The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

In my many debates with theists over the decades a handful of arguments for God’s existence are routinely articulated as “proofs” of divine providence. These include the cosmological argument (that all natural things are contingent on something else for their existence so there necessarily exists a being independent of nature), the ontological argument (that we can conceive of an absolutely perfect being means it must exist because existence is a necessary feature of perfection), the design argument (the universe is fine-tuned for life, and life contains design features, therefore God is the fine-tuner and intelligent designer of life), the moral argument (without God anything goes, with God there is objective morality), the consciousness argument (the qualitative experience—qualia—of consciousness cannot be explained by the activity of neurons, and abstract concepts like logic and mathematics exist separate from brains, therefore God must be the source), and others. All of these arguments (they are certainly not proofs in the mathematical sense) have counter-arguments made by philosophers over the centuries, but there is one that seems to trouble a great many thinkers of all persuasions, and that is why there should be anything at all. That is, all of the other arguments for God’s existence presume that something exists that needs explaining. The argument that asks why there is something rather than nothing underlies all the other arguments, and is cognitively challenging because it is simply not possible for existing beings to imagine not existing, not just themselves (which forms the cognitive foundation of afterlife beliefs), but to imagine nothing existing at all. Go ahead and try it. Picture nothing. When I ask myself this question I start by visualizing dark empty space bereft of galaxies, stars, and planets, along with molecules and atoms. But this picture is incorrect because if there were no universe there would not only be no matter, but there would be no space or time (or space-time) either. There would be absolutely nothing, including no conscious being to observe the nothingness. Just… nothing. Whatever that is. This presents us with what is arguably the deepest of deep questions: why is there something rather than nothing? In his 1988 blockbuster book A Brief History of Time, the late Cambridge theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking put it this way:

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?1

Even if it could be established that something must exist, this does not necessarily mean that the something must be our universe with our particular laws of nature that give rise to atoms, stars, planets, and people. There could be universes whose laws of nature permit time and space but no matter or light; such universes could not be perceived because there would be no one to perceive the darkness. Our universe has particular properties suited to planets and people. According to England’s Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, there are at least six constituents that are necessary for “our emergence from a simple Big Bang,” including (1) Ω (omega), the amount of matter in the universe = 1: if Ω was greater than 1 it would have collapsed long ago and if Ω was less than 1 no galaxies would have formed. (2) ε (epsilon), how firmly atomic nuclei bind together = .007: if ε were even fractionally different matter could not exist. (3) D, the number of dimensions in which we live = 3. (4) N, the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to that of gravity = 1039: if N were smaller the universe would be either too young or too small for life to form. (5) Q, the fabric of the universe = 1/100,000: if Q were smaller the universe would be featureless and if Q were larger the universe would be dominated by giant black holes. (6) λ (lambda), the cosmological constant, or “antigravity” force that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate = 0.7: if λ were larger it would have prevented stars and galaxies from forming.2

The most common reason invoked for our universe’s “fine-tuning” is the “anthropic principle,” most forcefully argued by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their 1986 book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle: “It is not only man that is adapted to the universe. The universe is adapted to man. Imagine a universe in which one or another of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics is altered by a few percent one way or the other? Man could never come into being in such a universe. That is the central point of the anthropic principle. According to the principle, a life-giving factor lies at the center of the whole machinery and design of the world.”3 So we really have two questions to answer: Why there is something rather than nothing, and Why this universe? Here are a number of responses, ranging from the philosophical to the scientific, that I have compiled from a number of sources, including a comprehensive taxonomic work by John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn titled The Mystery of Existence: Why is There Anything at All? that catalogues all extant explanations without religious, scientific, or philosophical prejudice.4

EXPLANATIONS FOR NOTHING
1. Nothing is Inconceivable

First, as I suggested above, just as it is not possible to conceive of what it is like to be dead, it is impossible to conceptualize nothing—no space, time, matter, light, darkness, or even any conscious beings to perceive the nothingness. As Robert Kuhn conceives it: “Not just emptiness, not just blankness, and not just emptiness and blankness forever, but not even the existence of emptiness, not even the meaning of blankness, and no forever.”5 Inconceivable.

2. Nothing is Something

The analytical philosopher Quentin Smith pointed out to Kuhn that it is a logical fallacy to talk about “nothing” as if it were “something”; that is, to suggest that “there might have been nothing” implies “it is possible that there is nothing.” As Kuhn articulates Smith’s argument: “‘There is’ means ‘something is.’ So ‘there is nothing’ means ‘something is nothing,’ which is a logical contradiction. His suggestion is to remove ‘nothing’ and replace it by ‘not something’ or ‘not anything,’ since one can talk about what we mean by ‘nothing’ by referring to something or anything of which there are no instances (i.e., the concept of ‘something’ has the property of not being instantiated). The common sense way to talk about Nothing is to talk about something and negate it, to deny that there is something.”6 Here we are bumping up against the problem of defining what we mean by “nothing” and the restrictions that language imposes on the problem. The very act of talking about “nothing” makes it a “something,” or else what are we talking about?

