Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

There has been a wide and extensive conversation among philosophers who differ greatly on this question. A natural inclination might be to answer with a simple, “Well, why not?” In other words, what (metaphysical) difference does it make if there is something rather than nothing? Victor Hugo so interestingly wrote in his Les Miserables: “There is no such thing as nothingness, and zero does not exist. Everything is something. Nothing is nothing. Man lives more by affirmation than by bread” [1].

Gottfried Leibniz raises the question in its most famous and notable form in his 1697 essay, On the Ultimate Origins of Things, and as such has been a topic discussed even more prevalently in our day. Physicist Victor Stenger in his article, Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? writes, “Clearly, many conceptual problems are associated with this question. How do we define nothing? What are its properties? If it has properties, doesn’t that make it something? The theist claims that God is the answer. But, then, why is there God rather than nothing? Assuming we can define nothing, why should nothing be a more natural state of affairs than something?” [2]

Other alternative solutions to the question can be even seen from Sean Carroll’s 2007 article, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? where he writes:  “Ultimately, the problem is that the question – ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ – doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like ‘The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist’ possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole” [3].

However, what exactly did Leibniz have to say about the matter?


Leibniz’s Recognition of Contingent/Finite Facts

Leibniz in the beginning of his essay recognizes that there is a “being who rules” beyond the collection of finite things, and thus not only constitutes as merely above the world or outside of it, but rather an ultimate reason for the entire contingent faculty. He states his premise as:

  • (2.0) [This cause] is the only extramundane thing, i.e. the only thing that exists out of the world; and nothing in the world could be the ultimate reason for things.

To expound upon this premise, let us imagine that before us we have set of finite or contingent objects, each of which that do not seem to have the sufficient reason for why they exist in and of themselves. Rather, the sufficient reason for their existence must be outside of them. From this point, we can keep going down the line of contingent objects for an infinite duration, and thus never reach an ultimate explanation of the entire set, or, we can come to a final and necessary sufficient reason for the entire set itself. To this Leibniz says, an ultimate explanation is grounded upon something ‘metaphysically necessary’; or [to be defined], a “thing’s essence to include existence“.

According to Leibniz, the fact that the entire set extends to an infinite amount of contingent things accounting for one another outside of themselves is not an explanation for why the entire set itself exists. He uses an analogy:

Suppose that a book on the elements of geometry has always existed, each copy made from an earlier one, with no first copy. We can explain any given copy of the book in terms of the previous book from which it was copied; but this will never lead us to a complete explanation, no matter how far back we go in the series of books.

In light of the analogy, Leibniz recognizes that there are a few questions before us to ask:

  • Why have there always been such books?
  • Why were these books written?
  • Why were they written in the way they were?

Thus the importance of the argument is most manifested when Leibniz points out, “And so, with the world as with the books, however far back we might go into earlier and earlier states we’ll never find in them a complete explanation for why there is any world at all, and why the world is as it is.”





3 responses to “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

  1. I have been reading your articles for quite a while, though never actually commented, that I recall. Even though we seem to be in totally opposite sides of the discussion (I am an atheist, you are not) I find we have a passion for the same kind of questions.
    I may not agree with your conclusions but I really respect your curiosity and your ways of enquiry. In short, I like your blog.

    • Hello and thank you David!

      I rather enjoy your posts as well, since my interest pertains to the like of the topics you write about; which I do find very impressive and engaging. I hope we can discuss more on these matters sometime, since I was unaware of your atheism. Also, I have written my response to the self-contained universe model. It has been a week since I’ve started it, but it will be finished soon. Lol

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