Everything from Nothing

The other day I was having a conversation with an atheist coworker.  He is an extremely bright and educated man who is a more skilled programmer than I am.  As our conversation progressed, it turned to my belief in God.  I began to explain my simple defense of why I am a theist to him when he pointed out a problem that I had never considered before.  In order to give some context, I am going to go through my simple demonstration of the rationality of theism.

A Simple Demonstration of the Rationality of Theism

When one considers the question of existence, one quite quickly comes across the problem of the infinite regress.  This problem has been illustrated many times in the popular culture using the story of an old lady and a scientist:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”
Hawking, 1988

To my mind, this problem of the infinite regress necessitates the division of reality into two different types.  Transcendent reality is “self-existent” reality and it does not need to be created.  Contingent reality is reality that is dependent upon transcendent reality for its existence.  The infinite regress of contingent reality tortoises is the only other alternative to dividing reality into two different types in this way.

Branch 1:  Believe in the infinite regress or believe in “self-existent” reality.

Dividing reality into two types in this way avoids the infinite regress but it does not answer the obvious question that follows.  What is the nature of transcendent reality?  Is transcendent reality merely a multiverse of eternally existing matter?  Or is transcendent reality something more?

Before I go on to examine that question, I examine what I know of myself.  I am a small subset of contingent reality, but when I examine myself I have a number of awesome capabilities.  I am a rational being who can think, communicate, make choices, love and experience joy.  Now there are many out there who claim that these capabilities are delusions.  Typically, they point out experimental evidence that calls into question my conscious experience of these capacities and argue that my conscious experience is an entirely untrustworthy delusion.  I have discussed one such claim in my essay “Free Will Illusions”, but I am not going to go into those kinds of arguments here.  Suffice it to say that every human being must make their own choice.  Is our conscious experience entirely untrustworthy or do such things as consciousness, love, joy, rationality and choice exist?

Branch #2  Believe that conscious experience is entirely delusional or believe in love/joy/rationality/choice.

So at branch #1 I chose to believe in transcendent reality as opposed to the infinite regress because tortoises all the way down seems too ridiculous.  At branch #2 I chose to believe that conscious experience was not entirely delusional because of the self-refutation that is the inevitable consequence of making the other choice.  How can it be rational to deny the existence of rationality?  Some people might try to separate out these various aspects of our conscious experience and argue that rationality is real but love and joy are not.  To me it is obvious that the different aspects of our conscious experience stand or fall together.   None of this, however, makes any difference to the argument for theism.  That rationality is part of contingent reality is sufficient for our purposes.

So transcendent reality exists and it is (by definition) a necessary and sufficient basis for contingent reality.  Contingent reality contains consciousness, rationality, joy, love and choice.  The question to ask now is, does transcendent reality have consciousness, rationality, joy, love and choice?  I call the reason I choose to believe that transcendent reality has the capacity for love/joy/consciousness/rationality and choice the argument from megalomania.

I don’t know about you, but the experiences of this life have taught me many hard lessons.  I am not the smartest person on earth, I am not the only person who matters, I need the help and love of other people, I am really small potatoes when it comes to reality.  The humility that this life has taught me (and perhaps this was part of its purpose?) makes the statement “I am more rational than the transcendent reality that is responsible for the existence of the universe.” utterly terrifying.  If I am capable of rationality, then the transcendent reality that is responsible for the universe must also be capable of rationality.  The other choice is insanity.  As C.S. Lewis once said, ” If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.”  How could it possibly be that I am greater than transcendent reality?

Branch #3  Believe that you are greater than transcendent reality in your capacity for consciousness/rationality/love/joy/choice or believe that it is greater than you are.

Now this is not a proof of theism, it is just a demonstration of the available options.  You can believe that there is an infinite stack of tortoises, or you can believe in the necessity of the “self-existent”.  You can believe in the reality of our conscious experience or you can believe it is all a delusion.  You can believe that you are greater than the self-existent in terms of your conscious experience, or you can believe that you are not.  A theist is a person who believes in the necessity of the self-existent, the reality of our conscious experience and that the self-existent is unimaginably greater than any contingent being in terms of love, joy, consciousness, thought and choice.  Many materialists believe that our conscious experience is entirely delusional.  Other materialists believe that we are superior to transcendent reality in that we have evolved the capacity for love, joy, consciousness, thought and choice.  Neither of the materialistic alternatives seem rational to me and I am a theist.

