Why is there something rather than nothing?

By Phil Plait | May 3, 2012 2:00 pm

Just a quick note: if you’re looking to expand your mind enough to make your head explode, then read this very interesting essay by my fellow Hive Overmind Discover Magazine blogger and theoretical cosmologist Sean Carroll on why there’s something rather than nothing. That is, why does the Universe exist the way it does?

I’m simplifying it a bit here. But it’s similar to the question, why is there something rather than nothing, which Sean has also written about.

There’s some tech speak in the first article, but it’s a fascinating discussion of the nontroversy brewing between some scientists and some philosophers. I agree with Sean; many of the potshots they take are poorly aimed (though I do tend to agree with my friend Massimo Pigliucci when it comes to scientists misunderstanding the need and use for philosophy).

As Sean says, it does no good when participants in the two fields talk past each other. But I do disagree with him very mildly when he says,

…the point of philosophy is not to be "useful" to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be "useful" to fungi.

Perhaps that’s not the point of philosophy, but it’s a role philosophy plays, a critical one. After all, the way we practice science ideally relies on its philosophy. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but I’d call Karl Popper a scientific philosopher, as well as Galileo and many others who allow a meta-knowledge of how to do science influence they way they actually do it.

I suspect I’ll have a fun conversation with Sean about this next time we get together!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Piece of mind, Science
MORE ABOUT: Sean Carroll

Comments (45)

  1. Matt

    The title of this post reminded me of a Louis CK bit (NSFW – language) about kids drilling down with the `why’ question until you hit some existentialist wall and blow up:


    It gets to the philosophy part at a little after 9:00 …

  2. Shane C

    Remember that early scientists and naturalists were often classified as “natural philosophers”. This is still a useful term IMHO.

    Myself, I find that such existential questions are amusing but frequently lead to the so-called anthropic principle, which I view as a tautology. Grand unification always is just out of sight, with tempting shadows and tantalizing mirages to lead us on. But, isn’t the search fun?

    Sometimes I wish I’d stuck with physics just so I could be in the group doing the searching. Watching from the sidelines is just not the same.

  3. Bart Dorsey

    There’s no such thing as “nothing”.

    This is what drives me nuts about this whole argument and the question itself. It’s a nonsensical question. You might as well ask “Why is there something rather than a magical space goat.”

    While I remain agnostic on the existence of magical space goats, I can unequivocally state that “nothing” does in fact not exist. It’s the DEFINITION of nothing.

    So nothing doesn’t exist, so something can’t come from it. In fact, it’s not an IT at all.

    The whole thing annoys me to no end.

    Things exists. The universe is a thing. It exists. If something existed before what we call “the universe” then that thing existed as well.

    Something exists.

    Nothing does not exist.

    By Definition.

  4. SLC

    OT but does the Bad Astronomer have a take on the subject of quantum fusion, a subject that is the cause of something of a brouhaha? This seems like a classic case of if something appears to good to be true, it probably isn’t.


  5. Try a dose of Parmenides: http://www.abu.nb.ca/courses/grphil/parmenides.htm

    Good for the (mental) health.

    Also, why not: “Why is there nothing instead of something”?

    Or Woody Allen on “Nonbeing and Somethingness.”

    I stand corrected.

  6. Drew

    Put me down as a vote for the ‘magical space goat.’

  7. Damon B.

    @ Bart Dorsey

    Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  8. The problem is that the philosophy of science is not a single thing, it cover a spectrum of areas. As soon as the issue of philosophy and science is raised, people jump up and down and go on about the scientific method and Popper. The question is, however, where is the modern philosophy of science helping science move forward (IMHO nowhere).

  9. Gary Ansorge

    In the reality of chaos, everything is possible, even a universe with a set of laws allowing critters to ask, “Mommy, why is there air?”

    Physics sometimes treat with sub atomic particles as singularities surrounded by a cloud of virtual particles, that constantly annihilate each other. There is no reason to suppose this could not also occur on much larger(to us) scales, with universes being the virtual particles, popping into and out of existence.

