Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Nothing is all the rage of late. Physicists Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss have devoted pop science bestsellers to trying to show how quantum mechanics explains how the universe could arise from nothing. Their treatments were preceded by that of another physicist, Frank Close (whose book Nothing: A Very Short Introduction should win a prize for Best Book Title). New Scientist magazine devoted a cover story to the subject not too long ago, and New Yorker contributor Jim Holt yet another book . At the more academic end of the discussion, the medieval philosophy scholar John F. Wippel has edited a fine collection of new essays on the theme of why anything, rather than nothing, exists at all. And now John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn have published The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All? , a very useful anthology of classic and contemporary readings.

Leslie is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, known for bringing his distinctive brand of Platonism to bear on questions in cosmology and the philosophy of religion. Kuhn is the creator and host of the PBS series Closer to Truth , and his interviews and roundtable discussions on the big questions have featured an amazingly diverse range of prominent scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

In an interesting article in the current issue of Skeptic magazine , Kuhn summarizes his own approach to the subject of nothing. Titled “Levels of Nothing” (and essentially an excerpt from Kuhn’s own contribution to The Mystery of Existence ), the article sets out what Kuhn calls a “taxonomy” or “hierarchy” of kinds of nothing, from least to most absolute. We are to imagine, first, space and time devoid of any visible objects but containing particles and energy; then space and time devoid of particles but containing energy; then space and time devoid of that as well; and so forth until we arrive at the notion of there being absolutely nothing whatsoever, not even possibilities, mathematical truths, laws of nature, or abstract objects of any sort. (Kuhn does not claim each or any level is either physically or metaphysically possible”he’s just exploring the conceptual territory.)

Physics isn’t everything

The wary reader might fear that what we have here is a rehash of Krauss’s unhappy speculations about “possible candidates for nothingness” in A Universe from Nothing (which I criticized in a review in First Things ). But that is not the case. Krauss’s book gained notoriety, even among some thinkers who share his atheism, for its conceptual sloppiness, arrogance, and philosophically ill-informed flippancy. Kuhn is neither conceptually sloppy, nor arrogant, nor flippant, nor philosophically ill-informed. Nor does he share Krauss’s unreflective scientism. Having for the sake of argument described a scenario in which not even space-time or mass-energy exist but the laws of quantum mechanics do”he calls this “the physicists’ Nothing,” and it is essentially what Krauss and Hawking have in mind in their accounts”Kuhn writes:

What physicists contemplate”the sudden emergence or “tunneling” of universes from “Nothing””is fascinating and indeed may be cosmogenic, but the tunneling process or capacity is not Nothing. The Nothing of physicists is thick with the complete set of the laws of physics, and so between the physicists’ Nothing and Real Nothing lies a vast, unbridgeable gulf.

Moreover, Kuhn does not regard the fundamental laws of physics, whatever they turn out to be, as a plausible terminus of explanation. They would have to be either logically necessary or an inexplicable brute fact to be that. Yet neither supposition is credible. As Kuhn writes:

I doubt I could ever get over the odd idea that something so intricate, so involved, so organized and so accessible as the laws of physics would be the ultimate brute fact.

This point by no means rests on mere intuition. Physicists themselves, including Krauss and Hawking, do not treat the laws of physics as if they were either logically necessary or a brute fact. They regard such laws as empirically testable, which would make no sense if they were logically necessary (i.e., the sort of thing the denial of which would entail a contradiction). If they can in principle be falsified , then they are not necessary . Physicists also regard each level of laws as something that might at least in principle be explicable in terms of deeper laws”Krauss even entertains the possibility that for any level there might always be a deeper one”and if each level might at least in principle be so explicable, then it isn’t a brute fact.

