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Why something rather than nothing?

Closer to Truth - Inwagen & O'HaraClick image for video since CtT murder kittens by disallowing embed

If you are an open atheist, presumably, at some point, some clever theist has asked you the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Depending on how uncharitable you feel, you might want to expeditiously dismiss it as an argument from ignorance. Surely no atheist’s inability to answer mind-boggling, deeply metaphysical, and possibly nonsensical questions constitutes supernatural proof. An atheist is a non-believer in gods, not a self-proclaimed encyclopaedia of recondite knowledge. Thank you very much.

However, that would be quite uninteresting. It is much funnier to take the question seriously – or at the very least pretend to for the sake of argument. I already touched lightly upon the subject in my essay on the modal cosmological argument. There is more to be said, though, and recently I stumbled upon a video-interview with philosopher Peter van Inwagen arguing the unlikelihood of nothing to John Cardinal O’Hara. Inwagen, himself a Christian, seems unconvinced by his own argument stating, later in the interview, that the correct explanation of ‘something’ is the necessity of God.

I find myself – perhaps unsurprisingly; the heathen I am – quite sympathetic to Inwagen’s argument. It has the elegance of simplicity and, loosely speaking, it is merely the assertion that out of all the possible worlds – states of affairs that could have been realised – the world in which there is nothing, the empty set, counts as one out of infinity. Therefore, the likelihood of there being nothing is zero. Of course, the likelihood of any particular something-world is also zero. However, it is infinitely more likely that the actual world be any of the many something-worlds than it is for it to be the one lonesome nothing-world.

That being said O’Hara raises a pretty damning problem for Inwagen’s elegance; why should we ascribe equal probability to all the possible worlds? I’m not sure what, precisely, is the object of O’Hara’s discontent, so speaking only for myself it is not obvious that probability even applies to Inwagen’s abstract possible worlds. Each side on a die is equally probable only because the die is balanced – i.e. not loaded – and because our natural laws consistently average out the rolls of balanced dice. Or we could say that each number in the lottery is equally probable because the lottery employs some unbiased number-picking mechanism. If we cannot point to a world-picking mechanism and only one of the worlds (ours) is realised shouldn’t we be wary of unexplained probabilistic talk? It’s intuitive that if someone put a gun to our heads we would assign equal probability to possible worlds if we assigned any at all. But normally we wouldn’t assign probability to abstracta without any motivation.

David Kellogg Lewis

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Suppose then that possible worlds are not abstract but just as concrete as our own? This is, after all, the opinion of philosopher David Lewis who is infamous for his modal realism. Could we then ascribe probabilities to possible worlds? Well, sort of but we wouldn’t need to. In making possible worlds concrete we also abandon the worldliness of the empty set. The answer to ‘why something rather than nothing?’ would just be that nothingness doesn’t count as a possible world, since it has no content. Moreover, if all these worlds are equally real then even if there were an empty world, the question would still just devolve into the weak anthropic principle. Of course the world we’re in is one in which there is something.

Lewis’ view of possibility is, of course, plenty weird. However, that just raises the question of what you think possibility is. What does it mean to say something is possible? And more importantly, given our discussion, how do we make sense of non-being as a possibility? After all, the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ only makes any sense inasmuch as we think there actually could have been nothing. That nothingness is a genuine possibility.

I might not be able to answer the theist’s question fully. On the other hand I doubt most theists asking the question can provide an adequate explanation of possible nothingness.

A recommended introduction to using probabilities in this sort of context can be found in Arguing for Atheism by Robin Le Poidevin (pp. 46-54).

Am I missing something? Feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

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