We haven’t had any bad logic for awhile

I have been remiss in my duties.

So, for traditions sake if for nothing else:

“Let us start with the self-evident proposition that nothing comes from nothing.No effect arises except from a cause sufficient to give rise to that effect. For if “nothing comes from nothing” were not true, anything could come from anything, and there were be no such thing as cause and effect, and we could not be having this conversation.”

John C Wright https://www.scifiwright.com/2021/05/on-the-unity-of-god/

I’d start with whether the proposition is self-evident in the context of an argument about the existence and unity of a god but that’s a different rabbit hole. Likewise, Wright introduces without examination, a big pile of assumptions about time, causality and where the heck logic comes from but I believe I’ve covered those issues before with some of these styles of argument. [Short version: if “nothing comes from nothing” (or causality, or time or logic) is a fundamental truth of the universe, what brought that governing rule into being? If the answer is ‘god’ then you can’t apply that rule to claim god is necessary, as god would transcend (or proceed) that rule.] But put that aside, it’s the next bit that is sillier.

Wright’s proposition [N1] is “nothing comes from nothing”. Wright claims that the negation of [N1] implies [A1] “anything comes from anything”.

Now I think there’s some ambiguity about what ‘nothing comes from nothing’ could mean as it reads literally like that the source of an absence can only be an absence. However, that’s a nitpick*. In context, what Wright means by [N] is “it is not the case that nothing can generate something”. We’ll call this [N2]. That’s not as pithy as Wright’s but in context, it is the point he is trying to make and fits with our understanding of physics in the sense of conservation of mass-energy. It’s still not tight and you could quibble about with examples like a vacuum being the ’cause’ of some event but in those examples, there still has to be a something, somewhere involved. So let’s go with that for the moment so we can get to the gist of the logical error.

I’ve made it a lot easier to see what the negation of [N2] is. We’ll call this [not-N2] “it is the case that nothing can generate something”. Does this imply [A1]? No, and it’s not even close. I suspect he’s tried to negate “nothing” and done it twice (ie an argument not-nothing must be anything and so both “nothings” in [N1] become “anything”) but that’s just incoherent. That’s not how truth, logic or language work. If “absence makes the heart grows fonder” is false we can’t conclude that “presence makes the heart grow less fond”, heck that is almost an implication of the saying being true! Negating a proposition isn’t just swapping keywords to their opposites – that might give you gibberish or even the same idea rephrased.

He could improve his argument by ditching [A1] as a reason for saying [N1] can’t be false. Instead, he could have gone with [A2] “it is the case that nothing must generate something”. That’s better! After all if nothings can go around making somethings then there wouldn’t be any room for nothings! Yeah but no. I’m messing with modalities and there’s a hidden assumption in [A2] which crops up a lot in these kinds of arguments for the existence of god which can be summed up as things must happen for a reason. [not N2] (“it is the case that nothing can generate something”) just says that things can (sometimes) pop into existence for no reason at all not that they must. Maybe just the once, maybe a thousand times, for no rhyme or reason.

But that is illogical! No, we can reason about it and apply logic to it. We just did. It implies there are things that might occur that will have no underlying explanation but then again, with Wright’s version of god, we end up with a being that is beyond explanation. Either way, you end up with a point where we can’t explain something.

Note: this isn’t any sort of proof of atheism or the non-existence of god, just that Wright (as you all already know) tends to pack in a pile of hidden assumptions and then employs petitio principii to arrive at the predetermined conclusion.

*nitpicking is surely permitted in the rules of pedantic arguments about the logic of god but I don’t want to get distracted.

59 thoughts on “We haven’t had any bad logic for awhile

  1. He’s banned me several times for pointing out that he’s begging the question every time he does one of these stupid “logic” posts. Same with AI, where he cannot be convinced that Searle’s Chinese Room argument is garbage.

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      1. If Searle’s Chinese Room (which, from memory, relies on the “paradoxial” no individual component of the system knows Chinese) is non-garbage, the consequence would be that there is a physical component (or, at least, a very small subset of interconnected components) that contains my “me”. That would then require finding the “me” neuron, which I am pretty sure is not a doable thing.