    Of course, from our POV, that could take a few trillion years…

    Gary 7

  10. Shane C

    @Bart: I sympathize with your viewpoint. We can conceptualize “nothing”, though, and modern mathematics requires a zero (in fact, it’s part of the definition of a field). Why can’t we extend that to the absence of space-time? But all we can really say about such a “place” is that none of the physical attributes we now associate with space-time can apply there; if they did, then we wouldn’t have nothing. Is it something? We just don’t know, so we call it “nothing”.

    Mr. Carroll mentions this in his somewhat mind-twisting posting. But yes, I sympathize, really, with your viewpoint. It’s completely human. It’s one of the reasons humans have invented religion. We shy away from the very concept of nothing. It’s why the ancients didn’t believe in zero.

    Quantum physics has brought us the concept of a minimum possible “thing”, whether it’s a chunk of space-time or a chunk of energy. What it has failed to do is reconcile any of that with general relativity, which is why there is such a push for unification; the search has led to convoluted and mystical realms of thought and one can easily get lost in possibilities and seeming absurdities. The philosophy of science can become very important, and might be the only thread one has of relating theoretical possibilities to reality.

    Believe it or not, these are valuable discussions, even if we don’t believe in their validity.

  11. Charles LD

    As Neil deGrasse Tyson answered this question when Stephen Colbert posed it at the end of an hour+ long interview, in 10 words or less: “Words that make questions, may not be questions at all.”

    A great interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXh9RQCvxmg

    Also a favorite of mine,
    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

    Philosophy is phun though.

  12. Ron Sonntag

    Maybe something is bound to nothing like quarks. You cannot separate them without forming a new pair. Or, like entropy. You can define entropy for a region, can be sub-atomic or the entropy of the universe. At the Planck level, even space-time becomes quantized. So what’s between the quantum states? I think that may be the closest definition of nothing because quantum mechanics literally disallows existence between states.

  13. Harry of Auxtraylya

    Hey, yeah… Aristotle… you guys can have him no worries 😛

  14. because something barely edged out nothing in the universal lottery

  15. HvP

    Because there is only one way to have ‘nothing,’ and an infinity of ways to have ‘something.’

    And also because ‘nothing’ would have no laws preventing ‘something’ from coming into existence.

  16. There is something rather than nothing because the state of “nothing” is UNSTABLE. Quantum Physics tells us that the state of “nothing” does not stay “nothing” for long. A true nothing means no energy, no space and no time. Nothing is like a sphere of zero radius with nothing around it. Once a quantum event occurs inside this sphere (and it will according to physics) the radius of this sphere expands slightly causing the pressure ratio of the inside pressure to the outside pressure (zero) to be infinite or near infinite. Remember that a number divided by zero is INFINITY. This infinite pressure ratio causes a rapid expansion resulting in the Big Bang explosion. If we put a partially filled balloon in a vacuum chamber, it expands rapidly and bursts since the internal pressure is greater than the external pressure. Inserting this same balloon into a state of true “nothing” is even more explosive. Google and download “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed” for a better explanation with lots of pictures and simple language. It even has the math in the appendix to back up the claims. It’s difficult to argue with math. The key to understanding creation is in knowing that gravity is actually negative energy allowing a creation from nothing where the total energy of the universe is zero. Since the state of “nothing” is unstable, the stuff around us is the result of nature seeking stability. It’s amazing that modern physics says it’s possible for the universe to exist without a creator.

  17. Wzrd1

    I only recall one thing: When Albert Einstein and the Curie couple were studying physics, it wasn’t a science, it was a PHILOSOPHY.
    It was the philosophy of physics.
    It gradually became a science. Just at the same time that medicine changed from a trade with apprenticeship to a career with educational requirements.

  18. Mark

    It is interesting reading Mr Carroll’s excerpt. He describes an almost juvenile attempt by the author of the book to mock a particular field (philosophy in this case); he describes the authors attempt as “lame and anti-intellectual”. I couldn’t help (while reading that), taken with some of things written in this very blog, and not wondering how advanced or knowledge would be in the climate theory (in particular, a theory that the Earth’s climate is warming recently and that humans are the perpetrators) if these same authors (and lets face it, many others) would give the same credence to those that present evidence that would seem to contradict their conventional wisdom on that subject. i really don’t subscribe to any side of that ‘theory’ (and thats what it is, a theory). Frustrated by the very same name-calling antics that the folks that right these good blogs advocate. It’s a dis-service to science and i find it very hypocritical that you deplore the mocking of one group while advocate the mocking of another. Evidence perhaps that nothing really has changed throughout recorded time when various scientists get mocked by their own. The facts as I see them is the people (in this case out esteemed bloggers) are no different than the people they feel the need to lecture.

  19. qsa

    The reason that there is something is that reality is something akin to a circle.i.e. it is a mathematical structure. This natural structure is the only one possible that leads to a dynamic universe. What a luck!


    Quantum Statistical Automata
    QSA theory

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    Seems to me – despite and to paraphrase the Bard’s King Lear :

    Nothing did come of nothing and was mostly nothing except that includes all of everything! 😉

    That’s cosmology – and also to a large extent chemistry – isn’t it?

    Everything we see in almost every direction at the hugest scales and at the very tiniest is mostly just empty space. From the universe where all the stars and galaxies we see are justa small impurity in the all-encompassing Black to the structure of atoms themselves which are almost nothing and empty bar only a small central nucleus and smaller electrons orbiting that.

    As for philosphy and science I tend to think these are separate “magisteria” as Stephen Jay Gould put it.

    There is some overlap but by and large they’re working in different ways on different levels and questions.

    I’m agnostic but I think Galileo spoke well when he noted that “science tells us how the heavens go and not how to go to heaven” and a similar statement applies to philosophy.

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    @18. Mark :

    I couldn’t help (while reading that), taken with some of things written in this very blog, and not wondering how advanced or knowledge would be in the climate theory (in particular, a theory that the Earth’s climate is warming recently and that humans are the perpetrators) if these same authors (and lets face it, many others) would give the same credence to those that present evidence that would seem to contradict their conventional wisdom on that subject.

    I know I tend to be verbose myself but, whoah that’s a long and rambling and hard to follow sentence there, Mark! 😮

    i really don’t subscribe to any side of that ‘theory’ (and thats what it is, a theory).

    That word ‘theory’, I do not think it means what you think it does. (To paraphrase the The Princess Bride & esp. Andre the Giant.)

    Hint : A theory in science isn’t just a guess or an opinion or idea. A theory is a huge deal in science – Evolution and Gravity are theories – they are also regarded as “fact” as well in the colloquial sense of the word in that we know they are correct. If youbeliev thecsiencewhen itcome stoevolutionand gravity then you should also accept it when it comes to Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) as I call it.

    If you are going to disprove or even dispute the HIRGO theory you better have some very good evidence and arguments. To say there’s even two sides here is highly misleading given 97% of those who know what they’re talking about -the climatologists or climate experts and specialists – are on the side of the HIRGO theor-reality.

    Also please try to keep discussions of that politically -but -not-scientificalty controversial topic to the relevant threads rather than derailing other non-relatied ones such as this.

  22. @ Mark :

    Please see and consider :


    & read through the Skeptical Science checklist :


    and visit and explore :


    Plus watch the informative and easily comprehensible Youtube series by Potholer54 the first one of which is linked to my name for this comment before you comment on the HIRGO topic again.

    Please. Really.

