one of my heroes, Eric Voegelin, thought this was a well-framed
question, as I once did.
Why Is There Something
Rather Than Nothing?
The word “something” needs
clarification. We ordinarily use “something” to refer to an
unidentified particular in a general way (e.g., “I just heard something;
what was that?”). The question, “Why is there something rather than
nothing?,” however, seems to ask in a general way about the totality of
grammatical form of a question can be misleading. “Why is there
something rather than nothing?” is grammatically similar to “Why is
there salt in the soup rather than pepper?” or “Why are there swallows
in Capistrano rather than bald eagles?,” but they are logically quite
different from our question. The other questions can be answered by
investigating other parts of the world (culinary practice and the nature
of certain birds, respectively). The explanation in each case lies
outside the thing to be explained. But the question, “Why is there
everything [‘something’] rather than nothing at all?,” logically does
not permit any such investigation. There is nothing “outside”
everything that could yield an explanation.
Mystery of Existence, Milton K. Munitz argues that, unlike “Why is
there something rather than nothing?,” the question “Why does the
observed world exist?” is well-framed, but unanswerable. (A genuine
mystery, according to Munitz, is a question that can be neither
dismissed nor answered.) He rejects the theistic answer, i.e., the
observed world exists because God created it, but that rejection does
not affect what we have said above. The mystery of existence is neutral
with respect to theism. Whether or not God exists, there is nothing
outside the totality of existing things (including or excluding a God)
and therefore nothing that can yield an explanation for its existence.
That is, whether the totality equals “just the observed world” or “God
plus the observed world,” there is – there can be – nothing
outside that totality which explains it. Even when, according to
theism, God was all that existed, there was no explanation for that
fact, for there were no other facts than his existence to which possible
explanatory appeal could be made.
As Paul Edwards put it in his (also
highly recommended) essay, “Why?,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“. . . the word ‘why’ loses its meaning
when it becomes logically impossible to go beyond what one is trying
to explain. This is a matter on which there need not be any
disagreement between atheists and theists or between rationalists and
first posted on
Ask a Philosopher in 2002.
Partly in response to this essay, William F.
"Two Forms of the Ultimate Explanation-Seeking