Much Ado about Nothing
You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being
A recent book explores one of the deepest philosophical subjects imaginable: Why Does the World Exist? is written Jim Holt, is a long-time science writer and journalist who really wants to know, we assume. He (or his publicist) came up with a jazzy subtitle: An Existential Detective Story. Our intrepid truth-seeker interviews various scientists (atheist Stephen Weinberg) and philosophers (Richard Swinburne, Christian) on this vexing question of questions. I will not comment on these discussions, but rather focus on a brief statement that Holt writes at the beginning of the book. Here the detective part of the story (“Why does the world exist?”) is given right away—before any interviews, arguments, or speculations. This prologue is entitled, “A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives.”
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding. Therefore, there must be something. QED.
Since the author stated the same idea twenty years ago in a serious article in Harpers Magazine called “Nothing Ventured,” it appears that he is serious this time as well. It seems clever and possibly even true. But we must analyze the statements to find if he has anything worthwhile to say about nothing and something. A “proof,” such as Holt’s, would be a conclusive argument. The best way to test an argument is to lay it out in premise-conclusion style and to identify which argument form it employs. This is the structure of the argument. When there is a conditional, I make the affirmation of the conditional a separate premise.
- If there were nothing, then there would be no laws (since laws are something). Holt presumably means laws of nature.
- There was nothing.
- Therefore (a), there were no laws.
- If there are no laws, then everything would be permitted.
- Therefore (b), everything was permitted.
- If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden.
- Therefore (c), nothing was forbidden.
- If nothing were forbidden, there must be something.
- Therefore (d), there must be something.
10. Therefore (e), something can come from nothing. (This is not stated, but entailed. It is precisely the point of the argument.) Holt is claiming, more simply, that something can come from nothing; in fact, everything came from nothing. He thinks he has an argument to that effect. Since he sets up his case in a series of “if-then” statements, when the antecedent (if) is affirmed, the conclusion (then) follows by necessity. This is modus ponens, a deductive form of argument.
- If p, then q.
- Therefore, q.
Notice in my formulation of the argument the various conclusions (a)-(d). They all follow from modus ponens. If the argument is deductive, then the truth of one or more of the premises needs to be attached in order to defeat the argument and thus deny the conclusion. Thus, to that, we turn. It is true that if there were nothing (the absence of everything), then there would be no laws of nature, since a law of nature is something. This is true by definition: nothing has no occupants, laws or otherwise. Holt then claims that if there are no laws, everything would be permitted and nothing forbidden. It turns out, he avers, that the freedom from laws ends up being the metaphysical ticket from nothing to something—in fact, the metaphysical ticket to everything. Thus, there is no need to posit the existence of God to create the cosmos ex nihilo. Nothing—all by itself—can do the job of jobs. But Holt equivocates rabidly on the meaning of the word law. A law of nature operates on things. It specifies patterns of behavior in the world of space, time, matter, and energy that obtain under certain conditions. Hence, the law of gravity specifies (and predicts) how material objects behave in relation to one another—anywhere in the universe. Laws place limits on what objects can do what in what circumstances. Lead cannot float, given the laws of buoyancy and gravity, for example. When Holt uses the word law he employs it in relation to nothing, not to something. In so doing he imports the use of law from the realm of things into the realm of nothing. Let us say that we could be free from the law of gravity. If so, we could leap over a tall building in a single bound, and so on. (Apparently Superman so leaps by virtue of his super-muscles, not through the suspension of gravity.) So, the notion is that the absence of laws allows for activities otherwise restricted by laws. This is certainly true with criminal laws. If laws against marijuana are annulled, one is free to rot one’s brain without fear of legal prosecution. But Holt is speaking of laws of nature in his argument, not criminal laws. He claims that nothing allows anything, since those nasty laws (which limit things, you know) are safely out of the way, thus clearing a patch for his metaphysical magic to materialize. This simply will not do. Nothing can do nothing if there is nothing with which to do anything. The lack of laws provides no new opportunity, no new condition of being, in which something can come from nothing. And there is no possible law that turns nothing into anything, since laws require the existence of things on which to operate (or perhaps they simply describe how objects act). For the phrase “nothing would be forbidden” to mean anything, there would have to be things freed from constraints. But no-thing, of course, allows no such thing. If nothing is there, then nothing can be done, since there is nothing to do it. We can summarize the objection to Holt’s sophistry thusly, at the risk of philosophical overkill:
- Nothing does nothing. Nothing ever could.
- Therefore (a), nothing cannot permit anything
- Therefore (b), nothing cannot forbid anything.
- Therefore (c), nothing causes nothing.
- Therefore (d), nothing cannot cause anything.
- Therefore (e), if there was originally nothing, nothing would remain.
- But, there is now not nothing; there is something—the cosmos.
- Therefore (f), there was no original nothing.
- Therefore (g), there had to have been an original something.
So many thinkers cheat on the concept of nothing. But Francis Schaeffer calls them all out by sheer logic in his little classic, He is There and He is Not Silent.
We are considering existence, the fact that something is there. . . . The first basic answer is that everything that exists has come out of absolutely nothing. In other words, you begin with nothing. Now, to hold this view, it must be absolutely nothing. It must be what I call nothing nothing. It cannot be nothing something or something nothing. If one is to accept this answer, it must be nothing nothing, which means there must be no energy, no mass, no motion, and no personality. My description of nothing nothing runs like this. Suppose we had a very black blackboard which had never been used. On this blackboard we drew a circle, and inside that circle there was everything that was — and there was nothing within the circle. Then we erase the circle. This is nothing nothing. You must not let anybody say he is giving an answer beginning with nothing and then really begin with something: energy, mass, motion, or personality. That would be something, and something is not nothing. The truth is I have never heard this argument sustained, for it is unthinkable that all that now is has come out of utter nothing. But theoretically, that is the first possible answer.
The further a culture removes itself from God, the more its thinking becomes cognitively perverse. Consider the Apostle Paul’s indictment in Romans:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:18-22; see also Psalm 14:1; John 8:44; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
The futility of godless thinking was well captured by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” In fact, they may believe that nothing is capable of anything. Jim Holt’s slight-of-prose to the contrary, ex nihilo, nihil fit still holds true: nothing comes from nothing. However, since there is something, and something that might not have existed, we must explain something on the basis of more than nothing. The Bible, once again, has the answer, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1; see also Psalm 90:2; John 1:1-3; Revelation 4:11).