        So my solution to Searle’s Chinese Room is that “the system seems to know Chinese by whatever test we throw at it, so we may as well say that the system knows Chinese”.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. @Ingvar:
        Which, fundamentally, leads us to things like the Turing Test, which is pretty much a way of trying to formalize ‘if a thing acts like it is intelligent, then we might as well say it is intelligent’.

        On a more SF side of things, of course, that leads us to one of my favourite pieces of philosophizing on the subject, “The Seventh Sally or How Trurl’s Own Perfection Led to No Good” from The Cyberiad.

        No, Trurl, a sufferer is not one who hands you his suffering, that you may touch it, weigh it, bite it like a coin; a sufferer is one who behaves like a sufferer! Prove to me here and now, once and for all, that they do not feel, that they do not think, that they do not in any way exist as being conscious of their enclosure between the two abysses of oblivion—the abyss before birth and the abyss that follows death—prove this to me, Trurl, and I’ll leave you be! Prove that you only imitated suffering, and did not create it!

        Searle’s argument really does boil down to looking for a dualistic ‘soul’ to some extent. Much like the ‘quantum neurology’ insists that biological brains are inherently different from computers and less predictable because the random quantum effects that computers try to filter out are required for what we consider ‘consciousness’. That one isn’t entirely a closed question, but it’s still looking for a way to be special when there’s no real evidence that we are in the first place.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Using a different phrasing, “nothing comes from nothing” is basically “there is not, and cannot be, anything that exists without a source/cause.” And the negation of that is, again, “there could be something that exiswts without a cause.”

    Stepping back, the bit you’re quoting feels like it’s yet another version of not only “it must be possible to understand the universe” but “my education and intuition are sufficient to explain the universe.” Which might be nice, but it doesn’t describe the universe we live in, which has a built-in speed limit, as well as all those virtual particles.

    GPS satellites have to take relativity into account, and photosynthesis can’t be explained without quantum mechanics. (https://phys.org/news/2014-01-quantum-mechanics-efficiency-photosynthesis.html) I’m not interested in a logic that handwaves away those trees outside my window, and the lettuce plants I just bought.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Let us consider the statement, “Nothing really matters” — F. Mercury.

    We can parse it in any of the following ways:

    1. Nothingness is very important. This is true; without the concept of nothing we might not have numerals with place significance, which is a very important tool for doing arithmetic.

    2. There is no thing which is of high importance. Is it a statement of egalitarianism, monistic philosophy, or Stoicism?

    3. There are no entities which are really matter (alone), because every entity is both particle and wave. We’re reaching here, but it’s a poetic restatement of some fundamental physics, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I leave you with the universal parting message: Party on, and be excellent to each other.

    Liked by 8 people

  4. One unexamined issue for Wright is that he doesn’t seem to have a handle on what “nothing” is, because his argument is premised on the fact that “nothing can come from nothing”.

    Except that’s not nothing. He’s defined nothing as something. Nothing, in his argument, is a thing that cannot give rise to anything else. But that’s not nothing. That is a something.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I am personally very fond of Sartre’s little pools of negation that create being-for-itself: a productive nothingness. Been really trying to square that with Deleuze’s almost-vitalism by way of proposing that if the Body Without Organs is the membrane of intensity=0 that is the moment just before the breakdown of desire then the Sartean nothingness is what exists on the opposite side of the membrane – the BwO becomes the surface upon which the construction of being-for-itself arises out of nothingness.

      It’s a work in progress. But regardless something definitely comes from nothing.

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  5. You all should take it easy on poor JCW. He’s trying really really hard to think Deep Thoughts. The mere fact that he fails in doing so doesn’t make him worth mocking. Instead, you should be supporting his attempts at growth. Remember, when you’re house-training a puppy, it’s bad technique to punish them when they fail. Instead, you should praise them and reward them when they try to succeed. After a while, success begins to happen. In a sense, something comes from nothing in that case.

