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Posted by on May 12, 2008 in Why is there anything at all? | 16 comments

Why is there anything at all?

Sally and Mike N commented on previous post about the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” As Mike suggests, it is a very popular recruiting device among theists. It puts atheists on the defensive:

“Well, we theists can explain why the universe exists – so what’s your explanation, then?”

The atheist must admit they have not got one, which makes their position look weak. At the very least, the theist may think that, by getting the atheist to admit they don’t know the answer, the atheist is, in effect, admitting that, for all they know, God might be the answer. Theism and atheism end up on an equal footing, rationally speaking.

But of course, the Judeo-Christian explanation is just one among countless answers that might be offered. Why the Judeo-Christian God rather than, say, an evil God or a morally neutral God? Or countless other explanations.

Actually, the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” may well not make sense.

But even if it does, it does not follow that, because the atheist must admit they don’t know the answer, then they cannot rule out the Judeo-Christian God as the answer.

Compare my earlier Sherlock Holmes analogy:

Sherlock Holmes is having a bad day. There’s been a terrible murder. There are hundreds of suspects. And he just can’t figure out who dunnit.

However, while Holmes can’t say who the culprit is, he is quite sure that certain people are innocent. The butler, in particular, has a cast-iron alibi. So Holmes is rightly confident the butler didn’t do it, despite the fact that he doesn’t know who did.

In the same way, an atheist can admit that there is a mystery about why the universe exists, and that they are utterly baffled by it, while nevertheless insisting that there’s overwhelming evidence that, whoever or whatever created it (if anything) it certainly wasn’t the all-powerful, all-good God of Judeo-Christian theology.

They can be as sure of that as they can be that it is not the creation of an all-powerful, all-evil God. For there is, in both cases, little evidence for and overwhelming evidence against (too much suffering, in the case of the good God; too much good in the case of the evil God) (see my God of Eth, for more on the evil God hypothesis).

Theists shouldn’t make the mistake of supposing that, because there’s a deep mystery about why there is anything at all, that puts theism and atheism on an equally rational/irrational footing. It doesn’t.


Incidentally, theologian Denys Turner is notable for suggesting that we atheistic moderns are inclined somehow to dismiss the question:

“Denys Turner (DT): Well, I think that you’ve got to find a way of asking a certain kind of question if you’re going to be a proper, card carrying, atheist. I think one begins to be a theist – to start at that end – when one realises that there’s a certain kind of question which gets swept off the agenda and my point was that you have to work quite hard to ensure that question doesn’t keep on re-emerging… and that question is, “Why is there anything at all?”, as distinct from, “How are things, given that we’ve got them?”…

…even more important than the question of whether God exists is the question of “What questions are legitimate?”, and the standard answer to, I suppose the theistic position in our time, is that the question which the name God appears to be some kind of answer to doesn’t make sense as a question – it gets ruled out. So it’s the agenda of questions which I would start and why is it that, umm, that a culture limits itself to asking, as it were, a set of routine questions which it has handily the methodologies for answering. It’s almost as if the methods we’ve got for answering questions dictate what questions we allow to be asked. And I just think there’s a very troubling question which kind of niggles on the edge of all the other questions.”

Source here.


  1. First, why is there a god instead of not a god? Something has to just exist.Second, the mere existence of God is not an explanation per se; an actual explanation logically entails the explanandum. You have to add extra premises to the idea of the existence of God (God wants to create some universe and God wanted to create this particular universe) to make theism an explanation. Once you add the necessary additional premises, you find that you are hypothesizing more than you set out to explain in the first place.(One persistent mistake I see in theistic arguments is assuming that our notions of time and causality are logical principles. They are not, they are scientific theories.)

  2. Do you not think there is a deeper probem with out inability to explain how on earth (!) the uiverse could have come to be here, in that for answering these big questions?Christians who have faith can be satisfied by their explanation of why things are as they are: it’s God, who we can’t understand. Under our method of rational thought, it seems we’re perpetually left with a question we can’t answer. Which system then appears stronger?If logical thinking can’t explain why the universe is here- and can’t even explain why it MIGHT be here- then doesn’t this means that, according to our methods, it SHOULDN’T be here?Are we just missing some vital, rational fact/ concept? But if so, how can we have missed it for so long? Do we only carry on in our search through our own FAITH in logic, science etc? Is strictly rational thought simply the wrong method to use? I can’ understand how logic works, and why its implications are so impossible to comprehend for me. Maybe I do simply have faith in logic? I’m not willing to give it up any how- it just seems so OBVIOUSLY right. Maybe theists feel the same way about God?p.s. hey barefoot bum. I think the point is that if we conclude that the reason for the universe/ creator was itself uncaused, then we tend to call this being God. Only something supernatural can be a first mover, and the universe is wholly natural. But I’m interested by your point about time and causality not being logical principles. For me, I can’t logically understand how they couldn’t exist, but I can’t tell if that’s simply because all my experiences of the world have only ever suggested these principles- that’s integral to my “world model”. Without them I guess these questions are easier, but how can they NOT exist?

  3. Argh why can’t edit that comments. I seem to have randomly emitted words and letters from my sentences. Sorry…

  4. Sorry, theists don’t have an explanation there.An explanation for “why there is something rather than nothing” doesn’t work if you need something (eg God) to kick it off.Getting from something to something-and-everything-else is the easy bit. Well… easy for science which explains the origins of complexity and life and intelligence, that theism has to assume existed all along too.I noticed that the theolgian guy that Jonothan Miller interviewed was talking about God as a kind of not-a-thing, which looks like an attempted workaround to this point.Yeah, start with something, deem it not to be a thing, and hey presto you have an explanation for everything (else, damn.)

