Philosophers’ Confusion: Why something rather than nothing?

By | November 13, 2010

They muddy the water to make it appear deep — Friedrich Nietzsche

Why is there something rather than nothing?” the confused philosopher asked. The scientist smiled, ignored the question, and went about his business.

I shall argue that the scientist is right to ignore the philosopher on the alleged “Deep Question.” But first I shall relate two scenarios to help set the stage.

First story: Suppose that you’re driving a mountain road with a friend as passenger and you come to a turn in the road where a large boulder blocks the road. You’re blocked and unable to get to your destination. Your friend wonders why this has happened. You point out that recent rain storms have saturated the hill alongside the road, undermined the base on which the stone sat and caused the stone to roll down the hillside and onto the road, blocking the way. Your friend is not satisfied and asks, “But why did it have to happen now?” You’re bewildered and cannot imagine what kind of response could satisfy your friend. You explained how the rock happened to block the way. To ask why it happened is just to express frustration or to betray a basic confusion.

Second story: Suppose you’re a parent of a son in his teens and have forbidden him to attend a Saturday night rave. At a very late hour that Saturday night a friendly policewoman knocks on your door with your underage teenager in tow. He had been found at the rave with a small amount of marijuana. You thank the policewoman for retrieving the errant teen and then ask him what was he doing there. He replies by telling how he got there: he sneaked out of the house and an older friend drove them to the rave. But you were not interesting in how he got there, but why he chose to disobey you and attend the rave. Obviously, your son wants to avoid the why response.

As these little scenarios show, asking how something happened is clearly different from asking why something happened in cases where someone brought the happening about. There are appropriate circumstances in which one or the other question is appropriate. In some situations, both questions might be applicable; and in some, the why question is clearly not applicable at all.

This distinction gives us a quick way of defusing the notorious question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and exposing the unsound reasoning behind it. But first let’s consider a few more preliminaries.

When does it make sense to ask: “Why A rather than B?” Surely it is when the question refers to the action of an intelligent agent who may have reasons, motives, or purposes in acting as he did.

Consider a few cases of such why questions:

Either I say something or remain silent. I decide to speak up. Why did I speak rather than remain silent?
Either we do something or do nothing. Suppose we opt to do something. Why something rather than nothing?
Either the administration decides to invade Iraq. It decided to invade. Why did it invade instead of not invading?

Here the why question makes sense. We can imagine what would be relevant responses (in terms of reasons, motives, purposes, etc.,) and what would not be relevant.

But suppose I ask

why (requesting a motive, reason, or purpose of an intelligent agent) a deadly hurricane hit the Louisiana coast?
Or why a landslide buried the village killing hundreds of people?
Or why a drought happened and ruined the summer crop?

The “why” has no place here, unless you believe that an intelligent agent (a god?) causes these things to happen. By contrast, the how question, which asks for the natural, material processes that led to these events, makes sense. This would be the question which scientists ask and attempt to answer.

Many times the how question (question requesting the natural processes and conditions that explain a happening) is stated as a question with the work why when reasons and purposes are not assumed. For examples, consider the following set of questions, all stated as “Why did A happen instead of B?”

Either the continents are permanently fixed in place or they float on tectonic plates. That is, Either the continents have moved or they have not moved (permanently fixed in position). Scientists have evidence that the continent have moved.
Someone could raise the question:
Why has there been continental movement rather than no movement?
Or as another set of questions:
Why is there an island X in the Pacific Ocean rather than nothing?
Why is there a moon orbiting the Earth instead of no moon at all?
Why did the solar system come to be rather than nothing?

All of these questions are how questions disguised as why questions. Understood as questions about natural processes and conditions, which are the subjects for scientific investigation and theory, these are really questions that ask “How did A happen, and not B?”

Now consider the famous philosophers’ question: Why is there something rather than nothing? The question has been restated in modern times as “Why is there a universe rather than nothing?”

Let’s call this question (Why is there a universe instead of nothing?) the “Deep Question” of metaphysics and theology. As I noted, sometimes this is posed as: Why is there something instead of nothing?

The famous ‘Deep Question’ — insofar as it is a question for philosophers and theologians — is a why question; it implies that one can find cosmic reasons and purpose to explain the origin of the universe. Reasons and purposes imply an intelligent mind (creator) who can provide those reasons and purposes. It also presupposes (invalidly) that the existence of the something (e.g., the primordial universe) requires explanation; whereas, a state of nothing would be natural and does not require explanation. As a number of scientific critics (e.g. Adolph Grünbaum, Victor Stenger) have noted, this presupposition is an invalid one.

Many people assume that when scientific cosmologists and theoretical physicists investigate the primordial conditions of the universe and advance theories purporting to explain how the universe may have originated, they are dealing with the philosophers’ Deep Question. But they are not. They are not investigating the why of the universe (as if they could find reasons, motives, or purposes behind the primordial conditions leading to the Big Bang). Instead, they investigating and advancing theories of how the universe may have originated. They are not dealing with the philosophers’ “Deep Question” at all.

Someone who thinks that the philosophers’ Deep Question is validated by the work of scientific cosmologists is being as evasive as the teenager who explained how he traveled to the rave. And the person who thinks that scientific cosmologists are dealing with the philosophers’ deep question is as confused as the friend who requested to know why the stone blocked the road.

2 thoughts on “Philosophers’ Confusion: Why something rather than nothing?

  1. Michael

    Is it possible, though, that the how may help lead to the why? Let us pretend that scientists confirmed an indefinite proof that the universe was created with the big bang, and the how of the question was solved. This would mean, consequently, that the notion of a god creating the universe would be wiped from the equation in figuring out the why. It seems in this case that the how helps to answer the why.

  2. Firooz R. Oskooi

    I agree with Juan with a caveat physical science deals only with physical aspects of cosmos. Why question deals with something superior to matter, which moves and molds the matter. You can call t what you want but 'painting is not the painter' is a good example. An art expert can analyse a painting to the nth degree, yet would be unable to answer why the unknown painter did create the painting instead of nothing. It is totally beyond his/her expertise. Here each philosopher acts like a psychologist with some guess work basically reflecting her/his psyche. The conclusion is that, our knowledge has a limit, but our search for perfection has none!


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