September 11, 2016
In What Sense Is It Impossible for the Universe to Come from Nothing?
I am a medical student from Norway, and first I want to say that I am very grateful for your work as it has meant a great deal to both my interest in philosophy and my faith.
Last week there was a small debate in Oslo about the Kalaam cosmological argument in which an atheist philosopher claimed that it may be possible that something began to exist out of nothing because that statement did not involve a contradiction and hence was logically possible. In watching your debates and reading some of your work I understand you to agree that it is logically possible, but that since it goes against both our intuition and experience it is in some other way impossible or at least an irrational view to hold.
In discussing the debate in an apologetics-forum a professor in systematic theology claimed that the atheist philosopher was wrong in saying that it is logically possible that something can come from nothing since if nothing exists then no possibilities exists, and for something (in this case the universe) to come into being from nothing there must exist a possibility for it to come into being. And because to say that something can come from nothing implies saying that possibilities both exists and don't exist, it is logically impossible.
We also came to the conclusion that a state of absolute nothingness (which the atheist philosopher tried to imagine or concieve) is impossible for if that state was possible it would be a state of affairs and that state would exist and then there would exist something rater than nothing.
So my question is this: Do you think the professor is right in saying that it is logically impossible to deny the first premise of the Kalaam argument, and is his argument for this sound? If it is sound, do you think it would be a practical and powerful argument to use in defense of the first premise in debates and other apologetic settings?
Keep up the good work and God bless
Yours is a nice question, David, because it brings out some important distinctions.
When the atheist professor says that “it may be possible that something began to exist out of nothing because that statement did not involve a contradiction,” he is talking about strict logical possibility. He’s quite right that “The universe began to exist out of nothing” involves no logical contradiction and is therefore strictly logically possible. Where he errs is thinking that this is of any philosophical significance.
It’s also strictly logically possible that “John is a married bachelor” or that “The Prime Minister is a prime number.” So what? That goes no distance toward showing that married bachelors are metaphysically possible or that it is metaphysically possible that the Prime Minister is a prime number. What we want to know is whether such states of affairs are realizable or actualizable. Could John really be a married bachelor or the Prime Minister a prime (or any other sort of) number?
What your theology professor rightly argues is that the universe’s coming into being from nothing is metaphysically impossible. Philosophers typically call this sort of possibility broad logical possibility, in order to distinguish it from strict logical possibility. Speaking in terms of broad logical (or metaphysical) possibility, we claim that coming into being from nothing is broadly logically impossible, just as it is broadly logically impossible that something is colored but unextended or that gold has the atomic number 13.
I would agree with your theology professor that it’s broadly logically impossible for the universe to come into being from nothing, since if the universe had a beginning, there was nothing (i.e., there was not anything) prior to its existence, not even the potentiality of its existence. But it seems absurd that the universe could become actual if there wasn’t even the potentiality of its existence. So stated, this is an argument that you will find I have used in debates and publications (e.g., my debate with Ansgar Beckermann).
I also agree that it is broadly logically impossible that nothing exists. This I take to be the insight of Leibniz’s contingency argument. The reason something exists rather than nothing is because it is logically impossible (broadly speaking) that nothing exist. There must exist a metaphysically necessary being, and the question then is, what or who is it?