  5. Surely the simple rejoinder is to ask what was God buggering about with before he decided to make himself useful and create the universe?Puttering about with mudpies, I shouldn’t wonder. Tsk, children, they’re the same everywhere…

  6. What is the point of asking “why” about this? The answer is surely obvious: because there is. “Why” has nothing to do with it.

  7. Sally_bm:Don’t worry. Nobody proofreads comments.Do you not think there is a deeper problem?Not really, no.Christians who have faith can be satisfied by their explanation of why things are as they are: it’s God, who we can’t understand.Note that “explanation” contradicts with “can’t understand”. That which you don’t understand can be many things, but it cannot be an explanation.If logical thinking can’t explain why the universe is here- and can’t even explain why it MIGHT be here- then doesn’t this means that, according to our methods, it SHOULDN’T be here?I suspect you mean scientific thinking; logical thinking is just about connecting statements in a rigorous and well-defined manner.As noted above, theistic thinking can’t explain why the universe is here, and it really can’t explain why God is here. Should we then conclude that both God and the universe shouldn’t be here?And no, scientific thinking does not entail that which has not or cannot be explained shouldn’t be there. Explanations are human ideas; scientific thinking recognizes at some level that reality is independent of human thinking.Are we just missing some vital, rational fact/ concept?Not really.I can’t understand how logic works…I suspect you mean that you can’t understand why logic works. Your comments seem to reveal a good enough grasp of the how.Maybe I do simply have faith in logic? I’m not willing to give it up any how- it just seems so OBVIOUSLY right. Maybe theists feel the same way about God?You may have faith in logic. I do not, and logic doesn’t seem at all obvious at all to me. I’ve collected ample evidence that it does indeed work in solving practical problems. Thus, I’m not going to lose any sleep if I can’t figure out some deeper principle to explain logic itself.But I’m interested by your point about time and causality not being logical principles.I’m not at all saying that time and causality don’t exist; they clearly do. I’m saying their justification is scientific, that time and causality is true forms a part of the simplest axiom set from which we can derive the character of our observations; they are not necessary truths or metaphysical axioms.

  8. sally_bmAs to how logic works, I would offer thisLogic works because it leads to consistency; anything illogical ultimately leads to contradiction and randomness. Perhaps in a sense logic is just what is left after the non-working stuff is discarded and so “logic works” is a tautology. Bit of a Holmes resonance here “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

  9. Is the problem simply that theists ask the question “Why?” when the really mean “Who is responsible?” and are only satisfied when a culprit can be found. Unfortunately as soon as a suspect has been identified they stop looking for other explanations. Worse they try to fit every available bit of evidence to fit. It is as if Holmes blamed Professor Moriarty for every crime and misadventure going. “See Watson – my morning paper has been incorrectly creased! Moriarty is taunting us no doubt. Did he bribe the paper-boy or somehow tamper with the printing press? No means are beyond him, he is a criminal genius and without scruple.” (My apologies to Sir Arthur)

  10. A much more relevant question than “why” is “WHAT is there?” Each of us knows – or believes we do – that we exist; and most of us accept there is at least one universe.How it all came about is the so far unanswered, and perhaps in principle unanswerable, question. Theists attempt to answer it with their concept of “God”, but most of the time their efforts to explain this entity convincingly are pretty clumsy.Atheists and agnostics who don’t believe in, or are uncertain about, the ‘supernatural’ can logically be quite comfortable with pantheism – the notion that ‘God’ IS the universe, and vice-versa. I like this idea. How does it strike others?

  11. Anticant – Pantheism still suffers from the tendency to ascribe agency. If you get rid of that then you are surely just left with the Universe. Which is quite enough come to think of it.What is wrong with “the Universe is the Universe.”?

  12. But surely the universe has agency is so far as we do and we are part of that universe?

  13. Paul, We do. But there is much which does not.I would find it difficult to argue for either grains of sand or the force of gravity being an agent in that sense.

  14. In my mind (albeit a 13 year old one) this boils down to an initial question on the existence of God (or at least a creator). Also, in this argument, I am taking it for granted that those here are educated people who believe that if something has no proof it cannot stand as a reasonable argument.On this basis, God cannot exist as there is no concrete and infallible evidence in ‘his’ favour. However, astrophysicists have observed that the universe is expanding, and from this we can conclude that all the matter within the universe, must have, at one point, been in one very dense, singular mass.Some may be saying “Where did that come from?” but, astrophysicists have reasoned that nothing can have an infinite volume, so in black holes, some of the matter and energy must be, essentially, squished into nothing. And if this is true, then why can the inverse not be?I ask you, do not immediately deny this, because one of the most revered modern scientists (Stephen Hawking’s) theory on black holes relies on the fact that small particles appear out of nothing. It is then only a small leap to see that maybe one of these particles happened to be terribly dense, then expanded. I shall end on a note, a dense particle such as this does not have to be impossible, just highly improbable, maybe this was one of billions of billions of individual particles that ‘popped up’ in the ‘time’, per se, before the big bang.

  15. Doesn’t theists have to explain the existence of God? Why isn’t there a god (who created the rest) rather than nothing?Seems to me that in discussion with a theist one needs criteria for what would count as a good explanation. Or are we atheists (or agnostics) expected to accept either a) god created herself or b) god existed before time began?

  16. Well i am athiest and i don’t know, i wish i did, but to the idea of God we can ask, Where did God come from? Why is there a God? How did God start? They do not know either.It is ridiculous to even consider a God as he has had no evidence of exitance as science has progressed, and how can there be a “true” God if there are many different religions who beleive in different Gods.

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