“Something” or “Nothing”?

By Mac Deaver

The issue of “origin” as a concept has to begin somewhere. From whence did everything that is arrive? What is the source of all that we experience on earth? Ultimately, we are going to have to face two theoretical possibilities. Either there was a point at which there was “nothing,” or there has never been a point at which there was “nothing.” But before we go further, let us make sure that we are all on the same page regarding what nothing “is.” Look at those last quotation marks. They indicate that the very concept of “is” is opposed to the very concept of “nothing.” If we say that nothing is so and so, we are trying to give nothing some sort of ontological or “being” status, which by definition it simply cannot have. Nothing is not something. Nothing has no characteristics or qualities. Nothing is void of everything. It is the absence of anything and everything. It is the negation of all being. And by “being,” we mean existence at its most fundamental ontological level. If “nothing” were to be the absolute ultimate ontological condition at a given point, then we as men could not “think” it. As humans we cannot live with nothing and our minds are not equipped to even clearly grasp the meaning of the term we choose to describe as the absolute ontological contradiction to “being.” We have to think of “nothing” as a “something” even to bring it forward as a concept for discussion. Isn’t that amazing? And isn’t that insightful?

So, when we talk about “nothing” as a theoretical possibility regarding origin, we are having to intellectually squirm around in the effort to make sense of that which we are trying to describe. It is hard for a finite mind to get hold of the concept of nothing. It would do well for atheists to contemplate this point the next time they criticize the concept of eternal “something”. As humans we can only contemplate “nothing” as a topic from the background of the something that already impresses itself constantly on our minds. The backdrop of the discussion of “nothing” exists as a “something”. It cannot happen any other way. Since a human mind is certainly “something,” then we can only begin to attempt to fathom the concept of nothing via something, that is, our human minds. Minimally, the existence of at least the human mind is always the ontological presupposition to the discussion of “nothing”. Without our minds, there is no discussion, there is no issue, there is no controversy about the ultimate origin of all there is. So either “something” or “nothing” as the ultimate ontological explanation for all else is only relevant to a mind.

Now, just what does that insight tell us? It tells us that “nothing” can only be thought about by “something”! The approach to the topic of “nothing” can be made only by a mind. But a mind must exist before the concept can be thought. It is, then, impossible for “nothing” to be an intellectual category of existence all by itself. It can only exist in some sense as someone’s thought. If there were no thinker, then “nothing” could be thought or mentally produced as a concept. If there were no thinker, “nothing” could ever be known to be the ultimate ontological condition. If there were no thinker, “nothing” could never be discovered to be the ultimate ontological condition. “Nothing” as a concept only exists in a mind. Without a mind, there is no “nothing” to be thought or discussed. If “nothing” were (and without an eternal Mind) to be the ultimate ontological condition, then that “nothing” would have to continue as the ontological state. Out of nothing, nothing comes! That is, ontologically speaking, something cannot come from nothing! It is irrational to attempt to contradict that basic truth.

Think about it this way. Non-being cannot “be”. Non-being is not being. And not-being cannot be an existing ontological category that permits exploration or discovery as an existent category can. This means, then, that when in language we attempt to discuss the concept of “nothing,” that we can only do so by approximation. We can approximate the proposed ontological category of “nothing” only by language accommodation. But we can never actually get our minds around “absolute nothing,” because a mind can only think of “something”. That is the nature of thought. A thought cannot contain “nothing”!

Just as “something” is ontologically prior to “nothing” (as truth is to falsehood and as good is to evil), logically a mind is ontologically prior to the discussion of the possibility for any kind of “nothing”. That means that “something” is ontologically prior to “nothing”! “Nothing” as a category of thought or being only makes any sense either ontologically (in the totality of reality) or conceptually (in someone’s thought) with something already existing. Ontologically “nothing” can be isolated and in concept identified only against the background of “something”. It is, as already stated, like the concept of good or the concept of truth. “Evil” makes sense only on the ontological precondition of an existing good. And falsehood only makes sense on the precondition of an existing truth. Just so, “nothing” means nothing (that is, not anything at all) conceptually unless ontologically “something” exists with which it can be contrasted.