3. Nothing Would Include God’s Nonexistence

In Kuhn’s taxonomy of “nothings” he lists what categories of things might be included in “something” that would be negated by “nothing”: physical, mental, platonic, spiritual, and God. Physical: all matter, energy, space and time, and all the laws and principles that govern them (known and unknown). Mental: all kinds of consciousness and awareness (known and unknown). Platonic: all forms of abstract objects (numbers, logic, forms, propositions, possibilities—known and unknown). Spiritual and God: anything that could possibly fit this nonphysical category (all forms of religious and spiritual belief).7 If by “nothing” is meant no physical objects or matter of any kind, for example, there can still be energy from which matter may arise by natural forces guided by the laws of nature. Physicists, for example, talk about empty space as seething with virtual particles, from which particle-antiparticle pairs come into existence as a consequence of the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics. From this “nothingness” universes may “pop” into existence.8 But if by “nothing” is meant that there is no physical, mental, platonic, or nonphysical entity of any kind, then there can be no God or gods, which means that there cannot be anything outside of nothing out of which to create something. If God is proposed to be outside of or preexisting the “nothing” from which the “something” was created, then why can’t the laws of nature that give rise to “somethings” (like universes) be outside of or preexisting nothing? Some theologians argue that God is a “necessity,” by which they mean it is impossible for God not to exist. This is the famous Ontological Argument for the existence of God, first proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, which defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” The argument is that God is necessary because necessity is a higher form of perfection that can be conceived than is contingency.9 The argument has been refuted time and again. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, for example, the great Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume countered: “Nothing, that is distinctly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose nonexistence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no being, whose existence is demonstrable.”10 To my ears this is all just word play, armchair speculation of what we can or cannot conceive of without once looking out the window to see what is actually in nature that may confirm or disconfirm our imaginary ideas.11 I can just as easily argue that the laws of nature are a necessity for existence because they give rise to the universe, which makes them “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Or that abstract objects like circles, squares, and rectangles and the geometric principles that govern them, or mathematical principles like 3 + 2 = 5, necessarily exist because the existence of a circle is a higher form of perfection than the nonexistence of a circle. If circles did not exist then what would the formula for the area of a circle, A = πr2 , describe? In any case, the conception of “perfection” is once again bound by the cognitive restrictions of thought and language we faced with consciousness and nothingness. How can an imperfect being conceive of what perfection even means? Who knows what an extra-terrestrial intelligence with a brain ten times the size of ours would be capable of conceiving, or a post-Singularity AI with an intelligence capacity a million times greater than humans would be able to conceptualize?

4. God Did It Ex Nihilo

For the many millennia that people have been asking these questions the most common answer given was some version of “God did it”: a creator existed before the universe and brought it into existence ex nihiloout of nothing. Revealingly, Genesis does not actually say that God created the universe ex nihilo—that is a later inference made by theologians. Genesis 1:1 reads simply: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It does not elaborate on what God made the heavens and the earth out of, which theologians have presumed to be nothing, but that it is not stated in the Bible. As Skeptic magazine’s religion editor Tim Callahan notes, the Hebrew word for creation in Genesis 1:1 is “bara,” which can mean create but can also mean “choose” or “divide.” Callahan cites the Old Testament scholar Ellen van Wolde, who argues that the most accurate translation of “bara” is “separate,” so Genesis 1:1 should read “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth.”12 This, says Callahan, better fits the context of Genesis 1, “in which the creation is presented as a series of separations: light is created and separated from darkness, the firmament of heaven is created to separate the waters above it from the waters below it, and the separation of land from water. This is followed by a series of creation events populating the separated realms—the land populated with plants, the firmament populated with heavenly bodies, the sea populated with fish and sea monsters, the air with birds, and the land, again, with animals—followed finally by the creation of humans in the image of God.”13 Even if one rejects this interpretation of Genesis 1:1 and opts for creation ex nihilo, this just begs the question of who or what created the creator? Theists retort that God is that which does not need to be created. But why can’t the universe be in the same ontological and epistemological category as God, wherein we could simply say that the universe is that which does not need to be created? Theists counter that the universe had a Big Bang beginning and everything that begins to exist has a cause. But not everything in the universe is strictly causal, such as some quantum effects, and even though our universe in its current state can be traced back to a Big Bang beginning that doesn’t mean there was not a previous universe that gave birth to our universe through the Big Bang. Theists also note that that the universe is a thing, whereas God is an agent or being. But don’t things and beings all need a causal explanation? Why should God be exempt from such causal reasoning? Because, rejoins the theist, God is supernatural—outside of space, time, and matter—whereas everything in the universe, and the universe itself, is natural—made up of space, time, and matter, so God and the universe are ontologically different. But if that is so, then how would we detect God with our instruments? If a supernatural deity used natural forces to, say, cure someone’s cancer by reprogramming the cancerous cells’ DNA, wouldn’t that make God nothing more than a skilled genetic engineer, along the lines of a sufficiently advanced ETI or far-future human in my earlier thought experiment? And if God used unknown supernatural forces to effect change in our natural world, how do they interact with the known forces of our universe? And if such supernatural forces could somehow stir the particles in our universe, shouldn’t we be able to detect them and thereby incorporate them into our theories about the natural world? If so, wouldn’t that bring God into the universe as a natural being and thus subject him to the search for a natural causal explanation for his existence? Finally, if God made the universe ex nihilo—literally out of nothing—then apparently it is possible for something to come from nothing, so this brings us back to searching for the best causal explanation for anything—natural or supernatural?

