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I've been reading the SEP about Nothingness and it gives a good summary of the philosophy around "Why is there something rather than nothing?".

One of the confusions it notes is that "nothing" is ambiguous. It could mean a perfect void, the physicist's "vacuum", or actual non-existence.

The article suggests this is really a linguistic mistake or pseudo-question.

If we take Nothingness as the most extreme variant (lack of everything including concepts) then I think that takes things too far.

Along these lines, I was wondering if there is any issue with the following line of reasoning

Nothingness is self-refuting

(1) Nothingness is the absence of everything.
(2) To deny the existence of something (x) requires that x exists as a member of the domain of discourse "Things"
(3) But if x exists in our domain of discourse then there exists (at a minimum) the sentence "x is something that could exist".
(4) Therefore, Nothingness implies something exists.

Nothingness is self-defeating


An alternative approach to this may be using the subtractive approach and get a (linguistic?) contradiction:

Argument against Nothingness from simplicity

(1) If the set of properties P of a universe y are proper subset of the properties of another universe x (Py ⊂ Px), then y is "simpler" than x (denoted y < x)
(2) Nothingness is the absence of all properties, therefore, there doesn't exist a universe simpler than Nothingness (denoted ∅): |P| = 0 ⇒ ¬∃x: x < ∅
(3) Let z be a universe whose only property is emptiness, which we represent by the predicate formula E(x) = "x does not contain anything material", then Pz = {E(z)} and |Pz|=1
(4) Therefore, we can make a simpler universe σ by removing the property of emptiness from z
(5) |Pσ = |Pz| -1 = 0 ⇒ σ = ∅
(6) However, if σ does not have the property of emptiness then it is not empty
(7) Therefore, is is not the case that E(σ)
(8) Therefore, σ ≠ ∅



Nothingness leads to a contradiction.

Take always

Again, this move seems to work because there are some properties that cannot be innocuously removed. Here, the law of the excluded middle creates problems for Nothingness because E(x); or ¬E(x) must obtain but neither allows for the absence of everything.

As all the great comments and answers here show, this extreme form of Nothingness is not really a useful topic of discourse.

On the other hand, Nothingness as Emptiness seems like a non-contradictory object of study.

What I DO conclude from all this is that the existence of a "ground of all being" or (less theologically) pure existence (or I've heard "potential to exist") is logically necessary because its denial runs into these issues.

Thanks everyone for the great answers and comments! I am not a philosopher so appreciate the patience of this group. Obviously the above is just my preliminary thoughts on this challenging topic and I'm learning a lot from the answers here :)

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  • 2
    Your first premise is unlikely to win much assent. Most people would say that nothingness is not a denial of anything because nothingness is not a proposition. Oct 17, 2023 at 3:49
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    Maybe empty domain tolerant free logic especially the Meinongian logics would expand your horizon and resolve your concern of a possibly existent sentence about yet refuting nothingness... Oct 17, 2023 at 6:08
  • 1
    If you assume the "possible" (i.e. something could exist) there is no contradiction with the fact that some possibility is not "real". If you assume that an uttered sentence is a witness of something "real", the same holds for you that are discussing on this site: we are discussing, therefore we exist. Oct 17, 2023 at 6:21
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    One does not deny existence of a fixed object, one denies that "objects meeting [proposed description] exist", a proposition. So what is your proposed description that "requires the denial of the existence of anything that could exist"? That it could be that nothing exists does not require denying the existence of what does exist. The question is why we have the latter and not the former.
    – Conifold
    Oct 17, 2023 at 8:24
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    What does it mean to say that something "could" exist? If there is nothing, there is nothing that could cause something to exist, so I don't see how you could say it "could" exist. Also, how does a sentence exist? At most that's a statement that's true, which doesn't imply that it exists. Maybe a Platonist would disagree, but they might consider the existence of such things to be distinct from material reality where the concept of "nothingness" would apply (although these concepts are subjective).
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 17, 2023 at 11:54

9 Answers 9

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It seems to me that the arguments put forth are insufficient, let us take a look at the postulated arguments:

  1. The "Self-Refuting" Argument

(1) Nothingness is the absence of everything.

The absence of everything is biconditionally related to "nothingness", though, in terms of definition, a more befitting description would be that "nothingness" is the lack of existence.