    I strongly urge you to educate yourself in this area and at least avoid posting arguments that have been debunked innumerable times already for your own sake as well as ours. :-(

  23. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Like Carroll says, there are at least two different definitions of “nothing” being used in that silly argument. It’s like one guy complaining that someone who set out to explain oranges didn’t satisfy his desire to find out about ferrets, then then the other guy calling the ferret guy an idiot mammal-lover.

    A true nothing means no energy, no space and no time. Nothing is like a sphere of zero radius with nothing around it. Once a quantum event occurs inside this sphere

    How would a quantum event happen when there is no space or time or a quantum field or any physics at all? I agree with Bart. “Nothing” in the philosophical sense is a contradictory concept; nonexistence by definition can’t exist. Just because we can invent a concept like “nothing” doesn’t automatically mean it has a physical significance, much less that we have to ponder why we don’t see that concept in reality.

    I’m sure a philosopher would call this line of thought naive, but it seems strange to me to argue that “nothing” is something that could in a sense happen, just to turn around and ask why nothing didn’t happen after all.

    It’s why the ancients didn’t believe in zero.

    That’s like saying the ancient Egyptians didn’t “believe in” the wheel. Zero is a useful mathematical concept that was invented by different cultures at different times. It’s not a self-existing “thing” to be believed in.

  24. Nigel Depledge

    Bart Dorsey (3) said:

    So nothing doesn’t exist, so something can’t come from it. In fact, it’s not an IT at all.

    “Nothing” is defined as the empty set. You might not think nothing can exist physically (which, if our ideas about QM are as correct as they seem to be, is certainly true), but it can most definitiely exist mathematically.

  25. Nigel Depledge

    Mark (18) said:

    I couldn’t help (while reading that), taken with some of things written in this very blog, and not wondering how advanced or knowledge would be in the climate theory (in particular, a theory that the Earth’s climate is warming recently and that humans are the perpetrators) if these same authors (and lets face it, many others) would give the same credence to those that present evidence that would seem to contradict their conventional wisdom on that subject.

    You’ve answered your own question here.

    There is no substantive evidence that contradicts the conclusion that AGW is real. If there were, the world’s climate experts would not be half as convinced as they are that AGW is happening.

    People who claim to have evidence that AGW is false or illusory or whatever pretty much don’t. Either they have made stuff up, or they have misrepresented some actual data, or they have misinterpreted some actual data.

    If there were any genuine doubt about the validity of the AGW conclusion, this debate would be occurring in the primary climate-science literature.

    i really don’t subscribe to any side of that ‘theory’ (and thats what it is, a theory).

    Wrong. It’s a conclusion, based on huge mountains of data and the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry.

    Frustrated by the very same name-calling antics that the folks that right these good blogs advocate. It’s a dis-service to science and i find it very hypocritical that you deplore the mocking of one group while advocate the mocking of another.

    You have not noticed the difference here, though. Climate-change deniers are denying the conclusion arising from a truly compelling wealth of data. Most of the deniers have some vested interest in the status quo, or have been deceived by (or are in the pay of) those who have such an interest. Thus, it is appropriate to mock such denial of reality, in the same way it is appropriate to mock young-Earth creationists, or flat-Earth believers.

    Krauss’s denigration of philosophy as a field of endeavour, though, is not based on any such facts. He misses the point that the philosophers ask valid questions, even if those questions are essentially unanswerable. In short, they were not doing anything that deserved his scorn. As Carroll points out, Krauss put the question “why?” in the subtitle of his book and then failed to deliver.

  26. Peter Davey

    Given Eternity and Infinity, then presumably anything that can happen will happen. The theory of multiple universes is hardly a new one.

  27. Michael Simmons

    My thoughts…

    >Why is there something rather than nothing?

    Simple ask it this other way around.
    How could there nothing?
    Nothing only exists within a context (viewed from out side)
    For an absolute nothing there is no external context and hence it can not exist.
    (I think therefore I am, nothing else is possible since I wouldn’t exist to think it)

    As to why the something is the way it is. There is only one way pass the question “why”, every possibility must exist. How are these possibility’s partitioned, in every way possible.
    i.e. I believe in “hard core” infinity of multiple universes. Any number of dimensions, any possible “laws of physics”, any degree of separation. Most are unstable or very very boring.

