EPISODE THREE (3.1): WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING?

Introduction: The Importance of Why

“Why does the universe exist?” is an ultimate question that begs for ultimate truth in the form of an ultimate answer.

Why? Because we live in a universe characterized by change.

We rise, become weary, and then go to sleep. We become infected with a virus, feel ill, and then recover. Our bodies naturally decay over time, and the balance of our 401(k) goes up and down. We seek explanations as to why our lives ebb and flow in this manner. We ask questions like, “Why is there suffering?” and “Why did that building burn down?” Often, we search for an answer, and our search comes up empty. Yet we still have a sense that an answer exists somewhere.

That we even ask why suggests we know that when something happens, there is a cause or reason. The mystery involves not how, but why, and science is able to explain the former but is ill equipped to provide reasons for the latter. In A Brief History of Time, the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking asks the question, “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”[1] He did not produce an answer and instead places his hope in a yet-to-be-determined, all-encompassing physical theory that would explain the known universe and get inside the mind of God. In 2012, author Jim Holt asked a group of scientists the central question and title of his book, Why Does the World Exist? Many provided mechanisms for the existence of the universe—such as the multiverse, the appearance of existence from energy, and Platonic objects—yet these brilliant minds of science had no concrete idea as to why there is something rather than nothing.

Science is tasked with answering testable statements. “Why is there something?” is therefore not a question for science because it is not testable, and if we were to restrict our answer to science, what we are left with is not testable. (Even more, any answer that relies on physics, quantum mechanics, or any kind of natural law would require an explanation of how those laws came into existence in the first place!)

Testing why the universe exists is like testing whether a tribe of flying spaghetti monsters lives in a distant galaxy. At the end of the day, no one was present to do empirical testing and ask whatever was happening at the beginning, “Why?” Rather, the answer to this episode’s question will rely primarily on logic and philosophy, leaving the mechanisms that proceed from why to the domain of the sciences.

Ultimately, science offers a perfectly rational method for illuminating the mechanics of our physical reality, but as we touched upon in episode one, science as an all-encompassing worldview that attempts to offer answers to all of reality is a belief system that crumbles under its own weight. After all, there is a distinct difference between knowing only how a Rolex works with all of its fine-tuned systems and timing mechanisms versus knowing why it was made: for the purpose of telling the time (and for the owner, bragging rights). If we mocked people for asking “Why?” and “What for?” we’d be mocking people for trying to have a complete understanding of reality. Such a path is quite irrational.[2]

The other day, my three-year-old son went to attend his first day of school. When he walked into the room, he began to cry out in fear and clung tightly to my leg. It was then that a little girl whom he had never met walked over, held his hand, and said, “It’s okay. You’re a big boy now.” All of my son’s distress seemed to vanish into thin air. Science can tell me how this happened (seeing another child in distress, which provoked a response; the firing of neurons; etc.), but why this happened remains perfectly mysterious and altogether wonderful.

So why ask why? Because answering why provides clarity and imputes meaning, purpose, and significance. Generally speaking, answering why is one of the most empowering and invigorating endeavors any person can embark upon in life. Answering why requires a person to gather information, explicate the context of the data, and then search for conclusions. Only then can a person approach true understanding of self, reality, and the cosmos. Why is the cardinal existential question that every person directs to his or her own fate. The late historian Fritz Stern once said the following in a speech titled, “The Importance of ‘Why’”:

“If the question is denied, so is the answer, and then an individual’s lack of existence, his absolute lack of basic rights, is given kind of official certification … For me, this denial of why is the authentic expression of totalitarianism and reveals its deepest meaning: a negation of Western civilization, in which human beings are exposed to absolute arbitrariness … [“Why?”] marks the beginning of thought, the impulse toward knowledge and science, toward fruitful argument.”[3]

Asking why animates the offensive against small-mindedness and convention, and it liberates victims of ideology to freedom and liberty. Asking why in an unrestricted manner opens the door to intellectual, political, social, and economic autonomy. In a very popular Ted talk, leadership expert Simon Sinek makes the case from a business perspective that people will buy why you do something, not what you do or how you do it. He claims that successful companies inspire from the inside out—that is, starting with why and moving outward to clarify the what and the how. Hence, the goal for successful engagement is to connect with people who like your why and, therefore, believe what you believe. Success does not come from engagement with what you are selling.[4]

This pertains to the question at hand—Why is there something rather than nothing?—because by establishing why our universe began, it will not only engage everyone who lives in the universe, but it will make sense of how everything started and what our cosmic purpose is. A meaningful answer will clarify why the universe matters, why life matters, and why you matter. To ignore the reasons for our cosmic genesis, or to adhere to an incorrect assumption, will only pollute everything else that follows.