(2) To deny the existence of something (x) requires that x exists as a member of the domain of discourse "Things"

This is correct but has little bearing on the plausibility of "nothingness". The denial of existence and the lack of existence are two disparate things. In the case of the former (i.e. denial) there are multiple coercive entailments that follow whilst in the latter, there are no such entailments. Of course, for someone to assert nothingness is for someone to deny some existence, but merely by linguistic necessity.

To elucidate, if I say [unicorns] don't exist, the subject (in this case unicorns) must exist in some capacity, even if it be in the form of an abstract concept. If this was not the case, that is to say, if the subject has no trace in (the whole of) reality, then the statement would be meaningless (assuming its truth) as its subject would be without referent. To illustrate, this would result in the semantic equivalence between the sentences [unicorns] don't exist and [kjhdsfklsdflks] don't exist.

-A note regarding the example above: One might think to themselves, given the explanation above, that this seems to imply that the denial of the existence of any subject (x) is self-defeating, though this is not the case. When one asserts some subject (x) does not exist, they are denying its existence within a specific scope (e.g. physical reality) not in an absolute manner. Of course, in the case of contradictions such as [squared circles], statements that place them (contradictions) in the subject position are meaningless (unless it is referring to the syntax itself, i.e., the term is being mentioned, not used), but that is its own subject of inquiry.

Hence it seems to me what is occurring here, with the concept of "nothingness", is that you have made, what seems to me to be, a correct inference regarding a proposition relating to nothingness, that being: If one states "[Nothingness] is the case" (or something in the proximity of such statement), then one is stating that "Absolutely no [x] exists" (which is the equivalent of the conjunction of all meaningful sentences that take the form "[x] dosen't exist"). The contention is that for such a sentence to be meaningful, some [x] must exist in some capacity, otherwise, the sentence has no semantic value.

Yet, as I have mentioned earlier, this has no bearing on the possibility of "nothingness". To explicate this further, such statements are meaningless or self-defeating only when such a sentence is postulated in the actual world. To return to the unicorn example, such a statement, assuming that existence in that context is unrestricted, would be either false or meaningless, due to the fact that there must be some subject that is being negated. Yet the same sentence, given a modal property (in this case possibility), would be a radically different statement, resulting in the paradoxical nature of its non-modal counterpart collapsing.

You see, the negation of the existence of [x] in the statement "[x] could possibly not exist (in an absolute sense)" entails no absurdity, as whilst the subject (x) of the sentence does have a referent (be it abstract or concrete), I am not negating its existence, nor denying it, but I am rather mentioning its possibility of non-existence. The difficulty encountered with the non-modal statement is that the statement is of this world (e.g. [Unicorns] don't exist"), and if one is to assert such a statement whilst holding on to the claim that such a statement is meaningful, they must assume that the referent exists in some capacity, resulting in a self-defeating statement. You encounter no such problem in a modal statement and you therefore do not have a self-defeating or non-referential statement.

Furthermore, at the risk of stating the obvious, one cannot deny something unless one exists, clearly then, denying existence is contradictory (almost trivially so) in that sense, though I doubt that is what you meant by denial.

(3) But if x exists in our domain of discourse then there exists (at a minimum) the sentence "x is something that could exist".

One could simply deny the existence of propositions as abstract objects (see nominalist arguments), assuming that that is what you mean when you say the sentence "x is something that could exist" exists. Furthermore, unless you are committed to the existence of necessary abstract propositions, there does not seem to be a reason to assume such propositions could possibly not exist. If you are of the opinion that abstract propositions that describe the factual state of affairs must exist, and that there is always some state of affair (with the negation of everything also being a state of affair), then you have already assumed that nothingness cannot exist, and hence the formulation of this argument is superfluous.

(4) Therefore, Nothingness implies something exists.

Given the aforementioned objections, this does not seem to hold.

∴ Nothingness is self-defeating

Refer to the previous discourse.

  1. Argument against Nothingness from simplicity

(1) If the set of properties P of a universe y is a proper subset of the properties of another universe x (Py ⊂ Px), then y is "simpler" than x (denoted y < x)

Let us assume for the sake of argument.

(2) Nothingness is the absence of all properties, therefore, there doesn't exist a universe simpler than Nothingness (denoted ∅): |P∅| = 0 ⇒ ¬∃x: x < ∅

This is dependent on how you define "properties", as if "negative properties" or "properties of negation" are included, such as "not having (x)", "not being (x)", or "not (x)", then "nothingness" does have properties as "nothingness" is the negation of all existence.

