Why there is anything at all

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This question has been written about by philosophers since at least the ancient Parmenides (c. 515 BC)[1][2][3]

The questions pertaining to "why there is anything at all?", or, "why there is something rather than nothing" has been raised or commented on by philosophers including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein,[5] and Martin Heidegger – who called it "the fundamental question of metaphysics".[6][7][8]


The question is posed comprehensively, rather than concerning the existence of anything specific such as the universe or multiverse, the Big Bang, mathematical laws, physical laws, time, consciousness, or God. It can be seen as an open metaphysical question.[9][10][11][12]

The circled dot was used by the Pythagoreans and later Greeks to represent the first metaphysical being, the Monad or the Absolute.

On causation[edit]

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that everything must have a cause, culminating in an ultimate uncaused cause. (See Four causes)

David Hume argued that, while we expect everything to have a cause because of our experience of the necessity of causes, a cause may not be necessary in the case of the formation of the universe, which is outside our experience.[13]

Bertrand Russell took a "brute fact" position when he said, "I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all."[14][15]

Philosopher Brian Leftow has argued that the question cannot have a causal explanation (as any cause must itself have a cause) or a contingent explanation (as the factors giving the contingency must pre-exist), and that if there is an answer it must be something that exists necessarily (i.e., something that just exists, rather than is caused).[16]

Philosopher William Free argues that the only two options which can explain existence is that things either always existed or spontaneously emerged. In either scenario, existence is a fact for which there isn't a cause. [17]


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote:

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.[18]

Philosopher of physics Dean Rickles has argued that numbers and mathematics (or their underlying laws) may necessarily exist.[19][20]

Physicist Max Tegmark wrote about the mathematical universe hypothesis, which states that all mathematical structures exist physically, and the physical universe is one of these structures. According to the hypothesis, the universe appears fine-tuned for intelligent life because of the anthropic principle, with most universes being devoid of life.[21]

Criticism of the question[edit]

Philosopher Stephen Law has said the question may not need answering, as it is attempting to answer a question that is outside a spatio-temporal setting, from within a spatio-temporal setting. He compares the question to asking "what is north of the North Pole?"[22] Noted philosophical wit Sidney Morgenbesser answered the question with an apothegm: "If there were nothing you'd still be complaining!",[23][24] or "Even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied!"[25]

Physics is not enough[edit]

Physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have offered explanations that rely on quantum mechanics, saying that in a quantum vacuum state particles will spontaneously come into existence. Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek is credited with the aphorism that "nothing is unstable." However, this answer has not satisfied physicist Sean Carroll, who argues that Wilczek's aphorism accounts merely for the existence of matter, but not the existence of quantum states, space-time or the universe as a whole.[26]

God is not enough[edit]

Philosopher Roy Sorensen writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that to many philosophers the question is intrinsically impossible to answer, like squaring a circle, and even God does not sufficiently answer it:

"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."[27]

Argument that "nothing" is impossible[edit]

The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides was one of the first Western thinkers to question the possibility of nothing. Many other thinkers, such as Bede Rundle,[28] have questioned whether nothing is an ontological possibility.[29][30][31][32] Nothing might be a human concept that is only a construct and inappropriate for a description of a possible state, or absence of state.

The contemporary philosopher Roy Sorenson has dismissed this line of reasoning. Curiosity, he argues, is possible "even when the proposition is known to be a necessary truth." For instance, a "reductio ad absurdum proof that 1 − 1/3 + 1/5 − 1/7 + … converges to π/4" demonstrates that not converging to π/4 is impossible. However, it provides no insight into why not converging to π/4 is impossible. Similarly, even if "nothing" is impossible, asking why that is the case is a legitimate question.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Poem of Parmenides : on nature". philoctetes.free.fr. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  2. ^ "The Metaphysics of Nothing". www.friesian.com. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  3. ^ "Parmenides". Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  4. ^ "Principles of Nature and Grace", 1714, Article 7.
  5. ^ "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is." Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44
  6. ^ Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1959), pp. 7–8.
  7. ^ "The Fundamental Question". www.hedweb.com. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  8. ^ Geier, Manfred (2017). Wittgenstein und Heidegger: Die letzten Philosophen (in German). Rowohlt Verlag. p. 166. ISBN 978-3644045118.
  9. ^ "Metaphysics special: Why is there something rather than nothing?". New Scientist. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  10. ^ Sorensen, Roy (2015). "Nothingness". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  11. ^ Dascal, Marcelo (2008). Leibniz: What Kind of Rationalist?. Springer. p. 452. ISBN 978-1402086687.
  12. ^ Goldschmidt, Tyron (2014). The Puzzle of Existence: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136249228.
  13. ^ Gutting, Gary (2016). Talking God: Philosophers on Belief. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393352825.[page needed]
  14. ^ "5 Reasons Why the Universe Can't Be Merely a Brute Fact : Strange Notions". 12 July 2016.
  15. ^ "Transcript of the Russell/Copleston radio debate". Philosophy of Religion.
  16. ^ Brian Leftow – Closer To Truth
  17. ^ Free, William (March 22, 2021). "The Reason".
  18. ^ Monadologie (1714). Nicholas Rescher, trans., 1991. The Monadology: An Edition for Students. University of Pittsburgh Press, p. 135.
  19. ^ Dean Rickles – Closer To Truth
  20. ^ Michael Kuhn (to Christopher Ishaam) – Closer To Truth
  21. ^ Tegmark, Max (2008). "The Mathematical Universe". Foundations of Physics. 38 (2): 101–150. arXiv:0704.0646. Bibcode:2008FoPh...38..101T. doi:10.1007/s10701-007-9186-9. S2CID 9890455.
  22. ^ Stephen Law – Closer To Truth
  23. ^ There are two errors in the the title of this book: A sourcebook of philosophical puzzles, paradoxes and problems, Robert M. Martin, p. 4, ISBN 1-55111-493-3
  24. ^ Goldstein, Rebecca (2011). 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. Vintage Contemporaries. p. 349. ISBN 978-0307456717. The Cosmological Argument, like The Argument from the Big Bang and The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, is an expression of our cosmic befuddlement at the question, why is there something rather than nothing? The late philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser had a classic response to this question: "And if there were nothing? You'd still be complaining!"
  25. ^ Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt, p. 17, Liveright, 2013, ISBN 0-87140-359-5
  26. ^ Carroll, Sean M. (2018-02-06). "Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?". arXiv:1802.02231v2 [physics.hist-ph].
  27. ^ Sorensen, Roy. "Nothingness". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford. Retrieved 20 April 2019.
  28. ^ Kanterian, Edward (31 October 2011). "Bede Rundle obituary". The Guardian.
  29. ^ "Bede Rundle" (Video). Closer to Truth. Retrieved 16 December 2019.
  30. ^ "Why there's something rather than nothing". Washington Post.
  31. ^ "Levels of Nothing by Robert Lawrence Kuhn – Closer To Truth".
  32. ^ Why Does Anything Exist?
  33. ^ Sorensen, Roy (2020). "Nothingness". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 2020-09-07.

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