Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What "Something?" Answering Bede Rundle's Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing


Bede Rundle in his book Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing makes a detailed case for matter's necessity. He also gives some good arguments for why it is to be preferred over the position that God is "the" necessary being. There is no way I can do justice to a whole book in one or two blog posts. I will mist hit a couple of highlights that I thin k undermine his thesis. This is just my mistaken rendition of his argument but essentially I think he is saying this:

(1) there is no something from nothing so something must always have existed

(2) That something must have been material existence, the universe or some form of it.

(3) this is to be preferred to belief in a deity because we know matter exists and there is no empirical evidence of anything beyond the  physical so, therefore,  the necessary being must be the psychical universe. [a more complete version of his argument appeared in his obituary and was posted on Secular Outpost.I will discuss that in the comment section. [1]

Highlight 1: the problem of uncertainty due to lack o direct empirical observation

Premise 1 which I assigned to him not his own premise, I agree with, So No need to examine his arguments here it;s mot in contention. P 2 I will take issue with, even though he doesn't present it directly in this way it's clearly crucial to his argument, The first couple of chapters deal with this concept and related issues. I will reduce  to issue that I think is the real ferment of those chapters: it could be characterized by the issue of how can there be a mind without a body? Leslies comment on the opening chapter question of mind with no body, he terms it the chief error of theology; [2] Rundell actually makes this argument obliquely. (13) What he's getting at is a bit more involved. we don't have the precision of analogy to reflect actually upon a coherent notion of God because there is nothing to grab hold of. since god is not given in sense data there is no way to base an analogy on anything. Leslie relates references this argument a phrase he makes on page 13 about no body,"much of the difficulty with talk about God likewise derives from our insistence in making him in our likeness and so attributing to him a mind and even a personality--everything needed except the body to give it all sense." [3] He's is  saying more than 'there can't be a mind without a body' but reflecting upon the larger problem  that imn an absence of any empirical data we impose our own ideas. 

The problem of meaning is sometimes overlooked by those who seek to make theistic hypotheses more acceptable  by expanding the range of  allowable proofs. Thus it is acknowledged that a rigorously deductive demonstration proceeding from observed phenomena is powerless to establish, such a hypothesis, and the regularities required to sustain an inductive proof are simply not there to draw upon. However, while other approaches, such as inference to the best explanation, cumulative case arguments, probabilistic reasoning, or locating the hypothesis in a coherent set of beliefs may in general offer a broader range, they do nothing to remove the uncertainties in the meaning of the conclusions which they aim to support.[4]
This supports P 2 because it forms the basis of the preference for material universe over God belief.

Highlight 2: All that is solid melts into air 

Marx said that although in a very different context. It applies here because Rundle deals with the issue of the new physics and the seeming unreality of the physical world which turns out to be a form of energy and energy turns out to be field and strings and things that can't be touched. He makes the point that this is the true nature of physical, or matter, doesn't make it any less real. It also means we do not have to argue for the eternity of solid objects, "matter" and "the physical" are forms of something places in reference by these more theoretical things. "In quantum field theory solid matter has been supplanted by the energy of the field, and in superstring theory the reality is submicroscopic loops of invisible string,"[5] These theoretical references are not, as Rundle says "the matter of common sense," Yet thy do set up a framework in which the matter of common sense spells out reality in a meaningful way. His point is material universe universe need nit mean solid objects. All these strings and fields can be called "material," He says:

so broad is the notion of being or existence the only limit that can be imposed upon what can be is to be found is to be found in the demand for consistency for coherence that any such existential claim must in the genus of material or immaterial..." The thesis that nothing can exist in the absence of a material universe does not imply the nonsensical view that everything is material but we can hold if anything exists, matter exists on the grounds that it  is only in m matter that the necessary independent exitence is to be found.[6] (emphasis mine). 
By independent existence I gather he means matter doesn't require a cause it just is. I think he justifies that by accepting Hawking Hurttle hypothesis.[7] That was big in 2004 when the book was written. He does demand some from of trance some effect some empirical indication of existence for a reality and refuses God on that basis,

In Leslie's reading of Rundle it's not merely the unproven nature of ideas like God, the lack of empirical data, but the logistical problem of locating non physical things in existence. I would term it existential topos. Leslie says the contradiction of a universe with nothing is like a vegetarian cannibal.[8] Leslie pin points this issue as the crux of the argument. [9] Leslie argues Plato's notion if existence as an ethical requirement in terms of an alternative account to Rundle. He also reaises the issue of Quine's idea about abstract objects, which Rundle dismisses as a matter of course.[10]

This raises another issue that undermines the entire argument. Rundle opens the door himself to burring the distinction between physical and non physical. I've already quoted the place where he puts it most succinctly: "so broad is the notion of being or existence the only limit that can be imposed upon what can be is to be found in the demand for consistency for coherence that any such existential claim must in the genus of material or immaterial..."[fn6] He opens the door to the immaterial in that statement, he even refers to angles as "immaterial.." So he has opened the door to the immaterial and spirit is immaterial so he;s opened the door to spirit., That means there is no reason to exclude God from the requirement that "something must have been" so why could not God have been that"something?" 

Now of course he said that in  covering the argument that solid matter is not the origin, but energy and  things we can't  prove except theoretically such as strings and fields. Those are the immaterial he meant but as they used to say on Perry Jason "the door being opened let us walk through."  There are no little balls that things are made out of, The little balls we use as models of the atom and sub atomic particles are only theoretical. Those things are charges they are not solid. What are charges? Science has terms for the things that make them up, but when we strip away those terms (electron,proton) we find charges are made of more charges: 

We keep talking about "particles", but this word doesn't adequately sum up the type of matter that particle physicists deal with. In physics, particles aren't usually tiny bits of stuff. When you start talking about fundamental particles like quarks that have a volume of zero, or virtual particles that have no volume and pop in and out of existence just like that, it is stretching the everyday meaning of the word "particle" a bit far. Thinking about particles as points sooner or later leads the equations up a blind alley. Understanding what is happening at the smallest scale of matter needs a new vocabulary, new maths, and very possibly new dimensions.

