John kindly gave me his copy. It’s a topic and a question that we have debated on and off for years. But it is only recently that the pieces of the jigsaw have begun to come together.
First off, here are two quotes that to my mind set the terms of the debate:
Come now, I will tell thee — and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away — the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for anything not to be, is the way of. conviction, for truth is its companion.. The other, namely, that It is not, and that something must needs not be, — that, I tell thee, is a wholly untrustworthy path. For you cannot know what is not — that is impossible — nor utter it…
I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander in two minds; for hesitation guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind. Undiscerning crowds, in whose eyes the same thing and not the same is and is not…
— Parmenides ‘Poem’ translated by John Burnet, available at http://philoctetes.free.fr/parmenidesunicode.htm.
And the second quote:
1. The world is everything that is the case.
1.1. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.
1.11. The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.
1.12. For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.
1.13. The facts in logical space are the world.
1.2. The world divides into facts…
— Wittgenstein ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C.K. Ogden, available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5740/5740-pdf.pdf.
These translations are older than the ones currently available, but I have chosen them because they are freely available on the web, and they are good enough to convey the point I wish to make, which is this: according to Parmenides, everything that is, is necessary, while according to Wittgenstein, everything that is, is contingent.
These are, or appear to be, extremes. Common sense holds that some things are necessary — the laws of logic, and arguably the laws of nature — while other things are contingent.
It was contingent, not necessary, that Germany was defeated in the Second World War. If the German Enigma code had not been broken at Bletchley Park, or if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbour, dragging the USA into the war, it is possible that Hitler might have prevailed. On the other hand, if there were no laws of nature, then there could not be a physical, ‘material’ universe, where, for example, Hydrogen, the first, and simplest element in the Periodic Table, consists of one proton and one electron and always reacts in the same way with other elements regardless of where, or when, it occurs. Similarly, a proton or an electron in turn always behave in the same characteristic ways, and so on, down to the most ‘fundamental’ particles, whatever these may be.
It is a remarkable fact that the universe runs according to laws, and in particular a given set of laws rather than different laws. And yet there is, equally, a contingent feature, possibly going back to the Big Bang, by virtue of which the history of the universe has taken the course that it has, rather than a different course — for example, the outcome of the Second World War.
Why is there a universe? For many years, Einstein laboured in vain to unify the four fundamental ‘forces’ — gravity, magnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces. Now there are several contenders for unification, one of which is the ‘String Theory’ postulated by Stephen Hawking. It is not necessary to know the maths. String Theory is basically a set of postulated axioms from which all the laws of nature can be deduced. The only reason for choosing these axioms over the axioms postulated by other theories is their perceived ‘simplicity’. To date, there has been no definitive empirical test one way or the other. I don’t have the quote to hand, but Hawking has reportedly said that the one thing he can’t answer is ‘why the universe bothers to exist at all’. Indeed!
I said that the views of Parmenides and Wittgenstein represent ‘extremes’. One of the first classes I attended in the first year of my Philosophy BA degree at Birkbeck College, University of London, was on the Presocratic Philosophers, given by D.W. Hamlyn. Hamlyn claimed that Parmenides had been ‘victim to a logical fallacy’. In between what necessarily is, and what necessarily is not, there is what contingently is but might not have been — for example, the outcome of World War Two. But is this just a logical fallacy? This was before Aristotle, who first wrote down the so-called ‘laws of logic’, while Parmenides was giving voice to a powerful intuition, one that Einstein expressed two and a half thousand years later, when he remarked that ‘God does not play dice with the universe’. There is something repugnant, unacceptable, about the thought that it is merely a contingent fact that there is anything at all, or the fact that the laws of nature are what they are, or that things turned out the way they did. (His objection, if valid, does not merely apply to Bohr’s ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation of the subatomic world.)
