Sep. 8, 2010

Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?

The publication of Stephen Hawking's latest book The Grand Design has stirred some new fire into the old embers of metaphysical speculation. Specifically, the discussion centres on one of the perennial Big Questions; why is there something rather than nothing?

Tough question that, probably impossible for the human mind to definitively answer. I haven't read Hawking's latest book yet, but from reviews I've noted on-line it would seem his answer is that the laws of the universe are such that it didn't require any outside force to initiate the manifestation  of a new universe. Which begs the question, where did these laws come from? Isn't the very concept of a "law" rather anthropomorphic? ("Your Honour, my client violated Planck's Constant by reason of temporary insanity.")

On the other side are the theists whose answer is that a transcendent, pre-existing entity, being or force willed the creation and set out the laws. This answer seems more complete but still doesn't offer a final solution because of course it begs the question, why is there a God anyway? Again, why is there something, even a transcendent something or someone, rather than nothing?

The Buddha's position was that such questions are fundamentally impossible to answer and useless to speculate about. His teaching was meant to be practical; what is our existential dilemma, how did we get ourselves into this mess, is there a way out and how do we manage to get there? Knowledge about the original manifestation or creation of the universe, even if it could be had, would not be useful in answering any of these practical questions.

Instead of a creation theory, the Buddha taught the dependent origination which has the more limited and practical purpose of describing how we find ourselves in this state of cyclic suffering known as samsara. It is a teaching that is entirely oriented toward the immediate human experience and does not attempt to push the question back to ultimate origins.

Without forgetting these original Buddhist principles, it may be interesting to think about how a Buddhist would position himself in the current debate.

For one thing, we should not assume that the universe needed to have a point of origin at all. While the Buddha, as noted above, refused to speculate on the matter, the later Buddhist tradition definitely leaned toward the idea that universe was both beginingless and endless, infinite in both directions and fundamentally cyclical in nature. This was in line with the general trend of Indian thought which is in stark contrast to the linear, eschatological view of Zoroastrian Persia and the monotheistic religions of the west, (whose cosmology may have roots in Zoroastrianism.)

Nowadays, the linear view has found some support in the Big Bang theory. But we should be careful not to take this as definitively proven. There is some contrary evidence that would support a "steady-state" or eternally existing universe. Most probably, the Buddha was right in that this is a question which can never be finally answered.

If we allow for the sake of argument that the universe may not have a single moment of origin, while this doesn't put to rest the question of why there is something rather than nothing, it does shift the emphasis somewhat and would tend against the idea of a creator. Schopenhauer addressed this from a philosophical perspective and said that there is no logical necessity for a first origin and that such an original moment would be a fundamental break in the chain of causality.

Another question raised by this debate is the reality of a transcendent element. Here, the Buddhist shares some ground with the theistic thinker but there are important differences in their understanding of the transcendent. The Unconditioned in Buddhism (the experience of which is called Nibbana or Nirvana) is completely ineffable, which means that it cannot be described in words or grasped in thought. This makes sense because words and thought are products of the conditioned realm. When the Buddha spoke about Nibbana it was always either in poetic similes or in negations; telling us what it is not. However, without forgetting its' ineffable nature we may venture on some approximations; it is outside time-and-space, it is neither physical not mental but sui generis in a category of its' own, it is not subject to change, suffering or cause-and-effect. In Christian theological language, the Nibbana-element is both trascendent (wholly other, "not-this") and immanent (present here-and-now.) Close Pali analogues would be lokuttara (lit. "Beyond the World") and sanditthiko (lit. "Able to be Seen Now").

In line with the practical nature of the Buddha's teaching, the only real argument for the reality of this transcendent element is experiential. "If there were no Unconditioned, there would be no escape from the Conditioned, but since there is an escape, there is an Unconditioned." In colloquial terms, you have to have been there.

This transcendent element seems to have some parallels with the concept of God but is different in that the Unconditioned is never conceived of as a person, being or entity that can through the power of its' will intervene in the Conditioned realm. For it to do so would be a violation of its' fundamental nature as outside of cause-and-effect. The closest approach to the Buddhist idea of the transendental found within theistic thought might be the apophatic view of the God-head held by the Eastern Orthodox or perhaps the Unmanifest in Jewish Kabbalah.

Perhaps a fair summary of the Buddhist position would be that while the question of why there is something rather than nothing is unanswerable (abhyakata) we can refer to the dependent origination to understand how this particular something we are caught up in comes about. Furthermore, we can venture that there are indeed two different modes of Something; samsaric and nibbanic, manifest and non-manifest, conditioned and unconditioned. So, once again, we take a Middle Path sharing some ground with both the theist and the atheist, but not agreeing completely with either pole.


The theist argument against Hawking - The Curious Metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking
An argument against the "Big Bang" - Religion Disguised as Science
What all the fuss is about anyway - Hubble Looks at Nothing, finds Something


LV said...

"While the Buddha, as noted above, refused to speculate on the matter, the later Buddhist tradition definitely leaned toward the idea that universe was both beginingless and endless, infinite in both directions and fundamentally cyclical in nature."

Actually, cyclical cosmology is alive and well and now makes the Big Bang only a relative and not absolute beginning. Turok and Steinhardt's book mentioned here:

penrose's view:

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"Bhikkhus, this samsara is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving." (Samyutta Nikaya 22.99. Trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Unknown said...

This theory of "nothing" is in line with Buddha's explanation of the origin of the universe i.e void of condition i.e void, therefore no beginning and no end. Buddha's Dhamma is scientific and now proven by scientist.Proven that, there is nothing when there is nothing,there is something only when there is something, eg when there was no condition how could there be existence and therefore it originated from nothing-abstract truth.

Agnikan said...

"This transcendent element seems to have some parallels with the concept of God but is different in that the Unconditioned is never conceived of as a person...."

"Never" is such a strong word:

Vakkali Sutta: "He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma."

LV said...

""Never" is such a strong word:"

Ummm...have you ever heard of a metaphor? The quote from the Vakkali Sutta is obviously not meant to be literal.

Nick said...

I'm not convinced there's any value in asking the question. The fact that there "is" something obliges us to deal (or, I suppose, fail to deal) with it, since we are an irremovable part of what "is". That's important - or at least unavoidable; asking "why" isn't.

Anonymous said...

Why is there something? Well if there were not something, You (or any wondering being) would not be there to wonder about it, would you? [thereby verifying Descarte's assertion Cogito ergo sum]

So necessarily there is something, and a more sensible ultimate existential question would be Is there an original something, that is a unified ground of being, or is there only a differentiated inconstant something [i.e. the world of normal experience, flowing continuously past the boundary of now].

Main trunk Buddhism has Nibbana (ultimate undeluded truth) and Samsara (deluded experience), and holds them to be incompatible or exclusive, with the possibility of realizing the former by leaving the latter; Mahayana Buddhism has Ultimate reality or truth, and relative truth, and holds them to be co-existent, and realizable in union; Western mystics have God (unconditioned source of being) and Man (imperfect being capable of perfection), with the latter subordinate to the former. Scientific views have a number of points of origin (Big Bang in time, quantum fluctuation in space, conservation of energy,) which are undifferentiated origins unifying the apparent cosmos; Chinese traditional philosophy posits an entirely unified cosmos (the Tao, Wu Wei) with no origin, a realizable but transcendent harmony; and Western philosophy, in refusing to acknowledge the transcendent, has crashed and burned in Post-Modernism, asserting all being has no ultimate meaning, all meanings are worldly, and are either nonsensical (random) or established enforced in social relationships.

Unknown said...

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seanrobsville said...

Could be one enormous feedback loop.

Anonymous said...

Sanatan Dharma is the original culture of this world, and there was a time when it was spread throughout the world. People can find swastika in every culture like the American Indians, Greece, troy, Italy, Russia and many other countries have this symbol. Look at the 108 symbols of god in Sanatan Dharma and their origin. Things will become very clear about the origin of humanity in this world. It is time to free ourselves from the lies and deception spread throughout the world about our culture.

Dont forget, even today in Sanskrit and Hindi the words for Divorce and any other abusive words do not exist.

Arya samaj was made in the time period of 1800′s, when India was under complete domination of foreign rule. Arya samaj is the attempt to make sanatan dharma into a monotheistic religion, watered down its ancient methods to the very basic.
Look at the vatican square - it is the shiva lingum . It proves that it used to be a ancient culture of Sanatan dharma, which was taken over by the romans and converted.

Vatican - Vatica ie. Anand Vatica - garden of happiness. This was a forced transformation. Now people dont even remember. Only traces of truth remain.

Anonymous said...

Hello! If it is possible to go from the conditioned to the unconditioned, then should it not be possible to go from the unconditioned to the conditioned? When one attains samadhi, does not one experience the unconditioned, and do not many, or at least some, return to the conditioned to share this experience?

Guide Sim said...


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Unknown said...

This blog is misconceived.

The Buddha was not interested in particle physics. So forget all this stuff about 'why is there something rather than nothing.'

The 'unconditioned' is not an article of faith or a pious hope. It is not a reward for good behaviour or hard work. It is not itself another (although very special) condition.

It is quite simply, present moment awareness. This is the ground which encompasses all conditions. All conditions appear in awareness. Awareness includes everything.

Our true home is awareness. When we take refuge in awareness, we take refuge in the Buddha, or to be more precise, we take refuge in the Buddha's way of seeing.

'Mindfulness is the path to the Deathless'. The deathless realm is the present moment. There is no self in awareness but there is awareness of self.

This is our way out of Samsara. Our way out of suffering. This is where conditions Nibbana. The only time to be enlightened is now, right now in the present moment.

If you have not understood this simple truth, you have not understood the first thing about Buddhism.

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

Following on from the above....

To quote one famous teacher on this subject.

'The time is now, now is the knowing'

You cannot 'know the knowing', you can only be the 'knowing.'

Meditation always brings us back to the way it is.

The enlightened man (or woman) knows things as they are. He knows an unpleasant condition as an unpleasant condition and a pleasant condition as a pleasant condition and a neutral condition as a neutral condition. He can live in the world without getting caught up in the foolishness of the world and without creating any suffering for himself or others.

Conditions are as they are and we do not cling on to them but have the space; the freedom to bring them fully into awareness and then let them go.

The mind does not seek rebirth from one mind moment to the next.

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