Monday, August 12, 2019

Something Rather Than Nothing

Perhaps one of the biggest philosophical questions ever asked is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” When we look at the earth, the moon, the stars, our galaxy, the universe, gravity, light, and energy, we are struck with the immensity and complexity of this place in which we find ourselves. It is natural to ask questions about this universe and to ask how it is that this place actually functions and stays in motion. Science has done a good job of exploring and explaining much about our world. But we might also ask how it is that the universe exists at all. Philosophers have worked on a satisfying answer to this question for decades and still the question persists. We know that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz spent much time thinking about this question and had what I would still consider the most satisfying answer to the question.

Leibniz who lived from 1646–1716 was one of the great thinkers and philosophers of his time but for many years was sadly overlooked. He was a contemporary of Isaac Newton and both of them discovered calculus independently of each other. Many of the notations and symbols used by Leibniz as he developed calculus are still used today. He was an inventor of mechanical calculators, refined the binary number system which is used in computers, and was a philosopher who specialized in rationalism and logic. He was devoted to his work yet known for his imagination, friendship, and good manners. I will save his answer to the big question until the end of this article but let us first look at a few of the other answers people have come up with.

Lawrence Krauss, a current author and physicist posits that gravity and the quantum vacuum worked together to generate the initial particles which resulted in a universe. He believes that it was inevitable that the universe would arise given gravity and the quantum vacuum. Stephen Hawking suggested a very similar argument in his 2010 book, The Grand Design. Although this answer may seem logical and satisfying to these two physicists, at a philosophical level, we would then want to ask, “Why must we assume gravity or a quantum vacuum or particles?” Why is there anything at all? Ultimately, this kind of answer remains highly unsatisfying to many.

Others answer Leibniz's question by saying that the universe has always existed. This was a common assumption until the early 20th Century when Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaitre noted that the universe was expanding and Lemaitre suggested that the expansion could be traced back to a “single primeval atom” or “cosmic egg.” This was the beginning of the concept of The Big Bang. Lemaitre, a faith-filled Catholic priest, was very much involved in convincing Albert Einstein and others that the universe had a beginning. Of course, the Big Bang model has gone on to be the prevailing model of the community of physicists seeking to describe our known universe. It elegantly describes the beginning of all things including matter, time, gravity, and the universal constants that have been detected.

Still others would suggest that our universe is a mystery and its origins are lost to us. In other words: we simply do not know why there is something rather than nothing. Bertrand Russel famously took this stance in a 1948 radio debate with Frederick Copleston. Such an answer has the effect of sounding clever and somehow satisfying but most would find that the satisfaction quickly fades. Some will be satisfied with answering a big question with a big shrug of the shoulders; most of us will not.

Leibniz also found such non-answers unsatisfying and searched his whole life for a better answer. He toyed with Russell’s response and worked to make more sense of it. In the end he found that such an answer would not satisfy his own intellect. He eventually came to an answer that was substantial and pleasing but was one that would ultimately contribute to his falling out of favour in the philosophical and scientific communities. His answer was one that took courage to voice. It was an answer that was both elegant and simple as science demanded, yet one which resulted in a major paradigm shift which many other thinkers are unwilling to make. His answer shifts one’s entire thinking process and causes one to consider the entirety of life. Leibniz’s simple answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing was, “God wanted there to be a universe.” It is a simple answer yet results in a lifetime of introspection and development, for if there is a great creator God behind the beginning of the universe, we will want to know more about God and how he communicates with his world. We will spend the rest of our lives seeking to know him.

References and Further Reading:

Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. 2010. The Grand Design. Bantam Books.
Look, Brandon C. 2017. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Strickland, Lloyd. 2019. Answering the biggest question of all: why is there something rather than nothing? 08 08.
Wikipedia. 2019. "Copleston-Russell Debate." Wikipedia. 08 11. Accessed 2019.
—. 2019. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. 08 08.
—. 2019. Lawrence M. Krauss. 08 08.

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