Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

"I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humour, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.'
'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown."

This quotation, from G.K. Chesteron, is compelling in his usual irreverent fashion. I find much to agree with in what he says, so I have been inclined to think that there must be some practical value in philosophy. Sometimes, however, I wonder if the chief purpose of philosophy is not simply to keep other people from making false claims on its behalf, in the same way that James Bryce claimed of history that its "chief practical to deliver us from plausible historical analogies." I am speaking in this case of that basic philosophical question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

I was first introduced to this question by one of my college professors, Dante Germino. He said that some philosopher had posited two fundamental questions: why is there something rather than nothing?, and why are things the way they are and not some other way? I thought the second question was superfluous, since, if you could explain why there was something, you would know why it was the way it was.

I've forgotten who the philosopher was supposed to be. I thought it was some ancient Greek, but I see now that Martin Heidegger is famous for saying that the first question -- why is there something -- is the fundamental question of philosophy. I haven't seen any reference to the second question, so I'm not quite sure it was he to whom Germino was referring, but it seems a good bet.

I have always liked this question, partly as an endless source of pondering, and partly because it provides some basis for religion, or at least the limitations of science; because I am convinced that science will never be able to provide an answer. It brings our minds to the limitations of reason, because we cannot conceive of something without a cause, and yet, despite the paradox, something does indeed exist. It may have an explainable cause, but its cause must have a cause, and so forth in an infinite regression. St. Thomas Aquinas used this as one of his arguments for the existence of God: there must be an uncaused cause. In his "States and Empires of the Moon," Cyrano de Bergerac mocked this proof as akin to saving oneself from the rain by jumping into the river: how does positing an uncaused cause get us out of the difficulty at all? We're resolving a logical paradox by resorting to a deus-ex-machina, something that literally is outside of logic. We can't logically understand what an uncaused cause would be any more than we can resolve the issue within our logical framework. I suspect that Aquinas was more sophisticated on this issue than Cyrano gives him credit for; Aquinas probably realized that the need for an uncaused cause doesn't tell us anything about God himself, but rather points to the need for an explanation outside of human reason. I like to think of it as Soren Kierkegaard's paradox, "the thought that thought itself cannot think." He doesn't attach the paradox to any particular idea, but I think this is as good a candidate as any. Trying to conceive of the beginning of the universe is an exercise in the limitations of reason.

The Big Bang is, of course, no answer to this paradox. The Big Bang explains how matter was compressed down to a singularity and then exploded suddenly, setting off the processes which led to the formation of the universe. It does not answer the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" I had an unpleasant shock from an explanation which seemed to circumvent this limitation, from a very smart friend whom I met in my first year of college. He explained how particles and anti-particles routinely come into existence and then annihilate each other almost instantaneously. Sometimes, however, they don't come back together, and there exists a tiny bit of matter (and its opposite) that didn't exist before. Given enough time, matter might accumulate in such quantities to create a whole universe, such as the one we live in.

I was very depressed about this at first, for it seemed to bring existence itself into the realm of science. Eventually, however, I realized the that it did no such thing. The scientific explanation may tell us how matter forms, but it can't tell us why it forms. Why should there be such things as matter and anti-matter in the first place? And why should they come into being in matched pairs? The existence of scientific laws that govern the universe needs explaining as much as matter and space.

I see now that some people are trying to finesse the problem of "why is there something rather than nothing" by asking, "why not?" This seems clever at first; why should we "privilege" non-existence as a more natural state than existence? Isn't it just as likely that existence is natural, and nothingness is what needs explaining? Personally, I still can't make this logical leap; I am trapped by the idea that nothingness naturally precedes existence (perhaps because it is correct). If we are wandering in the desert wilderness and come upon a house, and I ask, "I wonder why that house is there?", no one would be convinced by the answer, "Why not?" It is evidently the existence of the house that needs explaining, not its non-existence in every other part of the desert. Now, I realize that a house is not the same as matter in general, and that, while a house must evidently have to be constructed, it is not immediately obvious that matter has to be made. Still, I can't help seeing the circumstances as parallel.

But let's ignore that for a moment, and let's agree with the sceptics that existence is as natural as non-existence. The sceptics' argument is still very weak, because they are ignoring the other fundamental question: why are things the way they are, and not some other way? If you're going to say that being is as natural as, or even more natural than, nothingness, you also have to explain why things exist in one form and not in an infinite variety of other forms. And this is going to be difficult. When dealing with being and nothingness, it is possible to make a case that neither should be privileged over the other, but it certainly is difficult to make a convincing case why things should exist in one particular configuration over all other possible configurations.

