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?

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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?

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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.


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