    There are so many infinite possibilities that lead to a universe with out life, so many infinite possibilities for which even the formation of atoms would be impossible. Either there is only one special solution and our universe is it (extremely unlikely) or there are an infinity of solutions and all of them exist. Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that every possibility exists and we are in one of them.

  28. Don

    Nothingness is the vehicle that contains everything, just because we can’t see it dosen’t mean that nothing is there. We are only limited by our abilities to proceed. Like the question, if a tree fell in the woods and no one was around to hear it, did it make a noise?

  29. Nothing

    @ Bart Dorsey, Michael Simmons, naked bunny:
    I think you misunderstand what is being asked by ‘why does something exist?’ ‘Something exists’ may be phrased as ‘there is some x’. The negation of this is NOT ‘there is an x which is nothing’, but rather ‘it is not the case that there is some x’.
    So someone who asks the initial question does not have to assume that there is an entity which is nothing. I fail to see what is contradictory about the thought that there could have been nothing.
    Also, arguments from (e.g. quantum) physics which ‘show’ that there cannot be nothing because it would violate some law of physics just push back the problem without answering it: If so, then why are there these laws, rather than no (or different) laws?

  30. I’ve realised that the question of existence is wrong, and the universe doesn’t actually exist! We exist within the universe, but the universe itself doesn’t exist. At least, not other than as a mathematical construct.

    If you consider the simplest possible universe, it would be indistinguishable from its mathematical equivalent. You might consider a set of axioms like 2=2 and 2+2=4 to be a sort of trivial mathematical universe, but one in which no life is present and so effectively does not ‘exist’ (since, as I said, the concept of ‘existence’ just what we perceive).

    An obvious step up from this would be something like Conway’s Game of Life, the cellular automaton which is just a mathematical construct but is Turing complete. Whenever you explore a mathematical universe like this you’re just looking at a subset of the possibilities. Perhaps our entire universe is the equivalent of a Boltzmann brain – quite complicated, but inevitable if you consider the entire space of all possible purely mathematical universes.

    We’re so used to our own existence that we think of things as having a concrete presence (just as a table appears solid despite being almost entirely empty space), including the universe itself. But maybe our universe is nothing but a logical possibility which happens to include life, out of the infinity of non-paradoxical mathematical systems. And so we perceive ourselves as ‘real’ even though we’re merely a mathematical construct? (But not a manifest one, just a self-aware one).

    This would at least make the idea of infinite parallel worlds more palatable – anything that can be real, is real, in some (purely mathematical) sense. Even the suggestion of the universe ‘creating itself’ makes more sense in this scheme, I think.

  31. qsa

    Reality exists hence we say it is true. But what is really true besides that more than anything else which we can really trust, it is mathematical facts. So, to my mind I connect both since both seem to be a statement of truth. So I took a guess that reality is something akin to a circle (truth). The relations between the points give you a mathematical structure whereby you get PI which defines the structure of the circle.

    So I was thinking the relation(s) between what entity(s) could give a rise to a universe (truth). To come up with a structure with some entities, the easiest way was to see if I could draw two entities and define some kind a rule for their interaction. At that time I was familiar with fractals and vaguely heard of Conaways idea, but I said let me see maybe I will be smarter than Conaway and get some really fancy rule between some triangle or circles or lines or whatever. But as soon as I put a blank sheet in front of me ,for a short while I thought to myself this sounds very enigmatic, first by what criteria I am going to choose my entity, and which characteristic of that entity I was going to interrelate them and what expression. Choosing by trial and error was not very natural.

