Friday, July 6, 2007

Review of Bede Rundle's "Why there is Something rather than Nothing"

Here's a review I was invited to do for the journal Philosophical Review.

Bede Rundle, Why there is Something rather than Nothing.

Why the universe exists - why, indeed, there is anything at all - is the kind of question that often first piques our philosophical interest. It is a question almost all of us have been struck by at some point or other. Even children ask it. And the answers we supply can have profound, life-changing consequences.

And yet, despite being paradigmatically philosophical, the question attracts comparatively little attention from academic philosophers, certainly not from the less theistically-inclined. Rundle brings the question back centre-stage.

As Rundle points out, the lay person seeking an answer will typically look either to physics or theology. Yet both disciplines quickly run into trouble. Scientific theories “have something to say only once their subject matter, the physical universe, is supposed in being”(p. 95) while theological answers introduce a being, God, “who is even more problematic than the universe which he is called upon to explain”(p. 95).

Can philosophy fare any better? Quite how purely philosophical reflection might succeed in accounting for a substantive matter of existence is not immediately obvious. Yet Rundle believes that by engaging in a conceptual investigation – an investigation focussing on and unpacking such concepts as nothing, causation, and coming into existence - the question is indeed answerable.

The book has three distinct parts. In the first, Rundle explains why theistic answers won’t do. The discussion is detailed, and includes a demolition of cosmological arguments to a first cause - faulted, among other things, for supposing we can make sense of a cause outside time. Rundle argues that our concept of causation is rooted in the temporal and physical, and that its extension to a transcendent reality stands in need of justification, a justification Rundle does not find forthcoming: “I can get no grip on the idea of an agent doing something where the doing, the bringing about, is not an episode in time, something involving a changing agent” (p. 77).

Nor does the universe require God as a sustaining cause. Such a cause is needed when there is a disintegrating factor to be countered or inhibited. In the absence of such factors, a persisting state requires no explanation. “If something is still around after many years, this may well be remarkable, but that will be because it has somehow, against the odds, survived threats to its integrity. If there are no such threats, there is nothing to explain.“(p. 91)

Rundle then moves on to the theistic suggestion that the existence of the universe points to the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary. His treatment of this sort of argument (a version of which constitutes Aquinas’ Third Way) culminates in the observation that while the existence of a being that is, of itself, necessary would indeed suffice to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing, the question can be answered by a much weaker thesis – that there had to be something or other. To suppose that there had to be something is not yet to suppose that there is a particular being that had to be.

In the second part of the book, Rundle develops and supports his own answer. Some philosophers – Van Inwagen (1996) for example (who, oddly, does not get a mention) – have attempted to explain why there is something rather than nothing by showing that the existence of something is far more probable. After all, there are many ways there could have been something, but only one in which there is nothing, so (even if we acknowledge that nothing is more probable than any particular something) something is more probable. Indeed, given there is an infinite number of ways there could have been something but only one in which there is nothing, nothing, while not strictly impossible, is maximally improbable.

Rundle’s approach differs in that he tries to show, not that the existence of something is more probable than nothing, but that it is inevitable. There simply is no alternative to something.

The argument begins with an attack on the suggestion that we can imagine or conceive of absolute nothing (which is not, of course, the same thing as not conceiving of anything). Thinking away literally everything is not like imagining an empty box or a vacant tract of space. The nothing we are to envisage involves the absence of both time and space. Rundle suspects that in attempting to conceive of total non-existence we are always left “with something, if only a setting from which we envisage everything having departed, a void which we confront and find empty…” (p. 110). The suggestion that there might be “literally nothing, rather than a domain we might speak of as becoming progressively re- or de-populated, seems not to make sense” (p. 112).

Some have defended the conceivability of absolute nothing using the “subtraction argument”. Is it not possible to imagine the step-by-step removal everything that there is, until we are left with literally nothing at all? Rundle responds by arguing that the ceasing to be of the universe is not to be compared to the ceasing to be of any of the things in it. While we can countenance the gradual depopulation of the universe, we cannot envisage the removal of the universe itself.

