Why is there something rather than nothing?

by Luke Muehlhauser on March 18, 2010 in Quotes

stephen law quote

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

lewism March 18, 2010 at 9:41 pm

A blue dot interviewee soon please?

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Erika March 18, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I like it!

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Ryan March 18, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Yeah, Stephen Law would be a great candidate for a “Conversations…” interview.

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Aeiluindae March 18, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Cool thought.

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Prakash March 18, 2010 at 11:31 pm

I didn’t understand much in this.
Can someone elaborate for me.?

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TaiChi March 18, 2010 at 11:59 pm

Prakash,
Check out http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/03/god-of-eth.html . Law points out that, while most believers would casually dismiss the hypothesis of an all-evil god as an explanation of the universe, they regard the hypothesis of an all-good god as likely or at least plausible. And yet the justifications they might give for the latter could just as well serve for the former, as Law shows. He concludes that there’s no good reason for either of these two hypotheses, so that if there is a creator-being, it would be neither all-evil nor all-good.

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Haecceitas March 19, 2010 at 1:27 am

Law’s argument fails for the simple reason that it is incredibly ad hoc and contrived to postulate an evil being as the ultimate, foundational reality from which everything else derives. The most plausible accounts of how there could even be objective values are such that they ground the good in that foundational prime reality (and it won’t do to just switch this so as to postulate a being that grounds evil instead, since the concepts of good and evil are asymmetrical in certain respects). Also, for anyone who thinks that there exists more good than evil in the world, it just isn’t true that “the problem of good” is equivalent to the problem of evil in the form that theists have to deal with it.

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Paul Wright March 19, 2010 at 2:01 am

Haecceitas says that it is ad hoc and contrived to postulate an evil God, but it seems equally ad hoc to postulate a maximally good one: the evidence will not bear the weight. In Hume’s Dialogues, Philo (the sceptic) makes the point that, unless we’ve previously been convinced that God is good, we certainly can’t deduce this from evidence:

Let us allow, that, if the goodness of the Deity (I mean a goodness like the human) could be established on any tolerable reasons a priori, these phenomena, however untoward, would not be sufficient to subvert that principle; but might easily, in some unknown manner, be reconcilable to it. But let us still assert, that as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject.

Philo’s arguments start in Part X, and bear close reading (there’s also an argument that it isn’t true that there is more good than evil in the world).

The argument that objective moral values require a good God doesn’t seem well founded: there’s a lot hidden in that word “grounded”, which usually serves as an intuition pump in these arguments. The theist needs an account of that which doesn’t fall prey to the Euthyphro dilemma (and to somehow demonstrate that there are such things as objective moral values in the first place).

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Rhys Wilkins March 19, 2010 at 2:02 am

Stephen Law, I couldn’t possibly agree more :)

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Jacopo March 19, 2010 at 3:24 am

Well said, Paul Wright :)

Law’s ‘Reverse Irenaean theodicy” is pretty simple but compelling.

@Haecceitas:
“(and it won’t do to just switch this so as to postulate a being that grounds evil instead, since the concepts of good and evil are asymmetrical in certain respects).”

This is absolutely essential to your argument, but you never elaborate what these respects are – and even if they are asymmetrical, you have to also give a good reason why the asymmetry favours ‘objective goodness founded in God of Earth’ rather than ‘objective evil founded in God of Eth’. Until you do, your argument could even work against, rather than for, your position.

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Derrida March 19, 2010 at 3:47 am

As professor Law states in his paper “The Evil God Challenge”:

http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A72V8TEm

The evil god hypothesis might be more simple or economical than the good god hypothesis, but that makes little difference when the evidence overwhelmingly counts against both hypotheses. Consider two assertions:

1) There are 1000 elves in Swindon.

vs

2) There are 1000 elves in Swindon, each with a fairy sitting on its head.

(1) may be simpler than (2), but the evidence counts against both, so (2) isn’t particularly more reasonable than (1).

Also, there is little way of telling whether there is more good in the world than evil, especially if one takes the view that God’s reasons for allowing evil are to maintain goods that we know nothing about.

Whenever someone like Richard Dawkins argues that religion causes a lot of harm, it is always pointed out that the amount of harm religion produces compared to the good it does is difficult to quantify, but it’s much more difficult to quantify how much evil there is overall compared to the amount of good in the world.

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Bill Snedden March 19, 2010 at 9:28 am

Hmmm…isn’t the question itself incoherent? In order for “nothing” to have ever existed, wouldn’t it have to be “something?” I would argue that “nothing”, as a putative state of affairs, is a logical impossibility: if “nothing” were to have ever been the case, “nothing” would still exist now (because nothing implies the absence of everything, including the potential for a future “something”) and as “nothing” is not now the case, “something” must always have existed.

??

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Hemes March 19, 2010 at 11:28 am

Related;

Mr. Deity and the Really Hard Time
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2ujpzdeolA

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Lee A. P. March 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Hmmm…isn’t the question itself incoherent?In order for “nothing” to have ever existed, wouldn’t it have to be “something?”I would argue that “nothing”, as a putative state of affairs, is a logical impossibility:if “nothing” were to have ever been the case, “nothing” would still exist now (because nothing implies the absence of everything, including the potential for a future “something”) and as “nothing” is not now the case, “something” must always have existed.??  

Right, there is no such thing as nothingness. nothing is descriptive of how much “something” is in a particular space.

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mattr March 19, 2010 at 4:24 pm

the whole idea of “god” “creating” “ex nihilo” is about as incoherent as it gets while still being … language. if there´s anybody who can even begin to make sense of this rather than just nodding dog-like when someone like william craig asserts it, i´d really like to hear the explanation. (so this eternal god creature existed parallel to “nothing” without that nothing being compromised by HIS or its existence in any way UNTIL “he” uttered the “let there be this and that” command… ????? if the theologians who defend such ideas are on drugs, which i hope they are, i´d like the beeper number of their dealer, please, and a price list so i can budget my expenses from now on.)

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Hermes March 19, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Mattr, that, and they get paid for it too.

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Rob March 20, 2010 at 7:00 am

Superficially the question “why is there something rather than nothing” seems interesting.

But the answer cannot be “because Yahweh made the something”. Yahweh is not nothing, according to Christians. Yahweh is some kind of something. So offering Yahweh as the answer is just begging the question.

But I don’t think the question makes sense on further analysis, as the question makes a reification error. Nothingness is an abstraction. It is not a real thing. We can attempt to imagine nothingness, but such attempts will always fail, because we will always be there as imaginers. And an imaginer is some kind of something. Just as God would be some kind of something.

So obviously nothingness cannot be the subject of any being’s experience, nor can it even be the subject of any being’s imagination.

So the question reduces to “why is there something rather than some abstract impossible to imagine state of affairs”?

And that questing is similar to “why are there horses rather than invisible pink unicorns”?

If you are not tempted to answer the latter, you should not be tempted to answer the former.

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Rob March 20, 2010 at 10:09 am

Hi TaiChi,

I am not going to argue whether nothingness can be coherently imagined. Myself, I cannot do it. You claim you can. So we are at an impasse.

But let me pretend I can imagine nothingness. My argument is not affected.

Why is there something rather than an imaginary state of affairs? Why are there horses rather than unicorns? If you are not tempted to try and answer that latter, you should not be tempted to try and answer the former.

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TaiChi March 20, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Nothingness is an abstraction. It is not a real thing. We can attempt to imagine nothingness, but such attempts will always fail, because we will always be there as imaginers. And an imaginer is some kind of something.

An analogy:
“We can attempt to imagine nobody, but such attempts will always fail, because we will always be there as imaginers. And an imaginer is some kind of somebody.”
But that’s obviously not correct, else I couldn’t imagine that there’s nobody on Pluto. The reasoning has somehow gone askew, and I think it does in your comment, too.

You might be right if imagining nothingness were the same thing as imagining one is perceiving nothingness, but these are two different imaginings with two different contents. Why? Because the latter includes as content a perceiver which I take to be myself, whereas in the former, I don’t identify myself in the picture at all. I’m entirely absent from it.

“But,” you might protest, “even when one imagines nothingness rather than one perceiving it, an imaginer must be implicit in the imagining as the condition of its possibility!”. Well, yes and no. An imagining does imply an imaginer in its capacity as an imagining (as some kind of representation). But it’s not part of the content of the imagining that it’s an imagining, anymore than the contents of a story include the idea that it is a story and so imply an author. There’s a distinction between the vehicle of representation and the content which rides within that vehicle that you need to be sensitive to.

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TaiChi March 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I am not going to argue whether nothingness can be coherently imagined. Myself, I cannot do it. You claim you can. So we are at an impasse.

Specifically, what I’m claiming is that the reason you give for not being able to imagine nothingness doesn’t establish that fact.

Why is there something rather than an imaginary state of affairs? Why are there horses rather than unicorns? If you are not tempted to try and answer that latter, you should not be tempted to try and answer the former.

Can you be more explicit? I’m having trouble seeing just what it is you’re objecting to. You’ve given me some examples of “why X, rather than Y?” questions, and you seem to want to say that all such questions are illegitimate by virtue of that very form. But plainly, “Why is the sky blue rather than red?” and similar questions are perfectly in order.

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Rob March 20, 2010 at 3:39 pm

The reason I give is the reason I cannot imagine nothingness. You claim you can. Meh.

Redness is not imaginary. Unicorns are. And so is nothingness. Or so you claim.

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Hermes March 20, 2010 at 5:53 pm

TaiChi, FWIW, it made sense to me.

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Rob March 20, 2010 at 6:09 pm

Hermes, what does “it” refer to?

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Hermes March 20, 2010 at 7:24 pm

The whole enchilada.

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TaiChi March 20, 2010 at 7:57 pm

The reason I give is the reason I cannot imagine nothingness. You claim you can. Meh.

I haven’t claimed anything of the sort. In fact, I seem to remember just telling you that I didn’t.

Redness is not imaginary. Unicorns are. And so is nothingness. Or so you claim.

Misrepresentation, circularity, and self-contradiction – all in the space of (barely) two lines. It takes a special kind of person to do that. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re joking.

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TaiChi March 20, 2010 at 8:08 pm

TaiChi, FWIW, it made sense to me.  

I understand Rob’s view that nothingness is unimaginable. I disagree, but I do recognize that others find the idea puzzling (actually, Stephen Law is one of these). But I took Rob to be giving a reason for why nothingness is unimaginable, and not just asserting it, and that is why I took up the issue with him. In particular, I was concerned to dispute his reason because it echoes the arguments given for relativism.

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Rob March 20, 2010 at 8:46 pm

The reason I give is the reason *I* cannot imagine nothingness. Every time I try, I am always there.

I thought you claimed you could imagine nothingness. Sorry if I misunderstood.

I’ll rephrase the last bit that got you so upset.

Redness is not imaginary. Unicorns are imaginary. You also claim that nothingness is something you can imagine.

(I realize the last sentence may be wrong.)

This conversation is silliness on stilts. I’m done with it.

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