Why is there something rather than nothing?

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The philosopher Richard Swinburne argued for a version of this argument

"Why is there something rather than nothing?" is an argument for God that seeks for an "explanation" of the overall existence of the universe. According to the principle of sufficient reason, each object in the universe has a cause or explanation that justifies why every particular is the way it is. This leads to a chain of associated causation or explanations. The argument is based on arguing the entire chain of causes requires a separate cause. Since an original cause or ultimate explanation is required, it is concluded that God exists.

This sidesteps the need to address the problem of infinite regress. This form of argument is related to the cosmological argument and kalam in that they trace the universe or particular phenomena back to first causes. David Parfit wrote: [1]

"No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing."

The answer to this question hinges on what constitutes an "explanation".

"Concede that atheism’s greatest weakness is its inability to explain where existence came from. [2]"


Hume's argument

Portrait of David Hume

David Hume suggested a variant of the cosmological argument in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

  1. Nothing can cause itself
  2. From (1), everything that exists has a cause.
  3. The chain of previous causes is either infinite or finite
  4. Each cause only explains its immediate effect
  5. From (2), the entire chain of causes, either infinite or finite, requires a separate explanation for existence, rather than any alternative or nothing at all. "What was it, then, which determined Something to exist rather than Nothing, and bestowed being on a particular possibility, exclusive of the rest?"
  6. There are no other external causes, chance is a word without [philosophical] meaning.
  7. From (5) and (6): "We must, therefore, have recourse to a necessarily existent Being, who carries the REASON of his existence in himself, and who cannot be supposed not to exist, without an express contradiction"

This allows the possibility of infinite regress but claims the entire chain of causes requires a cause.

Swinburne's inductive cosmological argument

Richard Swinburne updated the cosmological argument in his book The Existence of God by rejecting some of the original premises and arguing that the universe as a whole requires an explanation. His conclusions are modest in that he claims only to have produced evidence that God exists (what he calls a C-inductive argument) rather than a stand alone argument for God. [3] The argument resembles an inversion of the ultimate 747 gambit except that it assumes divine simplicity:

  1. A scientific explanation of the universe only produces theories or "brute facts" but no "explanation".
  2. The universe is complex.
  3. God is simple or less complex than the universe.
  4. God is more likely to occur spontaneously than the universe.
  5. Therefore, if we require the spontaneous occurrence of an entity, the occurrence of God is preferred.
  6. It is possible that God is the explanation of the universe.
"Theism does not make [certain phenomena] very probable; but nothing else makes their occurrence in the least probable, and they cry out for explanation. A priori, theism is perhaps very unlikely, but it is far more likely than any rival supposition. Hence our phenomena are substantial evidence for the truth of theism"

According to Swinburne, there are two forms of explanation: inanimate explanation and personal (or intentional) explanation. Swinburne claims that explanations are either based on inanimate objects or intentional agents. [4] For Swinburne, an explanation has reached finality when it is based on the intentions of a conscious agent. An intentional agent implies certain expectations about the universe: that it manifests order, is comprehensible, and favours the existence of beings that can comprehend it. Natural law cannot be explained in terms of natural law.

Argument from the world as an interacting whole

Main Article: Argument from the world as an interacting whole

The argument claims that neither the parts of the universe nor the whole universe is self sufficient or self-explanatory. An explanation is required and the explanation is a designer of a "unifying efficient cause".

Counter arguments

The universe does not need an explanation of this kind

Main Article: Explanation

There is no basis for the distinction between inanimate or intentional explanations. All instances of intentionality may be explained in terms of natural/inanimate physical laws. Therefore, Swinburne's argument is special case of a teleological argument. An explanation should really relate the phenomena to everyday or direct experience. Unless Swinburne has routine direct experience of divine phenomena, he has not provided an explanation. If anyone has routine direct experience of divine phenomena, they have no need of this argument.

David Hume wrote that each state of the universe is explained by a progression from the previous state and no other explanation is required:

"In...a chain...or succession of objects, each part is caused by the part which preceded it, and causes that which succeeded it. Where then is the difficulty? But the whole, you say, wants a cause. I answer that the uniting of several parts into a whole like the uniting of several distinct countries into a kingdom, or several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind and has no influence on the nature of things. Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts."

This was also echoed by Paul Edwards: [5]

"The demand to find the cause of the series as a whole rests on the erroneous assumption that the series is something over and above the members of which it is composed."

Swinburne accepts that the existence of the universe might be a "brute fact". However, Swinburne rejects this counter argument, saying a finite set of events requires an initial cause outside this set of events (assuming time is not circular). He claims that if the universe is of infinite age:

""what will be inexplicable is the non-existence of a time before which there was no universe""

Although non-occurrences of hypothetical phenomena do not normally require an explanation.

It is unreasonable to keep asking for explanations of phenomena, and explanation of explanations, and so on to infinity. We must stop somewhere. We do not need to accept Swinburne's assertion that the terminus of explanation is an intelligent agent. Assuming an explanation requires a "conscious agent" is begging the question.

Weak conclusion

Main Article: The first cause implies God exists

Swinburne's argument is only intended as evidence for a cause and not a complete argument for God. Mackie claims that even after the evidence of Swinburne is considered, "the hypothesis of divine creation is very unlikely." [6] Swinburne's argument makes certain theistic models, such as the traditional conception of God, less likely to be an explanation.

God is complex

Main Article: Ultimate 747 gambit

The argument asserts divine simplicity but this is impossible since intelligence implies complexity.

Which God?

Main Article: Which God?

The argument does not imply any particular religion or God. It also does not rule out polytheism or pantheism.

Swinburne argues that other God hypotheses have even lower probabilities of occurrence.

The universe might be necessarily existent

The universe may necessarily have the property of existence. It may be that it could not exist in any other state. Creation may have been non-contingent.

Complexity and probability do not apply to divine concepts

It is possibly invalid to apply concepts such as complexity or probability of occurrence to God. They need to be established by direct experience with divine phenomena to establish their validity.

A-priori arguments cannot establish matters of fact

Main Article: Proof by logic

Overall, this argument is an example of a proof by logic, where philosophers attempt to "demonstrate" god with a logical syllogism alone, devoid of any confirming evidence. This is arguably inappropriate for establishing matters of fact.

Creation and begging the question

Saying the universe is a "creation" is begging the question because a premise automatically implies the conclusion.

Something existing proves God is personal

"The fact of creation also lets us know that the Creator is not just a powerful, impersonal force but is a thinking Being that made a conscious choice between creating and not creating. [7]"

This assumes things about God that the apologist has not yet established, such as: did God have a choice about creating the universe? Is it impossible for an "impersonal"/deist mind to make choices?


  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. Paul Edwards, The Cosmological Argument, 1959
  6. Mackie, J. L., 1982, The Miracle of Theism, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  7. [5]

See also

External links

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes
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