    My intuition was telling me I needed something more natural. Being an engineer and a programmer we learn to be efficient in our designs. So I opted first for the simplest configuration and that was point and to start simple and not to draw points all over the paper, I restricted myself to a line. Now, if I iterate on an artificial formula I will just get fractals which has already been tried which gives you beautiful suggestive pictures but that’s all. Also the different formulas I could use were most unnatural. So I thought the only way out is to throw random numbers on the line and see what happens. Off course, after a bit more than few seconds it was obvious I am going to get a uniformly distributed points on the line, I don’t have to tell you that I was sad at that point( although I should have been happy as hell, you will see why). How I was to get out of this conundrum, other than mangling that paper, throwing it in the garbage can and go to a party. The only other thing to do was to throw random lines that did not exceed an original line of length L. One more choice was necessary is to choose where those lines started, the obvious choice was random position on that line L. Simulating this concept with simple BASIC program and using the simplest constraint , to eliminate the lines that went out of the L bound I plotted the probability of hitting the positions on the line L. And WOW sin^2 the solution to Schrodinger equation(actually psi square) in an infinite potential well. The rest of the story of multi axis, general potential, and interaction and so on you can read about it in the website

  32. qsa


    That is essentially what my theory proves.

    @Michael Simmon, Nothing

    You see, if you take ANY shape in any number of dimensions then that can be decomposed into lines on each axis and you will be back to where we started. Then here is even a stranger thing, if you put any rule (like .63 of line A bigger than .27 line B) other than these random lines the system comes to halt, no dynamic universe can be generated. Of course, if you do the above rule randomly millions of times then you are back to the original system. If you apply that rule 50% of the time for example the system will halt and not become dynamic. This is the only design that leads to reality.

    What’s even more astounding is that many people say, well, is there anything beyond our reality. The answer is NO, no other design is available for any other reality, sorry.

    The website has not been updated with new results, as anybody who has done research knows how boring the docummentation side is, especially if you are in the middle of it.
    But I show how I get the 1/r law, the hydrogen 1s, how the Bohr Model fall out of the theory and even the mass of the electron, among many other results. But please look up the thread that is in the comment section.

    qsa.netne.net Add(www)

  33. Infinite123Lifer

    Does the princess need a name?

    I pico-sometimes (to stay semi-sane) wonder if zero is essentially infinitely nothing . . . and well that’s something!

    Much appreciation for the art and the science of mathematics, which can assign parameters within the world without subjectivity. My one wish here being to only understand the entirety and the significance of our (mankind) achievements.

    Something arose on Earth and evolved for billions of years until it asked itself “why am I here”. It is not possible with words to convey the magnitude of the revelation of this point which today is considered fact among most earthlings.

    Big shout out to extremophiles & the fathers of mathematics. :)

  34. mike burkhart

    This view may not be to popular with some on this blog , Science dose explain may things but not everything science tells us the how , but not the why, for the why we need to look to Religon and philosophy . Also Science looks for facts and this is a life long pursuit since I read my frist Astronomy book ,given me by my Mother at age 7 , we have found a lot about the Solar system and the Universe and I look forward to the new discoverys that will come. As Indy put it in Indinana Jones and the last crusade “Arceolgy is a search for facts not turth” The same could be said for Astronomy or any Science.

  35. HvP


    The problem with that is that neither religion nor philosophy are very good at answering the big questions. While their answers may often times be internally consistent and logically sound within their own contexts if their base premises are not grounded in reality then the conclusions must also be unrealistic. Junk-in-junk-out.

    Consider the question, “How did we get here?”

    Charles Darwin answered that question definitively. Not Descartes, not the Pope, nor Thomas Aquinas.

  36. There is an unmassively vast amount of space between “something” and, “nothing.”

    john harris
    GeoPhysics Instructor

  37. Cygnus-X1

    Nothing exists and is used in programming languages to de-reference
    an object from memory. For example in VB.NET:

    obj = Nothing

    Or in C#:

    obj = null;

    So there!

