Why is there something rather than nothing? - December 1, 2014

Generally attributed to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, one of the history’s most intelligent men, this question has been used by many people with various ideas about what the answer to this question should be, starting with Leibniz and down (and I do mean “down”) to Richard Dawkins.

I have had occasion before to speak of the benefit of questioning as superior to the benefit we may gain from answers. Indeed, questions, even questions that presumably have answers that are universally accepted, are not supplanted as though they had no further use for us, whereas answers, no matter how universal they are agreed to, are never completely free from reworking, rethinking, and rejecting. What we can count on are questions, important questions, questions that demand our thinking, questions that do not change irrespective of the brilliance of the answer.

Whereas answers come and go, like the women in the room talking of Michelangelo, questions stay even when we think they are passé, or child’s work, or of little importance. In fact, it is because they are sometimes the work of children that we may be wise enough to realize that questions are the very beginning of true knowledge; what is amazing, though, is that they are often the ending too.

For example, we all know that there is a time in every child’s live when he or she asks and asks and asks questions. Sometimes these questions are easy to understand,  but many times they are not, even though we may be foolish enough to give quick and thoughtless answers to these questions. This period of life is not put on this earth to confound parents, even if we think so. It is instead an introduction to the reality of the world, a reality full of questions that will never be fully answered but always be available for our growth, for growth comes with questioning and only rarely in answering. Each of us will have answers occasionally that we are proud to have understood, but a quick thought will give us the realization that most, if not all, of these answers will be supplanted sometime in the future. We say that having new and updated answers means we are learning more, and perhaps that is true, But the real knowledge may well be in the acceptance that some thoughts are permanent and others are temporary.

It is by no means the case that those clinging to the permanent are more appreciated than those aiming at the temporary.  In the political world we live in, for example, there is a widening gap between what we attribute to be conservatism and liberalism.

I was born into the Democratic Party, and gave up my birthright in grad school many years ago. It was then that I first heard of Richard Weaver’s description of conservatism as “a paradigm of the essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”

What Weaver was saying is that conservatism was about what is. It is not about what we want life to be, what we hope it will be, what we want to change, what we are working to change. It is about what exists.

Another way of saying this and noting the differences between conservatism and liberalism is that conservatives aim at process, and liberals aim at product. I won’t be so nasty as to say that conservatism is for philosophers and liberalism is for ambulance-chasing lawyers (well, maybe I will say it). But say it or not, the difference is, on the one hand, between how things are brought into being and what result we want from bringing them into being. By aiming at results, liberals are often (well, more than often) more successful in political life. Conservatives often find themselves arguing over how we should do this or that, whereas liberals argue over getting this or that done. For the most part, this latter viewpoint is more consonant with the American can-do spirit. Another way of looking at this is that conservatives have questions and liberals answers. When the populous wants results, it is natural to look to liberals, even if their answers are disastrous over and over again, because so many think that politics is doing something, not necessarily learning something.

No matter how much people complain about ambulance-chasers, very many yearn for the goodies that being aided by an ambulance-chaser will bring. How many really desire to know the reasons for doing something rather than the results of doing it, irrespective of how successful were those results?

I know that many of the answers to life that I would like to know will not be evident to me during my lifetime. Many, if not most, of the answers I think I know may well be wrong or will change sometime in the future. What won’t change is the importance of the questions I know.

Now, back to Leibniz, here giving us, first, the central question and the means to discover the answer, followed by his own answer:

“. . . now we . . . make use of the great . . . principle that nothing takes place without a sufficient reason; in other words, that nothing occurs for which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is and not otherwise. This principle having been stated, the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ . . . Further, assuming that things must exist, it must be possible to give a reason why they should exist as they do and not otherwise.

“Now this sufficient reason for the existence of the universe cannot be found in the series of contingent things. . . . Although the present motion . . . arises from preceding motion, and that in turn from motion which preceded it, we do not get further however far we may go, for the same question always remains. The sufficient reason, therefore, which needs not further reason, must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which . . . is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself; otherwise we should not yet have a sufficient reason with which to stop. This final reason for things is called God.”

 “The Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason” (1714)

Why is there something rather than nothing? Think about it.