Essay: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

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This is an original essay written by PatternOfPersona


Atheist Adolf Grünbaum, in his article, The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology, agrues in favor of the idea that theology has no answer to why there is something contingent rather than nothing contingent.[1] Grünbaum calls this question the Primordial Existential Question, or PEQ. But, in so far as atheism defines life, and, thus, the questioner, as a product purely of non-living, non-knowing matter, Grünbaum might better have called it the Primordial Ontological Question.

It seems to me that unless there is an Ontologically Primary Entity, contingent entities are impossible. But, it also seems to me that it might not be possible for a contingent entity, by definition, to fully apprehend the relationship between contingency and non-contingency, since, it seems to me, the only reference which a contingent agent has to a non-contingent agent is by way of that contingent agent's contingent nature: the 'before/after' relation. So, while a non-contingent agent may be thought to be an agent, for that agent to bring about a contingent agent easily seems to us to imply a 'time' prior to which the non-contingent agent brought anything about.

If there is (or were) nothing contingent, then there would be neither an answer to the question, nor any contingent agent which, by virtue of being contingent, seems both compelled to ask it and to be ultimately unable to attain an answer in terms of its own contingent frame of reference. Does our functional, contingent sense of time, and of our own minds within that sense of time, have anything to do with how we find the PEQ problematic in terms of a non-contingent sentient agency?

Since there is both a contingent generic 'something' and a contingent mind/questioner apart from that generic 'something', then there must be an answer of some kind, and it must not be in that generic 'something'. For, how can there be a question if the questioner's ability to know anything ultimately has no reference to what actually is? What is a thing worth if it has no one to place a worth upon it, nor even anyone to ask anything about its worth? And, who is it for whom himself is of no worth?

So, if (or, since) there is something contingent (including a questioner), then there is an answer to the question. And, it is telling that there is both 'something' and a questioner about, and apart from, that 'something'. This is true despite that many people look in the wrong place for an answer (in the generic 'something') and, so, find the question impossible to answer non-trivially. But, if whatever is that which most basically, necessarily exists is non-trivial, then the answer is non-trivial.

On the other hand, if there is nothing which necessarily exists, so that anything, and even everything, may cease to exist, then contingency is an unqualified universal, in which case anyone who actually thinks that the PEQ is a rational question is engaging in delusional thinking: there is no such question, the PEQ is incoherent.

A third alternative is that something exists necessarily, but that it is indifferent to us who ask, even to our feelings of a wish to live forever. But, this third alternative seems repulsive, because it makes life out to be a kind of joke which life plays upon itself: you get to live, but ultimately to no point, so that life is not its own justification since it merely is a thing which is precious only to itself while once having never been, and thus eventually may cease to be. Even forever. A miracle of a sort that, once extinguished, is absurd for having ever been. Except that, in that lifeless future, there is no one to find its merely Once-upon-a-time existence absurd.

So, contingent life, even that which dies, seeks somehow to continue indefinitely from the instant when it began to exist. We might well find part of a non-trivial, or non-indifferent, answer to the PEQ by asking why contingent life seeks its own eternal future.

The typical philosophical materialist, who views matter, including himself, as made up ultimately of indifferent stuff like rocks and dust, is sure he understands the nature of 'matter' all that well, so that life somehow attained, in the first place, that drive to live on like an imaginary magician fools himself into thinking he has come into existence. But, what, really, is this stuff that we call 'matter', which supposedly has such power, despite being viewed by materialists as so much under their own power? They esteem themselves to have power to identify matter as the origin of themselves, of their very minds, and of all minds whatever. A happy kingdom that would be, it seems, if such imagined power in them were real, for then they, as synthetic, contingent minds, could master the production and continuance of themselves, if only they could become conscious enough of the mechanisms that bring themselves about.

If this power is real in us contingent minds, then what does it matter to presuppose a non-contingent agent, an exclusively 'higher power'? Is the cause of the existence of something contingent an empty "just is", in all its indifferent glory? They esteem themselves, in effect, to be of their own design, by their theory of their origins, and by their wish for this power over death. But, if they are right, then such a wish must have arose the moment that life became aware of its mortality. To such Kings of Matter, any sort of basic theism ultimately is a threat, by denying to them their wish for such power. Of course, most of them do not go to tyrannical extremes, as did Karl Marx, to seek even the power to 'save humanity' from its self-inflicted problems, since most of them more-or-less know, like humans in general, the balance of a life which accords rights to other humans as such, if not to non-human animals. Even so, there is the problem of what one category of contingent knowers is the direct beneficiary of a humane Ontological Truth, and thus what categories of contingent knowers benefit merely by way of that one category: because, while there is indeed a 'merry-go-round' of benefits, there is the question of how any instance of any kind of benefit ever begins to go round.

Now, if there is a non-contingent agent, then there is a motive---and a non-trivial one---for the existence of contingent things: the existence and continuance of living creatures, in Edenic bliss, in the most simple knowledge of that agent. So long as the one kind of creature which is given the power of stewardship over all lesser life forms does not abuse that power. Only that which flourishes, and causes to flourish lesser creatures, flourishes. God is the ideal being, in that we recognize, in our most stable and loving frames of mind, that toward which we aspire, not to have power over death, but to not be dying in the first place, to not be suffering, and to have no lesser life forms suffering either.

'But', some would say, 'this is just a maternal instinct taken to absurd logical extremes, that instinct being over-active, over-weighted: one ought to be indifferent, perhaps even sometimes purposely cruel, toward others, because there is not enough even for one Eden for two people, and never has been.'

I think the PEQ has a lot with which to answer it.

Silent Running

That which necessarily exists, if it is non-trivial, cannot actually create something which is, at root, trivial, since that root is none other than itself. And, what it creates is a reflection---albeit a contingent and synthetic reflection---of itself. Only trivia can create trivia, and it is doubtful whether trivia can create the non-trivial (though many atheists are determined to believe that it can, and has, in which case there is no answer to the PEQ, since the root of all knowers is something which has no worth to itself).

So, in so far as we measure ourselves to be non-trivial, who are but contingent knowers (and, thus, questioners) the answer is more non-trivial, by far, that are we.

Yet, something besides ourselves exists, and which, indeed, seems indifferent and trivial. That of which we have empirical access is all measured by us to be of less worth than ourselves: rocks and trees, stars and lifeless planets, even gravity, electric lighting, and animals.

It seems to me that only those who grant that entities which value themselves are mere contingencies of trivial, non-knowing, indifferent stardust have no answer to the PEQ---nor, for some of such thinkers, need there be an answer, since death, to them, means eternal future non-existence of the person, despite that somehow the person existed in the first place. Persons, thus, may be deemed worthy of no worth by anyone who so chooses, such that the tyranny of the most selfish kinds of triage against one's fellows, and against all of life, is acceptable for anyone for whom it is supposed accepts it: the most 'powerful' to dominate, despite the dominated's suffering, is the most fit to be called 'worthy' to live long and prosper.

But, even all these non-human things, in our most stable and contented states of mind, are worth much in our minds, so that we would enjoy even knowing that, without us, at least the animals and the trees continue to exist and be cared for. For, even such a dream is a reflection of us, however dim. Like in the movie,Silent Running.

The Arrogance of False Invincibility of Rationality

It seems to me that the PEQ cannot properly be estimated unless first we apprehend the natures of our own logical perceptions, including our perception of time, space, matter (i.e., the power of known agents), and mind.

When you walk, is it the ground that moves? Is logic a treadmill that does your bidding at your every step? Are you, who are a mere creature, the unmoving ground on which your own being is based? Are you so rational that it is logically impossible for you to lose sight of any of the ways in which your mind works? Does your least, or most fleeting, arrogance play no part in your logic of epistemology, nor even in your logic of logic? See, for example, the Conservapedia article on omnipotence.

It is felt by some that omnipotence must include the ‘power’ of making it logically possible for 2 plus 2 to equal 5, or, for making another ‘omnipotence’ which is even more powerful than omnipotence. It is felt that if omnipotence does not have such power, then there are things over which omnipotence lacks genuine power, in which case the proposed omnipotence is not genuinely omnipotent.

