Monday, February 4, 2013

Big Questions 01 - Something Rather than Nothing

Note: What follows below is a transcript of the video.
In the course of debate between atheists and theists of various stripes, it’s inevitable that the Quote-Un-Quote “Big Questions” are brought to the forefront.   

Apologists love to ask things like:

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”
“Why are we here?” or “What is our purpose?”

“What is the meaning of life?”
Apologist Dinesh D’Souza likes to point out that science can’t answer these questions, but supposedly religion can.
The problem here is that in each case, religion simply makes up an answer and then pretends that it is better than no answer at all, or by the answers we get from philosophy that is informed by science.

To be honest, every time I hear this used in a debate, it’s just infuriating.  Because like almost every other question in religious apologetics, it demonstrably just pushes the problem back one step, and then claims it’s solved the issue – hoping we won’t look behind the curtain.
In this video, I want to look at the biggest one – “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The immediate response is “I don’t know and neither do you.”
I’ve even had theists throw this at me as the ultimate response to the question of why they believe in a god – “Because I believe there’s a reason there’s something instead of nothing!” 

To which the only correct response is “No, you demonstrably do not believe that.”
This is demonstrable because if theists are to be believed, then god is very much something, and what reason is there for god existing?

Ask that question, and watch the theists perform a “retreat to metaphysics”.  My favorite example of this is from an apologist JP Moreland, to quote:
“[..]God does not need a cause, since he is neither an event nor a contingent being. He is a necessary Being and such a being does not need a cause. In fact, it is a category fallacy to ask for a cause for God since this is really asking for a cause for an uncaused being.”

-JP Moreland, "Scaling the Secular City" (pg 38)
So the answer you’ll get is that “god is metaphysically necessary”, but this isn’t anything but a bald assertion. 

First, proving anything in metaphysics is always shaky at best.  Second why should we think god is the metaphysically necessary being?  Any apologist claiming this needs to present an argument for it, and there’s an argument that explicitly tries to do this, the ontological argument for the existence of god, and every one of those demonstrably doesn’t work.   In fact, look for a video from me soon showing how even the latest “modal ontological argument” is a failure.
Some theists, realizing they don’t have any argument for this, try to define god as “the metaphysically necessary being”, which basically is defining god into existence and has no basis in reality.

So what’s the atheist answer?  Well one answer is to think that if we are going to have a metaphysically necessary anything, it’s likely best defined as some form of material reality, likely quantum energy in some form or another that’s always existed, probably outside our space-time universe.  
If you respond with that in an argument, inevitably a theist will ask “Well where did that come from?” to which the only sensible reply is “The same place your god did”.  This inevitably reveals the fact that this kind of argument ends in at least a stalemate, with the theist asserting the existence of something extra beyond what we already know.  This is why any apologist trying to spin up some form of Cosmological Argument has to really dress it up with some philosophical shenanigans to try and dodge this issue.

The other answer is simply to ask “Why think there should be nothing?” which comes to almost the same conclusion as above.  The entire first question assumes that an absolute nothing, that is the absence of anything, should be considered the default state just because such a thing theoretically doesn’t need an explanation, but the very fact that we are here, that we’re “something rather than nothing” indicates that such either:

“Something can come from nothing” or “Something has always existed”.
Theists like to pretend that atheists take the “something can come from nothing” part of that.  And to be fair when atheists publish books with misleading titles like “A universe from nothing”, it doesn’t look good on the surface. 

But if you get into the details of science and atheistic philosophy, including that book – you’ll see atheists think something material always existed. 
The important point here is that you have to ask yourself, does religion really answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” any better than science or philosophy does?


  1. Yes!
    " Logic is the bane of theists." Fr. Griggs
    They commit logical fallacies. The arguments from personal incredulity and from ignorance underlie their other ones.

  2. My view is that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is answerable. A brief summary of my arguments for this are below and at my website at: (click on 3rd link)

    From the abstract of a paper I wrote at my website on the questions "Why do things exist?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?":

    In this paper, I propose solutions to the questions "Why do things exist?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" In regard to the first question, "Why do things exist?", it is argued that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or collection. A grouping is some relationship saying, or defining, what is contained within. Such a definition or grouping is equivalent to an edge, boundary, or enclosing surface defining what is contained within and giving "substance" and existence to the thing. An example of a grouping, and thus an existent state, is a set. Without a relationship defining what elements are contained within a set, the set would not exist. This relationship, or grouping is shown by the curly braces, or edge, around the elements of the set, and is what gives existence to the set. In regard to the second question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", "absolute nothing", or "non-existence", is first defined to
    mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this absolute lack-of-all. This absolute lack-of-all itself, not our mind's conception of the absolute lack-of-all, is the entirety or whole amount of all that is present. This lack-of-all, in and of itself, defines the entirety of all that is present. It says exactly what's there. An entirety, or whole amount, or everything, is a relationship defining what is contained within (ie., everything) and is therefore a grouping, or edge, and, therefore, an existent state. This edge is not some separate thing; it is just the relationship, inherent in the absolute lack-of-all, defining what is contained within. Therefore, what has traditionally been thought of as "absolute lack-of-all", "nothing", or "non-existence", is, when seen from this different perspective, a grouping, and thus an existent state or "something". Said yet another way, "non-existence" can appear
    as either "nothing" or "something" depending on how the observer thinks about it. Another argument is then presented that reaches this same conclusion. Finally, this reasoning is used to form a primitive, causal set- or cellular automaton-like model of the universe via what I refer to as "philosophical engineering".

    Second Argument:

    1.) In regard to the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?”, two choices for addressing this question are

    A. "Something” has always been here.

    B. "Something” has not always been here.

    Choice A is possible but does not explain anything (however, it will be discussed more at the end of this section). Therefore, choice B is the only choice with any explanatory power. So, this choice will be explored to see where it leads. With choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. By “nothing”, I mean complete “non-existence” (no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc., and no minds to consider this complete "lack-of-all"). The mind of the reader trying to visualize this would be gone as well. But, in this "absolute nothing”, there would be no mechanism present to change this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. Because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that “nothing” and “something” are one and the same thing. This is logically required if we go with
    choice B.

    1. Interesting, so you say that nothing can't really exist?

    2. The null set has always been paradoxical to the mind, just as the concept of the number zero has done the same. Any set theory would not last long, be good for anything without the empty set – collection of no objects. So, even with nothing you have something if you collect everything you have into a set: you then have {}. But you have much more, you see you also have {{}} and {{}, {{}}}. It does not take long to see that you have a countably infinite number of things (sets) all starting from a collection of nothing.

    3. It's not paradoxical, we can understand the empty set as a concept well enough - much as you've outlined.

      I actually agree with our Anonymous commenter, and that "nothing" as the apologists define it doesn't really exist. In fact, YOU probably agree that "nothing at all" or "the absence of anything" couldn't possibly exist, since your god has to have always existed.

      To use your example, we can have zero of any given thing in a set, but I don't think you would agree that "the set of all things that have existed" could ever have been zero at any given point, since then you'd have to say your "god began to exist out of nothing".

      You can try and say that "nothing" really just means the absence of all of material reality, but then that's just special pleading.

    4. Paradoxical - a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth - because something seems to come from nothing. And yes, I agree that where an intelligence is present we can’t have “nothing at all”.

    5. Except we understand the concept of an empty set very well. Was it hard to come up with at first? Sure, but that doesn't mean it's not well defined or not well understood.

      So you agree that there couldn't ever have been "nothing at all". Tell me did you even watch the video or read the post? That's pretty much what I say - both the atheist and the theist assert that "something" has always existed in some form.

    6. I read the post. Your videos are hard to watch because you load them up with emotion. I just made a comment here. Not really arguing either way on this one.

  3. Hi. Yep, I guess I'm saying that "nothing" can't really exist because if we could just think about it differently, we'd see that what we've previously called "nothing" is itself an existent state. I think the reason we've always distinguished "nothing" from "something" is that we always think about "nothing" in our minds, which exist and are what we call "something". Within our existent "something" minds, the lack of "something", or "nothing", just looks like nothing. But, in true nothingness, our minds wouldn't be there either. If we could somehow picture the absolute lack-of-all, including the lack of all minds, I think we'd see that this lack-of-all is actually a grouping defining exactly what is present, and is thus an existent state. Of course, no one can ever prove any of this because we can't get rid of our minds and we can never step outside existence to see the actual cause of existence. But, what we can do is to use our thinking and try to build a model of the universe out of it that can eventually make testable predictions. At least, that'd be some evidence.

    As Mr. Fox mentioned, the existent state that we used to think of as the absolute lack-of-all could also be thought of as the null set. Many people might say: Yeah, but how could two null sets or existent states that we used to call the lack-of-all be the same as what we see as "something". I'd say that two null sets or existent states "looking" at each other would seem as real to each other as two "physical particles". These are all, at their most fundamental level, just existent states. It doesn't matter what label you give them.

    Thank you for at least listening. Most people just say I'm crazy and move on.

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  5. The question "why is there something rather than nothing" is not an "apologist question", but a question any questing person should ask. The universe is amazing! Why shouldn't we ask why it goes to the bother of existing?

    But the argument for theism from this question is considerably more compelling than you seem to make it here.

    1. All contingent things have an explanation
    2. The set of all contingent things is itself contingent
    3. Therefore, the set of all contingent things has an explanation

    Premise 1 proceeds from the principle of sufficient reason, which is the contentious bit. It can be defended, however, by looking at science: we presume everything will have an explanation, even if we can't currently find it. Unlees, of course, that thing is non-contingent. In which case it is necessary and there is no external explanation for its existence.

    Premise 2 can be defended by showing how a group of contingent things could be just as contingent as a single member of that group.

    From this, it follows that the set of all contingent things must have an explanation for their existence, and the explanation cannot be something contingent, because that is part of the explanandum, and your explanation cannot be your explanandum.

    So it follows then (if the PSR is true), that something non-contingent explains all contingent things.

    Since matter, energy, space, and time are contingent (they are not logically necessary, and can change, be corruptible, etc), then it follows that the non-contingent thing must be immaterial, spaceless, and timeless.

    1. You just went on to describe the Cosmological Argument from Contingency, I assume because I already debunked the Kalam argument. :P

      That's not the issue I addressed in the video; though ultimately it breaks down into roughly the same problem that I did outline. You've shown nothing in here to say that some form of material reality isn't contingent; it could work out that say String Theory is true, and the base string are what makes up all of matter, energy, space, and time - and those base strings are what's "necessary".

      That doesn't really matter though, since your argument has other major issues...

      While I'm not planning on doing a video on refuting the Cosmological Argument from Contingency, it's largely because there's already a great answer to it, from a Theist no less! Peter Van Inwagen refutes the argument pretty decisively here (watch until his segment ends):

    2. Sure, the PSR is the primary attack point as I indicated above. But my point is that A) the question is not an "apologist" question but a basic fundamental question that any human being can and should ask, and B) the objections to the contingency argument are not clearly good objections. For example, Alexander Pruss, another theist philosopher like van Inwagen, responds to the van Inwagen objection (see section I might add, as convincingly as van Inwagen argues against the PSR. And I'm sure van Inwagen could respond in kind.

      Not that I side with either, but the point is that these arguments are neither clear failures nor clear successes, and both apologists and counter apologists strike me as having already decided what they want and then stop when they get there and ignore any further objections.

      In other words, both sides strike me as partisan, and partisanship is anti-thetical to finding the truth.

    3. Oh please. There are plenty of people, myself included, who do seek the truth. I spent years de-converting, trying to go back even.

      And my link isn't even some atheist refuting the argument you put forward, it's a theist, a Christian even! He's out there pointing out why that's a bad argument.

      As you seem to admit, there doesn't seem to be any consensus as to why PSR should be held to, and that it has a number of problems. Even in what you linked (which was a nice read, thanks!), Pruss doesn't really defend the PSR, he defends a much weaker version of it that's only good enough to let him make a contingency based Cosmological Argument. The point being, at best, the argument falls out into a stalemate over the PSR, and isn't coming close to giving the grounds to prove god.

      Next, you're ignoring my first point - you've certainly not shown that even if we accept PSR, that some form of material reality isn't the "necessary" something.

      As for the question "why is there something rather than nothing", it is something apologists ask to try and lead to cosmological arguments just like you've done.

      As I explain in video/article, the question itself assumes some kind of "nothing" could exist, let alone be the "default state of everything". Here's the main problem with that - Define "nothing".

      Nothing certainly isn't "the absence of anything", since even theists wouldn't accept that form of "nothing" could exist - their god must always exist.

      But then why not assume that some form of material reality hasn't always existed?

      Further, it becomes much more problematic when science gets involved, and we find that we can't seem to find "nothing" anywhere in our known universe. There's always "something" going on if you go to the quantum level.

      So what's left is a question-begging assumption that "nothing" just means "not any form of material reality".

      That's one of the main points in the video.

      The other point is that neither "side" has an answer for this, and until we get our definitions straight on what "nothing" means, then the question doesn't do anything.

    4. >The point being, at best, the argument falls out into a stalemate over the PSR, and isn't coming close to giving the grounds to prove god.

      Right, but it isn't close to being unsound, either. It's, as you say, a stalemate. So being either an apologist or counter apologist in regards to the contingency argument is, to my mind, to be a partisan. Choose the side you like, and run with it.

      My point is, while the argument is not clearly sound, it isn't clearly UNsound either, as you seem to argue here. Richard Taylor, himself an atheist I believe, has an interesting defense of this argument here.

      It seems to me that a perfectly reasonable argument can be made out of this, but that objectors to the PSR are perfectly reasonable as well.

      > There are plenty of people, myself included, who do seek the truth. I spent years de-converting, trying to go back even.

      Me too! :)

      What gave me doubt about my atheism was the discovery of Thomism. Have you explored that yet? I think it's quite strong and puts to shame all this Craig stuff and modern apologists, and has had the effect of dragging me from a 6.5 on the Dawkins belief scale all the way to a 4, and on some days, possibly a 3.5.

    5. >Right, but it isn't close to being unsound, either. It's, as you say, a stalemate. So being either an apologist or counter apologist in regards to the contingency argument is, to my mind, to be a partisan. Choose the side you like, and run with it.

      Um...I said that in the video? Well I didn't say the part about being partisan, but the fact that it's a stalemate helps the atheist.

      Here's the thing, the theist makes the claim that there's a god - an undetectable, all powerful being that wants to get to know you - and they try to use this convoluted argument to try and prove it.

      So a stalemate isn't going to do the job.

      But if we look at the context of the "Something vs. Nothing" question, we already KNOW that the material universe exists. The theist is the one that is trying desperately to show that there's more to the universe than just the material. The issue is that they can't meet their burden of proof, where as if there was a god it should be very easy for them to meet this proof.

  6. I do agree that the PSR is very hard to know if its true or not. That is because it is a principle of human thought, which might not apply everywhere.

    But I do think a reasonable case can be made for the PSR. Pruss lists several arguments, such as the fact that it is confirmed every day in our experience, we've never seen a counterexample to it, science depends on it, if it were false we'd see all kinds of things without explanation, and so on. I think there is enough prima facie support for the PSR that it balances out. In our every day experience, the existence of something seems to be what requires explanation, not the non-existence of something, as you saw in the Richard Taylor article

    And so someone who wants to claim that our every day experience is wrong is the one who shoulders the burden of proof, since he is going against the tide. The atheist retort could be seen as special pleading: everything has an explanation in our experience, but this one thing (the universe) does not. But why? Why does the universe get to be the one thing that escapes this principle of thought? Can this be defended without ad hocness?

  7. The same kind of argument can be made to support the idea that "our every day experience confirms that the earth is flat", until we find things that show our intuitions to be wrong.

    Still, as I said before, one can accept the PSR and be an atheist, since the "necessary" part of all reality could be something material, like say Strings from string theory, or whatever else.

    The theist is the one who wants to go with PSR, but then says god doesn't need a reason for his existence, because god is necessary. Why stop at god? Why not "save a step" so to speak, and leave it to some basic building block that lies at the heart of everything?

    Do we know what it is yet? No. But like the other discussion we're having - not knowing is not an excuse to assert that god exists.

    As far as the burden of proof goes, we still require proofs for things. Just like things like the Goldbach Conjecture I mentioned in the Ontological video. As I said above, the PSR doesn't necessarily get you to god or anything supernatural at all.

    In Pruss's argument he likens PSR to the law of the excluded middle, and tries to claim that since that's self evident then the PSR could be as well. Except unlike the PSR, the law of the excluded middle is true by impossibility of the contrary. That is, if we tried to show it was false, it ends up showing that it's true.