Why God Doesn’t Explain Anything

Does God explain why there is something rather than nothing?

Certainly lots of people think it does. Even folks who’ve conceded that God doesn’t explain why there are humans and bonobos and annelid worms, nor even hurricanes and eclipses, disease, death and insanity. To them, if God is not to be placed in the shrinking gaps of scientific explanation*, there’ll always be a big enough gap for him at its foundation.

There has to be a ground of all being, a reason for there to be something and not nothing, doesn’t there?

God Explains Nothing


But God, no matter how abstractly conceived, is not an answer to those problems. It might seem like an answer. But it is not.

It fails because it begs the question. What is the ground of the being of the ground of all being? Why is there a ground of all being rather than nothing?

If the question is: “why is there something rather than nothing?”, explanations of the form “because there is an X” are transparently invalid.


It is a trick of language.

We think of the universe as being the everything that needs explanation, but then we ask silly questions. What is outside the universe?, what came before the universe?, are there other universes?

If you define universe as the extent of contiguous space-time connected to the here and now, then those questions could make sense.

But a proponent of this argument wouldn’t be satisfied if the ground of all being turned out to be a black hole in a parent universe, or a quantum fluctuation. They’d say “yes, but why is there that universe, or that quantum beahvior, rather than nothing?” Quite!

But somehow proponents seem to think a suitably abstract, wooly, mystical answer is immune to the same response.

Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing?

I suspect the question is meaningless. At the very least, I cannot figure out what form an answer could have that wouldn’t beg the question.

The only answer seems to be “because there is”, and it doesn’t help to use “God” as a synonym for that and pretend you’ve said something meaningful.

How about you? Do you find the idea that there is a ground of all being compelling?

* This is significant. This objection only works to concepts of God that don’t explain other things by the intervention of God. If you have an evangelical view of God, this post is irrelevant, because God is the explanation of other things. Unfortunately, many of those can be checked, and don’t turn out to be true. So while you avoid the philosophical issue that way, you end up skewering yourself on the fact that there are far more reasons for rejecting the existence of a theistic God.


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13 responses to “Why God Doesn’t Explain Anything

  1. I don’t find the idea compelling or even terribly persuasive, but it gnaws at me just enough that I continue to identify myself as an agnostic rather than an atheist.

  2. John Clavin

    My career as an atheist started when I was around 8 years old and heard that god created the universe. My first thought was, where did this god come from?
    Why is there Something Rather Than Nothing? My response is usually that we don’t know enough about the nature of existence.

  3. Questions about the nature and origins of the universe used to be philosophical and theological; now they’re scientific questions that cosmologists are finding answers to. I sense a certain unease among religious apologists defending the Kalam Cosmological Argument and other quasi-scientific proofs for God, because they have been left behind by the science and are unable to comprehend the latest technical data and theories that their arguments *must* address if there is any hope of them remaining relevant.

    I think that if there is a supernatural agency responsible for the universe-as-we-know-it, it will be detectable and discoverable through the scientific method just like everything that is real and actually exists. Maybe it’s time for religious philosophers to start training as quantum physicists and cosmologists.

  4. Pingback: God is Not an Explanation

  5. It seems to me that the reason some people accept “God” as the answer is that viscerally, if not rationally or even consciously, they think that a “person” is something different from a “thing,” and that invoking the will of a personal being somehow takes them beyond the whole cause/effect, necessary/contingent dynamic. I’ve seen something in the writings of Richard Swinburne, and recently I’ve seen a reference to some more currently popular apologist saying the same, to the effect that we who don’t “get” the cosmological argument are failing to realize the difference between explanation by cause and explanation by intention – as if the latter is somehow logically prior or superior. As I said, I don’t think this makes any rational sense at all, but I think it is at some level a necessary part of theistic thinking; maybe just a projection of one’s own gut feeling of oneself being somehow detatched and transcendent…

  6. Pingback: God Did it | theologyarchaeology

  7. Ian

    @theologyarchaeology And “Dr” David Tee once again shows his legendary reading comprehension skills! Must be the skills he learned doing that totally-genuine-no-honestly-but-I-can’t-tell-you-where-I-did-it-PhD.

