In his Introduction to Metaphysics, Martin Heidegger asked, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s a stupid question only in the sense that the answer is so self-evident. Of all the nigh-infinite worlds that could be, there’s only one consisting of the null set, i.e. of nothing at all. So it’s not that there being something rather than nothing that cries out for explanation. What would cry out for explanation would be a world consisting of nothing.

So the real question to be asked, it seems to me, is not Heidegger’s, but rather, Why is there this something rather than some other? It won’t help to answer that the way the world was when it came into being, coupled with the laws of physics, guarantee that the world will be this way rather than some other. That just pushes the question back onto, Why was it the way it was when it came into being rather than some other way, and why these laws of physics rather than some others?

Theists want to argue that the answer hangs on the will of God. All is as it is because God wills it so. Why did God will it should be this way rather than some other? For Leibniz the answer lies in what God values, namely plenitude and variety. In fact Leibniz has a sort of transcendental proof for this. Assuming God made the world – and if He didn’t who did? – you need only look around you to see that what He wanted was lots of stuff and lots of different stuff.

Needless to say, we atheists reject this explanation. But even we have to admit it’s better than the damned-if-I-know answer that we have to offer. And Leibniz wasn’t the first to advance this view. Plotinus didn’t hypostasise a God, as such, but he did think – a thought more recently ratified by John Leslie – that that it would be better that things are rather than not, has the power to bring those things into being. As I say, not a very compelling answer, but better than no answer at all.

Kant had an answer to a different but related question, namely, Why is the world anthropic, i.e. amenable to human existence? Well, because if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here to ask that question. And the same holds for why the world is intelligible to us? If it weren’t we couldn’t cognise it, and if we couldn’t cognise it we couldn’t survive in it, save by the grace of some mother hen God. 

Mind you, we can’t rule out the possibility that we haven’t the faintest idea about the world we live in but we survive by the leave of this mother hen God. But that’s just a species of global skepticism. And global skepticism, though quaint, is what every aspiring philosopher at the age of twelve goes through, but grows out of it in time for his Bar Mitzvah. 

Still, why is the world this way rather than some other? Because if it weren’t we couldn’t ask the question. Why can we ask the question? Because the world is such that we can. Circular to be sure. But there doesn’t seem to be a way to break out of the circle. And so since spinning our wheels like this gets old pretty fast, the smart money goes to just letting it lie and move on to thinking about something more productive. 

Rudolf Carnap understood this. If nothing would count as an answer to a question, then that question is a pseudo-question. Not unlike, What’s the meaning of life?, it’s meaningless patter. Many first-year students think the meaning of life, or some such bilge, is what philosophy is all about. I try to disabuse them of that on day one. Philosophy – or in this case meta-philosophy – isn’t about meaning. It’s about the critical analysis of the concept of meaning. Most students find this deeply disappointing, and so they don’t bother taking a second-year class. So I’m teaching to the few – but there are always a few – who find this ‘disabuse’ liberating. They find it liberating because it frees them up to be less interested in why they’re here than in what to do with themselves, and with their minds, while they are.     

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Philosophy of Religion

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2 replies

  1. Philistine that I am, when I see a question like “Why is there this something rather than some other?” I don’t try to answer that question. Instead, I ask: “Why would anyone ask a question like that?” My answer to my own question is liberating: Because philosophers in ancient Greece and until recently had a lot of time on their hands.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Andrew may well be right here, but I think there’s a more informative answer to HIS question, and that is that evolution has favoured our having an asking function, i.e. why?, and because we never had the luxury of continuing to ask well beyond the meaningfulness of the question, there was no reason for evolution to have provided a governor to that function. We get into trouble only when we HAVE that luxury.

      Liked by 1 person

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