So, it is impossible for “nothing” to exist because “nothing” is “non-existence.” In one sense, to say that “nothing exists” is to say that nothing both exists and does not exist, which is a logical contradiction. This means that nothing cannot be anywhere located. It cannot be discovered because it cannot be found. It cannot be found because, by definition, it has no existence. If it has no existence, it has no accessibility to discovery. We talk about it only in some accommodative sense by an approximation in concept and then in language. Since one cannot discover “nothing,” he can only get close to it by altering the meaning of it. Since men cannot conceive of “absolute nothing,” we imagine a condition that is “almost nothing.” That is the best that we can do regarding the topic of origin. When we try to imagine a state of “absolute nothing,” we always fail. So, perhaps without thinking, we redefine the “almost nothing” that we imagined to be good enough to be the “absolute nothing” that is necessary in the discussion of origin as an alternative to an eternal “something”. So then, we should see that in our discussion of “nothing” and “something,” we cannot even discuss the contrast between the two without at the same time granting some sort of existence to the concept of “nothing” so that our minds can handle the discussion.

Now, think about the fact that if we could comprehend “nothing” (complete and universal non-existence absolutely) without accommodation and approximation, the concept itself could not have clear and precise definition. That is, it could not have clear meaning to us. Why? Because definition distinguishes something from something else. That is what definition does. By the fact that we can discuss “nothing” in some way that seems to make intellectual sense to us in the discussion of origin, we learn that it is being contrasted with “something” already. And I submit to you that the precondition or the backdrop or the contrast that makes the discussion of “nothing” a theoretical possibility in a way that is rationally intelligible is the existence of our minds. Our minds are always being the precondition or the “something” with which the “nothing” we seek to explore is held in contrast. “Nothing” is meaningful as a concept only because of “something” already being presupposed which presupposition is the human mind itself! This is the way that it is; this is the way that it always must be. We think at times that we are really grasping “nothing” because we try to imagine a blank or a void outside of our minds. But the mind itself is so constructed as to impose by its own nature conceptual limitations on our thinking. “Nothing” at minimal ontological reduction must be at least a concept or a thought we try to think or that is manufactured by our imagination, but we can never quite rid it of all content. Never!

To illustrate the impossibility of thinking of “nothing” without approximation (getting only close to its real meaning), let me offer a few items. Let us say that someone objects to our treatment of the topic and says that he can think of and describe, with absolute comprehension, the meaning of “nothing”. Let us say that our objector says that he thinks of “nothing” and can adequately describe it as a hollow or an empty place (void) or a place without form or color or shape. But you see, dear reader, that he is thinking about “nothing” from the viewpoint of “something”. The human mind is stuck right here in its capacity to conceptualize anything. We can only approximate the concept of “nothing”. We cannot grasp it accurately and certainly not comprehensively. We can only think in terms of “almost nothing”. This is as close as we can get! When the objector says that he thinks of “nothing” when he thinks of a hollow or an empty place, he is affirming “something” by which he means to be describing “nothing”!

Interestingly, the first definition in my dictionary of the word “nothing” is “something that does not exist.” And even the second definition, “NOTHINGNESS,” by the “-ness” on the end of the word suggests, somehow, “something” (see Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 577). That is, “nothing” is being considered as “something”. We cannot mentally get to the concept of “nothing” without identifying it as “something,” some state of affairs or condition or situation or location, etc. Now, isn’t that instructive? The human mind simply cannot get its arms completely around the concept of “nothing”. That means that when we attempt to think it or try to discuss it, we are doing so by means of some kind of conceptual and language accommodation, so that each of us knows what the others are meaning to say without anyone’s actually and precisely saying it when we refer to “nothing”. No human being can at one and the same time (1) exist and (2) claim accurately that “nothing” is possible of comprehension. The already existing mind cannot “get it”. We can only intellectually arrive at the border or the idea of the concept of it by thinking and speaking in terms of “almost nothing”. And that is as far as we can go. The bottom line is, then, that in the discussion of origin, we cannot even consider the idea of “nothing” without first presupposing “something”. By negation of “something,” we conceptually arrive at its opposite “nothing”. But that “nothing” cannot have complete meaning without the “something” that it opposes. To make this clear, let me offer the following. Let us identify the ways in which we can think of “something” and “nothing”. We can think of “something” in the following ways:

