I find myself incessantly returning to the brute mystery of existence, and find Leibniz’s pioneering answer to the fundamental question of metaphysics (as it is sometimes referred to) 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' painfully unsatisfactory. Neither do modern attempts armed with the anthropic principle and the explanatory tool kit of multiverse cosmology bring a satisfactory outcome, as far as I'm concerned.

My current reflections confront logical reasons – identified by some philosophers – of our inability to satisfactorily answer this question. Some claim, as Roy Sorensen observes (SEP), that the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is unanswerable. The question stumps us by imposing an impossible explanatory demand, namely, to deduce the existence of something without using any existential premises.

Venturing upon those ruminations once again, this morning I wondered whether the most universal of ontological categories, that of existence, along with its various modalities, may not be just one of a number of fundamental categories, or not even among fundamental ones to some other, cosmic mind – a mind that would see our limits as we see those of a toddler's inability to run the marathon. The mystery of existence need not be any more fundamental to such minds than some empirical fact to us, and as such not holding any special explanatory requirement. To such minds, the reason why there is something rather than nothing may have a caliber of metaphysical profundity no greater than asking why the sky is blue.

What I mean by other, more general fundamental categories, is a cosmic state of affairs whereby existence is a contingent property of another kind of "stuff". It is generally agreed that predicating existence of entities is a category error, thus on this grounds, Anzelm's famous ontological proof falls short of delivering the goods. But what follows if we allow it, but methodically? That is, what if we boldly allow existence to be a property of the universally ubiquitous slithy toves that gimble mimsly every now and then? And a contingent property at that, whereby the brilling frequency determines whether the slithy toves have it quibberly, intermittently or in a number of other modes of gimbling? That is, what if to some cosmic minds Anzelm's argument is not fallacious? But even so, this presumably wouldn't be a satisfactory answer to the question, which isn't conclusively answered but rather supplanted by its "broader" counterpart "Why the slithy toves gimble at all?"

The aporias, which confront us with limits to reasonable explanation may very well be nothing less than the limits of our cognition – necessary limits, venturing beyond which would depart from any sense and meaning – one could delve so far into the mystery’s darkness as to abandon any possibility of even articulating the potential discoveries. This may even explain why such aporias exist, e.g. whether the universe has a beginning or is eternal, and why, in their essence, they conjure necessarily incomplete and unsatisfactory explanations. This inability to bring forth a satisfactory explanation to conundrums that span the limits of our cognition is much like trying to evoke deep emotion through a masterful symphony that is limited to being conveyed via the dull clanging of a stick against stone.

To sum up the above rumination, it suffices to say that the impossibility of meeting this explanatory demand seems to stem from the fact of existence – being a fundamental category of thought – places a limit on what it means to explain anything.


4 Answers 4


An analysis of the possible responses to the question of why there is anything at all is given by Leslie and Kuhn in The Mystery of Existence.

  1. Rejectionism: The question is illegitimate and improper.
  2. Mystification: The question is legitimate but unanswerable - it represents a mystery.
  3. Theological approach: There is a substance [viz. God] whose position in the scheme of things is one that lies outside the world, and whose activity explains the existence of the world.
  4. Nomological approach: There is a principle of creativity that obtains in abstracto, and the operation of this principle accounts for the existence of things.
  5. Necessitarian approach: via the quasi-logical route of considerations of absolute necessity.
  6. No reason approach: Answerable only by the via negativa of an insistence that there really is no "answer" in the ordinary sense - no sort of explanatory rationale. The existence of things is simply a brute fact.

I don't think the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is unanswerable. But, to answer it in any kind of satisfying way, we need to consider the possibility that there could have been nothing and then something. Looking at it this way is like saying you start with a 0 (e.g., "nothing") and end up with a 1 (e.g., "something"). Because it's not possible to change a 0 into a 1, the only way this could be possible is if the 0 really wasn't a 0 but was actually a 1 in disguise. That is, the following situation is usually thought of as "nothing" (the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time/change, abstract concepts, possibilities/possible worlds, laws of physics/math/logic and the lack of all minds to consider this lack of all), but if we think about this same situation differently, we can see that in this other way, it looks like a "something". It's the same situation, just thought of/visualized in two different ways. How can "nothing" be thought of as a "something"? First, why is a normal thing like a book a "something". I think a thing exists if it's a grouping. A grouping ties stuff together into a new unit whole, or existent entity. This grouping can be thought of as a boundary or surface that defines what is tied together and that gives substance and structure to the grouping.

When you get rid of everything including minds, we think this is "nothing".  This 

"nothing" would be it. It's nothing and that is the all. It's the entirety. All and entirety are groupings. This means that "nothing" can be seen in this way as an existent entity, or a "something".

  • Yes, I sumbit to the ancient ex nihilo nihil fit, that nothing comes from nothing, and although I permit the possibility of there being nothing --- it's just we're not in that kind of "world" --- since we have stuff, it must have been eternal. Jan 8, 2021 at 13:05
  • I wasn't saying that we just have "nothing". Obviously, we have stuff/"something". What I was suggesting is that this stuff/"something" is really just the existent entity, or grouping, that we used to think of as "absolute nothing"
    – Roger846
    Jan 9, 2021 at 1:06
  • Yes, "nothing" has quite a history. Loaded nothing more like it. Jan 9, 2021 at 6:43

I don't know whether this question is unanswerable. In fact, I'm not even sure how to define the word "unanswerable".

I am quite sure that a no point in the future will human beings know the answer to the question. But that is a separate issue from the question itself.

But I am confident that it is a very useful endeavor to ponder this question.

For one thing, it forces us to examine what is meant by the question "Why?"

It also forces us to ponder the nature of time, since — at least normally — answers to "Why?" questions involve temporally antecedent events.


One (controversial) answer, that I think fits most closely with the #6 "No Reason" approach mentioned in Nick's comment, is "No, because (scientific, causal) explanation is unification, and there is nothing with which to unify the fact that 'something exists".

For instance, in this view, we "explain the moon's orbiting the Earth" by (1) referencing a general pattern of our observations - a complex pattern that involves massive objects being 'pulled' toward one another, which is best summarized by Einstein's equations - and then (2) saying "See this? It's part of that pattern."

Our ability to describe the universe is enhanced when we do this because we are able to fit many distinct observations into a smaller number of patterns which they are parts - or continuations - of. In this view, that's what explanation does for us: it decreases the number of distinct things we have to keep track of in order to describe observations.

Let's say that when you ask "Why does something exist rather than nothing?", what you are asking is "Why did the first moment of existence...exist?" The answer is "We cannot explain it", in that case, because there is no other instance of "a moment coming into being without precedent" for us to point to, for us to unify with that first moment of existence (since it is without precedent).

Let's say that when you ask "Why does something exist rather than nothing?", what you are asking is "Why does the entire 4D manifold of spacetime and its contents exist?" The answer is "We cannot explain it", in that case, because there is no other 4D manifold which exists for us to point to, for us to unify with our own.

( I am basing this answer on what I have read of Humean metaphysics, and specifically, Harjit Bhogal's work. Here is a link to an in-depth description & defense: philpapers link

I may be mis-characterizing the view, still reading about it )

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