Why Is There a Universe at All Rather than Just Nothing? Part 1

Adolf Grünbaum

In his 1697 article “On the Ultimate Origination of Things,” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz posed a historic question: he demanded “a full reason why there should be any world rather than none.” In a sequel of 1714, he famously asked more generally: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (italics in original). And yet he spoke of the answer to this latter, more general question as providing a “sufficient reason” for “the existence of the universe,” since the something that actually exists is indeed the universe in its most comprehensive sense (italics added). Thus, presumably, Leibniz’s two successive interrogative formulations can legitimately coalesce into my titular question: “Why is there a universe at all, rather than just nothing?”

In a 2004 precursor article, I gave Leibniz’s 1714 ontological query, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” the title “Primordial Existential Question.” I then employed the acronym PEQ to abbreviate the phrase “Primordial Existential Question.” Thus, the locution PEQ denoted Leibniz’s eighteenth-century question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Here, however, I shall employ the designation PEQ to refer alternatively to my more specific titular question, “Why is there a universe at all, rather than just nothing?” I trust that this alternative use in context will not incur the risk of confusion.

Within a Leibnizian framework, his 1714 version of PEQ must be refined to preclude its trivialization. Familiarly, Leibniz distinguished between a logically contingent entity, on the one hand, and a necessary being, on the other: A logically contingent object is one whose nonexistence is logically possible, and which thus might well not exist. But, for Leibniz, a “necessary being” is one “bearing the reason of its existence within itself,” a being whose nonexistence is thus logically impossible.

But if there is a necessary being, there can be no question for Leibniz why it exists, rather than not, because such a being could not possibly fail to exist. Therefore, it would clearly trivialize Leibniz’s cardinal PEQ, if that question were asked about a “something” that exists necessarily.

Thus, we can formulate Leibniz’s nontrivial construal of PEQ as follows: “Why is there something contingent at all, rather than just nothing contingent?” And since Leibniz argued that God exists necessarily, he considered the being of God compossible with (i.e., able to coexist with) a putative state in which absolutely nothing contingent exists.

Unlike Leibniz, the present-day philosopher Richard Swinburne claims that God exists only contingently. Hence, Swinburne believes that God is also absent from a world that is devoid of all contingent entities.

Like the philosopher Derek Parfit, I shall speak of the presumed logical possibility of there being nothing contingent as “The Null Possibility.” And like him, I shall use the label “Null World” to refer to a logically possible world in which there is nothing contingent at all.

My major concern here will be, in due course, to provide a thorough critical scrutiny of Leibniz’s time-honored PEQ, and then to develop the important ramifications of that critique. But to lay the groundwork for that, several preliminary admonitions will occupy us beforehand.

Is It Imperative to Explain Why the Null Possibility Is Not Instantiated?

First, I need to comment on the gloss or twist that Parfit and Swinburne have put upon Leibniz’s PEQ. Almost a decade ago, Parfit wrote: “[W]hy is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing [contingent] ever existed; no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this [“Null”] possibility . . . it can seem astonishing that anything [contingent] exists [emphasis added].” Thereupon, Parfit enthrones PEQ on a pedestal, saying: “No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe [i.e., some world or other]: why there is anything rather than nothing.” Importantly, as I see it, Parfit’s logical motivation for this cosmic version of PEQ derives largely from the insidious peremptory assumption that the actual existence of a contingent universe in lieu of the Null World is just not to be expected, and that the de facto existence of our world is therefore inescapably amazing and perplexing! A like attitude is expressed in a very recent Amazon.com review of the 2004 book by the Oxford philosopher Bede Rundle, which is titled Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. As the reviewer puts it: “The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is a good candidate for being philosophy’s most profound and disturbing question. Is it not a complete and utter mystery that there should be anything at all?”

Swinburne shares Parfit’s astonishment that anything at all exists, declaring in his 1991 book, The Existence of God: “It remains to me, as to so many who have thought about the matter, a source of extreme puzzlement that there should exist anything at all.” And, more recently, in his 1996 book, Is There a God?, Swinburne opined: “It is extraordinary that there should exist anything at all. Surely the most natural state of affairs is simply nothing: no universe, no God, nothing” (italics added). Evidently, Swinburne’s avowed “extreme puzzlement” (my italics) that anything contingent exists at all is driven by the same peremptory mind-set as Parfit’s astonishment.