In such people’s minds, the basis of logic, which is identifiability, is actually something which ‘resists’ being changed, such that to imagine peerless power is to get the sense that unless such power can change or destroy all identities, then the 'power' to identify such power is greater that that very power. Such is called the 'omnipotence of thought'. In the estimation of such 'thinking', omnipotence must be identified as including the ‘power’ to overcome this ‘resistance’ which even its own identity poses.

Even some theists, in noting that the universal logical facts can be used by unbelievers to support their unbelief, find these universals ‘guilty by association’---as seeming genuinely to pose a resistance to God. In other words, such theists identify these universals, as such, as colluding with unbelief. For such theists, any abstraction which they can imagine to be ‘resistant’ to the power of God’s omnipotence (or ontologically arbitrary 'will') must be denied ultimate reality, lest the general being of God seem not to be that ultimate reality. In other words, theists who fall to thinking this way conclude that the being of God must be re-defined as (amended with, qualified by the provision that it is) a sort of contingency in the face of that particular tendency of fallen humans, in their pride of life, to mistake abstraction for substance, feeling-of-invincibility (either or both in regard to physical vitality or rational 'knowledge') for actual invincibility.

But, while the human body may have been designed originally for a provisional immortality, and the human mind for a provisional perfect coherence, those provisions obviously have long since been violated. So, there is no longer merely a generic logic upon which to draw for the pursuit of truth: the man who walks on the ground not only limps, or crawls, but often is too dizzy to tell that the world is not, in fact, spinning, and, sometimes, even too drunk to tell that the ground is not, in fact, lurching under his feet.

Correspondence, and the Name of God

Arrogance in theism includes the 'observation' that, from the point of view of the creature, God and creature ultimately have a certain correspondence with each other. But, such theism finds this point of view troublesome, in that theists may mistakenly esteem it a case of actual power on the part of the creature to use this correspondence in such a way as to deny the existence and necessity, or, at least, the ideal-ness and perfection, of God: evil exists. In other words, that even the knowledge of God which is inherent in every human heart, and by which all fallen humans are condemned in their own minds as flawed, is deemed a product of the human desire for the ‘power’ to ‘identify God and thereby have power over God’.

So, any arrogant use of theism by theists is, at least in effect, to amend the initial view of the being or power of God by saying that there ultimately is no kind of correspondence between God ('s power) and the metaphysically epistemic competencies of creatures. In other words, an arrogant use of the knowledge of God by those who grant the objective correspondence of such knowledge is defined as the desire to have it be that God have ‘power’ to exceed all sense which creatures have in regard to that very knowledge, so that there ultimately is no correspondence between creature and God: since God can be identified in some way, God cannot be identified in any way.

What these theists fail to realize is that their very wish to have God be superior to all sense is born of their own fallen sense of a lack in their own power to remain alive, to be truly healthy, and, by an unfaltering capacity of their minds as instruments of truth, to be in full possession both of their own minds and of their share of the Earth.

This ‘power to identify’ is, on occasion, a motive for esteeming the name of God as something which ought never be spoken. But, as seen by the mistakes which humans commit through a failure to truly understand their own general abstractions, nothing is actually done to God’s being by having and using a description of God’s being. When logical errors are made, it is not logic which has changed; rather, it is the absurd fallen human mind which, for drunkenness in a mistaken sense of power of linear thought, has lost sight of the fact that abstractions are powers which, by being mere reflections of the creature's mind in the mirror of itself, touch only that mind.

