If we begin to think of “nothing” as being, really, some sort of something, then we can convince ourselves that all of material reality came into being spontaneously. How? If the nothingness before material reality was really a kind-of-sort-of something, then the present universe could be only the result of a physical phase transition. It could seem not to have arisen ex nihilo. So a Creator can be thought unnecessary.
Belief in Unbelief
Now with that analogy from physics in mind, consider another context in which it matters that our concept of “nothing” be really nothing. If we move away from theism to an “I don’t know” response to the big question of supernatural reality, we tend to think we thereby hold a belief in nothing. We might say, with A.C. Grayling, that our point of view is merely a “privative thesis,” or we might say, with the late Christopher Hitchens, that “our belief is unbelief.” Those are examples of mistaking what “nothing” really is.
We cannot help but adopt a point of view about metaphysics. We may say we believe “nothing,” but that’s simply untrue. That “nothing” is actually something. It is adoption from the air around us of the now-dominant view of materialists.
No agnosticism about material reality
We wake up and look around and take in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the world around us. We take in credible information about other places and times, apart from the here and now. It is always, always true that we consciously and continuously draw conclusions from this. We conclude that material things occupying space and time are real. We don’t just deny the reality of our sense impressions, and descend into some sort of oblivion. We don’t say that we’re “agnostic” about material reality.
Agnosticism about non-material reality
But there is more than our sense impressions to contend with, isn’t there? We are able to consider, for example, that all those sense impressions come to us over the medium of our consciousness. This isn’t just our thinking. This is our being aware that we’re thinking, and aware that other people are similarly self-aware. It is bringing intentionality and order to the bombardment of sensory impressions. This is a recognition of the utterly subjective nature of individual experience, and of the internality and privacy of our unuttered thoughts. What is that consciousness? It’s something beyond the material reality that presents to our senses, but it, too, is undoubtedly real.
Likewise the quandary of how there could ever be anything material in the first place. Not merely the current explanation of how mankind might have originated; not merely the current theory of how living things came from pre-biotic matter; but how could something have arisen from nothing? From nothing? And if there was always something, how could there always have been a something? Where did it come from? We’re inured to the experience of sense impressions, but if we pause and consider the newness of each sense impression, and the astonishing fact of existence of material things, how do we lay that aside and carry on with a conviction that things just are?
Likewise the ideals that we prize most in the abundance of our life experience: beauty, wisdom, justice, virtue, fairness, and the surprising observation of their commonality–that these are ideals of everyone around us, too.
Consciousness. Being. Transcendent ideals. These are undoubtedly real, too, but they are not material things. Why would we be agnostic about the truth of non-material reality, any more than about material reality?