could there have been nothing?

This post is based on material from Geraldine Coggins’ book Could There Have Been Nothing?

What are we asking when we ask whether there could have been nothing? We can start with some questions that are not intended. For example, the question is not why humans exist or where life came from, as these are too specific.* Similarly, although we are focusing on necessary existence when we ask whether there could have been nothing, we should not prejudge the issue by focusing on God in particular. Hence we are not asking whether God (rather than just some generic necessary being) exists.

Finally, Coggins is not asking whether there could have been nothing of any sort, even though this is for me a more interesting question. (Her question retains its interest for me because her negative answer to it entails a negative answer to my more general question.) Rather, Coggins is asking whether there could have been nothing concrete. Again, she is not partaking in the same discussion as Williamson, touched on in my post yesterday, nor is there any direct discussion of the concept of ‘existence’ in her book.

Having arrived at the intended understanding of the question, we can now consider the space of possible answers to it.

Metaphysical nihilism asserts that there could have been nothing concrete. If God is taken to be a necessarily existing concrete thing, then this view entails atheism.

Anti-nihilism 1 asserts that there is at least one, single or individual necessarily existing concrete thing (e.g. God). This view is common to traditional theisms that deny that God is an abstract object like a Platonic Idea. Personally I don’t find the distinction between abstract and concrete objects to be very illuminating, but since Coggins’ analysis is thoroughly intertwined with it, there isn’t much that can be done.

Anti-nihilism 2 asserts that there necessarily exists some concrete thing. This view is entailed by anti-nihilism 1 but not vice versa. Put differently, in every possible world there exists a concrete object, but it is not asserted that any one of those objects in particular exists in every possible world.

The answer that Coggins defends in her book is the third of these: no, there could not have been nothing concrete. Her strategy (which seems a bit narrow but never mind) is to critique what she takes to be the only argument for metaphysical nihilism: the subtraction argument. 

Think of the world and everything in it, and now focus on a single concrete object. Would the world – that is, the universe understood in the broadest sense as encompassing everything that actually exists – still have been here if that particular object didn’t exist? It certainly seems that it would have. And, as we continue the thought experiment, removing objects one by one or many at a time, it doesn’t look like anything will arise to prevent the process of subtraction from reaching its natural endpoint. Hence we might reason, by a sort of downward induction, that since the world would exist if any given concrete object in the world did not exist, the world would exist if no concrete objects existed at all. This move from distributive to collective contingency is the key step in the subtraction argument, Coggins tells us (p. 24). If this move is valid then the overall argument is probably sound.

Does the subtraction argument work? One issue with it is that it is question-begging to assert that the process of subtraction could continue unimpeded from start to finish, as this is to presuppose in effect that either God is contingent or non-concrete. Coggins considers the following bridging premise: the identity of a concrete thing is not defined by its intrinsic properties, whereas the identity of a necessarily existing thing is so defined (as in the ontological argument). Hence by definition God is not concrete. (Note that although this seems to make anti-nihilism theism-friendly, in fact it creates a difficulty, since it suggests that God could not really have created the world out of nothing concrete.)

What is Coggins’ real problem with the subtraction argument? Coggins presses two basic objections (p. 119): (1) it may be that the nature of possible worlds precludes the possibility of an empty world, for example if possible worlds are constituted by the concrete objects they contain, or they are themselves a sort of concrete object; (2) it may be that the existence of abstract objects depends upon the existence of concrete objects, and hence that the latter must exist necessarily if the former do.

The latter of these strikes me as the more interesting objection. To say that there are necessarily existing abstract objects all of which are dependent upon concretely existing objects is not too dissimilar from saying that necessarily truths must have non-abstract truthmakers, and indeed Coggins points out that her position rests on Aristotelean realism about universals. For Aristotle the universals exist necessarily but only in particular things, hence there is a necessarily existing fusion of particular things.

It turns out that the view defended by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude accepts a premise of this sort (2008: 73-4):

[T]o say that contingency is necessary, is to say both that things must be contingent and that there must be contingent things… For although I can think the contingency of this existing thing, I cannot think the contingency of existence as such (or of the fact that something exists in general).

I’ll look at Meillassoux’s argument for this tomorrow.

[edit: being unexpectedly busy this week, I have decided not to devote any further time to Coggins’ book, and have modified the present post to reflect this decision.]

*It is also not the question addressed by Lawrence Krauss in A Universe from Nothing. My complaint about this book is not that it presupposes verificationism (or something like it), i.e. presupposes that the question of why there is something rather than nothing can only be understood in empirical-scientific terms. Rather, my complaint is that this presupposition is not defended (or even discussed). A good discussion of the philosophical question of whether there could be nothing is Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?


    • Geraldine Coggins, Could There Have Been Nothing: Against Metaphysical Nihilism, (Palgrave: 2010).
    • Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum: 2008).
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2 Responses to could there have been nothing?

  1. Pingback: meillassoux on the necessity of being | atheology: a blog about nothing

  2. Pingback: univocity and nihilism | atheology: a blog about nothing

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