Saturday, August 25, 2012

An argument against the feasibility of ontological nihilism

"Ontological nihilism" is defined as the position that nothing ultimately exists.  Now, I'm writing this post not to debunk something so obviously false as ontological nihilism.  Rather, it's my purpose to argue that in any possible world w1 at which something exists, it is impossible for there to ever be a state of affairs in w1 at which nothing exists.

1. Something x1 exists in w1. (Premise)

2. There is a time at which x1 fails to exist in w1. (Assumption)

3. Either some other entity x2 exists in w1 or else nothing continues to exist in w1. (Implied by 1 and 2)

4. If nothing continues to exist in w1, then there is a final moment of time in w1. (Premise)

5. At any final moment of time, whatever exists at that last moment will continue to exist in a changeless state. (Premise)

6. Hence, if time fails to exist in w1, then something will forever exist changelessly in w1. (From 4 and 5)

7. Therefore, the existence of x1 implies that "nothing exists" in w1 is necessarily false. (From 4 and 6)

In short, time is a measurement of change.  If all things fail to exist in w1, then that constitutes a change in w1.  However, if there is a final moment of time, then that final moment will forever be a changeless present.  If this changeless present does not exist, then it is meaningless to speak of any past time.  Since tensed facts are meaningful, it follows that a changeless present would have to exist.  Therefore, for any possible world at which something exists, it is impossible for nothing to exist in that world.


  1. Hello,

    I’ve written down a reductio of the infinite-past hypothesis, which avoids the subtilities of successive addition, infinite traversal, and so on. It seems to me a little bit too simple or naïve, but I can’t find out the flaw (if there is one). My common sense intuition is that it’s impossible to die after having lived an infinite life. Perhaps the definition [1] is question-begging, and the opponent would say that to die after an infinite life is exactly what one should expect (to be possible) in a past-infinite universe… But, it sounds too absurd to me.

    1.At least one entity (e.g. the matter of the universe) has existed through an infinite number of years until now (instant t) [hypothesis]

    2.To live through an actual infinite number of years is to live perpetually [Definition]

    3.To cease to exist is to die [Definition]

    4.God is able to annihilate anything right now (at t)

    5.So, if [1] is true, God can annihilate something that has existed through an actual infinite number of years

    6.So, something can live perpetually and die

    7.The proposition [6] is validly deduced, but absurd.

    8.Conclusion : [1] is false

    What do you think? Am I completely off the point ?

    Frédéric (from France, forgive my English!)

  2. Hi Frederic,

    Your English is spot-on, so no worries.

    One way the skeptic could avoid this conclusion is to postulate that no particular instance of matter and energy has endured throughout eternity past. Or, it could be the case that at some point in the infinite past, all particles of matter and energy ceased to exist, and then God created new particles. I'm not saying these are viable options, especially considering our contemporary knowledge of thermodynamics. Nonetheless, these options appear to be logically consistent.

    There are a number of other ways to address your argument that may in the end support it. For example, assuming the past is infinite, then there is a one-to-one correspondence between all potentialities and all moments of time. Given that the non-existence of all contingent entities C is a potentiality, it follows that there was a past time at which nothing contingent existed. Yet, there could never have been a past time at which nothing existed, for then nothing would exist at the present (out of nothing comes nothing). Therefore, some necessary entity (God) exists.

    More generally, I think we ought to avoid paradoxes unless there is some strong reason to uphold it. What I mean is that there are various paradoxes involved in the existence of an actually infinite number of things. Hilbert's Hotel is a good place to start. Given these paradoxes, and devoid of any compelling reason to think otherwise, we should therefore reject the possibility of an actually infinite number of things existing in any concrete realm. They may or may not exist as abstract objects, but that's beside the point.

    Thanks for your comment and interesting argument!