Over years of teaching philosophy, I have observed that people fall into two groups with regard to the Biggest Question. The Biggest Question is one that is so big it is hard to fit into words, but here goes: When everything that can be explained has been explained, when we know the truths of physics and brains and psychology and social interactions and so on and so forth, will there still be anything worth wondering about? I am assuming the “wonder” here is a philosophical wonder, not the sort of wonder over whatever happened to my old pocket knife or whatever. It’s the sort of wonder that has a “why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing” flavor to it. It’s the sort of wonder that doesn’t go away no matter how much is explained.
Some people think that on that sunny day when everything that can be explained has been explained, well then, that will be that. We will understand why things have happened, and how we came to exist, and what we should do if we want to be healthy and happy, and why works of art move us as they do. It’s not that such people are in any way shallow or unimaginative or tone deaf. They are open to the most wonderful experiences of life, along with the most heart-wrenching and most tragic. It’s just that they think these experiences can be explained and understood in all their glory through that explanation. If there is anything “left over” — some stubborn bit of incredulous wonder we just can’t shake — then that too will be explained through some feature of human psychology, like the way those patterns still seem to swirl in a static optical illusion even when you know the trickery behind it. The feeling that there is a Mystery can itself be explained as an illusory sort of feeling, an accidental by-product of the cognitive engine we happen to think with.
I’m a different type of person. I think we can answer the deep questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but when we do, that’s just the beginning. We can then use that answer to advance science, invent things and help people. Also, even before answering the question, we should enjoy life. Also, if there’s a rational, mechanical answer to this question, that means we might live in a cold, meaningless universe. But to me, that makes the fact that the pieces of existence that came together to form life and us in a meaningless universe is pretty amazing and great, not a miracle in the religious sense, but still amazing, and we should be thankful for that and enjoy the relationships with family and friends.
In regard to the question itself, I think that, as others have suggested, the seeming insolubility of the question is based on a flawed assumption. I think the flaw is that the situation we often assume is “nothing” (e.g., the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics/math/logic, possible worlds/possibilities, properties, consciousness, and minds, including the mind of the person trying to imagine this supposed lack of all) isn’t really “nothing”. Instead, I think this situation is itself an existent entity, or a “something”. The rationale is below.
I think that to ever get a satisfying answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, we’re going to have to address the possibility that there could have been “nothing”, but now there is “something”. As you said, if this supposed “nothing” before the “something” was truly the lack of all existent entities, 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 if we start with “nothing” is that the supposed “nothing” we were thinking of was not in fact the lack of all existent entities, or absolute “nothing” but was in fact a “something”. Another way to say this is that if you start with a 0 (e.g., “nothing”) and end up with a 1 (e.g., “something”), you can’t do this unless somehow the 0 isn’t really a 0 but is actually a 1 in disguise, even though it looks like 0 on the surface. That is, in one way of thinking “nothing” just looks like “nothing”. But, if we think about “nothing” in a different way, we can see through its disguise and see that it’s a “something”. This then gets back around to your point of “something” always having been here except now there’s a reason why: because even what we think of as “nothing” is a “something”.
How can “nothing” be a “something”? I think it’s first important to try and figure out why any “normal” thing (like a book, or a set) can exist and be a “something”. I propose that a thing exists if it is a grouping that ties stuff together into a unit whole and that in so doing defines what is contained within that unit whole. This idea of a unit whole or a unity as being related to why things exist isn’t new. Next, when you get rid of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics/math/logic, possible worlds/possibilities, properties, consciousness, and finally minds, including the mind of the person trying to imagine this supposed lack of all, we think that this is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing” But, once everything is gone and the mind is gone, this situation, this “absolute nothing”, would, by its very nature, define the situation completely. This “nothing” would be it; it would be the all. 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/defined completely/whole amount/”the all” is a grouping, which means that the situation we previously considered to be “absolute nothing” is itself an existent entity. It’s only once all things, including all minds, are gone does “nothing” become “the all” and a new unit whole that we can then, after the fact, see from the outside as a whole unit. One might object and say that being a grouping is a property so how can it be there in “nothing”? The answer is that the property of being a grouping (e.g., the all grouping) only appears after all else, including all properties and the mind of the person trying to imagine this, is gone. In other words, the very lack of all existent entities is itself what allows this new property of being the all grouping to appear.
Three important points are:
1. It’s very important to distinguish between the mind’s conception of “nothing” and “nothing” itself, in which no minds would be there. These are two different things. In visualizing “nothing” one has to try to imagine what it’s like when no minds are there. Of course, this is impossible, but we can try to extrapolate.
2. Because the mind’s conception of “nothing” and “nothing” itself are two different things, our talking about “nothing” itself (which is derived from the mind’s conception of “nothing”) doesn’t reify “nothing” itself. Our talking about it has nothing to do with whether or not “nothing” itself exists or not.
3. The words “was” (i.e., “was nothing”) and “then”/”now” (i.e., “then something”) in the above imply a temporal change, time would not exist until there was “something”, so I don’t use these words in a time sense. Instead, I suggest that the two different words, “nothing” and “something”, describe the same situation (e.g., “the lack of all”), and that the human mind can view the switching between the two different words, or ways of visualizing “the lack of all”, as a temporal change from “was” to “now”.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Roger. I agree that “nothing” needs to be handled with extraordinary care – we have to be clear what sorts of things we are saying aren’t there, since that implies what other sorts might be there; and we should not be too sure that it makes sense to speak of there being no sorts of objects whatsoever. This is a place where grammar often gives us the illusion of thinking we know what we are saying when we might really be saying, well, nothing!
I sure agree that most people get caught up the grammar and in confusing the mind’s conception of nothing with nothing itself. It hinders progress. And when physicists say they’ve solved the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, it doesn’t help. But we just have to keep working at it. Here’s to nothing! And something!
Whichever side you land on the ‘big question’, you should probably get used to mystery since it’s going to be awful hard to appropriate all that knowledge we collectively gain (assuming we do, eventually). You’ll be stuck with inference or trust (for now, hope) or some such terrible thing, the types of things that make mystery warm and comforting.