kuhn’s levels of nothing

Just had a quick read of Lawrence’s Kuhn’s article ‘Levels of Nothing’ from the latest edition of Skeptic magazine. Kuhn first characterises Nothing in the broadest sense: as the negation of the set (which is intended to capture everything)

{matter/energy, space-time and all fundamental physical laws, mental reality, non-physical reality, God, logic, numbers, possibilities and all other abstract objects}

Interestingly, Kuhn’s gut feeling is that, from the point of view of simplicity or naturalness, there ought (in some sense) to be Nothing rather than Something. Kuhn therefore believes that there must be a special explanation for why there is Something, a “selector” or “foundational force”, a “deep reason” or “necessity”.

This could mean one of two things. First, it could mean that we need a reason for why Nothing isn’t necessary. This would be sufficient but arguably not necessary for motivating the fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. So long as Nothing appears possible, the ground of reality will be to that extent unclear, precarious, because the possibility of Nothing is incompatible with the existence of anything necessary.

Alternatively, Kuhn could be saying only that we need a reason why Nothing isn’t actual. We might try answering this in terms of a necessary being, a being that excludes the possibility of Nothing. Or we might say that, since there are putatively many ways for there to be Something, but only one way for there to be Nothing, the former is more probable in some sense.

At the level of motivation, however, I’m not sure I agree with Kuhn’s gut instinct that Nothing is “simpler” than Something. This may be empirical plausible to the extent that Something is more complex than Nothing, but does this reasoning transfer to modal space?

Kuhn’s nine levels of Nothing are interesting because he clearly distinguishes between the Nothing of physics and several layers of philosophical Nothing. In particular, he distinguishes between Nothing qua no concrete existents of any sort (including God), and Nothing qua no concrete or abstract objects of any sort. Of course, nominalists already deny the existence of abstract objects, and so for them the possibility of nothing concrete just is the possible of absolutely nothing at all. And for me this seems to be the way to go: yes, arguing that there could have been nothing concrete would work against many forms of theism, since many forms of theism conceive of God as a concrete existent. However, suitably rarefied forms of theism are not affected by arguments that aim only at showing the possibility of nothing concrete. For these a stronger argument is needed.

(Note: Kuhn includes in his strongest species of Nothing – Nothing 9 – all possibilities, which strikes me as misleading or confused. Since there actually is something, it will (given S5) be true in every possible world that there is possibly something. Now, if we treat these possibilities as somethings (in every possible world) then we must deny the possibility of Kuhn’s Nothing 9. In this way it seems that Kuhn conflates the idea of absolute Nothing, represented by his Nothing 9 – which takes abstract objects off the table – with the idea of necessary nothingness, i.e. the reality of Nothing in every possible world. These two Nothings intersect only given certain other assumptions. Furthermore, I deny that Nothing is possible in this latter sense, as does Kuhn himself, because it would imply that there actually is Nothing, which is patently false. However, I don’t think we are committed to the existence of possibilities in every possible world simply by virtue of the fact that there actually is something, together with the fact that this entails that it is necessarily possible that there is something. In other words, the actual reality of Something is not – I say – an argument for the necessary existence of possibilities or of abstract objects in general. Rather, possibilities supervene only on those worlds where there is something rather than nothing.)

Kuhn offers two answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The second is in terms of self-existence, which strikes me as hopeless. The first answer is that existence is just a brute fact. From the viewpoint of what can be explained without circularity, it is clear there must be brute facts – for example, the brute fact that some things are false (rather than everything true). This fact is brute because it cannot be explained without circularity. Similarly, there is no non-circular explanation for the set of all necessary truths. Once the necessity of brute facts in general is accepted, the acceptance of this particular brute fact – that there is Something rather than Nothing – may become easier.

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2 Responses to kuhn’s levels of nothing

  1. michel BESSY says:

    Nothing is more plausible than something and satisfies OCCAM s RAZOR principle of simplicity.It doesn t require any explanation.However,there is Something and necessaily there has always been something because nothing can suddenly emerge out of nothing.What are the characteristics of this something?………….It consists of 2 different realities……..1)Our spacetime universe which had a beginning.It can t be eternal or its beginning would be constantly pushed back in time and there wouldn t be such a thing as the PRESENT.A chain of causes and effects requires TIME.So,this universe appeared at the BIG BANG,about 14.5 billion years ago.2)Something caused the spacetime universe and its laws .This something is all powerful,omniscient and eternal.This something can be called GOD or Mick or 007…………….So far,so good but then immediately several questions are posed about this GOD..1)….Why did it create a spacetime universe conducive to LIFE and consciousness?…..2)If it is all powerful ,why did he create a world plagued with EVIL( natural disasters,accidents,wars….)May be, time will tell,as our knowledge keeps increasing ….May be,we ll never know because our brain isn t powerful enough to address these mysteries

  2. JTH says:

    Thanks for your comment. It is interesting how many thinkers end up disagreeing with the view that nothing is simpler than something, and how this creates all sorts of distorting effects. For example, God is divine simplicity, the zenith of simplicity, yet God is not nothing, hence something is simpler than nothing. But… God is also something other than an ordinary being, e.g. Being itself, or perhaps even beyond or above Being (Plotinus). So God has/is some sort of unthinkably superior modality of being that is simpler than nothing qua negation of all thinkable being, even though the latter remains simpler than something qua thinkable being. In this way the idea that nothing is simpler than something becomes the servant rather than the enemy of theology. But I’m always tempted to ask: isn’t it simpler just to have nothing whatsoever, including no superior modalities of being or quasi-being? In any case, why so much uncomfortable wriggling around?

    Regarding Occam’s Razor, it requires a prior decision about what needs explaining, and in the context of principles of explanation themselves, it is pretty easy to beg this question without realising it. Thus, I’m not sure I see the force of holding that emergence from nothing is impossible – why? In any case, when we consider whether there could have been nothing, two questions should be distinguished: is it possible that a universe like ours could begin or end with nothing? And: is there any possible reality in which there is nothing? If you think in terms of possible worlds, the latter asks: is there an empty possible world? My point: it may be that the answer to the second question is ‘yes’ even though the answer to the first question is ‘no’.

    Hopefully, if our brains aren’t powerful enough to address these mysteries, they will still be powerful enough to produce more powerful brains.

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