Is Nothingness Natural?

In a chapter entitled “Anti-Apologetics 101,” atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian claims that “[t]he best argument I’ve heard for the existence of God” goes like this. The theist claims:

An atheist...doesn’t just believe that man and woman came into being without a Creator, but that all of creation did...His faith is much greater than mine (148-149).

Now, as it stands, this isn’t much of an argument. Nothing to rival, say, the extended proofs given by Anselm, Samuel Clarke, or Richard Swinburne. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when we are told that the argument is due (not to a professional philosopher), but rather a Christian minister: Ray Comfort. If this is the “best” argument Boghossian’s ever heard, I would suggest reading around a bit more in the literature.Why consult Comfort when you have the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology at hand? Wouldn’t that be like turning to Ricky Gervais for the “best” atheism has to offer instead of Oppy or Rowe? In any event, Boghossian’s conclusion is predictably negative: this “trump card played by believers...doesn’t work” (A Manual for Creating Atheists, 149). Unfortunately, I’m afraid, neither do the reasons he gives for thinking it doesn’t.

Is Nothingness Natural?

So why think Comfort’s argument, as patchy as it is, doesn’t work? Boghossian takes its central thrust to be a response to

QUESTION:  ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?'

Given that something (contingent) does exist, what is the reason or explanation for that state of affairs? Contingent things don’t have to exist. So why do they? What is the cause or reason or ground of their existence (as Clarke would have said)? Surely they cannot come from nothing. Nor can they be self-caused.

Here there are “several related ways to respond,” says Boghossian. Following Adolph Grunbaum, The eminent philosopher of science, we might deny that nothing is the default position:

Why be astonished at being at all. To marvel at existence is to assume that nothingness is somehow more natural, more restful. But why? The ancients started with matter, not the void. Perhaps nothingness is stranger than being (Holt 2012).

Maybe something is the default position, “with nothing being the truly extraordinary thing” (149). For perhaps our universe has always existed either in the form of “one endless time loop with big bangs strung together for eternity” (ibid) or perhaps “we’re part of a larger multiverse with an infinite number of Big Bangs constantly occurring” (ibid).

And then even if we must explain why something exists rather than nothing, that doesn’t give us “license to make up answers” or to “pretend to know an answer to something we don’t actually know” (ibid). Better to just say, “I don’t know.”

Is Comfort Correct?

Grunbaum's Gambit

There are a number of misunderstandings to sort out here. First, Grunbaum’s little argument—taken as an attempt to reduce QUESTION to a non-starter—is logically unsound. It goes roughly as follows:

1.  The fact that there is something requires a cause, reason, or explanation only if this fact is “astonishing” (Grunbaum) or “extraordinary” (Boghossian).

But possibly,

2.  The fact that there is something is neither astonishing nor extraordinary.

For “perhaps,” as Grunbaum says, nothing is the truly astonishing state of affairs—not something. If that is so, then we may conclude

3.  The fact that there is something doesn’t require a cause, reason, explanation.

Thus God doesn’t so much as put in an appearance. There’s no need for his creative services to explain the world as we find it, since there’s no need for an explanation at all.

But this argument fails on two counts. To begin with, it is modally invalid. Notice we’re not told that (2) is true, only that it’s “perhaps” true. In other words, it’s a possibility. But then even if we grant that (1) is necessary, all we get from (1)’s necessity and (2)’s possibility is the possibility of (3)—not it’s actual truth. But such a conclusion is perfectly consistent with the position of the theist, who will be happy to grant that there are possible worlds in which there being something requires no external cause or reason. Think, e.g., of a world in which only God (a necessary being) and other necessary abstracta exist. Since necessary beings exist by a necessity of their own natures, there wouldn’t be any need to cast about for their (external) cause.

The "Astonishing" Assumption

Further, premise (1) is either question begging against the theist or it is arguably false (given Boghossian’s other commitments). The theist doesn’t say that all facts requiring a reason are “astonishing” to the observer. Whether a fact is “astonishing” or not is neither here nor there. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. That’s not the point. What the theist says is that we need to explain why a fact obtains only when its obtaining doesn’t proceed from a necessity in its own nature. It is of the very nature or essence of the number 7 to exist; thus, we don’t ask “What is the cause or reason for 7’s existing?”

Still further, I would suggest that it’s probably in Boghossian’s best interests to reject (1). For consider the fact we live in a life permitting universe. Boghossian does appear to have an explanation for that. We might be at the tail end of an infinite series of Big Bangs, he says; or perhaps we're one of many worlds in a grand multiverse outfitted with a Big Bang generator. It doesn’t much matter. The thing to see is that your finding yourself in this life permitting universe, while in need of explanation, isn’t itself “astonishing”—at least that’s what anthropic philosophers tell us. You shouldn't be astonished, they say, for this simple reason: if the universe weren't life permitting, you wouldn’t be here to take note of the fact!

Who's Pretending?

second and final point. Let’s suppose, as the theist says, that the fact that there are contingent things (rather than nothing) does require a cause. How does it follow that the theist is thereby “pretending to know” things she doesn’t know? Boghossian doesn't say. He just makes the assertion. But I’m afraid there's no inescapable reason to think it’s true. What a sensible theist will claim here, to set the record straight, is that she knows (perhaps by way of rational intuition) that everything not existing by a necessity of its own nature has an external cause of its existence. She will also claim to know (and why not?) that the universe isn’t a logically necessary being—a being whose non-existence is impossible. That’s hardly a stretch. But then it follows that she knows (and doesn’t merely pretend to know) that the material universe has an external cause or reason.

Could that cause be a series of prior universes or a multiverse generator? Perhaps. But that wouldn’t be the end of the story. For neither of these prospective (physical) causes exists by a necessity of its own nature, so that we should then have to ask why they exist. If the great Samuel Clarke is right, the cause we seek here will need to be “outside” the series of contingent things. It will therefore be a non-contingent or necessary being. This isn’t a case of pretend knowing; it’s a matter of rational inference. There is, of course, a lot more to be said here. I refer Prof. Boghossian to Clarke’s marvellous Demonstration for the fine points of detail.

— Richard Brian Davis