First written: Aug 2018, Last update: Jan 2021.
“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.”
(“Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern dass sie ist.”)
Why is there something rather than nothing? How can we explain the fact of existence?
This most fundamental question may be worth pondering for various reasons. Such pondering may help sharpen our thinking about the nature of the world, our place within it, and the scope of our understanding. And it may also just lead us to some significant answers to the question itself.
Is Non-Existence Coherent?
I would argue that the key to (dis)solving this mystery lies in questioning the coherence of the idea that there could be nothing in the first place — the notion that non-existence could exist or be the case. For existing is, after all, exactly what non-existence, by definition, does not. Non-being, by definition, cannot be. Yet, in asking why there is not nothing, we are indeed, somehow, imagining that it could. Essentially, what we are asking is: why is there not “non-isness“? Why could non-being not have been? The answer, I submit, is that the being of non-being is a contradiction in terms.
More specifically, to say that non-being could be is to contradict the principle of non-contradiction, as one then asks for something, or rather “nothing”, to both be and not be at the same time.
As David Pearce put it:
One can apparently state the epistemic possibility of nothing having existed rather than something. But it’s unclear how it could make cognitive sense to talk of the epistemic possibility of nothing-or-other having even been the case. For the notion of something-or-other being the case is about as conceptually primitive as one can get. For just what is the (supposedly non-self-refuting) alternative with which one would be contrasting the generic notion of existence – in the sense of something-or-other being the case – that we have at present? The notion doesn’t seem to make any sense. It’s self-stultifying.
“Why Does Anything Exist“, section nine.
Philosopher Bede Rundle made a similar point: “We cannot conceive of there being nothing, but only of nothing being this or that, and that is a use of ‘nothing’ that presupposes there being something.” (p. 113)
Furthermore, even if we were to assume that non-existence could be the case, we would still end up with the conclusion that it actually cannot. For if non-existence were the case, then its being the case would, quite obviously, be a truth, which implies that this truth would at least (also) exist. And yet this truth is not nothing in the strictest sense. In other words, the hypothetical assumption of non-existence obtaining itself implies the existence of (more of) something. And such a supposedly empty state would in fact imply other properties as well, such as the property of being free from contradictions (genuine contradictions could not possibly exist in any possible state of existence, much less one that is purportedly empty). Thus, even the notion of a state with no properties other than its mere being is incoherent.
This may be considered an answer to why there is something rather than nothing: the alternative is simply incoherent, and hence logically impossible. Only “something” could conceivably be the case. And thus, contra Wittgenstein, the real mystery to explain is indeed how the world is, not that it is; to explain which properties the world has, not that it has any. And part of this mystery is to explain why we ever considered the existence of non-existence — as opposed to a very different state of existence — a coherent possibility in the first place, and, by extension, why we ever considered the non-existence of non-existence any more mysterious than the non-existence of square circles.
Necessity and Contingency
Another way to realize that there could not possibly be nothing, even if we were to assume that the notion is coherent, is to think in terms of necessary and contingent facts (following the reasoning of Timothy O’Connor found here). For the suggestion that there might have been nothing essentially amounts to the claim that existence might merely be a contingent, not a necessary fact. Yet the fact that we are here proves that existence was, at the very least, a possibility. In other words, the reality of (at least) the possibility of existence is undeniable. And yet the reality of the possibility of existence is not nothing. It is, in fact, something. Thus, even if we assume that the fact of existence is merely contingent, we still end up with the conclusion that it is in fact necessary. The existence of the mere possibility of existence necessarily implies, indeed amounts to, existence in full, and hence the suggestion that existence may merely be contingent, and that there could instead have been absolutely nothing, is revealed to be impossible and indeed incoherent in this way as well.
Beyond that, one can use a similar contingency-versus-necessity argument to argue for the necessity of physical existence in particular (without assuming that physical existence is coterminous with existence). For the claim that the non-existence of the physical world could have obtained also amounts to claiming that its existence is merely a contingent fact: a possibility that could have not obtained. Yet the fact that the physical world does exist proves that its existence is necessarily (at least) a possibility. Thus, by this reasoning, there must necessarily exist (at least) a potential for the physical world as we know it to emerge. And yet such a potential is not nothing, nor is it non-physical proper, at least not in the widest sense of the term “physical”, which includes not only physical actualities but also physical potentials, provided they exist.
One may object that the notions of contingency and necessity ultimately do not make sense, or that they are just human ideas that we cannot derive deep metaphysical truths from. Yet it should then be noted that the notion of contingency is exactly what a claim such as “physical reality might not have been” itself rests upon. So if these terms and the argument above make no sense or have no bearing on the actual nature of reality, then neither does the problem the argument is trying to address in the first place.
No Purpose or Reason Behind Existence, Only Within
The all-inclusive nature of existence implies that, just as there cannot be a mechanism or principle that lies behind or beyond existence, there could not be a reason or purpose behind it either, since behind and beyond existence lies only that which does not exist. And hence there could not possibly be an ultimate purpose, in this sense at least, behind our being here.
Yet this by no means implies, contrary to what may be naturally supposed, that reasons and purposes, of the most real and significant kinds, do not exist within existence. Indeed, it is obvious that they do. For instance, the ability to pursue purposes and act on reasons has clearly emerged over the course of evolution. Beyond that, it is also clear, at least to me, that some states of the world — especially states of extreme suffering — are truly more disvaluable than others, and hence, I would argue, that we have good reason to act so as to minimize the realization of such disvaluable states, and to work to create a better world. This seems to me our true and highest purpose.