Why is there something rather than nothing?

Abstract

    A solution to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is proposed that also entails a proposed solution to the question "Why do things exist?". Others (1) have suggested that the seeming insolubility of the first question is based on a flawed assumption. I agree and propose the following. Traditionally, when we imagine getting rid of all existent entities, including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or "absolute nothing". This is the "nothing" we think of in the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?".  But, I suggest that what we're thinking of as the lack of all existent entities, or "nothing", is not in fact the lack of all existent entities. There's one existent entity that can't be gotten rid of: this situation, the supposed lack of all existent entities itself (not our mind's conception of this situation).  That is, this supposed lack of all isn't really "absolute nothing" but is itself an existent entity. It is a "something".   Another way to reach this same conclusion is as follows. We've been trying to answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" for hundreds of years, at least.  Several answers have been proposed, but we're still asking the question because none of these answers has been very satisfying.  They either don't really answer the question or assume the presence of "something" that's not "nothing".  So, there's still a suspicion in the back of our minds that "Yeah, but there has to be a reason why there's "something".  Why isn't it "nothing"?"  So, I think that if we ever want a satisfying answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", we have to face up to the idea that there could have been "nothing".   So, let's go down that path.  Assume there was "nothing", and also assume that "out of nothing, nothing comes" (e.g., there would be no mechanism in "nothing" to change it into a "something").  But, we see that there is "something" now.  The only possible conclusion is that, if there were "nothing", that somehow that "nothing" must be actually be a "something".   You can't go from 0 to 1 unless somehow 0 isn't really 0 but is actually a disguised 1, even though it looks like 0 on the surface.  In conclusion, this would mean that the original question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", is based on an incorrect assumption that what we believe to be "nothing" is really the lack of all existent entities. It also means that because even what we consider to be "nothing" is a "something", then "something" is necessary or non-contingent.  

Arguments for the proposed solution

    How can what we used to think of as "nothing" be a "something"? Two arguments and a mechanism are presented below. Both arguments consider the "nothing" in the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" to be the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all.

Argument 1

    Two choices for answering the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" are:

A. "Something” has always been here.

B. "Something” has not always been here.

Choice A is possible but doesn't explain anything; although more will be said about it at the end of this paragraph.  So, if we go with choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it (by "before", I don't mean "before" as in time, but "before" as in a perceived transformation from "nothing" to "something").  If this supposed "nothing” were truly the lack of all existent entities, though, there would be no mechanism present to change, or transform, this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now.  But, because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that the supposed “nothing” we were thinking of was not the lack of all existent entities, or absolute "nothing".  There must have been some existent entity, or "something", present that could either have been the "something" we see now or that would contain the mechanism needed to cause that "something" to appear. Because we got rid of all the existent entities we could think of, the only thing left that could be an existent entity would be the supposed "nothing" itself.  That is, it must in fact be a "something". This is logically required if we go with choice B, and I don't think there's a way around that.   What this means is that the situation we visualize as being the lack of all existent entities, or "nothing" is not the true lack of all existent entities and is, in fact, a "something".  

    Another way to say this is as follows.  If we ever want a satisfying answer to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", we have to face up to the idea that there could have been "nothing".  The answer that "we can't assume that nothing is the default state" doesn't really give a satisfying answer to the question of "Yeah, but why is there something now?"  So, assume there was "nothing", and also assume that "out of nothing, nothing comes" (e.g., there would be no mechanism in "nothing" to change it into a "something").  But, we see that there is "something" now.  The only possible conclusion is that, if there were "nothing", that somehow that "nothing" must be actually be a "something".   Overall, this reasoning means that it's not possible to have the true lack of all existent entities because even the resultant "nothing" is a "something".  In philosophy language, this means that "something" is necessary, or non-contingent.  It also means that the original question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", is based on a false distinction between "something" and "nothing" and that "something" and "nothing" are really just two different words for the existent entity that we've previously, and incorrectly, called the "absolute lack-of-all".  Ironically, going with choice B, above, leads to choice A.  This is because if what we used to think of as "absolute nothing" is actually an existent entity, or a "something", this would always have been true, which means that this "nothing"/"something" would always have been here.

