Why Does Anything Exist?

Why Does Anything Exist?

Why is there something rather than nothing? In this extract from Chapter #1 of our Life's Big Questions course, we investigate philosophy's best answers to the question of why anything exists.

Jack Maden
By Jack Maden  |  February 2021


You exist. Let’s just take that in for a moment. You exist. And you exist not in some general, abstract way, but in a highly specific form, at a very particular time and place. You are you. A human being, here, now, existing on a planet that’s hurtling through space at 30 kilometers per second.

And it’s not just you. Other people, you assume, exist here too. As does the place you grew up, and the screen upon which you’re reading these very words. All of it’s here.

The reason for the existence of most of the things we encounter in our day-to-day lives can be explained quite easily: something caused it.

Take your screen: it exists because someone created it. Take you: you exist because some people created you. Take the people who created you: they exist because some people created them. And so on, and so on… stretching all the way back through thousands of years to your first non-human ancestor, and before even then to single-celled organisms.

And before then?

At this point, the historical details get a bit fuzzy. But we’re confident that, whatever happened, it was due to certain preconditions that caused it to happen.

Every event, we nod knowingly, must have a cause. Life propagated on Earth due to certain preconditions. And before that, Earth formed as one of a number of planets in the solar system due to certain preconditions. And before that, the Milky Way formed due to certain preconditions… and so on.

But what happens when we rewind this causal chain of preconditions all the way back to its beginning?

Physicists postulate there was a Big Bang. But experience tells us that explosions don’t just happen spontaneously… they, like all other events, must have a cause.

Now we’re approaching the heart of the matter.

Indeed, if our universal chain of causation starts at the moment of the Big Bang, then what set the preconditions for the Big Bang?

In other words, why does anything exist? Surely, it would have been simpler for nothing to have existed at all, rather than for all this stuff to spring into existence...

Framing the question

Nothing being simpler than something is certainly what 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz propounds in his 1714 work, Principles of Nature and Grace.

Leibniz argues that nothingness — no Earth, no stars, no galaxies, no universe, no atoms, no physical laws — would have been “simpler and easier” than the existence of the universe we see around us. That our universe does exist, therefore, demands an explanation.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, existing.

Leibniz was the first thinker in recorded history to succinctly express this demand as the question: “why is there something rather than nothing?”

Framed this way, the question of why anything exists hits especially hard. We are creatures driven by narrative, and that every event has a cause is our fundamental way of understanding the world.

But, when we reflect on why there is something rather than nothing, it hurts our brains. It seems, firstly, unreasonable that something should be favored over nothing when the latter is the simpler option, and secondly, just impossible that something could ever generate from nothing. Because, as ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides put it over 2,500 years ago, “out of nothing, nothing comes.”

19th-century American philosopher William James, reflecting on this conundrum, concludes that “the question of being is the darkest in all philosophy.” Why? Because the paradoxical nature of the question itself denies the very possibility of an answer: “from nothing to being,” James writes, “there is no logical bridge.”

Thus on initial reflection we are left confounded. Nothingness, it seems, would just be so much simpler and easier than the complicated universe we see around us... so what on earth produced all this stuff, where did it all come from and why did it spring into existence in the first place?

There has always been something

One potential answer is to say, well, there had to be something. This was the approach of Leibniz’s contemporary, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

This extract is taken from Chapter #1 of our introductory philosophy course, Life's Big Questions, in which you can learn philosophy’s best answers to some of life's most troubling questions in less than a week. Interested in learning more? Explore the full course now!
Explore Course Now
Philosophy Break



Philosophies for Living: the Ultimate Guide to Enriching Your Personal Philosophy

Enhance your approach to life by exploring 7 of the world’s wisest and most influential philosophies for living — including Stoicism, Buddhism, and Existentialism. Register your interest now:

Stay notified on when the course is ready and secure a launch discount.

★★★★★ (50+ reviews for our courses)





Your Myth-Busting Guide to Nietzsche & His 5 Greatest Ideas

Introduction to Nietzsche

Learn everything you need to know about Nietzsche in just six 30-minute daily chapters. This course distills his best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

★★★★★ (12 reviews)

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Amazing

This course is amazing! You can agree or not with Nietzsche’s views, but the professionalism, the methodology, the clarity, and deepness of the investigation is really comprehensive. I totally advise philosophy fans to do this course.


  Elsa V. on 6 December 2022

★★★★★  Very informative

Very good and informative. Written with easy and comprehensible language. Enjoyed throughout - every line of the course was a delight. Keep doing what you're doing!


  Milad A. on 24 November 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

The course was interesting and challenging and exceeded my expectations. The content was excellent, stimulating, and well written. A lot of depth was shared on each topic. There is much to learn from this great thinker. Thank you for the opportunities.


  Robert J. on 19 July 2022

See All Course Reviews

Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Great intro

A great overview and motivating for further study. Course delivery worked great - one-a-day was just right and I was left excited for the next day's delivery. I liked the way the context was set and particularly liked the fact that guidance was given - major topics, easy explanation of each. Overall a great intro to get started and I particularly appreciate the recommended reading lists for each, too.


  Antony H. on 4 June 2023

★★★★★  Great

The course is a very well-written, interesting overview of the main ideas in philosophy. It’s a concise, yet not superficial, exploration of the big questions, written in a way that challenges you to reframe your understanding on life. My favorite chapter was the Descartes and Matrix one (#2?). Thanks for this - it was great!


  Terence B. on 10 March 2023

★★★★★  Endlessly fascinating

Awesome, endlessly fascinating course experience. The content was very interesting and easy to understand, and made me want to dive deeper into the topics. My favorite chapter was chapter 5: 'How should we approach life?'. It was so fascinating that after reading it I was reflecting for like 2 hours!


  Alex K. on 18 December 2022

See All Course Reviews

Take Another Break

Each break takes only a few minutes to read, and is crafted to expand your mind and spark your philosophical curiosity.

Monte Civetta, by Elijah Walton (1867)
The Buddha in Bhutan
Landscape of Ancient Greece, by Pierre Henri de Valenciennes
The Garden of Epicurus

View All Breaks


Discover exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life with just 1 email per day for 3 days

Philosophy Basics

What is philosophy? Why is it important? How can it improve your life? Discover the answers to all these questions and more with our free, 3-lesson introductory email course:

★★★★★ (50+ reviews for our courses). Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics