Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Image by K. Ulaczyk / J. Skowron / OGLE

This is Part 2 in the series: God is Not a Unicorn: The Myth and Physics of Creation

In Part 1 we looked at the reason why the question of God ‘s existence cannot be satisfied by an appeal to the imagination alone.


The question of why is there something rather than nothing has been with us for as long as man first acquired language and began to ask questions about the world around him. It is not a simple question and it does not belong to one branch of knowledge. The discussion of it can get complicated quickly, as you can see from the quotation below. In this post I will try to break the question down into simpler language so that we can understand the various approaches to answering it more fully.

The cosmological argument is less a particular argument than an argument type. It uses a general pattern of argumentation (logos) that makes an inference from particular alleged facts about the universe (cosmos) to the existence of a unique being, generally identified with or referred to as God. Among these initial facts are that particular beings or events in the universe are causally dependent or contingent, that the universe (as the totality of contingent things) is contingent in that it could have been other than it is, that the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact possibly has an explanation, or that the universe came into being. From these facts philosophers infer deductively, inductively, or abductively by inference to the best explanation that a first or sustaining cause, a necessary being, an unmoved mover, or a personal being (God) exists that caused and/or sustains the universe. The cosmological argument is part of classical natural theology, whose goal is to provide evidence for the claim that God exists.

On the one hand, the argument arises from human curiosity as to why there is something rather than nothing or than something else. It invokes a concern for some full, complete, ultimate, or best explanation of what exists contingently. On the other hand, it raises intrinsically important philosophical questions about contingency and necessity, causation and explanation, part/whole relationships (mereology), infinity, sets, the nature of time, and the nature and origin of the universe. 

Reichenbach, Bruce, “Cosmological Argument”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Science is equipped to give answers about the physical universe – it explains what is, it does not explain what should be. These questions are usually reserved to other branches of knowledge. The point of this series of posts is not to lift philosophy or religion above science. I believe that all these branches of knowledge should work together to inform us about what this thing called “life” is. So, why is science being accepted as an authority in areas of knowledge where philosophy and religion usually address?

To do that, we first need to understand more about the cosmological argument itself.

What Do Contingency and Necessity Mean?

As human beings, we seek explanations for why things work the way they do and how they came to be. We look for the underlying explanation for why the universe exists. Traditionally the universe viewed as a contingent whole. This means the universe did not create itself, but was created by some necessary thing. These explanations took the form of creation myths.

Some religions have very little to say about creation. Buddhism, for example, is a religion that says that the universe is eternal, that it has no beginning or end, therefore the need for a creator is not necessary. Many Eastern religions view the universe and all life as cyclical in nature. This ancient view of the universe has played a role in the modern Western atheistic view of the physical universe. We will return to this thought in a future post in this series. For now we will focus on traditional Western Culture, which from the time of the Greeks through today accepted the idea of a Creator of the physical universe.

Often creation myths are dismissed by modern readers as silly, unscientific stories. They may be unscientific, but this misses their purpose entirely. Science, as we think of it now, is a recent development in human knowledge. Ancient religions and cultures did not think in modern terms of “science”. In these cultural frameworks, something is the cause of the universe. More importantly, this something was not simply the physical cause of the universe in the way we think of cause and effect in science today (For example: Gravity causes a ball to roll down a hill when it is released). To their thinking, gods, being powerful, had their own ways of doing things that were different from human beings – and so the why of creation was more important than the how of it.

The purpose of Creation Myths in traditional religions (with a Creator) was to acknowledge the dependence of our being on the wisdom of another being greater than us. It provided an answer to the question about who or what this being was and why a supernatural being would create a physical universe filled with flawed creatures like us. This is a philosophical puzzle that has plagued philosophers and theologists for centuries. A God who could create on the scale of the universe would logically have no need to do so. By definition, we (contingent beings) need God to exist, but God (a necessary being) does not need us.

This acceptance of this contingent/necessity aspect of our existence and the completeness of this explanation worked to sustain certainty in the minds of our ancestors about their belief system. In the past, Religion sought to provide that certainty. Today, we are culturally conditioned to distrust any certainty about Religion, but place all our trust in Science.

Scientific Certainty and Human Psychology

In a previous post, we discussed how ideas about our existence began to change during the Enlightenment with Descartes’ famous Cogito. (See Mind/Body/Soul: Essence and Existence). The growing successes of Natural Philosophy – what we now call Science – began to conflict with Religious ideas about the world and about human beings during this time. A mechanistic view of the workings of the world and life began to dominate over the ancient beliefs in the human soul. Anything that mathematics and physics could not define or observe, began to fall under into that part of our cultural map as “imagination.”

In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wanted, like Descartes, wanted to reconcile religion and science. Kant thought this could be done by finding a philosophy that was built on a logical foundation of necessity, certainty, and completeness. Once a firm foundation for a science of philosophy was found, he felt this would in turn form a solid foundation for his own ideas about religion and transcendence.

Kant assumed that both Euclidean geometry and Newtonian science offered us absolutely certain knowledge, and he formulated his problem: “How is pure mathematics possible? How is science possible?” His solution was that absolutely certain knowledge of the world would be impossible if the world we know were not constituted by the human mind. But if the world we know derived its form from our mind, then the discovery of the structure of our mind would all us to make apodictic [beyond dispute] claims about the world. In his Critique of Pure Reason Kant tried to show what the mind had to be like to make the certainty of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian science possible.”

Discovering The Mind, Vol. 1, Walter Kaufmann p94

While much of Kant’s reasoning is now considered faulty, his influence remains. Where Science (Natural Philosophy) was once considered a branch of Philosophy, Philosophy became a branch of Science. This was not Kant’s intent, but it was where his thinking led. In university settings, Philosophy is now viewed as a creation of the human mind and can only be truly understood under the Scientific study of the brain (biology and psychology).

