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Why Does Anything Exist?

Why Does Anything Exist?

Greg Perkins

2 Mins
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March 11, 2010


Question: What is your answer to the old question: Why is there anything at all?

Answer: When someone asks why is there Something rather than Nothing, they are asking for the cause of Existence in the widest possible sense—for the cause of everything.

This can sound like a fine question. It uses sensible words and grammar and has the form of a question and so on. But in a really subtle way this isn't a question at all, because meaning-wise there is a deep problem: Existence—all that is in any and every sense—isn't the sort of thing that has a cause. Causality happens within existence, not the other way around, because causes have to exist to do any causing.

The trouble is that in trying to ask for the cause of Existence, we assume something (in this case, the void of Nothing) and then get tangled up while trying to violate that assumption in some subtle way (positing a cause, which contradicts the assumption of Nothing because the cause must exist in order to do any causing). Asking for the cause of Existence makes no more sense than asking for the color of a second. A unit of time (such as a second) isn't the sort of thing that has a color. Likewise, Existence per se isn't the sort of thing that has a cause—it simply is.

Consider the popular Zen koan of "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" It tries to talk about clapping (a concept that involves two hands) while violating that assumption by applying it to a single hand. And consider the pattern kids learn of asking, "Where is X?” First, "Where are you?" You are in your city. And where is that? In its state. And where is that? In its country...which is on its continent, which is on its planet, which is in its solar system, which is in its galaxy, and on and on to wider and wider contexts until we reach all of existence...so where's all of existence? Well, the generally reasonable grammatical pattern we've been using breaks down because location is inherently relational and all of existence (by definition) stands relative to nothing. So it has no location, just like all of existence has no cause.

Ayn Rand had a label for this sort of mistake: the fallacy of the stolen concept. It is so named because people sometimes "steal" concepts out of their meaningful context, neglecting their underlying assumptions—like asking about one hand clapping or for the location of everything...or for the cause of Existence.

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