Robert Lawrence Kuhn on Taxonimizing Nothing

Defining “Nothing” may seem simple – no thing, not a thing. But what’s a “thing?” I invoke the term “thing” in the most general possible way, and therefore, given some possible notions of Nothing, it is no contradiction to find “things” of which these different Nothings are comprised. Tearing apart these constituent things, as if scaffolds or sinews of Nothings, may help deepen understanding of the nature of Nothing, yielding a taxonomy that arrays opposing kinds of Nothing that could be conceived and might have existed.

This taxonomy is structured as a deconstruction, or as a dissection, as it were, a reverse layering, a peeling, a progressive reduction of the content of each Nothing in a hierarchy of Nothings. As such, this taxonomy takes its heritage from the so-called Subtraction Argument, which seeks to show that the absence of all concrete objects would be metaphysically possible. [ … ] Developing this way of thinking, there might be nine levels of Nothing, with a general progression from Nothing most simplistic (Nothing One) to Nothing most absolute (Nothing Nine). [ … ]

Following are nine levels of Nothings.

  • (1) Nothing as existing space and time that just happened to be totally empty of all visible objects (particles and energy are permitted – an utterly simplisitc view).
  • (2) Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter (no particles, but energy is permitted – flouting the law of mass-energy equivalence).
  • (3) Nothing as existing space and time that just happens to be totally empty of all matter and energy.
  • (4) Nothing as existing space and time that is by necessity – irremediably and permanently in all directions, temporal as well as spatial – totally empty of all matter and energy.
  • (5) Nothing of the kind found in some theoretical formulations by physicists, where, although space-time (unified) as well as mass-energy (unified) do not exist, pre-existing laws, particularly laws of quantum mechanics, do exist. And it these laws that somehow make it the case that universes can and do, from time to time, pop into existence from “Nothing,” creating space-time as well as mass-energy. (It is standard physics to assume that empty space must seethe with virtual particles, a consequence of the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, where particle-antiparticle pairs come into being and then, in a fleetingly brief moment, annihilate one another.)
  • (6) Nothing where not only there are no space-time and no mass-energy, but also there are no pre-existing laws of physics that could generate space-time or mass-energy.
  • (7) Nothing where not only there are also no space-time, no mass-energy, and no pre-existing laws of physics, but also there are no non-physical things or kinds that are concrete (rather than abstract) – no God, no gods, and no consciousness (cosmic or otherwise). This means that there are no physical or non-physical beings or existents of any kind – nothing, whether natural or supernatural, that is concrete (rather than abstract).
  • (8) Nothing where not only there are none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 7, there are no concrete existing things, physical or non-physical), but also there are no abstract objects of any kind – no numbers, no sets, no logic, no general propositions, no universals, no Platonic forms (perhaps no value).
  • (9) Nothing where not only there are none of the above (so that, as in Nothing 8, there are no abstract objects), but also there are no possibilities of any kind (recognizing that possibilities and abstract objects overlap, though allowing that they can be distinguished).

Quoted from The Mystery of Existence, ed. by John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn (Wiley-Blackwell: 2013) pp. 259-260

*Originally derived and developed from Robert Lawrence Kuhn, “How Ultimate Reality Works for Us: A Taxonomy of Possible Explanations,” in Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future (Praeger: 2007), and “Why This Universe: Toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations,” Skeptic vol. 13 no. 2 (2007).

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