An Argument for Nothing



An Argument for Nothing


The philosopher with no name maintains, fittingly, that nothing is real. In pre-Socratic style, he proclaims, “All is nothing”. He is a total eliminativist (going by the code name TE). We could call him a “nothingist”: everything is nothing, according to the nothingist.  [1] Not for him Being and Nothingness, but Nothing and Nothingness. TE contends that everything we talk and think about is fiction, pure make-believe; none of it is real. Science deals in fictions all the way down: its quantifiers range over only non-existent intentional objects (like Sherlock Holmes). Attributions of existence made by the unenlightened are simply false. TE notes that many more things don’t exist than do, and that we often make mistakes of existence, and that we have no clear idea what existence is anyway—so why not go the whole hog and abandon the idea altogether. Isn’t everything a bit fictional, a bit made up, even under our current conceptions, so why hang on to anything non-fictional? The OED defines “exists” as “have objective reality or being”, but many attributes of objects are projected or imagined or subjective in some way (color, beauty, solidity, etc.). Objects don’t objectively have these attributes. Maybe all of it—the manifest image, the phenomenal world—is so much projection and fancy, so that objective reality is not part of our actual worldview. Occam’s razor thus recommends ditching the idea of existence in favor of the fictional posit, the useful construct. The world is all appearance without reality. TE is a global anti-realist: all so-called reality is just so much unwarranted reification. We have heated disputes about what really exists—numbers, universals, values, colors, patterns, gods, and other universes; TE proposes that we simply abolish everything, cleanly and decisively. This, he points out, will solve many problems, since if nothing exists nothing is problematic. We won’t need to acknowledge mysterious realities, because nothing is real to start with. “Exists” is a strong word, a committal word, going beyond what we have any warrant for claiming—how can existence ever be verified?—so we do well to dispense with such assertions. What does it even mean to say that something exists? From what impression does the concept derive? Isn’t the ordinary concept essentially pragmatic, signifying something like “what we have reason to care about”? You needn’t worry about unicorns eating your grass, because unicorns don’t exist; but be watchful of tigers, because they assuredly do exist and can do you serious harm. “Exists” means attention-worthy; “doesn’t exist” means not worth bothering about. Why glorify this pragmatic concept as denoting a special kind of objective property and then rack our brains wondering what things really have it and what it comes to metaphysically? For TE the whole idea of existence, as the philosopher understands it, is a crock, a myth–so much philosophical nonsense. Away with existence! We can carry on talking without it, and still do science, and still make useful distinctions according to pragmatic criteria. Nothingism is a liberating doctrine, a way to let the fly out of the fly bottle; it allows us to view the world through a healthier and less discriminatory lens. We got rid of absolute space and time, we got rid of vital spirits, we got rid of gods and fairies, we even got rid of solid lumps of matter—now is the time to get rid of existent things altogether. As a bonus, we will at last have an answer to skepticism: we don’t need to worry that the external world might not exist, contrary to commonsense belief, since we know that it doesn’t exist—we have eliminated this idea from our conceptual scheme. We can still distinguish the serious from the unserious—“reality” from “fantasy”—using pragmatic criteria, but there is no deep question about whether what we believe in really exists. Tables and chairs don’t exist, because nothing does, so there is nothing whose existence skepticism can threaten to undermine. There is no reality whose nature we might not know, there being no reality at all. You can’t fail to know what isn’t there. All in all, the nothingist presents an attractive picture from a problem-solving point of view; we just need to get our minds around it and relax (he says). Admittedly, it takes some getting used to, but isn’t that true of most intellectual breakthroughs? Paradigm shifts and all that. The philosopher with no name has shown up in town with guns cocked, ready to drive out the undesirable elements. He has no time for the Existent Being Boys, those self-important intellectual troublemakers.