5. Natural vs. Supernatural Explanations of Something

The history of science has been one long and steady replacement of the supernatural with the natural. Weather events once attributed to the supernatural scheming of deities are now understood to be the product of natural forces of temperature and pressure. Plagues formerly ascribed to women cavorting with the devil are today known to be caused by bacteria and viruses. Mental illnesses previously imputed to demonic possession are currently sought in genes and neurochemistry. Accidents heretofore explained by fate, karma, or providence are nowadays accredited to probabilities, statistics, and risk. If we follow this trend to encompass all phenomena, what place is there for supernatural agents like gods and demons? Do we know enough to know that they cannot exist? Or is it possible there are unknown forces within our universe, or intentional agents outside of it that we have yet to discover? According to the physicist Sean Carroll, in his examination of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.”14 Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, such as the thermodynamic arrow of time and the Core Theory of particles and forces, you can scale up to planets and people, and even assess the likelihood that God, the soul, and the afterlife exist, which Carroll concludes is very low. But isn’t the history of science also strewn with the remains of failed theories like geocentrism (the Earth is the center of the solar system), phlogiston (a fire-like element that causes objects to burn), miasma (the “bad air” source of disease), spontaneous generation (fully formed living organisms can abruptly arise out of inanimate matter), and the luminiferous aether (the medium filling outer space for the propagation of light)? Yes, and that’s how we know we’re making progress. The postmodern belief that the very existence of such discarded ideas means that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is wronger than all of the wrong theories combined. I have called this Asimov’s Axiom, after an observation by the science writer Isaac Asimov:

When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.15

There is real progress in science. Think of it as an expanding sphere of knowledge. As the sphere of the known expands into the aether of the unknown, the proportion of ignorance seems to grow—the more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. But in this mathematical analogy note what happens when the radius of a sphere increases: the expansion of the surface area is squared while the increase in the volume is cubed. So as the sphere of scientific knowledge expands the volume of the known increases by a ratio of 3:2 over the surface area of the unknown. The more you know the more of the unknown becomes known. It is at this boundary where we can stake a claim of true progress in the history of science. Take the Core Theory of the forces and particles that make up the universe. This includes the four forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, along with the Standard Model of elementary particles making up the nucleus of the atom: quarks, leptons, and bosons, plus the underlying Higgs boson. Carroll says this Core Theory is “indisputably accurate within a very wide domain of applicability,” such that “a thousand or a million years from now, whatever amazing discoveries science will have made, our descendants are not going to be saying ‘Ha-ha, those silly twenty-first-century scientists, believing in ‘neutrons’ and ‘electromagnetism’.” Thus, Carroll concludes that the laws of physics rule out supernatural and paranormal claims. Why? Because the particles and forces of nature don’t allow us to bend spoons, levitate, read minds, or perform miracles, and “we know that there aren’t new particles or forces out there yet to be discovered that would support them. Not simply because we haven’t found them yet, but because we definitely would have found them if they had the right characteristics to give us the requisite powers.”16 It is at the horizon where the known meets the unknown that we are tempted to inject supernatural forces to explain hitherto unsolved mysteries, but we must resist the temptation, for such efforts can never succeed, not even in principle. Humans have always filled in such gaps in our knowledge with gods, and it never leads to any useful or productive theory. Let us try to overcome this psychological propensity to fill in the gaps with supernatural forces and follow the path of science in searching for natural forces.

6. Nothing is Unstable, Something is Stable

Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes “nothing” is the natural state of things out of which “something” needs an explanation. Maybe “something” is the natural state of things and “nothing” would be the mystery to be solved. As the physicist Victor Stenger notes in his book, The Fallacy of Fine Tuning: “Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence. The laws of physics themselves are shown to correspond to what one would expect if the universe appeared from nothing. There is something rather than nothing because something is more stable.”17 In his 2012 book, A Universe From Nothing, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss attempts to link quantum physics to Einstein’s gravitational theory of general relativity to explain the origin of something (including a universe) from nothing: “In quantum gravity, universes can, and indeed always will, spontaneously appear from nothing. Such universes need not be empty, but can have matter and [electromagnetic] radiation in them, as long as the total energy, including the negative energy associated with gravity [balancing the positive energy of matter], is zero.” And: “In order for the closed universes that might be created through such mechanisms to last for longer than infinitesimal times, something like inflation is necessary.” Observations have revealed that, in fact, the universe is flat (there is just enough matter to eventually halt its expansion), its energy is zero, and it underwent rapid inflation, or expansion, shortly after the Big Bang as described by inflationary cosmology. Thus, Krauss concludes, “quantum gravity not only appears to allow universes to be created from nothing—meaning…the absence of space and time—it may require them. ‘Nothing’—in this case no space, no time, no anything!—is unstable.”18 In his follow-up 2017 work, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far, Krauss notes that “Einstein was one of the first physicists to demonstrate that the classical notion of causation begins to break down at the quantum realm.” Although many physicists objected to the idea of something coming from nothing, Krauss adds that “this is precisely what happens with the light you are using to read this page. Electrons in hot atoms emit photons—photons that didn’t exist before they were emitted—which are emitted spontaneously and without specific cause. Why is it that we have grown at least somewhat comfortable with the idea that photons can be created from nothing without cause, but not whole universes?”19

EXPLANATIONS FOR OUR UNIVERSE

The anthropic principle invoked to explain our universe troubles most scientists because of its antithesis known as the “Copernican principle,” which states that we are not special. The anthropic principle puts humans right back in the center of the cosmos, not geographically but anthropocentrically—it is all about us. There are a number of counter-explanations for our universe that continue in the scientific tradition of defenestrating humans from the Tower of Babel.

