Edward Feser’s post, “Fifty Shades of Nothing,” prompts this one.
Nothing is the alternative to the existence of the universe,* that is, to the existence of something. Something is either caused by a self-existent, uncaused entity (i.e., God), or something simply exists. In the letter case, something must be uncaused and eternal, ruling out the possibility of nothing.
Therefore, given the necessity of God, nothing is possible, though there has been something for at least 14 billion years, according to the Big Bang theory. And there may have been something into the indefinite past, according to cyclic models of cosmology.
This suggests the following questions:
A. Given that nothing is possible, what can be said about it, other than that is the alternative to something?
1. Make a fist and then open it. What do you see? “Nothing” is the usual answer if you’re holding nothing in your hand. But the “nothing” that you see is in fact the absence of an object in your hand. (It would be mere pedantry to say that your hand is “holding” a column of air.) Therefore, you don’t see “nothing”; you see an open hand, which appears to be empty. Nothing, by contrast, can’t be described in terms of an open hand or the absence of an object in the space above an open hand. If there were nothing, there would be no open hand to begin with. A vacuum in a bottle or in outer space is of the same ilk; it is an apparent emptiness (lack of matter, though not necessarily of energy) that exists only because there is something.
2. If you are a philosophical materialist (i.e., disbeliever in supernatural phenomena or divine interventions),** you believe that a person ceases to exist when his brain ceases to function (if not when the person lapses into permanent unconsciousness). From your perspective, the cessation of brain function (or even of consciousness) puts an end to the things that made the person a particular being with a unique set of characteristics: personality, memory, habits, ways of talking, laughing, etc. You might even say that where there was a particular person there is now “nothing.” But that “nothing” is really an absence or negation of the particular person who existed before brain death (or permanent lapse into unconsciousness). It is not the kind of nothing that is understood as an alternative to the existence of the universe; it is the perceived absence of an erstwhile portion of that universe. In fact, by the laws of physics, that erstwhile portion of the universe (a particular person) actually continues to exist, though not in a form that you would you would label with the name of the particular person. Here again, we have “nothing” (i.e., absence of a person) only because there was something. But we do not have nothing; there is still brain matter, which has assumed a different electrochemical state than before brain death. (This is not to say that the residue of a person is the same thing as the person. Nor is it to deny those wondrous things — persons and their many positive accomplishments — that emerge from the activity of the brain.)
Nothing more can be said of nothing than that it is the alternative to something. Nothing, by definition, has no characteristics. It is neither imaginable nor describable, despite the temptation to think and speak of it as some kind of empty blackness within which nothing exists. The image of an empty blackness is an image of something, not nothing.
B. Can nothing follow something, as death follows life?
Nothing can follow something only if something (i.e., the universe) is annihilated. Annihilation necessarily means the disappearance of all traces of matter and energy and the space contains their existence. It doesn’t mean the conversion of matter, energy, and space to a mere blankness (black, white, or otherwise).
Annihilation is beyond the ability of humans, and beyond the forces of nature. It is a job for God.
C. Does the fact that there is something rule out the possibility of nothing?
No. See the preamble and the answer to B.
* I use “universe” generally, to include the possibility of a spatial and/or temporal multiverse.
** I am a kind of philosophical materialist, but unlike most materialists I am not an atheist. Specifically, I believe that the universe was created by God. But I also doubt (regretfully) that God plays an active role in the workings of His creation, except to sustain it (as against the possibility of annihilation). As long as the universe is sustained, it (seemingly) operates according to “laws” that are (in theory) discoverable, though the ultimate nature of existence is not discoverable.
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Free Will: A Proof by Example?
A Theory of Everything, Occam’s Razor, and Baseball
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
Science, Logic, and God
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
What Is Time?
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Tenth Dimension
The Big Bang and Atheism
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps
Scientism, Evolution, and the Meaning of Life
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II) (first item)
Mysteries: Sacred and Profane
Something from Nothing?
Something or Nothing
My Metaphysical Cosmology
Further Thoughts about Metaphysical Cosmology