A False Dichotomy

As I was sharing this simple demonstration, the atheist coworker that I was talking to accused me of making a false dichotomy.  He said that it was possible to demonstrate that everything could have come into being from nothing.  When I asked what he meant, he talked about set theory and how starting with the null set it was possible to arrive at the entire set of real numbers.  I did not at that time know what he was talking about, but after a bit of research I believe that he is talking about the following paper:

Some Theorems on the Empty Set as Necessary and Sufficient For the Primary Topological Axioms of Physical Existence      (M. Bounias, A. Bonaly 1997)

So if it is rational to believe that everything comes from nothing, atheistic materialism can be completely rational.  In terms of what I have written above, a materialist would merely be one who believed that “Nothing is self-existent and that I am greater than the self-existent nothing that is responsible for contingent reality.”  What could be more reasonable?  But can everything come from nothing?

In order to criticize my coworker’s argument in a way that is intelligible for those without an advanced knowledge of mathematics, I am going to vastly over-simplify their argument and critique that vast over-simplification.  This may not seem legitimate, but I believe that the criticism leveled at the over-simplified version of the argument is equally applicable to the much more sophisticated version of the argument.  So let us begin with a mathematical representation of nothing which is all that exists:


This is the empty set which is a mathematical representation of nothing.  How many elements does the empty set have?  Well, the empty set has zero elements.  In order to have a consistent set theory that describes nothing, therefore, we need to introduce the concept of zero.  Let us call the concept of zero C0.  What do we have that exists now?


So we started with nothing, but in order to describe nothing we needed the concept of zero.  Now the set of everything that exists contains the concept of zero.  How many elements does it have?  Since the concept of zero is a single entity, our empty set must now contain the concept of one.  Let us call the concept of one C1.  What exists now?

{C0, C1}

Now how many elements exist?  There are two entities and we need the concept of two.  Let us call the concept of two C2 . . .   What exists now?  {C0, C1, C2}  We started with nothing and now we have three entities.  At this point, it should be obvious that it is possible to derive the set of all integers starting with the empty set.  What is wrong with applying such methodologies to the existence of physical reality and concluding that everything came from a mathematically consistent description of nothing?

I guess my first question when I read such an assertion is, how does nothing know that it needs a consistent set theory to describe itself?  I suspect that the proponents of this argument would say that “the mathematics of nothing require a consistent set theory, the consistent set theory implies that the nothing is unstable and creates everything”.

One objection to this argument has been put forward by C.S. Lewis and John Lennox.  They argue that the laws of mathematics that describe reality don’t themselves cause anything.  “Two plus two equals four but that never put four pounds in my pocket.” is the way John Lennox phrases this argument.  I believe this argument is substantive and lethal, but I have a deeper objection.

If real objects exist in physical space where do concepts exist?  I would argue that concepts exist in a concept space that we call a mind.  In order for there to be a consistent set theory that describes nothing as required by the paper, there must be an existing mind wherein the concept of nothing and set theory already exist.  In terms of what we have already discussed, I would say that this concept space (mind) was “self-existent” (transcendental reality) and that it did compel everything that exists to exist from nothing.  My coworkers argument is the same as mine and it turns out that he is a theist without knowing it.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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5 Responses to Everything from Nothing

  1. It would be much more informative to read if you had defined ‘nothing’ and ‘mind’ as this might make some sense. The reference to infinite regress is stopped by theists by stating there is a god and that god is the answer to all questions unanswered. The truth is that a god is no answer at all. To claim there is a god that always existed and did not need creation is to ignore the concept that space might always have existed, infinitely. Claiming there is a god is simply a cop-out, a refusal to participate in the discussion.
    The refusal to participate is stifling to conversation and ideas. It prevents us from reaching a conclusion about the universe and its beginning by halting the discussion. The claim that there is a god is wholly unsupported and does not contribute to the effort of trying to answer the questions of origin. Claiming a god is simply to say you don’t want to know, that you’re happy with a made up fairy tale.