1. Inconstant Constants

The various numbers invoked in the “fine-tuning” argument for our universe as being special, such as the speed of light and Planck’s constant, are, in fact, arbitrary numbers that can be configured in different ways so that their relationship to the other constants do not appear to be so remarkable. As well, such constants may be inconstant over vast spans of time, varying from the Big Bang to the present, making the universe finely tuned only now but not earlier or later in its history. The physicists John Barrow and John Webb call these numbers the “inconstant constants,” and they have demonstrated how in particular the speed of light, gravitation, and the mass of the electron have in fact been inconstant over time.20

2. Grand Unified Theory

In order to explain our universe we need a comprehensive theory of physics that connects the subatomic world described by quantum mechanics to the cosmic world described by general relativity. As the cosmologist Sean Carroll notes in his book From Eternity to Here: “Possibly general relativity is not the correct theory of gravity, at least in the context of the extremely early universe. Most physicists suspect that a quantum theory of gravity, reconciling the framework of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s ideas about curved spacetime, will ultimately be required to make sense of what happens at the very earliest times. So if someone asks you what really happened at the moment of the purported Big Bang, the only honest answer would be: ‘I don’t know.’”21 That grand unified theory of everything will itself need an explanation, but it may be explicable by some other theory we have yet to comprehend out of our sheer ignorance at this moment in history. And as I repeat ad nauseum to audiences curious about unsolved mysteries and anxious to fill in scientific gaps with questionable pseudoscientific conjectures, it’s always okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that.

3. Boom-and-Bust Cycles

Perhaps our bubble universe is just one episode of an eternal boom-and-bust cycle of expansion and contractions of the universe, with the bubble’s eventual collapse and re-expansion in an eternal cycle. Sean Carroll argues that “space and time did exist before the Big Bang; what we call the Bang is a kind of transition from one phase to another.” As such, he says, “there is no such thing as an initial state, because time is eternal. In this case, we are imagining that the Big Bang isn’t the beginning of the entire universe, although it’s obviously an important event in the history of our local region.”22 Although there does not appear to be enough matter in our universe to halt the expansion and bring it back into a big crunch that could launch it back into a new bubble out of another Big Bang, the relevant observation here is that something existed before the Big Bang, thereby obviating the need to invoke a supernatural creator.23

4. Darwinian Universes

According to the cosmologist Lee Smolin, the evolution of the universe may include a Darwinian component in the form of a “natural selection” of differentially reproducing bubble universes. Like its biological counterpart, Smolin hypothesizes that there might be a selection from different “species” of universes, each containing different laws of nature. Universes like ours will have lots of stars, which means they will have lots of black holes that collapse into singularities, a point at which infinitely strong gravity causes matter to have infinite density and zero volume, which many cosmologists believe gave birth to our universe from the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps collapsing black holes create new baby universes out of these singularities, and those baby universes with laws of nature similar to ours will be fine-tuned to life, whereas universes with radically different laws of nature that disallow stars, planets, and people will go extinct. The result of this cosmic evolutionary process would be a preponderance of universes like ours, so we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a universe fine-tuned for life.24

5. Multiple Creations Cosmology

In his 1997 book The Inflationary Universe, the cosmologist Alan Guth proposes that our universe sprang into existence from a bubble nucleation of spacetime. If this process of universe creation is natural, then there may be multiple bubble nucleations that give rise to many universes that expand but remain separate from one another without any causal contact between them. Of course, if these universes were truly causally-disconnected then there is no way to get information from them, which would make this an untestable hypothesis.25 But, again, there is much we still don’t know about the cosmos, and I am encouraged by the startling discovery of gravitational waves, which could open up possibilities of obtaining information from other bubble universes, if they exist.

6. Many-Worlds Multiverse

According to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, there are an infinite number of universes in which every possible outcome of every possible choice that has ever been available, or will be available, has happened in one of those universes. This model is grounded in the bizarre findings of the famous “double-slit” experiment, in which light is passed through two slits and forms an interference pattern of waves on a black surface (like throwing two stones in a pond and watching the concentric wave patterns interact, with crests and troughs adding and subtracting from one another). The spooky part comes when you send single photons of light one at a time through the two slits—they still form an interference wave pattern even though they are not interacting with other photons. How can this be? One answer is that the photons are interacting with photons in other universes! In this type of multiverse you could meet your doppelgänger, and depending on which universe you entered, your parallel self would be fairly similar or dissimilar to you, a theme that has become a staple of science fiction (see, for example, Michael Crichton’s Timeline). I am skeptical that this version of the multiverse will pan out, however, because the idea of there being multiple versions of me and you out there—and in an infinite universe there would be an infinite number of me’s and you’s—seems to me to be even less likely than the theistic alternative “God did it.” Still, as Richard Feynman famously quipped, “no one understands quantum mechanics,”26 so who am I to write off this theory considered legitimate by many quantum physicists.

7. Brane and String Universes

Universes may be birthed when three-dimensional “branes” (a membrane-like structure on which our universe exists) moves through higher-dimensional space and collides with another brane, the result of which is the energized creation of another universe.27 A related multiverse is derived through string theory, which by at least one calculation allows for 10500 possible worlds, all with different self-consistent laws and constants.28 That’s a 1 followed by 500 zeroes possible universes. The number is so large that it would be miraculous if there were not intelligent life in a number of them. In his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, the late physicist Victor Stenger created a computer model that analyzes what just 100 different universes would be like under constants different from our own, ranging from five orders of magnitude above to five orders of magnitude below their values in our universe. Stenger found that long-lived stars of at least one billion years—necessary for the production of life-giving heavy elements—would emerge within a wide range of parameters in at least half of the universes in his model.29