But don’t scientists now tell us the universe came into being about thirteen and a half billion years ago? In which case, did the universe not come into being from nothing at all? Rundle rejects such talk of the universe “coming into being”, accepting only that we can say it is so many years old. He also criticises those who speak of “the mystery on the far side of the big bang”. On Rundle’s view, there is no far side. We are therefore spared from having to fathom any such mystery.

In the third and final part of the book, Rundle embarks on a more ambitious project. He believes he can show, not just that there has to be something, but that there has to be a certain sort of something – a material universe. It is within the dense discussion supporting this claim that one possible weakness of Rundle’s approach becomes more apparent.

The author’s investigative style is, in places, reminiscent of the sort of “grammatical” investigation engaged in by Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (indeed, Rundle uses the term “grammar” in the same idiosyncratic way).

Take Rundle’s rejection of the kind of materialism that identifies thoughts, feelings and so on with states of the body. That brand of materialism is quickly dispensed with on the grounds that “vastly different things can be said of the mental and physical: one’s thoughts may be muddled, innovative, inspired… but none of this can be said of anything that is literally taking place in one’s head” (p. 129).

Rundle may be right about that. But not every reader will be so quickly persuaded. The fact is, what Rundle says cannot be said is said by at least one or two neuro-scientists. Perhaps confusedly so. But if there is a confusion here, it surely requires more work to nail. Certainly, pointing out that we don not actually apply certain terms in certain ways does not show that they cannot meaningfully or properly be so applied. To suppose otherwise is to tie meaning rather too closely to use (though I certainly don’t want to accuse Rundle of supposing otherwise).

The book’s Wittgensteinian approach also prompted me to ask whether, if Rundle has succeeded in showing that absolute nothing does not make sense, he has not so much answered the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as revealed that it too does not make sense.

Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing is a detailed discussion that repays close reading.

References

Van Inwagen, Peter (1996) "Why Is There Anything at All?", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 70: 95-110

38 comments:

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Rundle's book sounds interesting. From your exposition, it sounds like he moves somewhat sloppily between the imaginable, conceivable, and the possible. I do not know how good of a test imaginablity or conceivability is for possibility. There are states of affairs which are imaginable or conceivable which are not, in fact, possible, as I argue here. Might it also be the case that there are possible states of affairs which are not imaginable or conceivable? Maybe Rundle addresses that issue in his book.

I would argue that it is conceivable for nothing to exist along these lines:

(1) For every proposition p, if is conceivable that p, then it is conceivable that ~p. [Premise]

(2) If it if is conceivable that something exists, then it is conceivable that it is not the case that something exists. [from (1)]

(3) It is conceivable that something exists. [Premise]

(4) It is conceivable that it is not the case that something exists. [from (2), (3)]

(5) It is conceivable that nothing exists. [from (4)]

In any case, attempting to dissolve the question of why there is anything seems like the right approach. What would even count as an explanation here?

anticant said...

What is the point of arguing that the existence of something is "far more probable" than nothing, when our senses tell us that there IS something?

If there was nothing, we would not be having this discussion.

anticant said...

You doubtless remember Dr Johnson's retort to the sceptical lady who admitted that she believed in the universe: "By God, Madam, you'd better!"

potentilla said...

anticant thinks, therefore he is.

Jeremy said...

The topic of "something rather than nothing" was given an outstanding review (in my non-physicist's opinion) in last month's Skeptic magazine.

For those interested, the pdf file is available free at this address. Alternatively, go to this page and scroll down to the button that allows you to download the article.

Jeremy said...

P.S. I go into my local bookstore and what do I find? "Eyewitness Companion: Philosophy", by none other than... Stephen Law! And your blog made no mention of it! ;)

Looks fantastic, and soon to be acquired.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Anticant.

Suppose Ted has entered a lottery and knows he has won.

The epistemic probability of his having won is high - i.e. given what he knows, the prob is high.

However, it remains true to say that - given the fact that he bought just one of a million tickets - the objective prob of him winning is one in a million.

So, similarly, pointing out the fact that the universe does exist, and that we know it exists (its epistemic probability is high), does not show that it's existence is not objectively improbable.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Timmo

I like your argument. But I would just deny that its conceivable that something exists (in the required sense of "something").

anticant said...

It would seem you are confusing the estimated [a priori] probability of winning before the draw - which is indeed very low - with the [a posteriori] probability after the draw, which is 1.

In fact, we exist in an actual universe: the draw has occurred.

I don't do lotteries any more - I've never won. And I'm not sure I believe in objectivity....

anticant said...

Loved your 'Philosophy Files', BTW.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Anticat. Surely we can know that something exists, yet also know that its existence is highly improbable, improbable enough to demand some sort of explanation?

Here's a Swinburne type illutration. Suppose I am asked to guess each one of 52 cards, one by one. If I ever get one wrong, my brains will be blown out.

I start guessing, and amazingly, I get all 52 cards correct. Now you may say, "What's so improbably about that? After all, the probability of you getting them all right is 1, as you wouldn't be here otherwise would you?"

But of course, there's a sense in which something deeply improbably has happened. So improbable, in fact, that it would be reasonable for me to suspect this result wasn't just a matter of chance.

anticant said...

I think you are still confusing the past, present, and future in respect of relative probabilities.

If something highly improbable has happened, it is no longer highly improbable. So why does it require a causal explanation?

It is always highly improbable before the event that the person who actually wins the lottery will do so. But once they have, it is no longer improbable - it is an accomplished fact. Ditto with your 52-card example [the prospect of having your brains blown out has no relevance to the correctness of your guesses].

"Chance" and "coincidence" are mental concepts that don't explain occurrences, however remarkable. Why do such random occurrences call for explanations? Does there always have to be a discernible cause for everything that happens?

Yes, if you believe in God. But you and I don't.

Stephen Law said...

Hi anticant

Here's another classic example. As a condemned spy, you are put before a firing squad of twenty expert marksmen, who load aim, and fire at your heart from close range.

Amazingly, they all miss. You feign death, and survive.

Pure luck that they all missed? Possibly. But highly unlikely.Far more likely that the miss was deliberately arranged.

It won't do to now say "But their all missing is not amazing at all. It's wholly unremarkable. After all, had they not all missed, I would not be here to ponder my luck!"

In the same way,its argued, we can ponder the improbability of the universe, despite its epistemic probability now being 1.

anticant said...

Frankly, I don't see the analogy. It's possible - though not highly likely - that the firing squad's poor aim was the result of identifiable causes, such as bribery by your wife or your captors' instructions. And while we can - and do - ponder the improbability of the universe, this does not necessarily postulate the existence of a First Cause - supernatural or otherwise.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

I am glad you like the argument. Perhaps you will like it even more if I can persuade you that it is sound. ;-)

What do you think is wrong with (3)?

I think (3) in can be argued for in much the same way as (1):

(1*) If it is conceivable that A(c), then it is conceivable that (∃x)A(x). [Premise]

(2*) It is conceivable that c exists. [Premise]

(3) It is conceivable that (∃x)(x exists), i.e. it is conceivable that something exists. [from 1*, 2*]

It does not matter, of course, how you understand 'x exists'. That is, you can employ traditional rendition of 'x exists' by the formula '(∃y)(y = x)' or employ an existence predicate 'E!x', like you would in free logic.

Perhaps you are hinting that you have scruples with wholly unrestricted quantification.

Anonymous said...

Is the existance of something more or less probable than the absence of anything - How can we guage the probability of an event(or state) we know to have occured/been only once?

Probablilty by its nature requires multiple examples of an event to guage how often it is likely to occur.

If there is a God who created everything, where was he located before the he created the universe?
If the universe contains everything that is and God existed, he by default existed in the universe.
If he existed in the universe, then how could he be responsible for its creation?
Is there some distinction being drawn between the physical universe and some mystical other universe in which God existed before the physical one did?

I know there are many questions here and it is a bit rambling. Sorry. I'm being a bold boy at work.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

You write, After all, there are many ways there could have been something, but only one in which there is nothing, so (even if we acknowledge that nothing is more probable than any particular something) something is more probable.

Actually, there is more than one way there could have been nothing. Possible worlds are, at least partly, individuated by what is true at them. Propositions true at a possible world are not always propositions about the way that world actually is, but also about how that world might have been or the way that world must be. So, ◊p may true at some empty worlds and untrue at other empty worlds. For example, there will be some empty worlds at which it is possible for Paris Hilton to fly and other empty worlds at which it is not possible for Paris Hilton to fly.

