Is The Idea Of “Nothing” Illusory?

I was thinking about the argument for the existence of God that hinges on the question of how something could come from nothing.  And I wondered, is nothing even an intelligible concept?  Everything we experience is something. We have a concept of zero since we can imagine there being zero of some particular thing either in existence presently or in a specific place.  But nowhere is there “nothing.”  In fact, nowhere is there “nowhere.”  Everywhere is somewhere.  Everything is something.  Everything we call nothing is actually something.  When I say that there is nothing in my cabinet that’s false.  There may be no food there but something is there, even if it’s just air and all the molecules and atoms composing it.

I was just speculating in this way yesterday when I got around to finishing the William Lane Craig vs. Victor Stenger debate on God’s existence I posted a while ago on here.  And I came across this bit from Victor Stenger:

Dr. Craig also asks why is there something rather than nothing?  Why does the universe exist rather than nothing?

Why should nothing be a more natural state than something?  Why would you expect nothing rather than something?  In fact how could nothing even exist?   If it existed wouldn’t it be something?  And finally, why is there God rather than nothing?

embedded by Embedded Video

YouTube Direkt

In a world in which everything is something, why would we think that there ever could have been nothing and that, as Stenger puts it, nothing is the “natural state?”  Why would it even be plausible to posit nothing at any point since there quite obviously is something and something cannot come from nothing.  Inevitably existence just exists and pushing the problem back to a “necessary God” accomplishes no more than positing a necessarily existing universe.

There is of course, the theist challenge that each contingent something that only comes into being requires a prior cause but this chain cannot go on infinitely.  But if the particular beings are simply recombinations of eternally existing elements, then those composing elements can indeed go on to infinity just the way the eternal God could exist for eternity.

And since we have no experience of nothing but only the experience of “zero things of interest to us in a given place” or “zero things perceptible to us in a given place,” etc.  And conceptually the idea of nothing is unintelligible since it is an idea with no referent.  It refers only to an absence, which is actually a positive something but not any of the things in which we are interested.  This brings us back to Plato’s Sophist wherein they try at one point to figure out how one may speak about that which is not.  What I took away from that dialogue is essentially that they we cannot speak intelligibly about “that which is not” but rather only about that which is different from other things.  To say that my arm is not a can opener is to say that it is different from a can opener.  To say that Santa Claus does not exist is to say that all existent beings’ essential properties are different than the combination of necessary and sufficient properties to which the idea of Santa Claus refers.

It is impossible that there could be nothing. Since to be a possibility something must be. Possibility is calculated among the various things that are and their likelihood. Nothing is not one of the possibilities. Zero of a kind of thing might be a possibility. It might be possible that there are zero cupcakes in the refrigerator. But one of the possibilities cannot be that there will be no things at all whatsoever in existence for in that case even possibilities would not exist and without possibilities, there would be no impossibilities.

Nothing and something cannot even be opposites because that would require nothing to be and it cannot be.  We really cannot discuss it intelligibly at all without contradiction as soon as we call “it” an “it.”  As soon as we place “it” in a sentence, we have ceased to talk about “nothing.”  We might try a “negative theology” style apophatic approach. According to negative theologians we cannot positively describe what God is, only what it is not. So you can only say God is not x and not y but not God is w or God is v since such predications would always be inadequate for describing an infinite being. For different reasons, it seems we must talk about nothing only indirectly—by reference to what it is not.  So, we can say, perhaps, “For every something, it is not nothing.”  But then since every something is not nothing, there is no nothing.  So, what are we talking about even indirectly? And don’t answer “nothing” because that makes no sense. Say instead that we are not talking about any thing. Or, put another way, “Of all the things that are, we talk of none of them when we say the word ‘nothing.’”

For Thomas Aquinas, God was supposed to be the answer to the question of why there was something rather than nothing.  But there cannot be nothing, there could never have been nothing since nothing could not be.  As Stenger put it, there is no reason to think nothing should be the default, natural state since it is not even a state or an “it” or anything.  The only thing we can intelligibly say about “nothing” is the apophatic:  “For every something, it is not nothing.”  Therefore there never was nothing.  Therefore there is no need for a God to explain why there is something rather than nothing.  It is impossible for there to be nothing.

Anyone know what other cosmologists and other physicists have to say about this puzzle?

Your Thoughts?

“The History of Philosophy” and “Philosophy and Suicide”
City on a Hill
7 Exciting Announcements About My Online Philosophy Classes
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mark C.

