More on the upcoming Carroll vs. Craig dialogue (previously, one, two, three). I have some leftover business from my previous post on the contingency argument for the existence of God. It concerns the question why is there something something rather than nothing?, a question I’ve discussed on a few previous occasions.
The question “why is there something something rather than nothing?” is not an argument, obviously. It’s a question. It’s relationship to the cosmological argument for the existence for God is as an entree, a taster. It’s supposed to get you thinking about existence.
Imagine two parties. At one is everything that actually exists (or has existed) – the “actual” party. At the other, everything that could exist – the “possible” party. Horses are at both parties, unicorns only the possible party. Why? Because of something at the actual party, in this case the evolutionary ancestors of the horse. When something moves from possible to actual, it’s because of an invitation from the actual party. Those in the possible party can’t crash the actual party. They don’t exist, and so don’t have any causal powers, so can’t make anything actually happen.
So this actual party – did everyone get their invitation off someone else? Is there an infinite regress of inviters? It can’t form a loop – I invite you and you invite me – because that’s just crashing the party. Could there be a party where everyone must be invited by someone who’s already there? Why is anyone at the party? Why does anything exist?
Not the Question
Aside: The question is not: “something came from nothing. How could that happen?”, to which the answer is supposedly: because God can make something out of nothing. That confuses the contingency argument with the Kalam argument. The question is “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. The answer is: God is a necessary being, so it is not possible for there to be nothing. God must exist.
Carroll discusses the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” in this blog post. Amongst other things, he discusses the claim that “nothingness is uniquely natural”, so that we need some special reason why something exists. He argues that we have no basis for such a conclusion, as our intuitions for naturalness and simplicity are based on our experience in this world, and so don’t automatically apply to the universe itself.
However, most versions of the cosmological argument don’t explicitly appeal to the naturalness of nothing. Carroll, following Grunbaum, discusses Swinburne. In Grunbaum’s paper “Why is There a World AT ALL, Rather Than Just Nothing?”, he quotes Swinburne: “It remains to me, as to so many who have thought about the matter, a source of extreme puzzlement that there should exist anything at all” (pg. 336). I think, however, they’ve missed the point of what Swinburne is saying. (I say this with some trepidation. Grunbaum is a professional philosopher, and something of a legend. Fools rush in …)
Swinburne doesn’t believe that God is a metaphysically necessary being. He believes that God is factually necessary, that his existence doesn’t depend on any other being. But God’s existence is a contingent fact. In other words, Swinburne’s extreme puzzlement at existence includes God. Swinburne’s belief in God does not remove his puzzlement. For Swinburne, God’s necessary existence is not the answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?”. The question is unanswered. He’s still puzzled.
Swinburne’s puzzlement at existence, then, plays no part in his argument for the existence of God. He bases his cosmological argument on the simplicity (and thus high prior probability) and explanatory power of theism in explaining the other contingent facts of existence, such as the existence and properties of the universe. In particular, there is no appeal to the principle of sufficient reason (PSR); more than that, Swinburne argues against Leibniz’s version of the PSR (pg. 148). Theism is probably true, not because there must be an explanation but because it is the best explanation. Likewise, there is no appeal to the simplicity of nothingness. Swinburne argues that nothing is the simplest state, but not as part of his cosmological argument, and he does not believe that God explains why this simple state fails to obtain.
Grunbaum concludes that “[why something?] evidently cannot serve as a viable springboard for creationist theism, because the demise of its premises PSR and SoN [the Spontaneity of Nothingness] undermine it beyond redemption! By the same token, Leibniz’s and Swinburne’s cosmological arguments for divine creation are fundamentally unsuccessful.” If I’m reading Swinburne correctly, he avoids Grunbaum’s criticism because he doesn’t rely on the PSR and SoN.
Craig (and Leibniz) and Natural Nothing
Moving from Swinburne to Craig, his presentation of the contingency argument often appeals to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” as a taster. However, the formal version of the argument makes no mention of nothing, and certainly doesn’t argue that it is the most natural state. Does the argument really rely on “naturalness of nothingness”, as Grunbaum and Carroll allege?
