I’ve lately been convinced that reflections on why there is something rather than nothing promises interesting insights into important questions and answers about what we should be doing with our lives and how we should feel about ourselves in relation to everything else. Jim Holt’s book “Why Does the World Exist?” explores this question quite well and although he gets a bit too theoretical at times, he covers it all. It may not be the main point of the book, the part that I am now convinced of is that there is no possible answer to the question. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” There are word games to be played with the word “nothing” so to not fall into that trap, “nothingness” is a better term in some contexts, so sometimes I’ll use that instead. Could it have been that there was never a universe? Imagine this nothingness. I’m not talking about space and time and laws with no matter to fill the space and time. I’m referring to pure nothing. No matter, but also no space, no time, no laws of nature and no god. Is that a possible situation? There is nothing contradictory about there being total and absolute nothingness. If something does not contain a self-contradiction it is a logical possibility.
Furthermore, nothingness is much simpler than things existing. What can we say to describe the stuff of nothingness? Not much. One might say nothing at all, and a system that needs fewer simple statements to describe it is simpler than one with more statements. Nothingness is thus the simplest possible state. Jim Holt explores a range of reasons for why there is something rather than nothing and I am left with the conclusion that this question is unanswerable in principle. What this means is if there were a God (a convenient or possibly inconvenient fiction) even he or she would not be able to determine why there is something. Oddly enough if God were the only thing in the universe, he or she would not be able to determine why he or she exists in principle. The short argument for this position goes like this. Anytime you ask a why question you get an answer. But then you can ask “why” questions about the reasons themselves.
As an example, sometimes theoretical physics attempts to explain how the universe came into existence. There is one such quantum related set of reasons explaining how empty space and time is unstable due to random quantum fluctuations, and so every once in a while a universe pops into existence. When fully fleshed out this explanation makes sense to the scientist. But it does not answer all the questions. For instance, it does not answer why there had to be quantum laws in the first place. Why one set of physical rules instead of another? This is not a scientific question but more a philosophical one. You cannot rule out any set of consistent set of laws on the basis of other physical laws. If you use another set of reasons you then have to ask why are those reasons are the dominant ones. There are several ways this reason chain could go. You could say a exists because b exists because c exists because a exists, etc. This “circularity” no matter how big a circle could not be an explanation, because it does not explain why the set of all these things taken together exist as a whole. Suppose you say something exists because it caused itself, as some in philosophy of religion have attempted to maintain. Still I think we can see, and if you can’t, take a look at Holt’s book, this is not an explanation. Suppose you say that the universe goes back in time infinitely, it still does not explain why it exists as a whole instead of not existing.
So we have at least one unanswerable question, in principle unanswerable. But one could take the route that suggests that if a question is in principle unanswerable then it is not really a legitimate question. Some are satisfied by this resolution but others may find it as too semantical a solution. it may be equivalent to saying something like “If you know you can’t answer a question, stop asking it”
Personally, I find the question important because it lets me hold on to the mystery of existence. It seems so amazing and so freaky that the universe “decided” to exist that it makes me feel that anything can be true about the nature of things. In this age where science attempts to answer all questions, it gives me a sense that sure I can accept sciences answers for now but ultimately something totally unimaginable might be true. This both vitalizes me and discourages me. It gives me hope that there are things to discover beyond my imagination and also assures me that no matter how much progress I make to make the unimaginable imaginable, I will always be left knowing that something else unimaginable might be true. I will never be able to know, and know that i know, the absolute nature of reality. So, the mystery continues. More thoughts later on why this is important to what we should do with and think about our life.