-Note: It is not conceded that properties are existent entities, nor is it conceded that a negative property entails an entity with a property. The "negative property" here is simply a description of the meaning of nothingness and nothing more.

(3) Let z be a universe whose only property is emptiness, which we represent by the predicate formula E(x) = "x does not contain anything material", then Pz = {E(z)} and |Pz|=1

E(x) should be = "x does not contain anything material, conceptual, or abstract", though the aim is understood; let us continue.

(4) Therefore, we can make a simpler universe σ by removing the property of emptiness from z

This is incorrect, emptiness is a "negative property" or a property of negation. Removing negative properties does not result in simplification, only the removal of "positive properties" does. The negation of a negative property is the assertion of a positive property.

(5) |Pσ = |Pz| -1 = 0 ⇒ σ = ∅

The removal of a negative property should result in an addition, not a subtraction; Refer to the comment on the previous premise.

(6) However, if σ does not have the property of emptiness then it is not empty

Correct, refer to the discourse above.

(7) Therefore, is is not the case that E(σ)

Correct, refer to the discourse above.

(8) Therefore, σ ≠ ∅

This does not follow given the objections above.

∴Nothingness leads to a contradiction.

This does not follow, it seems as if this conclusion has stemmed from confusion regarding properties. Refer to the discourse above.

Feel free to comment and critique, this was quite an enjoyable thought exercise.

-Thank you

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    +1. Superb and complete response. Indeed, you are correct in that I treated all properties as positive properties. Will look into positive vs negative properties more, seems interesting :) My overall point in all this is that something has to exist, where by exist I mean in the sense that applies to abstract concepts too. So I am arguing for a base level of existence that necessarily has to be there, so that the question "Why something and not nothing" only has meaning when applied to the scope of physical existence (vs abstract existence)
    – Annika
    Oct 23, 2023 at 19:33
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I wouldn't describe Nothingness as self-defeating.

It's more accurate to say that any discussion of Nothingness inevitably implies that something exists. It's not possible to have any kind of discussion in a state of Total Nothingness. The fact that we can even broach the topic demonstrates that we are not in that state.

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  • +1 thank you! correct, so maybe not self-defeating is the correct word, but self-refuting.
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 17:45
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    it's not the "defeating" part I take issue with but the "self-." It is not the Nothingness itself that refutes Nothingness, it's the discussion about it. (Nothingness is capable of nothing, including self-refutation.) It is the discussion of Nothingness is that we might characterize as self-refuting. Oct 17, 2023 at 20:51
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    I see. So any discourse about Nothing is self-refuting. Thank you for the clarification!
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 21:03
  • This assumes a we don't take time into account. It's certianly possible to assume there used to be nothingness, and now there isn't. Oct 17, 2023 at 21:25
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    @MichaelCarey - Ex Nihilo? I think the question of whether that's a coherent hypothesis or not isn't answerable. Oct 18, 2023 at 20:39
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You are mixing up two applications of the word nothing. One is referring to physical things and events, as, for example, in the phrases 'there was nothing in the box', 'nothing happened' and so on- that application of the word is clearly not self-defeating. The second application refers to abstract ideas. Clearly the phrase 'there are no abstract ideas' is contradictory, since it is an abstract idea. Likewise the statement 'there is no abstract idea of nothing' is, as an abstract idea, also self-contradictory.

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    Thanks! Exactly - I tried (unsuccessfully) to make it clear that I was referring to the absence of abstract ideas and logic and thus "conceviability or potential to exist". I agree that it is almost trivially contradictory -- I expanded my post to hopefully give some more rationale for my interest here.
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 15:58
  • There is no antimemetics division!
    – Stef
    Oct 18, 2023 at 14:00
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The subject of the question is the concept of “Nothingness”. That’s a highly problematic term and forms the root of many pseudo problems in philosophy.

The problem arises if a language allows to substantivize the negation: “to be or not to be” is a correct statement using the negation “not”. But expressions like “Being or the Nonbeing” substantivize both verbs. And now philosophy starts and asks for properties of Nonbeing = Nothingness.