Possibilities for “Something

1. Something as only a concept (that is, it exists only in a mind).

2. Something as an actual ontological existent (that is, it exists also outside of the mind).

3. Something as only a word or sound (that is, there is no ontological referent for it even though the word can be written or spoken).

4. Something as an actual non-existent.

Number 1 can be illustrated by a 4,000 pound horse.

Number 2 can be illustrated by a real horse.

Number 3 can be illustrated by a unicorn.

Number 4 can be illustrated by a horse no longer alive and whose bones and flesh have been completely absorbed by nature.

Possibilities for “Nothing

1. Nothing as only a concept (that is, it exists only in a mind).

2. Nothing as an actual ontological existent (that is, it actually exists outside of the mind and without a mind).

3. Nothing as only a word or sound (that is, there is no ontological referent for it even though the word can be written or spoken).

4. Nothing as an actual non-existent.

Number 1 means that “nothing” is never outside the mind at all. There cannot be an “absolute nothing”.

Number 2 is a contradiction by definition. “Nothing” cannot be “something”.

Number 3 is actually a denial that “nothing” exists since it is only existing by a sound or a word that names it but gives it no ontological standing. We have a sign without a referent to which the sign points or for which the sign stands. “Nothing” is really simply a word or sound with no meaningful referent.

Number 4 is the meaning of “nothing” being attempted in the discussion of origin, but we arrive at the concept of “nothing” only by conceptual approximation.

Now why is this important to consider? It is important because it means then that, ultimately, there is no alternative to the eternal existence of “something”! Since out of nothing, nothing can come, and since the human mind can only approximate the condition of nothingness by the description that “almost nothing” exists, we are seeing and saying that “something” has always existed. And the very description that “almost nothing” exists becomes itself void of significance in the effort to identify theoretical possibilities in the discussion of ultimate origin. Why? Because we are affirming that “something” really does, after all, exist! And, ontologically speaking, that is the contradiction of the claim that “nothing” exists. In other words, to say that “almost nothing” exists is to say that “something” exists! So, to claim that “almost nothing” exists is not much of a claim, as it turns out, after all.

Think about the concept of improbability. If someone says that it is improbable that God exists, since the claim of improbability is the admission of the possibility of the contradictory, then whoever says that it is improbable that God exists is saying at the same time that God may exist after all! More strikingly, however, when someone says that it is possible that at a point “nothing” existed, since he can only approximate “nothing,” he is saying that at a point “almost nothing” existed, which implies, at that point, “something” existed after all!

Think about it this way. What if someone is discussing a box that he thinks has been emptied of all the apples in it. Suppose he says to a friend of his that the box is empty. Then suppose that his friend looks into the box and finds one remaining apple. Being shown this, the original claimant who said the box was empty now, in response, says that the box is “almost empty”. What does this mean? Obviously, if the box is only “almost empty,” then clearly it is not empty at all! Now to apply this easy illustration, when we find that the “ontological box” is almost empty (conceptually as we attempt to think about “nothing” as a category of inquiry and discussion), we are finding that the “ontological box” is not empty at all. “Something” is in it. But it looks like that something is barely in it. That is, the box looks to be almost empty or void of anything except this one lone, isolated apple.

Ah yes, it looks like there is a large encompassing atmosphere that envelops the one lone apple. The box is larger than is the apple within it.

And here is where the application of this illustration breaks down because the actual ontological condition cannot be that way. Why not? Because the ultimately identifiable “something” has no encompassing atmosphere that is larger than it is. If there is a larger encompassing something that is beyond what the already identified ultimate “something” is, then the “something” identified could not be the ultimate “something” possible! This reminds us, does it not, of Anselm’s correct insight regarding the ultimate Being as being that “greater than which cannot be conceived”. It is not merely coincidental that Scripture claims that God inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15; cf. Psalm 90:2). Conceptually, that is not anything close to saying, for example, that God inhabits Georgia. What God inhabits cannot be properly conceptualized as being a place larger than the inhabitant. The nature of ultimate Being cannot be described that way.

The Bible claims, and the situation must ontologically obtain, that beyond time and beyond everything else that there could ever possibly be, something had to be already “in place” with the “place” not being something like geography (e.g. Georgia) but a condition beyond time and place. The ultimate something, whatever or who it is must be beyond time in the sense that everything in time is characterized by the property of merely enduring through moments or segments of durative existence. That is, everything in time is marked by time and must be in the process of passing away or passing out of time. I would describe time basically as the process of diminishing change. The ultimate something or existent must be beyond time. Too, the ultimate existent has to be beyond place in the sense that it must be its own place. When Scripture declares that God inhabits eternity, it is saying that God is his own residence! He simply cannot exist in a place that preceded him, and he could not possibly exist in a place that succeeded him! God is his own area or “place”. He, himself, constitutes the only location there is, at least before any creation occurs.

This means that ultimate Being is something beyond both time and place as we are forced to think about both concepts, because we can only think of time as it applies to things created (that is, finite things); we can only think of place as location always in some sense larger than any possible existing inhabitant. Interestingly, according to Scripture, there is a sense in which God does not change (Malachi 3:6) and he inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15). God is the “I Am That I Am” (KJV) or the “I Am Because I Am” (ASV) per Exodus 3:14 in that he is not an effect but the eternally existing Being whose being is explainable only in terms of its own and only ontological self-sufficiency. The reason for God is God. As Aquinas taught us, his essence simply is “to be”. In one sense, it sounds so strange, but when the finite mind begins to explore the nature of reality, the absolute essentiality of such an ultimate essence is found to be not simply a possibility but an essentiality. So, again, God is beyond time and he was, since he was outside of time, the only “location” before creation.

Following creation, all of creation must be “in him”. This is why Paul can tell the philosophers in Athens that men live “in God” (Acts 17:28). The whole creation is a different sort of thing (by the nature of any created thing) from the Creator himself. All of creation must be “in God” in that God is greater than any and all of what he makes. The effect cannot be greater than the Cause. To revert to our “almost empty basket” illustration earlier, we see that God is not simply the lone apple left in the basket that shows that the basket is only “almost empty”. Rather he is the essential and necessary “basket” that contains any and all apples that can exist. So, as it turns out, the “something” that is implied by the “almost nothing” is, in fact, not merely a lone “something” that means that the basket is barely occupied, but rather the “something” turns out to be the necessary Lone Something—or God—that is able to contain everything else that ever there is or could be.

Now, what if someone grants the contention that it is really impossible, after all, for the human mind to completely comprehend the concept of ontological “nothingness,” but then registers the objection that such is irrelevant in the discussion of origin since the human mind cannot fathom the concept of eternity either. Suppose a skeptic says, for example, that the impossibility of complete comprehension of the idea of “nothingness” is not important to the discussion anyway, since the concept of eternity is equally off limits to human comprehension. Let us explore this possible objection and see if there is some merit to it.

When someone says that the concept of an eternal something (God) is just as hard to intellectually grasp as is the concept of an ontological “nothing,” we would suggest that since we humans are here to look at the topic of origin, something is certainly existing now. We must begin the exploration of the nature of the origin of our universe by virtue of the fact that something is already in place. The “something” and all the “somethings” that are present display their nature to be finite (limited) and contingent (dependent) effects without efficient cause and without sufficient reason from within themselves to explain themselves.

It is an obvious feature of our universe with its component parts, that the items that when combined constitute that universe are such as to cry out to us that they cannot explain themselves and they cannot cause themselves. The idea of something’s causing itself is a contradiction in terms. “X” cannot cause itself to exist because if “X” is the cause, it already exists before its effect does, and if “X” is the effect, it cannot be the effect of “X” that does not exist previously. It is irrational to suggest that anything can cause itself! It is an impossible situation that amounts to a claim for an ontological contradiction which is absurd. Well, if it is impossible for anything to cause itself, what about the possibility of something’s being the reason for itself? Those who study philosophy may be familiar with the principle of efficient causality and with the principle of sufficient reason. These are two different principles of tremendous worth. And both of them cover the existence of everything that there is! The principle of efficient causality covers everything that is an effect (which is everything but God). The principle of sufficient reason covers everything including God.

No man thinking correctly can say that (1) he caused himself to exist or that (2) he has the sufficient reason or explanation for himself within himself. Every man, if he thinks about the matter at all, surely realizes that the explanation for himself lies outside of himself and the cause for himself is outside of himself. And such is characteristic of every particle of this physical universe! The efficient cause and the sufficient reason for everything within the universe and the universe itself is outside of itself. That is the very nature of the essence of physicality. And even regarding the mind of man, by self-reflection, each of us can know that (1) he did not cause his mind to exist (since it is a contradiction to claim that a mind caused itself to exist) and (2) the sufficient reason for the existence of his mind within his body indicates that the sufficiency for the arrangement is not within the arrangement itself. It has to come somehow from the outside. Each of us would begin to explore the cause and the reason for ourselves by taking the first step and claiming that our parents are our efficient cause even if they cannot be the sufficient reason for us. According to Scripture, all men have a heritage of efficient cause all the way back to Adam and then to God who is the ultimate efficient cause and sufficient reason for the existence of everything outside of himself.

Every “something” in the universe, or the universe as a “something” considered as one entity, indicates its complete ontological inadequacy in explaining itself or being the reason for itself or in being the cause of itself. Every feature of our world points to a “something” that must exist and not by causing itself (which as we have seen is a contradiction in terms) but which must have the reason for itself within itself. But a mindless “it” or a simple piece of matter has no capacity to be its own explanation or reason, as we see in looking at our universe and all that composes it. The ultimate principle of the universe cannot be just an “it” or an “It” or an “IT”. All of the “its” as a category are effects at best of something that is not. The essence of the ultimate Being has to be greater than everything that composes a part of our universe and greater than the universe as a whole.

The ultimate “something” or “Something” has to be this way! God has the reason for himself within himself. He does not cause himself because such is impossible and also because he is no effect. But he does and must have within his own essence the essential claim on existence. And all effects must be less that all causes. And the total effect of creation must be less, in some sense, than the ultimate Creator. Aquinas taught us that God’s essence is to exist. Now, we may not be able to completely fathom such an essence, but we can fathom the necessity of such an essence when we are considering how it is possible for anything now to exist at all.

So, let us look at our two possibilities as we think about the origin of our universe. Everything is the result finally of either (1) “nothing” or (2) “something”. Now, it is correct to say that it is hard for a human and finite mind to comprehend an “eternal something”. But the “eternal something” is implied by every “finite something” that exists. The fact that it is hard for a finite mind to comprehend an infinite and “eternal something” ought to make us humble, reverent, and submissive while admitting to ourselves that it is impossible for us to completely grasp the nature of divine essentiality. But what we do know is that while we cannot grasp the nature of essentiality (and thus the sufficient reason for God’s infinite eternality), we can grasp the necessary nature of that existence as an explanation for whoever it is that causes everything else to exist. The first cause must be his own explanation. It simply has to be this way. And this is what the Bible means in affirming God!

It is true that we cannot fathom completely the concept of “nothing”. We can know, however, that “nothing” cannot be the ultimate cause of anything. And “nothing” cannot explain anything. We can approximate the category of “nothing” only by looking at it against the background of “something”. In fact, “nothing” is always being considered “something” as we try to imagine it. It is also true that as we talk about the eternal God as the ultimate cause of everything outside of himself and as the sufficient reason for himself, that we are claiming something that we cannot completely comprehend.

However, the two situations are not parallel in that—

1. “Nothing” can ever be the cause or the explanation for anything, period!

