Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why does the universe exist?

Why is the world the way it is? Presumably there are a whole raft of possible worlds, so why is this one actual? It's a weird question, but it seems a reasonable one to ask. I feel like this is a fact in need of explanation. (Does anyone disagree?) But it's hard to imagine what the explanation might be. Here are a few possibilities which spring to mind:

1) Brute chance. A different world could have been actualized, but it simply happens that this one was instead, for no particular reason. (That's an explanation of sorts, albeit a fairly unsatisfying one.)

2) Design. Someone (call them 'God') had the option of which world to make actual, and chose this one. (Why? You'll have to ask her.) [Regress: why does God exist? I assume most theists will then appeal to the next explanation...]

3) Necessity. There are two variations on this theme:

(a) Our world is the only genuinely possible world [are we to take this as a brute modal fact?]. When we think that there are other ways the world could have been, e.g. with different physical laws, we are simply mistaken.

(b) Modal realism: all possible worlds are equally real, and necessarily existing, and so this world in particular could not have failed to exist as it does. (This leaves open the locative question of why we find ourselves in this world rather than some other. But that's a separate issue, and not uniquely troubling here. For now, I'm more concerned about the ontological question of why our world exists.)

Are there any other options? Which is the best explanation?


  1. My inclination personally is to just reject the question as badly formed in the first place. But if read as a request for explanation I think it's plausible at least to start out by figuring out what sort of explanation would count as an answer - for example, answers 1 and 3 of your possibilities seem to take the request one way (provide considerations the truth of which make the explanandum (necessarily)true/(just)true), whereas the second seems to take it an entirely different way (more along the lines of asking someone to explain why there is dirty laundry covering the floor of their apartment. I suppose we could also give something like "It is in the nature of things like Universes to exist (where Universe means all the existent stuff), and so since the universe is a universe then it must exist", though here I think it's at least fairly clear that this fails to address the motivation behind the question. I'm not at all sure any explanation can satisfactorily answer the question - but if there is one it's still necessarily to pick out exactly what sort of explanation is being requested.

  2. Something else just occurred to me after posting that: all the answers you've provided seem to take for granted that the universes' existing is an event (this is not unreasonable: most things which need explaining are events, so it's an intuitive way of addressing the problem). I'm not sure this works though - even if we imagine that for any two events x and y, (xy) can count as an event (so that the universe is the event composed of taking all the events and mashing them together) I don't think a request for explanation of that (universe)event could make sense. What could be used to explain it?

  3. 4. All possible universes were created.

    If the universe is just an algorithm, it is simple and trivial to write an algorithm that generates algorithms.

  4. best is 3 (b) the reason why we experience it is because we are the design that experiences this reality.
    BUT one stil has at least some residue of the question along the lines of
    "why are possible world's defined in the way that they are?"

    2 seems to be a part of 1 or 3 in a sense - they address slightly different questions.

  5. I think (2) is too narrow, and (3), in at least some interpretations (as sugested by your point about the regress), is too broad. The real options are:

    (a) It is not possible for there not to be a universe. (Your 3)
    (b) It is possible for there not to be a universe; but the universe is caused to exist (i.e., the universe exists because something else exists). (Broader 2)
    (c) It is possible for there not to be a universe; and the universe is not caused to exist (i.e., the universe doesn't exist because anything else exists). (Your 1)

    (Which shows why we have difficulty taking brute chance as an explanation!) Of course, 'universe' has to be taken in such a way that we are not assuming that it contains everything there is (or everything that happens, if we are talking about events). That makes it a bit vague, but that's not, I think, a fatal flaw. The question of why the universe exists is a particular way of discussing the question "Why is there anything at all?" which is really a question about whether this is true:

    It is not possible for there to be nothing at all. ('Something exists' is a necessary truth.)

    And I think that's a legitimate (and philosophically interesting) question.

  6. Don, you've seen the universe itself. If the best explanation of its existence is necessity, then that would seem sufficient evidence for belief in (3).

    Besides, what could you see that would suggest to you "that the universe necessarily exists"? All that we ever see is the actual world, so it's not clear to me how perception (rather than reason) could grant modal knowledge.

    Brandon -- good point, I neglected the possibility of non-intelligent causation (Quentin Smith's timeless point?) but, as with theism, it merely pushes the question back a step. It seems like we're all going to need to appeal to either chance or necessity at some stage.

    BTW, our questions seem subtly different, though I agree they're related. For even if we grant that it's impossible for nothing to exist, this still leaves open the question of why this world exists rather than some other one. (And to answer this question, it isn't clear that "unintelligent causation" can produce a new category distinct from 'chance', 'design', and 'necessity'.)

  7. The question being what sort of proof are you looking for that would prove that the universe "necessarily exists" or even "had beginnings".
    the point being that the absence of somthing that cant exist proves nothing.

  8. Richard - Quentin Smith's timeless point is perhaps an example.

    Perhaps the relation between the questions can be seen if we can divide the field in this way. Instead of dividing it into three at the get-go, suppose we see the options as being weeded out at two stages. We have at the top a very general question:

    (A) Is this true: It is not possible for there to be nothing at all?

    If we answer no, then that would seem to land us in Brute Chance territory. (It is possible for there to be nothing, but at no point do we find anything that had to exist. So it just happens that there is something, for no particular reason.)

    If we answer yes, we can have two options about the possible world that actually obtains. Either it necessarily exists in virtue of being a possible world, or there is something in this possible world that exists necessarily in all possible worlds, and is the reason, in some way, why this possible world actually obtains rather than any other possible world.

    That organizes the question a bit differently.

