Why Does the World Exist: An Existentia
A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.
Therefore, there must be something. QED.
CONFRONTING THE MYSTERY
And this grey spirit, yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
—ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, “Ulysses”
I would earnestly warn you against trying to find out the reason for and explanation of everything… . To try and find out the reason for everything is very dangerous and leads to nothing but disappointment and dissatisfaction, unsettling your mind and in the end making you miserable.
—QUEEN VICTORIA, in a letter to her granddaughter Princess Victoria of Hesse, 22 August 1883
… well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I …
—MOLLY’S SOLILOQUY, in James Joyce’s Ulysses
I vividly remember when the mystery of existence first swam into my ken. It was in the early 1970s. I was a callow and would-be rebellious high-school student in rural Virginia. As callow and would-be rebellious high-school students sometimes do, I had begun to develop an interest in existentialism, a philosophy that seemed to hold out hope for resolving my adolescent insecurities, or at least elevating them to a grander plain. One day I went to the local college library and checked out some impressive-looking tomes: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics. It was in the opening pages of the latter book, with its promising title, that I was first confronted by the question Why is there something rather than nothing at all? I can still recall being bowled over by its starkness, its purity, its sheer power. Here was the super-ultimate why question, the one that loomed behind all the others that mankind had ever asked. Where, I wondered, had it been all my (admittedly brief) intellectual life?
It has been said that the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple that it would occur only to a child. I was too young then to be a metaphysician. But why had I missed the question as a child? In retrospect, the answer was obvious. My natural metaphysical curiosity had been stifled by my religious upbringing. From my earliest childhood I had been told—by my mother and father, by the nuns who taught me in elementary school, by the Franciscan monks at the monastery over the hill from where we lived—that God created the world, and that He created it out of nothing at all. That’s why the world existed. That’s why I existed. As to why God himself existed, this was left a little vague. Unlike the finite world that He freely created, God was eternal. He was also all-powerful and possessed of every other perfection to an infinite degree. So perhaps He didn’t need an explanation for his own existence. Being omnipotent, He might have bootstrapped Himself into existence. He was, to use the Latin phrase, causa sui.
This was the story that was imparted to me as a child. It is a story still believed by the vast majority of Americans. For these believers, there is no such thing as the “mystery of existence.” If you ask them why the universe exists, they’ll say it