Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing? (2019)

From The Philosopher, Volume CVII No. 1 Spring 2019

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova for an essay in Symmetry Magazine on our intimate relationship with subatomic physics 


By Muneeb Faiq

Three centuries back, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz argued, ‘The first question that should rightly be asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Martin Heidegger, in his book What is Metaphysics asked somewhat the same question: ‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’ Philosophers and thinkers have acknowledged this proclamation and agreed with Leibniz. This question invokes a deep inquiry which is perhaps among the fundamentals of human thought structure. While this question is among the first questions to be asked, I argue that it may not necessarily be ‘The First Question’ per se. Why not? The answer may appear to be absurd at the outset but, as Albert Einstein maintained ‘if at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it’ so let us, nevertheless, inquire.

Give a readymade universe for physics, it will make sense of all that is going on up to the precision of first trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. But ask why this universe and why these laws - and it mumbles miserably. Physics has been afflicted by the pathology of a never ending paradigm since millennia which persisted through Greek theories, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, general theory of relativity as well as Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics. String theory and inflation theory also seek refuge under the same umbrella. The paradigm is ‘Universe is a continuum of states evolving as per certain laws’. This paradigm never addresses the questions: Why a universe? Why does anything exist at all? Jim Holdt puts it in an neat perspective maintaining that contemporary physics at its best replaces God with a set of laws (laws not too different from God Himself) when it comes to bursting of the Universe into existence from nothing. He articulates that the original theological equation of ‘God plus nothing gives rise to Universe’ has been transmogrified by cosmology into something like ‘Laws (of physics) plus nothing yields the Universe’ - or Multiverse (or Multiverses if you will).

Despite stubborn efforts to remove God from the equation, Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, could not live to its expectations. His book is a peculiar demonstration of the persistent handicap of this sort. That is why David Albert came up with a negative review of Krauss’s book to which Jerry Coyne appears to agree to an extensive scope. Krauss’s own acquiescence presents far better a testimony when he enunciates ‘I don't ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why; as far as I’m concerned it's turtles all the way down’. Sean Carrol also says ‘Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way- a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously’. George Dvorsky claims that there are certain questions that we will never be able to solve and the first question in his list is ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

A caveat should be presented before we move on. How many things in total are there which we can collectively call ‘everything’? That begs the question; how do we define a thing? What is a thing? Physics has a contextualised definition of a thing (that is what we adopt in the present paper) which may or may not superimpose with the definitions in other subjects. If a thing is a thing if we can think or talk about, then anything that we can refer to as thing is a thing. This way, ‘everything’ turns out to be difficult to imagine because things can be real, they can be imaginary, they can be possible, they can even be impossible (an impossible thing may also be a thing), they can also be existent and also be non-existent. Nothing can also be a thing, nonetheless.

The question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is based on two fundamental suppositions viz. there is something rather than nothing and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are different entities. The first question should be the one that does not need to invoke any assumption. In the case of ‘The Question’ in focus, the underlying beliefs are:
  • (1) something exists (or nothing does not exist) and 
  • (2) something and nothing are distinct entities. 
While “something exists” might appear to be profoundly obvious and intuitive, there is no raison d'être to hold this belief. Before accepting Leibniz’s proposition, it is important to have sufficient ground for the thesis that there is something rather than nothing. What if this decree that appears to be the most fundamental truth may not necessarily be as exact as it appears? Let us, for a moment, be sceptic of the basic premise (consideration of the existence of something) of this question. Let us consider this; may be the existence of something is not true. In that case the first question would be ‘Is there something rather than nothing?’ The absurdity of this question may seem to be obvious as it defies the most intuitive knowledge that we possibly can have.

René Descartes started with doubting the existence of anything and everything that he could think of. After doubting the existence of every conceivable thing, he went on to be skeptic of his own existence. No matter how hard he tried, he could not doubt his own existence and finally concluded cogito, ergo sum usually rendered in English as ‘I think, therefore I am’ indicating that even if the denial of existence of everything is accepted, one cannot deny his or her own existence. People have experimented with this thought and finally accepted Descartes’ avowal. If it is the ultimate answer to scepticism about existence then the first question would be ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ But if the Descartes’ method/conclusion is not immune to the lancet of scepticism, then we may have to reconsider Leibniz’s view. For that to happen, we have to give rise to scepticism about ‘I think, therefore I am’ and transform it into ‘I think does not mean I am’ or at least come up with ‘I think, therefore I may or may not be’.

Consider you are sitting in a room in front of fire. You see the bright color of the fire, you feel the heat and hear the crackle of the burning wood. If you put your hand in the fire, it will burn you. But if you apply Descartes’ method you can doubt the existence of this fire, room or the chair you are sitting in. You may think that this fire does not exist because may be the heat, color, sound, chair, room and everything else is an illusion/apparition created by what Bertrand Russell called ‘sense data’. It is easy to agree that this fire may not exist as it may be an illusion but since you are experiencing this illusion, no matter how much you try to deny the fire and everything in the room, the room itself, your hands, feet, ears, skin, eyes; there is still some entity that experiences the fire and that is you. Now let us consider that you suddenly woke up and found it was a dream and you are now convinced that the fire, the chair and the room did not exist. Yet you are sure that you exist as you are the one who experienced it and are experiencing things in the world outside ‘the dream’ that you just woke up from.

