Why is there anything at all?

by squelchtoad

Scattered thoughts on the question “Why is there anything at all?”

David Albert is right that the Lawrence Krauss misses the point when he answers “quantum fields.” Quantum fields, though they wouldn’t have seemed like “anything” to people 200 years ago, are (isomorphic to?) a real physical “anything.”

That said, I’m not sure that the question itself is coherent. Many notions of “why” presuppose an “anything.” That is why[1] the cleverer sorts of theologians tended to declare that God was an “uncaused first cause” and a “necessary being.” They recognized that God was Himself[2] an “anything,” so if He was going to answer satisfactorily the question “Why is there something rather than nothing,” He needed to answer it regarding Himself. Otherwise, answering “Why is there something rather than nothing?” with “God,” would just lead to “Why is there God rather than nothing?”

But it occurs to me that the Albert riposte to Lawrence Krauss might also work at least for the more naïve versions of that theological argument. What does it mean for God to be a “necessary being”? Well, some old school theologians would have said it meant He was logically necessary. That is, the proposition “God does not exist” is actually logically impossible. But there’s an Albert Problem: Why are there laws of logic? Aren’t they themselves “something rather than nothing?”

Here’s Albert at his very best:

Krauss, mind you, has heard this kind of talk before, and it makes him crazy. A century ago, it seems to him, nobody would have made so much as a peep about referring to a stretch of space without any material particles in it as “nothing.” And now that he and his colleagues think they have a way of showing how everything there is could imaginably have emerged from a stretch of space like that, the nut cases are moving the goal posts. He complains that “some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing,’ but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing,’ ” and he does a good deal of railing about “the intellectual bankruptcy of much of theology and some of modern philosophy.” But all there is to say about this, as far as I can see, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right. Who cares what we would or would not have made a peep about a hundred years ago? We were wrong a hundred years ago. We know more now. And if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing, and it couldn’t have been nothing, in the first place. And the history of science — if we understand it correctly — gives us no hint of how it might be possible to imagine otherwise.

If showing that “God exists” is a necessary proposition within a given logic is enough to prove that God actually exists, the logic itself, it seems to me, must actually exist in some sense akin to the way that the laws of quantum physics exist. This brings us back into Albert territory. The logic is a “something” that really exists rather than “nothing.” Why is there that logic rather than nothing?

How about the claim that God is “metaphysically necessary” (some philosophers, such as Leibniz, don’t seem to distinguish between this and logical necessity, but others do). Same problem as “why is there logic rather than nothing?” Any metaphysical properties powerful enough to mean that God must exist must themselves exist. Why do they?

Some theologians decide to get around this by saying that God’s nature defines logic and/or metaphysics. Fine. Why does God exist and have the specific nature that forces him to exist?[3]

At this point the theologian, I think, is forced to throw up his hands and point out that I can’t ask a “why?” question about things like logic and/or metaphysics, the existence of which are a precondition for causation. Fair enough. But then “Why is there something rather than nothing?” suddenly seems a whole lot less coherent a question overall, so long as the logic and metaphysics are taken to be part of the something[4].

“Uncaused first cause” is starting to sound like a much better answer than “necessary being.” The theologian may just have to accept that he can’t explain why God exists (uncaused), just that He does. Frankly, I think that ought to be enough. That said, it’s also why I don’t find the “Why is there anything?” argument to be convincing argument for theism. I fail to see how answering “Why is there anything at all?” with “(My specific) God is a brute fact” should be any more persuasive than answering it with “the universe and its laws are brute facts.”


[1] Ha!

[2] These theologians understood their God to be in some sense male.

[3] We might formalize this as “God is a necessary being if and only if God exists.”

[4] I recognize that quantum fields are less fundamental than logic (given that they are “physical” and given that quantum mechanics is based upon math), so the theologian probably has a few steps backward during which he can feel superior to Krauss before he hits the same wall. My point is that I don’t care whether you’re a monist or the Mona Lisa, a dualist or a duelist, “something” of any “substance” (physical or otherwise) still counts as something (and therefore must still be addressed by any real answer to “why is there anything?”)