Is the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ meaningful?

The video below explores this question. I thought it was pretty interesting.

In this video from the interview series Closer to Truth, the US presenter Robert Lawrence Kuhn and the UK philosopher A C Grayling peel back the layers of a question that’s been bandied about in many a Philosophy 101 classroom – ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ With Kuhn defending the question as a legitimate line of enquiry, and Grayling arguing that the question is ‘strictly meaningless, and for that reason unanswerable’, their discussion launches into a compelling exploration of logic and language, and the ways they intertwine.

We are living in a time when science has provided explanations to many of the questions that religious believers used to argue could only be answered by appeals to gods, creating what came to be known as ‘the god of the gaps’. I have noticed that believers now focus heavily on the question of why there is something instead of nothing as their ultimate backstop. Of course their preferred answer that something requires the existence of a god is a non-answer.

Comedian Robin Ince discusses the evolution of creationist ideas as science has closed successive gaps.


  1. Jörg says

    Btw., I am aware of the Carrier lawsuits and that some here might regard him as persona non grata. But on the question of ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’, I have not seen a better answer yet beyond physics from other philosophers.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Jörg @2: Carrier lost all credibility for me before the lawsuits. He had (has?) a penchant for expounding on subjects he had little or no real grasp of. For example, he came to astounding conclusions about physics, which apparently all physicists in the last hundred years or so had failed to see. He certainly referenced a lot of literature, and included light-cone diagrams, etc. But it was all gibberish. But gibberish which seemed to convince a lot of non-experts.

    I’ve heard similar complaints about his use of mathematics.

  3. billseymour says

    I sort of liked Carrier a while ago and read several of his books, giving him a pass on all the ad hominem arguments and appeals to (his own) authority (since the books weren’t intended as scholarly works); but it finally was too much for me to handle.  I haven’t paid any attention to him in years.

  4. Holms says

    For me, the question is a non-starter for the simple fact that ‘why?’ as opposed to ‘how?’ presumes intent, ignoring the possibility that existence is undirected by anything with agency. My usual answer is simply that I don’t know, but since existence exists, we may as well follow the evidence as well as we can.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    Are they still making Closer to Truth? I see this was uploaded to Youtube just last year, but I wonder when it was actually produced.
    In any case, I’m glad to see a discussion that pretty much leaves God off the table for once. Far too many of the CTT episodes I watched back in the day boiled down to Robert Lawrence Kuhn essentially saying, “I can’t find any good evidence for a god in a heaven, but boy, I sure want there to be one.” Yuck!

  6. jwoodland says

    Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is a great exploration of this question. Highly recommended.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    I bought Robin Ince a pint once, in The Church Inn in Ludlow. I, my bestest friend and a bunch of other people who’d just watched his show joined him for a natter when he’d finished hawking his merch and said “anyone fancy a drink?”. Most comedians have a “persona”, a character they inhabit on stage who is usually an exaggerated or altered form of their real personality, or aspects of it. Not Robin Ince. What you see on stage is what you see for hours afterwards in the pub -- just a really, really interested and interesting person, who appears to remember every word of every book he’s ever read, and appears to have been reading at the rate of about three decent-length books per day for the last twenty or thirty years. In between reading books I’m amazed he has time to perform or sleep or eat or especially sit in a pub with a bunch of nerds talking about philosophy.

  8. Ridana says

    1) @Jörg:

    if there is Nothing, including no laws of physics, anything and everything can happen. And it does.

    Happen where? To what? If there’s Nothing, there’s no where for anything to happen, nothing to cause anything to happen, and nothing for it to happen to. And no one to wonder about it. So the implication that we’re living in such a Nothing universe (if I’m understanding his punch line) sounds like gibberish.

    I’m no philosopher and not very smart, but this feels like kin to the question of “why is Earth so perfect for us?” Well, if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here to ask the question, which makes the question kind of pointless.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    We exist and can ask these questions because of the weak anthroprocentric principle. This corner of the multiverse is stable.
    And- as Hawking said- because gravity and the laws of physics exist, the universe will create itself from nothing.
    (in a Christian ‘documentary ‘ a notorious creationist replied to this with “that’s stupid… that’s retarded”! )
    Christian version: Jeannie (from I Dream Of Jeannie) does her Genie thing and goes booinggg, creating something from thin air, while a young Larry Hagman is .watching

  10. rockwhisperer says

    I watched one of the atheist/freethinker talk show episodes put on by the Atheist Community of Austin, where the hosts were grappling with the question of why there might be something having come from nothing. Their caller declared that “nothing” existed before the Big Bang, and so how did the universe come from nothing without supernatural intervention? The hosts pushed the caller to identify what “nothing” really meant. How could one measure it? How could it be experienced? If it was some kind of state of existence, then wasn’t it a thing? My impression was that they were making a point that English really doesn’t serve us well in the realm of theoretical physics, and that mindless assertions about any existence of whatever before the Big Bang aren’t helpful. (I’m not certain that the concept of “before the Big Bang” is even all that helpful, since my limited understanding is that time is a property of the universe. But hey, when it comes to physics, I’m merely a lowly geologist.)

