Monday, January 21, 2019

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

If you search on the internet for the phrase, "Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?" you will find a host of articles, many by philosophers but some by scientists, that discuss this profound question. The book by Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something From Nothing, which I have discussed in a previous post will probably appear near the top of your search engine. Last June, the cosmologist Sean Carroll added his name to the list of those writing about this subject with the article "Why Is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?"1 and a reader of my blog asked me to comment on Dr. Carroll's article.

In general, although Sean Carroll is an atheist, I find his writings to be quite reasonable and thoughtful, unlike some other atheist scientists whose writings and lectures indicate that they have done little research regarding the vast history of dialogue among deep thinkers in regards to these important philosophical and theological questions. In a previous post I highlighted one of Dr. Carroll's talks in which he honestly pointed out that almost all hypothetical ideas about the origin of our universe do not solve the problem of the initial low entropy state at the big bang, except for a small class of models that he favors. He objectively shows that most of the proposals that attempt to remove God from the origin of our universe flatly fail because they do not give the correct initial conditions.

At the beginning of the recent article Carroll points out that there are at least two ways to interpret the question of "Why there is something rather than nothing?" That question could be asking either for the mechanism or for the reason for our universe. On the web site a similar idea is developed when the author writes, "To get us started thinking about it, let’s distinguish between reasons and causes. When we ask why something is the case, depending on our purposes and what kind of explanation we seek, we might be asking for a reason, or we might be asking for a cause."2

Already we can begin to see a challenge in trying to answer fundamental why questions. Most scientists would claim that scientific questions and answers deal with mechanisms or maybe causes, but not necessarily reasons. Carroll says, "Aristotle treated final causes as a fundamental metaphysical category, an irreducible feature of the architecture of reality. Modern physics sees things differently. Rather than being a story of effects and their associated causes, the universe is described by patterns, called the laws of physics, that relate conditions at different times and places to each other." He goes on to say, "The best we can ask is whether we can imagine laws of nature that fully account for how the universe behaves, even at the earliest moments, or whether we are forced to look outside of reality itself in search of some kind of cause."

Notice the assumptions within these statements. First, Carroll is equating the laws of physics or the mechanisms with the answer to the "why" questions. With this presupposition there can, a priori, be no answer to the fundamental question of "why" having to do with reason or purpose. For instance, suppose I go to a factory where robots are welding the frames for new cars. Using Carroll's assumption, we would conclude that the welds are being made because the robots are doing it and that would settle the question since the robots are the mechanism. But in Carroll's framework there could never be a question of who programmed the robots and why they are even making the welds or building cars. Since the answers he is looking for involve only mechanisms the real why questions are outside the bounds of his answers. He has, as a presupposition, ruled out any answers beyond mechanism.

Second, like many scientists, Carroll seems to imply that finding a mechanism precludes God or any intelligence behind the mechanism. To him, the mechanism is the cause. But as described in a previous post, the God described in the Bible usually uses natural mechanisms within the universe to accomplish his purposes and show his character. For the biblical concept of God, the mechanism is not a means to dismiss the acts of God, but rather the means by which the acts of God are accomplished.

Third, the descriptive laws of physics are not causal in any sense of the word as Carroll implies they are. As Stephen Hawking writes in A Brief History of Time, "Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"3. Hawking and other scientists recognize that writing an equation that describes the physical patterns we see in the universe does not provide any answers to the implementation of those equations. Engineering drawings of a proposed building do not construct the building.

Finally, note how subtly Carroll rules out any possibility of an external cause like God when he states that the best we can ask is if the laws of nature account for the behavior of the universe or, otherwise we are forced to look outside of reality. In other words, if the laws of physics do not fully account for the behavior of the universe, then any other cause is not a part of reality. So God would fall in that realm that is outside of reality. With this statement, Carroll is implying that the physical universe is reality and anything else is not. There is no real God.

So of course with all of these assumptions and caveats at the very beginning of the article it is not surprising that Carroll's search for why there is something rather than nothing will not consider a real cause outside of the universe as a serious option. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring Carroll's thoughts and conclusions, including his possible answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, in the next blog post.

1Sean Carroll, "Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing, arXiv:1802.02231 [physics.hist-ph], 2018.
3Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Books,1988) 175.


  1. How do you get something from nothing? A small simple question I've been asking for sometime now on You Tube. Surprisingly (or maybe not) I have yet to get a real answer.