8. Quantum Foam Universe Creations

In this model, universes are created out of nothing, but in the scientific version of ex nihilo the nothing of the vacuum of space actually contains quantum foam, which may fluctuate to create baby universes. In this configuration, any quantum object in any quantum state may generate a new universe, each one of which represents every possible state of every possible object.30 This is Stephen Hawking’s explanation for the fine-tuning problem that he himself famously presented in the 1990s:

Why is the universe so close to the dividing line between collapsing again and expanding indefinitely? In order to be as close as we are now, the rate of expansion early on had to be chosen fantastically accurately. If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been less by one part in 1010, the universe would have collapsed after a few million years. If it had been greater by one part in 1010, the universe would have been essentially empty after a few million years. In neither case would it have lasted long enough for life to develop. Thus one either has to appeal to the anthropic principle or find some physical explanation of why the universe is the way it is.31

Hawking’s collaborator Roger Penrose layered on even more mystery when he noted that the “extraordinary degree of precision (or ‘fine tuning’) that seems to be required for the Big Bang of the nature that we appear to observe…is one part in 1010123at least.” Penrose suggested two pathways to an answer, either it was an act of God, “or we might seek some scientific/ mathematical theory.”32 Hawking opted for the second with this explanation: “Quantum fluctuations lead to the spontaneous creation of tiny universes, out of nothing. Most of the universes collapse to nothing, but a few that reach a critical size, will expand in an inflationary manner, and will form galaxies and stars, and maybe beings like us.”33

9. M-Theory Grand Design, or Auto-Ex-Nihilo

Stephen Hawking continued working on this question, and he and the physicist Leonard Mlodinow presented their answer in their 2010 book The Grand Design.34 They approach the problem from what they call “model-dependent realism,” based on the assumption that our brains form models of the world from sensory input, that we use the model most successful at explaining events, and that when more than one model makes accurate predictions “we are free to use whichever model is most convenient.” Employing this method, they write, “it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation.” The dual wave/particle models of light are an example of model-dependent realism, where each one agrees with certain observations but neither one is sufficient to explain all observations. To model the entire universe, Hawking and Mlodinow employ “M-Theory,” an extension of string theory that includes 11 dimensions and incorporates all five current string theory models. “M-theory is the most general supersymmetric theory of gravity,” Hawking and Mlodinow explain. “For these reasons M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe. If it is finite—and this has yet to be proved—it will be a model of a universe that creates itself.” Although they admit that the theory has yet to be confirmed by observation, if it is then no creator explanation is necessary because the universe creates itself. Call it auto-ex-nihilo.

A SENSE OF AWE

By no means does this list exhaust the possible explanations for why there is something rather than nothing and why our universe is the way it is, but perhaps it gives one a sense that the questions are answerable through science, through natural and testable hypotheses and theories, without resort to supernatural intercession. It is good to reflect on the fact that the history of science is relatively young compared to the history of religion—roughly 500 v. 5000 years—so it is premature to say that because science does not yet have a definitive explanatory theory accepted by most scientists it means that one is not forthcoming. Despite the optimism derived from my expanding sphere of knowledge metaphor in which the known expands into the unknown at a ratio of 3:2, there is still much we do not understand about the cosmos and everything in it. But given science’s track record over the past five centuries this only means there are remarkable and exciting new discoveries and theories yet to come. As Carl Sagan expressed it in his 1985 Gifford Lecture Series titled The Search for Who We Are (published in book form posthumously in 2007 as The Varieties of Scientific Experience):

By far the best way I know to engage the religious sensibility, the sense of awe, is to look up on a clear night. I believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe and wonder looking at the sky. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion.35

About the Author

Dr. Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and a presidential fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