This idea can be made precise. Consider an axiomatization of first-order K. (See Hughs & Cresswell). A variable-domain model M for K is a quintuple [W, R, D, Q, V], where W is a set of worlds, R, the "accessibility" relation, is a relation on W, D is a set of objects, Q is a function from members of W to subsets of D, and V is a function which maps world-predicate pairs [w, P] to Q(w) (or the n-th Cartesian power of Q(w) if P is an n-ary relation sign). D is supposed to be the set of all possible objects, where the value Q(w) intuitively represents the objects which exist at w. If we allow for Q(w) = ∅ at some worlds, then we have empty worlds in our model M.

Now, it is easy to see that having multiple empty worlds in a model is not "redundant" because of the accessibility relation R. Some empty worlds will "see" certain other worlds, and some empty worlds will be "seen" by other worlds. Thus, given some formula α in which there is at least one occurrence of a modal operator, it will sometimes turn out that α will be true at one empty world but false in another: two empty worlds, despite the fact that they are both empty, can access different worlds.

Ultimately, then, I do not see why there should not be infinitely many empty worlds -- indeed, non-denumerably many empty worlds!

anticant said...

An "empty world" [with or without a flying Paris Hilton - who is presumably nothing anyway] would surely be something, not nothing.

As Stephen says in his original post, it is extremely difficult to conceive pure nothingness. Mind-bogglingly so, in fact.

I fear I won't get around to reading Rundle's book - parts of which would almost certainly be beyond my mental capacity - but the whole subject, and the discussion on this thread, is very absorbing. Thanks, everyone.

Timmo said...

Anticant,

An "empty world" [with or without a flying Paris Hilton - who is presumably nothing anyway] would surely be something, not nothing.

Surely? There are a whole host of possible views you could have about possible worlds: realism, modal fictionalism, Platonism, Meinongianism, nominalism, and many other possible views. An adherent to each of these views would have something different to say in response to your comment. Myself, I am very attracted to Priest's view, advanced in Toward Non-Being, that possible worlds are a species of non-existent objects. So, worlds do not exist, and they certainly do not exist at empty worlds!

My point about Paris Hilton is this. While Paris Hilton does not exist at an empty world -- nothing, after all, exists at an empty world -- there will be empty worlds in which it is true that it is possible that Paris Hilton can fly and empty worlds in which it is false that it is possible that Paris Hilton can fly. Accordingly, those two worlds have to be different.

anticant said...

Thanks for the references. I must confess that for me this is the point at which such abstract philosophising recalls the denizens of Laputa and my attention wanders elsewhere....

Timmo said...

Anticant,

Modal metaphysics gets abstract and technical fast! I suppose one has to cultivate a taste for it, like one would for fine wine or cigars. I personally find it exciting, but there are plenty of other exhilarating topics in philosophy...

anticant said...

Not being a philosopher, my interest in it is limited to practical issues, such as how to improve the rational and logical content of everyday thinking and behaviour, and discourage belief in nonsense.

I can see the attraction of more abstract speculations, but as you say one has to have a taste for them and to philistine me they smack of mental wanking, if you'll excuse the vulgarity.

Anonymous said...

Timmo,

I believe Stephen was referring to the universe. The universe either contains or perhaps is something or it is not. If something exists, there are many different configurations and forms something might take. If the universe contains nothing or essentially doesn't exist then there is only one form it can take - Nothing.
Consider nothing to be the absence of everything including thoughts, concepts, probabilities and possibilities.

Despite that, I disagree that because something can have more forms than nothing that it is therefore more probable.
Imagine Bob wants to grow a tree. The spot Bob has his heart set on for the tree is less than ideal. An expert friend of his examines the soil and location and informs Bob that there is a 50-50 chance that the tree will grow if he plants the seed in that spot. If the tree does grow, there are many ways in which it might grow. It might be tall or short or have fifty branches or only ten branches. If it doesn't grow, then it has only one form, a dead seed. Does the fact that it can have more shapes and sizes if it does grow make the probability of it growing in the first place greater?

