Alternative Responses (cont)

 Colin McGinn, philosopher at the University of Miami

As mentioned in my second post, Colin McGinn (echoing Immanuel Kant) makes a distinction between asking why some particular existent within the whole of existence exists, and why the whole of existence itself exists.  The former question can be answered by appealing to some other preexistent existent within the whole of existence, but the latter question appeals to some existent outside the whole of existence to explain the whole of existence.  It is impossible, however, for something to exist outside the set of the whole of existence.  By definition there cannot be additional entities outside the set of “every existing thing.” 

 McGinn thinks this problem can be remedied by reformulating the question as “Is it true of every concrete thing that it exists contingently, or necessarily?”  He affirms that every concrete entity exists contingently.  So far so good, but why do concrete entities exist, then?  Here is where McGinn fumbles.  He affirms that the whole of concrete, contingent existence just exists inexplicably!  Surely this is absurd.  Contingent beings, by definition, derive their being from something outside themselves, and thus there must be an explanation for why they exist.  It is metaphysically absurd to speak of an uncaused contingent being.  Inexplicability is appropriate for a necessary being, but not contingent beings (and all concrete entities are contingent beings).

McGinn does not believe the whole of reality is exhausted by concrete, contingent beings, however.  He believes abstract entities such as numbers and logic exist as well, and that these entities are necessary beings.  He reasons that while we can conceive of a possible world in which there are no concrete things, it seems impossible for there to be a world in which numbers and logic do not exist.  As necessary beings, these abstract entities are brute facts whose existence requires no explanation. 

Could it be that these abstract entities caused the first contingent being to come into existence?  No, for two reasons: (1) Abstract entities lack causal powers.  They do not stand in causal relations to the physical world; (2) Laws and abstractions lack volition, and thus they cannot choose to delay their effects.  If some eternal abstraction is the cause of contingent reality, then the effect—contingent reality—should be eternal as well since effects are concomitant with their causes.  Since concrete, contingent reality began to exist a finite time ago, however, its cause must possess volition, and thus be some kind of concrete, personal, conscious, rational being. 

Given the fact that McGinn thinks both necessary and contingent beings are without explanation, ultimately he has to affirm there is no explanation for why anything exists rather than nothing at all.  Everything that exists just exists inexplicably.  So the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing is that there “just is” something.  That answer is no more satisfying to the inquisitive mind than is the parent’s response, “Because I said so” to a child’s oft-repeated question, “Why?”  It explains nothing.

Hubert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley

According to Hubert Dreyfus, it is impossible to answer the question because we exist, and cannot transcend the realm of existence to objectively survey being and non-being to determine why being obtains rather than non-being.  To even imagine nothingness requires the existence of an imaginer, which is a being.  While the question of why there is something rather than nothing can be appreciated, it cannot be analyzed.

While I agree with Dreyfus that we cannot transcend the realm of existence to objectively evaluate the question, that does not mean there is no reason for why being obtains rather than non-being.  Dreyfus never considers the possibility that there is an existent within the realm of being whose existence is necessary.

Bede Rundle, philosopher emeritus at the University of Oxford

Bede Rundle agrees that something must exist, but does not think any particular thing must exist.  Rundle argues that it is metaphysically necessary that some contingent being exists, but not that any particular contingent being exist necessarily.  In other words, it is necessary that some contingent being exist, but not that any particular contingent being exist.  Different contingent beings could exist in different worlds, but there must be at least one contingent being in the real world. 

Philosopher Alexander Pruss rebuts Rundle’s view by noting that if necessarily, some contingent being must exist in every possible world – even if that contingent being is different in each possible world – that would mean the non-existence of all possible contingent beings except for X entails that X must exist.  But it makes no sense to think a conjunction of claims about the nonexistence of all beings other than X can possibly entail that X exists.  For example, the conjunction of claims that there are no flying pigs, centaurs, polka-dotted zebras, ad infinitum could not possibly entail the existence of planet Earth (assuming it was the only entity not included in the conjunction).  Only a necessary being can exist necessarily, and provide a reason for why something exists rather than nothing. 

Conclusion

Why is there something rather than nothing?  This age-old philosophical question can be answered, and the answer is that something exists because it must.  Nothing is not a metaphysically possible alternative to something.  Given the fact that physical reality is not eternal, whatever the something that must exist is, it cannot be physical or spatial.  Furthermore, it must be powerful and possess both consciousness and volition to bring our universe into being a finite time ago.  Such a being is an apt description of the God of theism, and thus the question of why there is something rather than nothing is best answered by postulating the existence of an eternal God whose very nature requires that He exist, and who freely chooses to bring all other contingent existents into being.

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