            No doubt TE cuts a striking figure (a high plains drifter  [2]), but we may wonder whether, despite his self-advertisements, he has any real argument for his startling position. Can he prove that there is nothing? Maybe it would be nice if nothing exists—it would take away our intellectual headaches—but can it be demonstrated that nothing exists? I can imagine a line of argument that might qualify, which I propose to outline. It might seem suspiciously clever, but when has that ever been an objection to a philosophical argument? It goes as follows. We start with a basic principle about knowledge and reality, namely that nothing unknowable exists. Things must be of such a nature that they can be known. If anything exists, it knowably exists–for example material objects must be knowable in order to exist. This leads by a familiar route to the idea that material objects must be somehow reducible to, or essentially involve, sense data (we leave open precisely what sense data are). When we say that a table exists we mean that certain sense data are obtainable—not that there is some noumenal entity whose existence we must blindly postulate. So let us accept that metaphysical position for the sake of argument: nothing yet follows about the non-existence of tables; on the contrary, they exist as robustly as sense data. But now we notice that sense data have an odd epistemology: while they are indubitably known from the first-person perspective, they are apparently unknown from the third-person perspective. And that perspective is as essential to them as the first-person perspective: sense data exist in the shared objective world, as well as being introspectively apparent to their subject. They have both first-person subjective reality and third-person objective reality (they have a basis in the brain and can cause things). But they are epistemologically problematic from the latter perspective, so we need to render them knowable from that perspective. To achieve that objective we reduce them to observable behavior. So far, so good: we have reduced material objects to sense data and sense data to behavior—nothing eliminative yet. We have simply respected our basic principle linking existence to knowledge (if there is no such link, why postulate existence at all?). True, we are being reductionist, but that begs no questions in favor of eliminativism: sense data exist and so does behavior. It is the next step that puts the cat among the pigeons: for we can’t help observing that behavior is an affair of the body, which is a material object. That means that we need an account of it that respects our principle, and reduction to sense data seems the only way to go (or something similar). So we reduce behavior to sense data as of behavior. But now of course we need to explain how these sense data are accessible from a third-person point of view, which we do by reducing them to suitable behavior; and thus the cycle begins again. An infinite regress of reductions ensues. By insisting on our principle–by no means question-begging—we are led to adopt reductionism about the material and the mental; but that leads us into an infinite regress as behavior gives way to sense data of behavior and these sense data in turn need their behavioral expression. We are thus faced with a dilemma: either we reject our principle or we give up on existence. The former option is unattractive, because it severs the connection between existence and knowledge; so we are left with the latter, which abandons the idea that material objects and sense data exist. Since they don’t exist, there is no need to link them to knowledge, so no need to offer reductions of them, so no regress of reduction. Reduction (or anything similar such as “criteria”) is simply not required under the assumption of non-existence. The choice, then, is between nothingness and mystery: for if the objects that allegedly exist are not knowable, they are mysterious—not objects of knowledge. The objects become noumenal in so far as they are declared unknowable. We can try to avoid this result by constitutively linking the objects with sense data (however construed), but that leads to regress once the existence of sense data is considered. In other words, a familiar predicament concerning reality and knowledge turns into an argument for the position that resolves the problem, viz. total eliminativism. TE thus has a colorable argument for the doctrine he recommends on broadly methodological grounds—he can prove what he says would be nice. The doctrine is not only advantageous from a problem-solving perspective; it is also capable of direct demonstration (given some reasonable assumptions). Only a type of mysterianism  [3] stands in the way, but nothingism will have no truck with that—it offers us a way of avoiding that epistemological disaster. If the choice is between total mystery and total non-existence, TE urges us to accept the latter. Only rigid adherence to the concept of existence stands in the way of intellectual liberation. We need to cut this concept loose.

            The nothingist applauds our standard anti-Meinongian incredulity, but wonders why we stop there. He thinks we throw the concept of existence around far too freely, and don’t take seriously the problems inherent in it. His recommendation is to dispense with Being altogether: there is no subsistence and no existence. Meinong is wrong, but so is Russell. As the Beatles sang in “Strawberry Fields”: “Nothing is real, and nothing to get hung up about”. We are apt to suppose that the king of France lacks existence and the queen of England has it—but why the distinction? Neither has the peculiar property of existence, though it is true that we have more to fear from the queen than from the king—and that is the only distinction worth drawing between the two. Talk of existence is just so much airy metaphysics, according to TE. Meinong thinks that everything mentionable has Being; we ordinary folks think (like Russell) that some mentionable things have Being and some don’t; TE thinks that nothing mentionable (or unmentionable) has Being–not really, not when you get right down to it. For TE we are closet Meinongians by another name.  [4]


  [1] We have the monist, the dualist, the pluralist–and the nothingist.

  [2] See the film of that name starring Clint Eastwood, himself a non-existent being.

  [3] Or as we might say “ignorancism”: in either case drastic epistemic limitation is posited. It’s either the unknowable thing-in-itself or nothing at all—two worlds or no world.

  [4] I hope it is clear that I am not myself intending to subscribe to nothingism here; I am just trying to give the view a run for its money. I favor the despised mysterian position, but I think the nothingist position is worth thinking about. It is not without argumentative resources. And it is fun to think about.

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