It could be argued that despite its different possible growth configurations it is still just a tree. It could not, for example, grow into a rock. This is true of course but in terms of the universe we can make the same argument. Everything in the universe is composed of energy in one form or another, it may take different shapes but it is still essentially energy.

This may be over simplifying things a little but I think that without more than one single test (our universe), it is difficult to gauge which is more probable, something or nothing.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Jeremy

Thanks for kind words about the DK book. It looks nice. But it was a nightmare to do, frankly. And I am not entirely happy with it. I may explain why later....

Hi Timmo

Presumably, a situation in which there is no physical universe, but in which there are truths about possibility, conditional truths, mathematical truths, etc. is not a situation in which we have ABSOLUTE "nothing". For there are still all these truths.

It seems there is only one such ABSOLUTE nothing world/possibility.

However, raising the issue of possibilities etc. is interesting, because it does raise further difficulties for the thought that such an ABSOLUTE nothing world is conceivable.

After all, if such a world is possible, it is a world in which the existence of something was possible, but not actual. But then it's not a nothing world, for it contains this possibility!

You inconceivability argument is interesting, but I don't think it works. Obviously we can conceive of something existing (in this box, say). But is this particular example of "conceiving of something", conceiving of the alternative to ABSOLUTE nothing? Not obviously. It's conceiving of the alternative to there being something in the box, as we more commonly use "something", i.e. an empty tract of space. And that's not ABSOLUTE nothing.

So the conceivability of "something", as we ordinarily use "something", does not entail the conceivability of ABSOLUTE nothing.

And indeed, once you insist you are using "something" differently, as the alternative to ABSOLUTE nothing, then you are begging the question that such a conception of "something" (ABSOLUTE something, if you like) is possible.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Jeremy

Thanks for kind words about the DK book. It looks nice. But it was a nightmare to do, frankly. And I am not entirely happy with it. I may explain why later....

Hi Timmo

Presumably, a situation in which there is no physical universe, but in which there are truths about possibility, conditional truths, mathematical truths, etc. is not a situation in which we have ABSOLUTE "nothing". For there are still all these truths.

It seems there is only one such ABSOLUTE nothing world/possibility.

However, raising the issue of possibilities etc. is interesting, because it does raise further difficulties for the thought that such an ABSOLUTE nothing world is conceivable.

After all, if such a world is possible, it is a world in which the existence of something was possible, but not actual. But then it's not a nothing world, for it contains this possibility!

You inconceivability argument is interesting, but I don't think it works. Obviously we can conceive of something existing (in this box, say). But is this particular example of "conceiving of something", conceiving of the alternative to ABSOLUTE nothing? Not obviously. It's conceiving of the alternative to there being something in the box, as we more commonly use "something", i.e. an empty tract of space. And that's not ABSOLUTE nothing.

So the conceivability of "something", as we ordinarily use "something", does not entail the conceivability of ABSOLUTE nothing.

And indeed, once you insist you are using "something" differently, as the alternative to ABSOLUTE nothing, then you are begging the question that such a conception of "something" (ABSOLUTE something, if you like) is possible.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Thanks for your comments.

Presumably, a situation in which there is no physical universe, but in which there are truths about possibility, conditional truths, mathematical truths, etc. is not a situation in which we have ABSOLUTE "nothing". For there are still all these truths.

I think the viability of this response depends upon what you think about the metaphysics of entities like propositions. If you are a Platonist and contend that propositions are abstract objects which exist independently of us, then you will hold that in a world in which there are no physical objects there will still be abstract objects such as propositions. In that case, something still exists. However, just as there are a whole host of possible views one could have about worlds, there are a whole host of views one could have about propositions: you might be a fictionalist, or a nominalist, or a Meinongian, or perhaps something else. I mentioned to anticant that I am attracted to the view that worlds are a species of non-existent objects. Why not hold that all abstract objects -- including propositions -- are nonexistent objects? Then, empty worlds are just worlds in which every object is a nonexistent object.

once you insist you are using "something" differently, as the alternative to ABSOLUTE nothing, then you are begging the question that such a conception of "something" (ABSOLUTE something, if you like) is possible.