    To sum up: give JCW liver treats when he tries to think, even when *what* he thinks is disproved by the fact that he has, in fact, thought of it. And the liver treats will be just another reminder of those facts.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Aah, could you please explain this to my neighbour who has been shouting “No!” at his new puppy (and by proxy me, through our extremely thin dividing wall) every night for the best part of a week now?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This basically just reminds me of Descartes’ proof and has a similar problem. If nothing cannot make something and therefore something must have created the other somethings, then what something created the first something? Who created “god”? If there always must be something to create other somethings, then there must always be yet another something to do the creation, which means there is no nothing, just an endless chain of somethings — turtles all the way down. Which means that Wright’s god would be just the latest something in a long line of somethings and the somethings created (humans) then get to be the somethings creating in the universe and thus gods.

    It’s the chicken or the egg. Except in that instance, we know that the egg came first because what was a chicken evolved from other creatures who laid eggs, those eggs changing to eventually become a chicken egg. And yet, the creatures that created eggs that eventually led to the chicken egg were not creating a chicken egg. The chicken egg came from them but they did not intend or design a chicken egg.

    Wright doesn’t just want to be something that was created by something. He wants to be a special something that was deliberately intended and designed by an omnipotent something. If evolution exempted humans from all other animals, folks like Wright would be fine with it in all the details we’ve discovered so far. But because evolution includes humans, because humans are chicken eggs, the fact that we are the most advanced chicken eggs on the planet is not special enough. We need to have been chosen and crafted by a powerful something. Which then means that the whole universe must have been deliberately intended and crafted by a powerful something to have humans as a special something. Which makes nothing a problem. But if you get rid of nothing, you still have a logical problem in reasoning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. then what something created the first something?

      I don’t know about Wright’s faith, but in the faith I was raised, this is sidestepped by saying God never had a beginning–He has always existed. The angels, Satan and Jesus had beginnings (Jesus was directly created by God, and God used Jesus to create everything else). (No, we weren’t Trinitarians).

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      1. For Trinitarians, God *and* Jesus always existed, everything else created later, so same diff. There never wasn’t nothing.

        JCW’s grasp of theology is as bad as his grasp of logic. And writing. And…

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The two obvious alternatives are either an uncaused event or an infinite regress. Neither sits well with human intuition.

        Quantum mechanics gives us uncaused events (such of the decay of a particular particle at a particular time), but they do have antecedents, so they don’t contradict nothing comes from nothing.

        We can state two axioms

        A) Everything has an antecedent.
        B) Infinitely long time periods are impossible.

        The only model that I know of that sort of matches both those axioms is a cyclic block universe. But going meta, while everything such a universe has an antecedent, that universe as a whole is a static entity without an antecedent.

        My provisional conclusion is that intuition is leading us astray and one of the axioms is false.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. I think your provisional conclusion is sound. Our intuition is geared to human experience so our intuitions about things beyond our normal experience is likely to be wrong.

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      4. If you’ve always existed, then you are something. Something has to, according to Wright, come from something, not nothing. Therefore there has to be a something that created the thing that has always existed. If something didn’t create the something that has always existed, then that means that some somethings don’t have to be created from something — they are independent. Which means that humans, somethings, don’t have to have been created from something such as a deity to exist. They could simply exist.

        If the law is that something must come from something (not nothing) and the deity exists and thus is a something, then something has to have created the deity. And if something didn’t create the deity, if the deity something is independent from the causal loop, then it does not necessarily follow that a deity created humans and that humans are not independent from the causal loop. Etc., etc.

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      5. Not quite. That’s why he does the ‘nothing comes from nothing’ rather than ‘something comes from something’. Wright would contend that ‘either something came from something or has always existed’ i.e. there are things the were preceded by themselves or rather one such thing, god.

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      6. So something comes from something except the something that is a deity and has always existed. So it’s a claim that the rules of physics and existence prove his god exists (with the claim of nothing comes from nothing which isn’t accurate) except that his god defies said rules of physics, which is an idea that cannot be proven by said rules of physics. So he proves his own assertion false by dragging in physical laws that can’t actually help him.