When doing research for this episode, I asked a colleague her thoughts on why the universe existed. She responded by saying that my question was a silly one, like asking, “What temperature is love?” She said that the question didn’t deserve an answer. I asked why not. She smirked. I said silly questions are what drive the imagination to its limit and animate innovation; silly questions like, “What if the Earth is not flat?” and “What if we’re wrong?” and “Can we make a phone without physical buttons?” She said asking why tries to force upon something a reason when a reason does not exist. I responded by saying that searching for an ultimate answer to why is never coercive, nor does the ideology of lack of ultimate purpose mean that someone will lack purpose or have a meaningful life. After all, any person who believes in a purposeless universe could have the purpose in life to show others that the universe has no purpose! Certainly, those who deny ultimate purpose are perfectly capable of having significance in relationships, love, and their careers. My concern in TruthFinder is not an individual’s purpose, which a person can discover and define. My concern is with ultimate truth (and, therefore, ultimate purpose and ultimate meaning) because, as I mentioned in episode one, eternity matters. Naturally speaking, people have purpose because they have brains and can make sense of themselves in the world. Yet the real question is, What is the value of your individual lifetime purpose in the context of eternity?

Causality

We need a framework in order to discern why there is something rather than nothing. That framework is built upon the law of causality. Why? Because in identifying a cause, we will have moved one step closer to answering this episode’s central question. The law of causality is stated as follows: Every effect must have a cause.

What is a cause? Anything that produces an effect. What is an effect? Anything that is caused by something else. As you can see, this law is analytically true by definition in the same way that “all squares have four sides” is analytically true.

What this law means in plain English is that reality is filled with effects (e.g., other people, a rocking chair, cars, etc.) and every effect must have a cause (e.g., parents, a chair maker, a car manufacturer, etc.). Note that something can be both a cause and an effect in different relationships with different things. For example, a car can be the cause of breaking someone’s leg at an intersection, yet at the same time, it is also the effect of a car manufacturer. The key here is that the car is in two different relationships with two different things. Furthermore, it is impossible to have an uncaused effect (like a planet popping out of thin air), nor can you have an effectless cause (like gravity that doesn’t pull a skydiver toward the Earth). In fact, if anyone were to identify an uncaused effect in all of known existence, then reality as we know it would be redefined. Most attacks on the law of causality are directed at an erroneous definition of the law—that everything has a cause—which is not what the law states.

We cannot proceed forward from attacks on the law of causality without talking about the famous skeptic, David Hume. In his classic thought experiment,[5] Hume invites his readers to imagine a pool table with a player, a pool stick, a cue ball, and an eight ball. If the player seeks to put the eight ball in the corner pocket, the player looks, aims, adjusts, and then with the swinging motion of the arm wielding the pool stick, he strikes the cue ball, which then strikes the eight ball, which then lands in the corner pocket. The lesson is that many physical events happened to enact this end result¾that is, there are events that caused other events.

What Hume then argued is that we can use our senses to see certain events transpiring in a contiguous relationship (one thing following another), but we cannot perceive the actual forces working to cause the events. For example, we can’t actually sense the kinetic energy being transferred from the cue ball to the eight ball when the former strikes the latter. So, Hume posits, since we use our senses to determine what is really true, and we can’t sense causality directly, then we cannot know causality with exactness.

The point must be made that Hume certainly was not denying that causality exists; rather, he simply made the case that knowing causality with precision is beyond human sensory experience and reason. Note as well that Hume did not say, “Because I do not know what caused this effect, nothing caused it.” Hume was content to simply declare that he did not know, and he frequently equated the notion of chance as a cause with ignorance. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume writes the following:

“Though there be no such thing as Chance in the world; our ignorance of the real cause of any event has the same influence on the understanding, and begets a like species of belief or opinion.”[6]

The first problem with Hume’s extreme form of skepticism is that if we are overly aggressive and reduce all of reality to only that which we can directly sense, we would have to be skeptical about science and logic. Part of the beauty of science is striving after what we do not know and cannot sense. So, if we begin with skepticism, science crumbles. Nor can we see or taste logic, yet it’s utility has been irrevocably proven in another part of reality that cannot be sensed: the realm of reason and intellect. If the law of causality is dismantled, then so our grasp of knowledge will be dismantled. Our senses are not perfect, but they and the law of causality are routes by which we seek higher understanding.

The second problem with Hume’s skepticism of causality is that he failed to address causal forces that can escape sense perception. In other words, “agnosticism of perception becomes skepticism of causality.”[7] Simply put, just because we cannot immediately perceive or see something does not mean a cause does not exist. Love is invisible and cannot be heard. Gravity is invisible and cannot be tasted. Justice is invisible and cannot be felt. These are real agents that cause real effects, but we cannot directly observe love causing a woman to dart out into traffic to save her child from an oncoming car. We can’t actually see compassion causing a man to drop a $100 bill into the hat of a beggar on the street. Sometimes you just can’t take a picture of a cause. And no, umbrellas do not cause rain to fall just as a rooster does not cause the sun to come up. But in both of these cases, all you would have to do is turn the rooster into dinner or leave your umbrella at home (and wear a raincoat) in order to prove the presumed causality false.

What the law of causality does not do is prove that something is real. Accordingly, as I mentioned before, you can have a logically consistent fairy tale. What the law equips us to do is to say that if we observe an effect, then we know, logically speaking, that this effect has a cause. Indeed, we cannot define something into existence, but just as the word “teachers” contains the notion that schools exist, the word “effect” contains the notion that a cause exists.

If the universe is causeless, this not only violates the law of causality, but it is also nonsensical. Consequently, the reality that the universe is an effect validates the absolute necessity of a cause. Even when some presume the universe came into being from nothing, they have validated the law by stating that the cause of the universe is, in fact, nothing. The conclusion may be nonsensical, but the logic isn’t. Even people who attack causality have a cause for their attack. The only reality in which there would be no need for a law of causality is a world where causes and effects are not needed—in this imaginary world, everything would exist by its own nature.[8] There is no escaping causality.

The Search Begins

So, what is the sufficient cause that brings the universe into existence? Aristotle argued for the existence of a supreme being for the simple fact that “events require a cause, and there needs to be an uncaused (or first) cause in order to make sense of the world.”[9]

 The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill took causality backward to conclude that nature itself was the uncaused first cause of reality. He writes, “As far as anything can be concluded from human experience, Force has all the attributes of a thing eternal and uncreated.”[10] This proposition would go on to influence the famous atheistic thought leader Bertrand Russell, who quoted Mill by saying, “if everything has a cause, then God must have a cause.”[11] Using a cosmological (relating to the origin of the universe) argument, then, God is merely a stepping stone in an infinite regression that produces no tangible result.[12] As it relates to the law of causality, Aristotle had the right idea and Mill and Russell had the wrong idea. Again, the law does not say that everything has a cause. It does say that every effect must have a cause, and therefore leaves open the logical possibility of an uncaused cause.

Today, there was an article in the paper talking about the mayor of Rome, Italy. When asked why she ran for that office, she said it was to show the people that an outsider could do a better job than professional politicians. And what caused the ineffectiveness of the prior regime? And why did the people of Rome vote them in? And what caused Rome to have mayoral elections in the first place? And what caused people to live in Rome since the beginning of time? This will go on and on and on, ad infinitum—or so one is led to believe. If the series of questions did go on into infinity, an answer would forever escape us, and we would end up with an infinite series of effects that lack an initial cause. Certainly, resolving this dilemma will be challenging.

So, now that all the foundation is set, we will turn to five different responses to the question, “Why does the universe exist?”

Response #1: The universe came from nothing

This response answers the question with a non-answer. That is, because the universe came from nothing, the question of why has no answer. This requires some elaboration.

First, a disclaimer: I am not pretending to know all of the hard science that supports many of the theories that propose creation from nothing. But in the same way that you don’t need a medical degree to know your heart doesn’t pump soda through your veins from your feet, you don’t need to be an expert in physics to make a logical assessment of facts. Inferences away from legitimate facts toward nonsense will be nonsense—no matter how smart or how many degrees a person has.

