Much Ado about Nothing

by Douglas Groothuis

You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being

—Revelation 4:11.

          A recent book explores one of the deepest philosophical subjects imaginable. Why Does the World Exist?  is written Jim Holt, is a long-time science writer and journalist who really wants to know, we assume. He (or his publicist) came up with a jazzy subtitle: An Existential Detective Story. Our intrepid truth-seeker interviews various scientists (atheist Stephen Weinberg) and philosophers (Richard Swinburne, Christian) on this vexing question of questions. I will not comment on these discussions, but rather focus on a brief statement that Holt writes at the beginning of the book. Here the detective part of the story (“Why does the world exist?”) is given right away—before any interviews, arguments, or speculations. This prologue is entitled, “A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives.”

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding. Therefore, there must be something. QED.

Since the author stated the same idea twenty years ago in a serious article in Harpers Magazine called “Nothing Ventured,” it appears that he is serious this time as well. It seems clever and possibly even true. But we must analyze the statements to find if he has anything worthwhile to say

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about nothing and something. A “proof,” such as Holt’s, would be a conclusive argument. The best way to test an argument is to lay it out in premise-conclusion style and to identify which argument form it employs. This is the structure of the argument. When there is a conditional, I make the affirmation of the conditional a separate premise.

  1. If there were nothing, then there would be no laws (since laws are something). Holt presumably means laws of nature.
  2. There was nothing.
  3. Therefore (a), there were no laws.
  4. If there are no laws, then everything would be permitted.
  5. Therefore (b), everything was permitted.
  6. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden.
  7. Therefore (c), nothing was forbidden.
  8. If nothing were forbidden, there must be something.
  9. Therefore (d), there must be something.

10. Therefore (e), something can come from nothing. (This is not stated, but entailed. It is precisely the point of the argument.) Holt is claiming, more simply, that something can come from nothing; in fact, everything came from nothing. He thinks he has an argument to that effect. Since he sets up his case in a series of “if-then” statements, when the antecedent (if) is affirmed, the conclusion (then) follows by necessity. This is modus ponens, a deductive form of argument…

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