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    John Morales beat me to it.

    But, from the Cuttlefish post;

    Krauss’s “nothing” has the decided disadvantage of being observable

    Krauss’ use of ‘nothing’ was bullshit meant to sell books. It has the decided advantage of making money.

  12. seachange says

    Lord Kelvin, who was such a bigwig in science that he was the head of the Royal whatever, reveled in ignorance. He thought we’d never know how an arm moved or a tree grew from a small seed and he was very happy about it. Greyling is not a Kelvin.

    Kuhn is sucking really hard on language itself being something sacred and holy. He cannot let go of that teat. Kuhn wants desperately wants there to be needs there to be something about Greyling that is a Kelvin. Because for what he is seeing right in front of his face and observing right in front of his face it cannot be true because then he’d have to open his mouth and eat some real food like an adult.

    Just because you can write code that will compile doesn’t mean you should or it’s helpful. You can write Doom on the universe based on using supernovae as the RNG it would take aeons to play but you could. And code is deliberately unambiguous. Natural languages, which is what everyone here and in that video is talking with and communicating with emphatically empirically ARE NOT unambiguous.

    Kuhn is the Kelvin here. Kuhn is not categorically different from that Mississippi governor who was talking to John Stewart.

  13. says

    It never ceases to amaze me how people can accept that an allegedly hyper intelligent, sentient, all-powerful, all-seeing, thin-skinned whiner can just exist but anything else is just a step too far.

  14. Silentbob says

    @ 16 seachange

    Lord Kelvin, who was such a bigwig in science that he was the head of the Royal whatever, reveled in ignorance.

    Uh huh.

    Scottish engineer, mathematician, and physicist who profoundly influenced the scientific thought of his generation.

    Thomson, who was knighted and raised to the peerage in recognition of his work in engineering and physics, was foremost among the small group of British scientists who helped lay the foundations of modern physics. His contributions to science included a major role in the development of the second law of thermodynamics; the absolute temperature scale (measured in kelvins); the dynamical theory of heat; the mathematical analysis of electricity and magnetism, including the basic ideas for the electromagnetic theory of light; the geophysical determination of the age of the Earth; and fundamental work in hydrodynamics. His theoretical work on submarine telegraphy and his inventions for use on submarine cables aided Britain in capturing a preeminent place in world communication during the 19th century.

    May one inquire, seachange, given this is your idea of a person who “reveled in ignorance”, what your contribution to the advancement of science and engineering has been. I’m ready to be enlightened and impressed. The floor is yours, go ahead and wow us…

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    Poor old Kelvin does get a lot of stick, most of it completely unjustified. For example;

    …in a recent book by the prominent science writer Brian Clegg [22]:

    The hubris of the scientific establishment is probably best summed up by the words of a leading physicist of the time, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. In 1900 he commented, no doubt in rounded, self-satisfied tones: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” (p. 15)

    This statement is also “quoted” by the eminent physicist Muhammad S. Zubairy [6]:

    According to a quote, attributed to Lord Kelvin in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” […] There were, however, two “clouds” on the horizon of physics at the dawn of the twentieth century.

    However, the claim that “there is nothing new to be discovered in physics” is nowhere to be found in the 1900 lecture, or in any of Kelvin’s other writings, and Zubairy suspiciously called this quotation just “attributed” to Lord Kelvin. In fact, it has been suggested that it is a similar quotation by Albert A. Michelson (namely “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered […]” in Ref. [23], p. 23) that is misattributed to Kelvin.

  16. KG says

    Is the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ meaningful?

    Yes, it is meaningful, since we can all understand it and specifically, why it might not be answerable in any useful sense. Many people, including philosophers and pseudo-philosophers, use “meaningless” far too loosely: “Squerble ongam bruckling effit” is meaningless -- at least in English.

    My (semi-serious) answer is that there’s something rather than nothing because there is only one way of there being nothing, but uncountably infinite ways of there being something. So whatever measure theory you choose to apply to infinite sets of possiiblities (probability theory is a kind of measure theory but can only deal with finite sets of possibilities), the measure of those “possible worlds” where there is nothing will be 0, and the measure of those where there is something will be 1.

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