Perhaps. Leibniz for example, talks in The Principles of Nature and Grace of …
… the great principle, commonly but little employed, which holds that nothing takes place without sufficient reason, that is to say that nothing happens without its being possible for one who has enough knowledge of things to give a reason sufficient to determine why it is the thus and not otherwise. This principle, having been laid down, the first question we are entitled to ask will be: Why is there something rather than nothing? For ‘nothing’ is simpler and easier than ‘something’. Further, supposing that things must exist, it must be possible to give a reason why they must exist just as they do and not otherwise.
… the sufficient reason [of contingent things], which needs no further reason, must be outside the series of contingent things, and must lie in a substance which is the cause of the series, or, which is a being that bears the reason of its existence within itself; otherwise we should still not have a sufficient reason, with which we could stop. And this final reason of things is called God.
However, note that “naturalness” isn’t mentioned here. Rather, Leibniz says that nothing is “simpler” and “easier”. More tellingly, no sooner has he made this comment then these considerations disappear from the discussion. Leibniz’s argument is summarised by Craig as (CAPL, page 274):
1. Something exists.
2. There must be a sufficient reason or rational basis for why something exists rather than nothing.
3. This sufficient reason cannot be found in any single contingent thing, or in the whole aggregate of contingent things, or in the efficient causes of things.
4. Therefore, the sufficient reason for the world must exist outside the world and its states.
5. This sufficient reason must be a metaphysically necessary being, whose sufficient reason for existence is self-contained.
Leibniz and Craig don’t argue that nothing is natural or expected. Rather, they posit that nothing requires no explanation – there’s nothing to explain! The corollary is not that the existence of something is surprising. Rather, you are invited to flip the coin over: if nothing needs no explanation, then something needs an explanation. Not because it’s surprising, but just because it’s there.
It seems that naturalness is no part of the argument. And yet …
Does the contingency argument imply that, if there were no God, then nothing would exist?
Consider the following exegesis. There are possible worlds in which only contingent things exist. There is also a possible world in which nothing exists: the “null world”, as Grunbaum calls it. If God (a necessary being) didn’t exist, then there are many more possibilities than nothing. There would be all the contingent-only worlds. It seems that these alternative vastly outnumber the null world. Somehow, the theist must convince us that the null world is more likely than all the others put together, presumably because of its simplicity. Nothing is required to be the natural choice of the Godless reality.
I think that the previous paragraph again misrepresents the argument. Leibniz and Craig’s cosmological argument does not maintain that the null world is simpler than a contingent-only world and hence more likely, to be expected. (I think this conflates Leibniz and Swinburne). After all, the argument’s conclusion is that God exists, not that his existence is more likely. Rather, from the PSR it follows that there are no possible worlds in which only contingent beings exist. A world with only contingent beings has no explanation for why anything would exist, so given the PSR, nothing could exist. If no one throws the party, then no one comes.
Contingency and Nothing
In saying that the argument survives the critique of Grunbaum, I’ve not shown that the argument succeeds. There is more to be said, both in pro and con.
My point here is that we must be clear on the question why is there something rather than nothing? – it’s meaning, role and implications. It is the garlic bread, not the lasagne. It is the advertising poster; the main event is the contingency argument. The question invites the reader to turn their thoughts to
Existence, the preposterous miracle of existence! To whom has the world of opening day never come as an unbelievable sight? And to whom have the stars overhead and the hand and voice of nearby never appeared as unutterably wonderful, totally beyond understanding? I know no great thinker of any land or era who does not regard existence as the mystery of all mysteries. (John Wheeler, At Home in the Universe)
The listener is asked to choose between two answers. The first is: just because. The question has no answer. The second is: because there is a kind of thing whose existence is necessary, self-explained. The reason why this entity exists is found within itself, rather than an external cause or for no reason at all.
(Lo and behold, I write all of this and then discover that Craig has responded to Grunbaum along the same lines. He makes the case that it is Aquinas who argues for the normalcy of nothingness, not Swinburne nor Leibniz. That article is well worth a read.)