Even if you are certain that the fire did not exist, you are convinced that the realm (let us call it realm) you now woke up in must exist. And even if the world you woke up in does not exist (as it may also be a dream), but you exist. May be a dream within a dream within a dream ad infinitum is the scenario and nothing in these dreams exist, but in no way, does it repudiate the existence of the entity that experiences the things in the dream (that is you). So here we fail to prove your own non-existence even if the fire, the heat, the color, the sound, the shape, the room, your body, hands, ears, eyes may not exist. It follows that ‘you’ as an observer do exist. In other words whatever you witnessed in the dream did not exist. It looks like even if there are multiple layers of dreams, you (the observer) do not pop out of existence though the ‘you’ that existed in your dream may not exist.

Does this ultimately prove Descartes’ assertion? Though it seems to be so but let us consider a slightly different scenario. We have agreed to the possibility that you (as an observer) do exist yet whatever you observed may not. We thought this because we considered that when you woke up from the dream, you moved into another realm of experience which may be similar or dissimilar but does not affect your existence because you as an observer may be dreaming at multiple distinct levels or realms. No matter each level turns out to be non-existent but you as an observer still exist because as soon as a particular realm turns out to be non-existent, you immediately wake up in a separate realm. But wait! Did we consider that there may not be a series of dreams which are serially and gradually broken into different realms of wakefulness? What if there is alternate/reciprocal dreaming? What is alternate/reciprocal dreaming? So far, we have considered that you woke up into a different world which is separate from the dream. And then this different world also may be a dream considering it to be a linear series of dream within a dream ad infinitum. 

What if there are two realms alternating/reciprocating with each other (or a loop of realms that move into one another; for explanation sake, let us keep our discussion to only two alternating realms). These two realms of alternate or reciprocal dreaming in which one dream is broken and you wake up into another dream and when this dream is broken, you again wake up in the first dream.

Since everything in the first dream does not exist, by the same principle everything in the second dream does not exist. It is important to note that if you are a part of dream, you will also be subject to same conclusions. If the chair in the dream did not exist, the person sitting in the chair also does not exist. So if both the realms do not exist and everything in both the dreams (which includes you in both the dreams) does not exist, it can be inferred that nothing exists (which includes you). This is because you are a subset of everything in any of the two dreams. You are a part of everything in first dream (if you were there) and you are the part of second dream (if you were there). And you will be subject to same laws as everything else in these dreams.

This indicates that you have two forms: You in the first dream and another you in the second dream. So you are in a realm. Since the first realm turns out to be nonexistent, you do not exist (because you are a part of the realm). Looking at it the other way round, you do not exist because second realm is also subject to same principles. Since these non-existent realms oscillate with each other, the cumulative inference would be that you don’t exist leaving the question about your existence open to skepticism.

It is interesting to note the happenstance that the total energy of the universe cancels out to be zero and that is why Krauss thinks that the universe can burst into existence. A fundamental particle emerges into the observable universe with correspondence appearance of antiparticle. Matter and antimatter annihilate each other. Can it be that energy and anti-energy (as we may call it) annihilate each other in the same way (maybe the photon-antiphoton like particle-antiparticle analogy)? More remarkable is the coincidence of the so-called ‘oscillatory/cyclic model’ of the universe advocated by many modern physicists including Neil Turok.

According to this model, the universe bursts into existence from another universe imploding (the Big Crunch) onto itself and going through the implosion (an imaginary point of intersection with a zero value of time and space and presumably matter and energy also) to explode (the Big Bang) on the other side (so to speak) as a new universe. Through this process one universe pops out of existence to give birth to a new universe.

Doesn’t it look much like the reciprocating dreams we just discussed? One dream implodes and the other explodes into existence. Is it that the consciousness in one world implodes/collapses to explode into the other realm? Can this be happening in the above reciprocal dream analogy where the observer is just a point (much like an imaginary intersection without any existence of its own)? Howbeit, from above given dream argument, we can assert that ‘nothing exists’ is a possibility and therefore the first question should not be ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’

It may be something deeper and original which does not invoke any assumptive axiom. Before arriving at this question it seems that we have confront some other questions like ‘Is there something rather than nothing?’ Or maybe ‘Is something different than nothing?’ Or ‘Is something the same as nothing?’ Or even ‘What is nothing? What is something?’ These questions disturb the sediment of Cartesian certainty of our existence or of the existence of the universe in the first place.

About the author: Muneeb Faiq is a neuroscientist who recently described diabetes type 4 and is exploring intricate connections between brain, mind and human health.

Address for correspondence:
Muneeb A. Faiq, Neuroimaging and Visual Science Laboratory, Department of Ophthalmology, New York University School of Medicine, New York, NY-10016, USA



  1. Though the language is most simple, the ideas are equally powerful. one of the most daring, thorough and fundamental investigations into the nature of existence. one of the best odysseys about the something-nothing riddle in decades.

  2. Muneeb has offered here an interesting, informative, and novel discussion of one of the most thorny yet fundamental topics of why there is, or is not, 'something'.

    If any readers are curious enough about this topic, I'd like to point them in the direction of my own attempt at briefly tackling it. The title, too, is 'Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?'.

    The essay appears on The Philosopher's sister site, Philosophical Investigations. Here's the link, which you might have to cut and paste ...

    Thank you again, Muneeb, for significantly moving the needle forward.

  3. Very good read and a fresh take on this fundamental debate of thought.

  4. Nailed it! No anecdote in the modern physics and philosophy has touched this subject with such precision and clarity. The beauty of the article is its simplicity. Muneeb has resuscitated the dead discipline of what it means to exist. His thesis is the only powerful argument against Descartes' cogito ergo sum. Finally someone to rub shoulders with Descartes after almost four centuries. This paper is a must read!

  5. Chris Williams8 May 2019 at 18:43

    I never knew that I don't exist. Nobody ever knew that. After reading this breakthrough paper, I realized that may be I don't exist at all. May be we all don't exist at all. May be nothing exists in the sense we understand what it means to exist. This is not a simple article, this is a deconstruction of the most fundamental perceivable reality of human thought. Mark my words 'this is the most important and informative probe into the riddle of existence ever written'. Muneeb, thanks for being so simple yet so profound. Thanks for being a superstar.

    1. Had the great indian poet Mirza Ghalib been alive, he would write prose absolutely akin to this beautiful piece. Really provides a new direction!

  6. Duboya muj ko honey ne na hota kuch to kya hota... it gives goosebumps to a reader whether I am having any life,soul or substance or what exactly I m ....... beautiful and profuse

    1. Vineet Deshpande9 May 2019 at 09:01

      @ Shayista & @ Adam.....
      This article is a combination of Mirja Ghalib and Albert Einstein as it hits cosmology at its fundamental level and yet talks about our own existence in the most simple way..... no jargon at all. best paper

  7. Good and thorough. I was scared for a moment. I felt as if I have vanished into nothing.......... lovely ideas

  8. Hennessey Watson10 May 2019 at 08:52

    I have thought about this all my life.... it is a question we all suffer through...and Muneeb gives a platform to tackle this scary ordeal in a lucid manner.... most beautiful article with a touch of philosophy simplicity physics and literature..... would definitely like to see more articles like this...

  9. Answer to many of childhood questions... Thanks muneeb !

  10. The question why there is something is a monster that scared philosophers and physicists for centuries.... there needs to be a unique blend of a philsoopher, a psychologist, a physicist and a simple layman to contextualize this question to its most fundamental state..... this article is the most beautiful painting painted by an artist who is a polymath of all these aspects.... never came across a masterpiece like this... new perspective, new thoughts, new questions an yet no answers... it stings you to awakening and you find yourself at a new horizon.

  11. The area that this article could have expanded on is the 'nature of a question'. What does a question mean? going from a simple notation of interrogation to the information seeking act or a casual expression. this has relevance to the problem of whether there is or is not something/nothing. Then another aspect would be to deliberate upon who is asking the questions. "Who" and "what" is this Who? What is the nature of this "Who"? Though this article is by far the most brilliant philosophical narrative on Descartes' discourse, these aspects would have spiced it up with additional flavors. Muneeb Faiq has truly done a wonderful job.

  12. The reasoning over similar theories about the two concepts had a lot of disagreement between philosophers. This led to the search for additional arguments.

  13. when it comes to questions like this, first question is an extreme term and it is almost impossible to find a question to be dubbed as first question. who decides what is the first question? why should there be a first question in the first place? but the search for the most fundamental questions is as important for the foundations of philosophy/cosmology and Euclidean Elements in geometry and mathematics. This is exactly what Muneeb Faiq is trying to achieve in this article and it is obvious that the author is significantly successful in fulfilling this important objective. best paper in the past two decades of philosophy is here.

  14. Alice Livingood15 May 2019 at 09:56

    Nice read. I am waiting to see a book written on this theme. Wish someone could tell the author to write a complete book on the subject. It is simple and the ideas will be accessible to common people. This writing style is a potential bestseller. Trust me on this Muneeb

  15. Aronov Glimcher15 May 2019 at 11:30

    I agree with Alice !!! If I were a publisher, I would definitely commission a complete book from Muneeb. This article is indeed worth a potential bestseller.

  16. strongly agree with alice and aronov

  17. It is very interesting to read such reasonings because they contain an incredible amount of useful and unique information that can be used.

    1. Agreed ! Perhaps the author should consider to write a small book/monograph on this issue in a way that is accessible to common masses.

  18. One important part that should have been added at the beginning of this paper is a discourse on existence; what is means to exist; how can we know or not know if something/nothing exists; what are the principles and criteria of existence/non-existence; can anything not exist; can anything exist and not exist at the same time; these are important questions the author could have taken into consideration. Or may be the author should consider writing a separate paper on that because muneeb's writing considerable beautiful and accessible. he is a master story teller. I would suggest the journal to commission an article on existence discourses from Muneeb. and yes, if he is planning to write a book, I would love to read that. it will be a bestseller ... highly likely


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