Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? – An Examination of the Nomological Approach

Richard Weaver Quote“When we affirm that philosophy begins with wonder, we are affirming in effect that sentiment is anterior to reason. We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by affective interest.”[1] – Richard Weaver

The internal primordial aesthetic spark of our human nature and the beauty that confronts us in external reality, are often the existential trigger initiating a desire for truthful metaphysical investigation. Our hearts being enraptured by the gift of existence become restless and embark on a quest which can only be satisfied when the soul finds its home in the transcendent. This voyage promptly runs into the most fundamental question in all of philosophy, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” G.W. Leibniz posited the question in this way, and it seems to forcefully get at the heart of the matter. Martin Heidegger, says this regarding the mystery of being, “The question ‘why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’ is the first in rank for us as the broadest, as the deepest, and finally as the most originary question.”[2] The primacy of being and existence, the ultimacy of this aesthetic and existential mystery, is a puzzle that must be adequately dealt with if the human person is to ever discover their original emanating cause, the dignity of exemplarity, and their final consummation.

When the first steps of this journey are taken, the immediacy of competing explanations becomes apparent. The naturalistic catalogue of “scientific facts” says that our original emanation is from the blind, random mechanical operations of material and efficient causes found in simple archetypal progression within the natural world whereby our final end is to wind up no different than other beasts according to biological and chemical necessity. As soon as the die has been cast in a reductionist material metaphysics, many other important philosophical questions begin to take form due to the inherent logical unfolding of naturalistic impulses. For example, if there is only the material and efficient causation of the natural world, and no formal and final causation providing the necessary telos toward a specific providential end, then it is difficult to properly establish an objective moral code to direct the actions of rational, conscious beings such as us. And if there is no telos guiding moral action, what is left for realistically available options is usually an ad hoc utilitarian sliding scale of preference satisfaction, or an intrinsically relativistic nihilism. This weltanschauung, however, is only one option available to us for understanding the reality we find ourselves existing. There is a better option. If our originating emanation is derived from the one, true, Triune God acting freely to create by an outpouring abundance of love; and we are made in the image and likeness of our divine Creator whereby we find our consummating end in eternal loving communion, it becomes abundantly clear that other questions concerning important philosophical puzzles we face as specially created beings will be answered quite differently than those proceeding from naturalistic world picture. For example, the theistic picture of the world would include formal and final causation, and because of this we can properly identify a moral code that guides us toward our final providential end. Rather than being trapped by ubiquitous nihilistic tendencies, due honor is given to the proper interaction of the Decalogue and the natural law written on the heart. The fact that we are inclined to act according to our conscience begins to make sense in the theistic understanding of the created order.

The mystery of being, then, is vitally important to examine if we are to discover the purpose of our own existence. But finding an answer to the question is much more daunting than the initial wonderment. Nicolas Rescher’s essay, On Explaining Existence (Real Possibility as the Key to Actuality), provides an intriguing approach for entering into the investigation.

Although the question – why is there something rather than nothing? – is most fundamental for philosophical investigation, not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for the depth and richness of this existential inquiry. In a debate hosting various scientists and philosophers, Richard Dawkins had this to say, “Why even ask the question?”[3] Dawkins’s position is typical among the New Atheist community committed to the unexamined presuppositions of metaphysical naturalism and epistemic scientism. On this view, “why” questions are not subject to empirical verification, so it is suggested that we should be focused on the scientifically relevant questions of “how.” The problem with Dawkins’s position is that the question of being and existence constructed as, “why is there something rather than nothing?” is derived from the fact that we are beings that can ask this kind of a question in the first place. It is precisely this kind of metaphysical question that allows for the scientific project to even get off the ground. There are a whole host of metaphysical positions necessary to believe for any person seeking to investigate nature in a scientifically meaningful way. For example, it must be believed that there is a world external to the mind operating in a manner that allows for the discovery of law-like patterns, which in turn makes possible the repeatability of various tests for the verification of a theory. If this metaphysical belief is not fundamental to the scientific method, then discoveries concerning “how” the natural world works will most likely not occur because the proper existential motivation may be entirely missing. The ‘why’ questions and the ‘how’ questions cannot be strictly demarcated for the purposes of intellectual comfort, they are intertwined in such a way that the latter presupposes the principles of the former. No matter how many biological, chemical, or physical questions are answered using the scientific method, the scientific “how” will not satisfy the mystifying characteristic of our own existence. Even if the sciences eventually come up with a theory of everything, and could properly explain every known physical fact of reality, the existential humanness of philosophical thought will hardly even be adequately dealt with. Scientists may be able to retire into the sunset, but human nature seeks something more than descriptive models explicating basic bio-chemical functions operating in the physical world. Science is well equipped to satisfy numerous questions resembling “how do we know X will take place in Y conditions” but philosophy generally, and metaphysics specifically, is best suited for answering questions that resemble “why is it the case that X exists in the first place.”[4] Given the difference of methods suited for answering various questions we can disagree with Richard Dawkins that the “why” questions are irrelevant.

The reasons why a person might adopt a temperament similar to Dawkins can be diverse, but one simple explanation for this reaction is that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is an intimidating question. Rescher explains by stating, ”With the notable exception of Leibniz, philosophers who have struggled with this riddle of existence have always found it difficult to keep their discussion of the issue on this side of nonsense.”[5] While I disagree with the broadness of this description, it does point towards a proper understanding of the difficult complexities arising from investigating the mystery of existence.

The intimidating nature of this question can lead individuals to take what Rescher calls an “arational” approach, where the conclusion is that the world’s being and existence is simply a “brute fact.” The arational approach is similar in response to the dismissal of the question, but it differs in the sense that the “brute fact” conclusion results after what one might consider a reasonable investigation, rather than a dismissal of the question itself. The “brute fact” view reasons in a way that is arguably more satisfactory because it discovers that an explanation for the whole of existence is not needed. This approach, however, is ultimately unsatisfying.

At least one issue I take with the “brute fact” conclusion is that it entirely elides the classic problem of the “one and many.” The arational approach abandons the curiously metaphysical “one,” proceeds to emphasize the “many” while, with a sleight of hand, collapses the “one” still needing to be accounted for into the “many.” Indeed, the “brute fact” assertion is what happens when metaphysical thinking is forsaken altogether. It is the first step toward the slippery slope of positivism.

It is important to note that the fundamental nature of the question being examined leads to other important questions that get pushed aside if the arational approach is utilized. An important conceptual priority of metaphysical questions gets rearranged in an unjustified manner. Rescher agrees with this latter statement by saying, “The question, ‘Why is there a world with things in it at all?’ is conceptually prior to the question, ‘Why is the world as it is – why do its things have the character they do?’”

It seems that Rescher’s point of conceptual organization in terms of metaphysical questions is correct. But when making this point, Rescher is beginning to change the nature of the question. Notice the change in language. The question is not ‘why is there a world with things in it,’ and when answered, moves to the question of ‘why is the world as it is’; the question is why is there a world at all? It is my contention that he is doing this in order to make his nomological approach seem like a compelling answer to Liebniz’s question, but the nomological approach he argues on behalf of is not persuasive. The nomological approach might be a compelling answer to the question just presented, “Why is there a world with things in it at all?” but it is not a satisfying answer to Leibniz’s question and we will see how this develops below.

At this point in the analysis one might ask, “How are we to proceed in answering the question being examined” or “what is the best methodological approach to utilize when seeking to answer this question?” Rescher lays out six possible ways to approach the question. One way that we have previously discussed is the rejectionist approach, which is demonstrated by Richard Dawkins’s dismissal of the “why” questions being intrinsically silly and irrelevant. Another approach is the mystificationism approach, which treats the question as something unanswerable. On this view, reason does not posit the question in order to find an answer, but presents it as a mystery that has no answer. The third approach is also one that we have already discussed and this is the arational or no-reason approach that treats existence as a “brute fact.”

The fourth methodological approach Rescher recognizes is the theological approach. When discussing this approach, Rescher presents the cosmological argument as an answer, and while he is fair to present it as a possible solution he dismisses it as unsatisfactory. Rescher says, “Whatever be God’s proper role in the scheme of things, it is not to solve our philosophical or scientific difficulties. Invoking a supernatural agency to solve our problems in understanding nature is inherently questionable etiquette.”[6] Whether one believes the theological approach is satisfactory or not is one thing, but Rescher is entirely misrepresenting the theological approach.

First, if God does have a place in philosophy, which I would contend He absolutely does, it seems that it would not be unreasonable that His place be found in the arena of metaphysics; or stated another way, God would be that being which is necessary to complete metaphysical investigation because all contingent being is derived from that which is ultimately “I AM.”

Second, a scientifically informed, or philosophically minded Christian would not invoke God to solve “scientific difficulties.” Christians do not, for example, invoke God to solve scientific problems such as the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity. The Christian does, however, utilize revelation, doctrine, and theology to correct erroneous interpretations of the natural world suggested by naturalists committed to reducing reality to illusion.

Third, when rejecting the theological approach, Rescher moves the goalposts. The question being examined is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” meaning, why is there anything at all that exists including not only things in this world, but the universe in general. Rescher says, “The presence of things in the world is a matter of natural fact, and the explanation of natural fact by theological means is hardly a satisfactory option.”[7] This quote further reformulates the question being investigated, and has changed from why anything exists at all to why things exist in a world. In addition to this, he quotes Kant to back his claim that when God is called upon to solve a problem of philosophy, the one invoking God as the problem solver has found the limits of his philosophical abilities. This is a clear case of quote-mining Kant. Kant’s philosophy is inconsistent in this regard, and we can find what looks like a quasi-cosmological argument for the existence of God in The Critique of Pure Reason. In Kant’s antinomies, the fourth antinomy is meant to demonstrate that an argument for the existence of God, or the being of beings is untenable. The entire purpose of this particular antinomy is to determine that reason is reaching too far when wanting to find an unconditioned cause. While this is the thrust of the fourth antinomy, and Kant later proceeds to argue against all classic arguments for the existence of God, he ends up violating his own undertaking and advances an argument, or maybe posits a fleeting suggestion, that there is a being of beings bringing unity to the phenomenal and noumenal world. Kant says,

“Thus all the possibility of things (as regards the synthesis of the manifold of their content) is regarded as derivative, and only that which includes all reality in it is regarded as original. For all negations (which are the sole predicates through which everything else is to be distinguished from the most real being) are mere limitations of a greater and finally of the highest reality; hence they presuppose it, and as regards their content they are merely derived from it. All manifoldness of things is only so many different ways of limiting the concept of the highest reality, which is to be found only in reason, is also called the original being (ens originarium); because it has nothing above itself it is called the highest being (ens summum), and because everything else, as conditioned, stands under it, it is called the being of all beings (ens entium). Now if we pursue this idea of ours so far as to hypostatize it, then we will be able to determine the original being through the mere concept of the highest reality as a being that is singular, simple, all-sufficient, eternal, etc., in a word, we will be able to determine it in its unconditioned completeness through all predications. The concept of such a being is that of God thought of in a transcendental sense, and thus the ideal of pure reason is the subject of transcendental theology, just as I have introduced above.”[8]

In addition to this statement by Kant, his entire moral system only makes sense if God exists. In the Kantian corpus, it can be noted that he pushes God out the front door of metaphysical argumentation, only to bring Him in through the back door in order to justify his moral philosophy, which is predicated on the primacy of the categorical imperative.

A fifth possible approach to answer this question is the necessitarian approach, which treats the world’s existence as something that is logically necessary. So understood, it simply must be the case that the world exists. This view is unsatisfactory for at least three reasons. First, it is a round about way of asserting existence as a “brute fact.” Second, this approach discounts the possibility of our very material contingency. Third, for being and existence to be logically necessary they must proceed from some other being or thing that already exists in the material world, which in turn would need an explanation that the necessitarian approach fails to consider. Simply stated, this approach ends up begging the question.

The methodological approach Rescher endorses and works to advance is the nomological approach. In order to present the nomological approach as the most resolute Rescher points out that the common answers previously presented rely on an “inconsistent quartet” based on these premises:

  1. If something is natural, then it has a causal explanation
  2. Natural-existence-as-a-whole is a natural thing
  3. A causal explanation of an existential fact (e.g. the fact that the universe exists) is legitimate only if the cause is itself existential
  4. The cause of the existence of the universe (if there is one) is not existential

The inconsistency of the quartet lays in the 3rd and 4th premises as Rescher presents them, so the best possible way to get rid of this inconsistency is to reject number 3 which fits his nomological view; because the “protolaws” he will proceed to explain are not existential, therefore, the inconsistency is alleviated because premise 4 states the cause of the existence of the universe is not existential.

To best explain the nomological view, Rescher proposes three realms of possibility; the realm of logical possibility, the realm of real possibility; and the realm of physical possibility. The protolaws are found within the realm of real or metaphysical possibility, and these protolaws existing within the realm of metaphysical possibility represent the conditions for things that exist rather than the conditions of the operation of existing things. Since this is the case with regard to the nature of the protolaws, they are able to exist independently of things that exist. Rescher states, “…they (protolaws) do not represent the behavioral disposition of existents, but rather, the preconditions to which something must conform if it is to become an existent at all. Such laws are not immanent in things but transcend their particular nature. They are ‘laws of nature’ alright, but in the rather special way of being laws for nature – laws that set preconditions upon the realizability of possibilities.”[10]

In utilizing the nomological approach, with protolaws being its main feature, Rescher argues that every really possible world must have a feature F and that from the real possible worlds containing feature F a nonempty world will obtain, therefore, there will be something rather than nothing.[11] This seems consistent and completely reasonable. There is only one caveat to it that makes it unsatisfactory given the Leibniz question being examined, and that is Leibniz’s question is not meant to address the conditions that could bring about a nonempty world; the question is meant to address why there is a world in the first place. Rescher himself even seems to recognize that he has answered a different question without explicitly stating this by asking, “To be sure, one big problem remains: How is one to account for the protolaws themselves?”[12](Pg. 23)

While Rescher’s nomological approach might provide a satisfactory answer to why things obtain in nonempty worlds, it does not answer Leibniz’s question and therefore is insufficient for the task at hand. The question remains waiting to be answered.

Interestingly enough, the suggested nomological approach points toward the ancient ideal of the Platonic forms, which in turn, when transformed by the revelation of Christian theology, become the exemplar patterns in the mind of God, and it is these patterns God uses when creating all that exists, whether visible or invisible, ex nihilo. So it seems that while Rescher is unfairly dismissive of the theological approach to the question being considered, the nomological approach he offers points directly toward the necessity of a theological reinterpretation of his method to adequately answer the question that was dodged by way of reformulation. If such a theological reinterpretation of the nomological approach were rebuffed, it would seem that the only other options would be those previously dismissed, that is, the arational and mystificationism approach. At the end of the day, we are faced with the reality, once again, that philosophy can only find its completion in theology.


– Lucas G. Westman

[1] Ideas Have Consequences, Pg. 19

[2] Introduction to Metaphysics Pg. 2

[3] At the 32:51 minute mark Dawkins presents flippancy towards the question being investigated. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uaq6ORDx1C4)

[4] Rescher, Pg. 9

[5] Ibid, Pg. 9

[6] Pg. 13

[7] Ibid

[8] Pg. 557, 558

[10] Pg. 19

[11] Ibid, Pg. 21

[12] Ibid, Pg. 23

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