Review of Bede Rundle’s “Why there is Something rather than Nothing”
Here’s a review I was invited to do for the journal Philosophical Review.
Bede Rundle, Why there is Something rather than Nothing.
Why the universe exists – why, indeed, there is anything at all – is the kind of question that often first piques our philosophical interest. It is a question almost all of us have been struck by at some point or other. Even children ask it. And the answers we supply can have profound, life-changing consequences.
And yet, despite being paradigmatically philosophical, the question attracts comparatively little attention from academic philosophers, certainly not from the less theistically-inclined. Rundle brings the question back centre-stage.
As Rundle points out, the lay person seeking an answer will typically look either to physics or theology. Yet both disciplines quickly run into trouble. Scientific theories “have something to say only once their subject matter, the physical universe, is supposed in being”(p. 95) while theological answers introduce a being, God, “who is even more problematic than the universe which he is called upon to explain”(p. 95).
Can philosophy fare any better? Quite how purely philosophical reflection might succeed in accounting for a substantive matter of existence is not immediately obvious. Yet Rundle believes that by engaging in a conceptual investigation – an investigation focussing on and unpacking such concepts as nothing, causation, and coming into existence – the question is indeed answerable.
The book has three distinct parts. In the first, Rundle explains why theistic answers won’t do. The discussion is detailed, and includes a demolition of cosmological arguments to a first cause – faulted, among other things, for supposing we can make sense of a cause outside time. Rundle argues that our concept of causation is rooted in the temporal and physical, and that its extension to a transcendent reality stands in need of justification, a justification Rundle does not find forthcoming: “I can get no grip on the idea of an agent doing something where the doing, the bringing about, is not an episode in time, something involving a changing agent” (p. 77).
Nor does the universe require God as a sustaining cause. Such a cause is needed when there is a disintegrating factor to be countered or inhibited. In the absence of such factors, a persisting state requires no explanation. “If something is still around after many years, this may well be remarkable, but that will be because it has somehow, against the odds, survived threats to its integrity. If there are no such threats, there is nothing to explain.“(p. 91)
Rundle then moves on to the theistic suggestion that the existence of the universe points to the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary. His treatment of this sort of argument (a version of which constitutes Aquinas’ Third Way) culminates in the observation that while the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary would indeed suffice to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question can be answered by a much weaker thesis – that there had to be something or other. To suppose that there had to be something is not yet to suppose that there is a particular being that had to be.
In the second part of the book, Rundle develops and supports his own answer. Some philosophers – Van Inwagen (1996) for example (who, oddly, does not get a mention) – have attempted to explain why there is something rather than nothing by showing that the existence of something is far more probable. After all, there are many ways there could have been something, but only one in which there is nothing, so (even if we acknowledge that nothing is more probable than any particular something) something is more probable. Indeed, given there is an infinite number of ways there could have been something but only one in which there is nothing, nothing, while not strictly impossible, is maximally improbable.
Rundle’s approach differs in that he tries to show, not that the existence of something is more probable than nothing, but that it is inevitable. There simply is no alternative to something.
The argument begins with an attack on the suggestion that we can imagine or conceive of absolute nothing (which is not, of course, the same thing as not conceiving of anything). Thinking away literally everything is not like imagining an empty box or a vacant tract of space. The nothing we are to envisage involves the absence of both time and space. Rundle suspects that in attempting to conceive of total non-existence we are always left “with something, if only a setting from which we envisage everything having departed, a void which we confront and find empty…” (p. 110). The suggestion that there might be “literally nothing, rather than a domain we might speak of as becoming progressively re- or de-populated, seems not to make sense” (p. 112).
Some have defended the conceivability of absolute nothing using the “subtraction argument”. Is it not possible to imagine the step-by-step removal everything that there is, until we are left with literally nothing at all? Rundle responds by arguing that the ceasing to be of the universe is not to be compared to the ceasing to be of any of the things in it. While we can countenance the gradual depopulation of the universe, we cannot envisage the removal of the universe itself.
But don’t scientists now tell us the universe came into being about thirteen and a half billion years ago? In which case, did the universe not come into being from nothing at all? Rundle rejects such talk of the universe “coming into being”, accepting only that we can say it is so many years old. He also criticises those who speak of “the mystery on the far side of the big bang”. On Rundle’s view, there is no far side. We are therefore spared from having to fathom any such mystery.
In the third and final part of the book, Rundle embarks on a more ambitious project. He believes he can show, not just that there has to be something, but that there has to be a certain sort of something – a material universe. It is within the dense discussion supporting this claim that one possible weakness of Rundle’s approach becomes more apparent.
The author’s investigative style is, in places, reminiscent of the sort of “grammatical” investigation engaged in by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (indeed, Rundle uses the term “grammar” in the same idiosyncratic way).
Take Rundle’s rejection of the kind of materialism that identifies thoughts, feelings and so on with states of the body. That brand of materialism is quickly dispensed with on the grounds that “vastly different things can be said of the mental and physical: one’s thoughts may be muddled, innovative, inspired… but none of this can be said of anything that is literally taking place in one’s head” (p. 129).
Rundle may be right about that. But not every reader will be so quickly persuaded. The fact is, what Rundle says cannot be said is said by at least one or two neuro-scientists. Perhaps confusedly so. But if there is a confusion here, it surely requires more work to nail. Certainly, pointing out that we don not actually apply certain terms in certain ways does not show that they cannot meaningfully or properly be so applied. To suppose otherwise is to tie meaning rather too closely to use (though I certainly don’t want to accuse Rundle of supposing otherwise).
The book’s Wittgensteinian approach also prompted me to ask whether, if Rundle has succeeded in showing that absolute nothing does not make sense, he has not so much answered the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as revealed that it too does not make sense.
Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing is a detailed discussion that repays close reading.
Van Inwagen, Peter (1996) “Why Is There Anything at All?”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 70: 95-110