  38. MadScientist

    Saying science somehow depends on philosophy is like saying the existence of the mountains depends on geology. Science split definitively from philosophy over 400 years ago because philosophy as a means of investigating the natural world has no value – almost 2000 years of the Natural Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle led nowhere. Science has its own ideas and it is disingenuous to call those ideas “philosophy”.

    @Drew#6: Fortunately for you, the FSM will forgive you for such heresy!

    @mike burkhart#34: How does religion or philosophy answer the “why”? Does the question “why” even have any value?

  39. Gary Ansorge

    “There’s just a whole lot of nothing going on.”

    …which is what every kid says when their mom asks them what they’re doing…

    Gary 7

  40. Tim

    HvP #35: Seems like a very limited way to view an extremely complex universe and the complexities and vagaries of human behavior and experience. Darwinism does not explain cosmology, the core question being discussed in this thread, or quantum physics or altruistic human behavior. A number of posts have posited the straw man argument that science is dependent upon philosophy. While this is not the case, it is the case that the desire to philosophize as well as the desire to understand the physical universe come from the same desire to understand the universe and our place within it, and I think that both pursuits are valuable. To limit thinking to explanations of the physical universe while ignoring how one should lead a life within that universe is unnecessarily restrictive. Science, over time, can start to explain the physical universe. It does so to varying degrees of success and over long periods of time. The conclusions of science are always subject to challenge by the very nature of the scientific method. At various points in time, philosophers and scientists assumed that we knew all there was to know about the physical world. This view is obviously flawed in light of recent cosmology and quantum physics.

    So let’s take your conclusion: Darwin explains human existence. Does this mean that I should run around trying to impregnate as many women as possible to try to maximize the number of genes of mine that will survive? That I should not risk my life to save someone else’s drowning child? That I cannot learn anything from Acquinas or Plato or Descartes or Aristophanes or anyone else who was unfortunate enough to have been born before Darwin entered the scene and cleared everything up for us? Does it mean that 20th century eugenics projects are defensible? I think the answers to all of the above is no, but I do not think that Darwin, or science more generally, can provide an answer one way or the other. This, in my view, is the limitation of science and the reason why philosophy, literature, art and religion do matter.

  41. mike burkhart

    Hvp my point in saying that science tells us the how but not the why is this ,You are right that the theroy of Evolution tell us how life got to be hear on Earth , but dose it tell us the mening of life? for what purpose dose each life form have ? do we have a destany to fulfill in our lives? these are questions that science dose not ask nor can answer.

  42. HvP

    Tim & Mike,

    Again we come to the point of asking relevant, but different, questions. As Phil was arguing.

    Tim, the answers to the question “Should I do this?” are entirely dependent on the outcomes you desire. If you desire a great many children, increasing your genetic footprint, having many mouths to feed, or possibly leaving many children in impoverished conditions – then yes, you should promiscuously have as many children as possible. But, if you wish to live in a society that balances the needs and resources of the community with the capabilities and desires of the individual then you should have only as many children as you yourself can support. Many people have the desire for both which may be in fundamental conflict.

    But philosophy has been struggling with the notion of why we even have these desires in the first place. The Christian religion, for example, has over the past 2000 years only been able to come up with a vague idea about souls, God, devils, and original sin, none of which actually explains the motivations except to say that sometimes they go against God’s wishes.

    Admittedly, some philosophers have been tantalizingly close to figuring out the root cause of human desire. The root being that we are a product of thousands of generations of natural selective breeding within a dynamic population of social animals that rely on the group community. That we have evolved patterns of behavior that largely integrate ourselves into this society because being successful within the society means behaving in a way that supports the group dynamic, even though random variation will also produce patterns of behavior that are destructive of that dynamic they must be in the minority or it could not be sustainable.

    You argue that science is incomplete because it is subject to change, restrictive and cannot define a system of morality. I submit this for your consideration. How do you test which system of philosophy should be followed? Hmm?

