I`ve considered various arguments and speculations concerning the features of the World. But why is there a World at all? Why is anything there to have the features we argue and speculate about ….. or any other features, any features at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? We cannot plausibly argue that this is an illegitimate question owing to the fact that if there were nothing we should not be here to ask it. After all, essentially the same arguement could be addressed to the astronomer who asked why the sun had planets or to the biologist who inquired into the origin of life, and we all agree that questions about the origin of the planets or of life are legitimate questions. It does not follow, however, that the question, why is there something rather than nothing? is a legitimate question, and it is undeniable that in some respects it is strikingly unlike questions about the origin of the planets or of life.
The philosopher who asks why there is anything at all faces a difficulty to which nothing in the enquiries of our astronomer and our biologist corresponds. Before there was life, before there were planets, there were already lots of things, and the problem of explaining the origin of planets or the origin of life is just the problem of explaining how those already existing things interacted to produce the planets or to produce life. But before there was anything ….. if indeed the world `before` makes any sense in this context ….. there was, ofcourse, nothing. And how can `nothing`serve as the basis of an explanation? If nothing exists then nothing is going on. If nothing exists, then there is nothing that has any properties that can be used in giving an explanation as can the properties of a `pre-planetary` nebula surrounding the sun or the properties of the `pre-biotic soup` that some have said was the arena within which life developed. `Nothing` has no parts that could interact with another or display contrasting properties. For that matter, `nothing` has no parts that could fail to interact with one another or fail to display contrasting properties.
In fact the word `nothing` is not a name at all, although our use of the word in quotes in the last few sentenses might suggest that it is something like a name. Surrounding the word `nothing` with quotes makes the word look as if it were supposed to function as a sort of nickname for a vast emptiness or an enormous vacuum. But to regard the word `nothing` as functioning in that way would be to misunderstand it. To say that there is nothing is to say that there isn`t anything, not even a vast emptiness. If there were a vast emptiness, there would be no material objects ….. no atoms or elementary particles or anything made of them …. but there nevertheless would be something: the vast emptiness.
If it seems implausible to suppose that an emptiness is something, a thing, consider the fact that we have qualified this emptiness with an adjective `vast`. To say of something that it is vast is to say that it has a size, and only a thing can have a size ….. or any other property or feature or characteristic. One can of course see why someone would say that if there were only a vast emptiness there would be nothing. For that matter, one can see why someone would say that if there were no furniture or other large, solid objects in a room the room contained `nothing` or there was `nothing in` the room. It`s completely empty, you would probably regard it as a tedious joke if someone replied that you were mistaken because the room contained lots of air and water vapour and millions of dust motes. Nevertheless, what the tedious humorist said would be true. And the same applies to the vast emptiness. Nevertheless, it would be true that there was still a vast emptiness, for spatial extent would still exist, and there couldn`t even be spatial extent if there were really nothing.
The question `why is there life on Earth?`may be difficult, but it is easy enough to see in a very general way what sort of thing would be an answer to it. The question would be answered by someone`s showing how a state of affairs in which there were no living things but lots of non-living things developed into a state of affairs in which there were both non-living things and living things. The person who answered the question would show how non-living things interacted and came together and arranged themselves to produce living things. No one is going to show how non-existant things interacted and came together and rearranged themselves to produce existent things.
The strangeness of the question, if not it`s difficulty, doubtless explains why it has occured only to philosophers. One might expect that the religions of the World would have offered various explanations of why there was something rather than nothing. But it is in fact only under the impetus provided by philosophical speculation that any religion has provided an explanation, be it profound or silly, plausible or implausible, of the fact that there is something rather than nothing. It is true that the adherants of many religions tell stories that our culture describes as `creation myths`. It is often said that these stories are primitive attempts to explain the beginnings of things. I am doubtful about whether these stories really were attempts to explain the beginnings, but I do not propose to go into that question. The point I want to make is that none of these stories even pretends to answer the question, Why should there be anything at all? In the Hebrew story, God, at least, is on stage when the play begins. If an alternative translation is correct, a `heaven` and a formless, empty, watery `earth`are also present. It is clear, therefore, that if all the creation stories that any religion tells are like these, none of the stories addresses the question why there should be anything at all. This does not mean that no religion has ever had anything to say about why there is something rather than nothing, for it may be that some religion has had something to say about this question that is unrelated to or goes beyond the creation story it tells. And in a sense–but only in a sense–this is the case. It is the case because many religions have co-existed with philosophical speculation and have absorbed some of the ways of thinking generated by philosophical speculation.
In Christian Europe, for example, there was an intimate relation between philosophy and the Christian religion, a relation that lasted in one form or another from almost the begginings of Christianity till the eighteenth century. And many of the Christian philosophers belonging to one strand or another of this tradition were aware of this question `Why should there be anything at all? and attempted to answer this question from a Christian perspective. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these philosophers gave answers to this question that incorporated many Christian elements, even if they were never simply dictated by Christianity. Nevertheless, the investigations of these philosophers were philosophical investigations and stemmed at least in large part from philosophical motives: the discussion of the question may have belonged to Christian philosophy, but it certainly belonged to Christian philosophy and not to any other aspect of the Christian religion.
The same point could be made in relation to Jewish and Muslim philosophy. The philosophical traditions on which Christian, Jewish, and Muslim have drawn are Greek in origin and antedate Christianity and Islam. And if these roots do not antedate Judaism, they certainly antedate any Jewish concern with speculative philosophical questions. Why is there a World? Why are we here? How did we get here? A fascinating topic of discussion that will probably take eons of time for us to find the answer.