Argument 2

    The second, longer argument is based on a proposed solution to the question "Why does a thing exist?".  To answer this, I use the example of a pile of dirt.  Why does a pile of dirt exist?  Three things that might give existence to the pile of dirt are:

1.) The individual molecules of dirt inside the pile.

2.) The surface of the pile.  What is a surface?  A surface is a boundary that defines what is contained within.

3.) Something outside the pile.

Discussing the last choice first, if the reason for existence of the pile were something, A, external to the pile, one would then have to ask why that external thing A exists?  Using the same logic, it would be because of something called B external to it. Then, one would have to ask why B exists.  To avoid an infinite regress, there would eventually have to be some thing that exists for reasons intrinsic, and not external, to it.  Because that would be equivalent to asking the original question of why the pile of dirt exists without considering the external option, I will no longer pursue the external option.

    So, that leaves two choices for why a thing, like a pile of dirt, exists: the stuff inside the pile (e.g., the individual molecules of dirt and the bonds between them), and the surface of the pile.  Evidence supporting the grouping/surface argument and against the stuff inside argument is as follows:

1.) First, try to imagine a thing like a pile of dirt existing that does not have an outermost edge or surface. It's hard to do.  You might say that you can remove the outer surface of the pile (the outer layer of dirt molecules) and then see that the stuff inside is still the pile.  But, the smaller pile you see inside also has a surface.  If you remove the surface of the smaller pile and visualize what's underneath it, that stuff underneath also has a surface.  You could keep removing more and more outer surfaces and visualizing what's inside, but eventually, to avoid an infinite regress and to still have anything exist at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental surface with no smaller surfaces (e.g., no smaller components) inside.  So, this suggests that the reason this fundamental thing exists is not because of the stuff inside it but because of its surface that defines it. 

2.) Second, suppose it's not the surface that gives existence to the pile but, instead, is just the individual dirt molecules and the bonds between them. One might then ask: why does a dirt molecule exist?"  The stuff-inside reasoning would say that it exists because of the stuff inside it, e.g., the atoms making up the dirt molecule and the electromagnetic forces that hold the atoms together. Then, one might ask why does an atom inside a dirt molecule or an electromagnetic force exist?"  The stuff-inside reasoning would say that they exist because of the stuff inside them (e.g., the neutrons, protons, and electrons making up the atom and the photons making up the electromagnetic force between the nucleus and the electrons).  Just as above, this process could obviously go on forever.  At some point, to avoid an infinite regress of explaining that things exist because of smaller and smaller stuff inside and in order to have anything exist at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental thing that exists that has absolutely no smaller components contained within. An existent entity with no smaller components inside would seem to be just a surface.  That is, there's nothing inside, and it exists.  What else would it be besides the surface?  And, this brings us back again to the idea that it's the surface, grouping or relationship defining what is contained within that causes a thing to exist.

    This reasoning also applies to abstract objects that exist. In the mind, an abstract concept labeled “love” is a grouping saying what other ideas and concepts (“trust”, “intimacy”, memories of related physiological feelings, etc.) are contained within it. If you remove the grouping, then you no longer have the concept called “love”, you just have a bunch of unrelated, individual ideas and concepts like “trust”, “intimacy”, etc., but they're not grouped together into a new concept labeled “love”.  In general, for non-mind existent entities, the grouping or relationship defining what is contained within is equivalent to the surface of the entity.  For existent entities in the mind, like abstract concepts, the grouping defining what is contained within is still equivalent to a surface or boundary but can be better visualized as the label the mind gives to the concept.  That is, the mental label of “love” is the surface or boundary defining what other mental constructs like “trust”, “intimacy”, etc. are contained within the concept labeled “love”. 

