The question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”, within the context of the Judeo-Christian revelation is answered quite simply. The answer is: Because God, as an act of love, chose to create.
The first line of the common declaration of the Catholic Faith is:
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and of earth.”
In first grade, we were taught the faith from The Penny Catechism. The first question was, “Who made you?”, the answer to which was, “God made me.” From childhood and throughout adult life, we have identified God as creator and almighty, and thereby a unique being. That God is almighty and the creator implies that his nature is his existence. This is evident in God’s identifying himself as “I AM” to Moses and in Jesus’ contrasting his eternal existence to Abraham’s coming into existence:
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)
However, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” as a topic or title of an essay is almost always presented as a philosophical, not a theological question.
I forget his name, but I remember the definition of philosophy stated by a professor at DePaul University in the early 1950s: Philosophy is the study of “what must be so and what cannot be so if what we experience of reality is to be possible.”
Philosophy starts with our common experience of reality, our common experience of the existence of material entities. This is especially evident in a line of reasoning of which the conclusion is the existence of God:
There must be some being which is the cause of existing of all things because it itself is the act of existing alone. (St. Thomas Aquinas, On Being and Essence, tr. Armand Maurer, 1949, p. 47).
Notice that, in philosophy, both the existence and the concept of God (the Being whose nature is identical to His existence) initially arise simultaneously in the conclusion of the line of reasoning.
Practically speaking, we usually already understand the concept of God and affirm His existence prior to a formal and explicit delineation of the philosophical rationale and its conclusion. This prior knowledge may be due to revelation or to going through the line of philosophical reasoning previously, perhaps implicitly. A beautiful example of such implicit reasoning is that expressed by St. Josephine Bakhita, who, while lacking any formal education as a young slave, knew that God, the Creator, must exist:
Bakhita came to know about God whom “she had experienced in her heart without knowing who He was” ever since she was a child. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage ….” (The Holy See, “Josephine Bakhita”, para. 10)
A Philosophical Critique of the Grammar
The title of an argument, “Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?”, is logically and grammatically valid. However, the phrase, “… rather than nothing,” although grammatically valid, adds no further meaning and is philosophically meaningless. This is evident when the phrase is rendered grammatically explicit, namely, “Why is there something rather than there is nothing?”
Although existence may be grammatically predicated of nothing, it has no philosophical meaning. Therefore philosophically, the question is reduced to, “Why is there something?”
A Philosophical Critique: Ultimate vs. Eccentric
The question, “Why is there something?”, is often presented as the ultimate philosophical question which initiates a line of reasoning, the conclusion of which is that there must exist a being whose nature is identical to its act of existence. But the question is not ultimate. It is eccentric. It is two circles of abstraction away from the bullseye of our experience of the existence of things.
Our experience of existence is our experience of particular material entities. We experience the existence of this dog. We do not experience dog per se. In Aristotelean philosophy, dog, as generic, is the principle of form. The nature of this dog is a composite consisting of the principle of form and particular matter. Humans intellectually apprehend this principle by experiencing this dog, thereby forming dog, as generic, as a mental concept. Dog as generic, however, has no existence in itself. In the existent dog, it is a principle. In the human mind, it is a mental concept.
Identifying a dog as “some thing,” rather than generically as a dog, is a second mental abstraction from our experience of existence. The question “Why is there something?” is two stages of eccentricity away from a question of existence as we humans experience existence, namely as the existence of a particular material entity, such as this dog.
The Yogi Berra-ism holds true: “You can’t get there from here!”, where “there” is the existence of a being whose nature is identical to its existence and “here” is the positing of the existence of a doubly abstract, doubly generic “some thing.” To be at a “here” starting at which one can rationally get to “there,” one must reverse the two eccentric abstractions from existence to get back to the actual human experience of existence, which is the experience of the existence of a particular material entity, a this dog.
The material particular exists as an entity; the generic does not. Matter is the principle of individuation of the generic and thereby an existential principle.
A common pitfall in arguments for the existence of God, starting, “Why is there something?”, is to assume a definition for the word God prior to the conclusion of the argument. A recent essay, “Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing?” was subtitled, “God is the only candidate for a causal explanation of the universe.” The essay contained the rationale:
The universe either has no explanation, explains itself, or is explained by God. If the universe has an explanation and cannot explain itself, it follows that God explains why the universe exists. (Op. cit., para. 8)
The quotation precedes the conclusion of the argument. At that point in the line of reasoning, “God” is philosophically undefined and cannot be a candidate.
Also in the essay, the starting point of experience is the existence of the universe. However, the human experience of existence is the existence of a particular material entity. The universe does exist, but to affirm such is a generalization. That generalization, the universe, is not an entity of which we actually experience the existence. Existence is posited of the universe analogically to, not univocally to, existence as existence is posited of an entity of immediate human experience. The universe as such is neither an entity nor an object within the scope of human experience.
An Outline of the Argument for the Existence of God
Everything about each material entity within human experience is explained by the nature of that entity. The one thing that is not explained by the nature of each material entity, within human experience is its existence. Its nature, which is the source of explanation, is existentially distinct from its existence. There must exist a being without this fatal flaw, who is the explanation of the existence of each entity within the scope of human experience because its nature is its existence. This being we call God. St. Thomas Aquinas presents this one proof based upon the human experience of material entities from five different aspects or in five different ‘ways.’
In theology, the meaning of the topic question is, “Why did God create rather than refrain from creating?” The nature and existence of God are known through revelation before the question is asked. In theology, the topic question cannot be asked expecting the answer to affirm the nature and existence of God independently of God’s revealing himself to man.
Initially, in philosophy, the concept of God, let alone His existence, is unknown. The word “God” is undefined. Also, in philosophy, the topic question cannot even be asked. The question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”, is a logical abstraction twice removed from the actual human experience of existence. As a logical abstraction, “some thing” cannot be the starting point of a philosophical argument which reaches, in conclusion, the existence of any entity, let alone that Being whose nature is to exist. The valid philosophical starting point is the human experience of the existence of a particular material entity. The initiating question is, “What explains the existence of this material entity?” Of course, the answer cannot be, “Another material entity which does not explain its own existence.”