  8. Ian

    Thanks allogenes – yes, there’s an interesting sleight of hand with intention. To me, it seems obvious, that intentional causation is a subset of causation. So if something doesn’t work for causation it cannot work for intention. But perhaps I don’t get it either.

  9. Ian

    @Paul D. – I tend to be empiricist as well, so your last paragraph does raise my sympathy. But I also recognize that there are a priori limits to what we could test. We can’t test something that lies out of our space-time cone, for example. So I’m phlegmatic about there being a point at which origins conversations are going to get abstract. I just don’t think they are entitled to be nonsensical if we’re going to have them.

  10. Ian

    @John, Vinny – thanks. Sage nods from me on both.

  11. The focus of much of mid-twentieth century philosophy has been to dismantle foundationalism. The funny thing is, the other epistemological contenders which have appeared on the scene since the critique of foundationalism (coherentism, infinitism) don’t explain the relationship between knowing and being. For all its faults, one of which is the petitio principii fallacy, foundationalism at least purports explain the relationship between the two.

    (For the uninitiated, foundationalism is the theory that knowledge requires proper grounding. Theists make an adequation between God and the ground of being. If critiques of foundationalism are correct, God goes down with the ship.)

  12. Ian

    @Dan, thanks for that. I agree, but I’m not sure how it is directly relevant to the argument that I’m critiquing here. Are you suggesting that I’m assuming a coherentist view here (I certainly hold a variation of it)? That wasn’t intended, I think that this argument is made the context of a naive epistemology. At least in the kinds of discussions I have where it is used. I’m sure there are philosophers or theologians who try to make similar arguments more rigorously, however.

    Can you say more about the relationship between knowing and being, and why there is a problem of explanation there? My reading on the topic is highly general, so I’m not aware of the issue and I can’t immediately notice it.

  13. (Great blog – just discovered it! 🙂 ) I think it’s a bit clearer in the formulation: “why is there anything at all?”

    “Why is there something rather than nothing” already seems to assume too much (e.g. that something and nothing are logical alternatives), whereas this question feels like it’s prior to logic. In a way, it isn’t actually seeking an answer, but is an expression of a kind of primal wonder that’s crying out for some response that seems to have the shape of an answer when you reflect on it, but while you have it, is really more of a temporary total physiological and mental state of being.

    I think a big difference between religious people and non-religious people is that this is a question that probably occurs to people who end up being, or identify themselves as religious, more often than it occurs to those who end up being, or identify themselves as non-religious, and it occurs in a peculiar (but I think probably typifiable) way. And to some extent, I think it’s a bit analogous to music – most people have an ear, some better (many of whom end up being musicians) and most worse (most of whom end up being listeners and appreciators of music) and some not at all (some of whom may actually profess to hate music, unbelievable as that may seem to those of us who love it 🙂 ).

    IOW, if you’ve never felt this peculiar, wordless “?”, which is accompanied by a sense of being all at sea and a creeping sense almost of vertigo (it’s probably what’s meant by, “the FEAR of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” in the Bible – but there are I think analogues in all the religions), then you won’t get where the question is coming from. It’s a partly physical thing, it’s not just a disinterested question or a request for the satisfaction of curiosity, it’s something that engages one’s whole being, even if only for a moment. People often express it as “brrr, whenever I think of that stuff it drives me crazy”, when that expression doesn’t refer to simple confusion.

    It’s really the “spiritual” question par excellence.

    In a nutshell, religions tend to mix up the “answer” with false positives from the various cognitive biases, with visions, hallucinations and revelations, false cosmologies, etc.

    The real answer is more readily found in Eastern religions (although they too have a fair share of the above-mentioned flaws, just a bit less than the Abrahamic, tribal, etc.) – the real answer to it is the dissolution, transparency or seeing-through-as-false of the ordinary, everyday sense of self, and concomitant presence of a sense of being the universe. It’s more like a gestalt switch, in which the same universe that seemed to be problematic and alien (the alienness and strangeness of which seemed to be raising this question) is suddenly understood to itself be the “answer” (only the experience of the answer is devoid of the ordinary, everyday sense of self) and one’s own intimate being, at peace with itself.

    That primal “!” is the answer to the primal “?”

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