is nothing coherent?

Whereas there is a set of nothing – the empty set – it seems there can be no fusion of nothing, since the latter would be an object identical to nothing, an impossibility given that nothing is not an object, not a thing of any sort. This point raises a general question about whether there could have been nothing. If we say that it is possible that no thing has being, we seem able to express what we want; but if we say that there could have been nothing, we seem to ascribe being to something, and thus not be able to express what we want. Thus the well-known objection to Meinong: if there are non-existent objects, then those objects exist after all.

One response to this is to distinguish between types of being, a distinction expressible by holding being and existence apart. This however is not the sort of response I am interested in, since it violates the univocity of being. So here is the question: if there is a null world (so to speak), what is its ontological status? How to say that it is true that some possible world is empty, without saying that at that world, something exists – namely the world itself? On the one hand, it seems we must say that in the null world, no thing has being, and thus that world itself lacks being. On the other hand, we want to say this without saying that it is impossible for there to be nothing. How then to distinguish these two things?

To get around this problem, it is pretty clear that we have to treat possible worlds – together with all abstract objects – as analysable into contingent objects and non-existent objects without remainder. Thus to keep things simple, suppose we agree with the strict noneist – the one who accepts the univocity of being and says (I am stipulating) that possible worlds do not exist in any sense. Given univocity, we are not allowed to say that there is something that does not exist, unless we treat the “is” as a façon de parler lacking ontological significance. We must rather say that if a thing does not exist, there is no such thing.

This however can mean one of two things: either (1) there “is” such an object, perhaps located at impossible worlds; or (2) there is no such object, but rather a void of reference. The first of these can be understood as saying that an impossible thing has its properties (or some of them) at impossible worlds. We must then decide whether ascribing impossible being to something, as we are effectively doing here, is problematic from the viewpoint of univocity. Is there any impossible being at the null world? Does nothing mean no impossibilia or only no possibilia? In any case, it is worth nothing that some objects, like the trivial being, are characterised as having properties that efface the distinction between impossible and possible worlds, i.e. that force us to choose between their being possible and their being nothing whatsoever. Or at least that is how it seems to me. So perhaps in such cases there is no alternative to (2). In that case, we must try to make sense of the nonexistence of such (pseudo) objects in terms of the properties of other things. Thus when I say that there could have been nothing, this is to be understood in terms of the contingency of existing things. On this understanding, the possibility of the null world does not require ontological support at that world – even from impossible objects that (to some at least) still smell faintly of Platonic entities – since it is carried, rather, in the breast of every actual and possible thing. Similarly, we do not say that the non-existence of a trivial being is a property of that being (though it would be if it existed), but rather a property of other existing or possibly existing things. Talk of non-existent objects folds back onto the existent like an approach to the limit, expressing infinity.

escher angels and devils

Ok – but isn’t there something ephemeral and perhaps even sophistical about assigning no ontological status to possible worlds, as suggested above? I mean, some wish to say that possible worlds have degenerate or inferior being, shadowy being, quasi-being, etc. That is not the present suggestion. Rather, possible worlds are said to have no being whatsoever. The question is whether such puritanism can secure the reality of the possibility of nothing, or whether that is only gained by indulging in equivocal construals of being. To reiterate, the alternative to such equivocity I am considering says that there are no possible worlds, except as e.g. representations: the real properties wrongly attributed to possible worlds, but rightly believed to exist, are really properties of other things entirely. Thus to say that there are possible worlds is just the general form of the particular claim that in some possible world no thing has being. If this cannot be made to work and if possible worlds must be assigned some modicum of being, then we will not be able to say that possibly no thing has being whatsoever – and our position is then only different in degree from that according to which it is necessary that some thing exists. Hopefully this will not turn out to be the case.

[last edited: July 10]

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