Wittgenstein proposed two distinct theories of language, first in his Tractatus and then again in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations decades later. However, the two distinct works agree about the fact that what there ‘is’ is ‘what is the case’. Whatsoever is the case might not have been the case. In other words, everything that we can say ‘is’, is contingent and not necessary. Wittgenstein’s early view was that there is a necessary framework that cannot be ‘said’ but only ‘shown’, consisting in ‘atomic facts’. You can think of these as analogous to the pixels on a computer monitor, or the possible moves on a chess board. Within the logical framework there are only so-and-so many combinations or ‘logical possibilities’. His later view was that the framework is provided by what he termed ‘forms of life’, where all that can be said is ‘this is what we say, and this is what we do’, where no further or ultimate reason can be given for doing and saying in this way rather than some other way. The ‘rules we live by’ are the bedrock of meaning, and any attempt to ‘dig below the bedrock’ (to quote words of John McDowell) is simply futile.
So which is it to be? There are, seemingly, three alternatives: that what is, is necessary, or that what is, is contingent, or, lastly, what is, is a mixture of necessity and contingency. The question — or insoluble problem — is posed by the ultimate absurdity of each of these alternatives. You can ‘choose to believe’ — in String Theory, or in the God Theory, or in some other theory — but the choice seems ultimately arbitrary, a matter of intuition or seeming ‘simplicity’, or whatever. And yet, there remains the conviction that there is a truth of the matter, albeit one that we can never know — a point made, as it happens, by the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes. A mere ‘theory’ isn’t good enough, if we don’t have hold of the actual truth!
I have theory — which doesn’t answer the question, although it does take it forward. Consider these two common sense claims:
A. The universe has existed millions of years before I was born and will continue for millions of years after I die.
B. If my parents had not met I would not have existed.
Subjective idealism denies A. Or. more exactlly, one can ‘say’ this but cannot ‘mean’ it. Objective idealism denies B. According to subjective idealism, the ‘existence of a universe’ just IS the fact that I have such-and-such experiences. The world begins and ends with I. (There may or may not be other subjects of experience, other ‘I’s. The ‘solipsist’ holds that I am the one and only subject.) According to objective idealism, there is, ultimately, just one subject of experience, one objective ‘I’, who is GK, John, Brian, and also Parmenides, Wittgenstein, Jesus, Mother Theresa, Donald Trump, etc.
I’m not saying that idealism, in whatever form, logically cannot be true, but merely that I choose to believe that idealism is false. Even though any such choice is ultimately absurd, it seems somehow ‘less’ absurd that idealism is false and that the realist view is true. In the pungent words of Ayn Rand, ‘existence exists’. There is no argument here, other than the observation that it is futile to embrace idealism, when there are things we urgently have to deal with, a world to make, or change. — In other words, I have a life to live, and not just to passively ‘experience’.
To me, that suggests that what is truly ‘ultimate’ is not that something ‘is’ — whether necessary or contingent — but, rather, as John Macmurray expressed this in his Gifford Lectures The Self As Agent and Persons in Relation, a necessary task. (He saw the ultimate task, the ultimate aim of all action, as ‘friendship’, but that claim is more contentious.) In any event, what is actual is not a ‘fact’ but an ‘issue’, a call to action rather than something that one merely observes or contemplates in ‘philosophical’ mode. — Karl Marx famously said this in his Theses on Feuerbach, but his meaning has often been represented as a repudiation of ‘mere philosophy’ rather than as a powerful, and indeed empowering, philosophy in its own right. Then again, there remains the question, do WHAT, exactly? The young Marx proposed, ‘fulfillment of the human essence’, but that falls back, once again, on something prior that merely ‘is’.
The result of all these machinations is that there are two ultimate questions rather than one: the first ultimate question is why there is anything at all, why there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’. The second ultimate question is, given that there is something, why there is I rather than no I. This question is given added piquancy by the observation that I might not have existed but someone exactly like my might have existed in my place. This is a fact — or super-fact — that neither physics or religion can give an adequate account of. There’s no point even trying. Then what? I don’t know!
This is what I all the ‘idiotic conundrum’. Or my ‘ring quest’. I will almost certainly never find the answer, and in fact would most likely refuse to believe anything that was presented to me as an answer, however convincing the argument in its favour.
It’s an exceedingly small step forward, but that’s my contribution to the debate. Besides the ‘three alternatives’ I considered earlier, we have to reckon with the complicating fact of what one might term ‘I-ness’, or as some logicians term it, ‘indexical reference’ (or what John Perry has called the ‘essential indexical’). How does that help? Again, I don’t know. But it does look as if it somehow sets things in motion, in a way not contemplated either by Parmenides, or Wittgenstein, or the common sense view. In addition to the choice between three ‘absurd’ positions, is the added absurdity of there being I rather than no I.
Unlike certain ‘existentialist authors (e.g. Camus, or Sartre) I am not content with accepting absurdity as somehow ‘ultimate’. By the same token, I don’t have an alternative to offer, apart from the powerful intuition that philosophy doesn’t, can’t, end here. Absurdity is not an acceptable end point.
Over to you, John, and Brian!
Craig Skinner answers:
Fyatt Lux (FL) and Alpher Nix (AN) are in conversation
FL: they say “why is there something rather than nothing?” is THE philosophical question
AN: who says?
FL: well, philosophers, scientists, and lots of others.
AN: so what’s the answer then?
FL: we don’t know, but philosophy is more about asking questions than answering them.
AN: not much point in asking, then, if there’s no answer.
FL: we don’t know that when we start. We think hard, debate, maybe we find the answer, more often we have several possible answers, and yes, sometimes there is no answer. What’s your first thought on the subject?
AN: my first thought is that you’ll just say God made the world out of nothing, end of.
FL: well, I do say that actually, and what’s wrong with it.
AN: what’s wrong with it is that it just pushes the problem back a step. Now we ask why is there God rather than nothing? If you say he just exists, you may as well say that the world just exists.
FL: not quite, we can say that God doesn’t just happen to exist, his existence is necessary – his essence is to exist.
AN: don’t give me that old Ontological Argument stuff. Whether it’s Anselm’s original, Descartes’ version or Plantinga’s modern modal version, they’re all flawed. All they show is, having defined God as a necessarily existing being, that if God exists his existence is necessary, if he doesn’t exist his existence is impossible, but we don’t know if he exists or not. Aquinas dismissed it, correctly seeing it as the logical fallacy of changing the scope of the modal operator, thereby confusing a semantic thesis “God (necessarily) exists” (true by definition) with an existential thesis “(Necessarily) God exists”.
FL: well said, and I agree. That God made the world is a matter of faith not reason, although it’s not an irrational belief. It’s the answer for some, but not for others. Let’s move on. What’s your next thought?
AN: well, sometimes a question assumes something so basic we don’t even notice it, and if we spot the assumption and can reject it, the question dissolves. Think of how some sailors long ago were afraid to sail away into the beyond in case they reached the edge of the world and fell off. They assumed the world had an edge. Knowing the Earth is spherical we reject the assumption, the problem dissolves,
FL: fine, so what’s the hidden assumption in our question?
AN: that “something” and “nothing” are two different kettles of fish. But suppose the universe has zero mass/energy – its positive mass/radiation exactly balanced by negative gravity, positive charges by negative ones, spin up by spin down, so that the net content of the universe is nil, the universe is not so much something as nothing-carefully-arranged.
FL: neat, and in fact the universe may well be as you surmise. But how would this dissolve our question?
AN: ah, if the universe did have net zero energy and other conserved quantities, it could persist indefinitely without violating the Uncertainty Principle, if it started as a quantum fluctuation from nothing just as virtual particles pop into existence all the time in the quantum vacuum.
FL: nice try. I agree you have given a possible answer as to how the universe (or universes) arose from the quantum vacuum. But the latter isn’t nothing. It’s a fluctuating energy field following the laws of quantum mechanics. You haven’t explained how the universe arose from absolutely nothing.
AN: quite right, I cant dissolve the question. But maybe I can get round it. Suppose we say the universe has always existed so that there’s no need to explain how it arose at all?