References
  1. Hawking, Stephen. 1988. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 190.
  2. Rees, Martin. 2000. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Barrow, John D. and Frank Tipler. 1988. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. vii.
  4. Leslie, John and Robert Lawrence Kuhn. 2013. The Mystery of Existence: Why is There Anything at All? Wiley- Blackwell. See also: Holt, Jim. 2012. Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. New York: Liveright.
  5. Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. 2007. “Why This Universe?: Toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations.” Skeptic, Vol.13, No.2, 28–39.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. 2013. “Levels of Nothing: There Are Multiple Answers to the Question of Why the Universe Exists.” Skeptic, Vol. 18, No. 2. http://bit.ly/1S7Mn9i
  8. Vilenkin, Alex. 2006. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. New York: Hill and Wang.
  9. O’Connor, Timothy. 2008. Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency. Oxford: Blackwell.
  10. Hume, David. 1776. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Available online, p. 92: http://bit.ly/1sIsq4p
  11. See also the clever take-down of the Ontological Argument in: Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 109–112.
  12. Alleyne, Richard. 2009. “God is not the Creator, Claims Academic.” The Telegraph, October 8.
  13. Callahan, Tim. 2012. “The Genesis Creation Myth is Not Unique.” eSkeptic, April 25. http://bit.ly/1UlVqbi
  14. Carroll, Sean. 2016. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York: Dutton, 148.
  15. Shermer, Michael. 2006. “Wronger Than Wrong.” Scientific American. November, 40.
  16. Carroll, 2016, 149–150.
  17. Stenger, Victor. 2008. God: The Failed Hypothesis. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
  18. Krauss, Lawrence. 2012. A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. New York: Free Press, 169–170.
  19. Krauss, Lawrence. 2017. The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far: Why Are We Here? New York: Atria Books.
  20. Barrow, John and John Webb. 2005. “Inconstant Constants.” Scientific American, June, 57–63.
  21. Carroll, Sean. 2010. From Eternity to Here. The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. New York: Dutton/Penguin, 50.
  22. Carroll, op cit., 51, 64.
  23. Steinhardt, Paul J. and Neil Turok. 2002. “A Cyclic Model of the Universe.” Science, May 2002: Vol. 296. no. 5572, pp. 1436–1439.
  24. Smolin, Lee. 1997. The Life of the Cosmos. Oxford: Oxford University Press. See also: Smith, Quentin. 1990. “A Natural Explanation of the Existence and Laws of Our Universe.” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 68, 22–43. For an elegant summary see: Gardner, James. 2003. Biocosm. Maui, HI: Inner Ocean Publishing.
  25. Guth, Alan. 1981. “The Inflationary Universe: A Possible Solution to the Horizon and Flatness Problems.” Phys. Rev. D 23, 347; Guth, Alan. 1997. The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins. Boston: Addison-Wesley; Linde, Andrei. 1991. “The Self- Reproducing Inflationary Universe.” Scientific American, November 1991, 48–55. Linde, Andrei. 2005. “Current understanding of inflation.” New Astron. Rev. 49:35–41; Vilenkin, Alex. 2006. Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. New York: Hill and Wang.
  26. Feynman, Richard. 1967. The Character of Physical Law. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 129.
  27. Khoury, Justin, Burt A. Ovrut, Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok. 2002. “Density Perturbations in the Ekpyrotic Scenario.” Phys. Rev. D66 046005; Ostriker, Jeremiah P. and Paul Steinhardt, “The Quintessential Universe.” Scientific American, January 2001, 46–53.
  28. Bousso, Raphael and Joseph Polchinski. 2004. “The String Theory Landscape.” Scientific American, September.
  29. Stenger, Victor. 2007. God: The Failed Hypothesis. Buffalo: Prometheus.
  30. Everett, Hugh. 1957. “Relative State’ Formulation of Quantum Mechanics.” Reviews of Modern Physics 29, No.3, 1957, 454–462. Reprinted in DeWitt. B.S. and N. Graham, eds. 1973. The Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 141–149. Wheeler, John Archibald. 1998. Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam. New York: W.W. Norton, 268–270.
  31. Hawking, Stephen. 1996. “Quantum Cosmology.” In Hawking, Stephen and Roger Penrose. The Nature of Space and Time. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 89–90.
  32. Penrose, Roger. 2005. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. New York: Knopf, p. 726–732, 762–765.
  33. Hawking, Stephen. 2002. “The Future of Theoretical Physics and Cosmology: Stephen Hawking 60th Birthday Symposium,” Lecture at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge, UK, 11 January.
  34. Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. 2010. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.
  35. Sagan, Carl. 2007. The Varieties of Scientific Experience.
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Veronica Mars
January 15, 2019 2:11 am

All things ARE contingent on something else.
I’m a skeptic. I DO NOT BELIEVE IN COINCIDENCE.
I DO NOT BELIEVE BILLIARD BALLS MOVE BY THEMSELVES. (That’s just plain stupid; who, in his right mind, would believe such a thing?! Oh, maybe Stephan Hawking, RIP.)
Of course, the Catholic Church would say billiard balls could move by themselves if “God” wanted them to move by themselves, but now we know they’re simply LYING.

Veronica Mars
January 15, 2019 1:37 am

Debating the existence of an omnipotent, perfect “being” is like debating with a child the existence of his invisible friend; you’re wasting your time AS WELL AS buying into AND boxing yourself into HIS concept of invisible friends. There is now PROOF that religion and THEIR “god” is a deliberate, premeditated FRAUD.

Brian C Myres
December 27, 2018 1:36 pm

Dr. Strangelove is absolutely correct….I get tired of scientists who ask “why,” a lazy way of asking “how” something came about. Why does the sun shine? Well, any answer is good…to give us heat, to give us light, to give us photosynthesis, to give us something to worship….any answer you give is ok, but certainly not scientific. If you answer it’s a thermonuclear fusion reaction, then you’re asking “how,” not “why,” and that’s science. A similar bugaboo is the number of scientists or science writers who use “theory” sloppily when they’re referring to an hypothesis, or even a guess…that gives the idiot creationists ammunition that they’re more than willing to use to obfuscate the ongoing stupid debate! It’s all too common.

Dr. Strangelove
December 25, 2018 9:41 pm

Dr. Shermer,

Why is there something rather than nothing? The question is wrong. “Why” implies a reason or a cause. It is a construct of the human mind. The universe does not need a reason or a cause. It can simply be. In logic and axiomatic geometry, a self-evident postulate does not need a proof. The existence of something is self-evident. The problem of existence is an illusion. It is not a problem therefore no need for any explanation.

Ramon Sandoval
December 23, 2018 9:17 pm

How was the universe created? and how were we created? I know, my question is why there is that ocean of nothing, and in the same way the white energy (light) these two forces are above the religious gods. In this life and the next stay in the light. Ramon Sandoval.

Como el universo fue creado? y como nosotros fuimos creados? yo se, mi pregunta es porque existe ese oceano de nada, y de la mism forma la energia blanca (luz) estas dos fuerzas estan por encima de los diose religiosos. En esta vida y la siguiente quedate en la luz. Ramon Sandoval.

Roger
December 23, 2018 6:30 pm

John Blair: I totally agree. The mind’s conception of “nothing”, and therefore our talking about it, is different than “nothing” itself. So, whether or not “nothing” itself exists is independent of our talking about it.

