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.