Philosophy for our times: cutting edge debates and talks from the world's leading thinkers

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Join now or to join the conversation.
Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Don Cupitt, John Ellis, Lawrence Krauss. David Malone hosts.

Heidegger held the most important question to be "why is there something rather than nothing?" Hawking believes science will one day provide an answer. But is this a delusion? Is explaining creation beyond us or is there really a chance we can solve the greatest mystery of all?

The Panel

Bestselling author of A Universe From Nothing Lawrence Krauss and CERN physicist John Ellis contemplate the origins of existence with Sea of Faith author Don Cupitt.

Pythagoras' Dream - technology brought to you by BT/Polycom

Poetic Theories
Ken Binmore, Mary Midgley, Ruth Padel
The Architecture of Being
Robert Rowland-Smith
Pythagoras' Dream
Gabriel Gbadamosi, Peter Hacker, Hilary Lawson, Lee Smolin
Jump to what you want to see in the debate
  • Lawrence Krauss
    The Pitch
    Cosmogony is the domain of physics not philosophy
  • John Ellis
    The Pitch
    There are several definitions of nothing, none of them all encompassing
  • Don Cupitt
    The Pitch
    Physicist are not asking the right questions
  • The Debate
    Theme One
    Physics vs. philosophy
  • The Debate
    Theme Two
    What is "nothing"?
  • The Debate
    Theme Three
    The origins of the laws of physics
Join the conversation

to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started:

Parmenideum on 16/04/2014 7:09pm

Has anyone managed to interpret what Victor has tried very hard to say down there at the bottom of the page?

The video/sound quality is patchy at times, but this is a marvellous and fascinating topic so it's worth the effort.

Not much to disagree about with Krauss, or in fact Ellis, though it was difficult to get the central point of Cupitt's input. But again sound quality might account for that as it was particularly bad when he was speaking.

I did draw a question mark on Krauss's use of photon emission as an analogy to illustrate that "something can come from nothing". It does not exist prior to emission as Krauss says, but does the photon actually come from nothing?

The photon is emitted when an electron transitions from an outer orbit to one closer to the nucleus. During that transition the orbital potential energy of the electron changes. The difference between the two orbital energies of the electron provides the energy to create the photon. So though the photon did not exist before it was emitted, what it came from did exist. Namely, the energy stored between the two orbital shells of the electron. The total energy of the photon (rest mass and kinetic) precisely equals that differential in orbital potential energy.

Furthermore, unlike in the case of the universe, it is in fact possible to state <I>why</> the photon was created, and also from where it came. It was created because (by cause) of the electron transition; and it came from (is made of) the differential potential energy released in the transition, as just mentioned. There's no argument over whether the photon existed prior to emission. As Krauss says, it did not. But it does not in fact come from nothing, which is the (careless) point he makes in arguing that something can come from nothing. (He might be forgiven, as it was midnight in Australia).

In the case of the universe, we don't know why it exists (and shouldn't perhaps ask why because, as the physicists say, it's a non-starter). And we also don't know where the universe came from. Or if we do have a theory- that it emerges from vacuum energy for instance - then where does the vacuum energy come from? One supposes the answer to that is quantum uncertainty, which permits fluctuations that produce zero-energy particle pairs.

The quantum uncertainty model is in fact appealing, because uncertainty is another way of saying "no laws". Krauss gives a very satisfying definition of nothing - no particles, radiation, space, time or laws. The last in the list is very important it seems, as an absence of laws implies there are no constraints on something happening. If there are no constraints then it's not surprising that particles can emerge, though they cannot violate the conservation of energy. The conservation condition presents a problem however. The fact that energy must be conserved is something to be explained. Why does the conservation of energy apply, from where does that decree come from?

But perhaps that requirement can be explained through the fact that if energy was <I>not</> conserved...there would in fact be something to explain! As it is there is nothing to explain. Perhaps humans try to find explanations where none are needed.

This is a worthwhile topic and the <a href="">Parmenideum Philosophy Society</a>, has held a conference on it here in Elea in southern Italy. Quite fitting, as this is the former home of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides, one of the first to make a scientific enquiry into Being. We have a blog on <a href="">Why is there something rather than nothing?</a> and also <a href="">Why do 2 + 2 = 4?</a>, and would welcome sensible input.

Robert Gillis on 12/01/2014 2:54am

The question of why there "is" seems irrelevant until the question first to be addressed is, how is 'awareness' of anything possible if 'nothing' were the only consideration? It (the question) would appear to be quantifiable by the conclusion: quote: "I think, therefore I "am" The question is 'circular' because without awareness and perception from which to consolidate and form a basis for coherent intelligence to theorize, how could anything matter in any comprehensible sense were something present to ponder the issue?

LessThanNothing on 12/09/2013 12:27pm

I think that the notorious 'Higgs field' finally gives us some sort of answer to this question why Is there something rather than nothing, because, in short, SOMETHING is CHEAPER than NOTHING:

As Slavoj Zizek writes, following on from Steinhardt and Turok:

"the “Higgs field” controls whether forces and particles behave differently or not: when it is “switched on” (operative), symmetries are broken between elementary particles, and their complex pattern of differences emerges; when it is “switched off” (inoperative), forces and particles are indistinguishable from one another, the system is in a state of vacuum... it is energetically favourable for the Higgs field to be switched on and for the symmetries between particles and forces to be broken."


"...when we have the pure vacuum (with the Higgs field switched off), the Higgs field still has to spend some energy―nothing comes for free; it is not the zero-point at which the universe is just “resting in itself” in total release―the nothing has to be sustained by an investment of energy. In other words, energetically, it costs something to maintain the nothing (the void of the pure vacuum)."

In the end, I think particle physics can give us a satisfactory answer to this, but like most of what quantum physics has to say, it will not be an answer that we can properly conceptualise into our understanding of ordinary reality and that is the problem.

[See. Slavoj Zizek's essay 'The Two Vacuums', or read Steinhardt and Turok's 'Endless Universe: Beyond The Big Bang']

David Morey on 01/08/2013 12:16am

A more appropriate question might be: why this particular something with these possibilities and not everything already realised?

David Morey on 31/07/2013 8:00pm

Would we be better off talking about regularities that may well be contingent and temporary and drop all the legal-theological metaphor of laws.

Roger on 24/07/2013 5:47am

My view is that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is answerable. I think the problem we have in answering this question is in thinking that "something" and "nothing" are different things. Instead, the conclusion I've come to is that "something" and "nothing" are just two different words or ways of looking at the same underlying thing: what we've traditionally thought of as the "absolute lack-of-all", or "non-existence". That is, the universe, or "something", must exist because even if there were "nothing at all", this "nothingness" can be thought of, from a different perspective, as being an existent state, or "something". A more detailed explanation of my rationale is below. Before getting to that, though, I admit that no one can ever prove their arguments about this question because no one can step outside our existence spatially or temporally to see what caused it. Instead, what I'm trying to do is to use my rationale as a base to try and build a working model of the universe that can eventually make testable predictions via a process that I call "philosophical engineering". Predictably, I'm a long way from this goal! Thank you for listening.

From the abstract of a paper I wrote at my website on the questions "Why do things exist?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?":

In this paper, I propose solutions to the questions "Why do things exist?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" In regard to the first question, "Why do things exist?", it is argued that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or collection. A grouping is some relationship saying, or defining, what is contained within. Such a definition or grouping is equivalent to an edge, boundary, or enclosing surface defining what is contained within and giving "substance" and existence to the thing. An example of a grouping, and thus an existent state, is a set. Without a relationship defining what elements are contained within a set, the set would not exist. This relationship, or grouping is shown by the curly braces, or edge, around the elements of the set, and is what gives existence to the set. In regard to the second question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", "absolute nothing", or "non-existence", is first defined to

mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this absolute lack-of-all. This absolute lack-of-all itself, not our mind's conception of the absolute lack-of-all, is the entirety or whole amount of all that is present. This lack-of-all, in and of itself, defines the entirety of all that is present. It says exactly what's there. An entirety, or whole amount, or everything, is a relationship defining what is contained within (ie., everything) and is therefore a grouping, or edge, and, therefore, an existent state. This edge is not some separate thing; it is just the relationship, inherent in the absolute lack-of-all, defining what is contained within. Therefore, what has traditionally been thought of as "absolute lack-of-all", "nothing", or "non-existence", is, when seen from this different perspective, a grouping, and thus an existent state or "something". Said yet another way, "non-existence" can appear

as either "nothing" or "something" depending on how the observer thinks about it. Another argument is then presented that reaches this same conclusion. Finally, this reasoning is used to form a primitive, causal set- or cellular automaton-like model of the universe via what I refer to as "philosophical engineering".

Another rationale for the argument:

In regard to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?”, two choices for addressing this question are:

A. "Something” has always been here.

B. "Something” has not always been here.

Choice A is possible but does not explain anything (however, it will be discussed more at the end of this section). Therefore, choice B is the only choice with any explanatory power. So, this choice will be explored to see where it leads. With choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. By “nothing”, I mean complete “non-existence” (no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc., and no minds to consider this complete "lack-of-all"). The mind of the reader trying to visualize this would be gone as well. But, in this "absolute nothing”, there would be no mechanism present to change this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. Because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that “nothing” and “something” are one and the same thing. This is logically required if we go with

choice B.

More on this is at my website at:

Sagar Gorijala on 16/07/2013 4:55am

There is something rather than nothing because... Number 1. Creation is impossible so physical existence is not infinite.

Number 2. Destruction of physical existence is impossible so Nothing or Non physical existence is impossible and therefore there is something rather than nothing.

Existence can't be zero or nothing because creation and destruction are impossible.

sagargorijala [ DOT ] blogspot [ DOT ] in

Oshea on 11/07/2013 11:15pm

Why does Lawrence Krauss seems on cocaine? In my honest opinion, he initiates the debate as joining a rally, as a physicist, I find it really annoying when you insist to speak talking about 'physics' when talking about contingency, necessity and chance. I think he boycotts the debate. I wish I could see a relaxed conversation between Ellis and Cupitt.

