ex nihilo, big bang, fallacies, science, philosophy

The Fallacy of Nothing: Can Something Come From Nothing?

Since antiquity, philosophers realized the concept of ‘Nothing’ was inherently nonsensical. How can we approach the Big Bang without factoring in a deity?

by Christopher Hansen

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Something cannot come from Nothing,” before? I would be shocked if you hadn’t, because it is a favorite in today’s culture (predominant among those who contest scientific realities like the Big Bang Theory, i.e. Young Earth Creationists).

The first issue that anyone could bring up in reply would be that, “No one said the Big Bang came from nothing,” and thus the issue of nothing would be entirely avoided to a degree (though the question of the first cause still exists). Another point that can be brought up is that if one wishes to state as fact that “Something cannot come from nothing,” they must actually prove this to be the case, the Burden of Proof lies on the one making the claim. There are numerous issues that one would then encounter, because there is no logical reason why something cannot come from nothing (the absence of existence). What is there to stop something from popping into existence? Well nothing, because nothing cannot stop anything because it is… nothing.

But there is a more interesting and complicated problem, which sheds light on further issues with the concept of nothing, but to get there we need to take a trip back in time to the Presocratics and the dawn of Natural Science.

Let us consider the ancient philosophers Democritus, Zeno of Elea, and Parmenides (from where the Eleatic School of thought comes). These great minds gave us the following issues that were in direct conflict with each other and will eternally mess with the minds of undergraduate philosophy students: the Paradox of Bisection (Zeno and Parmenides), and Atomism (Democritus). The Paradox of Bisection is a well-known issue that anyone taking an introductory algebra course has probably run across, but for those who don’t know, here is how it goes:

P1) In order to go from point A to point B, one must first go the halfway point AB

P2) In order to go from point AB to point B, one must go to the halfway point ABB

P3) In order to go from point ABB to point B, one must go to halfway point ABBB

…. repeat infinitely.

Or to put it more colloquially: in order to get from one point to another, first you must go halfway. And to get from the halfway point to the destination you must go half way. And to go from that next halfway point to the destination you must again go half way. And this problem goes on infinitely. What does this mean? It is impossible to get from one point to another, because the distance can be infinitely divided in half, meaning any distance between two points is infinite. Now at this point, if you are not mathematically minded or familiar with things like Limitations then you are right now rocking back and forth in your chair questioning existence (maybe I’m projecting my own experience after dealing with this). Well, before you click away, we only have one half of this issue at hand, as we have yet to consider Democritus’ side of this story (and then we will see how they conflict).

Democritus proposed that all things in the universe, all that exists, are made up of an indivisibly small particle which he called the Atom. These atoms could come in different shapes and sizes and were the foundation of all existence. But the question came up: What is between these atoms? Clearly not everything touches everything else, so what is it that is between these atoms? Well it was essentially what is called the Void. What is the void? Well it is nothing at all, because everything that has existence is made of atoms, so the void is something non-existent. Between atoms is a void of nothing. Atomists (like Democritus) believed that motion was possible. But if all space in the universe was filled with matter and substance, where could these other atoms (like people) move into? They couldn’t because all of space would be filled. Thus, they argued that a void of non-existence had to be present in order for there to be a space for atoms to move into. So there you go, I saved the less mentally damaging for last. But here is where it gets really interesting, when the debate comes forth.

We now have two competing schools of thought, those following the Eleatic School and those Atomists who don’t at all agree. I am sorry to say that the Eleatic School has the far more convincing argument in this context.

There was a major contest over the concept of the Void. So I will first try and portray it with a Proof (think Geometry) and then write out for those who hated high school logic puzzles.

There are two ways in which one can go about dismissing the idea of “nothing” in regards to Democritus’ theory.

Variables:

N = Nothing or Democritus’ Atomic Void

B = That which is between two Atoms

A = Atom(s) used with numbers to differentiate

NE = Nonexistence

E = Existence

Presuppositions according to Atomists:

N = NE

B = NE

All E = A

A is separated by B

N is between A1 and A2

PROBLEM #1

P1) If N = NE and B = N then B = NE

P2) If B = N then NE is between A1 and A2

P3) If NE is between A1 and A2 then A1 and A2 cannot be separated as there is no E to separate them

  1. C) Therefore A1 and A2 are together and there is no B, therefore no N

In English, this means that if there is nonexistence (nothing) between two atoms, then logically those two atoms must be touching, as there is nothing separating them. However, if they are touching, then there is no space between them and therefore no space for this void/nothing, therefore there is no void.

PROBLEM #2

P1) If A1 and A2 are separated by B then B = E (see above converse issue if false)

P2) If B = E then B =/= N therefore B =/= NE

P3) If B =/= NE, and N = NE then N cannot be between A1 and A2

P4) Therefore between all A there must be E

  1. C) If all E = A then between all A is A

In English, a similar issue to the problem of Bisection will occur, wherein between every atom is another atom, since all things that exist are made of atoms, and in order for atoms to be separated there must be something that exists which separates them (otherwise they couldn’t be separate). Therefore between all atoms are atoms, and between those atoms are atoms and this goes on infinitely.

In the end, this would further prove the views of Parmenides and Zeno, that movement is impossible, since if there is an infinite number of atoms between point 1 and 2, then you could never traverse them, because you could infinitely bisect the number of atoms that separate 1 from 2.

The issue as you can see is that, in the end, the concept of nothing seems to be self-defeating in these contexts. In order for there to be something between two atoms, something must exist. But if something exists, then it must be made of atoms. Therefore, atoms are between atoms, which have more atoms between those atoms, and so on. In the end, the curse that Zeno and Parmenides plagued us with remains: motion is impossible, because between any two points there are an infinite number of atoms (thank goodness for Limitations and Calculus).

Now this is where things get more interesting. When put in a modern context, like discussing the Big Bang and “Something coming from nothing,” YEC’s will have numerous issues trying to use this concept. First, there is the issue that they must prove that something cannot come from nothing. Second, they have to distinguish if they mean Scientific Nothing (which is still very much something, read Lawrence Krauss if you don’t believe me), or Philosophical Nothing (the absence of existence).

The last issue that we must then discuss in regards to both YEC’s and Atheists/Agnostics (insert label here) is the issue of turning the Philosophical Nothing into Something. This is the Reification fallacy, which I fell prey to while formulating my positions on this, in fact. The Reification fallacy is basically when someone treats a hypothetical as though it were real. This is particularly true when discussing the concept of nothing, and what ends up being caught is that because of the limitations of language, we always talk about things as though they are objects. For example, if we were to put existence and nonexistence in complementary sets, linguistically we treat them as both existing. This is where all parties can fall into a fallacy, because we have to distinguish that just because we treat something as an object within language, that doesn’t make it a real object (unicorns aren’t real, even though when discussing them, we talk about them in terms of real things).

Concluding this, you can rest assured that even if you accept a definition of nothing as being “the absence of everything,” there is still no reason that something cannot come from nothing, and so it is on the shoulders of the YEC to state that something cannot come from nothing. And if you wish to show that something may in fact come from this nothing, you can simply indicate that if there is nothing, then there is nothing to prevent something from coming into existence, and if you want to talk about the idea of nothing being nonsensical (even though it still is logically possible) you can simply turn to the ancient works of old, where they showed that proposing nothing within the scope of things which exist becomes entirely problematic, and then you can go from there.