Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why is there something rather than nothing?

reposted from Prospect Magazine June 2007

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Some philosophers think this question is genuinely puzzling on the grounds that nothingness is vastly simpler than somethingness, and might rationally be supposed the more "natural" state in view of the presumably infinite effort required for anything to emerge from nothing. And yet there is something, so, they wish to know why.

Others ask why there is something rather than nothing because they expect, or at least desire, an answer incorporating the claim that the universe exists for a purpose, which the answer accordingly identifies.

The vacuous hypothesis that there is something because it was created by a supernatural agency can be dismissed.

The hypothesis in effect says that the reason there is anything at all is that something else made it, which is either question-begging or invites an explanatorily null regress. It is one of the most persistently lingering human fatuities that the origins of the universe (or indeed anything else) can be explained by arbitrarily invoking an entity equally arbitrarily defined as fully equipped to be the explanation of what is to be explained. Dismissal of such a theistic pseudo-answer terminates hopes of any answer couched in terms of purpose.

A second and better answer is to point out that the question is unanswerable. This is not the same as saying that it is pointless—though it is, given the brute fact that there is indeed something, and that the really interesting questions relate to what exactly that something is, and what if anything in it is valuable from the perspective of conscious experience. Nor is it unanswerable because we are not the kind of creature capable of finding or understanding the answer, as some (defeatists, surely) claim about the puzzle of consciousness.

Rather, it is unanswerable because it is radically unlike questions that, like "Why do elephants have trunks?" validly prompt an expectation of informative answers. "Why does anything exist?" does not do so because it is like "What colour are ideas?"—it makes a category mistake. For "nothing" denotes privation or absence relative to something, not a state or condition existentially on a par with somethingness. When all the chocolates are eaten, there is nothing in the box because there was something there before; you cannot introduce nothing ("nothingness"?) to a box other than by not putting something in it, or by taking everything out. So the primitive condition is that there is something, and we only understand "nothing" relatively and locally by its absence.

It is quite something to say that there is nothing more to the problem than something like that: but nothing, I submit, is a better answer.

Sent in by Julian Dare, Oxford

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