I just bought the bestseller Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (New York, Liveright, 2012). The book looks great, but I haven’t read very far into it just yet. On page 1, the Prologue offers what is dubbed:
“A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives.”
Here is the proof:
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.
Therefore, there must be something. QED.
Again, I’ve yet to read beyond this page, but a quick glance revealed no immediate refutation of this proof. My daughter, a sophomore at a non-elite university, saw through the it immediately, pointing out that it employed equivocation on the word “nothing.” This does seem to be one way to describe what is wrong with the proof. With a few minutes to think and type I shall quickly attempt to explain.
Suppose there were nothing. OK, fair enough.
Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. Still good.
If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. This no longer works, for in a state of total “nothingness” there would be no “everything” and no such thing as “permission.”
If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. Whatever. See the next line.
So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. This sounds suspiciously like a prohibition or a law, which we have already been told, correctly, do not exist in a condition of absolute nothingness.
Thus nothing is self-forbidding. Wrong.
Therefore, there must be something. QED. Sorry. As explained, it doesn’t follow.
So, with all due respects to Jim Holt, whose book I intend to thoroghly enjoy, and with a quiet hope that he offers a similar refutation somewhere beyond page 1, I offer this alternative.
“An Even Quicker Proof That There Might Nothing Rather Than Something, for Modern People Whose Lives Are Still Busy”
Suppose there were nothing. Then nothing would exist, not even a prohibition against nothingness. Thus, there would truly be nothing, i.e., nothing at all. QED.
[Update on Nov 18, 2012: I’m very happy to say that the author goes far beyond such “proofs” as this. The book is very satisfying for those who like to read such things. The Quck Proof is a mere tongue-in-cheek introduction to an entertainingly written discussion of a long and serious subject.]
So glad you wrote this. I just sat down in my local library & opened this book to read. Having read this prologue, I was about to put the book back down. That “proof” is seriously flawed 🙂
Ha. Fortunately the book gets a lot better. Totally fine review of the subject. One may agree or disagree with the individual perspectives, but they seem like the main ones out there. Have fun!!
I don’t think that the proof is so flawed.
Let’s go to the first line that you didn’t like:
“If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted.”
You wrote “this no longer works, for in a state of total “nothingness” there would be no “everything” and no such thing as “permission.””
I don’t agree, because without any law then why that this nothingness will stay empty? We need a law that will make nothing to be constant (in a logical sense, of course there is no time, nevertheless, if there are no laws then it can arbitrarily be full).
The problem is that without any laws, then there is no continuity or consistency, so nothingness can be also full with something. So the proof should be:
If there were no laws, then there is no consistency
If there is no consistency, then nothingness can be full with something. QED