Many philosophers (Leibniz and Heidegger, to name but two) consider "Why is there something rather than nothing" the most difficult and important question. Given that "nothing" is a possibility among infinite others, I agree with those who prefer the question: (A) "Why is there this universe* instead of another?"

Any scientific response has been so far inadequate, because whatever the laws that underpin the universe, (A) urges: "Why a universe with these laws instead of another?"

At the root of the question, we assume the principle of sufficient reason (PSR: "nothing happens without reason"). But (A) also applies to the PSR itself: "Why is there one universe where the PSR is valid and not another?" - It is as if the phrase "all words are written in black" were written in red.

This leads to an infinite regression, a circular explanation or an axiomatic presumption. We could state also that the PSR is false: not everything has a sufficient reason. Moreover, if the PSR does not have it, even (A) hasn't, because the PSR is included in A by definition.

*by universe I mean the totality of the existent things/facts

There are a number of good arguments against the principle of sufficient reason, like the ones by Sextus Empiricus, Hume, Wittgenstein and Nāgārjuna. Here I'm more interested in the PSR applied ontologically to the totality of existence.

  • "Why is there this universe* instead of another?" - because we coincidently appeared in this universe? Or, per your definition, how can you be sure physical laws are universal?
    – rus9384
    Aug 4, 2018 at 8:55
  • Why can only be asked within the context of the sensual universe. Outside the sensual universe no questions can be asked. It is like asking a desert why are there mirages? The desert is only the background upon which the observer builds the mirage. Questions about the illusion of the mirage can only be asked by the one inside the mirage, the constructs within a mirage are entirely due to the observer within the mirage. There is no why. Aug 4, 2018 at 10:30
  • What would it mean for causation to have a cause or a reason? This thought strikes me as odd. PRS cannot be applied to the whole existence.
    – rus9384
    Aug 4, 2018 at 10:51
  • Thank you all for comments and editing. So the answer is "no", and PRS false? Aug 5, 2018 at 7:32
  • IMO you are reading the principle in the wrong way: it is a "regulative" principle, asserting that the universe is "rational" and we have (to try)to "require an explanation for any fact, or in other words,we have to reject the possibility of any unexplainable, facts." This is at the core of scientific endeavour. Having said that, this does not mean that we can find an explanation for every fact, nor that we can find a single cause for the entire universe. Aug 5, 2018 at 11:51

3 Answers 3


First, it’s worth noting (and this is at least implicit in @MauroALLEGRANZA’s comment, that for Leibniz the PSR is something like an axiom. More precisely, our ability to understand “the universe” depends on the fact that there is a specific reason “why everything is the way it is and not otherwise” (this is Leibniz’s most common formulation of the PSR). Without this, there is both nothing to be explained and no possible explanation.

Second, the parallel that you attempt to draw between scientific laws and the PSR seems to fail. It’s fair to say that for any universe in which any set of physical laws holds true, we can always ask why these laws and not others hold. But note that invoking this question depends on holding the PSR to be true; i.e., the question is only sensible if we already believe that there must be an explanation or reason for why this is the case. Similarly, asking “why there is a universe where the PSR is valid” already assumes that the PSR is valid, that is that there is a reason sufficient to explain why the PSR holds and why it’s opposite does not hold.

To truly try to “get behind” the PSR, we really have to ask (and this is Heidegger’s question), “why is it that we assume there is an explanation at all”? But this necessarily depends on suspending the idea that we could explain why we remain convinced that there must be an explanation. In short, we don’t hit a short-coming of the PSR per se, but of the very structure of any “why” question at all (i.e., why do we think it’s possible to pose any “why” question at all?). (Note that even these questions seem to implicitly depend on the PSR). So ultimately we end up stuck at the level of asking whether it’s sensible for us to ask “why” or “why not”. After all, if there are no sufficient reasons, then there are no reasons why any set of affairs are the case, nor any reason why any set of affairs is not the case. But explaining how this can be the case, without invoking some form of the PSR seems to be impossible (and this, as I read him, is Heidegger’s point). Or, in short, the PSR is necessary for there to be any sort of explanation whatsoever.

Where we hit the paradox I think your aiming at is by asking why we assume that any sort of explanation is possible. But what is at stake here isn’t something that we can explain without already assuming that “explanations” are possible.

I don’t know if any of that helps, but there are some random thoughts.


PS there are a good number of arguments against causality, but these aren’t necessarily arguments against the PSR per se. To argue against the PSR requires conceiving of “reality” (or whatever else) as somehow immune to explanation, which holds for none of Sextus Empiricus, Nagarjuna, nor Hume (Wittgenstein is a much more complicated case)

  • Thank you very much, I think you answered my question. Just this: asking for a possible reason for PSR is not assuming PSR, since in the very act of asking this question I assume that explanations are possibile, not always necessary. Aug 6, 2018 at 6:26
  • @FrancescoD'Isa: that’s a reasonable point, at some level, but I think the possibility of any explanation itself depends on the necessity of explanation at all. I.e. if the concept of PSR is bunk, there is no reason to assume that we can explain why the PSR holds for any given subset of phenomena. Nevertheless, I concede your point.
    – ig0774
    Aug 8, 2018 at 1:58

"Why a universe with these laws instead of another?"

Because function follows form:

The connection between a thing’s form and its function emerges in Physics ii 3, where Aristotle distinguishes his four kinds of cause: material, formal, efficient, and final, and suggests a special connection between the formal and final cause.

Here one needs to proceed cautiously, however, since it is sometimes said that Aristotle’s word “cause” (aitia) would be better translated as “explanation” (or “explanatory factor”, to avoid the implication that they are linguistic items, as opposed to things-in-the-world). Certainly modern philosophers tend to use “cause” in a narrower way, which approximates to Aristotle’s efficient cause. Aristotle’s idea is that there are four kinds of thing that need to be mentioned in order to give a full account of the nature of an object, each corresponding to a particular kind of question. We need to know what the thing is made of, and the answer to this question is the thing’s matter—bricks, in the case of a house; bodily organs in the case of a human being. Next we need to know what the thing is, or how it is defined, and the answer to this is the thing’s form or essence. We also need to know what made the thing come into existence, who or what created it, and this is the thing’s efficient or “moving” cause. Lastly, we need to know what the thing is for, what its purpose or function is—the final cause. Now Aristotle observes that, although these are all distinct questions, in the case of the last three very often the same thing will serve as the answer to all of them (Physics ii 7, 198a24–27). A house is defined as a shelter of a certain sort (De Anima i 1, 403b3–7; Metaphysics viii 3, 1043a29–36). That is what a house is, i.e., its formal cause, but it is also what a house is for, its final cause, since houses, like all artefacts are functionally defined. Similarly, a human being is defined as something which lives a certain kind of rationally-directed life. But, on Aristotle’s view, this is also what a human being is for. The human function is to live such a life (Nicomachean Ethics i 7, 1097b22–1098a20; cf. De Anima ii 1, 412a6–22). As for the efficient cause, it is qualitatively, although not numerically, identical with the formal cause, at least in the organism case, since human beings give birth to human beings, and the same goes for all other living things. Thus, even though Aristotle admits four different kinds of cause, in a sense it is only really matter and form that play any ineliminable explanatory role in his system.

The universe exists because it exists (because it is of indeterminate form and eternal, therefore cannot be destroyed); no other explanation is necessary, because there can be no other explanation for it:

Parmenides, another pre-Socratic, implicitly appeals to the PSR when he claims that the world [universe] cannot have come into existence because then it would have come from nothing...


My comments are:

  1. In the original question "Why is there something rather than nothing?", I don't think there would be possibilities or possible universes. Possibilities are in the mind, and there would be no minds in nothing.

  2. If we assume the PSR, why can't the reason for something be inherent in the something itself. This leads to the axiomatic assumption idea, but I think you could make the case that in the case of nothing, the reason for that nothing being an existent entity is inherent in nothing. This sounds contradictory, but my argument is as follows. I think a thing exists if it is a grouping that ties stuff together into a unit whole. For instance, the grouping of ink and paper atoms together into a new unit whole called a book. The grouping of elements together into a set. If there were nothing, this would be the all, or the entirety. There's nothing, and it's the all. Entirety and all are groupings. So, nothing is itself an existent entity.

I'm probably breaking some posting rule with this, but I thought I'd give it a try. Thank you.

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