  2. A small simple question I've been asking for sometime now on you tube "How Do You Get Something From Nothing?". Surprisingly (or maybe not) I've yet to get an least one that 1. makes sense 2. doesn't involve something being there.

    1. I don't think you can get something physical from nothing. So you won't get a good answer from me. I believe a non-physical self-existing God created our universe.

  3. Hey Michael! I had a few questions regarding some of your comments here.

    "Since the answers he is looking for involve only mechanisms the real why questions are outside the bounds of his answers. He has, as a presupposition, ruled out any answers beyond mechanism."

    I'm a bit confused by this one. How has Carroll ruled out answers beyond mechanism, or "reasons" as he calls them. He simply states that he is looking for a mechanistic "cause". How is this equivalent to him saying something like "there is no reason beyond a mechanistic cause for the universe"? He distinguishes between reasons and causes, and then proceeds to focus in on one in particular. Rather than having a presupposition that there is no reason behind the universe, it seems more like he doesn't have a presupposition that there is one.

    "Second, like many scientists, Carroll seems to imply that finding a mechanism precludes God or any intelligence behind the mechanism."

    This comment confused me as well. Rather than asserting that no mechanism requires design or intelligence, Carroll isn't assuming that the mechanisms we observe behind the universe require design. It seems you would need to demonstrate that they do require design before we could accept this.


    1. I am saying that he has ruled out any answers beyond mechanism since he is only looking for mechanisms. I'm not saying that he has a presupposition against reasons, only that his presupposition rules out reasons as the answer to the why question.

      As far as your second point, I would assert that a mechanism that is finely tuned and appears designed in such as needed to form a life-friendly universe gives a strong indication of an actual designer behind it. What do you mean by "demonstrate that they do require design?" I have heard scientists claim that nature appears designed but it surely isn't. It seems to me the burden of proof is not on the one who asserts that the appearance of meticulous design implies a real designer but on the one who claims it doesn't. It would be absurd to say if we look at a masterpiece painting and it appears designed that the burden of proof is on the one who claims it is designed rather than the one who claims it is not.

  4. Exactly.

    In my opinion, what Sean Carroll does in his paper is to tacitly reformulate the well known (brute?) fact that there is no proof or disproof for the existence of a Creator possible. If one accepts that "mechanisms" are totally sufficient to answer the quest for or against a Creator, then his result naturally says that the absence of such a Creator may well be consistent with what we know today about physical reality - in other words:

    The claim of the absence of such a Creator cannot be disproven by any hitherto known physical mechanism (...where the conclusion simply confirms the premise that mechanisms is all that should be taken into account - hence only the materialistic world).

    But this does not seem to be surprising to me, since physical mechanisms and reasons are two distinct concepts - unless one is willing to reduce them to one concept by assuming that there are only mechanisms existent, but no reasons that could be totally independent from mechanisms (so that "mechanisms" - and hence physical theories - are the only "reasons" allowed).

  5. I should add something more to my previous comment, since Sean Carroll makes an inductive error and even constructs a contradiction out of it when dividing reality into the universe as a whole and the things within the universe.

    Carroll writes

    "While we don’t currently know the once-and-for-all laws of nature, nothing that we do currently understand about physics implies any necessary obstacle to thinking of the universe as a fully law-abiding, self-contained system."

    He then writes

    “Our experience of the world, which is confined to an extraordinarily tiny fraction of reality, doesn’t leave us well equipped to think in appropriate ways about the question of its existence.”

    In fact, if we take the second citation seriously, then the latter is a serious obstacle to his claim that the universe may be a self-contained system, since the extrapolation from some tiny fraction of reality to the whole universe is – at least on a logical basis – unjustified, or in other words, wishful thinking, as Carroll does rightfully admit.

    Carroll admits this by writing

    “Our idea of satisfying explanations has, needless to say, been trained on our experience within a tiny fraction of reality, not on the existence of the whole of reality itself; but we work with what we have.”

    Why has it been trained by our experience within a tiny fraction of reality? Because this is what science has done for merely some tiny 300 years. And if we realize this, we can’t work with what we have to give a logical coherent answer to the quest of “something out of nothing”.

    To illustrate this, consider me claiming that the surface of the earth is covered with (Bertrand Russell's famous) billions of tea cups up to 10 meters. Everybody would agree that this is a false, irrational statement. But what about "the earth is covered with billions of *non-existing* tea cups up to 10 meters? Moreover, these tea cups - so i claim - have some unexplainable, irrational effect on the course of events at the earth.