As Lloyd Gerson points out in his book on the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus , the suggestion that the world might be an inexplicable brute fact is simply a non-starter as long as a possible explanation is even on the table. Hence it is quite silly for the atheist or skeptic to say, “Well, maybe the fundamental laws of physics have no explanation.” The Neoplatonist or any other sort of theist can retort: “What are you talking about? I just gave you an explanation!” That explanation then has to be evaluated, of course, but the point is that it is no good merely to suggest that there might be no explanation, as if this by itself does anything to rebut some explanation the skeptic doesn’t like.

More than zero

In any event, Kuhn does something Krauss tried but failed to do, which is to propose a philosophically interesting conception of a kind of “nothing” which is something less than what he calls “absolute” nothing or “Real Nothing.” The idea is this: As we go through the different possible “levels of nothing””and (contrary to the cute title I gave this article) Kuhn thinks there are nine of them”at each stage deleting more aspects of reality, we reach a point where there are no concrete objects in existence, but where there are still abstract objects. That is to say, there are no individual substances of either a physical or non-physical sort”no material objects of any size, no disembodied minds, and so forth”but there are still universals, numbers, propositions, Platonic forms, and the like. There would be no actual trees or triangles, but there would in some sense still be the property of being a tree and the property of being triangular ; there would be no actual concrete objects that could be counted, but the propositions that two and two make four and there are no concrete objects would still be true. In this scenario, since there would (in a sense) be no things , we would (in a sense) have “nothing,” but it would not be nothing in an absolute sense, since there would still be truths, properties, etc.

Kuhn goes one step further and imagines a scenario in which there are no abstract objects like numbers, universals, or the like, but there are still possibilities . This would be the “level 8” kind of “nothing.” Level 9”absolute nothing or Real Nothing”would be reached when we delete even possibilities.

Could there really have been “nothing” in either the level 8 or level 9 senses? As Kuhn rightly notes, there are serious problems with the supposition that there could have been. The domain of abstract objects is the domain of logically necessary truths, truths the denial of which entails a contradiction. If these truths are necessary , then there could be no scenario in which they are not in some sense real, and thus no level 8 type scenario. (I would note also that if the level 8 or level 9 scenarios held, then the proposition that the level 8 or level 9 scenario holds would be true, in which case there would after all be at least one thing that was in some sense real, namely, that very proposition.)

Citing his co-editor, Leslie, Kuhn also points out that the abstract entities denied by scenarios 8 and 9 are arguably needed in order to explain the world of actually existing concrete things. (For example, how could anything actually exist unless it were in some sense a possibility ?) I would add that even Kuhn’s “no concrete objects, only abstract ones” scenario is explanatorily problematic, for abstract objects are typically regarded as causally inert. Hence if we need abstract objects in order to explain the realm of concrete things, we would also need at least one concrete thing in order to explain the others.

While Kuhn does not settle on a particular position, he does indicate that he thinks that either the existence of things is a brute fact without explanation, or there is something that is self-existent in the sense that its essence entails that its non-existence is inherently impossible. The only remaining question in the latter case would be what else we could say about this self-existent reality (e.g., whether we ought to ascribe to it the standard divine attributes).

For the reason given by Gerson, though, I think that if Kuhn is willing to concede even this disjunction”that either the universe is an inexplicable brute fact, or there is something self-existent”then he has really implicitly conceded that there is something self-existent. For the universe could be an inexplicable brute fact only if there were no possible explanation of it, and once it is conceded that it is at least possible for there to be something self-existent, then we have a possible explanation, viz. that that self-existent thing is the cause of the world. As Gerson says, it is no good for the atheist to say, “Maybe there is no explanation,” when the theist has just given one.

Nor will it do for the atheist to retreat into a fallback position according to which there is a self-existent reality, but it is just the basic laws of physics. For again, by virtue of the fact that he regards them as empirically testable and susceptible of explanation in terms of yet deeper laws, the physicist implicitly acknowledges that the laws of physics do not exist in an absolutely necessary way. They cannot in that case be self-existent in the requisite sense. Nor could anything material be self-existent, given that material things themselves depend on the laws of physics.