Turning to Parfit, I challenge his declared astonishment that anything contingent exists at all by asking him: Why should the mere contemplation of the Null Possibility reasonably make it “seem astonishing that anything exists?” I claim that it should not do so! Let me point out why it indeed should not.

If some of us were to consider the logical possibility that a person we see might conceivably metamorphose spontaneously into an elephant, for example, I doubt strongly that we would feel even the slightest temptation to ask why that mere logical possibility is not realized. I don’t see anyone scratching his or her head about it. Why then, I ask Parfit, should anyone reasonably feel astonished at all that the Null Possibility, if genuine, has remained a mere logical possibility, and that something does exist instead? In short, why should there be just nothing, merely because it is logically possible? This mere logical possibility of the Null World, I claim, does not suffice to legitimate Parfit’s demand for an explanation of why the Null World does not obtain, an explanation he seeks as a philosophical anodyne for his misguided astonishment that anything at all exists.

Let me tip my hand, and tell you in advance that my very irreverent claim will be the complete deflation of PEQ.

Christian Doctrine as an Inspiration of PEQ

It now behooves me to explicate the implicit and explicit presuppositions of Leibniz’s PEQ before challenging them in due course. This articulation is vital for a fundamental reason: if one or more of these presuppositions of PEQ is either ill-founded or presumably false, then PEQ is aborted as a nonstarter, because it would be posing a nonissue (or a pseudo-problem). And, in that case, the very existence of something contingent, instead of nothing contingent, does not require explanation. For example, if Mr. X never committed a murder, it is ill-conceived to ask him just when he did it, and it is fatuous to blame him for not answering this ill-conceived question.

In earlier writings, I have used the pejorative term pseudo-problem to reject “a question that rests on an ill-founded or demonstrably false presupposition.” But, since the German term Scheinproblem for “pseudo-problem” was given currency by the Vienna Circle, I now reiterate my caveat that, in my own use of that label, “I definitely do not intend to harken back to early positivist indictments of ‘meaninglessness.’”

Yet the notion that a question is ill-conceived because it rests on dubious presuppositions surely antedates the logical positivist disparagement of certain traditional philosophical problems as pseudo-questions. Thus, in medieval debates, some issues were dismissed as clearly unproblematic under the Latin rubric of cadit quaestio, meaning that the question falls by being undercut. Whatever this ancestry, the challenge from the Vienna Circle was timely, I believe, because sometimes a seemingly well-conceived question may not be warranted after all. Thus, a question may be misguided, because it is inappropriately generated by an assumption that was previously unrecognized to be very misleading indeed.

One of the main tasks that I have set for myself here is to show precisely how Leibniz’s PEQ is vitiated by presupposing an altogether dubious corollary of an old Christian doctrine. Elsewhere, I have formulated that unacceptable corollary as follows: spontaneously, the world should feature nothing contingent at all, and, indeed, there would be nothing contingent in the absence of an overriding external cause (or reason), because that null state of affairs is the “most natural” of all!

For brevity, I say that this tribute to the Null World asserts “the ontological spontaneity of nothingness.” And I have introduced the acronym “SoN” to designate the doctrine that avows this ontological spontaneity of the Null World. In this acronym, the S stands for Spontaneity, the o for of, and the N for the word Nothingness. And my reason for having articulated SoN is precisely that its claim will turn out to be a completely unwarranted presupposition of PEQ. Bear in mind that, in brief, SoN is the thesis that a null state of affairs is “the most natural” of all.

The traditional Christian doctrine that unilaterally entails SoN as a corollary axiomatically makes the following avowal: The very existence of any and every contingent entity, apart from God himself, is utterly dependent on God at any and all times. Clearly, this tenet of total ontological dependency has two immediate corollaries:

  1. The first is SoN, which tells us that, in the absence of a supernatural external cause, the ontologically spontaneous, natural, or normal state of affairs is one in which nothing contingent exists at all.
  2. The second corollary is that, without constant divine creative support—so-called perpetual creation—the world would instantly lapse into nothingness, as claimed historically by Aquinas, Descartes, and many others.

Thus, crucially, according to SoN, the actual existence of something contingent or other is a deviation from the supposedly spontaneous and natural state of nothingness. And, qua such deviation, contingently existing objects clearly require a creative external cause ex nihilo, a so-called ratio essendi, a reason for existing at all.

