Thinking About a Whole 'Lotta Nothing
Women often wonder what men are thinking about. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that the answer is, “Nothing.” I, too, am thinking about nothing – not nothing as in “not anything,” but nothing as in the concept of nothingness. What is nothing? Is it possible that there could have been nothing rather than something? If so, why is there something rather than nothing?
What is Nothing?
Nothing is a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around. As A.J. Ayer pointed out, we are often fooled by the grammar of nothingness into think that since “nothing” is a noun, it must refer to something. Indeed, the minute we begin to think about nothing, we immediately transform nothing into a something; an object to be contemplated. It is even impossible to imagine nothingness, because every image we conjure up is an image of something. We often imagine nothing as an infinite expanse of black, empty space (a vacuum) – but empty space is something, not nothing. Nothing is “not-even-space.” Nothing is not a little bit of something, or “something-lite,” but literally no-thing, or not-being. Perhaps Macbeth said it best when he said, “Nothing is but what is not.” It is the absence of any and every existent, including the very concept of existence. Could this kind of nothing “exist”?
Is Nothingness Possible?
It is obvious that something exists rather than nothing, but did it have to be that way? Could there have been absolutely nothing at all? There are two senses in which we might speak of the modality of nothingness: historical modality, and metaphysical/logical modality.
Historically speaking, I think we can conclude with epistemic confidence that there has never been a state of affairs in which absolutely nothing existed. Stated positively, there has always been some existent. Why? Because if there was ever a time when nothing existed there would be nothing still, because nothing by definition lacks any and all properties, and thus lacks any potential to ever become something.1 For something to become actual it must first be potential, but nothingness has no potential to become anything because nothingness lacks all properties. If there are no properties there is no potentiality, and thus there can be no actuality. Out of nothing, nothing comes. And yet something exists, ergo it cannot be true that nothingness once obtained. Something must have always existed, but what?
We know from both science and philosophy that physical reality has not always existed, therefore, that which has always existed must be some kind of immaterial, eternal, spaceless reality. Furthermore, as the cause of physical reality, it must possess the power necessary to produce something other than itself.
These conclusions stand in stark contrast to the claims of some cosmogonists, who affirm that the universe came into being from absolutely nothing. For example, British physicist P.C.W. Davies writes, “The coming-into-being of the universe as discussed in modern science…is not just a matter of imposing some sort of organization or structure upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing.”2 Physicist Victor Stenger says “the universe exploded out of nothingness.”3 Not only do they think nothingness was a historical reality, but they treat nothing as if it is a kind of something: a place from which the universe emerged, and/or the cause of the universe’s coming into being. This is simply misguided. There is no thing called “nothing” from which the universe could emerge, and nothing cannot cause anything; only something can cause something else.
While it is appropriate to speak of the universe coming into being “from nothing” if “nothing” is defined as “no physical thing” (since the universe came into being without a pre-existent material source), it is absurd to speak of the universe coming into being from absolutely nothing at all. There must be a transcendent source/cause of the universe. Since the universe encompasses all of physical reality, the source/cause of the universe must be a metaphysical/immaterial entity.
While nothingness is a historical impossibility, is it a metaphysical possibility?4 Can we conceive of a possible world in which nothing exists; a world in which physical reality never obtains? One way of answering this question is to consider whether the concept of “nothingness” entails a logical contradiction. If so, then nothingness is metaphysically impossible. There doesn’t seem to be anything about the concept of nothingness, however, that entails a logical contradiction. It does not require that we affirm two contradictories as we do when we posit square circles or married bachelors. As William Lane Craig writes, “[T]he proposition that Nothing exists is not a logical contradiction, but that does not show that the proposition is broadly logically possible.”5
Another way of answering our question is to consider whether the concept of nothingness is coherent. If it is incoherent in some fashion, then we can safely conclude that nothingness is a metaphysical impossibility.
One reason we might offer for thinking the concept of nothingness to be incoherent is that we cannot speak of nothingness without treating it as if it were an existent. Consider my earlier statements. I spoke of a “time when” nothing existed. This is incoherent because nothingness is the absence of all reality, including temporal reality. Time is something, not nothing. I also spoke of a “possible world” in which “nothing exists.” Surely it is incoherent to speak of absolute nothingness as a possible world because a possible world by definition refers to a complete description of the way reality could be. Nothingness is the absence of reality, and thus there cannot be a possible world in which nothing exists. Likewise, to speak of “nothing existing” is equivalent to saying “non-existence exists,” and thus it is incoherent. To even call nothingness a “state” or “state of affairs” is incoherent because a “state” implies some condition with respect to circumstances, structure, or attributes. Nothingness, however, has none of these. Nothingness is not-even-a-state. Nothing is the absence of any and every existent.
It is questionable, however, whether such verbal contradictions reveal more about the coherence of nothingness, or the inadequacy of language to express such a perplexing concept. Indeed, a good case can be made for thinking that this kind of verbal argument against the metaphysical possibility of nothingness is fundamentally misguided. For example, when we say “nothing exists,” we are not saying there is some existent called “nothing” that has the unique property of non-existence. That would require it to both exist and not exist at the same time, which is nonsense. By “nothing,” we simply mean the absence of all things. So to say “nothing exists,” is just to say “there is not anything that exists.” We speak this way all the time. For example, we might say, “There is nothing in my bank account.” We do not mean there is something in our bank account, namely “nothing.” Nor do we mean to imply that if we were to go to the bank, we could withdraw “nothing” from the account. We simply mean there isn’t anything (money) in the account. The verbal argument against the metaphysical possibility of nothingness makes the mistake of thinking that because “nothing” is a noun, it has some referent in reality. Such is not the case.
A second reason we might offer for thinking the concept of nothingness to be incoherent is that we cannot conceive of nothing. The closest we come to being able to conceptualize nothing is physically empty space, but empty space is something, not nothing. We may try to compensate for this by imagining nothing to be a point, but not only is a point something, invariably we will imagine the point existing in some kind of spatial location. It is impossible to conceive of absolute nothingness. If nothingness is not conceivable, that is good reason to think nothingness is not metaphysically possible (in a broadly logical sense). It is a useful fiction; an abstract concept—nothing more. We can conclude, then, that existence is not just a historical reality, but metaphysically necessary. But why?
Why is there Something, Rather than Nothing?
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” This is considered by many to be the most fundamental of all philosophical questions. The question, however, presumes that “nothing” and “something” are two equally possible states – that nothingness is a genuine alternative to something. If what I have argued thus far is sound, nothingness is metaphysically impossible, and thus it is not a logical alternative to something. Something must exist. But what if my reasoning is flawed, and it turns out that non-existence is logically possible? How would we answer this long-standing philosophical question, then?
To answer the question we first need to be clear about what is being asked. For example, what is meant by “why?” Are we seeking to discover the cause of existence, or the purpose for existence? If we are seeking a purpose for existence, then we are already presupposing the existence of some supreme mind, because only personal agents create things for particular reasons and with some purpose in mind. Without access to that mind, it is difficult to discover what purposes it had for creating. It is much simpler to identify the cause of existence: the what rather than the why.
We also need to clarify what is meant by “something.” Do we mean physical reality (the universe), or do we mean any existent at all (whether it is physical or non-physical)?
There are, then, four different ways our question could be understood, each of which has a slightly different answer:
- What is the cause of physical reality?
- What is the cause of all reality?
- What is the purpose of physical reality?
- What is the purpose of all reality?
I would argue that it is only meaningful to seek an explanation for physical reality (1 and 3), not all reality (2 and 4). While it is possible for there to be some existent beyond the universe that can explain why the universe exists, it is logically impossible for there to be some existent beyond the sum of all existents that can explain why everything exists, because there cannot be any existent beyond the sum of all existents. Let me explain in more detail.