    You also forgot to consider what a thought is, or a feeling. You accept these without definition and to me that says your argument is without definition, A pointless exercise in philosophy which blatantly ignores fact and possibilities in favor of the comfortable answer that your god is in charge. This state of affairs is commonly refered to as delusional thinking.

    • My Atheist Life,

      I thought I was clear in defining a mind as a “concept space” where concepts have existence. As for “nothing”, nothing is absolutely nothing not the quantum vacuum that most materialists believe has always existed. That brand of nothing is not nothing but rather the fabric of existence itself. (Time and space as we know it could not exist without this “nothing” and this “nothing” permeates space and time.)

      I also think that you have mistaken my methodology. I am not saying “the infinite regress stops at God”. I am saying that in order to avoid the necessity of an infinite regress, we need something that I call transcendent reality that exists without being created. I then ask what the nature of this transcendent reality is and describe why I think it is greater than I am. God is not a “cop out” but a deduction from the experience of my own limitations.

      But if postulating a “self-existent” mind is a cop out, what you have done is a far worse cop out. I, at least, ask and attempt to answer these questions while you assume that the not asking, not answering position is the default “rational” position. Where do you stand? I assume you believe that a) matter is self-existent, that b) our conscious experience is completely delusional, that c) science has made you greater than the transcendent reality in understanding evolution and that d) everything comes from nothing. Does the fact that b and c contradict each other bother you at all?

      Thanks for your comment and have a great day,


      • rob,
        I have never claimed either b or c, not even accidentally that I’m aware of.

        We have only our senses and corroborative understanding from the senses of others and the extension of both using tools to know what exists and what does not.

        On the question of regression, it mixes logic/philosophy with science of knowing. We know that space exists, that matter exists, that life exists. Beyond this we can only guess. The transcendent existence you postulate is without foundation. We do not know that there was ever a time when nothing, as you define it, is all that there was. That too is a guess. If we presume that there was at some point NOTHING as you define it, then there was no transcendent existence either. Or do you define existence as we know it to be anything/everything except what transcendent existence is made of? You say that transcendent reality is necessary for contingent reality… but I can’t see any evidence you offer for this. Transcendent reality is just a concept … something that resides only in the mind. Basing contingent reality on this seems somewhat fragile.

        Contingent reality, as you call it, may have always existed in one form or another. We may never know the answer. Science seems to work best when we start with what we know and work from there. Prior to the singularity nothing is known about what existed because we cannot experience that existence that we are aware of. All contemplation of it is guess work. Some of it is good guess work based on scientific evidence. None of it solves the question of infinite regress or even validates the problem as a problem. The problem of a fly contemplating the billions of light years between it and the other side of the known visible universe is a big one. Can you or I contemplate accurately that which we cannot experience, cannot test, cannot sense?

        My comments are directed at your use of generalized encapsulation of definition problems as if they add no trouble to your thought process. Without considering the definitions and the list of possible concepts, we limit our thinking to our presumptions and their derivations. There is no reason to think that space or something like it did not exist at some point in the past. There is no reason to think that contingent reality is necessarily based on transcendent reality as you describe it. These are guesses without supporting evidence. The science is pointing out evidence that contradict your guess work. I assume it’s your guesswork… you posted it here.

        The truth is that what we do know shows that even if there is a god or transcendent existence it could be removed from this existence we know by a number so large we cannot contemplate it. Even if such a thing existed, there is no need or valid reason to think it has something to do with existence as we understand it. Such musings necessarily need explain why concepts such as transcendent reality have anything to do with the reality of existence that we do know.

        The only explanation that I can see in your post is to explain that there is something (call it god if you like) which existed before existence. This serves only to stop the infinite regression which has not been shown to exist.

      • Mal,

        I realized this morning that I have not yet replied to this comment. The reason is because the reply is taking so long. It will come in the form of an additional post.

        Thanks for your comment,


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