Could There Have Been Nothing? A Reply

by Charles Hartshorne

Charles Hartshorne taught at the University of Texas where he was Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy. He had a distinguished career at several other universities, particularly the University of Chicago and Emory University. His most recent book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, was published by Open Court.

The following article is a reply to Houston Craighead, “Non-Being and Hartshorne’s Concept of God.” It appeared in Process Studies, pp. 25-28, Vol. 1, Number 1, Spring, 1971. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


That "there might have been nothing" is meaningless or contradictory. That we can conceive each particular thing not to exist implies that we can conceive nothing existing in its place. It assumes the falsity of how we make negative judgments.

Dr. Craighead argues most ingeniously and with unusual fairness. I still think, though, that "there might have been nothing" is meaningless or contradictory. As to contradiction, consider "the being of pure nonbeing"? Also that "there is . . ." implies location. One can always ask, where? Sometimes the true answer is, somewhere, everywhere, or nowhere. However, in sheer vacuity, none of these words would mean anything. "There are no dodos" means take any locus you please, it will contain something other than and exclusive of dodos. But there are loci, places, only because there are real processes. In vacuity there is not even a nowhere. Our conceptual machinery breaks down in trying to explicate the idea of pure nothing. Another sign of this is the temporal language we use for modalities. Kant, more truly than his system allows, found the "schema of all our conceptions" in the temporal structure of experience. We are inclined to say, there might never have been anything. But in vacuity time too, vanishes. And so does eternity, for that is meaningless apart from its contrast with becoming.

I agree that the falsity of panpsychism implies that of much else in my philosophy. It does not follow that I must "first" establish panpsychism and then argue for other doctrines. I can also reverse the procedure. Thus panpsychism (I hold) follows from the existence of God, and there are a half dozen reasons for believing in that. (See my just published Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, LaSalle and London: Open Court; SCM.) That so many reject psychicalism would impress me more if I found signs of careful attention in their writings to the arguments which I and others have advanced for this doctrine. I find very little under this head.

There is perhaps some lack of communication in regard to whether God for me is the source of existence or is "being itself." Any particular concretum presupposes divine creativity as antecedent condition of its coming to be. To be sure, God "creates," not out of nothing, but out of preceding actuality, including his own. Yet he is "being itself" in the sense that what things are for him necessarily coincides with what they really are. Thus to be is to be for God, to fail to be is to fail to be for God. He is the definitive reality, the measure of all truth. And his persistence with essential integrity through every change is the only infallible mode of persistence. Since it cannot fail, to say that he requires a coexisting world is not to make his existence contingent, for in any possible case he will have whatever he requires by way of a world.

"It might have been that there was nothing," supposing it makes sense, implies, as my critic realizes, that one must drastically renounce the strict form of the principle of sufficient reason. But one must also give up even a weaker and (in my opinion) more reasonable form. This form is, "Whatever begins to be or could have failed to exist is influenced, though not fully determined, by antecedent causal conditions." God’s existence can have no such conditions. In spite of Hume, to reject this more reasonable form of the principle is for me strongly counter-intuitive. Hoyle’s steady-state theory does not violate the principle, so far as I can see. There are antecedent conditions, even though they permit considerable leeway in what comes to be.

Dr. Craighead seems not to feel the attraction, as I do, of the theory that contingency is the clash of positive with positive, rather than of positive with merely negative. I hold that the former covers every need we have to talk of contingency except the alleged need to consider the possibility of nothing. That some universe exists clashes only with God existing alone (supposing this conceivable) or with sheer vacuity. Only the second would mean (if it means anything) the divine nonexistence.

As to Whitehead and the "grip of the creative ground" this is picturesque and, on his own showing, somewhat misleading language. But here too there is an intuitive difference between my critic and me. For me it is a credible and illuminating view of modal terms to hold that they get their meaning entirely from the freedom of the creative process, in both its worldly and its divine aspects. Logical possibility as the absence of incompatibility of one concept with another is significant only because the concepts, one by one, express aspects of the creative process. Peirce, Dewey, Whitehead, and Bergson held this view. To ask about the possibility of there king no creative process is to ask about the possibility of there being no possibility, even logical, for thought has no other function than to express, guide, or enrich that process. The process has had, or has in the long run, infinite freedom as between concretes. There is no sense (for me) in adding that it has freedom between concretes and nothing.