It makes sense to ask why a car exists because its existence can be explained in terms of some other existent (a prior “something”). But as philosopher Colin McGinn points out, when we ask why everything exists rather than nothing at all, we are seeking an explanation for the whole of existence, not just some part. In essence, we are looking for some reason or explanatory entity outside the whole of existence that can explain the whole of existence. The problem with such an inquiry should be clear: The whole of existence includes every existing entity, and by definition there cannot be additional entities outside the set of every existing entity. To think there could be something that exists beyond the sum of all existents is just as incoherent as thinking there are additional numbers outside the set of all possible numbers. Nothing exists outside a set containing all things. What we are looking for simply cannot exist.
We have two options at this point. We could either conclude that the causal form of the question (1 and 2) is incoherent and thus unanswerable, or we could explore the possibility that the explanation for the whole of reality is itself part of, or contained within the whole of reality. It would be rash to dismiss the question before all possible answers are explored, so let us explore the possibility that the explanation for why there is something rather than nothing is itself part of the something we are trying to explain.
On the face of it, this option seems incoherent. How could A explain the set of A,B,C,D,E,F,G… if A is part of what needs to be explained? Wouldn’t that require self-causation, in which A pre-exists itself as its own cause, as well as the cause of B,C,D,E,F,G…? Not necessarily. It depends on the kind of being A is. There are two types of beings: contingent, necessary. Contingent beings derive their existence from some other existent. They are caused to exist by some transcendent existent. Necessary beings, on the other hand, have being in themselves. They are not caused to exist by something else, but are self-existing, and hence eternal. The nature of such a being requires that it exist. It cannot not exist. If every existent within the whole of existence were a contingent being, including A, then there cannot be an ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing because every existent within the whole of existence would need a transcendent explanation, including A. The question would truly be meaningless and unanswerable. If, however, at least one existent within the whole of existence is a necessary being, such as A,the question is both meaningful and answerable. A necessary being needs no explanation. It must exist, and must exist eternally. So why is there something rather than nothing? It is because the very nature of A is such that it must exist. As an eternal, uncaused being, A is the transcendent source of all contingent beings within the whole of existence. Theists identify this necessary being as God. He is being, and the source of all other contingent beings.
While we have concluded that it is only meaningful to seek a cause for physical reality rather than all reality (since there cannot be a cause outside all reality), what about seeking the purpose for physical reality? As stated previously, to discover the purpose for why the universe exists presupposes the existence of a personal agent who created the universe. Unless we have access to that agent’s mind, it would be difficult to ascertain the purpose it had for creating. The only sure way to know the agent’s purpose for the universe is if that agent reveals his purpose to us in some fashion. As a Christian, I would argue that the agent has done so in Scripture. God created everything for His good pleasure, to display His power, and so we could enjoy Him forever. Such purposes, however, are not discoverable by reason or through empirical investigation. So while I think question three can be answered, it cannot be answered philosophically or scientifically. In summary, the reason there is something rather than nothing is because existence is metaphysically necessary. Something must exist. Nothingness is logically/metaphysically impossible. At least one existent within the whole of reality is a necessary being who has always existed, who carries in himself the sufficient reason for his own existence, and is the source of being for every other existing thing.
Now that I have put my own view on display, let us take a look at how a few philosophers have answered this puzzling philosophical question. We will explore the views of Quentin Smith, John Leslie, Colin McGinn, Hubert Dreyfus, and Bede Rundle.
Quentin Smith, philosopher at Western Michigan University
According to Quentin Smith, the answer to why there is something rather than nothing is so simple that it seems rather trite: The reason Y exists at time t4 rather than nothing is because X existed at time t3, and caused Y to exist. Likewise, X exists at time t2 rather than nothing because W existed at time t1, and caused X to exist, and so on. In other words, the present something exists because a previous something caused it to exist. Why did that previous something exist rather than nothing? The reason is that it, too, was caused by something that existed before it, and so on. The answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then, is simply that something is always preceded by something else.
The problem with Smith’s answer is two-fold. First, he shifts the locus of the question from why anything has ever existed to why something exists right now. The question, however, seeks a reason for the whole of reality, not just each temporal state of reality.
Secondly, his answer implicitly assumes that for any state of existence X,there is always some prior state of existence W. But this would require an infinite regress of contingent existents and causes, which is metaphysically impossible. Physical reality cannot extend infinitely into the past. Cosmogonists have come to the same conclusion based on the empirical data. The fact of the matter is that when we traverse the historical regress we will eventually come to a state of physical existence that is not preceded by another state of physical existence, at which point Smith’s explanation for why there is something rather than nothing runs out of explanatory steam.
Smith admits that it could have been the case that nothing exists, and thus he implicitly affirms every existent to be a contingent being (since only contingent beings can possibly not exist). Given the fact that contingent beings derive their existence from an external source, there must be an explanation for why contingent beings exist rather than not. If the universe was eternal, Smith’s explanation that contingent beings exist because they are preceded by, and caused by prior contingent beings would at least be plausible, but we know the universe began to exist in the finite past. If we go back in time far enough we will eventually come to a point when there are no contingent beings. Things that depend on other things for their existence cannot come into being on their own, so from what did the first contingent being(s) derive its existence? The only rational conclusion is that it must have been caused to come into being by another being which is not contingent, but necessary and eternal.
Smith has two options at this point. If he is to be true to his materialism, he will have to admit that the universe just popped into existence uncaused from nothing. But that is metaphysically absurd. Out of nothing, nothing comes! Furthermore, this fails to explain how and why the first something came into being. Given the fact that the question of why something exists rather than nothing is what needs to be explained, if Smith avails himself of this option he will have miserably failed at providing an answer to the question at hand. The alternative option is to affirm that something existed prior to physical reality which is non-physical, necessary, and eternal. This conclusion follows from the evidence and is consistent with his principle that something exists because it is always preceded by something else. The problem with this response for an atheist like Smith is that this immaterial, necessary, eternal cause looks too much like a theistic being!
If you are interested in reading about another attempt by Smith to explain the origin of reality, go here.
John Leslie, emeritus philosopher at the University of Guelph, Ontario
John Leslie thinks certain abstract truths such as ethical and mathematical truths exist necessarily, independent of any concrete existents. So even if no concrete/physical entities existed (including space and time), something would still exist. Accordingly, absolute nothingness is impossible. Something must exist.
I agree with Leslie that certain truths seem to be necessary, and that absolute nothingness is metaphysically impossible. I would not, however, identify mathematical and ethical truths as necessary beings. While these truths are eternal, they derive their being from the nature of God, the only necessary being.
Those who ask why something exists rather than nothing are usually seeking an explanation for why the universe exists. How did contingent, physical reality come into being? Why did it come into being? Leslie’s view is that an eternal, abstract ethical principle (similar to what Plato called “The Good”) brought it into existence. See J. J. C. Smart’s evaluation (pp. 26-32) of Leslie’s view for a good critique.
Colin McGinn, philosopher at the University of Miami
As mentioned in my second post, Colin McGinn (echoing Immanuel Kant) makes a distinction between asking why some particular existent within the whole of existence exists, and why the whole of existence itself exists. The former question can be answered by appealing to some other preexistent existent within the whole of existence, but the latter question appeals to some existent outside the whole of existence to explain the whole of existence. It is impossible, however, for something to exist outside the set of the whole of existence. By definition there cannot be additional entities outside the set of “every existing thing.”
McGinn thinks this problem can be remedied by reformulating the question as “Is it true of every concrete thing that it exists contingently, or necessarily?” He affirms that every concrete entity exists contingently. So far so good, but why do concrete entities exist, then? Here is where McGinn fumbles. He affirms that the whole of concrete, contingent existence just exists inexplicably! Surely this is absurd. Contingent beings, by definition, derive their being from something outside themselves, and thus there must be an explanation for why they exist. It is metaphysically absurd to speak of an uncaused contingent being. Inexplicability is appropriate for a necessary being, but not contingent beings (and all concrete entities are contingent beings).
McGinn does not believe the whole of reality is exhausted by concrete, contingent beings, however. He believes abstract entities such as numbers and logic exist as well, and that these entities are necessary beings. He reasons that while we can conceive of a possible world in which there are no concrete things, it seems impossible for there to be a world in which numbers and logic do not exist. As necessary beings, these abstract entities are brute facts whose existence requires no explanation.
