why something rather than nothing?

Damien Broderick (damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au)
Tue, 19 Nov 1996 11:46:38 +1000

John Clark raised the ancient question why there's something rather than
nothing, and offered several useful logic responses to it. Here's my $2's
worth (allowing for inflation):

`Why is there any being at all and not rather nothing?' Heidegger asked
(recalling Leibnez), unsatisfied with Kant's perfectly good answer that
being is not a predicate but a precondition to questioning. We can imagine
a chair, or the colour red, or love, or the dimension of depth not existing.
But I do not think we can imagine the annihilation of some abstract category
`being' or even `Being'. The closest we can come, I suspect, is the physics
of the Big Bang, in which the fundamental symmetries of our spacetime frame
are supposed (on some models) to have emerged from nothing as a kind of
massively charged vacuum, which instantly started to break apart into a
cascade of energy, fields and the laws determining their interaction. Is
that pregnant nothingness the same as Heidegger's Nothingness (Nichts)
against which Being is meant to stand as an epiphany? Significantly, recent
attempts by Stephen Hawking and his colleagues to model a `wave function of
the universe' propose to do away even with that time-before-time,
postulating a quantally-smeared initial state, a curved spacetime boundary
that literally prohibits any escape from the substrates of this universe
(even if it produces an infinity of `baby universes' that extrude into their
own separate reality via black holes).30 If such a mathematical program
succeeds, it will help clarify the Kantian claim that `being', `is-ness',
the existential copula, is finally no more than a convenience of language.

But can either theoretical or empirical advances address ancient problems of
metaphysics? Quantum theory, asserts mathematician and theist Martin
Gardner, `has shed no light on this question [the origin of `being']. There
is speculation that the universe started with a random quantum fluctuation
in the false vacuum, but this vacuum has nothing to do with metaphysical
"nothing". The fluctuation presupposes quantum fields and laws, and laws of
probability. So the question is simple pushed down to a deeper level, but
the problem of why there is something rather than nothing is as opaque as
ever' (Gardner, 1992, p. 186). This is unarguable for so long as we grant
that universal `nothing' - an utterly timeless, spaceless, lawless void - is
genuinely conceivable. I do not think it is; I assert that any sentence
proposing it either confuses universal nullity with an absence (perhaps
intensely poignant) of some more limited state or structure, or rests on a
verbal trick along the lines of the pseudo-question `what sort of person
would I have been had my parents never met and so had produced quite
different children?' Such imagined offspring would have possessed, as
Wittgenstein might have said, a `family resemblance' to my mother and hence
to me, and to her imagined husband and hence to his children, but it doesn't
help to speak about my actual being or imagined nothingness in musing on
such conditionals.

In short: when we say `It is raining', this sentence no more reveals a
portentous `is' than an `it' doing the raining. We could just as validly
and completely state: `Rain now falls' or `Rain-fallingness 1.45 am in

(from THEORY AND ITS DISCONTENTS, forthcoming 1997)

Damien Broderick