John J Blair
December 23, 2018 3:40 pm

“The very act of talking about “nothing” makes it a “something,” or else what are we talking about?”. I hope that was said tongue in cheek!

If this statement is valid then if you substitute”god” for “nothing” then god exists, else what are non believers talking about? Both god and nothing can be imagined as existing, but not at the same time!

Dr. Sidethink Hp. D
December 22, 2018 3:32 pm

this resurfaces about every five years .

We don’t have the kinds of minds that know the right answer nor do we have the language to ask the right questions .
It;s like Orphan Annie;s dog Sandy

“aff” might be as good as anything else

Dr. S

Dendrono
December 22, 2018 7:17 am

Many scientifically clever thoughts as to ‘how’ the universe was created, but I don’t believe we will ever know ‘why.’

Roger Granet
December 20, 2018 6:13 pm

Herb: Thanks! At least, we’ve got two believers in the nothing is something idea! When I try to tell most academics, they think I’m and idiot, living in la-la land. We’ll keep spreading the word, and hopefully more people will start to see the sense it makes.

Dennis Spiro
December 20, 2018 4:10 pm

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”Excellent review of the religious/philosophical/soft science issues. But I’m sorry, this is not a question for science. In fact,
it’s not even a question deserving an answer. Let’s move on.

Brian C Myres
December 20, 2018 2:20 pm

At the risk of being disallowed to comment, all this seems to me to be like masturbating with your hands tied behind your back! Not impossible, but very improbable!

Herb
December 20, 2018 10:26 am

Roger, a couple of years ago, I posted this about “nothing” on another blog. Thought you might get a kick out of it.

“It is my inerudite opinion that nothing is, in point of fact, something. Indeed, nothing is a wannabe something, a something lying in wait, if you will. Of course, nothing is also something that ceases to be.

“Trillions of years from now when all the suns in the universe will have burned up all their fuel and the forces of nature will have stopped being, well, you know, forces of nature, then nothing will not only be something, but nothing will be everything!”

Tzindaro
December 20, 2018 9:11 am

Perhaps I should rephrase the remark to say “adults who have not been indoctrinated into a school of thought derived from Christian theology do not concern themselves with unanswerable questions of this nature”.

Small children do ask these kinds of questions, usually to the frustration of adults who know the question makes no sense and has no answer. My remark was made because the focus of Skeptic has shifted from examining falsifiable ideas to broad issues of religion, morality, and related philosophical subjects that most adults settled as adolescents and are not interested in revisiting.

Steve Doob
December 20, 2018 8:18 am

Jesus, what a waste of time! I read this instead of exercising? Just how much time do I think I have?

ray strle
December 20, 2018 6:14 am

Tzindaro says:

“The small minority of the total population who have been through the formal university system have been indoctrinated into a world view that has no more contact with reality than any other religious cult.” And
“But these graduates of the official university system seem to think THEY are the norm and the rest of the population are “uneducated”.

REALLY?
A “small minority of the total population” considers themselves to be the “norm?”

At the risk of inflaming and aggravating an already obvious antipathy for the “normally” perceived value of a “formal university education” I offer this from Norms, Normality, and Normativity written by
Lisa Wade, PhD on September 23, 2016

“Sociologists distinguish between the terms norm, normal, and normative.
The norm refers to what is common or frequent.  For example, celebrating Christmas is the norm in America.

Normal as opposed to abnormal.  Even though celebrating Christmas is the norm, it is not abnormal to celebrate Hanukkah.  To celebrate Hanukkah is perfectly normal.

In contrast to both of these, normative refers to a morally-endorsed ideal. Some Americans make a normative argument that Americans should celebrate Christmas because they believe (wrongly) that this is a Christian country.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a nuclear family with a married man and woman and their biological children is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, to date people of the same sex (so say the scientists of our day), but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans’ low rates of physical activity.

So considering the fact that a PhD is achieved through a process in a “ formal university system” the above definitions of norm, normal and normative given by Lisa Wade, PhD, would seem to indicate that “graduates of the official university system” think they are “normal but DO NOT “seem to think THEY are the norm,” They DO seem to think that the rest population that prefers beer and football and did not graduate from “the official university system” ARE the norm and ARE normal

I offer below a Redoing Ms Wade’s explanatory examples for consideration.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a person with an education from a “formal university system” is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, for a person to have achieved an education from a “formal university system”, but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans who like to drink beer and watch football.

CRS
December 20, 2018 5:01 am

Always interesting to think about. Beer, football, and the mysteries of the universe are not exclusive on this little rock…all can be enjoyed. I also contend that both the “educated” and “normal” people do enjoy thinking about these questions. Some perhaps more than others, but I doubt a diploma would be the indicator of such individuals. Admittedly, I can’t do the math that many of the theorists cited in this article can, but I can never get by this: how can time have a beginning? and what happened before that? Not time in a particular universe or since a an event, but ALL time. I don’t believe humans will ever have the answers we seek regarding time, space, and creation. And we don’t need to know. We just need to work to make the world a more enjoyable place. And one thing that is enjoyable, is trying to find these answers….just don’t get too hung up on it or think those who disagree with a theory are stupid.

Stephen Nowlin
December 19, 2018 11:21 pm

Of all the things that don’t exist, I can’t even name one of them.

JCB
December 19, 2018 8:44 pm

Tzindaro says: “Most humans do not care about that kind of question and would rather drink a beer and watch a football game instead. . . . such abstract questions, questions that have no utility or relevance to everyday life . . . ” Most of those humans think the sun revolves around the earth.

