Why is there 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]

"Why is there anything at all?" or "why is there something rather than nothing?" is a question about the reason for basic existence which has been raised or commented on by a range of philosophers and physicists, including Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz,[3] Ludwig Wittgenstein,[4] and Martin Heidegger,[5] who called it "the fundamental question of metaphysics".[6][7][8]

Introductory points[edit]

There is something[edit]

No experiment could support the hypothesis "There is nothing" because any observation obviously implies the existence of an observer.[9]

Defining the question[edit]

The question is usually taken as concerning practical causality (rather than a moral reason for), and posed totally and comprehensively, rather than concerning the existence of anything specific, such as the universe or multiverse, the Big Bang, God, mathematical and physical laws, time or consciousness. It can be seen as an open metaphysical question, rather than a search for an exact answer.[10][11][12][13]

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

On timescales[edit]

The question does not include the timing of when anything came to exist.

Some have suggested the possibility of an infinite regress, where, if an entity can't come from nothing and this concept is mutually exclusive from something, there must have always been something that caused the previous effect, with this causal chain (either deterministic or probabilistic) extending infinitely back in time.[14][15][16]

Arguments against attempting to answer the question[edit]

The question is outside our experience[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?"[17]

Causation may not apply[edit]

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

However, David Hume argued that a cause may not be necessary in the case of the formation of the universe. Whilst we demand that everything have a cause because of our experience of the necessity of causes, the formation of the universe is outside our experience and may be subject to different rules.[18][19]

The brute fact approach[edit]

In philosophy, the brute fact approach proposes that some facts cannot be explained in terms of a deeper, more "fundamental" fact.[20][21] It is in opposition to the principle of sufficient reason approach.[22]

On this question, Bertrand Russell took a brute fact position when he said, "I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all."[23][24] Sean Carroll similarly concluded that "any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation."[25][26]: 25 

The question may be impossible to answer[edit]

Roy Sorensen has discussed that the question may have an impossible explanatory demand, if there are no existential premises.[clarification needed][27]


Something may exist necessarily[edit]

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).[28]

Natural laws may necessarily exist, and may enable the emergence of matter[edit]

Philosopher of physics Dean Rickles has argued that numbers and mathematics (or their underlying laws) may necessarily exist.[29][30] If we accept that mathematics is an extension of logic, as philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead did, then mathematical structures like numbers and shapes must be necessarily true propositions in all possible worlds.[31][32][33]

Physicists such as Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have offered explanations (of at least the first particle coming into existence aspect of cosmogony) that rely on quantum mechanics, saying that in a quantum vacuum state, virtual particles and spacetime bubbles will spontaneously come into existence.[34]

A necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself[edit]

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz attributed to God as being the necessary sufficient reason for everything that exists (see: Cosmological argument). He 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."[35]

A state of nothing may be impossible[edit]

The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides was one of the first Western thinkers to question the possibility of nothing, and commentary on this has continued.[9] Some have argued that by definition, nothingness is the absence of any property or possibility; thus, it would be a logical contradiction for something to be created from the lack of possibility of creation.[36][37][38][39][40]

A state of nothing may be unstable[edit]

Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek is credited with the aphorism that "nothing is unstable." Physicist Sean Carroll argues that this accounts merely for the existence of matter, but not the existence of quantum states, space-time, or the universe as a whole.[25][26]: 25 

Other explanations[edit]

Robert Nozick proposed some possible explanations.[41]

  1. Self-Subsumption: "a law that applies to itself, and hence explains its own truth."
  2. The Nothingness Force: "the nothingness force acts on itself, it sucks nothingness into nothingness and produces something..."


Philosophical wit Sidney Morgenbesser answered the question with an apothegm: "If there were nothing, you'd still be complaining!",[42][43] or "Even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied!"[26]: 17 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Poem of Parmenides : on nature". philoctetes.free.fr. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  2. ^ "Parmenides". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  3. ^ "Principles of Nature and Grace", 1714, Article 7.
  4. ^ "Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is", Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44
  5. ^ "Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing? That is the question." What is Metaphysics? (1929), p. 110, Heidegger.
  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. ^ a b Sorensen, Roy (November 28, 2023). "Nothingness". In Zalta, Edward N.; Nodelman, Uri (eds.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  10. ^ "Metaphysics special: Why is there something rather than nothing?". New Scientist. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  11. ^ Sorensen, Roy (2015). "Nothingness". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 26 April 2017.
  12. ^ Dascal, Marcelo (2008). Leibniz: What Kind of Rationalist?. Springer. p. 452. ISBN 978-1402086687.
  13. ^ Goldschmidt, Tyron (2014). The Puzzle of Existence: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?. Routledge. ISBN 978-1136249228.
  14. ^ Brown, Patterson (1969), Kenny, Anthony (ed.), "Infinite Causal Regression", Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays, Modern Studies in Philosophy, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 214–236, doi:10.1007/978-1-349-15356-5_9, ISBN 978-1-349-15356-5, retrieved 2023-10-22
  15. ^ Cameron, Ross (2022), "Infinite Regress Arguments", in Zalta, Edward N.; Nodelman, Uri (eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2023-10-22
  16. ^ Brown, Patterson (1966). "Infinite Causal Regression". The Philosophical Review. 75 (4): 510–525. doi:10.2307/2183226. ISSN 0031-8108. JSTOR 2183226.
  17. ^ "WHY IS THERE ANYTHING AT ALL? (PART 3)". Closer to Truth.
  18. ^ Gutting, Gary (2016). Talking God: Philosophers on Belief. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0393352825.[page needed]
  19. ^ David Hume argues that our demand that things have causes "is not from knowledge or any scientific reasoning," but from "observation and experience". Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Part III, Section III, "Why a cause is always necessary", p. 82. It may be that what we observe in our own experience may not apply in some other situations.
  20. ^ Ludwig Fahrbach. "Understanding brute facts," Synthese 145 (3):449 - 466 (2005).
  21. ^ Mulligan, Kevin; Correia, Fabrice (November 28, 2021). "Facts". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  22. ^ Melamed, Yitzhak Y.; Lin, Martin (November 28, 2023). "Principle of Sufficient Reason". In Zalta, Edward N.; Nodelman, Uri (eds.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  23. ^ "5 Reasons Why the Universe Can't Be Merely a Brute Fact : Strange Notions". 12 July 2016.
  24. ^ "Transcript of the Russell/Copleston radio debate". Philosophy of Religion.
  25. ^ a b Carroll, Sean M. (2018-02-06). "Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?". arXiv:1802.02231v2 [physics.hist-ph].
  26. ^ a b c Holt, Jim (2012). Why Does The World Exist. New York: Liveright. ISBN 978-0-87140-409-1.
  27. ^ 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."

    Sorensen, Roy. "Nothingness". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford. Retrieved 20 April 2019.
  28. ^ "Brian Leftow – Closer To Truth".
  29. ^ "Dean Rickles – Closer To Truth".
  30. ^ "Michael Kuhn (to Christopher Ishaam) – Closer To Truth".
  31. ^ Tennant, Neil (2017), "Logicism and Neologicism", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2023-10-22
  32. ^ "Logicism - Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.rep.routledge.com. Retrieved 2023-10-22.
  33. ^ Physicist Max Tegmark's speculative mathematical universe hypothesis states that all mathematical structures exist physically, and the physical universe is one of these structures. 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.
  34. ^ Theories of the events at the earliest stages of universes existence continue to develop, including the Big Bang, initial singularity, big bounce and associated possible distortions of cessations of time. "What was there before the Big Bang?". www.skyatnightmagazine.com.
  35. ^ Monadologie (1714). Nicholas Rescher, trans., 1991. The Monadology: An Edition for Students. Uni. of Pittsburgh Press. Jonathan Bennett's translation. Latta's translation. Archived 2015-11-17 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ "Nothingness | philosophy | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2023-10-22.
  37. ^ "Parmenides - Nothing comes from nothing". www.parmenides.me. Retrieved 2023-10-22.
  38. ^ Sorensen, Roy (2023), "Nothingness", in Zalta, Edward N.; Nodelman, Uri (eds.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2023-10-22
  39. ^ Roy Sorensen has argued that curiosity about the impossibility of nothingness is valid, even if it is the case. He has said that curiosity 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, it's legitimate to ask why non-existence or "nothingness" is impossible, even if that is the case. 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.
  40. ^ Bede Rundle (Kanterian, Edward (31 October 2011). "Bede Rundle obituary". The Guardian.) and others have questioned whether nothing is an impossibility, but in the context of there already being an existence, such as God.""Bede Rundle" (Video). Closer to Truth. Retrieved 16 December 2019. "Why there's something rather than nothing". Washington Post. "Levels of Nothing by Robert Lawrence Kuhn – Closer To Truth".
  41. ^ Nozick outlined several possible answers to the question:Nozick, Robert (1981). Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-66479-1. Retrieved 2022-06-07.
    1. Self-Subsumption: "a law that applies to itself, and hence explains its own truth."
    2. The Nothingness Force: "the nothingness force acts on itself, it sucks nothingness into nothingness and produces something."
    "Imagine this force as a vacuum force, sucking things into nonexistence or keeping them there. If this force acts upon itself, it sucks nothingness into nothingness, producing something or, perhaps, everything, every possibility. If we introduced the verb “to nothing” to denote what this nothingness force does to things as it makes or keeps them nonexistent, then (we would say) the nothingness nothings itself." Philosophical Explanations, Robert Nozick
    1. The Principle of Indifference: establishes that nothing is a possibility among the n possibilities of having something. Then "the probability that there is something is n/(n +1) if n is finite and 1 if n is infinite."
    2. Fecundity: "Every possibility—including the possibility that there is nothing—exists in its own independent noninteracting realm."
    Also discussed here; Berker, Selim (February 28, 2019). "Phil. 169: Nozick's Philosophical Explanations. Meeting 4: Chapter 2 (Nozick on Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing)" (PDF). Harvard University.
  42. ^ 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
  43. ^ 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!"

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]