The classical perspective

Once we allow that there is something self-existent and that it cannot be the laws of physics or anything that depends on the laws of physics, some brand of theism is really unavoidable. The only remaining question is which brand. Pantheism? Panentheism? The classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Maimonides, and Aquinas? The “theistic personalism” or “neo-theism” of contemporary philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne? This question takes us well beyond Kuhn’s article, though it is certainly relevant to the subject matter of his and Leslie’s anthology. This brings me to a friendly criticism of the latter.

As I have argued many times (c.f. the pieces collected here ), the “theistic personalism” that characterizes so much contemporary philosophy of religion (the label is one Brian Davies has attached to the group of thinkers in question) is seriously problematic both philosophically and theologically. One reason is that God as conceived of by theistic personalists simply cannot plausibly be regarded as an ultimate explanation of the world. Theistic personalists often speak of God as instantiating properties and of being a member of the class of “persons,” and they typically deny, or at least seriously qualify, the doctrine of divine simplicity. Some theistic personalists would even attribute change to God. Yet (so the classical theist would argue) whatever instantiates a property requires an explanation of why it does so; whatever is in any way composed of parts requires an explanation of its composition; whatever is a member of a genus has an essence, definitive of the kind of thing it is, which is distinct from its act of existence, so that the fact that it has existence conjoined to that essence requires an explanation; and whatever changes in any way requires a cause of change. Hence God so construed would not be explanatorily ultimate: He would either require an explanation of his own or simply be a “brute fact” himself. Either way, he would fail to satisfy the requirements that most classical theists regard as the chief philosophical reason for affirming God’s existence in the first place. For a classical theist like Aquinas, God is in no way composed of parts, is not in any genus, and is utterly unchangeable.

Leslie and Kuhn’s The Mystery of Existence does include readings from some of the key writers of the classical tradition that are absent from too many contemporary anthologies on these matters. You will find in it selections from Plato on the Good, Aristotle on the Unmoved Mover, Plotinus on the Good, and Aquinas on divine simplicity. However, the selections are very short”these four major writers together take up only slightly more than four of the book’s 288 pages”and while Leslie’s (in my view somewhat eccentric) brand of Platonism naturally gets some space too, the bulk of the anthology is devoted both to theistic personalists like Swinburne and Plantinga, and to other writers approaching things from an essentially modern rather than classical point of view.

For a classical theist like myself, this is a little like putting out an anthology on dogs that is top heavy with essays about tails. The classical theistic tradition is the dominant approach to these matters in the history of Western thought. It is rooted in the metaphysics of Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism, was honed to rigorous perfection by the Scholastics, and is (as I have said) represented by thinkers of the stature of Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Maimonides, Aquinas, and many others. In contemporary philosophy, it is represented by outstanding writers such as Brian Davies, John Haldane, Brian Leftow, David Oderberg, Gyula Klima, Christopher Martin, and Eleonore Stump”some of whom have appeared on Kuhn’s Closer to Truth . Useful as The Mystery of Existence is, it should have contained more from this camp.

Even the classical selections that do appear in the book are in my view not presented entirely fairly. For instance, the editorial material accompanying the very brief reading from Aquinas on divine simplicity, while treating his view on the subject respectfully, gives it rather short shrift as ultimately merely “puzzling.” But as I have argued at length in my books The Last Superstition and Aquinas , you cannot properly understand what a classical writer like Aquinas says about the existence and nature of God unless you understand the background metaphysical theses in which his views are grounded”theses that are very different from the metaphysical assumptions made by most modern and contemporary philosophers. Scholastic writers like Aquinas have a very different understanding of the notions of substance, essence, properties, and predication than modern and contemporary philosophers do. If you read what he says about divine simplicity through the lens of the usual modern conceptions, then it will indeed seem very “puzzling.” Not so if you understand it in light of the Scholastic understanding of these notions.