    At least part of the problem is language, as you have explained here. However, what if we regarded nothingness as a state of existence in the same way that zero (or any non-natural number) is these days regarded as a number or as the empty set is regarded as a set? Would that not mostly do away with the language problem and let us focus on the, uh… “substance” of the issue?

    When I imagine nothingness, I imagine the blackness of space, but with no contents, whether they be macroscopic, microscopic, or quantum mechanical. Do you find this incoherent?

  • Daniel Fincke

    Yes, but I don’t think it escapes the problems. Our tendency to think of that black space with no visible features as a way of conceiving zero-ness falls into the trap of picturing something and thinking we’ve thought of no thing. But we’ve pictured some thing. We cannot think no thing at all. We must think some thing.

    What we call nothing would have to be just another state of existence. Stenger in God The Failed Hypothesis speculates that “nothing” would be just highly unstable something that is not yet any thing (very loose account of his view from months old memory!) When I first read that I said, “no! that’s still an existent something, not nothing!”

    But now that I think about it all I can say is, yes, that’s right, because there is no such thing as real nothing. There are only things.

    And even were we to say something like nothing is the empty set of things in the universe, nothing is still some thing, a set.

    I think our language and rudimentary unreflective grasp of experiences of “emptiness” deceive us into believing we have experience of and awareness of the possibility of nothing. But we do not. It is impossible.

  • jin

    right… even a vacuum is something. even absent any and every particle of matter, it would still be the “substance” of space/time. it still “contains” the substance of x,y,z and t.

    and on a quantum physics level, they say even a vacuum is a roiling sea of quantum mechanical bubbles.

    but i think it is interesting that despite the logical problems of talking about “nothing”, everyone still understands the concept. before you start deconstructing it, we understand the notion.

    we even have other words like “oblivion” to describe it.

    hahaha, i think it might be related to the problem billy chrystal has with the song “aul ansign” and the notion of “the forgotten”.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Yes, indeed we do all know the concept even though it’s logically incoherent. What interests me is where we get it from. In what I wrote above, I toyed with the idea that it’s from our experiences of not seeing any particular thing which interests us in a particular place. “Nothing in the cupboard” just means no food, none of what “belongs” in the cupboard. But it doesn’t mean “no little specks of dirt, no air, no atoms,” etc.

      It’s a puzzle to me whether we get our idea of “nothing” from those experiences and that it’s a confused generalized concept or whether, maybe, our minds are logically wired with a priori categories of “something” and “nothing” that force us to think of this as a possibility even though it’s ultimately incoherent. Have we just evolved an ultimately incoherent concept as an a priori? And as an a priori that leads us to see its own incoherence (since the whole argument that something cannot be nothing and no thing can be nothing depends on our a priori grasp of what “nothing” means, even though it is self-defeating to think about it)

  • jin

    hmmmm… maybe the notion of “not” is useful here? when i say ‘it is not red’, everyone doesn’t actively imagine all possible alternatives before it becomes understandable. they just know it’s not red. in the same way, maybe we understand nothing in the the same way – “not existing”. we need not deconstruct that to its alternatives to understand the meaning.

    also, i’m not that hip on my math but even with something simple like division by zero we have ways of at least denoting things that are non or asensical such that when you take even one step toward deconstructing it, it falls apart.

    yet the notation for such a phenomenon exists and is understandable as ununderstandable.

    i have a feeling that the premise may be missing something fundamental.


  • Mark Wheeler

    I actually don’t have a problem with the concept of nothingness. In fact, it makes more sense to me than existence does. Existence only has two possibilities: either it sprang from nothing (which, if you truly understand what nothingness means, is impossible), or it has always existed in some form or another.

    I cannot accept either of these postulates. Therefore, I believe that nothing really exists in an actual physical sense. Our universe is just one of many logically possible universes, not really existing at all. We experience it as real because we are part of it (and, yes, I know that using the word “it” denotes something that exists, but it is impossible to use language to describe nothingness without ascribing somethingness to it… so let’s not go there.)

    But wait! Aren’t logical possibilities things? Don’t they require something to exist in? I don’t think so. Logic is logic, and needs no defining matrix. Imaginary universes do not require someone to imagine them. They just need to be logically possible, even in a state of complete nothingness.

