Why does something exist, rather than nothing?
The question of existence is a vexing one and lies at the heart of a myriad of other conundrums, such as meaning, destiny and purpose.
Despite its seeming simplicity, this conundrum and variations on it, has probably confounded philosophers, theologians and the ordinary person since our species first became able to contemplate its own existence.
While many might otherwise disagree, I am firmly of the opinion that the answers to this question will lie forever beyond our reach and the only “solutions” are speculation. While others may claim to know the “Truth”, the Divine Principle teaches us that we can never have the answers, because we can never be certain of anything beyond our own existence.
The question of existence takes on additional importance, as its answer relates directly to our own existence, meaning and purpose. With the capacity to fear death, and the terror that the thought of our own oblivion produces, we desperately ask ourselves if “this is it”? Is there more beyond this often vicious existence, is there a god and ultimately and perhaps most importantly, do I live on after death?
Despite having been granted this amazing and wonderful gift of sentience, the often world speaks to us of randomness and pain. As we seek meaning, we inevitably wonder if it is all nothing but chance? Will everything that we have ever stood for – our hopes, dreams, fears, goals and desires – amount to naught? Could it be that there is more to existence than meets the eye? Does nihilism inevitably beckon?
Traditionally, religions have sought to answer this problem through the evocation of a variety of creation myths. The most famous of these, of course is that found in The Book of Genesis, which is held sacred by over two-thirds of the world’s population. Despite this, few have ever noticed the bait and switch contained within its opening sentence, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”.
The astute reader will note that this isn’t telling us about the “Beginning”, because if it were it would be telling us about how God came into being. Instead Genesis seeks to answer the much less interesting question of how our particular reality came to be.
In all fairness, this bait and switch isn’t the fault of the original writers, but that of those who followed centuries later and who failed to understand the important context of those immortal opening words. It is doubtful that the writer of Genesis was attempting to explain the basic question of existence as I have expressed it and the very question may have been entirely beyond his conception.
Instead, like many of his contemporaries in the ancient Middle East, he believed that the world had been formed out of a void, chaos or some other pre-existing substance and that his gods had been the ones to bring order and to create the world along with the plants, animals and people within it.
The origin of his god isn’t addressed within the myth and it isn’t hard to understand why. This story most likely originated out of the verbal mythologies told by nomadic herdsmen as they followed their flocks. They were illiterate, and lay at the dawn of the golden ages of thought that have given us greats such as Socrates, Descartes and Kant. What many would regard as the “final version” of their myth, captured so beautifully in the King James Bible lay more than 2,500 years distant. The writers sought to explain the world around them and their place within it and given the difficulty of even imagining a time when there was “Nothing” it made sense to propose a “void” from which the world as they knew it emerged.
Intriguingly, despite being isolated in their own bubble, through the absence of any knowledge of history, few early cultures seem to have taken the apparently reasonable position that everything was as it always had been and that there was no need for anything to have been created in the first place. The closest that many traditions came to this idea was the concept of Eternal Recurrence, which (according to Wikipedia) “is a concept that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space.”
Perhaps because of our own immersion within our timestream and our almost instinctive desire to imagine causality even when there is none (for example with superstition), the universe having a start made more sense than it not.
Modern science now apparently supports this view, with the Big Bang Theory seeming to point to a definite moment in time when everything began. But the Big Bang can only provide an explanation for how this particular universe exists. In our search for an explanation for existence we still need to ask, “What caused the Big Bang?” Even if this were explained, we would still be left asking ourselves what caused the thing that caused the Big Bang, followed by what caused the thing that caused the thing that caused the thing, ad nauseam, all the way to eternity. Infinite regress seems unavoidable.
The problem is that we are locked within a mind that cannot divorce itself from notions of time and causality. Even if universe’s origins didn’t lie within an inaccessible metaphysical realm, our experience and “common sense” ideas about the world make it difficult to put aside our psychological need for causation.
Existence is the most binary of concepts. Something either exists or it doesn’t. But what do I mean when I talk about “Nothing” or “non-existence”? A state of non-existence is a state which is completely devoid of any information content. Nothing whatsoever exists, including time, space and abstract objects, such as numbers. It is pure and absolute state of Not-Being.
In this state, only does Nothing exist, but non-existence precludes existence; they are mutually exclusive states.
Given a state of non-existence, nothing could ever exist. As Parmenides pointed out so astutely in the fifth century BCE, “nothing comes from nothing”.
It is impossible for something to arise out of the state of nothingness. If it were, this would imply that it the state of non-existence actually contained within it the possibility of something existing. But possibility is in fact itself “something”, if only an information state that recognises potential. Possibility itself describes potential within time, and time does not exist within the non-existent state.
Just as something cannot be birthed by nothingness, so to can something not give way to nothingness. For this to occur would require that the “something” never existed in the first place.
For example, while it is certainly possible that our universe might cease to exist, this cessation of existence is merely how we would perceive an encounter with one of its boundaries in time. Its cessation could never undo the fact of its previous existence and it would remain a fact that our universe had certain properties of existence within a certain space-time.
In order to understand this, we would need to picture our universe as a single unit of spacetime. Because of the nature of our consciousness, we perceive only the present, but once the present becomes past it doesn’t cease to ever have existed. Rather it exists in a place that we cannot access. Similarly, the future can be said to exist, even if the only way that we can access it is to wait for it to manifest itself as the present.
An entity residing outside of our timeline and able to view the universe as a whole, would see its entire history simultaneously from beginning to end, just as I can currently see my whole garden from beginning to end. If we imagine my puppy walking from one side of the garden to the other, we can imagine how a particular sentient experiences time within a particular universe.
