“Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question that can be used as a jumping off point for the cosmological argument for the existence of god (the question was first asked in this form by Leibniz, though the argument itself dates back to Plato). The shortcomings of the cosmological argument are well documented, but of late this query has been used as a drop-dead question in arguing for god’s existence. That is, it is offered as a proof in itself; to ask the question is to put all of the burden of proof on the skeptic to explain the existence of the universe, and, failing this, god’s existence is taken to be demonstrated. We needn’t single out naïve, YouTube-type “Seven Questions All Non-believers Must Answer” postings, though they are certainly out there. Janet Soskice, a professor of Philosophical Theology at Cambridge, takes this tack:
I was once invited to take part in a radio program about miracles and was asked whether I believed in them, “Yes, of course,” I said. And the researcher replied that she had recruited a leading humanist to put the contrary case. “What would you say to him?” I answered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” … That’s still a big problem, and believe me cosmology hasn’t answered it, astrophysics hasn’t answered it. It isn’t any more logical to say, with Aristotle, that the universe has simply always existed than it is to say that there’s a Creator, Bertrand Russell’s reply to the Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston—that there’s no answer to this question—doesn’t seem terribly satisfactory either.
At first blush, one might think that her single query is a shorthand form of the cosmological argument, but I find this implausible upon closer inspection (and it is important to explain why). First, nowhere in the entire article is there any explicit or implicit mention of the cosmological argument, no mention of a first cause, of an unmoved mover, or even any oblique reference to other elements of the cosmological argument. Second, and more telling, any “leading humanist” could instantly counter the cosmological argument by citing any number of well-known objections (as Soskice would surely know), so, even if one thinks this is what Soskice had in mind, it wouldn’t make any sense for her to be arguing along these lines. I think her challenge (“Why is there something rather than nothing?”) is what she takes to be an unanswerable question, and, because of that, she takes it to make her point without further supplementation.
In this venue I will ignore the fact that this non-cosmological “Why is there something rather than nothing?” gambit is plainly an argument from ignorance (to this point, theists would do well to heed the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know”). I will further ignore that it poses a false dilemma (surely there are more possibilities than [a] I am unable to naturalistically explain the presence of the universe and [b] god exists). Instead, I will argue that, if this is the argument’s starting point (whatever the nature of the argument), then the existence of the universe cannot possibly be used as evidence to support the proposition that god exists and that absolutely nothing has been established by either noting that the universe exists or by asking the question. Here is how this works. Imagine I am mystified (as I am) at the operation of the copier located outside my office. I feed a document in, press a few buttons, and, as if by magic, identical copies of the document come out (my mind simply reels when I consider this). I have carefully considered this phenomenon, and I believe I have arrived at the solution to the puzzle: Tiny monks. Stay with me here. Tiny monks live inside the copier and, as monks have done for centuries, hand-copy the documents. It is these copies that appear in the tray. Ridiculous, you say? I think not. Better, I can demonstrate to you the truth of my hypothesis. Watch as I feed another document into the copier and push the buttons. See? More copies. It’s the tiny monks.
I notice that some of you are showing signs of continued skepticism. Oh ye of little faith. Perhaps, you say, if I were to take a sledge hammer to the copier (this charming idea occurs to me whenever there is a jam) we might find the mangled bodies of the tiny monks in the rubble. It would be sad to sacrifice our pint-sized friends in our quest for the truth, but, as I always say, you can’t make an omelet without endangering the lives of a few innocent tiny monks. Let us carry this out as a thought experiment, because I am afraid the IRB-related difficulties in actually laying waste to the machine and thus endangering the hypothesized clerics are insurmountable. I think the copier repair guy wouldn’t be too happy either. Assume this act of vandalism is undertaken and we actually do find the monks—or at least their remains. By the nodding of your heads I see that we all agree that this would be pretty compelling.
What is it that makes the discovery of broken monk bodies better evidence for my hypothesis than the production of more copies? It is better because the new evidence (the monk corpses) lies outside the scope of the background phenomenon that led to the original formulation of the hypothesis (the production of more copies plainly lies within this scope; in fact, it is exactly the background phenomenon that led to the production of the hypothesis). It isn’t just better, though. Making more copies does absolutely nothing to confirm my hypothesis; the attempt to make more copies is not even a test for the tiny-monk hypothesis. This is not a new idea. Isaac Newton expressly enunciates this position in Opticks. As far as supporting my hypothesis goes, the production of copies is simply an event that cries out for explanation. That is all it is. The presence of monks does, in fact, explain it, but many explanations are possible. However, evidence supporting my monk-claim, or any proposed hypothesis, must be of a novel, non-new-copy-making kind. Destroying the copier isn’t the only way we could collect confirming (or disconfirming) evidence. We could listen for Gregorian chants emanating from the machine, or we could check under the copier for miniature San Diego Padres paraphernalia (just in case the monks are baseball fans). Since monks sometimes brew beer, we could listen for the clinking of tiny bottles. The possibilities are almost endless. In any case, we cannot place any weight on the “evidence” of more copies coming out of the machine. Note that other hypotheses could also be tested. Some of you may believe in the existence of “toner” to explain the copies. Tests could be devised to look for evidence of “toner,” but again this evidence could not take the form of new copies—the copies, after all, are what we seek to explain.
What has this to do with god and the universe? The existence of the universe is what is to be explained, and the god hypothesis is invoked to explain it. That is all well and good. But now to support this hypothesis, to make it any more likely than tiny monks producing copies just outside my office door, we must seek other kinds of evidence: evidence that goes beyond the simple (and uncontroversial) existence of the universe. Other hypotheses will also be put forward for testing, but these, too, can only be supported by evidence of a different sort than the very existence of the universe. Can other forms of evidence be sought in support of god’s existence? Of course. We could, for instance, run controlled experiments to find if there is any therapeutic value in praying for patients in hospitals, as has been done on several occasions (as it happens, properly controlled studies show there is no therapeutic value in praying for patients). The important point is that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not a discussion-killing rhetorical device, an unanswerable question that carries all the weight of proving god’s existence, but rather it is the identification of a problem that must be solved. It’s not a conversation stopper; it’s a conversation starter, and all the heavy lifting is still in front of anyone taking part in that conversation.
 Reichenbach, Bruce. “Cosmological Argument.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/ (accessed 3/22/2011).