The next thing we have to be clear about is that when everyday people say, “nothing,” they tend to mean nothing, as in not anything or the complete absence of something. Yet, when well-known scientists make statements like, “The universe came from nothing,” they really don’t mean nothing because even they realize from nothing, nothing comes. Take, for example, what Stephen Hawking says in his book The Grand Design, where he makes the claim that God is not necessary for the creation of the universe:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist … It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”[13]

Note what Hawking says: because there is a law such as gravity the universe creates itself (we will discuss the fallacy of self-creation in the next response). And what is gravity? It is certainly not nothing. It is a cause that produces effects. Gravity is something, and because of something, there is something rather than nothing. Questions beg to be asked immediately: Where did gravity come from? Why is gravity the constant that it is? Where did the other laws of nature come from?

It appears one presupposed explanation has only fueled the need for more explanations. Thus, when Stephen Hawking says nothing, he really means nothing plus something.

It is clear that those who put forward theories of nothing must rely on something to bring their ideas to life. As another example, consider the 2013 book, A Universe from Nothing, written by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. There, he makes his case under the assumption that certain natural laws are already in existence. Near the end of the book, he is more or less upfront about not having any idea where the laws of quantum mechanics originated. He merely takes such principles for granted. Accordingly, he writes the following:

“We generally assume that certain properties, like quantum mechanics, permeate all possibilities. I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.”[14]

Once again, the explanation of “nothing” exposes the need for more explanation: Where can the laws of quantum mechanics be traced back to? What originated them? Does a deeper law or property exist that we have yet to discover that can explain the origin of the universe? Is physics, by itself, adequate to answer the question, “Why is there something?” At what point can a reasonable person definitively stop asking questions?

What I hope these two postulations make clear is that science plays two roles when it comes to gaps in knowledge. On the one hand, science closes gaps in knowledge and offers wonderful explanations for questions like, “What did the early universe look like?” and “How do we know there was a Big Bang?” On the other hand, science simultaneously opens gaps in knowledge and exposes the limitations of our own understanding, so the harder we try to push for an explanation, the more we actually end up creating the need for additional answers—and so the gap widens. Answers to other complex questions like, “What makes consciousness?” or “Where does love come from?” demonstrate the same dilemma: the more scientific knowledge we gain, the less we seem to be able to provide answers to some basic questions.

Imagine for a moment that my wife came home and found another woman in our bed, and I said, “Hey, honey! Oh, this woman? Don’t worry about her, she just popped out of nowhere and for no reason!” In such a dire predicament, it would be much better for me if I were to remain silent because such a statement would be a blatant insult to my wife’s intelligence (not to mention our covenant of marriage). If uncaused effects were real, then we ought to observe them somewhere in the universe: like babies popping out of thin air, the spontaneous appearance of rocks—or better yet, gold bars popping up in my safety deposit box. If a person gave testimony that “a unicorn just appeared in my backyard,” he or she would be referred for evaluation for mental illness because he or she is making irrational, untestable, and unverifiable statements that have no need for logic. These phenomenonthings spontaneously coming into being from somethingwould actually be more plausible than something springing to existence from nothing, despite the fact that its increased plausibility still keeps it well within the realms of madness.

The point is that everything that we can perceive in realityregardless of sizehas an explanation. Nothing is not an explanation for anything, and it is the height of arbitrariness to simply say that the universe is an exception to the need for an explanation. We just can’t dismiss a causal explanation now that we exist and dwell in the universe.[15] And to take it one step further, the claim that the universe does not require an explanation because the universe is all there is is predicated on the assumption that the universe is all there is.

Other realms of physics will mention the so-called “virtual particles,” which are short-lived, subatomic particles that originate as a fluctuation of the energy contained in a vacuum. Many scientists will deceptively say that a vacuum is “nothing” and quantum fluctuation sheds light on how nothing can plausibly yield something. But here’s the thing: empty space in a vacuum contains energy (something), and the vacuum is governed by laws of nature (something). Nothing does not just mean empty space: it means totally nothing.

Even the language used in such inane propositions as “something from nothing” is misleading because saying nothing created the universe or nothing caused the universe to happen is preposterous. Creationists from the school of nothing have to thereby rely on elusive language and proclaim instead that the universe came from nothing. As Norman Geisler always says, nothing is sayable but not thinkable. A human being can’t even think of nothingno matter, no gravity, no time, no being, no thoughtslet alone be able to conceive of the grand majesty of the cosmos being created by it. A key take home point here is that statements made by scientistseven very intelligent and respected scientists like Hawking and Kraussare not necessarily scientific statements.

