Why? Why not?

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean offers a nice piece on one of those annoying questions that keeps on popping up: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Many religious thinkers have tried to weave this into an argument for the existence of God (or at least some kind of First Cause), but none of them stand up to serious scrutiny. There is, for example, the idea that non-existence would be “simpler” than existence, and so some kind of prime mover is necessary.

It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that simplicity is somehow preferable. After all, Occam’s Razor exhorts us to stick to simple explanations. But that’s a way to compare different explanations that equivalently account for the same sets of facts; comparing different sets of possible underlying rules for the universe is a different kettle of fish entirely.

And he points out that it’s critical to distinguish between “simpler” in the Occam sense and “simplicity” as an aesthetic preference:

And, to be honest, it’s true that most working physicists have a hope (or a prejudice) that the principles underlying our universe are in fact pretty simple. But that’s simply an expression of our selfish desire, not a philosophical precondition on the space of possible universes. When it comes to the actual universe, ultimately we’ll just have to take what we get.

As Sean concludes, the problem is that we’re making a kind of category mistake in even asking the question:

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole.