#478

June 12, 2016

Much More Ado about Nothing

Beloved Dr. Craig,

Atheists argue that you commit a Fallacy of Equivocation when you talk about Something and Nothing.

When you say "if the universe could come into being from nothing, then why is it that only universes can pop into being out of nothing? Why not bicycles and Beethoven and root beer? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? If universes could pop into being out of nothing, then anything and everything should pop into being out of nothing. Since it doesn't, that suggests that things that come into being have causes."

Here, when you talk about the origins of the universe you are referring to absolutely nothing (no space, no time, no vacuum, no voids). But when you ask "Why not bicycles and Beethoven and root beer?" you are referring to the space-time in which we live. This is a fallacy of equivocation!

Now if you are talking about absolutely nothing in this case then they can easily avoid this objection by saying "We don't live in nothing, we live in a space-time web of the universe. Hence, we can't prove whether bicycles, Beethoven, root beer pop into being from nothing or not. "

One more question.

Is there any way to prove that something cannot come from nothing by using Metaphysics and Logic? I am asking this because they argue that its not logically impossible for something to come into being from nothing.

Mohd


India

This is actually objection #5 in my talk “Objections So Bad I Couldn’t Have Made Them Up.” You may want to listen to that talk as well as read Question of the Week #382 for more on this objection.

I’ve never heard a professional philosopher press this objection, Mohd. Why not? Because they understand, I think, that the word “nothing” is not a term referring to something but a word of universal negation. It means “not anything.”

So, for example, if I say, “I had nothing for lunch today,” I do not mean, “I had something for lunch today, and it was nothing.” Rather I mean, “I didn’t have anything for lunch today.” There’s a whole series of similar words of universal negation in English: “Nobody” means not anybody. “None” means not one. “Nowhere” means not anywhere. “No place” means not in any place.

Now because the word “nothing” is grammatically a pronoun, we can use it as the subject or direct object of a sentence. By misusing these words, not as devices of universal negation, but as words referring to something, you can generate all sorts of funny situations. If you say, “I saw nobody in the hall,” the wiseacre replies, “Yeah, he’s been hanging around there a lot lately!” If you say, “I had nothing for lunch today,” he says, “Really? How did it taste?”

Therefore, it’s inaccurate to say, “when you talk about the origins of the universe you are referring to absolutely nothing (no space, no time, no vacuum, no voids). But when you ask ‘Why not bicycles and Beethoven and root beer?’ you are referring to the space-time in which we live.” No, I am not referring at all. When I say, “What makes nothingness so discriminatory?,” this is supposed to be funny, to elicit a laugh.

As my concluding statement shows, my aim is prove that “things that come into being have causes.” So we can reword my argument (which is really the great Oxford philosopher A. N. Prior’s argument) as follows: “If the universe could come into being without any cause at all, then why is it that only universes can pop into being without a cause? Why not bicycles and Beethoven and root beer? If universes could pop into being without a cause, then anything and everything should pop into being without a cause. Since it doesn't, that suggests that things that come into being have causes.”

It’s obvious that this paraphrase involves no equivocation. Not only so, but we see how lame is the objector’s retort, “We don't live in nothing, we live in a space-time web of the universe. Hence, we can't prove whether bicycles, Beethoven, root beer pop into being from nothing or not.” He’s obviously using “nothing” as a term of reference, not as a word of universal negation. He thinks of nothing as a sort of empty box or void out of which things like bicycles, Beethoven, and root beer would have to come. This is obviously misconceived. Far from being unprovable, we have overwhelming evidence that bicycles, Beethoven, and root beer have causes. More fundamentally, the point is that if something can come into being without a cause, then anything and everything ought to do so because there are no causal constraints at all on things’ coming into being.

So the answer to your question, “Is there any way to prove that something cannot come from nothing by using Metaphysics and Logic?” is Yes! Prior’s argument is a powerful argument that things cannot come into being from nothing, that is, without a cause, for if there are no causal constraints on coming into being then it is inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t come into being uncaused. So even though I myself think that the principle “Something cannot come into being from nothing” is a first principle of metaphysics, obviously true and needing no argument, Prior’s argument is a good reductio ad absurdum of the view that things can come into being from nothing.