Levels of Nothing: There Are Multiple Answers to the Question of Why the Universe Exists

Article excerpt

NOTHING, OF LATE, IS SOMETHING OF A SCANDAL. Physicists and philosophers debate the efficacy of quantum physics, and the value of philosophical analysis, to explain why there is Something rather than Nothing. (1) In the Vol. 13 No. 2 (2007) issue of SKEPTIC, I confronted my life-long obsession with Nothing. Entitled "Why This Universe: Toward a Taxonomy of Ultimate Explanations," the article described my existential angst and offered some 27 possible "ultimate explanations." I suggested that while "Why Not Nothing?" may seem impenetrable, "Why This Universe?", energized by remarkable advances in cosmology, may be accessible. While they are not at all the same question, perhaps if we can begin to decipher the latter, we can begin to decrypt the former.

After the article was published, SKEPTIC editor Michael Shermer encouraged me to expand the article into a book. I approached the philosopher John Leslie, who for decades had focused on Something/ Nothing and whom I had come to know through our discussions on Closer To Truth, the PBS television series that I created and host, and we set about to co-edit a book of readings and commentaries on the ultimate question.

The Mystery of Existence: Why is there Anything At All? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), long in gestation, presents the ideas of contemporary thinkers as well as some others throughout intellectual history, grouped under five possible "solutions" to the "Why-is-there-Something-rather-than-Nothing?" puzzle: (1) a blank is absurd; (2) no explanation needed; (3) chance; (4) value/perfection as ultimate; and (5) mind/consciousness as ultimate.

In this article I shall explore the essence of Nothing, or what I call "Levels of Nothing" especially in light of recent debates and public interest. (2) Why "Levels" of Nothing? That's where the confusion lies.

What is it About Nothing?

Lump together everything that exists and might exist--physical, mental, platonic, spiritual, God, other nonphysicals. As for the physical, include all matter, energy, space and time, and all the laws and principles that govern them (known and unknown); as for the mental, imagine all kinds of consciousness and awareness (known and unknown); as for the platonic, gather all forms of abstract objects (numbers, logic, forms, propositions, possibilities--known and unknown); as for the spiritual and God, embrace anything that could possibly fit these nonphysical categories (if anything does); and as for "other nonphysicals;' well, I just want to be sure not to leave anything unclassified. Lump together literally everything contained in ultimate reality. Now call it all by the simple name "Something." Why is there "Something" rather than "Nothing"?

Why Not Nothing? What guides me here is gut feeling, not clever reasoning, which is why no argument has ever dissuaded me from continuing to think, following Leibniz, (3) that Nothing, no world, would be simpler and easier than any world, that Nothing would have been the least arbitrary and "most natural" state of affairs.

As I have continued to think about Nothing, I have continued to think that Nothing "should;' in some sense, have obtained, and the only reason I accept the fact that Nothing does not obtain is not because of any of the arguments against Nothing, (4) but because of the raw existence of Something--because in my private consciousness I am forced to recognize that real existents compose Something. In other words, an a priori weighing of Nothing v. Something (from a timeless, explanatorily earlier perspective) would, for me, tip the balance heavily to Nothing, but for the fact of the matter.

Thus, since I have no choice but to recognize that there is Something, I have no choice but to conclude that there is foundational force, selector, productive principle or type of necessity--some deep reason--that brings about the absence of Nothing. I cannot rid myself of the conviction that Nothing would have obtained had not something special somehow superseded or counteracted it. …