3.) Next, a thing like a pile of dirt is not just a bunch of dirt molecules considered individually.  It's the grouping together of these individual molecules into a new unit whole called a pile. The pile is a different existent entity than the individual dirt molecules considered on their own.  All the individual dirt molecules could be spread out individually over a section of land, and they wouldn't be considered a pile; they'd just be called dirt molecules on a section of land.  But, group them together into a little hill, and a new unit whole called a pile is created. So, the grouping together of dirt molecules is what causes the pile to exist.  A grouping together of dirt molecules provides a surface, or boundary, that defines what dirt molecules are contained within the pile and that is visually seen and physically felt as the pile.  So, once again, the  surface of the pile groups together the dirt molecules and gives "substance" and existence to the pile.

    Another example of this is that of a hole in a block of wood.  Before a hole is cut in a block of wood, the stuff inside the future hole is just a bunch of unrelated, individual locations in the block of wood.  There is nothing grouping them together into a separate unit whole (separate from the block of wood).  But, cutting the hole in the wood creates a surface that groups these locations together into a new unit whole called a hole and that is visually seen as the surface of the hole.  The surface, or wall, of the hole defines what locations are contained within and creates the new unit whole called the hole.

4.) Finally, one might say that it's all the bonds between the dirt molecules in a pile of dirt that cause the pile to exist, and these bonds exist inside the pile so it's not the surface of the pile that makes it exist.  This is a fair point, but two arguments against it are:

A. Bonds between molecules might explain why a thing of many components might exist, but they don't explain why a thing that has no smaller components inside (and therefore no bonds between the components) exists.  As explained above, a smallest entity with no further components inside is required to avoid an infinite regress of smaller and smaller things inside but still allow anything to exist at all. So, at this level, it's not the bonds inside that cause a thing to exist because there is no inside.  All that's left to cause the thing to exist is the surface that defines what is contained within (which in this case is nothing).

B. It's not the bonds (between dirt molecules) considered individually that causes the pile to exist. It's the collection of all these bonds in the pile considered together. This grouping together of all the bonds provides a surface, or boundary, defining what bonds are contained within and that we can see and touch as the surface of the pile.  So, this again supports the idea that it's the grouping, as represented by the surface, that ties together and defines what is contained within that causes a thing to exist.

     In sum, I propose that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or a definition of what is contained within. A grouping or definition of what is contained within creates a single unit whole. This grouping together or definition of what is contained within is the same as a boundary, or surface, defining what is contained within, and that gives "substance" and existence to the thing.  

    In addition to the pile of dirt, some other examples of existent entities and their groupings defining what is contained within are as follows. First, consider a book.  In this case, the grouping together of all the individual atoms and the bonds individual atoms creates a new and unique existent entity called a “book”, which is a different existent entity than the atoms and bonds inside considered individually. This grouping provides the surface that we see and can touch and that we call the "book". Try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist.  Second, think about a set of elements. If it were unknown what elements are contained in a set, would that set exist? No. Even for the null set, it's known exactly what is contained within: the lack of all elements. The grouping defining what elements are contained within is essential for a set to exist. The grouping is visually represented by the curly braces, or surface/edge, around the elements of the set and is what gives existence to the set.

Mechanism for how "nothing" can be a "something"

    Next, let's apply this definition of why a thing exists (a thing exists if it's a grouping defining what is contained within) to the question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  To start, "absolute nothing", or "non-existence", is first defined to mean: no matter, energy, space, volume, time, thoughts, abstract concepts, laws or concepts of physics/math/logic, etc.; and no minds to think about this "absolute lack-of-all".  Now, try to visualize this.  When we get rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or "absolute nothing" (here, I don't mean our mind's conception of this supposed "absolute nothing", I mean the supposed "absolute nothing" itself, in which all minds would be gone).  This situation is very hard to visualize because the mind is trying to imagine a situation in which it doesn't exist. But, once everything is gone and the mind is gone, this situation, this "absolute lack-of-all", would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. Is there anything else besides that "absolute nothing"? No. It is "nothing", and it is the all.  An entirety, whole amount or "the all" is a grouping that defines what is contained within (e.g., everything), which means that the situation we previously considered to be "absolute nothing" is itself an existent entity. The entirety/whole amount/"the all" grouping is itself the surface, or boundary, of this existent entity. Said another way, by its very nature, "absolute nothing"/"the all" defines itself and is therefore the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. This reasoning for why the "absolute lack-of-all" is actually an existent entity is the complement to argument 1, above, for why a thing exists.  Both come to the same conclusion but from different directions: that there is a most fundamental of existent entities that is a surface with no smaller existent entities inside. 