The real Game of Twenty Questions

The limited sentient agent, in inquiring how he knows what he knows, necessarily uses some of his a priori knowledge. But, in that his power of sentience is limited in real-time, he does not necessarily have a generally conscious knowledge of some of his most a priori kinds of knowledge. So, in asking himself what is the most important kinds of knowledge, and what is the extent to which he knows of these, and how he knows it, it is logically possible for him to fall into the epistemically negative effects of any arrogance, if any, which he may ever have. So, in contrast to being his own worst enemy, his mission of true inquiry, if he chooses to accept it, is to be his own best asker, and answerer. To that end I offer what I call the game of Twenty Questions Meta, which I've thus far seen to formulate, like Goldielocks, by at least, and, by at most, four rules:

Rule one
The only questions that may be asked are those for which a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer is sought.
Rule two
The only answers which may ever be given are any one, and only one, of the following four kinds:
a) ‘yes/affirmative’,
b) ‘no/negative’,
c) ‘no/I object to the assumptions (that seem to me to be) made by the question.’
d) ‘I’m not sure how to answer that/I can’t answer that/I don’t know/insufficient data/does not compute/I don’t understand.’
Rule three
The objects pre-selected by the answerer ideally must be such that they cannot be identified by simple disjunctive logic alone. For example, if the object pre-selected is specifically a house made of a composite of plant, animal and mineral substances, then the ‘nature’ of the object cannot be ‘narrowed down’ by asking, ‘Is it a plant?’ For another example, if the object is specifically that about which the answerer is not sure of its ontological status on a scale of, say, concrete vs. abstract, then a question of ‘is it abstract?’ cannot be answered by that answerer with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In short, this rule allows for, and emphasizes, the ambiguity of the knowledge or thoughts of a non-omniscient agent.
Rule four
The first question to be asked must be one which makes an assumption not yet confirmed or negated by the answerer, such as, ‘Have you, or have you not, stopped x?’, and must be such that the asker is sure that the answerer has never done x to begin with, such as ‘flying to the moon’, ‘morphing into a grasshopper at night’, or ‘throwing every last penny you get down a street drain on the corner of Fourth and Main’. This rule is for the purpose of emphasizing the answerer’s epistemological autonomy from what may wrongly appear to be ‘simple questions’. In other words, when a fool asks a question, it is not 'just a question'.

To summarize, Twenty Questions Meta, or TQM, is a ‘game’ the hopeful utility of which is a most deeply critical, and existentially inquisitional, improvement of the epistemological abilities of limited-and-flawed epistemological agents. The visual ambiguity of this ‘game’’s acronym (TQM) to that for ‘Theory of Mind’ (TOM) is intentionally congruent. To know one's own mind is one of the first and ever-present jobs of any functionally limited mind.

A Return

Now, consider, again, the original question: ‘Why is there something contingent rather than nothing contingent?’ But, let's add a deeper level of 'nothing': why is there not absolutely nothing, not even a necessary being like God?

This question, like the original one, poses an absolute disjunct: nothing vs. something. But, in not knowing the answer, it is telling why anyone would ask it. Further, there cannot be an ‘objective third party’ to judge the two sides. In any contest or controversy, no matter how any of them may appear to involve more than two sides, there already is an answer as to which of two sides is right. The problem often is in sorting out the complexities in order to identify the actual two sides to begin with. False dichotomies abound.

Of course, since the question of why there is something rather than nothing poses an absolute disjunct, there are exactly two different things into which to look for the answer. It is telling that people do not take for granted, at the outset, that the answer is to be found in the Absolute Nothing.’ In other words, in even asking the question, they automatically have some sense of looking into the ‘something’ for an answer. But, in observing the disjunct, and while, like many atheists do, having in mind that 'something' amounts to trivia, they may get the impression that there is a fair chance that the question has no answer, or, if it does, then it surely is a trivial one. They may feel that, since such a question can intelligibly be asked by one who does not know the answer, then every thing is essentially random or trivial---as ultimately lacking any deep and meaningful correspondence with one other.

Now, if there is no answer to the question of why something exists rather than an Absolute nothing, then this means four main things: One, there is no genuine basis for anything; Two, the fact that anything at all exists is a random kind of fact, so that all things, and all facts, respectively have no ultimate connection to each other; Three, nothing which does exist exists necessarily, so that any given thing is subject to cease to exist, and, that, when it ceases to exist, there is no most basic repercussion on anything else that exists; Four, any dispute as to whether the question has an answer already has an answer: the question has no answer.