FL: we could say that, and this was Hume’s view. A state of affairs is explained by the preceding state, which in turn is explained by its preceding state and so on indefinitely. Every state of affairs is explained, none is unexplained, and there is no first state to explain. What else is there to explain? As Aquinas saw better than Hume, what is to be explained is why there are states of affairs at all rather than nothing. This applies with both an eternal and a non-eternal universe. For Aquinas, creating the world was not just a one-off thing at some point in the past. Rather God creates or sustains the world in existence at all times, so that if right now, God took his eye off the ball, so to speak, the world would disappear. I’m afraid you cant circumvent our question by positing an eternally existing world.
AN: well, I’m stumped. Do we say there’s no answer then?
FL: maybe we do. But first let’s try a different tack – explanation by reasons not causes. We don’t explain why the chicken crossed the road by a story about electrochemistry in its leg muscles. We say it wanted to get to the other side.
AN: right, and you don’t explain how God causes the world to exist, you say he has reason to create it. Seems like we’re reviving old Aristotle’s final cause.
FL: yes we are, and a good thing. When Descartes rejected Aristotle, he threw out a number of babies with the bathwater. One of those that survived, and thrives, incorporated into neo-Aristotelian frameworks that many modern scientists subscribe to, is indeed final causation.
AN: okay, okay, enough of the polemic
FL: could we say the world exists because of ethical necessity. If there is to be good at all, then something must exist. Plato thought so, saying in Republic that the Form of the Good is “what bestows existence upon things”.
AN: sounds like you’re replacing God by ethical necessity. Instead of God doing the heavy ontological lifting, it’s done by an abstract entity. Could abstractions have such power?
FL: I’m not exactly sure. What about mathematical objects? Pythagoras thought the world was made of numbers. In our time, Roger Penrose and Max Tegmark, both apparently sane, suggest mathematics has a Platonic existence, and somehow conjures up the world.
AN: now God gets replaced by Maths. But the same objection applies – yes, if these Forms exist they are necessary, but we don’t know if they do. And how could they make a universe anyway? I rather think mathematical entities are fictions or nonexistent objects. Look, cant we just say the reason the universe exists is that Absolutely Nothing is an unstable state and inevitably decays into nothing-carefully arranged? Of course, this might mean things, maybe universes, pop into existence all the time, strange indeed but not logically impossible.
FL: I’m not sure this constitutes an explanation. Reminds me of the Principle of Plenitude.
AN: scraping the metaphysical barrel now, aren’t you.
FL: rather. One last try though. Let’s consider not why, but how the world is, and what Principle might select it. So, absolutely nothing (a null world) would be selected by Simplicity, all possible worlds by Plenitude, a good world by Goodness, a mixed-bag world by No Selector.
AN: and would there need to be a principle (a metaselector) selecting which selector?
FL: if there were, and we said that no selector could select itself, what might we get.
AN: well we don’t have a null world, so Simplicity is out as a selector. We don’t have a good world (it’s good and bad) so Goodness is out. We are left with Plenitude or No Selector.
FL: right, now if no metaselector can select itself, then, if Plenitude were the selector it couldnt be the metaselector. And no other metaselector could choose it. So Plenitude cant be the selector.
AN: so what’s left.
FL: the only logical possibilities are Simplicity as metaselector, which of course selects No Selector, and we have a mixed-bag universe; or No selector as metaselector, so that all selectors act partially, again a mixed-bag universe.
AN: right. And do we have a mixed bag world? Yes we do. And note that a null universe, selected by Simplicity, is impossible, since no metaselector can select this selector.
FL: so we seem to have proved that Absolutely Nothing is impossible, and a mixed-bag world is the only logical possibility.
AN: yes, granted what we have assumed, namely the Principle of Sufficient Reason (every contingent state of affairs happens for a reason), and The Axiom of Foundation (no truth explains itself/no cause causes itself).
FL: we’ve done well then.
AN: yes, but it’s disappointing that the world has to be so mediocre.
The ideas about selectors are discussed by Parfit and developed by Holt:
Holt J (2012) Why Does The World Exist, p 221-242. Liveright
Parfit D (1998) Why Anything? Why This? London Review of Books, 22 Jan/05 Feb