An example, which is often quoted, are certain sentences of the philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Hence beware of reifying arbitrary lexical categories. That's a trap of our language. Better follow Wittgenstein:

For philosophical issues arise whenever language goes on vacation. (Originally in German: Denn die philosophischen Probleme entstehen, wenn die Sprache feiert)

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I think there is something to your argument for people who believe that abstract objects such as propositions exist, but I don't find the form very convincing. Here is a similar argument by William Vallicella who wrote the book on existence. I'm doing this from memory, but I think it's pretty close to his argument:

  1. Suppose there were a universe in which nothing existed.
  2. Then in that universe, the proposition "Nothing exists" would be true.
  3. A proposition cannot be true in a universe unless it exists in that universe.
  4. Therefore something exists in that universe.

Also, he argued that if one proposition exists in a universe, an infinite set of other propositions also exist in that universe. For example, if "Something exists" is true in a universe, so is the proposition "The proposition 'something exists' exists". So in any universe, an infinite number of things exist.

However, whatever you think of the plausibility of this argument, I'll add that it doesn't seem to be especially relevant to the question "Why does something exist instead of nothing", because in that question, the "something" is pretty clearly referring to physical, material things, not abstract objects.

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  • +1 Thanks David! Yes, this is exactly what I was referring to :) I actually had this form of argument initially but I didn't want to get into @Jo Wheler cautioned about (reifying nothing by saying "nothing exists") so I tried (unsuccessfully I guess) to get the validity of the concept of Nothingness indirectly. Neither my argument nor this one is meant to address "why is there something (material) vs nothing (material)? The contingency of material reality (i.e., non-emptiness) is still something can be meaningfully reasoned about.
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:40
  • That was the purpose of my opening lines -- "nothing" has different meanings. I took the most extreme version of that and wanted to show that it is not meaningful/self-refuting, which means that the domain of discourse must necessarily include something, if even just the void plus abstract concepts.
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:43
  • Quick follow up question for you -- what do you mean that this is "not very convincing" , what does it fail to be convincing of?
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:45
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    I could tell that was what you were getting at, but I had two specific problems with your argument: the first proposition seems to add nothing to the argument and is confusing (in what sense does a state of affairs "require" a proposition asserting the state of affairs?), and that the wording of the argument seems to assume the existence of reasoning beings, which begs the question. Oct 17, 2023 at 13:50
  • @Annika, I answered your question before you asked it :) but I forgot to tag you. Oct 17, 2023 at 13:51
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Beyond sentences , there are perceptions, understanding of what is and what is not.Suppose you have a phone. If you loose the phone and never have it again then emptiness of phone arises. Suppose you leave house , then emptiness of house arises. If you leave the city then emptiness of city arises. If you leave earth then emptiness of earth arises. If you leave space then emptiness of space arises. If you leave consciousness then emptiness of consciousness arises and so on… till it is all empty. Then there is emptiness (which is beyond nothingness) in pure , undistorted form.Sanskhara or conditioning can be changed. By nature all conditioning are impermanent but if I wish to change a Sanskhara or conditioning what should I do ? And will I succeed ?

Emptiness is even empty of meaning.

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  • Thank you for this (vedic?) perspective :) I realized based on the comments and this answer that I wasn't clear enough in defining Nothingness in (1). I agree that emptyness is not problematic. What I was getting at was beyond emptyness. More like the absense of existence at all. I ague that that concept is not valid.
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 13:01
  • @Annika Emptiness is beyond nothing. Emptiness arises , changes and vanishes. You have to reach Emptiness by giving up, by letting go. Nothingness is a valid concept because Nothingness arises, Oct 17, 2023 at 13:18
  • @Annika Emptiness is empty of meaning. Oct 17, 2023 at 13:39
  • "Emptiness is empty of meaning" -- mind blown, system error ;-)
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 14:02
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In regard to "nothingness" as in the question "why is there something rather than nothing?" (WSRTN), I take this to be the most extreme "nothing", that is absolute, metaphysical "nothing". My personal definition of this would be the lack of all matter, energy, time, space/volume, abstract concepts including propositions/properties/etc., laws or constructs of math/logic/physics, possible worlds/possibilities, consciousness, and finally the mind of the person trying to imagine this lack of all. Any other definition besides this most extreme kind leaves something existing and is not really the "nothing" in the WSRTN question.

It's very important to distinguish between the mind's conception of "nothing" and "nothing" itself, in which no minds, no propositions, no truths/falsities, no abstracta, etc are there. These are two different things. Whether or not "nothing" exists is therefore totally independent of our mind's definition of it and of any propositions we make about it. So, in regard to your first argument, in "nothing", there is no domain of disco urse and no sentence "x is something that could exist". I didn't understand the second argument.

My personal view is that to answer the WSRTN question, it's important to figure out why a normal thing like a book or a house exists and then apply that to "nothing" to see if that exists. I think a thing exists if it's a grouping. A grouping ties zero or more things together into a single unit whole. Others such as Aristotle, Leibniz, etc. have used the words “unity” or “one” instead of “grouping”, but the meaning is the same.  After all, what  does a grouping into a new unit whole do if not create a unity or a one?  

Next, after getting rid of everything including the mind of the person thinking this, we think what is left is "nothing". But, once everything is gone and the mind is gone, this situation, this "absolute nothing", would, by its very nature, be the whole amount or entirety of the situation.  That nothingness defines the situation completely.   Is there anything else besides that "absolute nothing"?  No. That "nothing" is it, and it is the all.   A whole-amount/entirety/“the all" is a grouping, which means that the situation we previously considered to be "absolute nothing" is itself an existent entity.  “Nothing” defines itself and is therefore the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities.  One might object and say that being a grouping is a property so how can it be there in "nothing"? I think the answer is that the property of being a grouping (e.g., the all grouping) only appears after all else, including all properties and the mind of the person trying to imagine this, is gone. In other words, the very lack of all existent entities is itself what allows this new property of being the all grouping to appear.  This new property is inherent to “nothing” and cannot be removed to get a more pure “nothing”. 

Anyways, that's my view. Thanks for listening.

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(2) To deny the existence of something (x) requires that x exists as a member of the domain of discourse "Things"

I might agree that e.g. total nothingness as an idea that denies everything that exists and is itself nothing is self contradictory. But it's often an error to equivocate between a statement and what it is about. Why can't another world be talked about and conceived of in claims that there can be asolutely nothing? I'm not sure you've shown that x's thinghood exists essentially and not just in the world we conceive of it.

Perhaps there may an empty world despite how not all worlds are empty and even if it is inconceivable for every world to be empty.

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  • +1 thanks! One point that I didn’t make sufficiently clear in my post is that I am not simply referring to an empty universe (materially) but the lack of any universe. The crux of my question is if this kind of nothingness necessarily cannot exist, and that, at a minimum, abstract concepts and an austere “bare” existence necessarily exists (the void/empty world) as well as the potential for things to exist. To deny that causes logical issues (as I tried to show)
    – Annika
    Oct 18, 2023 at 13:06
  • not sure it's a good answer @Annika in effect i struggled a little to apply the argument, and i'm unsure exactly what it shows
    – user67675
    Oct 18, 2023 at 16:15
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You don't need your argument at all.

There is at least one observer in the universe (me!). Hence, there exists at least this one thing. Hence, Nothingness is defeated.

If you are reading this and not sure whether I exist (hey, you could be a brain in a vat, or a sentient program runing on a server, and me just a simulacrum directly fed into your brain via electric impulses), then it's you that exists as observer. q.e.d., Nothingness is defeated.

On a more earnest note: The question seems ill defined. Most importantly, which meaning of "to exist" do you want to be applicable? The one where concepts, numbers and such are thought to exist, or the one where only physical objects in the "real world" (whatever that may be) exist? If you mean the latter (i.e., the everyday meaning), then at the very least your bullet point (2) immediately ceases to be true. I.e., it is relatively easy to think of imaginary things that certainly do not and could not exist, so your proposition makes no sense, hence the overall argument.

Also, aside from that, you generally need to give a reasoning why (2) should be true in the first place. It seems very non-intuitive for me. If we can have a (x) which clearly could not exist, then it does not exist. I see no contradiction whatsoever there.

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  • Thank you. I was not arguing for the truth of Nothingness, but one level up: that "extreme" Nothingness is contradictory (see @David's answer)
    – Annika
    Oct 17, 2023 at 16:00
  • Alright, @Annika. Davids answer also hinges on which definition of "to exist" you propose for your question. Specifically, his step A proposition cannot be true in a universe unless it exists in that universe. depends on your choice to give existence to abstract concepts as well as to physical objects. It would be great if you could edit your question one more time to make that clear. Note, the concept of "existence" is at least as complicated as that of "nothingness", so it won't get any easier, really. :)
    – AnoE
    Oct 18, 2023 at 7:55

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