But, if every fact ultimately has no connection to any other fact---in other words, if every most basic thing is not genuinely basic---then there either is infinite regress of ‘basicality’, i.e., simple infinite regress, or whatever is basic is basically trivial, simply arbitrary. If whatever is basic is simply arbitrary, then, there is, by definition, no answer to the question---and the same holds if there is simple infinite regress. So, unless either simple infinite regress or simple arbitrariness is asserted, then it is allowed that there is an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

In asking why something exists rather than nothing, it is known that random and trivial answers are absurdly false, even ecstatically humorous. For example, one can say that the reason something exists rather than nothing is because barbeque exists: barbeque is the purpose of life, barbeque holds all the answers, barbeque is the answer for every question. Forget The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which answers the question with ‘42’, we can answer every question with ‘barbeque’. Garrison Keeler answers it with ‘Catsup’.

Of course, if there were absolutely nothing, then there would be no answer to the question of why there is nothing. In fact, there would be no answer to any question: ‘What is nothing?’ ‘How is there nothing?’ ‘Why does 2 plus 2 equal 4?’ ‘Where do I come from?’ ‘Is there any kind of free will?’ ‘What kinds of freedom do I have?’ ‘Does God exist?’ ‘Why is there evil?’ Even, ‘What motivates me to ask “why is there something rather than nothing”?’ (what am I missing that's right in front of me?)

Some people think they have no motive in asking why there is something rather than nothing. After all, it can seem like a perfectly useless question. But, usefulness---meaning, significance---is exactly why people ask it. If they could discover the true, true answer, then they could use the answer to improve their struggling lives. Of course, if they decided there truly is no answer, then they would not keep wondering at it. People are more practical---and significant---than they sometimes realize.

So, I think, in every case, there are exactly two motives for asking the question, however subtly unfelt by the asker: one, they don’t already know the answer; two, they want there to be an answer---a truly satisfying answer. If they already knew the answer, they could not wonder what, if anything, the answer could be. If they didn’t care, in any sense, whether there was an answer, they would never in the least seriously wonder what, if anything, the answer could be. These two motives actually are two branches of one motive: people want to have lives that are so perfectly healthy and grief-free that they never feel the least need to ask the question---and would even find it absurd that anyone would the least seriously ask it. But, if this lack of perfect living really is the motive for asking the question, and if the question has an answer, then the answer is to be found in that which has all most basic power and all most basic goodness.

Now, for someone who sincerely thinks that there may be no answer to why there is something rather than nothing, I think they might also tend to think that omnipotence might be---if not is---anti-qualified power, pure agency, having no genuine correspondence to 'anything', whether to anything immediately meaningful or to anything which is a negation of something immediately meaningful.

It is understandably easier on the tired brain just to think of omnipotence as irrationally 'pure' agency. This is because the alternatives are either to keep up the tension of cognitive dissonance, or to set out on a ‘task of discovery’ which some feel could well be a vain and, therefore, ultimately grievous, effort: that there may be no answer; that 'God is Great' precisely because God is not Great; that God is not an object for the creature's learning either about God or about anything else, such that God is the a priori which is not actually known, but simply is "that of which one must have faith".

But, if it is felt that there is an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then there also should be accorded an answer to why omnipotence can be omnipotent without being as ‘absolute’ as the ‘absolute nothing’. Because, if there is no answer to why there is something rather than nothing, then omnipotence would indeed be ‘absolute’: such an ‘omnipotence’ could make it to be that there is Absolute nothing, there always has been Absolute nothing, and always shall be Absolute nothing. But, if such an ‘omnipotence’ existed, then it would have to already be inferior to Absolute nothing in order to make it to be that there is, always has been, and always shall be, Absolute nothing. And, most importantly, if such an ‘omnipotence’ existed, then there really would be no answer to why there is something rather than nothing, not even a trivial answer.

So, I think that anyone who believes in ‘Absolute’ ‘omnipotence’ (or, at least, who thinks that that is what omnipotence is, but who do not believe in any omnipotence), but who believes there IS an answer to why there is something rather than nothing, is at least a little bit ignorant of one or more metaphysical ‘flow charts’.

