I'm a big fan of the age-old question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
However, after spending many years marveling at the evident fact that existence exists, I'm inclined to take out the why. A statement seems more apt than a question.
"There is something rather than nothing."
In other words, I'm highly dubious that the question is meaningful. We can ask why things within existence exist. But to ask why existence itself exists... absurd. My attitude is: It just is, dude.
Nonetheless, I can understand the appeal of asking why there is something rather than nothing. I haven't entirely given up on the question myself.
So I had to buy a recent issue of Skeptic magazine when I saw it contained an article by Robert Lawrence Kuhn, "Levels of Nothing: There are Multiple Answers to the Question of Why the Universe Exists."
Well, more accurately Kuhn lays out the kinds of nothing that are the alternative to something.
This frames the question more neatly, depending on which level of nothing one chooses, yet doesn't get us closer to understanding why this sort of nothing doesn't exist rather than the something that does.
Defining “Nothing” may seem simple -- no thing, not a thing. But what’s a “thing?” I invoke the term “thing” in the most general possible way, and therefore, given some possible notions of Nothing, it is no contradiction to find “things” that compose these different kinds or levels of Nothing. Teasing apart these constituent things, as if scaffolds or sinews of Nothings, may help enrich understanding of the nature of Nothing, yielding a taxonomy that arrays opposing kinds of Nothing that could be conceived and might have existed.
This taxonomy is structured as a deconstruction or as a dissection, as it were, a reverse layering, a peeling, a progressive reduction of the content of each Nothing in a hierarchy of Nothings. As such, this taxonomy takes its heritage from the so-called Subtraction Argument, which seeks to show that the absence of all concrete objects would be metaphysically possible.
...Developing this way of thinking, there might be nine levels of Nothing, with a general progression from Nothing most simplistic (Nothing One) to Nothing most absolute (Nothing Nine).
...Following are nine levels of Nothings.
- (1) Nothing as existing space and time that just happened to be totally empty of all visible objects (particles and energy are permitted) -- an utterly simplistic, pre-scientific view.
- (2) Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter (no particles, but energy is permitted -- flouting the law of mass-energy equivalence).
- (3) Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter and energy.
- (4) Nothing as existing space and time that is by necessity -- irremediably and permanently in all directions, temporal as well as spatial -- totally empty of all matter and energy.
- (5) Nothing of the kind found in some theoretical formulations by physicists, where, although space-time (unified) as well as mass-energy (unified) do not exist, pre-existing laws, particularly laws of quantum mechanics, do exist. And it is these laws that make it the case that universes can and do, from time to time, pop into existence from “Nothing,” creating space-time as well as mass-energy. (It is standard physics to assume that empty space must seethe with virtual particles, reflecting the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, where particle-antiparticle pairs come into being and then, almost always, in a fleetingly brief moment, annihilate one another.)
- (6) Nothing where not only is there no space-time and no mass-energy, but also there are no pre-existing laws of physics that could generate space-time or mass-energy (universes).
- (7) Nothing where not only is there are no space-time, no mass-energy, and no pre-existing laws of physics, but also there are no non-physical things or kinds that are concrete (rather than abstract) --no God, no gods, and no consciousness (cosmic or otherwise). This means that there are no physical or non-physical beings or existents of any kind -- nothing, whether natural or supernatural, that is concrete (rather than abstract).
- (8) Nothing where not only is there none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 7, there are no concrete existing things, physical or non-physical), but also there are no abstract objects of any kind -- no numbers, no sets, no logic, no general propositions, no universals, no Platonic forms (e.g., no value).
- (9) Nothing where not only is there none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 8, there are no abstract objects), but also there are no possibilities of any kind (recognizing that possibilities and abstract objects overlap, though allowing that they can be distinguished).
...Note that among all these levels of Nothing, one of the "lesser Nothings" -- that is, a kind of Nothing with more "things" in it -- is the Nothing of physicists. What physicists contemplate -- the sudden emergence of "tunneling" of universes from "Nothing" -- is fascinating and indeed may be cosmogenic, but the tunneling process or capacity is not Nothing.
The Nothing of physicists is thick with the complete set of the laws of physics, and so between physicists' Nothing and Real Nothing lies a vast, unbridgeable gulf. On this taxonomic scale, physicists' Nothing is Nothing Level 5, barely halfway to utterly Nothing.
If physicists' Nothing were in reality Real Nothing (i.e. ultimate reality), the laws of quantum physics (or whatever might turn out to be the most fundamental physical laws underlying quantum physics) would have to be either impossible to remove (meaning that removing them would involve logical contradiction) or a brute fact about existence beyond which explanation would be meaningless. I doubt I could ever get over the odd idea that something so intricate, so involved, so organized and so accessible as the laws of physics would be the ultimate brute fact.
As a separate consideration, some philosophers of religion argue that God is a "necessity" -- meaning that it would be impossible for God not to exist -- thus precluding Nothing 7 (which has no non-physical concrete things such as God but still has abstract objects) and crowning Nothing 6 (which has no space-time, no mass-energy, no laws of physics but still has God and other nonphysical things) as the metaphysical limit of what is to be explained.
I find the move challenging. Moreover, based on the levels of Nothing in this taxonomy, it would seem less of a leap to imagine a world without God (Nothing 7) than to imagine a world without abstract objects (Nothing 8). For the traditional God, that won't do.
...Setting aside my taxonomy and consulting my gut, I come to only two kinds of answers. The first is that there is no answer: Existence is a brute fact without explanation. The second is that at the primordial beginning, explanatorily and timelessly prior to time, some thing was self-existing. The essence of this something necessitated its existence such than non-existence to it would be as inherently impossible as physically immortality to us is factually impossible.
Various things or substances could conceivably contain this deeply centered self-existing essence, from the most fundamental meta-laws of physics to diverse kinds of consciousness, one of which could be God or something like god. Perhaps even these explanations are so mundane and bedrock is so bizarre that abstract objects or pure possibilities somehow harbor generative powers.
Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Why Not Nothing? If you don't get dizzy, you really don't get it.
Well, I get dizzy.
But I don't really get Kuhn's second kind of answer. His "self-existing essence" sure sounds a lot like God to me. Maybe not the Western personal sort of God, but a lot like the Eastern impersonal God, such as Brahman.
So why Brahman? Why a self-existing essence? Why should Kuhn's abstract Nothing 8 exist, but not Nothing 9?
Like I said, I lean toward Kuhn's first kind of answer: there is no answer. Existence just is.