Furthermore, in accord with the traditional Christian commitment to SoN, creation ex nihilo is required anew at every instant at which the world exists, even if it has existed forever. Therefore, traditional Christian theism makes a major claim as follows: if any contingent entity exists, then its very existence in some form or other must have a creative cause ex nihilo, rather than being externally uncaused.

However, very importantly, as it stands, without its axiomatic theological underpinning, SoN can be strongly challenged by the counterquestion: “But why should there be nothing contingent, rather than something contingent?” And, indeed, why would there be just nothing contingent rather than something contingent? Moreover, why would there be nothing contingent in the absence of an overriding external cause? The Christian ontological axiom is question-begging.

Unfortunately, in the Christian culture of the Occident, both philosophers and ordinary people have imbibed SoN with their mother’s milk. And it is deeply ingrained even among a good many of those who reject its received theological underpinning. But before Christianity molded the philosophical intuitions of our culture, neither Greek philosophy nor notably many other world cultures featured SoN. No wonder that Aristotle regarded the material universe as both uncreated and eternal.

In 1935, the French philosopher Henri Bergson aptly, though incompletely, sketched SoN when he rightly deplored its beguiling role in the misguided posing of PEQ. As Bergson put it: “. . . [P]art of metaphysics moves, consciously or not, around the question of knowing why anything exists, why matter, or spirit, or God, rather than nothing at all? But the question presupposes that reality fills a void, that underneath Being lies nothingness, that de jure there should be nothing, that we must therefore explain why there is de facto something” (my emphasis).

Alas, Bergson’s point that SoN vitiates PEQ was completely lost on Bede Rundle in his aforementioned 2004 book Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. Thus, Rundle’s rejection of PEQ, though correct as a conclusion, is left unjustified by him.

As shown by my articulation of SoN, Bergson’s concise rendition of it needs to be amplified by the further claim that, in the absence of an overriding external cause or reason, the Null World would spontaneously prevail ontologically.

How then have the defenders of SoN tried to justify it in its own right, rather than just as a logically weaker corollary of the aforestated dubious Christian axiom of the world’s total ontological dependence on the Deity?

A Priori Justifications of SoN by Leibniz, Swinburne, and Others

Some philosophers, notably Leibniz and Swinburne, have appealed to the presumed a priori simplicity of the Null World to argue that de jure there should be nothing contingent, so that the de facto existence of our world would make an answer to PEQ imperative. However, as I shall contend, the recourse to simplicity to defend SoN a priori is very unsuccessful, and, moreover, significantly, there is no empirical support for SoN either. Therefore, this twofold ill-foundedness of SoN will undermine PEQ precisely because PEQ presupposes SoN.

To mount an a priori defense of SoN, Leibniz and Swinburne maintained that the Null World is simpler, both ontologically and conceptually, than a world containing something contingent or other. This dual assertion of greater simplicity poses two immediate questions: (1) Is the Null World actually a priori simpler, and, indeed, is it the simplest world ontologically as well as conceptually? And (2) even assuming that the Null World is thus doubly simpler than a world containing something contingent, does its supposed maximum dual simplicity mandate ontologically that there should be just nothing de jure, and that, furthermore, there would be just nothing in the absence of an overriding cause (reason), as claimed by SoN?

In answer to the first of these two questions, let us assume for the sake of argument that Leibniz and Swinburne could warrant a priori the maximum conceptual and ontological simplicity of the Null World, as Leibniz avowed, when he declared: “‘nothingness’ is simpler and easier than ‘something.’” Then my emphatically negative answer to the second of these questions is as follows: Even if the supposed maximum ontological simplicity of the Null World is warranted a priori, that presumed simplicity would not mandate the claim of SoN that de jure the thus simplest world must be spontaneously realized ontologically in the absence of an overriding cause. After all, having the simplest ontological constitution does not itself make for the actualization or instantiation of the world featuring that constitution! Yet, to my knowledge, neither Leibniz nor Swinburne nor any other author has offered any cogent reason at all to posit such an ontological imperative.

Are the Philosophical Fortunes of Occam’s Razor Helpful?

Very interestingly, when Leibniz affirmed the ontological simplicity of the Null World, he made no mention at all of the early seventeenth-century enunciations of the injunction of simplicity that came to be known, by mid-nineteenth century, as either “Occam’s razor” or “The Principle of Parsimony.” Yet Leibniz may well have learned of the early seventeenth-century versions of Occam’s directive and may yet have refrained from invoking them, perhaps because he did not think that they would strengthen his case.