        And it still leaves the issue that if there is one something that has always existed, then other somethings can also have always existed and not come from something. Somethings can exist independently from the deity by the sheer claim of the deity’s existence.

        (I know that this is pretty standard anti-science right wing religious arguing, I’m just finding the circuitousness of it funny.)

        Liked by 1 person

      7. I was all gearing up to argue with stewart, and then he got to his provisional conclusion.

        But before I got to the other issue, I have to thank stewart for giving me terminology I was trying to come up with for a discussion I am involved with elsewhere: an antecedent is not the same thing as a cause. I mean, I had written a long thing about correlation not equally causation, but if I’d just introduced it with that statement I suspect the rest of the discussion would have con better.

        Anyway, my objection was to the second axiom. I think it is easier to build a system if your second axiom is, “Uncountably infinite time periods are not possible.”

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  7. In my head the rest of the post goes like this:

    Wright: “Let us start with the self-evident proposition that nothing comes from nothing.No effect arises except from a cause sufficient to give rise to that effect. For if “nothing comes from nothing” were not true, anything could come from anything, and there were be no such thing as cause and effect, and we could not be having this conversation.”

    Cleese: Yes we could.

    …etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I am reminded also of the mathematical/logical construction of the integers from nothing, literally. Nothing is the empty set {}, which is zero. Now, since the empty set exists, there can be a set containing that set: {{}}. That’s the next integer, one. The set containing that set, {{{}}}, is two. And so on, and let’s use Arabic numerals because otherwise you’ll get lost counting the brackets, especially when you use these nice integers to create rational numbers like {{{{}}}}/{{{{{{{}}}}}}}.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. This is my favourite:

    Three men walks into a hotel to book a room. The room costs 25 dollars. Each man gives the portier 10 dollars each as payment. He gives them one dollar each back in change and pockets the last two dollars as tip.

    Each man have now paid nine dollars and the portier got two dollars in tip. 9 * 3 + 2 = 29. Where did the last dollar go?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Am I not understanding the point of this story? Because it didn’t go anywhere. They each got $1 dollar back in change, and the porter pocketed $2, so that’s the other five from the original $30.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. @Bonnie:
        You’re understanding the story perfectly fine, and you’re correct.

        The ‘point’ of the story is to confuse the person the story is being told to, to make them look at entirely the wrong thing by bringing up an ‘error’ that is actually a misclassification.

        It doesn’t work if you actually think about the numbers. It only works because most people don’t.

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      2. It plays on the fact that if you add the $2 instead of subtracting it, by coincidence, you get $29, which is just $1 less than $30. People tend to look at equations and think they’re valid, so they don’t consider the possibility that the equation itself is meaningless.

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      3. That’s a good point. The end calculation seems reasonable because it is nearly ‘right’ in the sense that it is close to a total you might expect.

        Make the numbers more unnatural and the effect vanishes

        Four men walks into a hotel to book a room. The room costs 45 dollars. Each man gives the portier 20 dollars each as payment. He gives them 8 dollars each back in change and pockets the last 3 dollars as tip.

        Each man have now paid 12 dollars and the portier got 3 dollars in tip. 12 * 4 + 3 = 51. Where did the 9 dollars go?

        It is very clever.

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  10. I think it’s easier to see in mathematical language.

    Let x be any event and let N(x) be the number of events that were causes of x. The statement “nothing comes from nothing” then means N(x) > 0 for all x. (I think that’s an accurate summary of what the man is actually trying to say.)

    The negation of that is that there exists at least one event x such that N(x) = 0. This is much, much milder than what he’s claiming. For example, we could say the Big Bang was the only “uncaused cause” with none since then, and that would be logically consistent and yet not require we abandon the idea of cause and effect thereafter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, negation under all-qualifiers change them to existential qualifiers. Amusingly(?), this was something I learned in philosophy class, before I learned it in maths class.