Conclusions

    Together, what all the above means is that our traditional consideration of the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, abstract concepts, laws of physics/math/logic and all minds as being the lack of all existent entities, or "absolute nothing", is incorrect because even the supposed "absolute lack-of-all" itself can be seen to be an existent entity, or a "something".  This means, then, that "something" or "existence" is necessary, or non-contingent.  And, finally if we start from "absolute nothing" and find that even this "nothing" is an existent entity, this suggests that this entity is the fundamental building block of our existence and that all other existent entities would be derived from it.  It would be the entity out of which our entire existence is composed. With "absolute nothing", there are no abstract existent entities, so this entity previously, and incorrectly, thought of as the "absolute lack-of-all" is a physically existent entity that composes our existence.

    Three notes on visualizing and talking about "non-existence" are as follows:

1.) It's very easy to confuse the mind's conception of "non-existence" with "non-existence" itself, in which neither the mind nor anything else is present.  Because our minds exist, our mind's conception of "non-existence" is dependent on existence; that is, we must define "non-existence" as the lack of existence.  This is why, to the mind, non-existence just looks like nothing at all.  But, "non-existence" itself, and not our mind's conception of "non-existence", does not have this requirement; it is independent of our mind, and of existence, and of being defined as the lack of existence.  "Non-existence" is on its own and, on its own, completely describes the entirety of what is there and is thus an existent entity; 

2.) Some might say that in the above, just by using the word "nothing", I'm reifying, or giving existence to, something that's not there at all.  But, that ignores the whole point about our mind's conception of "nothing" (and therefore the use of the word "nothing") being different than "nothing" itself, in which no minds are present.  Additionally, in order to even discuss the topic, we have have to talk about "nothing" as if it's a thing. It's okay to do this because our mind's conception of "nothing" and, therefore, our calling it the word "nothing", are independent of "nothing" itself and would not even be present in the case of "nothing" itself.  This means that calling it "nothing" has no effect on whether or not "nothing" itself is actually a thing.  That will be determined by "nothing" and not by our talking about "nothing". 

3.) It's very difficult to visualize "non-existence" because it entails visualizing, with our mind, what it would look like if everything, including the mind, were gone.  But, only once everything is gone, including the mind, does "non-existence" become the all, the entirety of all that is present, and thus an existent entity. 

    What is all of the above good for? Like all proposed solutions to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", I can never prove the above hypothesis because I can never actually directly see whether the "absolute lack-of-all" is an existent entity, but what I can do is to use the above thinking to develop a model of the universe and eventually make testable predictions.  If these predictions are confirmed by experimental evidence, this provides support for the proposed solution. I refer to this type of thinking as a metaphysics-to-physics approach or philosophical engineering and think it is a way to turn metaphysics into a more science-like field.  By using this type of thinking, I believe that physicists and philosophers would be able to make faster progress towards a deeper understanding of the universe than by using the more top-down approach they currently use.  I'm currently learning 3D modeling software and the computer programming language it uses in order to model the existent entities we previously thought of as "nothing" to see if produces results that look anything like reality. 

    A more detailed explanation of the thinking behind all this along with its use in building a primitive but physically realistic model of the universe is at:

https://sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite/
(click on third link).

References:

1. Gefter, A., Nautulus, 2014, 16;  http://nautil.us/issue/16/nothingness/the-bridge-from-nowhere

The main idea here was originally published on the internet in 2001 at www.geocities.com/roger846; although, this site is now closed.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to get the Comments section to work on google sites so it is not possible to leave comments. Contact information: roger846a@gmail.com


Copyright 2001, 2014, 2016.