To tie all of this nothingness together, consider what William Lane Craig writes:

“To claim that something can come into being from nothing is worse than magic. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you’ve got the magician, not to mention the hat!”[16]

In this perverse trick, there is no magician, no rabbit, no hat, no theater, no oxygen, no carrots, no earth, and no reason whatsoever—and we are led to believe that a rabbit still comes forth. Take note that as complex a rabbit may be, it is much less complicated than the universe.

Once again, to claim nothing as an explanation for the existence of something does not explain its existence at all. And what is more troubling is that this false explanation rules out the chance of “nothing” ever being explained. Why do I say this? Because “nothing” can only be the conclusion of an exhaustive knowledge (omniscience) of all causes seen and unseen. We do not have this exhaustive body of knowledge. Furthermore, the hypothesis of nothing as a cause is never testable by the scientific method, and rigid empirical testing is warranted when the explanation relies exclusively on the natural sciences. This makes the statement that “the universe came from nothing” actually one of the most unscientific statements a person can make. This statement is a tacit assault on science itself. Henceforth, there is a huge difference between saying nothing caused something and whatever caused something is indeterminate. The former statement is based on blind faith; the latter is very reasonable. It is allowable to say, “I don’t know,” because this statement reflects the mere fact that the collective body of human knowledge is not complete. It is tremendously easier to say, “I don’t know,” because there is no burden of proof. The positive assertion, however, that, “nothing caused this effect,” denotes the ability to scientifically demonstrate that everything else had no causal effects.

In order to believe the fairy tale of nothing creating something, one would have to take a bold leap out of the realm of reason and logic, swallow a toxic dose of blind, irrational faith, and then proudly declare without any form of empirical evidence that madness reigns supreme.

The statement, “from nothing something comes,” can only be regarded as sensible when a blind and deaf shepherd leads blind and susceptible sheep. The only really good reason to believe that something happened is if there is real evidence that it happened. Ultimately, there is no legitimate evidence, nor any plausible explanations, as to why the universe came into existence from nothing and for no reason.

So are there any plausible explanations for why the universe exists?. We will discuss four next week in episode three, part two.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

________

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1998), 174

[2] Science and teleology (the study of the purpose of phenomenon) don’t really get along. That is, science works best when it seeks explanations and asks how things came to be. Science looks backward toward beginnings and mechanisms in order to satisfy intellectual hunger. But science will never look into the future in an eschatological sense in order to answer what something is for. That is what teleology does, and it does that by asking why first and then moving forward in the opposite direction. The results of this pursuit satisfy a psychological hunger. Having legitimate wisdom equates to appreciating both science and teleology (i.e., how and why), and any worldview that dismisses one or the other as inconsequential tacitly dismisses legitimate wisdom.

[3] Fritz Stern, “The Importance of ‘Why’,” World Policy Journal 17, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 4

[4] “How great leaders inspire action,” Ted: Ideas worth spreading, last accessed September 15, 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en

[5] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding / A Letter from a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh, ed. Eric Steinberg (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977), 18

[6] “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: On Probability,” Bartleby.com, last accessed September 17, 2016, http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/8.html

[7] R. C. Sproul, et. al., Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 110

[8] R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 111

[9] R. C. Sproul, Defending your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 50

[10] John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion (New York: Henry Holt, n.d.), 147

[11] John Stuart Mill, quoted in Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1957), 4

[12] Russell, Why I am not a Christian, 3–4

[13] Laura Roberts, “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe,” The Telegraph, last modified September 02, 2010, last accessed September 16, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/7976594/Stephen-Hawking-God-was-not-needed-to-create-the-Universe.html

[14] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing (New York: Atria Books, 2013), 177

[15] In logic, this is called the taxicab fallacy. As the maxim goes, science is not a taxicab that we can get in and out of whenever we like. In other words, a person can’t dismiss the logical premise (an explanation for the universe) that leads to a logical conclusion once they have arrived at a conclusion (the universe exists).

[16] William Lane Craig, On Guard (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 75.

One thought on “EPISODE THREE (3.1): WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING?

  1. Fermin88

    This gave me so much to think about I had to go over it three times. I’ll gather my thoughts and then post a longer response…

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