Monday, February 15, 2021

Why is There Something?

Why is there something? There could have been nothing - no physical objects or laws, no conscious beings, no thoughts, no universe at all. So, why is there something, rather than nothing? 

This is perhaps the biggest philosophical question. It was recently discussed on the EarthSky site, initiated by an article by British philosopher Dr. Lloyd Strickland.

A Christian Response

This question was raised by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). He contended that everything has an explanation or a cause (the principle of sufficient reason). So the universe as a whole must have a reason for its existence. He concluded that the universe exists because God wanted to create it. 

Since God is perfect, our universe must be the best possible universe. Our universe's present state, with all its sin and suffering, is clearly not the best possible state. But even sin and suffering have a purpose, so that our universe's unfolding history follows the best possible plan, leading to the best possible future.

This raises the further question: why does God exist?

Leibniz’s answer was that God is a necessary being. A necessary being must exist because it is impossible for it not to exist. Hence a necessary being such as God must exist in all possible worlds. The non-existence of a necessary being is inconceivable.

The universe, on the other hand, is not necessary but contingent. It could have been different. For example, we can conceive that the universe could just have consisted of one galaxy, or one planet, or one rock, or one speck of dust...or nothing at all. For any contingent object we can ask why it is the way it is and, indeed, why it exists at all.

The philosopher Richard Taylor contends that anything that is contingent must depend on something else for its existence (Metaphysics, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2012, p.110). Ultimately, all contingent beings must derive their existence from something that necessarily exists, something that exists by its own nature, independent of anything else. This conclusion fits in well with Christianity, which affirms that God, a necessary Being, is the cause of the physical universe.

Naturalist Non-Explanations

This conclusion is not popular in our secular age, where most scientists are naturalists. Naturalists believe that nothing exists beyond the natural world. Hence everything must be explained solely in terms of natural laws and causes. But how can explanations limited to things and causes within the natural world explain the existence of the natural world as a whole?

Some naturalists argue that the universe emerged from nothing. They appeal to big bang cosmology, which traces the origin of our universe to an immense explosion, allegedly from nothing, a finite time ago. See, for example, physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A universe from nothing: why there is something rather than nothing (New York: Free Press, 2012). He attributes the cause of the big bang to a natural chance event in a pre-existing quantum field.

However, Krauss’s universe emerges, not from nothing, but from a pre-existing quantum field. We could conceive of the non-existence of such a field. So why did this field exist, rather than nothing? Krauss fails to address that question, and hence his book fails to live up to its grandiose title.

Similarly, attributing the cause of the universe to strings, mathematical points, or the multiverse just raises the question as to what caused strings, points, or the multiverse.

Other naturalists try to avoid attributing a cause to the universe by postulating that it has existed from eternity. But this still leaves the question as to why it has always existed.

The problem is that naturalism lacks a necessary being that can provide the ultimate cause of our universe. Hence the most popular naturalist response is that we must simply accept the universe as a brute fact that has no ultimate explanation. This dismisses the question but is not very intellectually satisfying.

As a final option, Dr. Strickland suggests that any possible universe may have an innate tendency to exist, and that the universe with the greatest tendency to exist will bring itself into existence from non-existence. He concludes, 

“Weird? Yes. But that shouldn’t put us off. After all, an extraordinary philosophical question might just require an extraordinary answer.”

But this is just a desperate grasping at straws. A possible universe exists merely as an idea. An idea can exist only in a mind, and an idea is inert unless actualized by a mind. Hence Strickland’s last hope works only within a theist view, where God conceives all possible universes and actualizes the best one.

Why is there I?

Inevitably, questions about existence (“metaphysics”) lead to questions about knowledge (“epistemology”). How do I know that something exists? 

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) famously contended that the only thing I can know for certain is my own conscious thoughts: “I think, therefore I am.” Thus, the deeper question is “why I am conscious of something rather than nothing?” Or simply, “why does my self-conscious self exist?”

This is surely the most basic and pressing question everyone must face: why do I exist? This concerns not just the ultimate cause of my existence, but also the ultimate purpose of my existence.

As to my ultimate cause, we must ask, what came first: mind or matter? Which is more basic?

According to the naturalist, matter came first. The cause of life is a purely accidental result of random material events. I am an essentially material being, existing for no purpose in a purposeless universe, and ceasing to exist when I die.

Further, how can concrete matter give rise to immaterial thoughts? This is a great unsolved problem. Naturalists assume that my conscious self somehow “emerges”, mysteriously, from my brain. However, my brain operates according to physical laws, whereas my train of thought is determined by logical and moral “oughts”. One cannot reduce a physical “is” to a logical or moral “ought”. Hence mind cannot be reduced to brain. Purposeless matter cannot generate a purposeful, creative mind.

Consequently, many naturalist philosophers and scientists deny that we really have a mind. According to Francis Crick, who discovered DNA, my sense of inner self and my conscious thought life, are just illusions caused by my brain neurons. 

Such blatant denial of the one basic fact of which I can be certain-- my inner I-- is a drastic step that no-one can live out in practice. 

The Bible places mind first: “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). God spoke the universe into being (Gen1.) and continues to uphold it by his word of power (Hebrews 1:3). 

Moreover, history unfolds according to God’s purposeful plan, and everything is made for a purpose (Prov.16:4). As the Westminster Catechism asserts (Question1), my chief purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

Tragically, many scientists today prefer to deny the self rather than to practice the self-denial inherent in serving God.

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