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We all know beyond the universe, there's nothing. How come is that possible?

We all know beyond the universe, there's nothing. How come is that possible? Theory says the big bang happened, and that theory has been accepted since it was "released". But where was the energy that caused it? And how did it existed, if there was nothing? Is there anything in the "nothing"? And, if we talk about religion, how did god exist? Who made it? How was he created if there was nothing? Some people say it created himself, but how the heck that happened if there was nothing?

I realise this may not be satisfactory, but many philosophers and scientists think that we cannot know the answers to your questions.

You start by saying that we know that beyond the universe there is nothing. But this may be one of the things that we cannot know. If there was something, something physical, before the universe then this would be the origin of the energy that gave rise to the Big Bang. One possible explanation, then, is that there are or have been many other universes (the multiverse theory). Of course, there is considerable difficulty (impossibility?) in collecting any empirical evidence for this theory, since such evidence would need to come from beyond the limits of spacetime itself.

But perhaps something - some universe or other - has always existed; there was never nothing. Many people find this claim more puzzling than the thought that once there was nothing, and then there was something. But why? The philosopher David Hume asked us to consider the limits of our knowledge about matters like this. It seems conceivable that something has always existed, and each thing has in turn caused the next. You may object that this just pushes the problem back. Your questions apply to any other universe as well. If this universe was caused by a previous (or another) universe, and so on, infinitely, that doesn't help. For instance, science tells us that time came into existence with the universe. Time itself ‘began’ with the beginning of the universe just under 14 billion years ago. That means that whatever caused the universe (if it has a cause) cannot exist ‘before’ the universe – there is no ‘before’ the universe! Instead, the cause of the universe must exist outside time. We think incorrectly then if we think that another universe, one that existed before this universe, caused this universe. If there is an infinite series of causes, this cannot be how it takes place. Hume might respond that we simply can’t know the answer here. So we should draw no conclusions. Bertrand Russell once said that the universe is ‘just there, and that’s all’.

Perhaps there was nothing and then something. What should puzzle us here? First, must everything have a cause? Hume argues that it is not self-contradictory to deny it. The same is true of ‘Something cannot come out of nothing’. That means that these claims are not certain. Our experience clearly supports these claims, but experience cannot establish that a claim holds universally. And we have no experience of such things as the beginnings of the universe. Second, the beginning of the universe is not an event like events that happen within the universe. For instance, it doesn’t take place in space or time, since both come into existence with the universe. We cannot apply principles we have developed for events within the universe, such as ‘everything has a cause’, to the universe as a whole.

When we turn to the question of God, there is the possibility of a distinct kind of reply. To think of God as self-causing is not usually to think that there was a moment in which God caused God's own existence. A better way of putting the thought, which some religious philosophers have done, is to claim that God's existence is necessary. God is the kind of being that must exist, that could not not exist. So God never came into existence. The philosopher Frederick Copplestone thought that your questions lead us to conclude that a God of this kind exists:

1. Things in the universe exist contingently (they may or may not exist, i.e. they can come into existence and go out of existence).
2. Something that exists contingently has (and needs) an explanation of why it exists; after all, its existence is not inevitable.
3. This explanation may be provided by the existence of some other contingent being. But then we must explain these other contingent beings.
4. To repeat this ad infinitum is no explanation of why anything exists at all.
5. Therefore, what explains why contingent beings exist at all can only be a non-contingent being.
6. A non-contingent being is one that exists necessarily, and doesn’t need some further explanation for why it exists.
7. This necessary being is God.

There are at least two problems with this argument. First, as Hume and Russell would argue, perhaps it is not true that every contingent thing requires an explanation for its existence. Second, it is unclear whether the concept of God as a being that must exist is coherent.

I haven’t answered your questions, but I hope I have given you a sense that they are widely shared!

Assuming that the multiverse account of the universe is true -- and every

Assuming that the multiverse account of the universe is true -- and every possible reality is being simultaneously played out in an infinite number of parallel universes -- am I logically forced into accepting a nihilistic outlook on life? Or is it still possible to accept the truth of the multiverse account and still rationally believe that the pursuit of life goals is both meaningful and valuable, despite the fact that every possible outcome -- or potential reality -- is unfolding somewhere in another parallel universe?

I don't think that the multiverse account implies that it's irrational to pursue life goals or irrational to believe that pursuing life goals is meaningful or valuable. For even if the multiverse theory is true, I take it that you yourself are confined to one universe, our universe. The beings very similar to you who inhabit other universes are at best "counterparts" of you, which leaves open the question "What will you do with your life?" It may be well and good if one of your counterparts works hard to achieve wisdom, promote justice, or whatever, in some other universe. But his/her hard work isn't yours and doesn't occur in your universe. We need your shoulder to the wheel here!

Mathematics seems to accept the concept of zero but not the concept of infinity

Mathematics seems to accept the concept of zero but not the concept of infinity (only towards infinity); whereas Physics seems to accept the concept of infinity but not of nothing (only towards zero). Yet there is a discipline of 'mathematical physics' . Is there an inherent fault in mathematical physics?

I'm pretty sure that mathematicians and physicists would both reject the way you've described them.

Mathematics not only accepts the concept of infinity but has a great deal to say about it. To take just one example: Cantor proved in the 19th century that not all infinite sets are of the same size. In particular, he showed that whereas the counting numbers and the rational numbers can be paired up one-for-one, there's no such pairing between the counting numbers and the full set of real numbers. Thus, he proved that in a well-defined sense, there are more real numbers than integers, even though in that same sense there are not more rational numbers than integers.

Now of course, we sometimes talk about certain functions going to infinity in a certain limit. For example: as x goes to 0, 1/x goes to infinity, even though there is no value of x for which the value of 1/x is infinity. Rather, we say that at 0, the function is not defined. There are good reasons why we say that, though this isn't the place to spell them out. But examples like this don't show that mathematics rejects the concept of infinity.

As for physics, consider a very basic physical concept: an inertial system. The net force on an inertial system is 0. Physics assumes that the concept of an inertial system is a perfectly good one and indeed, a deeply important one. Whether any actual physical systems literally experience a net force of zero is another question; it depends on how things are actually arranged in the world. But physics doesn't rule it out a priori.

Quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there really is such a thing as a random

Quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there really is such a thing as a random number, yet all of philosophy and logic point to a reason or cause for everything, perhaps beyond our understanding. Is this notion of a random number just another demonstration of limited human understanding?

I guess I'd have to disagree with the idea that "all of philosophy and logic point to a reason or cause for everything." There's certainly no argument from logic as such; it's perfectly consistent to say that some events are genuinely random. Some philosophers have held that there's a reason (not necessarily a cause in the physical sense, BTW) for everything, but the arguments are not very good.

On the other hand... quantum mechanics is a remarkably well-confirmed physical theory that, at least as standardly interpreted, gives us excellent reason to think that some things happen one way rather than another with no reason or cause for which way they turned out.

An example: suppose we send a photon (a quantum of light) through a polarizing filter pointed in the vertical direction. We let the photon travel to a second polarizing filter, oriented at 45 degrees to the vertical. Quantum theory as usually understood says that there's a 50% chance that the photon will pass this filter and a 50% chance that it won't. But quantum theory itself provides no account whatsoever of which will actually happen. And on the usual interpretation, there is no reason or cause; it's really random.

Now the usual interpretation of quantum mechanics could be wrong. There are deterministic interpretations, most notably "many worlds" or Everettian quantum mechanics, and Bohmian mechanics. No one is in a position to rule either of those out; all I can say is that neither of those approaches is to my taste. But even though both of them restore determinism, that's not really their motivation. Most people who work in foundations of physics are not bothered by the very idea of indeterminism and in fact, indeterminism wasn't by any means Einstein's biggest issue with quantum mechanics.

So to sum up: I don't think there are any good general arguments against randomness. I think the concept is coherent, and that it's a plausible fit for our best physical theory. It also happens to suit my own prejudices about quantum mechanics, but that's just icing on the cake. ;-)


Hi, If there are truly random events in the Universe like Quantum Mechancis seems to suggest then even if we had a computer that knew everything about the Universe at t1 then it would stil fail to preidct every event at t2. Then, why are there are not buildings collapsing randomly due to some atoms popping in and out of existence?

It is possible that a well constructed building could collapse. But the probability, from quantum mechanics, is exceedingly low. So low that you have never seen or heard about a well constructed building collapsing randomly. Perhaps it has, somewhere in the universe.

Hi Philosophers,

Hi Philosophers, I have a burning question that is troubling me relating the religion versus science debate. I hope I articulate it well enough. Here goes. Mathematically, physicists are close to proving that a multiverse exists. Assuming they do prove this, and that as part of this proof it is deemed that infinity universes exist with both every conceivable and inconceivable possibility and outcome occurring throughout, then is it not fair to say that God certainly exists in at least one of these infinite possibility universes? Adversely, it is also fair to assume that God certainly does not exist in at least one of these universes? Then consider that if God certainly exists in at least one universe, and he is the all-seeing, all-knowing God that religion states he is, then how can he certainly not exist in at least one of the infinite universes? To say that God definitely exists is to, by definition of God, say that he exists everywhere and created everything, yet this notion within the multiverse...

Great question (and great response by Allen). Let me just add a tiny bit, by encouraging you to check out both Norman Malcolm's and Alvin Plantinga's work on the ontological argument. (The latter is a lot more technical and difficult, so start with the former.) From them you get something like the idea that if God exists at all, He exists necessarily (for God surely isn't a contingent being); to say that God exists necessarily is to say that He exists in every possible world. But now, if it's even possible that God exists -- i.e. the idea of God contains no contradictions -- then God would exist in at least one possible world. But if He exists at all He exists in every possible world, so if He exists in one PW He exists in every PW. Now is it possible that God exists? Does the idea of God involve any contradictions? Lots of discussion in the history of philosophical theology on that topic (lots of purported contradictions posed, then response to), but lots of people, even many ordinary atheists, think there's no contradiction in the idea of God, just merely that God contingently doesn't exist. So if you construe the multiverse theory to mean that every possible world exists (not sure it should be construed this way, but let's suppose), and if you think the idea of God involves no contradictions, then it sounds like the multiverse theory could support this line of argument toward God's existence.

hope that's useful!


The big bang theory says that time began with the big bang. Is that correct?

The big bang theory says that time began with the big bang. Is that correct? Then does that mean that those who describe the big bang theory as an idea that something comes from nothing are incorrect? If time began with the big bang doesn't that mean there never was a time when there was nothing?

I can't resist responding to one thing that Prof. Stairs says in his excellent reply: "If there's no such [necessary] being, then it might be that there's no explanation for why contingent things exist." I used to think that myself. But as I thought more about the question "Why do any contingent things exist?" I concluded that the question has a very simple answer -- indeed, many simple answers -- if it's a well-posed question in the first place, and those answers have nothing to do with any necessary being. I try to explain why in this paper.

In a book by John Honner dealing with Niels Bohr's philosophy of physics, he

In a book by John Honner dealing with Niels Bohr's philosophy of physics, he finishes a sentence with "once the framework of complementarity is substituted for that of continuity and univocity." I can't find a definition of 'univocity' in the dictionary, and all google search results seem to apply to religion. Can someone help me with a definition that might apply in this context?

The best word to look up is univocal, which is roughly the opposite of equivocal. It means, more or less, unambiguous, or having one meaning. Without the whole sentence, it's a bit hard to be sure what the author meant, but the idea of complementarity, in part, is that we can't bring pairs of concepts such as position and momentum both to bear in a single experiment; we must choose. In classical physics, we can. There is, as it were, a univocal point of view that we can take on a physical system classically, whereas in applying quantum theory we must choose between incompatible experimental arrangements and "complementary" physical concepts.

Are dimensions exceeding 3 actually comceivable or are they purely intellectual

Are dimensions exceeding 3 actually comceivable or are they purely intellectual constructs? Is this even debated in philosophy?

If I understand your question correctly, it's whether there really could be more than three dimensions in physical space. The best answer, I should think, is yes. One reason is that there are serious physical theories that assume the existence of more than three spatial dimensions: string theory is the example I have in mind.

More generally, though, it's not clear why we should doubt that this is possible. The fact that we can't represent it to ourselves imaginatively doesn't seem like a very good reason. We can't represent curved space-time to ourselves imaginatively, but if general relativity is right, space-time does curve. We have a notoriously hard time representing quantum mechanical objects to ourselves imaginatively, and yet quantum mechanics is the cornerstone of much of our physics.

We can even say things about what it would be like to live in a world with more than three spatial dimensions. Consider: think of a plane in 3-space, and imagine a walled square in that plane. An object can enter the square without passing thought its walls; it enters from above or below. In a 4-dimensional space, if we picked a walled cube in a 3-dimensional "hyperplane" of the 4-space, an object could enter that cube without passing though its walls: from a region outside the plane. Those with better geometric skillz than I could offer more elaborate examples. (See also Edwin Abbot's Flatland for a delightful 19th-century exploration of this theme.)

One other thought: though we can in some sense "imagine" three dimensions, when you start trying to think about the details even of three-dimensional geometry, it's interesting just how fast imagination runs out and you're forced to adopt a more purely geometrical or mathematical approach. The limits of what we can picture or grasp intuitively aren't a very good guide to what's really possible, let alone true!

On a Philosophy Bites podcast I heard Daniel Dennett mention the following

On a Philosophy Bites podcast I heard Daniel Dennett mention the following thought experiment, which he attributed to Galileo. Suppose that heavier objects fall faster than light ones. Take two objects, A and B, where A is lighter than B. Connect A and B with a string and drop them. Since A is lighter than B, A will act as a drag on B, and B will fall more slowly than it would have alone. Yet since A and B are jointly heavier than B, and heavier objects fall faster than light ones, B will fall faster than it would have alone. We have a contradiction. Therefore, heavier objects do not fall faster than light ones. I thought that this was really marvelous and also very surprising. I had been under the impression that one could not arrive at ostensibly substantive empirical claims like the one in question just by considering thought experiments. I was hoping that one of the panelists could explain exactly how Galileo's thought experiment works here.

One way of thinking of this kind of thing is that it uncovers a subtle contradiction between views we already hold. But it doesn't, by itself, prove anything positive. It's conceivable that one could deny, for example, that A and B are "connected" in the right way for them to fall faster together.

The question how thought experiments work in science is an important one, and philosophers and historians of science have written on it extensively. One good place to start might be Thomas Kuhn's paper, "A Function for Thought Experiments", which discusses this one, and also Einstein's famous thought experiment involving the moving train. There's a nice You Tube version of that one here.

Check out
the SEP article on thought experiments, as well.