The Ultimate Jeopardy Question
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” In The Grand Design (2010), Stephen Hawking made headlines by denying the need for God to get matter to jump into being; the law of gravity was enough to do it. Then, Lawrence Krauss created a Youtube sensation and book called, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (2012), that made the same case, including an afterward by Richard Dawkins who heralded it as a death blow to the last proof for the existence of God. Jim Holt’s bestselling, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (2012), surveyed contemporary thinkers on this ultimate question as he sought some alternative to the theistic answer to the question. For these authors, the question is ultimate, but God isn’t.
Due to this explosion of interest in the question and the common aversion to God as the answer, it is worth asking a second-order question about the question: Why is there the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”?
A Copernican Shift
A peculiar thing about the question, “Why something rather than nothing?” is that we were given the answer before it occurred to us to formulate the question. Like Jeopardy, the answer came first, and only second did we ask the question.
Usually it is otherwise. We see a rainbow and ask what caused it, and then after extensive inquiry, we discover the properties of water and light that explain it. In this case, we naturally come upon the context of the world as what is ultimate. Against the mythologies of the poets, the ancient philosopher Heraclitus articulated what he took to be the ultimate necessity when he said, “The cosmos, the same for all, no god nor man has made, but it ever was and is and will be” (frag. 30, trans. Kahn). For the natural habit of mind, the world just is.
Then something happened. Human reason was given something that had never occurred to it before: the idea of God the Creator. Ancient philosophers already knew about the mythological tales of makers who fashioned chaos into order. Such makers would be co-eternal with matter, a part of the cosmos. They would not be the kind of thing that could exist independent of the cosmos. Now, thanks to biblical revelation, philosophy was given to think of a being that need not create, a being whose nature qualified it to be before and outside the cosmos. A new insight was nourished: compared to such a being, the cosmos need not be. Now the ultimate is not the cosmos, as Heraclitus assumed, for a new possibility emerged: a first cause that need not even cause.
Slowly did the powerful logic of the answer insinuate itself and fully work itself out into a corresponding question. God is. The cosmos and all the creatures in it need not be. Instead of the cosmos, there could be nothing other than God. Hence the question formed, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Nothing in this question means the negation of all that once was, now is, and will at some future time be. Hence, nothing is not something at all. It encompasses and negates the totality of finite being. Nothing harbors no possibility in itself; in it lurks no hidden potentialities and powers, no laws or propensities. Nothing excludes the watery chaos of mythology, the unformed matter of ancient cosmology, but also all the stuff of contemporary physics.
To ask the question is to be in the performance of the distinction between God and world, a distinction Robert Sokolowski argues in God of Faith and Reason is original to Christianity. Due to the genealogy of the question, attempts to answer the question with another answer necessarily fail as answers to the question. They may very well succeed in answering a different question, but they do not do what their authors would like them to do, namely provide an alternative answer to the ultimate question.
If there is no God, then the ultimate thing will be the cosmos, and there is no sense in pretending to ask the question why something rather than nothing. The nothing in the question will be a closet something otherwise there could never be something here, but we each know quite certainly that there is a something here. The nothing in the question only makes sense provided that we affirm the existence of the God who is not part of the cosmos, who is not a being among beings, but the generous granter of existence. Such a God is precisely the God affirmed by Christian philosophers and theologians in every century.
I am proposing, then, that the question only occurs as a result of a basically theological answer. Does that mean it is not a philosophical question?
The God of the Philosophers
Even though, as a matter of verifiable historical record, no ancient philosopher asked the question, now that it has occurred to us to ask the question it can be explored and appreciated by reason as a question. It would occur to few of us to ask most of the questions we now know the answer to, but that doesn’t mean the questions are not able to be understood once they occur to us (it doesn’t occur to a child, for instance, to ask how many suns there are, since the answer seems to be obviously one, even though this turns out to be illusory). Naturally, it seems obvious the cosmos just is, even though it turns out this is just an illusion in perspective.
Also, the question itself is a philosophical question which occurs to the philosophizing mind; it does not appear in the Bible and was not dictated by an angel. So, while the answer comes by way of revelation, the question comes by way of reason reflecting on the world in light of the answer.
But even this is not quite right. For the answer is only an answer in light of the question. Thus, strictly speaking, revelation does not give us the answer to the question; revelation shows us there is a God who defies worldly categories, a God who creates all things. The logic of such a God implies the question, why something, and suggests the answer: there is a necessary being who is not part of the system, responsible for sustaining the system. The philosophical question, then, actually enriches our understanding of the answer. Both revelation and the answer identify the same one being, but revelation does so theologically and the question does so philosophically. Strictly speaking, then, it is an act of faith that it is the same being in both cases.
Who Created God?
At first glance, it doesn’t make sense to ask about the origin of the cosmos. That seems like a non-starter. But having confronted the non-intuitive possibility that God need not have created and could have been all there is, we can appreciate the non-ultimacy of the cosmos. In light of the possibility of such a God, it makes sense to ask about the origin of all things.
But what about the origin of God? It would only make sense to ask this question if there was a conceivable origin to the origin of all things. But further consideration shows the silliness of the question. Either God is the origin of the cosmos, himself unoriginated, or the cosmos is somehow ultimate. There’s no sense in asking about the origin of something that is the origin of everything. It must simply be.
When we ask about things like rainbows and turtles and even the cosmos itself, it makes sense to ask after a cause. But when we are dealing with the necessary being, the one responsible for the fact that all of these caused causes are, it no longer makes sense to ask what causes it. If we ask, “Who created God?” we are not really targeting God the Creator but a creature, something with an origin.
Can we answer the question without invoking the God of theism? What else could transcend the whole cosmos? Something like a physical law doesn’t make sense apart from a cosmos to govern, but something like God the Creator does. Attempts to pose the question while dodging the theistic answer necessary fail to engage and thus answer the question.
Holt’s Existential Detective Story dismisses the theistic answer in one page as obviously incoherent. Hence, the pathos of his book, earnestly seeking a satisfying answer to the question other than the only possibly satisfying answer to the question.
If one wants to avoid the answer to the question, one can deny it is a legitimate question, as some philosophers have chosen to do. Bertrand Russell for example insisted, “The universe is just there—and that’s all.” The problem is that the question exercises a peculiar hold on our reason and won’t quite go away. Even philosophers, like Wittgenstein, who deny the question has sense, admit it is a question which grips us. He said he regularly has the following experience:
“I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist” or “how extraordinary that the world should exist.’”
Why from moment to moment should the universe exist? Like the Copernican revolution, the movement at work in this question is strange and disorienting. It questions what seems to be beyond question. The question, once asked, provokes us, and we must choose what is ultimate: God the Creator or almost nothing.
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