Quote of the Day: Does Religion Answer the Question, Why is There Something, Rather Than Nothing?

sean carroll

Quote from Sean Carroll’s article in the upcoming Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics:

It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.

Carroll goes on to say:

As you can see, my basic tack hasn’t changed: this kind of question might be the kind of thing that doesn’t have a sensible answer. In our everyday lives, it makes sense to ask “why” this or that event occurs, but such questions have answers only because they are embedded in a larger explanatory context. In particular, because the world of our everyday experience is an emergent approximation with an extremely strong arrow of time, such that we can safely associate “causes” with subsequent “effects.” The universe, considered as all of reality (i.e. let’s include the multiverse, if any), isn’t like that. The right question to ask isn’t “Why did this happen?”, but “Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?” As far as the universe and our current knowledge of the laws of physics is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The demand for something more — a reason why the universe exists at all — is a relic piece of metaphysical baggage we would be better off to discard.

This perspective gets pushback from two different sides. On the one hand we have theists, who believe that they can answer why the universe exists, and the answer is God. As we all know, this raises the question of why God exists; but aha, say the theists, that’s different, because God necessarily exists, unlike the universe which could plausibly have not. The problem with that is that nothing exists necessarily, so the move is pretty obviously a cheat. I didn’t have a lot of room in the paper to discuss this in detail (in what after all was meant as a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of physics, not the philosophy of religion), but the basic idea is there. Whether or not you want to invoke God, you will be left with certain features of reality that have to be explained by “and that’s just the way it is.” (Theism could possibly offer a better account of the nature of reality than naturalism — that’s a different question — but it doesn’t let you wiggle out of positing some brute facts about what exists.)

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— Sean Carroll, Why is There Something, Rather Than Nothing? February 8, 2018

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3 Comments

  1. GeoffT

    Sean Carroll has an awesome intellect, and is also a great communicator.

    Theists, especially those of a fundamental inclination, often ask of atheists ‘how do you explain something being created from nothing?’ Well, for one thing, how do they explain it? Just saying ‘god did it’ is nothing more than avoidance, because it doesn’t even begin to try and explain how God did it.

    However, more to the point, the question of something being created from nothing actually involves an assertion, namely what evidence is there that there is any such state as ‘nothing’? Why assume that prior to existence as we see it today there was nothing? If one really thinks about it, ‘nothing’ is a concept of which we have no understanding, nor evidence.

    Reply
  2. Bob Felton

    First you have to define what ‘nothing’ actually means, and then you have to justify the assumption that ‘nothing’ is what we should expect absent supernatural intervention. Theists tend to believe this is a killer, unanswerable question, but I don’t think the question is even meaningful.

    Reply
  3. Infidel753

    Religion by its very nature cannot provide worthwhile answers to anything. Responding to any unexplained phenomenon with “an invisible omnipotent being did it” is a cop-out, not an explanation.

    For the real answer to “why is there something rather than nothing”, read Stephen Hawking’s The Grand Design and Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing. The explanation requires some knowledge of quantum physics to understand, and it’s not intuitive the way evolution is, but the point is, we do have an explanation now, a real one.

    As Hawking carefully explains, this does not prove that there is no God. However, it does prove that God is not necessary to explain the existence of the universe.

    Reply

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