There are basically two competing ideas as to the most meaningfully ‘ultimate’ agent (i. e., theological omnipotence). One of these ideas is that the ‘ultimate’ agent most meaningfully must be an agent which obtains in contradistinction to, and in incontestable agency over, everything which is meaningful. This idea of the ‘ultimate’ agent is based on the ‘intuition’ that the concept of ‘all power’ must be an ideational compound of ‘all’ and that abstraction of ‘power’ which is in contradistinction to, and in some agency over, something. So, in other words, this idea of the most meaningfully ‘ultimate’ agent is such an abstraction of ultimate agency as to be in contradistinction to, and in incontestable agency over, even itself. This idea is the result of pushing the most abstracted of empirical definitions of power toward formulating an idea of ‘ultimate power’.

The other idea of the most meaningfully ‘ultimate’ agent is that of an agent which alone is all the most basic, or irreducible, meaning. This means that this is an agent by which we have a sense of logical possibility and consistency, and, thus, against which we draw our sense both of logical contradiction and logical impossibility.

Some people, in thinking about omnipotence, arrive at what they take as the a priori knowledge (or, at least, the intuition) that omnipotence is a single, indivisible idea which nevertheless is a compound of sense and nonsense.

In answering ‘no’ to the question, ‘Does a hubris have a flavor?’, you rightly do not expect to be misunderstood as implying either that ‘hubris’ is a noun or that it is something which can be identified at all in terms of flavor (and lack thereof). In other words, you rightly do not expect to be thought to be answering a question about a (relatively or purely) flavorless empirical object. And, the reason you rightly do not expect this is because you rightly expect that the asker has a basic sense of that about which he is asking.

There is ideational content to the word ‘omnipotence’. In other words, we actually mean something by it. So, there is some query content to questions about omnipotence that have ideational content besides that of omnipotence. ‘Omnipotence can create a rock too heavy for it to lift’. But, while many kinds of questions about omnipotence can more-or-less reasonably be asked, most of these questions also can easily be misunderstood regarding the relations which the objects and ideas in the questions have to one another. If omnipotence cannot create a rock which omnipotence cannot lift, then is omnipotence not, by definition, omnipotent, since there is some ideational content to ‘omnipotence can create a rock which omnipotence then cannot lift’?

Unless we wish sincerely to claim that our ideas are independent of the realities on which they are based, then the idea of omnipotence as ‘that which is able to do anything which has any ideational content at all’ is not omnipotence. If we wish to claim that the idea of omnipotence includes the power to create a rock which omnipotence then cannot lift, then what we are claiming is that our idea of omnipotence already is not omnipotent, since something can exceed its power. Whence does this supposed omnipotence get the power to create something which exceeds omnipotence?

But, the very claim that ‘the idea of omnipotence includes the power to exceed itself’ is based partly on our sense that omnipotence is peerless agency. Is it consistent to the logic of omnipotence to think that omnipotence must be subject to be exceeded by its own power in order for omnipotence to be peerless power? The fact that there is, somehow, a correct sense in the claim that ‘non-omnipotent agents (you and me) are subject to be exceeded by their own power’ does not mean that the same can correctly be claimed for omnipotence, any more than can all facts about finitudes be claimed for infinity or vice versa. One does not assert that infinity is self-contradictory by mistakenly insisting that it must abide by the logical relations which finitudes have to it or to each other.


In so far as the most irreducibly, and, thus, transcendently, concrete entity is the most non-trivial entity in terms of all that which we limited agents find non-trivial, that entity is the most properly called ‘power’. Either God is love, and, thus, that God is that power, or the PEQ is a question without an answer to which we loving agents can most truly relate: an answer which is a kind of mechanism-ism that does not, and cannot, value either itself or us. Only an arrogant fool would appeal to such a god to justify his own arrogant acts. And, the simple fact is that, whether by atheist or theist, Christian or Jew, even the least and most fleeting arrogance necessarily, most implicitly, does just that.



Further reading

Essay: One person's view of the Ontological Argument

Essay: Omnipotence, and the logic of power