    If we claim that something comes from literally nothing, then we have to explain why this "nothing" shouldn't be - in one form or the other - be also present at our earth today and have some irrational effects on it. It does not help to say that we didn't yet discover such irrational effects, and therefore they aren't there - since irrational effects may well act in a conspirative manner – by pure chance.

    Arguing scientifically for what we defined as "nothing" is making the converse out of the principle of non-contradiction as a scientific guidline. Why? Because the very concept of "nothing" is nothing other than another term for "contradiction". And we all know well that from a contradiction, everything you wish can follow. The same with "nothing". Once we accepted it, everything can easily follow, even non-existing tea cups having a conspirative effect on scientific endevour.

    So why doesn’t this “nothing” have any conspirative effect onto the course of events? Is this another “brute fact” that needs no explanation? Notice that this last question presupposes that “nothing” has indeed no effect on the course of events within our universe. But it could also well have some, in the form of inducing the right interpretational biases into all theoretical physicists to forever prevent them from finding the right formula that is desired to show that the universe is self-contained (a causally closed system).

  6. Last but not least - for the sake of completeness of my previous posts, not for the sake of in any way discrediting Sean Carroll's entire scientific work or even his person - here is the final logical piece to refute the claim in Carroll's paper that the conclusions therein are logically sound at all.

    Take the leftover case that the universe has no beginning, but has existed forever. This may solve the problem about having to invoke some mysterious and paradoxical "nothing" as the beginning of the universe. But it does not prevent a universe with no beginning to be indeed free from logical contradictions.

    Why? Because one can't assume that an infinite chain of causal events does reach into the past. An infinite chain of past events is *never* able to reach a certain point in time and hence never is able to reach our point in time.

    As tempting as it may be to loosely say "the universe existed forever", so logically incoherent it is. One simply cannot code some representation of an infinite chain of events in one's brain (because the brain is finite) and then tacitly assume 'at be "beginning" of that chain, time has started'.

    In fact, an infinite chain of past events necessarily needs an infinite amount of time to pass by. And everytime someone says to me this time has now elapsed and therefore it is possible that this chain of events has reached our time (say, today), i say with full mathematical support, that it can't never having elapsed to that point, since that's the very definition of Carrolls argument: an infinite amount of time the universe has been in existence. Every attempt to circumvent this mentally by some imagination of "infinite time as a whole" is an incorrect imagination of an infinite chain of events. Because i always can add another infinite chain of time and events to either side of that chain. In fact, the argument of an infinite time / chain of events implies that this chain is infinitely far away from today. Hence, because today is nonetheless today, this disproves the existence of such an infinite chain of events.

    What do we learn from that? We learn that the concept of "nothing" as well as the concept of "infinity" (together with time) both produce logically inconsistent results - and therefore aren't suitable for a scientific or even logical discussion of the possible explanation for the existence of our universe.

    Sure enough, logical inconsistency does prevent any such theoretical framework that uses "nothing" or "infinity" to be factually and physically implemented by nature. Except one believes that nature should be fundamentally irrational. But then one cannot anymore exclude non-existent tea cups to have some physical impact and furthermore one cannot anymore make science, because as i have noted in my previous post, accepting irrational (means contradictory) concepts in science does literally enable one to prove everything to be "true" that one wishes to be true.

    And if the reader of my lines of reasoning does like them (because they are rational, instead of irrational), then please give me credit for it - and read some more exciting papers on similar subjects on the link below. For the sake of rationality in science and for the sake of the possibility for the existence of a Creator, i hope it is allowed to post this little piece of "house advertising":

    1. I think Carroll is suggesting that time is like the whole real number line, rather than just the positive half. I don't think there's anything contradictory about that if you define terms carefully. On the other hand, it still fails to explain why the universe exists.

    2. I related my toughts to what Carroll has written as

      "There is therefore no requirement, at least as far as physics is concerned, that existence have an identifiable cause independent of physical reality, whether the universe stretches infinitely far back in time or only a finite interval."

      Here Carroll includes the possibility that the universe could sensibly stretch infinitely far back in time. So my criticism relates to the negative half of a number line.

      I see no reason to say that by carefully defining terms, a universe that stretches infinitely far back in time could be *physically* possible. It may be mathematically possible, but that is another topic (since mathematical ideas lack physical time). You would probably convince me otherwise if you could show me that for example Hilbert's hotel can have a physical implementation or Zeno's paradox with Achilles and the tortoise.

