In the last part of our series regarding naturalistic answers to the question “Why there is something rather than nothing?”, we shall survey the arguments of atheist Richard Carrier. Carrier’s explicit answer to this question can be found on his blog in a post entitled Ex Nihilo Onus Merdae Fit. Carrier begins by defining what he means by nothing:
[Nothing] can only mean that nothing whatever exists except anything whose non-existence is logically impossible. That latter caveat is unavoidable for the obvious reason that if it is logically impossible for something not to exist, then there can’t have ever been a state of being where it did not exist. So if by “absolutely nothing” you mean even the non-existence of logically necessary things, then “absolutely nothing” is logically impossible, and thus there can’t ever have been “nothing” in that sense.
A few caveats here. First, when someone begins the definition of nothing with “nothing, except…” then they have already gotten off on the wrong foot. Nothing, by definition means the absence of anything, at all. Period. It does not, contrary to Carrier, mean nothing except X,Y, and Z. For then, one is indeed talking about something.
Now, obviously Carrier has reasons for this definition, which he explains in the passage following the above quote. Carrier claims that logically necessary things must, by definition, always exist, and, therefore, there cannot be a state of reality without them. Is it just me, or is this the very answer that theists give for the existential question—namely, that since God is a necessary being, absolute nothing is not a possible state of affairs.(Now, this already demonstrates how ridiculous Carrier’s definition is. For if God did exist, even by himself, then by Carrier’s definition, this would still constitute “nothing”. But, I digress.) However, Carrier obviously does not adhere to this answer—and his reasons for it are given elsewhere. So, he must be talking about some other necessary thing:
[A]ll the fundamental propositions of logic and mathematics are necessarily true[…]and therefore there can never have been a state of being in which they were false.
Carrier is claiming, then, that the laws of logic and mathematics are these necessary things that must exist. Fair enough. While it is not clear that these laws could be predicated in a state of “nothingness”—since these laws only describe the way existence behaves—it seems harmless to allow this premise in Carrier’s argument. Carrier continues:
Now, when nothing exists (except that which is logically necessary), then anything can happen (whose happening is logically possible). Because the only way to prevent something from happening, is to have some law or force or power or object or agency, in other words some actual thing, that prevents it. If you remove all obstacles, you allow all possibilities.
This is where Carrier goes off the deep end, and subsequently where his argument collapses. He is claiming that since nothing exists (that is, nothing is actual), then there are infinite possibilities (that is, infinite potential). This is completely incoherent. Why? Because actuality is ontologically prior to potentiality—that is to say, only something already existing can have potential. For example, water has the potential to become ice, but this potential is dependent on the already existing substance, namely, that of water. This potential would not exist by itself. Yet, this is what Carrier would have us believe, namely, that a big state of “nothing” has infinite potential! (Note: this objection was brought to Carrier's attention by individuals in the comment section of Carrier's post, but his reply boiled down to exclaiming "prove it".)
Another way to think of the problem here is the following. Potentiality must be predicated of something. That is to say, for potentiality to be a predicate, you must have a subject. To say “(x) has potential” one must substitute some thing for (x). Yet, Carrier can only substitute “nothing” for (x), which renders such a proposition nonsensical. Just ask the question “What has potential?” to which the reply will be “nothing.” So, not only is Carrier’s claim here silly, it is logically incoherent.
But, wait, Carrier’s not finished:
Therefore, in the beginning, nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.[…] Of all the logically possible things that can happen when nothing exists to prevent them from happening, continuing to be nothing is one thing, one universe popping into existence is another thing, two universes popping into existence is yet another thing, and so on all the way to infinitely many universes popping into existence[…]Therefore, the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
So, Carrier has basically argued that from “nothing”, everything comes, multiple universes and all. There are many problems with Carrier’s argument here. First, Carrier has still given no metaphysical explanation of how “nothing” can spontaneously pop into something. This is seen to be metaphysically impossible—hence the old adage “from nothing, nothing comes”. For something to go from one state (nothing) to another (something) would be for potentiality to be reduced to actuality. But, 1) we’ve already seen that potential must be a potential of some actual thing, which is not nothing, and 2) something can only be reduced from potentiality to actuality by something already actual, which, again, cannot exist in nothing; that is, potentiality cannot move itself to act because mere potential is not actual.
Thus stated, we have seen that Carrier begins his argument with a dubious definition of “nothing”. Then he tried to predicate metaphysical concepts of this “nothing”, yet, said concepts can only be coherently predicated of something, not nothing. Third, even after all this ridiculous argumentation, Carrier has given no metaphysical explanation of how this ‘nothing” can produce anything at all. Rather, it is simply flatly asserted that this “nothing” can pop into multiple universes. Taking all of this into consideration, we can see that Richard Carrier has not given a coherent and tenable answer to the existential question.