    • Puercono del Mar

      Logical universes don’t need something to exist in?
      How about existing in existence? Are you saying that to be nothing needs to exist? Seems kind of contradictory.
      Don’t require someone to imagine them? You mean as you are doing? Would there be such if you did not imagine
      that there are such? Debatable.
      I don’t get how you get from the two unacceptable premises—-existence started from nothing, and existence always here–to “nothing exists in an actual physical sense”. Suppose you don’t know what caused the universe—
      why would that obiviate actual physical existence?
      Are you saying that the world is a dream? ok, so why can’t it be a dream where if you bump your shin, it smarts?
      ANd are you conflating existence with things existing?
      Specific existences with general existence?

  • Mark Wheeler

    Addendum to my previous post:

    QUESTION: Why is there something, rather than nothing?

    ANSWER: There isn’t.

  • Puercono del Mar

    How about a scenario wherein the thought of nothing disappears along with all other thought and mind and sense and what have you? I think that might be really nothing because there would be no saying or thinking—”yes but nothing, emptiness, is something.” If there is no saying–”hey this isn’t nothing”—then it seems it really is nothing.
    IN other words, thought of as a category viewed by a thinking mind, nothing, is something. But sans such mind
    there is nothing. But again, this is from the view of a thinking mind.
    Just stop thinking–even for a second–is that nothing? Yes, No. Define nothing as you wish.
    One could argue that in the absence of mind there is neither nothing nor something–since all categories are kaput.
    Perhaps think of nothing, not as absence but as a positive presence–like a dark curtain over something—
    like deep sleep–a kind of blankness.
    But the 300 pound parakeet here is what is the thinking mind? If you associate it with a self and you look to see what is at the core of a self– it seems very insubstantial indeed: just more or less the arising of a claim to have made or felt or thought something or to dislike or like something. NOt much to it
    as far as I can see. Seems to me if it disappeared tomorrow, this voice–the me—-it would make very little difference. There could be anger but no voice pops up to say “I am angry!”, instead what would arise perhaps is “there is anger!”
    It could be though that if we take all thought and sense away we’re still here somehow—but without a label.
    If there was still thought perhaps what would come up is “where the hell did I go and why am I still here?
    If you have amnesia and have no idea who you are—you still are. Maybe being dead is like that. Sounds ok to me.
    Ultimately, I agree with old Parmenides who said, in effect, that you needn’t worry about what does not exist——-because the non-existent cannot come to your attention. If it comes to your attention, regardless of what it is– it exists in some way or other.

  • Genital Warts Treatment In Men

    I’ve been surfing online greater than 3 hours these days, yet I by no means discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is lovely price enough for me. Personally, if all website owners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the internet will probably be a lot more helpful than ever before.

  • Jihm

    Nothing is the result of lazy thinking. It is an absurd exaggeration of the idea of absence. Absence is the absence of a particular thing or category of things. With the ontological concept of “nothing” the word has been expanded to mean the absence of everything. When a box of oranges has been emptied we might say, “There is nothing left in the box”. We don’t mean anything metaphysical by that! We know there is air, dust, and space left in the box at the very least. And we know that space is no mere “nothing”. It has shape, is acted on by gravity, and expands with enough force to push the galaxies apart. It also may well be filled with the frantic activity of quantum foam. So, why posit some mysterious hyper state of absence called nothing”? The concept may have some practical value in meditation. As the saying goes, “Whatever works.” But, there is no rational reason to suppose that there is or ever was anything in reality corresponding to “nothing”.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I’m sympathetic, as the post indicates. And yet “nothing” as total absence is a limit concept. We can think it, in a way, or at least know what we’re trying to think, even if it is the unthinkable itself.

    • Jihm

      “Nothing” is a human invention that has (in my view) infested thinking for millennia. It captivates us in the same way that “being” captivates us. It is a romantic/frightening notion with great emotional appeal.

      Nevertheless, it is an artificial creation that has no counterpart in reality. I had always sided with continental philosophy in viewing the traditional “problems of philosophy” as serious business indeed.

      And, I had always thought of ontology as the most basic, essential aspect of the business of philosophy – with all else being “castles in the air”.

      But, I’m very much afraid that the analytical philosophers are right.

      The problems of philosophy, and most especially the question of “being” and “nothingness” arise out of a misuse of language. I still enjoy reading the continental philosophers, and am bored to death by the analytical philosophers. But I think it is best to view continental philosophy literature.

      And, by the way, “Emptiness” in a Buddhist context is not, nor is it directly related to the western concept of nothing.