Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Martin Heidegger begins his Introduction to Metaphysics with what he calls “The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics”:

Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? That is the question. Presumably it is no arbitrary question. “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?”—this is obviously the first of all questions. Of course, it is not the first question in the chronological sense. Individuals as well as peoples ask many questions in the course of their historical passage through time. They explore, investigate, and test many sorts of things before they run into the question “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” Many never run into this question at all, if running into the question means not only hearing and reading the interrogative sentence as uttered, but asking the question, that is, taking a stand on it, posing it, compelling oneself into the state of this questioning. And yet, we are each touched once, maybe even now and then, by the concealed power of this question, without properly grasping what is happening to us. In great despair, for example, when all weight tends to dwindle away from things and the sense of things grows dark, the question looms. Perhaps it strikes only once, like the muffled tolling of a bell that resounds into Dasein and gradually fades away. The question is there in heartfelt joy, for then all things are transformed and surround us as if for the first time, as if it were easier to grasp that they were not, rather than that they are, and are as they are. The question is there in a spell of boredom, when we are equally distant from despair and joy, but when the stubborn ordinariness of beings lays open a wasteland in which it makes no difference to us whether beings are or are not—and then, in a distinctive form, the question resonates once again: Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?

Long ago, Parmenides attempted to respond to the same question:

Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away— the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,— that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it; . . . . . . for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.

Bertrand Russell, in the passage quoted yesterday, could be said to be responding in another way when he claimed,

There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.

The response of Parmenides is that only being can be or be thought, while nothingness cannot be. Consequently it is in virtue of the very nature of being that being exists rather than nothing. In the passage quoted, Russell is speaking specifically about the order of time, since he identifies this with the order of causality. However, we can understand his response more generally: There is no reason why there is something rather than nothing. No reason is necessary. It is simply due to the “poverty of our imagination” that we suppose there needs to be any explanation for this.

Russell would be correct, if he meant that there is no need for any explanation apart from being, since there can be nothing apart from being. Taken in this way, his response would be consistent with that of Parmenides. However, it is clear that his actual intention is to say that the existence of the world is arbitrary. It could have begun randomly without a cause; it could have existed forever, for no particular reason; and although he doesn’t mention this possibility, it might not have existed at all. No explanations for anything are needed, or even possible, since there is no such thing as a cause.

We have already pointed out the unreasonableness of this position in the previous post. Consequently one most hold a position like that of Parmenides: it is in virtue of the nature of being that beings exist rather than nothing, or rather it is in virtue of the nature of some being or beings, since not every being actually has the nature of necessarily existing.

Parmenides also claimed that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be.” This is not quite true, since as I pointed out earlier, “not being another”, even though it can be truly predicated of things, is not a reality in things, but in the mind. It seems that Parmenides intended to deny these things when he claimed that that one cannot speak or say that which is not. This should mean that it is impossible to think or say that nothing exists, but also to think or say that one thing is not another, or even to think or say that one thing is another when it is not. It is impossible to be wrong; it is impossible to consider one thing to be distinct from another; and it is impossible for one thing to be in fact distinct from another. And it appears that Parmenides actually intended to assert all of these things, as for example in this text:

And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable. Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true— coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright colour.

“All these things are but names” because, according to Parmenides, it is impossible for something to change in place or in color, since this would mean that what is not begins to be, and “what is not” cannot be, be thought, or begin to be.

Evidently all of this is inconsistent, since if such things cannot be thought, neither can they be named, as Parmenides says himself when he says, “For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible— nor utter it.”

Consequently Parmenides is wrong to draw these conclusions, although they would make some sense, apart from being opposed to experience, if one supposed that every being had the nature of necessary existence. One must therefore hold that at least one being has necessary being, but not all beings do.

5 thoughts on “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

  1. […] It might be possible to argue against St. Thomas’s application of this principle in the third way, since even if we believe that it could have happened that nothing existed, we might reasonably suppose that once something exists, the probability of “nothing exists” being true in the future is immediately reduced to zero. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that the existence of contingent beings implies the existence of a necessary be…. […]


  2. […] Parmenides argues that nothing can come to be, since “what is not” cannot be or become. He also claims that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” and apparently this is intended to cover not only what is, but also the way that it is. Consequently, his position seems to imply a perfect identity between thought and being, even if it is ultimately inconsistent, since he says that human beings are wrong about change and the like, and this implies a discrepancy between thought and being. […]


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