Sep 26 2012

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Religious people (at least the sophisticated ones) have abandoned trying to argue as evidence that god provides explanations for how things work. They have realized that this is a losing strategy as science has made god redundant as an explanation for anything, and that signs of god’s power seem to show a notable inverse correlation to the advance of science.

As a consequence they have shifted ground to questions of meaning such as “why is there something rather than nothing?” In particular, they apply it to the existence of the universe, since the origins of the universe seem to be slipping from their grasp as an insoluble mystery to be explained by god.

This “why is there something rather than nothing?” has always struck me as a silly question and Sean Carroll gives a good answer to this question when it is put to him by William Lane Craig.

The idea is simple, if we may boil it down to the essence: some things happen for “reasons,” and some don’t, and you don’t get to demand that this or that thing must have a reason. Some things just are. Claims to the contrary are merely assertions, and we are as free to ignore them as you are to assert them.

That’s a pretty good answer.


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  1. 1
    Jared A

    That is a good answer. Though I’m a little surprised it is being used this way, since I always thought of the “why is there something rather than nothing” question to be a stumbling block for theological claims. Most of the theologically inclined religious people I know (small sample size!) are usually the first to say that the question is unaffected by God existence claims.

  2. 2
    Gregory in Seattle

    Your question reminds me of Bill Cosby’s answer to “Why is there air?”

    “So you’d have something to put in basketballs.”

  3. 3

    I prefer: Because “nothing” is unstable.

  4. 4
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    Cause if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be here questioning it.

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    “Why do you assume there has to be a reason for everything?” has always worked for me. There may be cause/effect relationships* between many things, but cause/effect doesn’t have any meaning – that was just some stuff Aristotle added because he was a philosopher who was concerned with meaning.

    (*another annoying thing is humans’ tendency, which makes perfect sense given the evolutionary pressures upon us as we arose, to see things in terms of simplified cause/effect. When, in fact, cause is not a simple chain of events, it’s a complex mesh of interrelated causes and effects, leading back in effectively infinite regress.)

  6. 6

    I agree with #5 and along those lines… We don’t need someone else to give meaning to our lives. They are OUR lives and it’s up to US to give them meaning. If someone else gave our lives meaning then we’d belong to them.

  7. 7
    Aratina Cage

    It’s really a misunderstanding of the full extent of the word nothing. Nothing doesn’t mean the inexistence of everything; it never did. It’s a blurry, bludgeoning word that ignores technicalities. It meant the inexistence of things people knew about and were talking about, like trees and air. What we have come to find out is that even when you take away all that other stuff, like in a vacuum, there is still something there that can’t be removed.

  8. 8

    I don’t think it’s a silly question at all.

    The answer seems to be that “something” is the default state (as machineintelligence says, “nothing” is unstable, or so the intellectual plutocrats tell me.)

    I think of the human tendency to assume “nothing” is the default, and “something” has to be accounted for, as a sort of cognitive bias.

  9. 9

    Some things just are.



  10. 10

    Why not?

  11. 11

    I like to point out that a perfect nothing is like a perfect equilateral triangle. They are concepts that exist in the mind but not in reality. A stable nothing would require something (Morton’s demon, perhaps) to keep it stable.

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  13. 13

    Philosophers have traditionally dealt with an idea of “nothing” (metaphysical nothing) that was not questioned until we started learning more about the physical world (physical nothing). Sean Carroll and Lawrence Krauss are talking about what we actually find to be the case from evidence, which need not (and, apparently, does not) conform to our traditional ideas. (I have written more about this here, and here.)

  14. 14

    How is saying, “The universe just is, it doesn’t need a cause” any better than saying “God just is, he doesn’t need a cause”? This whole something rather than nothing question is why I prefer the term agnostic to atheist (although I am of course both and will not deny atheism). The belief that everything has a cause is not an a priori bias, it is a learned rule, because everything we can study has a cause. And infinite regression (aka “It’s turtles all the way down”) is not an answer, it still doesn’t why the stuff infinitely regressing is here. What is wrong with just answering the something rather than nothing question with, “I don’t know. Get back to me when you have a testable theory.” I mean, that is the truth, right? We simply do not know.

    I also do not understand why this question has always seemed so important in debates between atheists and theists. I mean, assume the theists win this argument and prove the existence of a creator god. That just gets you deism, which is functionally equivalent to atheism. Whenever I argue with theism, I usually just spot them god, and ask them to prove their book is true.

  15. 15

    I have answered the question to the religious by pointing out that the net energy of the universe is approximately zero, matter was created out of the gravitational collapse of parts of the universe, the small amount of matter that exists is still separated by huge amounts of empty space. I suggest godbots try walking from their fertile little back yard over to the next planet, the next star etc and see how they go.
    So as to there being “something”, it’s close enough to “nothing” as makes no difference. I see it as a problem of perspective, a child can easily see a finger held close to the eye is indeed larger than a giant tree far away whereas a rational person can use tools like rulers and maths to measure the relative sizes of things.

  16. 16

    Good discussion, thanks for linking to those articles.

    The rhetorical “why is there something rather than nothing”, when advanced by theists, is really just a short form of the cosmological argument.

    My new favorite form of the cosmological argument is from Brian Lynchehaun:

    Assumption 1: anything that exists requires a cause
    Assumption 2: that cause cannot be the thing itself
    Assumption 3: infinite regresses are bad

    Each of these seems supportable by themselves, but together you can easily see the contradiction. We have several ways to resolve the dilemma:

    A) Violate assumption 1: Allow the first cause to be uncaused
    B) Violate assumption 2: Allow the first cause to be self-caused
    C) Violate assumption 3: Allow an infinite regress

    So theists are arbitrarily choosing solution A to this unsolvable dilemma, and then even more arbitrarily labeling that first cause “God” and calling that a proof.

    Even more fundamental, though, is the objection (originally by Immanuel Kant) that you can’t actually reach conclusions about the physical universe using pure logic alone (ie, without supporting it with empirical evidence). And in this case, it’s the Physicists that are actually looking for and using empirical evidence, not the theologians.

  17. 17

    How is saying, “The universe just is, it doesn’t need a cause” any better than saying “God just is, he doesn’t need a cause”?

    We have evidence of uncaused effects. The statement “everything has a cause” is categorically false. If you want to say “the universe has a cause”, you have to demonstrate why first.

  18. 18
    Uncle Glenny

    Or not, as the case may be.

  19. 19

    A more detailed answer by Sean Carroll:


  20. 20

    Richard Dawkins had a very similar take on the “What is x for?” question. A butterfly is not for pollinating flowers, a butterfly just is. To ask what a butterfly is for is all well and good, for a five year old. But eventually one needs to grow up and realize what a silly question it is.

    It’s like asking what a spoon wants. Why is there something? What is a rock for? What did the toe say to the sock?

    Plus, it isn’t a very good God of the Gaps argument. Why did God make something rather than leave nothing? Wasn’t he perfect beforehand? And doesn’t such questioning easily become “Why is there a god rather than no god?” And why, why, why to infinity and beyond.

  21. 21
    Henry Gale

    When I’ve heard the question of why is there something rather than nothing its always been coupled with the idea that something requires a lot more effort than nothing to exist.

    So, since it takes a lot of effort for something to exist, a lot more effort than not existing, why does the universe bother to put forth all that effort?

  22. 22
    Marcus Ranum

    How is saying, “The universe just is, it doesn’t need a cause” any better than saying “God just is, he doesn’t need a cause”?

    Because we know the universe exists. There’s plenty of evidence for it, unlike god.

    This whole something rather than nothing question is why I prefer the term agnostic to atheist

    You’re stumbling over your preconceptions. If you simply accept that the universe exists, and you have no idea why (nor do you need one; it will continue to exist in either case) then there’s no need to introduce the additional assumption of the possibility that god exists, simply so that you can doubt it.

  23. 23
    Marcus Ranum

    So, since it takes a lot of effort for something to exist, a lot more effort than not existing, why does the universe bother to put forth all that effort?

    That’s silly. You’re presupposing “effort” and choice. The universe probably had no “choice” about existing, any more than that a rock falling down a gravity well is exerting “effort” in doing so. Shit happens. So, apparently, do universes, hence the shit. (I introduce the “fecal principle”)

  24. 24
    Marcus Ranum

    I have answered the question to the religious by pointing out that the net energy of the universe is approximately zero,

    “Something” is just a particularly lumpy arrangement of “nothing”

  25. 25

    On average the universe is flat like a giant carpet. Locally there are bumps and ripples. I blame the doG.

  26. 26

    geez people. i take a couple millenia off and you get all existential on me? plus that horrid Standard Model! what’s with all the free parameters? the Volgons have a perfectly nice theory that you should consider. however, i kinda like your Higg’s mechanism where an electrically neutral, unstable particle of spin zero breaks electroweak symmetry and give mass to your W and Z boson. still, i can’t decide yet if i like it or not. that’s why i let created a particle in the right energy range that *might* be the Higg’s Boson. between that and magnetic monopoles, i don’t have any time to do anything than appear on toast. sorry.

    have a nice millenia,

    p.s. i still haven’t decided on quantum decoherence versus the many worlds propostion. i just don’t think i have time to create an infinite number of alternate universes.

  27. 27

    That’s actually a rather general feature of premodern histories. They tend to have three eras without sharp boundaries between them:

    1. Gods and creation
    2. Heroes
    3. Ordinary people

    The Bible is very typical, and one can see that pattern in Greek mythology, the early history of Rome, Chinese history, etc. In fact, the Bible resets the clock a bit in the New Testament, where the Gospels represent the gods-and-creation phase, Acts represents the heroes phase, and the later history of the Church the ordinary-people phase.

    It’s usually very hard to find independent documentation of societies in the purported first two phases. The Bible’s account of the Exodus is an exception, since we have lots of contemporary records in Egypt. They show not a trace of evidence that the Exodus had happened as described, not even a Baghdad-Bob account that made it seem like a great triumph for the Egyptians.

  28. 28

    The case may not be.

  29. 29

    Good morning Mano,

    I don’t care for Carrol’s answer because it implies that ultimately the Universe is not knowable.

    Certainly there is plenty that we do not yet know, plenty that we don’t even yet know how to know, but none of that precludes discovering that which is not presently known.

    We don’t get to throw up our hands and say gawd (or as my electronics instructor once said when he was frustrated trying to explain why semi-conductors do what they do: its PFM! (Pure Fucking Magic) is responsible; we have to admit our ignorance, reject the magic underwear reasoning, and do the hard work of discovery.

    In cases such as this I defer to the wisdom Clarke’s Three Laws:

    1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

    3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  30. 30

    Okay, now ask just how did something arise when there was NOWHERE for it to happen?

    and, before there was somewhere, just where did the nowhere exist?

    Science expects us to be accept that spontaneous big bang…….when there was NO THING of any kind to facilitate any mechanism (cause……..effect) such a big bang.

    If science would (hey, and I am a scientist) suspend its disbelief for a moment it just might open up the possibilities (now closed off to it by the nature of science methodology) of actually investigating the nature of THE CAUSE.

  31. 31

    It turns out that reality is actually the other way around: “nothing” would require more effort than “something.” Or so I’m given to understand.

    (For details, I refer you to Sean Carroll and Vic Stenger.)

  32. 32


  33. 33

    My view is that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is answerable. The conclusion I’ve come to is that “something” and “nothing” are just two different words or ways of looking at the same underlying thing: what we’ve traditionally thought of as the “absolute lack-of-all”, or “non-existence”. That is, the universe, or “something”, must exist because even if there were “nothing at all”, this “nothingness” can be thought of from a different perspective as being an existent state, or “something”. A slightly less brief summary of my arguments for this are below and at my website at:


    (click on the 3rd link)

    But, given this, I admit that I can never prove my arguments because no one can step outside our existence spatially or temporally to see what caused it. Instead, what I’m trying to do is to use the rationale as a base to try and build a working model of the universe that can eventually make testable predictions via a process that I call “philosophical engineering”. Predictably, I’m a long way from this goal! Thank you for listening.

    From the abstract of a paper I wrote at my website on the questions “Why do things exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?”:

    In this paper, I propose solutions to the questions “Why do things exist?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In regard to the first question, “Why do things exist?”, it is argued that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or collection. A grouping is some relationship saying, or defining, what is contained within. Such a definition or grouping is equivalent to an edge, boundary, or enclosing surface defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing. An example of a grouping, and thus an existent state, is a set. Without a relationship defining what elements are contained within a set, the set would not exist. This relationship, or grouping is shown by the curly braces, or edge, around the elements of the set, and is what gives existence to the set. In regard to the second question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, “absolute nothing”, or “non-existence”, is first defined to
    mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this absolute lack-of-all. This absolute lack-of-all itself, not our mind’s conception of the absolute lack-of-all, is the entirety or whole amount of all that is present. This lack-of-all, in and of itself, defines the entirety of all that is present. It says exactly what’s there. An entirety, or whole amount, or everything, is a relationship defining what is contained within (ie., everything) and is therefore a grouping, or edge, and, therefore, an existent state. This edge is not some separate thing; it is just the relationship, inherent in the absolute lack-of-all, defining what is contained within. Therefore, what has traditionally been thought of as “absolute lack-of-all”, “nothing”, or “non-existence”, is, when seen from this different perspective, a grouping, and thus an existent state or “something”. Said yet another way, “non-existence” can appear
    as either “nothing” or “something” depending on how the observer thinks about it. Another argument is then presented that reaches this same conclusion. Finally, this reasoning is used to form a primitive, causal set- or cellular automaton-like model of the universe via what I refer to as “philosophical engineering”.

    Additional non-abstract note: One mistake that both academic and non-academic philosophers make in this area is to confuse the mind’s conception of non-existence with non-existence itself, in which neither the mind nor anything else is present. Because our minds exist, our mind’s conception of non-existence is dependent on existence; that is, we must define non-existence as the lack of existence. But, non-existence itself, and not our mind’s conception of non-existence, does not have this requirement; it is independent of our mind, and of existence, and of being defined as the lack of existence. Non-existence itself is on its own, and on its own, completely describes the entirety of what is there and is thus an existent state. That is, what we’ve always called “non-existence” really isn’t non-existent at all; when thought of in this different way, one can see that it’s actually an existent state and, indeed, is the most fundamental of existent

    Another argument that reaches the same conclusion to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing is:

    1.) In regard to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, two choices for addressing this question are

    A. “Something” has always been here.

    B. “Something” has not always been here.

    Choice A is possible but does not explain anything (however, it will be discussed more at the end of this section). Therefore, choice B is the only choice with any explanatory power. So, this choice will be explored to see where it leads. With choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. By “nothing”, I mean complete “non-existence” (no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc., and no minds to consider this complete “lack-of-all”). The mind of the reader trying to visualize this would be gone as well. But, in this “absolute nothing”, there would be no mechanism present to change this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. Because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that “nothing” and “something” are one and the same thing. This is logically required if we go with
    choice B.

  34. 34
    Andrew G

    Actually, that’s not a good answer, and Carroll should know better. Surely you can see how that is not an answer as much as it’s just avoiding the issue. Imagine if a theist were to give an answer like that, they’d be ridiculed, and rightly so :-(

  1. 35
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