Roger
December 19, 2018 8:16 pm

My comments are:

1. On “Nothing is something”:

A. The mind’s conception of “nothing” and “nothing” itself are two different things. Because it exists, the mind must define “nothing” in terms of the absence of “something”, but “nothing” itself doesn’t have that constraint. Whether or not it exists is independent of “something”, which wouldn’t be there in “nothing”. Also, we have to talk about “nothing” as a “something” just in order to talk about this subject. But, this doesn’t reify, or give existence to, “nothing” because our minds, and therefore our talking about it, wouldn’t be there in “nothing”.

B. If there is ever to be a satisfying answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, we have to consider the possibility that there could have been “nothing” and yet we have “something” now. Considering this is like saying you start out with a 0 (e.g., “nothing”) and then get a 1 (e.g., “something”). Because 0 can’t be changed into a 1, the only way to start with 0 and get to 1 is that the 0 wasn’t really a 0 but was actually a 1 in disguise even though it looks like a 0 on the surface. That is, I think “nothing” is a “something”. I use the quotes around these because I think they’re just two different ways of thinking about the same thing. Also, I don’t think we should think of going from 0 (“nothing”) to 1 (“somehing”) as a temporal change because there wouldn’t be any time in “nothing”. Instead, I think that the mind’s switching of perspectives from thinking about “nothing” to thinking about it as “something” just seems like a temporal change when it’s instead just a switching of mental perspectives in thinking about the same thing.

How can “nothing” be a “something in disguise? For me, I do this by thinking about why a normal thing like a book exists. I think a thing exists if it’s a grouping. A grouping ties stuff together into a unit whole. This grouping is seen as a surface of or label for this unit whole. A book exists because there is a grouping together of ink and paper atoms into a unit whole that’s a distinct entity than the atoms considered individually. We see this grouping as the surface of the book.
Next, if we try to visualize “nothing”, when we get rid of all existent entities (including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws of physics, math and logic, spiritual forces as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing” (here, I don’t mean our mind’s conception of this supposed “absolute nothing”, I mean the supposed “absolute nothing” itself, in which all minds would be gone). Once everything is gone and the mind is gone, this situation, this “absolute lack-of-all”, would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. By its very nature, it defines exactly all that is present (e.g., nothing). Is there anything else besides that “absolute nothing”? No. It is “nothing”, and it is the all. An entirety, whole amount or “the all” is a grouping that defines what is contained within (e.g., everything), which means that the situation we previously considered to be “absolute nothing” is itself an existent entity.

2. While I agree that no one can visualize “nothing”, I try to by closing my eyes and standing in a quiet room with the curtains closed. Imagine all the volume shrinking down to be the size of my body and then just my mind’s eye. Then, I try shrinking my mind’s eye to just one corner of that blackness. Then, I imagine that little corner going down the drain and coming out the other side to see the “nothing” from the outside. I admit this is not the real thing, is imperfect and may be leading me to incorrect views.

I’m not sure if this is disallowed, but if anyone’s interested, there’s more at:
https://sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite/filecabinet/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing

If it’s not allowed to post websites, I’ll be happy to delete the URL. Thank you for listening!

Stephen Nowlin
December 19, 2018 7:53 pm

Responding to Dave, from his Comment #4:

I’m having trouble understanding your analogy. We can comment on a relation between oxygen and fire both scientifically and logically, but not as an analogy for pairing the natural, which is a self-evident reality, with the supernatural which is a belief and not a real thing.

BillG
December 19, 2018 7:09 pm

“Why is there something rather than nothing? If the heat death theory follows through – it will be a moot and mute point.

Nobody or “no – thing” will have the chance to ask the rhetorical ‘why is there nothing rather than something?’

Graham J Lyons
December 19, 2018 4:26 pm

On the question of the Universe has to have a cause:

Everything we know or experience has a cause. That has no bearing on whether or not the universe itself has a cause.

Analogy of a firework display:
Let’s only apply the term ‘firework’ to an appropriately arranged collection of paper and powder when its blue touch paper has been ignited and becomes active, i.e., ignition of the blue touch paper is the sole cause of a firework’s existence.

Within this world of the firework display, a firework of philosophical bent will begin to wonder how the display, of which he is a part, is created. He will conclude that it must have a cause and he only knows one cause. Therefore, he reasons, the firework display has its own blue touch paper, which is somehow ignited.

In human terms, the sole cause of a firework’s existence transposes to billions of causes responsible for the billions of objects, events, thoughts etc. in our universe.
To repeat, just because billions of objects in our universe have an innumerable causes, it is no more reason to insist that our universe (our display of its parts) must have a cause than to insist that a firework display must possess a blue touch paper to be ignited.

You may object: “But a firework display is an abstraction”; as is the universe.

RDBrunson
December 19, 2018 4:05 pm

There is something rather than nothing, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.
This is like a resurrected being, asking if there is heaven or not.

Charles Scurlock
December 19, 2018 3:54 pm

The fundamental error leading to a question such as this one is a common, but faulty use of the interrogative “Why?”.. “Why?” is one of the most misconstrued questions in the language. My belief is that it should not be tolerated from anyone older than tha age of 3. All answers to the question “Why?” demands an answer of intentionality, that the existence of anything implies that that thing has a purpose given it by an agent. The proper scientific question here should be “How is it that there is something rather than nothing?” The same fault appears in Jim Holt’s otherwise exceptional book, “Why Does the World Exist?” I commend it to all your readers.

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