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204 MIN READ TIME

The Grandest of Questions

IN MY MANY DEBATES WITH THEISTS OVER THE DECADES a handful of arguments for God’s existence are routinely articulated as “proofs” of divine providence. These include the cosmological argument (that all natural things are contingent on something else for their existence so there necessarily exists a being independent of nature), the ontological argument (that we can conceive of an absolutely perfect being means it must exist because existence is a necessary feature of perfection), the design argument (the universe is fine-tuned for life, and life contains design features, therefore God is the fine-tuner and intelligent designer of life), the moral argument (without God anything goes, with God there is objective morality), the consciousness argument (the qualitative experience—qualia—of consciousness cannot be explained by the activity of neurons, and abstract concepts like logic and mathematics exist separate from brains, therefore God must be the source), and others.

All of these arguments (they are certainly not proofs in the mathematical sense) have counter-arguments made by philosophers over the centuries, but there is one that seems to trouble a great many thinkers of all persuasions, and that is why there should be anything at all. That is, all of the other arguments for God’s existence presume that something exists that needs explaining. The argument that asks why there is something rather than nothing underlies all the other arguments, and is cognitively challenging because it is simply not possible for existing beings to imagine not existing, not just themselves (which forms the cognitive foundation of afterlife beliefs), but to imagine nothing existing at all. Go ahead and try it. Picture nothing. When I ask myself this question I start by visualizing dark empty space bereft of galaxies, stars, and planets, along with molecules and atoms. But this picture is incorrect because if there were no universe there would not only be no matter, but there would be no space or time (or space-time) either. There would be absolutely nothing, including no conscious being to observe the nothingness. Just… nothing. Whatever that is.

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About Skeptic

WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING? COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type? by Carol Tavris • SPECIAL SECTION ON TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES Personhood and Abortion Rights: How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue, by Gary Whittenberger • How to Teach Evolution to Religious Students, by Surat Parvatam • The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for Evolution: A Study in Contrasts, by Ralph M. Barnes • Meeting Our “Enemies” Where They Are: The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments, by Andrew Cooper-Sansone ARTICLES The Grandest of Questions Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing? by Michael Shermer • Reports of Mysterious Attacks on U.S. Diplomats Continue: Separating Fact from Fiction by Robert E. Bartholomew • The God Damners: The Now Not-so-New Atheism by Michael Cohen • Quackery in America: An Inglorious and Ongoing History, by Morton Tavel, M.D. • What Is It like to Be a Human? by Colin McGinn REVIEWS Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress • The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution • The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will • SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine • Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life • The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are JUNIOR SKEPTIC Secrets of the Ouija Board, by Daniel Loxton

Other Articles in this Issue


Skeptic
The Skeptics Society is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) educational
COLUMNS
Health Freedom, Right to Try, and Informed Consent
Do You Have Traits or Are You a Type?
Ástor Alexander is a figurative illustrator and painter.
ARTICLES
Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?
Separating Fact from Fiction
The Now Not-so-New Atheism
An Inglorious and Ongoing History
For those who do not closely follow philosophy, this
SPECIAL SECTION TACTICS FOR DISCUSSING CONTENTIOUS ISSUES
How Science Might Inform this Contentious Issue
IN A STUDY CONDUCTED AT A PUBLIC COLLEGE IN THE United
The Arguments for Creationism and the Arguments for
The Advantage of Understanding Your Adversary’s Arguments
REVIEWS
A Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Reviews of The Equations of Life: How Physics Shapes Evolution by Charles S. Cockell, and The Human Instinct: How We Evolved to Have Reason, Consciousness, and Free Will by Kenneth R. Miller
Review of SCAM: So-Called Alternative Medicine by Edzard Ernst
A review of Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Biological Mind: How Brain, Body, and Environment Collaborate to Make Us Who We Are by Alan Jasonoff
JUNIOR SKEPTIC
Today we will dim the lights and gather around an object
magv1n1-Tribute to Isaac Asimov (Premiere Issue) Isaac