      Let's consider the positive half of a number line. Suppose you start today a journey into the infinite future. You have infinitely many time for your journey. The future then is like a giant mountain. But you never will arrive at its top, since by definition, there is no such "top" existent. The same with the negative part of that number line: there is no "bottom" of it. And if we assume that this negative line represents real past physical events, an infinity of them had to have occured before this line had reached our present.

      My criticism of Carroll therefore is that at least an infinitely large universe in past time and a universe from literally nothing can be erased from the list of possible explanations and even from the list of brute facts (if one does not believe that irrationality is more fundamental than logic). Because both aren't neither physical nor logical and therefore not better than the brute fact of a Creator existing. But with one difference: "nothing" does not even exist, and an infinite causally connected past cannot even exist, at least not in a physical and logical sense. If one does believe that the demand that an infinite universe should follow some logic is subjective, but in no way guaranteed by the universe itself or even necessary, one can believe that. But then one cannot exclude irrationality to be more fundamental than rationality (logic) and therefore Carroll's own main argument - namely that perhaps there is at least one brute fact we have to accept - could well be a sophisticated irrational illusion (an illusion we do not notice, because we only think that we think rationally).

      Returning to rationality, it is quite clear (at least to me) that at the end of the day, there necessarily has to be at least one brute fact. Either a Creator or something else. But according to my lines of arguments, i think that the list of possible brute facts that Carroll offers, is too long: "nothing" and "infinite universe" should be erased from it. Maybe in the future we could erase some more entries and hopefully what remains on the list will then be only one entry.

    3. Stefan,

      "It may be mathematically possible, but that is another topic "

      I don't think it's a different topic. Isn't every logically possible world also a possible physical world?

    4. "Isn't every logically possible world also a possible physical world?"

      That's indeed another topic, because of two reasons. Firstly, we don't know the answer to that question (it may well be "no"). Secondly a past infinite universe is mathematically incoherent - despite me saying "It may be mathematically possible", since a mathematical treatment of an infinite chain of events lacks any physical time and therfore surely any causal power. But you need the parameter of time to construct a temporally infinite cosmology that is physical, since physical means causes and effects and causes do preceed their effects.

      So the question turns out to be

      "Is a logically incoherent world also a possible physical world?"

      My answer would be no, since otherwise I would embrace irrationality with all its consequences and we couldn't even discuss all this logically and hence, your very question would be without any proper meaning.

  7. The idea of a creator God does not solve the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. Absolute nothing, by definition, does not exist and therefore it cannot do nor can it produce anything. So the idea that the cosmos came from non-existence is necessarily false. But if one postulates that a God created the cosmos then that can explain why the cosmos exists but it does not explain why God exists. Suppose such a God chose not to create a cosmos at all (so that God is the only thing that exists) then the question of why there is something rather than nothing becomes the question of why God exists. No philosopher, theologian, scientist, nor anybody else, has an answer to that question.

    1. You are perfectly right with your thought experiment. We can imagine a God that didn't create anything. So, how to explain the existence of God?

      I think at first we shouldn't think in physical terms like time and space. This is only necessary if we assume an infinite universe to be the case (as explained in my last post above), because "universe" in the scientific and physical sense it is used does need time and space.

      For at all finding some principle that does *not* leave us with a brute fact that necessarily must remain mysterious forever, we have to contemplate what has to be the case to avoid this mystery. If i would be God and would not know what my deepest nature really is, this would be a bad thing. So we have to demand that God knows everything about himself and that all truths and all answers to all questions are contained within him. He must without any doubt know all the answers to all the questions that can be posed.

      To get a glimpse of how this could work, imagine an enlightenment of the form "it is true that this is true that this is true...." ("this" always referring to the same thing, namely the truth about something). Truth must be self-evident, you indeed must be made out of only truth - then there are no mysteries left and no antinomies. As long as you aren't made of exclusively only truth, there is necessarily some doubt and falseness in you. And this enables you to question - in principle - everything you want to question.

      So we shouldn't equal God and our limited human nature. This only does lead to confusions. Concerning the absoluteness of God's nature of pure truth, this truth is as homgenious as the truth that "nothing" does really exlusively name - what? - - nothing. But with the difference that this homogenious being called God has some consciousness - and some other attributes that self-evidently differ from "nothing".