I think you've hit upon a real challenge. To be sure, when we ordinarily employ quantifiers, we only intend for those quantifiers to range over some "limited" collection of things. Thus, when we say "there's no beer left" when we are at a party, we do not mean that no beer exists anywhere in the world or universe -- we just mean there is no beer left at the party.

But, can't we go further and quantify over anything whatsoever? For example, if I assert that "there exist no unicorns", I mean that there are no unicorns whatsoever. I intend to speak about everything, unrestrictedly. If we can intelligibly do this, and I think we can, then we can identify a sense for "it is not the case that there exists anything": the quantifier in that sentence has the same sense as the quantifier in "there exist no unicorns". Looking to examples like this, I think, helps to answer your challenge and put "absolute" nothingness on better footing.

Anonymous said...

A little bit of rambling...

Things exist.

In order for there to be NOTHING then everything that does exist would have to not exist.

Possibilities, concepts etc. exist.

In order of there to be NOTHING, these must not exist.

Can nothing become something. Many religious folk have argued that God is required for this to happen.
But if God existed then there was something to begin with.

A couple of questions.

Whether or not we can concieve of absolute nothing really doesn't have any impact on it being a possible state. Does it?

Nothing is impossible of course. Because something exists now, there could never have been Nothing. That would imply the existance of time or the existance of the possiblity of change. Does this make sense?

anticant said...

anonymous: your final paragraph - "does this make sense?"

No, it doesn't.

Ron Murphy said...

Hi Stephen,

A few questions:

On what grounds can we assume there is only one Nothing?

If we know so little about Nothing, how can we assume anything about the comparative probabilities of Nothing(s) and one or more somethings?

Of your ref to Rundle's "vastly different things can be said of the mental and physical: one’s thoughts may be muddled, innovative, inspired… but none of this can be said of anything that is literally taking place in one’s head" - So what's the problem? Our thoughts may constitute, relatively speaking, a disorganised mess of a representation of what's going on in our heads. If I spill my dinner on the floor it would become a muddled, and according to some art critics innovative and inspired; but that wouldn't detract from the physics of the food on the floor.

Anonymous said...

Anticant:

Why not?

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Ron said...

There seems to be some confusion as to what Nothing is (or, rather, could be). Nothing is not something and thus cannot be discussed as if it were. Nothing has no properties, and to look for it in empty worlds is to not look for Nothing but to look for something.

Empty worlds are not Nothing and neither do they contain Nothing. Empty worlds are something. They cannot contain Nothing, for to do so would make them something. As soon as Nothing is enclosed, i.e. given somewhere to be, it is not Nothing.

Questioning why there is Something rather than Nothing is legitimate. The only problem is to define Nothing. Since we cannot conceive of everything NOT being, we can't get much further than saying that something exists "because it does" and we are here to prove it. If we weren't here, there would be Nothing, but we wouldn't know about it.

Dick said...

I hope it's not inappropriate to offer a few verses from ancient texts in the context of this discussion :

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water.
God said, "Let there be light,' and there was light;
and God saw the light was good, and he separated light from darkness." (Genesis 1 : 1 - 4, circa 550 BCE)


"In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God's presence, and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; without him no created thing came into being.
In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it." (John's Gospel 1 : 1 - 5, circa 100 CE)

awed by God said...

"it certainly wasn’t the ... all-good God of Judeo-Christian theology

too much suffering,"

The all-good God says rebellion in some of His creatures which affected His earthly creation (Adam and Eve) has resulted in the suffering which we have ("you will surely die").

You could say you don't know why that should be but you can't say there can't be a God who is all powerful and all-good because there is suffering in the world, if He addresses it.

awed by God said...

..comments following your article "Why is there anything at all?" sorry I think pasted my comments on the wrong post.

Steve said...

Hi Stephen. I'm a postgraduate student at Heythrop, and I've just finished writing my first book The Philosophy of a Mad Man. If you'd be interested in having a read, or even reviewing my book, let me know and I'll send you a copy. If you're interested to know where my philosophical persuasions lie, check out my newly launched philosophy blog at http://perfectchaos.org/. Cheers! Steven