2. “Something” necessarily or essentially existed forever in order for something to exist even temporarily today.

3. The incapacity of the human mind to grapple completely with the concept of “nothing” only indicates the necessary background of “something” as the precondition for the discussion of “nothing” anyway.

4. We cannot know “nothing” as such, and we cannot know the essence of essential existence that must characterize the ultimate cause of the universe.

5. But we do know that since out of “nothing,” nothing comes, and that since “something” has come, then the “ultimate Something” somehow carries his own eternal ontological credentials for himself within himself. It cannot be any other way.

In the 1976 Warren-Flew debate on the existence of God, Warren said that an atheist cannot disprove the existence of God by appealing only to the concept of God (see p. 54 of The Warren-Flew Debate). Rather, Warren said that the attempt at disproof would necessarily entail not only the concept of God (which concept by itself is coherent), but such would entail combining the coherent concept with some empirical fact which supposedly contradicts the concept. This is what is involved when atheists attempt to disprove God by the so-called “problem of evil”.

So, according to Warren (and this was never denied by the atheist Flew in the debate), the coherent concept of God plus some empirical fact alleged to be contradictory of the concept would be required to attempt to disprove theism and to establish the claim of atheism.

Now, what have we been saying in this article? We have been saying, in effect, that the concept of “nothing” is really an incoherent concept at best. We simply cannot make sense of “absolute nothingness”. The state or condition or situation of any proposed “absolute nothingness” is an incoherent concept in and of itself! It only becomes intelligible by making it “almost nothing” against the backdrop of a “something”. By itself the concept of “nothing” or “nothingness” can never rationally be suggested as an alternative to the necessity of creation. The concept of “God” is a coherent one, and the atheist Antony Flew did not deny such. But the concept of “absolute nothingness” is not even coherent! In the Warren-Flew debate, Flew suggested in his rejoinder on Monday night, “It seems to me that someone could perfectly consistently be an atheist and believe that the universe is going as a matter of fact to have an end, or believe that it had had a beginning but was not going to have an end. However, I am myself inclined to believe that matter is without end and without beginning. But I do not see why as an atheist I have got to” (ibid., p. 65).

Thus, as an atheist Flew wrongly accepted the irrational notion that (1) “something” can come from “nothing,” while at the same time wrongly accepting the view that (2) matter is eternal. But Flew also conceded correctly that the concept of God by itself is coherent! Warren exposed Flew for accepting the self-contradictory view from Strato of Greece, called the “stratonician presumption,” which claims that “everything there is is a product of nature” (ibid., p. 170f.), which if true would mean, as Warren pointed out, that nature produced itself (now who can possibly actually believe that when he understands what it means?) and he told Flew that he needed to get on with the business of attempting to prove the eternality of matter (p. 187)! Warren used the Second Law of Thermodynamics in physics to show that the claim that matter is eternal is false (ibid.).

Finally, if the concept of “God” is coherent, and if the concept of “nothing” is incoherent, and if the attempt at disproving God must entail not only the coherent concept of “God” but an empirical fact judged to be contradictory to the concept, then what can we finally say about the concept of “nothing” plus some empirical fact? Notice that the incoherent concept of “absolute nothing” plus any empirical fact, means that “something” exists! Why? Because the empirical fact exists alongside the incoherent concept of “nothing”.

So, the concept of “God” plus some empirical fact is what is necessarily attempted by atheists to disprove God when they use the so-called “problem of evil,” but no facts can disprove God, because all facts ultimately demand God for ultimate explanation! As Professor Warren used to teach us, “if one thing exists, then God exists. If the one thing that exists is God, then God exists, and if the one thing that exists is not God, then it requires God for its existence”. And the incoherent concept of “nothing” plus some empirical fact proves “something” rather than “nothing” exists because the empirical fact is “something”.

It is impossible, then, to build a rational case for atheism either by the alleged eternality of matter or by “something” coming from “nothing”. There is no room in the discussion of ultimate explanation of the origin of anything, rationally speaking, for claiming anything other than God!