Even more noteworthy is that our contemporary Richard Swinburne, who was undoubtedly aware of modern appeals to Occam’s razor, completely passes them over in silence in two pertinent contexts: First, in his 1997 monograph Simplicity as Evidence of Truth, and furthermore, in his appeal to the supposed maximum ontological simplicity of the Deity as “an argument for God being the cause [ex nihilo] of the existence of the universe” in his 2004 book The Existence of God.

Although neither Leibniz nor Swinburne mentioned Occam’s injunction in his appeal to simplicity, the extant differing versions of the injunction may provide some perspective on their philosophical treatment of simplicity. Thus, let me comment on these versions of Occam’s razor.

William of Occam (1285–1349) worked during the first half of the fourteenth century. But, as reported by J.J.C. Smart, the formulation of Occam’s razor as “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity” was a seventeenth-century invention in its original Latin enunciation. However, the term Occam’s razor itself was first introduced in mid-nineteenth century by William Hamilton, who also spoke of it as “The Principle of Parsimony.”

Smart’s 1984 gloss on Occam’s original formulation is that it enjoins theoreticians “against an unnecessary luxuriance of [explanatory] principles or laws or statements of existence.” As John Stuart Mill emphasized in this vein, the demand for parsimony is a rule of methodology mandating that we have evidence for our beliefs. But this demand is emphatically not a viable thesis about the simple workings of nature, as Hamilton had claimed erroneously.

Smart declared somewhat soberingly, yet with very insufficient caution: “I suspect that it is not possible fully to justify the idea that simple theories are objectively more likely to be true than are complex ones or even that they contain fewer arbitrary elements.” However, he spoke very unguardedly and presumably enthymematically (leaving a crucial qualification unstated), when he referred there favorably to “the idea that simple theories are objectively more likely to be true than are complex ones.” As he stated it, this notion is surely untenable without at least an articulated proviso: After all, the ancient Greek Thales’ monistic hydrochemistry of the chemical universality of water is staggeringly simpler than Mendeleyev’s nineteenth-century polychemistry, but clearly the polychemistry is overwhelmingly more likely to be true.

To be continued.

Further Reading

  • Bergson, H. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. Trans. With the assistance of W.C.R.A. Audra and C. Brereton. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.
  • Eliade, M. Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 1992.
  • Grünbaum, A. “Theological Misinterpretations of Current Physical Cosmology.” Philo 1(1) 1998.
  • ———. “A New Critique of Theological Interpretations of Physical Cosmology.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 51(1) 2000.
  • ———. “The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology.” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 55(4) 2004.
  • Leibniz, G.W. “On the Ultimate Origination of Things.” Trans. G.H.R. Parkinson and M. Morris. In Leibniz: Philosophical Writings, edited by G.H.R. Parkinson. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1973.
  • ———. “Principles of Nature and of Grace Founded on Reason.” Op. cit.
  • Parfit, D. “The Puzzle of Reality: Why Does the Universe Exist?” In Metaphysics: The Big Questions, edited by P.V. Inwagen and D. Zimmerman. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.
  • ———.“Why Anything? Why This?” London Review of Books 20(2), 1998.
  • Smart, J.J.C. “Ockham’s Razor.” In Principles of Philosophical Reasoning, edited by J.M. Fetzer. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.
  • Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. Rev. ed. Oxford/New York: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • ———. Is There a God? Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • ———. The Existence of God. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004.

Adolf Grünbaum

Adolf Grünbaum is the most recent past president (2006/2007) of the International Union for History and Philosophy of Science, a past president of the American Philosophical Association (1982/1983), and a past president of the Philosophy of Science Association (U.S.A.) for two consecutive two-year terms (1965/1967, 1968/1970). In 1960, he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh, where he is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, Primary Research Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Research Professor of Psychiatry, and Chairman of the Center for Philosophy of Science. Oxford University Press in New York City will publish two volumes of his collected papers under the overall title Philosophy of Science in Action. Professor Grünbaum is a Contributing Editor for Free Inquiry and a Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.


In his 1697 article “On the Ultimate Origination of Things,” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz posed a historic question: he demanded “a full reason why there should be any world rather than none.” In a sequel of 1714, he famously asked more generally: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (italics in original). And yet he spoke …

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