A Brief Note about Cultural Conditioning

Before continuing, I want to point out that while the word “conditioning” has a negative connotation in our culture, but that is not how I am using it here. Conditioning can be a good thing or a bad thing, but it is not something that we can pretend does not exist or that human beings can dispense with. We are social beings who cannot read minds, so we are taught, or conditioned, how to behave with other human beings. This conditioning includes a mental framework about the structure of reality.

Conditioning does not mean we do not have Free Will (see Free Will or No Control?). When conditioning is healthy and constructive, we are able to navigate our culture with ease. We can meet most problems with confidence. When conditioning is incomplete, in conflict with reality or with other parts of itself, then we are in trouble. Apathy and depression set in because there are no clear paths to take.

And after saying all that, even good conditioning cannot resolve all life’s problems and questions. Words and mental maps fail us in the face of the big questions of life, death, and love. And that is because we often rely on conditioning as a poor swimmer uses a floating device. The whole point of life is to discover reality as it is, not how we like to think it is (See Mind Maps and The Beach). This requires maturity. The right purpose of cultural conditioning is not to keep us from drowning if life’s ocean, but to prepare us to swim confidently on our own.

Psychological Reasons for Preferring Science Over Religion and Philosophy

As you can see from the section above, Kant accepted the certainty – the authority of physics and math – over philosophy. This process of transferring authority from the study of the physical, inanimate universe to the world of living beings had already made great inroads into traditional Western Culture.

The success of technology gives science an air of authority and certainty. We trust scientists to interpret the physical world around us. But, the tools that scientists use are man-made. Mathematics is a model of reality that is very useful to us and very successful. But, its rules are abstract creations of the human mind that reflect a small portion of reality. The rules of math are man made definitions that humans use to describe and manipulate the physical world.

We are trained in our traditional Western culture to expect an explanation to in include elements of necessity, certainty, and completeness. Kant, himself, insisted these three things were necessary for any science of philosophy to be true. But, if we also have some training in philosophy, we should know that those three things are not so easy to provide.

As children, we accept answers our parents and culture provide as complete, necessary, and certain. When we grow up we find life throws us difficulties that those answers do not seem to solve in any satisfactory way.

It is a fact of life that very little is certain in it, even as we find we desperately crave certainty. We want someone or something to give us answers to these big questions. If we can’t find them in Religion or Philosophy, then we think perhaps Science can play this role in our lives. We want to be as certain of our beliefs about life as we are certain we can construct a rocket ship to land on the moon. That these are two different things is often lost in the discussion.

I am not saying that science does not reflect some truth of Reality, I am saying it works in a logical, rigid world of rules that that human minds created. It does not meet the criteria of an explanation of our existence. Mathematics is not necessary for our existence (though our existence is made easier by it). It is not complete (see Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem), and it is not certain, outside the rules and definitions we have established.

However, within its sphere of knowledge the rules of logic and proofs containing necessity, completeness, and certainty often work brilliantly to produce new and exciting insights into the physical world. On the other hand, it can also mean when a new fundamental discovery about the universe occurs, there is the possibility of throwing all our thinking about the greater Reality into chaos – if we have come to believe that some scientific ideas are necessary to our understanding of existence.

Objections: Just a Theory

On the other end of the cultural debate, we sometimes hear an objection to a scientific concept as “just a theory.” Scientific theories are designed to be open to amendment based on new information. So, to dismiss a scientific explanation simply because it is defined as a theory is not a constructive argument. We are, in effect, dismissing a branch of science based on its methodology. By that standard, it can be argued that everything we believe to be true is “just a theory.” And from there all meaning and interpretation of experience becomes speculation and we we fall further and further into the error (and mental depression) of nihilism.

We are living in a time where science appears to be overwriting all other views of reality. This does not make Science better or worse than Religion or Philosophy. I only mean that we are overly dependent on a branch of knowledge ill equipped to deal with subjects outside its own domain of Reality. Each branch of knowledge can only explain what the human mind can grasp with words and symbols.

Fixing these misconceptions about Religion, Philosophy, and Science is not simply a matter of turning back the clock. This is the worldview that prevails. I do not believe this is the fault of scientists or even the New Atheists. This is a failure of philosophers and religious people to understand why science is filling a gap in our culture. Philosophy and Religion may be limited in explaining physical reality, but they can provide a firmer framework for exploring questions of our existence than Science can provide. The encroachment of Science into their territory is a failure to give satisfactory answers about human existence in a modern context. If it seems that scientists are the new high priests, it is because there is not a credible alternative to that new authority.

We need a firmer mental foundation than the rickety “just theories” approach to make sense of the world. Science, itself, is more than “just theories.” It is built on a long and solid development of a branch of Philosophy (with some help from Religion) that there are truths to be discovered about the physical nature of Reality and that we have the equipment to discover them. That we are failing to find our confidence in that concept of our own being and that we are leaning on Science to fill that confidence gap is a failure of our Culture as a whole, not a failure of Science in particular.

Cosmology: The Modern Science (and Myth) of Creation

Cosmology, the Science of Creation, is a very new branch of science and we will be exploring it the next post. It has taken on a mantle of modern mythology and as such, we should take a serious look at what it says. Is the “Big Bang Theory” up to the task of fulfilling the essential role of a cultural myth? Is it the new Creation Story? In the next post we will look at the development of the science of Cosmology and how it aspires to answer the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Part 3: Cosmology: Modern Science Creation Myth [link will appear when the post is up]

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