Theists and Atheists both pose the following question quite regularly; surprisingly regularly it seems to me. They ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” “Why are there rules or laws which govern nature?” or questions of this sort. These seem odd questions to me. It is a bit like asking “Why did this coin land on heads?” I am assuming here that the asker is wondering why in the sense of “What was the purpose of the coin landing on heads?” rather than asking about the various forces, like gravity, that acted on the coin. It is a peculiar question because it is one that can, and likely will, be asked no matter what outcome actually occurs. Where the universe is concerned, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The ontological argument sums it up quite well but might be even too indulgent for such a question. We are here to ask the question so therefore there is something, if there were nothing no-one would be asking about it. If there was nothing though, and paradoxically a questioner none-the-less, their question “Why is there nothing rather than something?” would be the very same question.
When we consider the coin, it is obvious to us that asking what the purpose was for the coin landing on heads is a question that is assuming that a purpose does or should exist. Purpose implies intelligence, intent. While most of us are happy to accept that there is no intelligence with a plan behind our coin landing on heads or tails, for some reason, we have difficulty viewing the universe the same way. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The answer is very simply; “…because there is something”
“Why are there rules or laws which govern nature?” is a version of this question. There are necessarily some laws that must be in effect. At the very least the law might be “everything is always chaotic” or “everything in not always chaotic”. Existence itself guarantees a state of some kind. The fine-tuning argument which is held up as evidence of a creator God who wanted to create human beings is just an extension of this thinking. It is entirely consistent that a life form capable of surviving in this universe should arise in this universe. Fine-tuning indeed! We are finely tuned by natural selection to live on part of the surface of this world (and so far as we know, only this world) The suggestion that the unimaginably vast universe, which is almost everywhere instantly fatal to humans, was created with us in mind a statement of unparalleled self-absorption and a celebration of the human ability to ignore the facts we find unpleasant.
In order to ask “What is the purpose of something” we must assume a purpose to begin with. Such an assumption brings with it many other assumptions. Occam would be turning in his grave. A reasonable question then is “Why should/must there be a purpose?” Any answers given to questions like this are statements of a priori belief. Logic, reason, evidence have nothing to offer except perhaps that the asking of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is an inherently unwarranted question. Not all questions must be answered. For instance “Why is blue, blue and not green” is not a question the prudent mind will waste much time on. The crux of all of this is that our minds are capable of understanding that there are more than one possible states. It seems that our minds are geared to ask what things would be like if states were different than they happen to be. A very useful tool, no doubt but one that we can’t seem to turn off. Coupled with our propensity to find agency in everything, the origins of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” are not hard to trace. We might do well to spend some time discovering a means to tell the difference between a question that has an answer and the simple stringing together of states and possibilities. It is entirely true to say that science will never likely be able to answer this question but too many questioners don’t bother to notice that the reason for that may be that it is not a question that makes a whole lot of sense.