The demonization of the reification of nothing…

I stumbled upon a post at the blog called unBeguiled, in which the writer argues against the theistic ploy of asking, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” The writer’s main beef, as I see it, is that this question is a red herring, since, by virtue of the fact that it exists, existence stands in no need of explanation. What else, in a word, could existence do other than exist? Theists are guilty, in other words, of reifying nothing.

Further, the imaginary possibility of nothing (which the writer also seems only grudgingly willing to admit is even coherent), is trumped in explanatory value by actual existence. The imaginary possibility of “nothingness” has no logical right to undermine the evidence and, as it were, metaphysical autonomy of existence. In his own words:

Can a true state of nothingness exist in reality? The answer cannot be known. It is impossible to have direct knowledge whether a true state of nothingness could exist. The statement “I know that nothingness could exist” is a contradiction. … I deny that we should consider nothingness as a serious alternative to somethingness.

I disagree, on many fronts, and the following are comments (still in rough form, I admit), I made in reply to the post. I would like to see readers add their thoughts to this topic here or at unBeguiled. Although “you” is written to this writer, it should be understood as the general “you”.

The traditional ‘point’ of this question is not to get tangled in the problem of “Plato’s beard”, but rather to underscore the contingency of what is empirically but not metaphysically, obvious, namely, finite existence. Precisely because nothingness is, at least conceptually, as metaphysically viable as what we find around us, the question arises as to why the latter has “won out” over the former. I disagree that the driving assumption is that nothingness is a more “natural” assumption. The point is rather to ask why this something exists; any particular is contingent and any contingent calls forth a cause.

Again, the point is not that nothingness is somehow more congenial to the mind––quite the contrary––but that, given the existence which is, how do we account for it? Obviously, “nothing” could not have produced it, since nothing is both repugnant to the mind and utterly incapable of causation.

Also, I think it needs to stressed that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not to construed as the idea that God drew creation out of Nothing, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Rather, the point is that there was no other means by which God actualized creation than by His own power.

In any case, I find certain of your claims very garbled.

First, you first admit “the answer cannot be known” whether nothingness can be a reality, but then you assert that knowledge of even the possibility of nothing is incoherent. In other words, you claim to know the possibility of nothing is an impossibility right after you say such a matter is unknowable.

Second, you entirely muddy the waters by saying about the existence of a true nothing in reality. It goes without saying that an existent nothing is in reality. The human intellect is capable of abstracting entirely from material existence, and it is this entire abstraction from finite existence that is meant by “nothing.”

Third, unless you are prepared to deny that “nothing” is a coherent concept (which you can’t do without eviscerating this post’s crucial distinction between the concept of nothing and the reality of existence), you’ll have to admit that “nothing” is at least a possibility, and therefore a fortiori underscores the contingency of finite existence.

I will end by asking how your point differs from the following three claims:

a. “We can’t know if 0 is a possibility ‘in the abstract’, since all we have are [existent] numbers greater than 0; therefore, 0 is not possible. Our intuitions must bow to facts.”

b. “We can’t know if the nonexistence of God is possible, since the very idea of God includes His existence; therefore God exists.”

c. “We can’t know if the universe is eternal, since the very act of measuring eternity requires an eternal observer; but we are temporal, mortal observers; therefore, an eternal cosmos is impossible.”

At this point, the writer denied that he had claimed nothingness simpliciter is an inconceivable possibility (i.e., not at all possible). He was not cure what I meant by “metaphysical viability,” and he also strenuously objected to my reference to numbers in a., saying,

Wow, you are confused. All numbers are abstractions. You are the type of person for whom I wrote this. You have reified numbers. Let me guess, you also reify “justice”, “love”, “morality”, and “person”.

I replied thus:

First, do you believe “nothing” is even conceivable? If so, this is the extent of its metaphysical viability. Is “nothing” literally incoherent, like a square circle? If it is, then it is metaphysically non-viable.

Second, contingency of the existent world is connected to its quantitative specificity. Given that something exists––which is to say, exists in specific dimensions and modes––what accounts for its specific concrete existence? Are the dimensions and modes of the world absolute or might they be different? If the latter, what would make them different than what they are? What, indeed, makes them different from what they could be? The extreme “alternative” to what we experience in actuality is called nothing. It is a limit term, not an actual object of experience. You say there is no need to account for existence as we experience it, but this is opposed to science qua search for causes. If, then, this and that particular contingent aspect of the cosmos invites deeper causal exploration, so too does the entire contingent structure of it call for an explanation as a concrete entity.

Third, you can’t define from the start that nothing exists in reality, for that is not what is meant by nothing. The only question is, given that nothingness is conceivable, why is there anything more than nothing?