    By the way, I think I've argued this before on some thread or other on your blog, but I think (3a) and (3b) are actually equivalent, if we mean by 'possible world' some sort of maximal compossibility; to say that all possible worlds are equally real is to imply that they are all compossible, and therefore part of one possible world.

  9. im with brute chance, personally

  10. Brandon, that's right, back in the counteractuality comments... thanks for the reminder.

    I like your re-organization of the issue, but let's not leave out the third option after answering 'yes' to A, which is that although it's necessary for something or other to exist, it's nevertheless Brute Chance just which of these possibilities obtains.

  11. Richard,

    You're right; I was thinking the 'no' question to (A) took care of the chance option entirely, but there's another chance option on the 'yes' side.

  12. The universe does not properly speaking exist. A universe is implicated by existence. If we say that this implication exists, we imply the existence of a superseding universe, the universe of the analysis of existence, or analysis for short. This sort of universe is not insignificant, but its existence is a mythology, or if you'd rather, the product of a semiological operation. Its existence is not of the same nature as existence as such.

    If we ask how it is possible for us to share the universe, we might be asking about the possibility of coexistence, or we might be asking about the possibility of analysis. The short answer to both lines of questioning is because that's what we do. We want to coexist and we want to analyze. Paradoxically, in either case we don't want to relinquish our freedom, so we hang on to the possibility that the universe could always be otherwise. This is a tacit acknowledgement that the universe is something we do.

    In the same way that the universe is an implication of existence, possibility is an implication of action. Language treats possibility as a modality, as something that sets up or places conditions on action. The modal auxiliary cannot stand apart from the action. (In the case of "can," some languages allow themselves to stand in for the action; I am not convinced that an implied "to speak" is not present at a deeper grammatical level--but it's a curious exception.) The conditions may be epistemic or pragmatic in various shades, referential or reflexive, but they must bear upon some action. Modality is polysemous in its expression, so it's unclear whether the modal function originates in grammar and is then extended to other aspects of language, or whether there might be other generative processes that take the form of grammatical modality due to certain design features of language, or the economics of thinking.

    We may treat the actual as a modality, but the usage may best be understood as a metaphor, or a semiological operation. The actuality of "do" as modal is essentially the same actuality as the modal. It expresses conditions governing some other, definite action. We can't accord it any extra actuality by virtue of its being "do," unless we forget what we're saying--which does tend to happen.

  13. First of all there are way too many assumptions in naturalist conception of 'the universe', lets rephrase this all because the language is bastardized. concepts are lenses by which we see and interpret the world, if you have misconceived a concept then your entire interpretation of the world will be behold to misconceptualization of poorly conceived words and ideas that end up embedded in language, which are ultimately empty of content.

    Fact 1: We exist in an environment
    Fact 2: We do not understand the nature of this environment
    Fact 3: We call our environment "nature" but we do not understand what this means, although we PRETEND we do.

    We interpret our environment ('universe', solar system, earth, etc), in terms of a informational concepts that are unprovable and ultimately unintelligable. If one asks what 'matter' is, or 'energy', one cannot come up with a good explanation, because the explanation keeps expanding until we reach the limits of our perceptions. Next is the problem of infinite causality, the universe cannot be the cause of itself or self-existent, because it moves, it changes over time.

    Next you have to remember that our measuring devices are absolutely dependent on our biological minds, that the tools we use and create are proesthetic extensions of the human mind. A sophisticated telescope is really just an proesthetic device for the human eye and ultimately human brain.

    So all of our complicated technology relies on the wetware for any of our technology to have any meaning. The meat-based observer is critical.

    Personally I don't believe in the physicalist interpretation of the universe, since in physics what is 'physical is merely the result of fields of energy. When you try to press two magnets together you can feel the 'hardness' and 'tension' of something that would seem like 'matter' but it isn't. Since matter is just the coalesced form of energy, and their is a bunch of strange physics that turns naturalism on it's head, naturalism breaks down when causality breaks down, in my opinion once the causal chain is broken.

    So concepts of nature as being 'natural' or 'supernatural' are ultimately and fundamentally empty.

    We associate 'supernatural' with mysticism, but really if the universe required transcendental elements, and we could access them and become gods, it would seem 'natural' but in the end it would prove that their are things that exist that are above the conception of natural law, and that the idea of the 'laws of nature' is fundamentally flawed, since laws of nature can be edited, and manufactured.

    It still comes down to what I call arbiter theory, each person has a truth by which they measure all other truths, all other truths must conform or submit to the master-conception, or master judging principle.

    Many people try to interpret everything interms of darwinian evolution, many others try to interpret it in terms of some ancient holy text, etc. And others still just on their own wacky ideas about reality.

    We give certain ideas power to nullify or dismiss other truths, even when it's not based on merit, because we seek universal globally applicable master conceptions by which to judge everything. This is because we are simple minded and cannot grasp the underlying complexity and the context based truths of deep reality.

  14. I can think of at least one other option, mine. (There is another other option if you count the christian idea that god is somehow metaphysically necessary, but that is ludicrous).

    Of course we and our universe are temporal. In other words; our universe's present state is determined at least partially by its past state (but not entirely, assuming we have free will). But its past state is determined by the one before that - so to ask ultimately why the universe is the way it is now is recursive as long as the timestream stretches infinitely far back. But it looks like we can resolve this recursion by adding a realm of Eternity, where our creators can be said to exist. Now if this "Eternity" is to not simply be subject to the same recursion, it must be exempt to this law that the present always depends on the past. In other words, everything has to occur at the same "time" (so that some events cannot alter the playing field for others), because there is only one "moment". Since, therefore, there is not a stream where each point depends on the one before it, such a realm's existence is not recursive.

    Does this make sense?


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