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

3 MIN BREAK  

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

NEW!


BITE-SIZE COURSE

NEW!

BITE-SIZE COURSE

6-Day Introduction to Nietzsche Course

★★★★★ (9 reviews)

Life's Big Questions

15% DISCOUNT – LIMITED OFFER

$39.00 USD  $34.00 USD

Learn everything you need to know about Friedrich Nietzsche in just six days. This introductory course distills Nietzsche’s best and most misunderstood ideas, from God is dead to the Übermensch.

Learn More about Course
Introduction to Nietzsche

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Great

Great course experience, content was clear and simple to read. Loved the way the course was delivered and the writing was informative, interesting, and easy to understand. My favorite chapter was the final one on the will to power, I thought it brought everything together very nicely. Thanks for creating such an accessible course on Nietzsche!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Julien S. on 22 March 2022

★★★★★  Please make more

It was really good. Honestly, there are things I thought I knew but turns out I had completely misunderstood from the books and the course helped me to figure out what I was missing. The content was very easy to understand and didactic, covering everything I was hoping for, and the difficulty of material was very well balanced. Please make more!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Joaquim N. on 16 March 2022

★★★★★  Excellent

Excellent. Well written and an enjoyable read on my iPhone. I found the content very interesting. It's been over 30 years since I took a course on Nietzsche - great to revisit the material at a later life stage and new perspective. My favorite chapter was the one on perspectivism.

VERIFIED BUYER

  David U. on 11 March 2022

See All Course Reviews

BITE-SIZE COURSE

5-Day Introduction to Philosophy Course

★★★★★ (31 reviews)

Life's Big Questions

15% DISCOUNT – LIMITED OFFER

$34.00 USD  $29.00 USD

Why does anything exist? Do we have free will? How should we approach life? We’ve distilled the great philosophers’ best answers to life’s big questions. Start learning today.

Learn More about Course
Life's Big Questions

Latest Course Reviews:

★★★★★  Fantastic

Fantastic! Loved the delivery of one chapter per day and the content was fascinating. I didn't know much about philosophy going into this, and some things like consciousness I didn't realize had such a philosophical component. Really interesting, and I'd highly recommend the course.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Bernie L. on 11 March 2022

★★★★★  Really good

I had a really good course experience, thanks. Good portion size of information each day, really easy to read, and really informative and interesting - cuts through a lot of waffle. Would recommend for anyone interested in philosophy.

VERIFIED BUYER

  Phoebe T. on 9 February 2022

★★★★★  Truly enjoyed

Excellent course experience! Good pace and length of reads, combined with very well written content. Complexities are shared in a digestible manner. The reading lists are a great addition. I truly enjoyed every chapter. Thanks!

VERIFIED BUYER

  Tomas R. on 27 January 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.

Nietzsche Quotes
A Defense of the Unmodified Body Clare Chambers
God is dead Nietzsche
The Good Life Method Meghan Sullivan Paul Blaschko

View All Breaks

START LEARNING

Learn exactly what philosophy is and how it can improve your life

Expand your mind and learn the basics of philosophy with our free, popular, 3-part email course, which delivers our quickfire introductory materials direct to your inbox.

Philosophy Basics

1 email per day for 3 days. Join 50,000+ philosophers. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.

Philosophy Basics