Joseph on 11/07/2013 10:41pm

We have a bunch of idiots commenting that completely misunderstand Lawrence Krauss position. First off to -Killmenow: your post is a pure attack without any details worth addressing, at least he understands finite mind has limits and can't assume more than we know, you idiot. -Victor: why and how are two different words.. and they are different for a reason. if you're going to call everything extravagant discovered a miracle then i don't know what can help you. what you mean to say is they aren't supporting your bullshit, therefore you don't like the questions they are asking, they are asking questions way more worthwhile than the junk you spit out. wow i did not know the majority of the rant is Victor alone. where were you when god made the universe? that's how stupid and pointless your question really is. it's called REVERSE ENGINEERING stupid bigot Victor.

Adantrobus on 11/07/2013 7:24am

I find a particularly tricky issue the idea of the universe starting out from a virtual particle style fluctuation. I can undertand how the inhomogenous denisities of matter can occur in a universe from this, but as I think J. Ellis was trying to illustrate, for a universe to appear in a similar manner, you have to define a "vaccum" (a space) in which this fluctuation can occur. Which definition of nothing is this? Does a "vacuum" of this nature even have a definition of time ? I don't see why it should. Does it have a definition of space?

Killmenow on 10/07/2013 8:40pm

Dr. Krauss's fallacy is in his futile attempt in using his finite mind to understand and explain the infinite. Akin to listening to an 8 year old science student explain to a aeronautical engineer that pigs can fly even though the evidence suggests something to the contrary. Dr. Krauss's simply doesn't understand that he is completely incapable of understanding the infinite-based subject at hand... With due respect to his efforts.

infinity on 10/07/2013 3:40pm

I've always thought of nothing in terms of large, small and infinite. I think the answer personally from a philosophical perspective is that infinity is a real affliction. I've a hodge podge of ideas I personally use to sort this matter out. I've always liked the question how do you stop something from having smaller parts? Or.. if you could expand and grow and not stop would you run out of space? With that in mind nothing and everything have a shared quality.. infinity. Infinity isn't much liked in the maths. But it does stand to reason that if nothing is both infinity large and small and we can't seem to find a bottom or top to everything that both are a part of the same. Everything exists because of the impossibility of nothing being infinite.. everything is and we are there to realize the impossibility of nothing. That's about as spiritual/philosophical I can put it. Infinity is the crux of it all and so far am disappointed that maths and the fact that infinity is a mathematical reality.

Victor on 10/07/2013 12:16pm


The Pitch

Cosmogony is the domain of physics not philosophy, let me begin by saying it is a stupid question, "really? "Why has no meaning what soever it prosumer propose , what we really mean when we say why, is we mean how, how is there something rather than nothing? So how do we get billion s of galaxy's from nothing that's the mirical, nothing is unstable, "Sure"


The Pitch

There are several definitions of nothing, none of them all encompassing

"We don't do why"we study what is in the universe, there was as much as something towards the big bang, we physicist keep moving the coal post as far as nothing is concerned for me nothing is the lowest energy state ja right: nothing is nothing remind me of what God said to Job "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding." (Job 38:4 KJV)


The Pitch

Physicist are not asking the right questions been nothing is not a state at all you must start with something : yep like "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. "(John 1:1 KJV)


Theme One

Physics vs. philosophy

The question still is what happened? We may not be able to answer the question completely, but we can argue what is plausible, "o really Lawrence"

The wel tested theory is what happened after the Big Bang "make sense"

The law's of physic's does not allow us to go back where T=0" great observation Lawrence,so anything you say from now onwards is just speculation, so again where we're you Lawrence when God laid the foundation?? Let me quest nowhere, nothing!!"

The photons on your screen came from nothing, " ye right, how about moving from one form of energy to a next like the law explain?" You are reasoning like passer ou round your own P hole, mr Lawrence" you don't realy need a before, it just need to arise then time start tik king,, "whow"


Theme Two

What is "nothing"? Lawrence make the the following statement that nothing will spit out something if you wait long enough, " I submit to you we call ( nothing) a-thought( that is a state of nothing) that is spit out in words witch answers your WHY question by a thinking being that clearly state the HOW


Theme Three

The origins of the laws of physics, Lawrence you say it best when you say: "God forbit" there is your definition and explanation right there,

Copy and paste the code below to embed or link to this video.

Embed options
  • Video Seek
    Converted to a link which jumps to that point in the video
    Example: 00:34
  • Bold Text
    Example: [b]Bold[/b]
  • Italic Text
    Example: [i]Italics[/i]
  • Underlined Text
    Example: [u]Underlined[/u]
  • Website link
    Link to another website or URL
    Example: [url][/url]

Rate this talk with three clicks. You can choose 3 words, or vote for the same word 3 times.

Why register with the iai?
  • All you can watch
    Unlimited access to hundreds of hours of debates and talks from the world's leading minds, all for free.
  • Have your say
    Join the iai community and engage in conversation and debate around the issues that matter.
  • Hear it first
    Be the first to hear about our video releases, articles and tickets to our festival HowTheLightGetsIn.