Time can be perceived as beginning, just as Saasha starts to walk from one fence. Similarly, time can be perceived as ending, just as she gets to the other side. However, the garden is still there and hasn’t ceased to exist simply because we have arrived at a boundary. Thus, it can be seen that while our perception of universe might cease to exist, the actual universe itself would still exist in a very real sense.
Because something can not arise from nothing, the mutual exclusivity between existence and nonexistence and the very obvious fact that something (ie you the reader) exists, it is clear that something has always existed and done so without cause.
While this is certainly counter intuitive to the point that many will reject it outright, this is only because we inhabit minds that are unable to divorce themselves from the concept of time, and the “common sense” impositions that it places upon us. But the very fact of existence precludes that of non-existence and within this context it no more needs a cause than non-existence would: Existence simply is.
Don’t ask me why.
Existence also exists in its entirety. As time is a state of existence, it cannot be thought of as being a relevant determinant of what exists and what doesn’t. Just as the garden exists even when the puppy isn’t there, so do the past and future also exist, even when we are not “there”. Time is the mechanism by which sentence uses to navigate its way around the universe. But just as we don’t believe that the universe is created and destroyed by our movement through space, so to would it be incorrect for us to imagine that the universe was somehow being created or lost as we move through time.
This is not to say that we live in a completely deterministic universe, where we are fated, or doomed to a particular future. While it is the case that the future exists, there is nothing to suppose that only one future exists. Indeed, I see no reason why an infinite array of possible futures (and pasts) could not exist, with our sentience simply navigating its way through one of a potentially infinite number of possible timelines.
For example, if one imagines Saasha the puppy walking across the garden, she could take any one of a potentially infinite number of routes. Some of these might involve going around the pond, others might involve going through the pond. But whether or not she even interacts with the pond, it still exists as a feature of the garden and as a very real alternative path. Similarly, if we observe her sitting in the middle of the pond (after all, she is a Golden Retriever), we can imagine an infinite number of paths (or pasts) that she could have taken to get there.
The possibility that we inhabit an Infiniverse containing a potentially Infinite range of possibilities, raises the question as to whether there might exist a fundamental “unit” of existence, or if any of the various gods that humanity worships might have had anything to do with it.
With respect to fundamental “units” of existence, I would suggest that we would be looking for something that can exist without seeming to require a universe, or metaphysical foundation for its existence. While many would disagree, it seems to me that the only thing that can fit that particular bill are numbers and mathematics.
The debate as to whether mathematics is discovered, or invented and even whether numbers even exist, is far from being decided. However, it seems to me that mathematical (and by extension, logical) truths are true irrespective of whether there is a universe to contain them or not. Numbers represent certain concepts, independently of language, culture, or anything else. Remove the universe, and the number one will still be the number one and it is an intriguing possibility that it is this numerical independence is the fundamental aspect that both precludes non-existence and forms the foundation from which the rest of our existence “emerged”.
How one gets from numbers and mathematics to a universe as complex, wonderful and amazing as ours is of course pure speculation and far beyond my imagining. How mathematics can produce sentient creatures with apparent free will is even more out of our reach (although it would be delightful if advanced mathematics and computing eventually stumbled upon the mathematical equivalent of free will).
While it could be argued that the all-pervading mathematical elegance that we have discovered within our own universe adds weight to such a theory, this should not be considered the case. Even if it were that mathematics is somehow the basis upon which our universe is built, it does not follow that mathematics should be so easily accessible to our senses and that the underlying algorithm should be so simple that a slightly more intelligent monkey should be able to grasp it.
Within this framework, all creation arises out of sophisticated algorithms made real. Somehow, we are the product of mathematical manipulations beyond our ken. And yes, this way of stating the problem begs the question as to who or what is doing the manipulation, but I would suggest that rather than being a result of “mathematical manipulation” in a strict sense, we are instead an emergent property of the very existence of mathematics itself.
Obviously, speculating that mathematics is the fundamental unit of reality is just that: Speculation. Speculating that we are an emergent property of mathematics is speculation upon speculation. It hardly answers the question definitively and for many it will seem like a dodge designed to avoid getting to the crux of the issue. But given that I’ve already conceded that the very issue of the “how” of existence is entirely out of our understanding, I hope readers will understand my mathematical musings for what they are: Speculation!
The interesting thing with respect to the possibility of mathematics forming the framework of the Infiniverse, is that it by their very nature, numbers are infinite. A universe based on mathematics would contain within it an infinite potential and it is highly likely that existence is in fact “complete”: Everything that is mathematically and logically possible to exist does in fact exist.
Not only this, but a mathematical sentience is potentially an infinite sentience (there will always be another possibility to explore), for which death would be just an illusion.
This takes us back to the first lines of the Genesis myth. As discussed this myth starts with a Divine being that already has existence. It ignores the really interesting question of why is there something, rather than nothing in favour of a more mundane one: How did this particular universe come into being? The reason that this is a more mundane question is that it can be answered in an infinite number of ways, ranging from god, to Hamsters and even pure chance. The answer to the question of how our particular universe came into existence is dependent on the metaphysics from which our universe emerged and just as our puppy could have an infinite number of paths into the pond, so to can we have an infinite number of paths (or metaphysical realities) into our universe.
If nothing can come from nothing, it follows that if God exists, such a being cannot be the source of all existence, because God Himself (or perhaps Herself, given that the feminine aspect of the Divine is most closely tied into the creation of Life), is something that exists. Within this context it is certainly possible that a “God” could exist, but rather than being the creator God of the monotheistic religions, such a being would be an emergent property of existence itself.
At best, He is the sentience which entails all others (as demanded by Omniscience), or perhaps even the Ultimate Sentience of the Infiniverse itself, but He can only be considered an emergent property of “creation”, rather than its point of origin, or source.