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  11. I guess Objectivists are only obsessed with the Law of Identity – and not the Law of the Excluded Middle.
    (Before he got religion Wright was “not quite” an Objectivist)

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This inability to correctly negate a logical proposition reminds me of the discussion you brought up here Cam a short while ago about a story of Wright’s. A character paraphrases Aquinas saying that if a thing exists and will do so for eternity, it must therefore have existed for an eternity already and can not have sprung into being at some point in the past. I can’t for the life of me understand how one could infer the latter from the former. The concept of a semi-infinite ray segment – one with an origin but which extends in a direction forever – is not a particularly unusual or difficult to grasp one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like your example in particular as Wright etc would accept that abstract geometrical objects exist independent of thought, yet pure classic geometry does not have cause & effect in the normal sense (it has necessity- which is very like ‘cause’ in these styles of arguments)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, as.I understand it the Greek’s had two or three meanings for the word ’cause’. I forget the details, but I seem to remember that the necessity version was used to argue why the love of God makes the earth go round. And now I can’t remember if that was Aristotle (!) or Aquinas.

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    2. I wonder what the original Aquinas quote was, because I’m having trouble believing he said that. As a highly educated theologian, Aquinas would have had no problems distinguishing between God, who had no beginning and no end, from things like angels and human souls, which have beginnings but no ends.

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    3. I found the relevant section of Aquinas (in translation) and quoted it in the thread relating to Beale’s story.

      Aquinas does indeed make an argument of that sort and to my eye it does appear to have this problem – although that may be because I’m looking at a short paragraph in isolation. Which may let Aquinas off the hook, but not Beale.

      Aquinas does state that the “heavenly bodies” and “intellectual substances” are “incorruptible” and therefore eternal.

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      1. It took the appearance of a supernoca visible to the naked eye in 1572 for western philosophers to begin questioning the unchangeable (and hence eternal) nature of heavenly bodies.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. It just kind of annoys me how he just disregards effectively all ontology and metaphysics from like… the 20th century onward. I mean, hell, Spinoza was doing interesting things with nothingness in the 17th century.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I very much appreciate any and all of your close readings and shishkebabing of JCW. Please tell me you have read his May 4 post that begins with Captain America reading JRRT. I learned many fascinating things while reading it, not the least of which is that JCW is still mad about Invisible Girl changing her name to Invisible Woman (which happened in the 80’s!).

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  15. The university I attended required a senior thesis from all majors. During my last year I started working on a thesis on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. There was a point when I got bogged down and was very unhappy about where the thesis was and where it was going. Then I randomly got into an argument with a classmate when he asserted that logic was pure and always correct BECAUSE it was all derived from the “self-evident statement that 1 equals 1.” My main point being that there is no such thing as self-evident, because everything is predicated on our human perceptions.

    Anyway, midway through the argument I realized what was wrong with my thesis and I went and finished it in very short order, turning it it early.

    I am still haunted by the comment from one of the professors who reviewed it, the only one who was not from the Math department (my bachelor’s degree is in mathematics – he was the physics prof that I took a number of classes from, including Special Relativity) ‘ “I’ve reviewed Masters’ Theses that were not as comprehensive as this. I hope you will continue with post-graduate education.”

    I only did in so far as I’ve taken lots of art, graphic design, and computer classes in the years since graduating from university and going to work in the telecommunications software industry.

    I know this is a personal digression, but this post brought up a lot of memories, okay?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. fontfolly: Anyway, midway through the argument I realized what was wrong with my thesis and I went and finished it in very short order

      So? SO???!!!

      Don’t leave us in suspense here! What had been wrong with your thesis, and what did you put in it that finished it so well???

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    2. Sigh. Sounds like an Objectivist. I’d have taken a different tack – maybe pointing out that even predicate logic needs 3 axioms. Maybe pointing that the ambiguity of language means that one use of ‘A’ is not always equal to another.

      (I worked on telephone billing systems for a while. The biggest slice of insanity we had to deal with was taxes on mobile calls in the US. We bought in a solution.).

      Like

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