What makes "there are green trees" true is the green trees. Would it be nothing that made "there is nothing" true? What then is the difference between "nothing makes p true" and "p is not made true" (by anything) -- i.e., it is not true?

The quotation from Huxley is ambiguous between, "Why this universe?" and "Why a universe?" Smart is clearer, but I trust my intuition more than his. And Milton Munitz, Jonathan Edwards, and Bergson take my view on this issue -- as do Plato and Aristotle.

The "psychological" argument I should call pragmatic. In agreement with Peirce, James, Dewey, and even Whitehead, I hold that a belief which could not be expressed in action is only verbal. That there might never have been anything, or might be nothing, is something about which nothing ever could have been or be done. For me that rules it out.

All argument must proceed from something known. If I did not know that "nothing" has only a relative, not a possibly absolute meaning. I don’t see how I could expect to know anything about God, one way or another.

The universe before the emergence of mind is offered as counter-instance to the proposition that anything must be directly knowable. In rejecting this counter-instance I beg the question no more than Dr. Craighead does in urging it. If he can refute both theism and psychicalism, he will have shown the conceivability of his counter-instance; otherwise all he has is that he thinks he can conceive a mindless universe. To the contrary stand theism and psychicalism, proposed as a priori truths. So, if I have not proved the impossibility of an unknowable, neither has he proved its possibility. And all proof rests on intuition somewhere. For me the proof on my side is strong.

Reese’s case was better than our critic grants. "Socrates does not exist" is conceived as a clash between the actual universe and the requirements of the mental picture or verbal description of Socrates. We look not to nothing but to something to refute positive (or negative) statements. I hold with my former collaborator.

My argument that a false assertion of necessity should lead to absurdities, whereas "it is necessary that something exists" leads to none, is not, I feel, done full justice to. To say, for example, "man exists by necessity" implies either that every species does so, or that, whereas other species are contingent, man escapes this contingency. The first violates the principle of contrast and thus makes modal terms, including necessity, vacuous. And the second lacks a credible criterion of the distinction affirmed. None of the ten criteria I discuss in The Logic of Perfection would fit. They do however fit "something exists" and also "something divine exists" and even "something non-divine exists." This is because no empirical terms are involved in these three expressions, but only pure highest-level conceptions, capable of king entertained in any state of existence in which thinking and thinking about thinking can take place. No special sense organs, like those of man, or special laws of nature are required. Such organs or laws exclude positive alternatives. The mere existence of something, or deity, or non-deity, does not do this. They are compatible with any positive state of reality. I have dealt with this once more in Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (Chapter XII).

One might, of course, take the "being of nothing" to mean, not sheer vacuity but a set of universals, all lacking instances. However (in spite of Santayana), this theory of "separable forms" has since Aristotle struck few philosophers as credible. Santayana was aware that, given only a realm of essence, actual existence would not even be "possible," if possibility refers to a cause or causes capable of producing the existents. (Producing need not mean "wholly determining") And what is the point of universals if no instances are, ever have been, or ever could be in an intelligible sense possible?

Whitehead once wrote, "The unknowable is unknown. This doctrine is a paradox. Some ‘cautious’ philosophers, indulging in a species of false modesty, have attempted its definition." I take this to put Whitehead on my side. Thought is about experienced reality and reality is what can be experienced and thought.

That we can conceive each particular thing not to exist implies that we can conceive nothing existing in its place only if one assumes the falsity of my or Reese’s analysis of how we make negative judgments, or of the view that contingency just is the freedom of creativity as between positive options. To think something and then think blank nothing is, for all Dr. Craighead shows, and apart from confusion or sense of the familiarity of certain words, the same as to think something and then stop thinking. I prefer to go on thinking. Of course, I appreciate the care he has taken in reporting upon my treatment of these problems.