This is where string theory comes in. In string theory fundamental particles aren't treated as zero-dimensional points. Instead they are one-dimensional vibrating strings or loops. The maths is hair-raising, and the direct evidence non-existent, but it does provide a way out of the current theoretical cul-de-sac. It even provides a route to unifying gravity with the other three fundamental forces - a problem which has baffled the best brains for decades. The problem is, you need to invoke extra dimensions to make the equations work in string-theory and its variants: 10 spacetime dimensions to be precise. Or 11 (M-theory). Or maybe 26. In any case, loads more dimensions than 4.[11]
Rundle himself is aware of the immaterial nature of these theoretical constructs or he would not have made the argument, that they still constitute "the material." 

With the lines blurred we can understand the possibility of other forms of existence that are immaterial. We can equate spirit with mind since the Greek pneuma used in the NT does not just mean break or wind but also mind.[12] We know mind is something, it exits. The minds of biological creatures seemed based in biological housing but why can;t we take the same kinds of liberties with theoretical assumptions that science takes with string theory or that Rundle takes with such theoretical construct in defining them as "matter" to at least hold out a possibility for spirit. There is more than just a theoretical possibility there is empirical data that would help motivate the case for God, such as the vast body of empirical scientific work around the issue ofrelifious experience,k as demonstrated in the book The Trace of God: A Rational Warrant for Belief (my your truly) but that's for another time,

Now of course many skeptics are going to argue that my answer is leaves many gaps of ambiguity and that it requires mostly theoretical assumptions that they don't want to make, I admit that is so but it seems that mot for Rundle's argument comes down to a fear of ambiguity. Remember above where he says: "...cumulative case arguments, probabilistic reasoning, or locating the hypothesis in a coherent set of beliefs may in general offer a broader range, they do nothing to remove the uncertainties in the meaning of the conclusions which they aim to support.[4]" uncertainty is his real issue it may be so or many atheists and skeptics. Thus they cling to the dichotomy between the empirical and the unproven or material and the spiritual. yet all life of the mind, as well as life itself, is fraught with uncertainty, The likes of string theory,k being unprovable, are no less uncertain. Abraham Maslow, though an atheist, said of mystical experience: "...My feeling is that if it were never to happen again, the power of the experience could permanently affect the attitude toward life. A single glimpse of heaven is enough to confirm its existence even if it is never experienced again." [14] The real contest is between warrant in the face of uncertainty, Something has to exist, there is no something from nothing, It could be God or matter, The matter is not settled, there are still valid empirically backed reasons to go with God. Experience is only one such reason.


[1] Bede Rundle,  Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing,Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1 edition (April 8, 2004)
I read the book in online copy:
their page 128 is thev book's page-166

[2] John Leslie, review of bede rundle's Why there Is Something Rather Than nothing," Oxford Journals, PHD
quotimng Rundle 13
[3] Rundle 13
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid., 166
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid. 168

[8] Leslie, Op cit 453
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] STFC “are there other dimensions,” Large Hadron Collider. Website. Science and Facilities Council, 2012 URL:
[12] The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon
see URL:

Strong's Number: 4151Browse Lexicon
Original WordWord Origin
pneumafrom (4154)
Transliterated WordTDNT Entry
Phonetic SpellingParts of Speech
pnyoo'-mah Noun Neuter

  1. the third person of the triune God, the Holy Spirit, coequal, coeternal with the Father and the Son
    1. sometimes referred to in a way which emphasises his personality and character (the \\Holy\\ Spirit)
    2. sometimes referred to in a way which emphasises his work and power (the Spirit of \\Truth\\)
    3. never referred to as a depersonalised force
  2. the spirit, i.e. the vital principal by which the body is animated
    1. the rational spirit, the power by which the human being feels, thinks, decides
    2. the soul
  3. a spirit, i.e. a simple essence, devoid of all or at least all grosser matter, and possessed of the power of knowing, desiring, deciding, and acting
    1. a life giving spirit
    2. a human soul that has left the body
    3. a spirit higher than man but lower than God, i.e. an angel
      1. used of demons, or evil spirits, who were conceived as inhabiting the bodies of men
      2. the spiritual nature of Christ, higher than the highest angels and equal to God, the divine nature of Christ
  4. the disposition or influence which fills and governs the soul of any one
    1. the efficient source of any power, affection, emotion, desire, etc.
  5. a movement of air (a gentle blast)
    1. of the wind, hence the wind itself
    2. breath of nostrils or mouth
NAS Word Usage - Total: 380

[13] Joseph Hinman The Trace of god: Rational Warrant for Belief. Colorado springs: Grand Viaduct.
[14] Abraham Maslow,  "An Example of B-Analysis, C. Knowledge ganed in 'speak Experience self validating," Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, Appendix I, New York: Penguin, 1972.


Eric Sotnak said...

What does an immaterial mind think about given that it has no mental content that derives from sensation? Do you believe in innate ideas? What determines the content of non-empirical ideas?

Joe Hinman said...

I think mid is immaterial so that's redundant, Being immaterial doesn't mean that it isn't based in materiel brain. Of probably not true for god. I think there are innate ideas. Love is innate. That question requires that we know what it's like to be God and i thin that is a black box.

"What determines the content of non-empirical ideas?" good question but you know one could experience love without attaching language to it. God does not necessarily have to think about things.