    There are so many philosophical viewpoints, most of which do not base their assumptions on anything testable, that it is inherently impossible to declare one more fitting than another except by using some external value measurement. If you chose nihilism over Christianity, or communism over capitalism, then you did so in order to meet some desire external to those philosophical concepts because those philosophies satisfied that desire. The philosophy is simply a tool to fit the world into your preconceived notion about how you want it to be, or in some cases to criticize the notions of others. Unfortunately, there seems to be no philosophical way to choose a preferred philosophy except by subjecting them to scientific, evidence based, real world testing.

    Now, Mike, and the “meaning of life.” Individuals gain meaning in their lives from the inspirations they interact with within their own lives. My meaning in life may not and probably isn’t the same meaning you get out of it. I don’t understand why people would want to think that they were put here for some supernatural purpose. That makes one a literal tool. I find that many of the same people that reject the notion of a deterministic universe also gravitate towards the notion of a life created for a purpose with a destiny. Do you see the irony?

    Here’s the thing. It may be your philosophy to judge that life has meaning, or a created purpose. It may be my philosophy that life doesn’t have a created purpose and that any meaning you want to assign is entirely based on the individual’s desires. Now. How do we determine which philosophy is the correct one? Let me know when you have an answer.

  43. Tim

    HvP – thanks for the thoughtful response. I do not actually view it as a weakness in science that it is mutable – this is what is at the core of scientific pursuit and is the reason why we have advanced as far as we have. It is a positive that Einstein challenged the principles of Newtonian physics, that we have now learned that the universe is expanding rather than retracting (something contrary to all expectations). Science’s strength is to use objective evidence to challenge and advance current learning. This is why I am skeptical of any type of scientific-based response that seems to assume that the universe is fully known and explained by science as it stands today, and ignores any sort of subjective human element in that understanding. For you, a Darwinian explanation seems to cover about all that needs to be covered or known. I believe that this is too restrictive a view.

    It seems that you gloss over the importance of how one answers important questions about how one should live and behave. I think we agree that each individual brings a subjective bearing on answering questions like those I posed. As you say, the answers depend on an individual’s desired outcome (and, I would add, self-control, empathy, selfishness, etc.). You then move on as if the fact that these decisions are subjective means that they are not worthy of further consideration. I think that the opposite is true, that these are the questions most worthy of consideration. You seem to argue that because philosophy cannot come up with a scientific proof that the eugenic sterilizations that occurred throughout the world in the first half of the 20th century (and defended under Darwinian principles) were wrong that the question of whether it was right or wrong is not worthy of discussion. Instead, you drift into discussions of group dynamics and vague discussions about the evolutionary forces at work. I cannot give you a scientific proof that these programs were wrong. I can tell you that I believe that they were and hope that others also believe that they are wrong so they will not reoccur. You and I are actors in this world, not neutral observers or automated gene pools driven by pure evolutionary desires. If we were, our individual desires or outlooks would not matter. This view is consistent with your deferral on any important question to the individual’s outlook on that given question. Philosophy struggles with difficult questions in a complicated and frequently brutal world. Because it has not “solved” the impossible equation of human desire, brutality, beauty, struggle, etc. does not make it an unworthy pursuit.

  44. Matt B.

    Well, I’d love to read Sean’s post, but something on that page keeps crashing my browser. Oh, well.

  45. Novelist

    “Given Eternity and Infinity, then presumably anything that can happen will happen. The theory of multiple universes is hardly a new one.”

    “[t]he simplest explanation is that every possibility exists and we are in one of them.”

    Sorry to go back to an old part of this dialogue, but the above apparently expansive thinking seems dangerous for skeptics and/or atheists. If every possibility exists, then is it not a logical necessity that an omnipotent, omniscient etc. being exists that stands above/controls all other realities, or that a universe exists that gave rise to such a being? Is this not Anselm’s old definition of God as “than that which nothing greater can be conceived,” which he used in his ontological argument for the existence of God? How does one escape this conclusion if every possibility exists?


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