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As I have said many times before, I really do feel like my worldview is solid, that there are no crumbling or missing bricks in my epistemological wall. It is why I wrote my latest book Why I Am Atheist and Not a Theist [UK]:

This Jesus and Mo cartoon is worth looking at:

Because although I readily admit that this is the one question that keeps me up at night, it is also just as pertinent and applicable if one believes in God as if one doesn’t. I don’t see this as a problem for atheists and not for theists, or vice versa, this is something to think about no matter what your worldview is.

Christian philosopher Gottfried Liebniz thought otherwise:

Why is there something rather than nothing? The sufficient reason […] is found in a substance which […] is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself.

This is about messing around with the “possible worlds” concept in philosophy – itself a controversial notion – to say that a necessary being is one that exists in all possible worlds, and using the Ontological Argument, the greatest possible being in all conception is one that would exist in all possible worlds. But can matter be just as brute a fact as God? And it is, perhaps, just inexplicable.

You could argue that logic or mathematics or some other conceptual framework exists necessarily (see the work of physicist Max Tegmark, for example).

In fact, Liebniz saw the existence of God in the context of being a truth of logic.

On the other hand, the problem may not come from trying to answer the question coherently, but in the question itself. As we exist in this spatio-temporal state, perhaps asking this most metaphysical of questions is not too different, as Stephen Law has posed, from asking what is north of the North Pole.

Roy Sorenson, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, seems closest to the mark, in my humblest of opinions:

To explain why something exists, we standardly appeal to the existence of something else… For instance, if we answer ‘There is something because the Universal Designer wanted there to be something’, then our explanation takes for granted the existence of the Universal Designer. Someone who poses the question in a comprehensive way will not grant the existence of the Universal Designer as a starting point.

If the explanation cannot begin with some entity, then it is hard to see how any explanation is feasible. Some philosophers conclude ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is unanswerable. They think the question stumps us by imposing an impossible explanatory demand, namely, Deduce the existence of something without using any existential premises. Logicians should feel no more ashamed of their inability to perform this deduction than geometers should feel ashamed at being unable to square the circle.

Perhaps the answer lies in probability – there is only one way of there being nothing – nothingness – but infinite ways that there can be.

Or, then again, you could argue that there just should be a universe:

The most novel answer to Leibniz’s great question is to say that our universe exists because it should. The thinking here is that all possible universes have an innate tendency to exist, but that some have a greater tendency to exist than others. The idea is actually Leibniz’s, who entertained the thought that there may be a struggle for existence between possible worlds, with the very best one coming out on top as if through a process of virtual natural selection. In the end he did not accept the idea, and retreated instead to the more traditional view that the universe exists because God chose to make it so.

But the idea of a virtual struggle among possible universes has appealed to some modern philosophers, who have followed it to its logical conclusion and claimed that the possible universe with the greatest tendency to exist – which might be because it is the best, or because it contains some important feature such as the conditions that permit life to arise – will actually bring itself into existence.

According to this theory, our universe becomes actual not because God or anything else made it so but because it literally lifted itself out of non-existence and made itself actual. Weird? Yes. But we shouldn’t let that put us off. After all, an extraordinary philosophical question might just require an extraordinary answer.

It’s the ultimate head-scratcher, for sure.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...