One could make the case, as I believe some have done, that we exist in only one of an infinite number of parallel universes; therefore, there is no reason to think that our universe even is privileged, just that it happens to be the one that we are in. But this, I think, requires even greater credulity, and it has nothing whatever to do with science. It might be right, but we can't hope to test it; we can only take it on faith as seeming more likely that other explanations. I think most people, however, will find the idea of infinite universes to be rather less likely than alternate explanations.

Scientists have even tried to claim that there is no beginning to time; that there is no point at which things began, because time folds in on itself. I don't pretend to understand this idea (which I read in Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time"), but I do know that it is no more an answer to the uncaused cause than any other explanation. For, why should there even be such a thing as time? Science can push this matter very far, but I don't see how it can ever answer it.


  1. Philosophy is a fun subject, if you really try to think through things it does help to teach one to think through things in steps, figure out the counter-argument and counter that ad nauseam.

    Why is there something rather than nothing? One of the ultimate questions really. The uncaused cause, or the prime mover, idea used by Aquinas is completely flawed for the exact reason that he used it. There must be an uncaused cause, it is simple human arrogance to assume that it must be a god. Where is not only the proof of that, but even just a tiny hint in that direction?

    Or maybe a better way to put it is, why do we assume that if we do not know something or understand it, that it must be something supernatural like a god? Your profile states you are a historian, go back through history and look at how many things that were not understood and were attributed to different gods throughout the ages. Then look at how many of those things are completely understood now. Not knowing something is just an opportunity to learn it. Why do we make the massive assumption that our ignorance about how the universe (or multiverse, or any matter at all) equals a god?

    No matter which side you come down on, it comes down to this. Either something can always exist (universe or god) or something can come into existence from nothing.

    Let's take a couple of your lines here. "Trying to conceive of the beginning of the universe is an exercise in the limitations of reason." Ok that is a pretty big statement, back that up with something. We (as humans) keep learning more, and building tools to help us learn more. 200 years ago there was no thought of the big bang, at the time, that itself was something we could not think.

    I will agree that the big bang is no answer to the paradox, but even so your statement about it is not accurate. You say that the big bang explains how matter was compressed (only relative to today), and that it exploded suddenly. It expanded, not exploded.

    A little later you state "The existence of scientific laws that govern the universe needs explaining as much as matter and space." Fair enough, but many many people are working on that. This is how we learn, if we had all the answers there wouldn't be a need for any more science.

    So as not to do big quotes, you second to last paragraph, states that we can't hope to test it. Thats another bold statement. We can certainly hope to test it. Just because we have not figured out the answer does not mean that there isn't one. Just because today we do not have the test, does not mean we will not tomorrow. There is a lot of research happening all the time, each one adds another piece to the puzzle. Except this puzzle is billions of pieces and do not have the picture to go by.

    So lets get philosophical for a moment on your take on the topic in general. In all of this post there is not one statement that is positive on the existence of god. All of them are made on the general concept of our (human) ignorance of the universe. It seems to come down to a well something must have made it, so it must be god, where is even the tiniest bit of proof or even a hint in that direction?

    To get an idea as to our current ignorance of the universe, we are one species on one planet around one star in one galaxy. In this galaxy alone there are very conservatively 100,000,000,000 stars, and just as many galaxies in the visible universe. We estimate that we can only see about 5% of the universe. Learning about something that that sheer size and volume and the hundreds of billions (very conservative again) objects in the universe takes a bit of time (once again very conservative ;) )

    So I will ask something, that I ask of everyone I have these types of talks with. Show me one thing that is not based on human ignorance that points to a god.

  2. Wow, that's quite a response. I will just say that I never intended to prove the existence of God. My purpose was to show the limitation of reason. I don't know if there is any formal proof along the lines of Gödel's incompleteness theorem that demonstrates the limitations of reason in general, but I certainly think that there is at least one practical limitation -- namely, the uncaused cause. Whether one believes that matter has existed eternally, or whether one posits some kind of creator, is a matter of faith. Either solution is beyond reason to comprehend; the point is that there exists the possibility for God. It is no good to say that God can't exist because an uncaused cause is irrational; the whole point of God is that He exists outside of what our reason can directly comprehend.

    >You say that the big bang explains how matter was compressed (only relative to today), and that it exploded suddenly. It expanded, not exploded.

    Well, okay, this is no doubt the proper scientific language to use. But matter not only expanded, it also separated -- where it was at a single point, it then existed in many places with space between it. Doing this rapidly is the commonplace definition of "exploded."