Fourth, if I have erred by reifying some things, you seem to have have reified “you”. Words as universal referents include reification, but not necessarily material reification (i.e., actualization). Is the “you” with which you are dialoguing merely these ASCII bits and pixels, or something more? Further, is “you” limited in extension to the one “you” with which you are dialoguing, or can it be abstracted into numerous real situations? What, then, is so bad about reification of abstract terms? Numbers are abstract referents for concrete existents. Is there in fact one Eiffel Tower? Yes. Might there be zero Eiffel Towers? Clearly, yes. So it is for the cosmos. Its numerically concrete existence calls for an explanation in the same way the Eiffel Tower does.

Fifth, do you believe a square circle or an infinitely long inch are possible? If not, why not? Conceivability does illuminate possibility.

Whereupon, the writer replied with some very crucial points:

…it is not obvious to me that the universe is contingent. …  I can conceive of many extreme alternatives to what I currently experience … [but] “Nothingness” is not one of those alternatives. It just makes no sense to claim that a person could “actually” experience nothing. That was the whole point of my essay. A point you clearly missed. … I feel no obligation to account for existence as apposed to certain imaginary scenarios. Two imaginary scenarios that I do not find compelling are a universe of only red balloons and nothingness. … Conceivability has nothing to do with it. A square circle cannot exist by definition. I cannot conceive of an electron traversing two slits at once. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that this phenomenon occurs. What I can and cannot imagine does not constrain nor illuminate possibility.

By this time I was aware of some key differences between my “agenda,” as our writer called it, and his.

The first difference I take to be that you seem to think I mean we can experience nothingness, and that this very idea is nonsense. It is nonsense, but it is not what I mean. I don’t think our perceptual involvement in a state of affairs has to do with the matter at hand. It seems as irrelevant as saying we can’t assert the emptiness of a room, since we are not inside it to observe its emptiness.

The second difference has to do with the importance of contingency in this matter. Let me reformulate the problem as I see it: Is there anything you can conceive of existing which you cannot also (but not, of course, simultaneously) conceive of not existing? It seem to me there is no such thing the existence of which you could not conceivably deny. That being so, since “any thing” could be conceived not to exist, its existence has to be accounted for in some way; and, since all “any thing”s could be nonexistent, every-thing could be nonexistent. Since nothingness is, as it were, a lurking threat at the core of everything, why does it ‘prevail’ when nothing is not only metaphysically more simple but also relentlessly insidious in being? “Nothing” is just a blanket term for the metaphysical fact that each and every thing might not be. If there were a universe which contained only a chain, and if every link in it could be ontologically deleted one by one, then the entire chain could be removed as well––thus becoming Nothing by virtue of each link’s not-being.

I agree it is too much bother trying to reify Nothing as Something Totally Nondescript, which is why I worried about your mishandling of “nothing” as “existing” or being “in reality.” Better is it to emphasize the potential nothingness of each thing and see that this exercise can only end in what we call Nothing. That is the only way we can say in one go what we see about every-thing: it might not exist; and if every-thing might not exist, Everything might not exist. Although “this thing” exists, why is it that “not this thing” is not so? This question can be applied to anything within our metaphysical reach, which includes the universe. All existent things are, then, literally gratuitous in a metaphysical sense (and ‘graced’ in a theological one).

Third, I stand by my point that the particularity of any thing is but a different mode of stating its contingency (its might-have-been-different and might-not-have-been-at-all nature).

Fourth, I think you are conflating conceivability with, let us say, visualizability. If we could not conceive of the double-slit experiment’s oddities, we could not be discussing it, much less defending its significance as you do. While conceiving it––otherwise how is it taught and learned generation to generation?––we cannot visualize it. Or, while you can conceive of a chiliagon, you can by no means visualize it. Likewise, while you can conceive of the smallest house in Paris in the year before your birth, you cannot visualize it any compelling way.

So, while we may not be able to visualize the lack of all we experience, we can conceive of such a lack. That is what I mean by saying the universe itself is also subject to the ‘acid’ of metaphysical contingency. To object that what we encounter empirically should trump what we can conceive intellectually (i.e., the absence of what we encounter), is to presume the former is any less metaphysically contingent than the former.

Interestingly, the only thing which cannot, by my lights, be conceived of existing but not also conceived of as not existing, is “an entity that necessarily exists,” which we call God. If at every turn we did not encounter objects in the universe which can easily be stripped of their existence (by material destruction or metaphysical ‘liquidation’), I would be inclined, like you are, I think, to see the universe as such an entity. Given the pervasive contingency in all areas of the cosmos, however, I am not inclined to adopt that viewpoint.


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