Could it be that these abstract entities caused the first contingent being to come into existence? No, for two reasons: (1) Abstract entities lack causal powers. They do not stand in causal relations to the physical world; (2) Laws and abstractions lack volition, and thus they cannot choose to delay their effects. If some eternal abstraction is the cause of contingent reality, then the effect—contingent reality—should be eternal as well since effects are concomitant with their causes. Since concrete, contingent reality began to exist a finite time ago, however, its cause must possess volition, and thus be some kind of concrete, personal, conscious, rational being.
Given the fact that McGinn thinks both necessary and contingent beings are without explanation, ultimately he has to affirm there is no explanation for why anything exists rather than nothing at all. Everything that exists just exists inexplicably. So the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing is that there “just is” something. That answer is no more satisfying to the inquisitive mind than is the parent’s response, “Because I said so” to a child’s oft-repeated question, “Why?” It explains nothing.
Hubert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley
According to Hubert Dreyfus, it is impossible to answer the question because we exist, and cannot transcend the realm of existence to objectively survey being and non-being to determine why being obtains rather than non-being. To even imagine nothingness requires the existence of an imaginer, which is a being. While the question of why there is something rather than nothing can be appreciated, it cannot be analyzed.
While I agree with Dreyfus that we cannot transcend the realm of existence to objectively evaluate the question, that does not mean there is no reason for why being obtains rather than non-being. Dreyfus never considers the possibility that there is an existent within the realm of being whose existence is necessary.
Bede Rundle, philosopher emeritus at the University of Oxford
Bede Rundle agrees that something must exist, but does not think any particular thing must exist. Rundle argues that it is metaphysically necessary that some contingent being exists, but not that any particular contingent being exist necessarily. In other words, it is necessary that some contingent being exist, but not that any particular contingent being exist. Different contingent beings could exist in different worlds, but there must be at least one contingent being in the real world.
Philosopher Alexander Pruss rebuts Rundle’s view by noting that if necessarily, some contingent being must exist in every possible world – even if that contingent being is different in each possible world – that would mean the non-existence of all possible contingent beings except for X entails that X must exist. But it makes no sense to think a conjunction of claims about the nonexistence of all beings other than X can possibly entail that X exists. For example, the conjunction of claims that there are no flying pigs, centaurs, polka-dotted zebras, ad infinitum could not possibly entail the existence of planet Earth (assuming it was the only entity not included in the conjunction). Only a necessary being can exist necessarily, and provide a reason for why something exists rather than nothing.
Why is there something rather than nothing? This age-old philosophical question can be answered, and the answer is that something exists because it must. Nothing is not a metaphysically possible alternative to something. Given the fact that physical reality is not eternal, whatever the something that must exist is, it cannot be physical or spatial. Furthermore, it must be powerful and possess both consciousness and volition to bring our universe into being a finite time ago. Such a being is an apt description of the God of theism, and thus the question of why there is something rather than nothing is best answered by postulating the existence of an eternal God whose very nature requires that He exist, and who freely chooses to bring all other contingent existents into being.
1. Invoking time will not help for two reasons: (1) time is not a cause; (2) nothingness excludes even the existence of time. Nothingness is not-even-time.
2. Paul Davies, during an interview with Phillip Adam for the 1995 TV series, The Big Questions.
3. Victor J. Stenger, “The Face of Chaos,” Free Inquiry (Winter 1992-1993): 13, quoted in Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 89.
4. To put it another way: While nothingness is not the actual state of affairs, is it a logically possible state of affairs?
5. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 503.
6. To make a distinction between physical reality and all reality as I have requires that I presuppose physical reality does not exhaust reality (i.e. it is only a subset of all reality). Obviously, a materialist would disagree. But that disagreement need not detract from the key point I am trying to make: there cannot be something that exists beyond everything that serves to explain why everything exists, because that “something” would be one of the existents that needs to be explained. If I were a materialist, then, I would have to say it not even meaningful to ask why physical reality exists (#1), because this presupposes there is some physical reality beyond the sum of all physical reality which is incoherent. There cannot be something outside of everything to explain everything, otherwise everything isn’t everything!
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