You Can’t Even Get Nothing from Nothing

Much has been written over the last few weeks about the philosophical foolishness of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss in his recently published book, A Universe from Nothing. Of particular note are the devastating takedowns contributed by Mike Flynn and David Albert. They point out that Krauss has mistaken the meaning of “nothing.” Krauss argues that a quantum vacuum could give rise to a cosmos, and that is what it seems to have done. But the quantum vacuum is not nothing; it is a state of affairs that behaves in accordance with a system of equations. States, affairs, behavior and equations are things. Nothing is a state of affairs in which there is no state of affairs, nor any equations, nor anything else of any kind whatsoever. So Krauss is talking, not about how nothing gave rise to something, but how something gave rise to something.

So much for him, then.

It is not too tough to see that you can’t get something from nothing. Interestingly, it turns out that you can’t even get nothing from nothing. You can only get nothing from something. But then, technically, you can’t get nothing from something, either. At most, you can get non-being from something. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You can’t get something from nothing, because there would be nothing to get the something from; nothing to cause it to pop into existence, and nothing out of which it could pop into existence. That part’s easy.

You can’t get nothing from nothing, either. If there were to be nothing at all, then absolute nothingness would in that case necessarily be possible. The actuality of nothingness requires the existence of the possibility of nothingness. But if a possibility exists, and nothing else, then there is still something rather than nothing.

You can’t get nothingness from nothing, and you can’t get it from anything.  So absolute nothingness is absolutely impossible. Absolute nothingness is an incoherent idea.

The closest you can get to nothingness is non-being: the nonexistence of some state of affairs that is different than any of the states of affairs that ever will have come about. The state of affairs in which there is no actual universe in which we ever exist is in a state of non-being. So is the state of affairs in which there is a square circle.

To say that nothingness is impossible is to say that it is necessary that there be always, in every possible state of affairs – including those states of affairs that are prior to all worlds – something that exists necessarily, and that makes the existence of states of affairs possible in the first place. Before any particular instance of being, then, being as such must be. Our term for that necessary existence is “God.”

31 thoughts on “You Can’t Even Get Nothing from Nothing

  1. In his review of ‘A Universe from Nothing’ (in the New York Times), David Albert asks, “What on earth, then can Krauss have been thinking”?

    Krauss seems unlikely to pay attention to philosophical criticism of his cosmological theories. If he did pay attention and he understood what Professor Albert is getting at, then he’d have to rethink all his beliefs from different starting assumptions. That would be curtains for his career as a scientific materialist.

  2. I was all set to do a riff on this entry that would have used a famous quotation attributed to G. K. Chesterton. I’d have said: Maybe GKC was wrong after all, when he said something like, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything” — a man can indeed believe in nothing.

    But checking the quotation I discovered that it’s apocryphal:

  3. Re: nothing and etc:

    See popcorn for the example . Or any seed for that matter.

    God didn’t create something out of nothing. Everything that exists came out from within himself at the big announcement. Every “thing” has an unseen/spiritual element “behind ” it, which is the “thing’s” essence or that which causes it’s “livingness”.

  4. Robert Wright, himself an atheist, interviewed Krauss on “Blogging Heads TV” and brought up the same criticisms. Indeed, I think atheists ponder this question more than Christians, who apparently find the biblical explanation satisfactory.

    Krauss doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. It is impossible to prove the non-existence of a supernatural being, who is not subject to natural law. What he is trying to do is to explain the how the universe came to be assuming it has a natural explanation. All that can ever be done is to show that the atheist point of view is not in itself contradictory.

    Slowly, science is pushing back the objections to a non-supernatural explanation. Before the theory of evolution, it was quite reasonable to ascribe the existence of life to divine intervention. You can still believe in the supernatural explanation if you wish, but atheists now have a reasonable competing theory.

    Similarly, quantum theory, with virtual particles that jump into existence out of the vacuum is doing the same thing for physical objects that evolution did for the origin of life.

    But, as you say, where did the vacuum and its inherent energy come from? Stay tuned.

  5. There are two possibilities

    1. The universe was created – which leads to the question from where and by whom?

    2. The universe has always existed – which means that it already has existed for infinite time. Entropy will then ensure that the universe would be

    a) totally chaotic with no organisation of any sort

    b) totally cold.

  6. Pingback: Nature is Not Natural « The Orthosphere

  7. Your argument that nothingness is an impossibility turns on the cheapness existence. If there’s a possibility, then something exists. If there’s a state of affairs, then something exists.

    But this has nothing to do with God. We don’t call these “beings as such” ‘God,’ we call them boring logical necessities. That’s all they are.

      • But surely in your last paragraph you were trying to get to God from the cheapness of existence. Breaking down that paragraph:

        1. If nothingness is impossible (because existence is cheap: eg. “the actuality of nothingness requires the existence of the possibility of nothingness”), then there is something that exists necessarily. 2. This something makes the existence of states of affairs possible in the first place. 3. This is “being as such” aka God.

        What did I attribute to you that you didn’t say?

      • Perhaps we aren’t really far apart. You said, “We don’t call these “beings as such” ‘God,’ we call them boring logical necessities.” But I had said, “Before any particular instance of being, then, being as such must be. Our term for that necessary existence is ‘God.'” There is a difference between a collection of beings that are logically necessary, such as the truths of mathematics, and the principal of being, in whom their existence and truth subsists. You seemed to me to be talking about the former, in referring to “boring logical necessities,” when I had been talking about the latter.

        From any particular being we can argue to a Prime Being. If there is a state of affairs, then there necessarily exists something ontologically prior thereto, in which the possibility that there might be such a state of affairs subsists. This is so for all possible states of affairs, of which there are an infinite number. So, there is some necessary entity in whom an infinite number of possibilities subsists.

        The argument is pretty well-known, so I didn’t bother to spell it out again in that last paragraph.

      • I see. So the idea is: collect all possible existents/states of affairs. They must subsist in something. That something is the Prime Being/God.

        Ok, but then you missed something in the original enumeration. So take the new set, now including God. What does that subsist in?

        (Appeal to necessity isn’t enough here, since we already included lots of necessities—like 2+2=4—in the original collection.)

      • God is self-subsistent. A necessary concrete actuality is necessarily self-subsistent.

        NB that our original collection of necessities, such as the necessary truths or the necessary set of possibilities, are not themselves actualities, but rather only features of actualities. A truth or a potentiality can exist only as a characteristic or property of some actuality.

        Once we narrow the discussion to actualities, it becomes much simpler. From any actuality we may argue straightforwardly to the necessity of a Prime Actuality, that is the Principal and principle of actuality as such, and thus the forecondition of any particular actuality, including the Prime Actuality. The forecondition of the Prime Actuality is the Prime Actuality.

        Thus in order for any given thing to exist, you need a Prime Actuality. And in order for the Prime Actuality to exist, you need the Prime Actuality. Of existent things, then, the Prime Actuality is the only one that presupposes itself. This may in fact be what we mean by saying of an actuality that it is necessary.

        Interestingly, with this move we escape one sort of recursion, that you are trying to employ – Russell’s paradoxical set of all sets – by turning to another, that is not paradoxical. The recursion we turn to is this: in order for God to exist, God must exist. No paradox there; just a tautology (as with all the mathematical truths).

  8. I don’t really get what the original argument was, then. Where did “concrete actualities” come into it? What was the first concrete actuality you touched on in the course of argument? Was *the possibility that nothingness exists* supposed to be a concrete actuality?

    If you’re saying that the existence of concrete actualities implies the existence of a Prime Actuality, well, ok, but is that just a different argument from different premisses?

    • Concrete actualities came into it only as a result of your apt questions. The original argument is:

      1. Because nothingness requires the existence (somehow or other – we needn’t specify how) of the possibility of nothingness, nothingness is impossible.
      2. Something must necessarily exist.
      3. Thanks to the argument from any particular thing to a Prime Thing, something must necessarily exist necessarily. I didn’t spell out this step of the argument in the original post; it is what I have fleshed out a bit in conversation with you.
      4. The thing that necessarily exists necessarily is what we have called God.

      • But the ‘somethings’ in (2) could just be possibilities, right? As is the case here?

        So for the argument to work, possibilities have to be ‘concrete actualities’? Or is the idea that possibilities imply concrete actualities, because possibilities need concrete actualities to ‘subsist in’?

      • The somethings in 2 are just “something or other.” All we’re saying with 2 is, “since absolute nothingness is impossible, something or other must somehow or other exist.”

        Once we’ve established that, then we may go on to ask what sort of thing it is that must exist, and what its mode of existence might be. We’ve already found that possibilities must necessarily exist. We then quickly discover that mere possibilities cannot exist independently of any concrete actuality, because, since you can’t get something from nothing, therefore “possibility” can only mean “capacity of some actual state of affairs to give rise to some other actual state of affairs.” We discover, i.e., that possibilities are capacities of actualities. We can abstract them for purposes of discussion, but they cannot in reality exist apart from the actualities in which they subsist.

  9. The sad thing is that these atheistic assumptions are sold as science, instead of philosophy. The thing that it is meant to be conveyed in an implicit manner is that atheism and materialism have been proved by science and no other worldview is scientific (that is, true). This is stated, implicitly or explicitly, in many popular science books (like Asimov’s) or webs (like “Discover Magazine”).

    I love science, but it is harder and harder for me to read popular science because the atheistic worldview is more and more evident. See for example, this

    I remember being 14 y.o. and being fascinated by one of the best scientific programs in the history of TV: “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. It was educational, it was interesting, it was inspiring. I really loved it: it caused a great impression on me. Unfortunately, Carl Sagan have taken advantage of this TV show to further his atheistic worldview. The show and the book started: “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be”. He didn’t say: “In my opinion, the cosmos is all that is…”. He stated as a scientific fact. For a teenager like me, this was the beginning of my road to atheism.

    Some decades later, this so-called fact is not accepted by anyone. The theist obviously don’t accept it. The materialist don’t accept it either: they believe in an infinity of universes: the multiverse. It seems that it was not that indisputable after all.

    It seems to me very dishonest to hijack science to further one’s philosophical assumptions. But this is becoming more and more frequent.

  10. This is, I do not think, crucial to your argument, but you seem to be conflating potentials with possibilities, which Garrigou-Lagrange was at pains to separate; after all, a vacuum or a lightbulb is not potentially hominy, but an ear of corn is.

    On the other hand, you are perhaps vulnerable here to something similar to the Angelic Doctor’s attack on the Ontological Argument. For, he said, “our intellect’s first act is to know being, reality, because an object is knowable only in the degree in which it is actual.” This would imply that, just as we cannot, for him, prove the actual existence of God a priori due to our inability to really understand anything beyond the intelligibles of sense objects, we cannot have an argument for the impossibility of nothing ever having existed, since nothingness is even less comprehensible than God—it isn’t even analogical to anything. I, at least, sure don’t know what it really means to say that nothingness is impossible, and I think that points more towards my own limits than towards a proof that existence is necessary.

    But maybe I’m wrong, and one of you can take the part of my Lady Philosophy and instruct me, and I do have to thank you for your idea. And of course I do not mean to say that existence is not, in fact, necessary; as a Christian I must believe that God does have to exist, but I also believe that we cannot prove this without reference to sensible objects.

    • The difference between possibilities and potentialities is indeed not crucial to my argument, and so perhaps I wasn’t careful enough in my diction. If so, mea culpa. But I am clear on the difference. Potentialities are all possible, but not vice versa. And, reviewing my argument, I can’t figure out where I might have given the impression that I was talking about potentialities instead of possibilities, as I had intended. But that’s probably because I am too close to the document to see the faults in it. Where, if I may ask, did it seem to you that I went off the rails in this respect?

      • It was where you said that “‘possibility’ can only mean ‘capacity of some actual state of affairs to give rise to some other actual state of affairs.’ We discover, i.e., that possibilities are capacities of actualities.” This seems, rather, like the definition of potentials. But this is not really to the point, and I probably should not have brought it up. Me paenitet.

      • Ah, I see. Well, but I stand by it. The mere possibility of hominy is in the first place a potentiality of God, who by Himself constitutes an actual entity and an actual state of affairs. Only thus could it ever come to be a potentiality for an ear of corn.

        The basic idea is that a raw possibility is not really conceivable, precisely because nothing cannot give rise to something. If nothingness were, per impossibile, actual, then because nothingness cannot give rise to anything, let alone hominy, there could be no possibility of hominy. For there to be a possibility of hominy, the eventuation of hominy must be a potentiality of some actuality.

        Head hurting. Need sleep.

    • I am a fan of the Ontological Argument. I have never found Thomas’ attack on Anselm compelling, because it has always seemed to me that all conceivable intelligibles are implicated by those that are explicitly present in any sensible. If they are not, then truth is disintegral, and philosophy therefore impossible. If they are, then at least in principle we may reason our way to the apprehension of any metaphysical truth whatever from an apprehension of any one of them, as explicitly manifested in some sensible.

      Furthermore, it has always seemed to me that a metaphysical truth, being necessary, must condition every existent whatsoever (this being part of what we mean by calling a truth necessary); so that every sensible does, in fact, however obscurely, explicitly manifest all the metaphysical truths, if only by virtue of the fact that it cannot contradict them. If this is correct, then all the intelligibles are in principle implicitly available to the intellect in any sensible. Thus every possible act of metaphysical reasoning is potential to the intellect as the sequel to its very first act, of apprehending being.

      As to nothingness being less comprehensible than God: quite so. But while it is true that we cannot really know what nothingness means, or what it would be like, we can know that nothingness is an incoherent notion – like a square circle. We can’t know what a square circle would be like, either, but we can know that it is an incoherent notion, and that, because it is an incoherent notion, it cannot be realized, whether in concept or act. Likewise for nothingness. If nothingness is impossible, then something must exist; “nothingness is impossible” and “something must exist” are two ways of saying the same thing.

      • Sorry for not responding earlier. Anyway, I think this is one of the few cases where we can legitimately use Bertrand Russell’s tactic and say that “nothingness” does not refer—for it does not even refer to a real concept. Therefore, we cannot know that “nothingness is an incoherent notion,” because nothingness is not actually a notion. Instead, we must try to prove that the proposition “It is not the case that something exists” is logically impossible. Russell may have only pulled a little piece off of my lady’s dress, but it can be a useful little piece.

        But would nothing existing be a real state of affairs? States of affairs, like forms, exist only in our minds and in existing things, so even the state of affairs of nothing existing would have nothing to exist in, so we really could have nothing.

  11. … Before any particular instance of being, then, being as such must be. Our term for that necessary existence is “God.”

    And here Ayn Rand inagined she’d done away with God by asserting that “Existence exists”, what all she’d really done is substitute terms in the proposition/assertion that “God is”.

  12. Pingback: Credo: Resurrexit « The Orthosphere

  13. Forgive me for cross posting, but like a few other bloggers who have posted on this, you do not seem to have read Krauss’s book, or at least not very carefully. Or perhaps you just did not understand it.

    Krauss explicitly addresses this kind of thinking quite early in the book – in the preface to be exact.

    He makes it clear that he does NOT take the fields or the elemental rules of the universe for granted, but claims that in a state of true nothing there would be nothing stopping laws arising spontaneously. As he point out this does not stop the critics, who argue that the POTENTIAL for a universe to arise is not “nothing”. As he also points out, this is like arguing for “turtles all the way down”. It is obsurism, and ultimately meaningless.

    This is also taken up by Victor J Stenger, who is both a particle physicist, Emeritus Professor of physics at the University of Hawaii, and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado. With a foot in both the physics and philosphy camps, it would be hard to find anyone better qualified to comment. He says it better than me, so have a look.

    He also points out that Krauss’s position is in fact not new, and typical among theoretical particle physicists and cosmologists.

    This is an interesting debate, and I have not fully made up my mind. But it is not nearly as simplistic as you suggest, not does Krauss take the position you claim he does.

    • Thanks, Ramases. You are right that I have not read Krauss’s book. But I have read enough of his argument to know that he is not arguing that the cosmos came from nothing, as “nothing” has been understood since Periclean Athens. He is arguing that the cosmos arose from a pre-existent system of natural laws and a set of potentialities implicit therein. But if a potential for something exists, even if nothing else does, then something somehow or other exists: the potential. If the potential for a universe did not exist, then obviously there could not ever be a universe.

      This is not obscurist. On the contrary, it is plain common sense. Nor is it turtles all the way down. It is the opposite. It says that there are turtles all the way down to the point where the bottom turtle rests on eternal, necessary being, the First Unmoved Mover, without whom there could be no such things as turtles or worlds.

  14. Pingback: “Nothing” can’t exist « The Esposito


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