Suppose I try to think the counterfactual state of affairs of there being nothing, nothing at all. Can I succeed in thinking pure nothingness? Is this thought thinkable? And if it is, does it show that it is possible that there be nothing at all? If yes, then (i) it is contingent that anything exists, and (ii) everything that exists exists contingently, which implies that both of the following are false:
1. Necessarily, something exists. Nec(Ex)(x exists)
2. Something necessarily exists. (Ex)Nec(x exists).
(1) and (2) are not the same proposition: (2) entails (1) but not conversely.
Phylogenetically, this topic goes back to Parmenides of Elea. Ontogenetically, it goes back to what was probably my first philosophical thought when I was about eight or so years old. (Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!) I had been taught that God created everything distinct from himself. One day, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, I thought: "Well, suppose God never created anything. Then only God would exist. And if God didn't exist, then there would be nothing at all." At this my head began to swim and I felt a strange wonder that I cannot quite recapture, although the memory remains strong 50 years later. The unutterably strange thought that there might never have been anything at all -- is this thought truly thinkable or does it cancel itself in the very attempt to think it?
My earlier meditation was to the effect that the thought cancels itself by issuing in contradiction. (And so I concluded that necessarily there is something, an interesting metaphysical result arrived at by pure thought.) To put it as simply as possible, and avoiding the patois of 'possible worlds': If there were nothing, then it would be a fact that there is nothing. And so there would be something, namely, that very fact. After all, that fact has a definite content and can't be nothing. But this is not quite convincing because, on the other hand, if there were truly nothing, then there wouldn't be this fact either.
On the one hand, nothingness is the determinate 'state' of there being nothing at all. Determinate, because it excludes there being something. (Spinoza: Omnis determinatio est negatio.) On the other hand, nothingness is the nonbeing of absolutely everything, including this putative 'state.' That is about as pithy a formulation of the puzzle as I can come up with.
Here is a puzzle of a similar structure. If there were no truths, then it would be true that there are no truths, which implies that there is at least one truth. The thought that there are no truths refutes itself. Hence, necessarily, there is at least one truth. On the other hand, if there 'truly' were no truths, then there would be no truth that there are no truths. We cannot deny that there are truths without presupposing that there are truths; but this does not prove the necessity of truths apart from us. Or so the objection goes.
How can we decide between these two plausible lines of argumentation?
But let me put it a third way so we get the full flavor of the problem. This is the way things are: Things exist. If nothing else, these very thoughts about being and nonbeing exist. If nothing existed, would that then be the way things are? If yes, then there is something, namely, the way things are. Or should we say that, if nothing existed, then there would be no way things are, no truth, no maximal state of affairs? In that case, no determinate 'possibility' would be actual were nothing to exist.
The last sentence may provide a clue to solving the problem. If no determinate possibility would be actual were nothing to exist, then the thought of there being nothing at all lacks determinate content. It follows that the thought that there is nothing at all is unthinkable. We may say, 'There might have been nothing at all,' but we can attach no definite thought to those words. So talking, we literally don't know what we are talking about. We are merely mouthing words. Because it is unthinkable that there be nothing at all, it is impossible, and so it is necessary that there be something.
Parmenides vindicatus est.
My conclusion is equivalent to the thesis that there is no such 'thing' as indeterminate nonbeing. Nonbeing is determinate: it is always and necessarily the nonbeing of something. For example, the nonbeing of Pierre, the nonbeing of the cafe, the nonbeing of Paris . . . the nonbeing of the Earth . . . the nonbeing of the physical universe . . . the nonbeing of everything that exists. Nonbeing, accordingly, is defined by its exclusion of what exists.
The nonbeing of everything that exists is not on an ontological par with everything that exists. The former is parasitic on the latter, as precisely the nonbeing of the latter. Being and Nothing are not equal but opposite: Nothing is derivative from Being as the negation of Being. Hegel got off on the wrong foot at the beginning of his Wissenschaft der Logik. And Heidegger, who also maintained that Being and Nothing are the same -- though in a different sense than that intended by Hegel -- was also out to lunch, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.
If this is right, then nonbeing is not a source out of which what is comes or came. Accordingly, a sentence like 'The cosmos emerged from the womb of nonbeing,' whatever poetic value it might have, is literally meaningless: there is no nonbeing from which anything can emerge.
Being is. Nonbeing is not.