This is not a small lapse. While Scholastics and other classical thinkers disagreed over certain details concerning divine simplicity, something like Aquinas’s notion is absolutely central to the way Neoplatonists, Aristotelians, Scholastics, and classical theists more generally understand the nature of God and the nature of ultimate explanation. To write it off in a line or two is simply not to do justice to what is historically the main approach to these issues in Western thought.

Asking the right questions

In his Skeptic article, too, Kuhn seems to me to take insufficient consideration of the richness of classical approaches to these issues. For instance, regarding the problem of universals and other abstract objects, one might get the impression from his piece that unless one opts for nominalism (which denies the existence of these objects), one has to accept Platonic realism”the view that universals and the like exist not only apart from the material world but also apart from any intellect whatsoever (which would make them independent of God). But this neglects the Aristotelian realist view that universals and the like are real, but still exist only either in concrete objects themselves or in a mind which abstracts them. This was developed by the Scholastics into the view that universals, possibilities, and the like pre-exist as ideas in the divine intellect and thus are not independent of him (a suggestion that was in fact foreshadowed in Neoplatonism).

There is also the not insignificant point that the very manner in which the question of ultimate explanation is asked these days is arguably modern rather than classical. When we ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” that makes it sound as if there could have been nothing and yet isn’t”a suggestion that, as we have seen, is problematic. That can give the false impression that theism is an attempt to answer a defective question. But contrary to what many contributors to the contemporary discussion of these issues seem to assume, Aquinas and other classical writers do not typically begin their arguments for God’s existence by asking, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” They don’t assume that there could have been nothing but isn’t; on the contrary, they would deny that there could have been nothing.

What they do ask is why a world with some of the specific features our world has exists. For example, they ask, in an Aristotelian vein, how it is that the world undergoes change, and argue that there is no way in principle to account for this unless there is something absolutely unchangeable; or, in a Neoplatonic vein, how it is that there is a world of composite things, and argue that there is no way in principle to account for this unless there is something absolutely simple or non-composite; or, in a Thomistic vein, how it is that there are things that exist but could fail to exist, and argue that there is no way in principle to account for this unless there is something that just is Subsistent Being Itself.

No doubt such notions will be mystifying to many readers with little knowledge of the classical tradition. And yet that tradition (rather than ideas of the sort you’ll find in writers like Plantinga and Swinburne, Hawking and Krauss) has, as I say, been the dominant approach taken in the history of Western philosophy and theology. If there is a deficiency here, I would argue that it is not in the tradition but in too many contemporary readers’ understanding of it. From the classical theist’s point of view, the moderns not only fail to get to the right answers. They often do not even know the right questions, and also lack the right metaphysical tools to answer them even if they knew to ask them.

All the same, Kuhn and Leslie are to be congratulated for putting forward a valuable and intellectually serious contribution to the recent debate.


“Mad Scientists” (my review in National Review of Hawking and Mlodinow’s The Grand Design )

“Why are (some) physicists so bad at philosophy?” (a response to some ideas put forward by physicists Ethan Siegel and Vlatko Vedral)

“What part of ‘nothing’ don’t you understand?” (on New Scientist magazine’s recent treatment of these issues)

“Reading Rosenberg, Part III” (on Alex Rosenberg’s discussion of the origin of the universe in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality )

“Greene on Nozick on nothing” (on Robert Nozick’s treatment of the “something from nothing” question in Philosophical Explanations , cited by physicist Brian Greene in his own book The Hidden Reality )

“Not Understanding Nothing” (my review of Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing in First Things )

“Steng operation” (on Victor Stenger’s attempt to defend Krauss against his critics)

“Forgetting nothing, learning nothing” (on some more recent remarks made by Krauss)

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and Aquinas . He blogs about philosophy here .

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook , subscribe to First Things via RSS , and follow First Things on Twitter .

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles