Re: Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit
In his blog post “Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit” (https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/468), Richard Carrier argues that the (theistic-friendly) principle ex nihilo nihil fit (“from nothing, nothing comes”) is false. He first describes a possible world where there exists a “state of absolute nothingness.” In this state, the only things that exist are things that are considered logically necessary (with the exception of God), that is, all logically necessary laws, i.e. the laws of logic and mathematics, and – since, as he claims, those laws must exist at some location or at some point in time – a singular point of space(-time) devoid of matter/energy – which isn’t really nothing after all, at least not in the non-referential sense, but let that pass. Carrier then claims that this “state of absolute nothingness” cannot be governed by the law ex nihilo nihil fit, since that law is not itself logically necessary. Finally, he argues (probabilistically) that if there is no such law, then the “state of absolute nothingness” actually causally necessitates an infinite multiverse containing our very own universe. So Carrier is not only arguing that “from nothing, nothing comes” is false, he is arguing that the opposite is true, i.e. “from nothing, everything comes”. I find this to be an intriguing argument, although, as I will show, it is unsound, whichever way you look at it.
Firstly, I believe that Carrier misconstrues the principle ex nihilo nihil fit. This principle does not imply that a “state of absolute nothingness” is causally inert, for it could well be causally active, as Carrier argues, and ex nihilo nihil fit would still be true. As Wes Morriston has argued, “charitably interpreted, the claim that something can’t come from nothing just is [referring to premise 1 of the Kalam cosmological argument] the claim that nothing [not anything] can come into existence uncaused” (Morriston 2013). This principle is plausible in my opinion because, as William Lane Craig explains, “if things really could come into being uncaused … then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything does not come into existence uncaused … given a pure A-Theory of time, according to which only the present exists, every moment of time is a fresh beginning, qualitatively indistinguishable from a first moment of time, for when any moment is present, earlier moments have passed away and do not exist. Thus, if the universe could exist uncaused at a first moment of time, it could exist uncaused at any moment of time. There just does not seem to be any relevant difference. It follows that if the latter is metaphysically impossible, so is the former” (Craig & Sinclair 2009, p. 187). Of course, this presupposes an A-Theory of time, but such a theory is plausible in its own right (Craig 2000a, Craig 2000b).
Secondly, even if we reinterpret ex nihilo nihil fit to mean what Carrier thinks it means, the argument still fails. To begin with, it is not at all clear that space can exist apart from matter and energy, even a singular point of space(-time). Moreover, why should we accept Carrier’s contention that the law ex nihilo nihil fit, as he interprets it, is not logically necessary? Since these two claims are assumed without argument or evidence, insufficient grounds are provided for Carrier’s conclusion. However, there is a more pressing problem, as I will argue.
A singular point of space(-time) is either timeless or it is temporal, in which case it either has a beginning or it is past-eternal. But a timeless point of space is impossible (at least if atheism is true) because, as Wes Morriston explains, “the material cause of the universe [in other words, the stuff out of which the universe is made, i.e. that singular point of space] couldn’t be timeless because it is a part or an aspect of the universe, and because every such part or aspect is temporal. The material cause of the universe (if there were one) wouldn’t just disappear after creation. It would remain within the physical universe — as the stuff of which it continues to be “made.” If there were a material cause of the universe, it would necessarily have temporal duration.” (Morriston 2002). So, either the singular point of space(-time) that Carrier has in mind has a beginning or it is past-eternal.
If the singular point of space(-time) has a beginning, then this raises the question “what caused that singular point of space-time?” – a question which Carrier’s argument does not address. Carrier argues that “[i]f there was absolutely nothing, then (apart from logical necessity) nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.” However, there was never a time when space-time did not exist. Therefore, Carrier’s argument does not apply. Since, as I argued above, “nothing [not anything] can come into existence uncaused,” it follows that the singular point of space-time must have a cause and that such a cause must be a being possessing many of the attributes of God (henceforth “God”) – “an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe … who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful” (Craig & Sinclair 2009).
In his argument, Carrier basically assumes that God does not exist necessarily and hence that he does not exist in the “state of absolute nothingness”. But, we’ve just seen that if this state has a beginning, then it is caused by God. And if it is caused by God, then God exists in the “state of absolute nothingness”. Consequently, the “state of absolute nothingness” cannot be just a singular point of space-time with a beginning. Given that either such a state has a beginning or it is past-eternal (as argued previously), it follows that the “state of absolute nothingness” which Carrier has in mind must be a past-eternal singular point of space.
Unfortunately for Carrier, it is not possible for a past-eternal singular point of space to exist, at least not on a relational theory of time. On a relational theory of time, a temporal series of past moments requires a temporal series of past events (or changes). But there cannot be a temporal series of past events (or changes) in a singular (zero dimensional) point of space.
In conclusion, Carrier’s argument, while interesting, does not succeed in showing that the principle ex nihilo nihil fit (“from nothing, nothing comes”), however you interpret it, is false, let alone that “from nothing (a “state of absolute nothingness”), everything comes”. In fact, as I showed, ex nihilo nihil fit, as traditionally understood, is a very plausible principle.
Now, in response to my rebuttal of his argument, Carrier might produce an undercutting defeater for my belief that “nothing [not anything] can come into existence uncaused.” Would Carrier’s “Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit” argument then show that the principle ex nihilo nihil fit, however you interpret it, is false? Not really. He would still have to produce a rebutting defeater for my belief that “nothing [not anything] can come into existence uncaused,” that is the case even if one grants Carrier’s interpretation of the principle ex nihilo nihil fit, for if the singular point of space(-time) in his argument has a beginning (since it cannot be timeless nor past-eternal), then the question as to whether God caused it and, hence, whether God exists at the same time as the singular point of space-time remains unanswered.
In summary, Carrier argues that a singular point of space-time, plus everything that is logically necessary (except god), plus nothing else, entails the existence of an infinite multiverse containing our very universe. In this post, I have shown that for Carrier’s argument to work, the singular point of space cannot be timeless or past-eternal. Therefore, it must have a beginning. However, it cannot have a beginning, for if it had a beginning, then something like God would exist, and if something like God would exist, then it would not be the case that there exists a singular point of space-time, plus everything that is logically necessary (except god), plus nothing else. Carrier presumably wants to avoid postulating the existence of God, so he would not be happy to introduce God into reality.
Craig, W. L. (2000a). The Tensed Theory of Time: A Critical Examination. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Craig, W. L. (2000b). The Tenseless Theory of Time: A Critical Examination. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Craig, W. L., & Sinclair, J. (2009). The Kalam Cosmological Argument. In W. L. Craig & J. P. Moreland (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (pp. 101-201). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Morriston, W. (2002). Creation ex Nihilo and the Big Bang. Philo, 5 (9): 23-33.
Morriston, W. (2013). Doubts about the kalam cosmological argument. In J. P. Moreland, C. Meister & K. A. Sweis (Eds.), Debating Christian Theism (pp. 20-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.