Women often wonder what men are thinking about. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that the answer is, “Nothing.” For the past several weeks, I too, have been thinking about nothing – not nothing as in “not anything,” but nothing as in the concept of nothingness. What is nothing? Is it possible that there could have been nothing rather than something? If so, why is there something rather than nothing?
What is Nothing?
Nothing is a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around. As A.J. Ayer pointed out, we are often fooled by the grammar of nothingness into think that since “nothing” is a noun, it must refer to something.
But “nothing” is a term of universal negation, not a term of reference. It’s similar to words like “no one ” and “nowhere.” “Nowhere” does not refer to a place, but to the absence of any place (not anywhere). Likewise, “nothing” does not refer to something, but to the absence of anything (not anything). If someone asked you what you had for lunch today, and you say “nothing,” you don’t mean you had lunch, and what you ate was called nothing, but rather that you did not have anything for lunch. If they ask you what nothing tasted like, tell them, “Chicken, of course.”
The minute we begin to think about nothing, we mentally transform nothing into a something; an object to be contemplated. It is even impossible to imagine nothingness, because every image we conjure up is an image of something. We often imagine nothing as an infinite expanse of black, empty space (a vacuum) – but empty space is something, not nothing. Nothing is “not-even-space.” Nothing is not a little bit of something, or “something-lite,” but literally no-thing; the absence of being. Perhaps Macbeth said it best when he said, “Nothing is but what is not.” It is the absence of any and every existent, including the very concept of existence. Could this kind of nothing “exist”?
Is Nothingness Possible?
It is obvious that something exists rather than nothing, but did it have to be that way? Could there have been absolutely nothing at all? There are two senses in which we might speak of the modality of nothingness: historical modality, and metaphysical/logical modality.
Historically speaking, I think we can conclude with epistemic confidence that there has never been a state of affairs in which absolutely nothing existed. Stated positively, there has always been some existent. Why? Because if there was ever a time when nothing existed there would be nothing still, because nothing by definition lacks any and all properties, and thus lacks any potential to ever become something. For something to become actual it must first be potential, but nothingness has no potential to become anything because nothingness lacks all properties. If there are no properties there is no potentiality, and thus there can be no actuality. Out of nothing, nothing comes. And yet something exists, ergo it cannot be true that nothingness once obtained. Something must have always existed, but what?
We know from both science and philosophy that physical reality has not always existed, therefore, that which has always existed must be some kind of immaterial, eternal, spaceless reality. Furthermore, as the cause of physical reality, it must possess the power necessary to produce something other than itself.
These conclusions stand in stark contrast to the claims of some cosmogonists, who affirm that the universe came into being from absolutely nothing. For example, British physicist P.C.W. Davies writes, “The coming-into-being of the universe as discussed in modern science…is not just a matter of imposing some sort of organization or structure upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing.” Physicist Victor Stenger says “the universe exploded out of nothingness.” Not only do they think nothingness was a historical reality, but they treat nothing as if it is a kind of something: a place from which the universe emerged, and/or the cause of the universe’s coming into being. This is simply misguided. There is no thing called “nothing” from which the universe could emerge, and nothing cannot cause anything; only something can cause something else.
While it is appropriate to speak of the universe coming into being “from nothing” if “nothing” is defined as “no physical thing” (since the universe came into being without a pre-existent material source), it is absurd to speak of the universe coming into being from absolutely nothing at all. There must be a transcendent source/cause of the universe. Since the universe encompasses all of physical reality, the source/cause of the universe must be a metaphysical/immaterial entity.
While nothingness is a historical impossibility, is it a metaphysical possibility? Can we conceive of a possible world in which nothing exists; a world in which physical reality never obtains? One way of answering this question is to consider whether the concept of “nothingness” entails a logical contradiction. If so, then nothingness is metaphysically impossible. There doesn’t seem to be anything about the concept of nothingness, however, that entails a logical contradiction. It does not require that we affirm two contradictories as we do when we posit square circles or married bachelors. As William Lane Craig writes, “[T]he proposition that Nothing exists is not a logical contradiction, but that does not show that the proposition is broadly logically possible.”
Another way of answering our question is to consider whether the concept of nothingness is coherent. If it is incoherent in some fashion, then we can safely conclude that nothingness is a metaphysical impossibility.
One reason we might offer for thinking the concept of nothingness to be incoherent is that we cannot speak of nothingness without treating it as if it were an existent. Consider my earlier statements. I spoke of a “time when” nothing existed. This is incoherent because nothingness is the absence of all reality, including temporal reality. Time is something, not nothing. I also spoke of a “possible world” in which “nothing exists.” Surely it is incoherent to speak of absolute nothingness as a possible world because a possible world by definition refers to a complete description of the way reality could be. Nothingness is the absence of being, and thus there cannot be a possible world in which nothing exists. Likewise, to speak of “nothing existing” is equivalent to saying “non-existence exists,” and thus it is incoherent. To even call nothingness a “state” or “state of affairs” is incoherent because a “state” implies some condition with respect to circumstances, structure, or attributes. Nothingness, however, has none of these. Nothingness is not-even-a-state. Nothing is the absence of any and every existent.
It is questionable, however, whether such verbal contradictions reveal more about the coherence of nothingness, or the inadequacy of language to express such a perplexing concept. Indeed, a good case can be made for thinking that this kind of verbal argument against the metaphysical possibility of nothingness is fundamentally misguided. For example, when we say “nothing exists,” we are not saying there is some existent called “nothing” that has the unique property of non-existence. That would require it to both exist and not exist at the same time, which is nonsense. By “nothing,” we simply mean the absence of all being. So to say “nothing exists,” is just to say “there isn’t anything that exists.” We speak this way all the time. For example, we might say, “There is nothing in my bank account.” We do not mean there is something in our bank account, namely “nothing.” Nor do we mean to imply that if we were to go to the bank, we could withdraw “nothing” from the account. We simply mean there isn’t anything (money) in the account. The verbal argument against the metaphysical possibility of nothingness makes the mistake of thinking that because “nothing” is a noun, it has some referent in reality. Such is not the case.
A second reason we might offer for thinking the concept of nothingness to be incoherent is that we cannot conceive of nothing. The closest we come to being able to conceptualize nothing is physically empty space, but empty space is something, not nothing. We may try to compensate for this by imagining nothing to be a point, but not only is a point something, invariably we will imagine the point existing in some kind of spatial location. It is impossible to conceive of absolute nothingness. If nothingness is not conceivable, that is good reason to think nothingness is not metaphysically possible (in a broadly logical sense). It is a useful fiction; an abstract concept—nothing more. We can conclude, then, that existence is not just a historical reality, but metaphysically necessary. But why? We’ll take on that question next.
Invoking time will not help for two reasons: (1) time is not a cause; (2) nothingness excludes even the existence of time. Nothingness is not-even-time.
Paul Davies, during an interview with Phillip Adam for the 1995 TV series, The Big Questions.
Victor J. Stenger, “The Face of Chaos,” Free Inquiry (Winter 1992-1993): 13, quoted in Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 89.
To put it another way: While nothingness is not the actual state of affairs, is it a logically possible state of affairs?
William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 503.