Why Does Anything at all Exist?

“Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder impels us to find reasons for things”[i]

When I was a child, on the odd occasion I would find myself lying in bed at night, wondering what it would be like to not-exist. After confounding myself with such reflection, I was naturally led to wonder what it would be like if nothing at all existed. Is it possible that nothing could have existed? Why does anything at all exist? It seems possible that, instead of the cosmos existing, there could have been nothing at all. So why does it exist? It took mere minutes before my frazzled and awestruck mind gave up on these questions and slipped into slumber. Little did I know that such questions have been topics of reflection among intellectuals since the great Greek philosophers. In particular, the question of why anything at all exists is the foundation for a debated argument for God’s existence—the cosmological argument from contingent beings.


The Argument

Why does anything at all exist? Many would agree that things that exist must have an explanation; a reason why they are. Consider the universe—by which I mean everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist. If it’s true that things that exist have an explanation, then, provided the universe exists, there must be an explanation for its existence. Furthermore, various thinkers have suggested that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. Their conclusion, then, is that God is the explanation of the universe’s existence. To summarise:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God[ii].

This argument is logically sound—meaning that if someone wants to deny the conclusion (5), then they must deny one or more of the premises (1-4). At first blush, premise 4 may look as though the theist is assuming what she’s meant to be proving. Never fear—I’ll explain and defend that premise in a future post. For now, I’ll examine premise 3 and argue that it is plausibly true.

Is the universe a “thing”?

That the universe exists is patently obvious to virtually all people. You might wonder, then, why bother defending this premise? Well, although hardly any person would deny that the universe exists, some might deny that it is a “thing” that requires an explanation. After all, the universe is a collection of everything that exists, and not all collections of things are actually things themselves.

For example, consider the difference between your body and a collection of random items. Your body is a collection of body parts—hands, feet, legs etc.— and, I think, it is fair to say that it’s a “thing”. We can coherently ask questions like “why is my body weary?”, or “why doesn’t my body feel hungry?”. Or, if we’re feeling philosophical, we might wonder “why does my body exist?”.

In contrast, imagine you have a collection of items sitting on your desk. Included in this collection are a pen, your phone, and a water bottle. These three items are not a “thing” so to speak, but rather a collection. Though it makes sense to ask why any one of these individual items exists (i.e. “why does my phone exist?”), it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask “why does this collection of items exist?”. This is because the individual items are not unified in any way, and once each item has been explained there is no “thing” left to explain[iii].

The objection, then, is that the universe is more like the random collection than it is like your body. Once we explain every individual component of the universe, then there is no “thing” left to explain. And, if the universe is not a “thing”, then it may not need an explanation.

Defending Premise 3

How might a theist respond? Philosopher Stephen Davis argues that the universe is a thing since it possesses two essential properties of things. Firstly, it has an identity apart from other things. “The universe” is not the same as planet earth or your pet cat—it has a distinct identity. In other words, it’s something other than the earth or your cat, or any other thing that exists.

Secondly, it has properties. Davis writes, “[the universe] has certain unique properties like a certain pressure, density, temperature, space-time curvature, and so on. In its very early history everything was so smashed together that there wasn’t even atomic structure, so that the only thing there was the universe itself”[iv].

Davis also contends that, although the universe is a collection of things, it has a unifying principle, and therefore is more like your body than the collection of random items. All of the things that make up the universe are causally connected. For example, I exist because of my parents, who exist because of theirs. The leaf travels down the street because the wind blows it. The tide rises and falls because of the gravitational pulls of the earth, sun, and moon. We might describe the unifying principle of the universe as “the origin of all its members in some prior existing thing or things”[v]. For these reasons, Davis concludes that the universe is an existing thing.


I’m not certain that my boyhood-self would have understood this argument or its implications, but today, thankfully, I can, and I consider it a sound argument for God’s existence. If what Davis argues is true, then our common-sense intuition that the universe is something that exists is correct. Premise 3, then, is true. What remains is to determine whether the other premises are true, and that’s a task I’ll undertake in future posts.

 


Endnotes:

[i] Pruss, A. R. (2006). The principle of sufficient reason: a reassessment. NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 4.

[ii] Craig, W. L. (2010). On guard: defending your faith with reason and precision. US: David C Cook, p. 54.

[iii] Davis, S. T. (2006). Christian philosophical theology. NY: Oxford University Press, p. 4

[iv] ibid

[v] ibid

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