Why Does Anything Exist?

The philosopher Martin Heidegger famously characterized the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as “the most fundamental question in all of philosophy.” In recent years, physicists claim to be able to extrapolate the ultimate free lunch from the abyss. However, as with most hyperbolic claims in science, the physicists’ ultimate free lunch should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, is humanity any closer to unlocking the grandest of all mysteries, or are we prisoners forever shackled to the walls of Plato’s cave?

Some philosophers and scientists have dismissed the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as a pseudo problem. To claim that “the most fundamental question in all of philosophy” to be a pseudo problem is a breathtaking piece of intellectual chutzpah and tends to take the following guise. The definition of nothing is non-existence. To state that non-existence exists, transfers the definition of non-existence into an existing state. Therefore, non-existence cannot existence. For non-existence not to exist, something must exist. “The universe”, as Bertrand Russell said, “is just there, and that’s all.” So get used to it.

To state that the universe is “the ultimate brute fact” is both philosophically and scientifically unsatisfying. In regards to the former dissatisfaction, defining nothing as non-existence, and then transferring non-existence into an existing state, is a slick move peddled by intellectual word play. Nothing is by definition no-things or, the absence of stuff. We can easily imagine subtracting the stuff of the world until it gradually dwindles into an abyss of nothingness. This being the case, there is nothing (forgive the term) incoherent in the idea of a world “absent of stuff.”

Claiming that the universe is a brute fact is scientifically dissatisfying because it abandons the scientific enterprise all together. In particular, science is concerned with explaining the existence of natural phenomena through empirical observation coupled with abstract theory. Newton accounted for the phenomena of rainbows by developing a particle theory of light, and Darwin accounted for the phenomena of life’s diversity by developing the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. To substitute an explanation for the existence of the world with a “brute fact” abandons the foundation upon which science is built and is no better than a “God of the gaps” argument.

In addition, one principle highly valued in science is the principle of simplicity or “Ockham’s razor.” Ockham’s razor states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis that makes the fewest assumptions is the most plausible. Ockham’s razor is not a scientific law but a useful principle, highly valued for its aesthetic appeal, used to determine the most probable hypothesis.

In some instances, Ockham’s razor fails. In order to account for a disease, for example, multiple genetic and environmental facts are involved. Nevertheless, the history of science has shown that the basic principles that dictate one scientific field are derived from a simpler set of principles at a more fundamental level. At bottom, one would expect absolute nothingness. Since absolute nothingness is the simplest possible state of affairs, according to Ockham’s razor, it is the most likely shape reality should take. Thus, the fact that anything should exist at all demands an explanation.

It could be argued that the gap between absolute nothingness and something is too large to bridge. A better question might be, “Why does reality take the shape that it does?” There are many possible forms that reality could take, some containing special features, others containing no special features. Absolute nothingness contains the special feature of being the simplest possible reality. The fullest reality is one that contains all possible worlds and has the special feature of being the richest possible reality.

Here is where the reasoning gets tricky. Out of all the possible realities that the world could take, one of them has to obtain by logic. Absolute nothingness and infinity contain some remarkable similarities. In mathematics, for example, dividing any variable by infinity or zero is undefined. Coupling the principle of simplicity with Plato’s theory of fullness, one reaches the conclusion that reality should take the shape of, as the journalist Jim Holt describes, “An infinite mediocrity.”

Of course, such reasoning would have to be further flushed out. However, within the space allowed, the highlighted reasoning intends to only hint as to why reality might take the shape that it does. In doing so, we sketch a framework to view, as William James somberly described, “the darkest question in all philosophy.”

By Nathan Cranford


Scientific American
New York Times
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy