Monday 24 September 2018

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

For scientists, space is not empty but full of quantum energy
Posted by Keith Tidman

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced this inquiry more than three hundred years ago, saying, ‘The first question that should rightly be asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”’ Since then, many philosophers and scientists have likewise pondered this question. Perhaps the most famous restatement of it came in 1929 when the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, placed it at the heart of his book What Is Metaphysics?: ‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’

Of course, many people around the world turn to a god as a sufficient reason (explanation) for the universe’s existence. Aristotle believed, as did his forerunner Heraclitus, that the world was mutable — everything undergoing perpetual change — which he characterised as movement. He argued that there was a sequence of predecessor causes that led back deep into the past, until reaching an unmoved mover, or Prime Mover (God). An eternal, immaterial, unchanging god exists necessarily, Aristotle believed, itself independent of cause and change.

In the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Christian friar, advanced this so-called cosmological view of universal beginnings, likewise perceiving God as the First Cause. Leibniz, in fact, was only proposing something similar, with his Contingency Argument, in the 17th century:

‘The sufficient reason [for the existence of the universe] which needs not further reason must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which . . . is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself. . . .  This final reason for things is called God’ — Leibniz, The Principles of Nature and Grace

However, evoking God as the prime mover or first cause or noncontingent being — arbitrarily, on a priori rather than empirical grounds — does not inescapably make it so. Far from it. The common counterargument maintains that a god correspondingly raises the question that, if a god exists — has a presence — what was its cause? Assuming, that is, that any thing — ‘nothing’ being the sole exception — must have a cause. So we are still left with the question, famously posed by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’ To posit the existence of a god does not, as such, get around the ‘hard problem’: why there is a universe at all, not just why our universe is the way it is.

Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible.

Science has not fared much better in this challenge. The British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell ended up merely declaring in 1948, ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all’. A ‘brute fact’, as some have called it. Many scientists have embraced similar sentiments: concluding that ‘something’ was inevitable, and that ‘nothingness’ would be impossible. Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible. But these are difficult positions to support unquestionally, given that, as with many scientific and philosophical predecessors and contemporaries, they do not adequately explain why and how. This was, for example, the outlook of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher who maintained that the universe (with its innumerable initial conditions and subsequent properties) had to exist. Leaping forward to the 20th century, Albert Einstein, himself an admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy, seemed to concur.

Quantum mechanics poses an interesting illustration of the science debate, informing us that empty space is not really empty — not in any absolute sense, anyway. Even what we might consider the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by churning virtual particles — quantum fluctuations — that almost instantaneously flit in and out of existence. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that this so-called ‘quantum vacuum’ is as close to nothingness as we might get. But quantum fluctuations do not equate to nothingness; they are not some modern-day-science equivalent of the non-contingent Prime Mover discussed above. Rather, no matter however flitting and insubstantial, virtual quantum particles are still something.

It is therefore reasonable to inquire into the necessary origins of these quantum fluctuations — an inquiry that requires us to return to an Aristotelian-like chain of causes upon causes, traceable back in time. The notion of a supposed quantum vacuum still doesn’t get us to what might have garnered something from nothing. Hence, the hypothesis that there has always been something — that the quantum vacuum was the universe’s nursery — peels away as an unsupportable claim. Meanwhile, other scientific hypotheses, such as string theory, bid to take the place of Prime Mover. At the heart of the theory is the hypothesis that the fundamental particles of physics are not really ‘points’ as such but rather differently vibrating energy ‘strings’ existing in many more than the familiar dimensions of space-time. Yet these strings, too, do not get us over the hump of something in place of nothing; strings are still ‘something’, whose origins (causes) would beg to be explained.

In addressing these questions, we are not talking about something emerging from nothing, as nothingness by definition would preclude the initial conditions required for the emergence of a universe. Also, ‘nothingness’ is not the mere absence (or opposite) of something; rather, it is possible to regard ‘nothingness’ as theoretically having been just as possible as ‘something’. In light of such modern-day challenges in both science and philosophy, Lugdwig Wittgenstein was at least partially right in saying, early in the 20th century (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, section 6.4 on what he calls ‘the mystical’), that the real mystery was, ‘Not how the world is . . . but that it is’.


Roger said...

In order to answer the question, I think we should first try to answer the question “Why does a normal thing, like a book, exist?”. What seems like a possibility to me is that a thing exists if it is a grouping, or something that ties stuff together into a unit whole. One could also say that a grouping defines what is contained within and groups what is contained within into a single unit whole. This grouping together or definition of what is contained within is visually seen and physically present as a surface, or boundary, that defines what is contained within and that gives “substance” and existence to the thing. Some examples are 1.) the definition of what elements are contained within a set groups those previously individual elements together into a new unit whole called the set which is visualized as the curly braces surrounding the set and 2.) the grouping together of previously unrelated paper and ink atoms into a new unit whole called a book which can be visually seen as the surface of the book. This idea that an object exists if it’s a unit whole isn't new at all, but I think we can apply it to the title question.

Next, in regard to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, when we get rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as all minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing”. This situation is very hard to visualize because the mind is trying to imagine a situation in which it doesn’t exist. But, once everything including the mind is gone, this “absolute lack-of-all”, would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. By its very nature, it defines exactly all that is present (e.g., nothing). Is there anything else besides that “absolute nothing”? No. It is “nothing”, and it is all. An entirety, whole amount or “the all” is a grouping that defines what is contained within (e.g., everything), which means that the situation we previously considered to be “absolute nothing” is itself an existent entity. The surface of this entity isn’t some separate structure; it is just the entirety/whole amount/”the all” grouping itself that is the surface, or boundary. Said another way, by its very nature, “absolute nothing” is a grouping (it’s everything/the all) and therefore defines itself and is the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities.

Some would argue that by talking about "nothing", I'm reifying, or giving existence to, it. But, the mind's conception of "nothing" and, thus, our talking about it is different than "nothing" itself, in which our minds wouldn't exist. So, whether or not "nothing" is an existent entity is independent of my talking about it. Also, based on this reasoning, humans have to define "nothing" as the lack of "something" because we exist, but "nothing" itself, if it exists, doesn't have this restriction. "Nothing" itself is independent of being defined as the lack of "something".

None of this can be proved of course, but what can be done is to take the above ideas about existence and existent entitieis, and try to use them to build a model of existence and existent entities (e.g., the universe) and see if it can make testable predictions. I think this metaphysics-to-physics, or metaphysics as a science, approach is worth taking for both physicists and philosophers.

Anyways, that’s my thinking. If you're interested, there's more detail at my website at:
(click on the first link down)


Keith said...

Thank you, Roger, for your incisive observations.

‘This situation [absolute nothing] is very hard to visualize because the mind is trying to imagine a situation in which it doesn’t exist’. Yes, I surely agree: one of the steep hurdles that I’m not sure any human mind can get beyond is to conceptualise ‘nothingness’, given that the mind is itself firmly embedded within ‘something’. That is, the mind is rooted within a physical universe — the latter the only reality we know and might ever know. Especially if (as one possibility) there always has been, and always will be, ‘something’. The notional absence of all existence as we know it, therefore, is hard to fix in the imagination. These limiting circumstances may be why the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains one of the most difficult for either philosophers or scientists to answer. As you point out, ‘the mind’s conception of “nothing” and, thus, our talking about it is different than “nothing” itself, in which our minds wouldn’t exist’.

Roger said...

Keith: Hi. I totally agree that it's extremely hard and probably impossible to visualize "nothing" because, like you say, our minds are firmly embedded in "something". I also agree that the difficulty in visualizing it (and the confusion between the mind's conception of nothing and nothing itself) are the reasons why the question has remained unanswered. People give up. But, as Edison said, the surest way to succeed is to try just one more time.

Everyone probably has their own way of trying to visualize "nothing", but what I try to do is to shut my eyes, imagine all space/volume shrinking down to the outside of my body, then to the size of my mind's eye, and then I kind of push my mind's eye off to one side and visualize space/volume shrinking down to that. Then, I try to imagine that little speck of my mind's eye going down the drain and my ending up on the other side and seeing "nothing" from the outside as an existent entity. That is, I visualize as far as I can and then try to extrapolate from there. But, this is kind of a self-fulfilling visualization, so I've tried to substantiate it with the argument about things existing if they're groupings, and "nothing" being a grouping. To me, it makes sense.

Thanks for a great essay, and I'm going to bookmark this site to check it out again!

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Roger. I checked out BOTH your sites, including the lesser-known blogger one with an essay which does not so much discuss as RAISE the question 'why is there nothing rather than something'at Harold the blog.


What would you say about the possibility of the universe as a single, undifferentiated primeval atom, which after all is the basis of the current theory of physics, isn't it?

Roger said...

Martin: Hi. Thanks for checking out the websites! I called it Ralph the website because all the other more normal-sounding names were already taken, and Google said I had to give it a name, so I figured it'd be fun to call it Ralph!

About your second point, I do think the universe started out as a single, undifferentiated primeval atom, which I would say is the existent entity previously referred to as "nothing" and which physicists might call the singularity of the big bang, but I think it must have somehow produced more of these entities just because there seems to be more than one entity in the universe now. If you mean the universe as it is now as a single atom or whole, is this the same idea as the monism thing pushed by Jonathan Shaffer and others? If so, my comments would be:

1. If an existent entity is a grouping, then there's an existent entity, or atom, wherever there's a grouping. So, even if the universe is made of many component entities/atoms, as long as they're together in some kind of a grouping, which it seems like they would be and which we know as the universe, then you could consider the grouping of these component entities to also be an existent entity/atom. That is, you could call the universe as a whole a single entity/atom. This would be similar to why a cloud can also be called a single entity/atom even though it's made of component water droplets. As long as the forces between the droplets that are holding them together are stronger than the air currents blowing them apart, then a grouping is present, and you can call this grouping a cloud. The cloud entity/atom is made of component droplet/entities/atoms.

2. If you mean the current universe is just a single entity/atom without component entities, I have a hard time seeing how there can be seemingly separate things within it such as all the people in the world. Also, how could there be physical change/energy, which I think derives from the ability of one thing to have some physical effect on another thing? I'd have to know more about the argument supporting the universe as a single atom without components before saying more, though.

I'd be curious to hear your guys' thinking on this stuff, too?

Keith said...

Perhaps the idea of ‘the universe as a single, undifferentiated primeval atom’ hinges on broader discussions of cosmology. Whether — and if so, how — the universe had something resembling a singly defined beginning moment is still a matter of scientific debate and speculation. As is how the somewhat ambiguous initial conditions might relate to the universe as we know it today. What-if hypotheses abound, with seemingly few easy answers. Ideas surrounding topics like the purported singularity, infinite values, energy density/mass, big bang (and antecedence), space-time, cosmic inflation, breakdown in laws of physics early in time, quantum fluctuations (vacuum energy), dark energy and dark matter, universe’s end game, and much more — remain to fully percolate, be made sense of, clarified, confirmed or rebutted, and potentially refined or replaced.

docmartincohen said...

Well, yes, I agree with Keith, it certainly all does hang on broader issues! For me, though, Ralph, taking up your questions, the thing about the atom theory is that obviously it's not an atom in the physicists' sense today, with it's own component parts, but it was in the Greek sense of the smallest indivisible entity. And it could not be 'in something' either, only, if you'll excuse the phrase, 'in nothing'. I imagine it was a photon more than an atom as such, meaning a disturbance in a state of energy. The intriguing thing is how close all this sounds to the Biblical language of 'let there be light' - and I'm not a theologian! We do have one here on the site though, Thomas, and I hope he will join in soon with some thoughts too.

Keith said...

If I may, I’d like to return to the fundamental question embedded in the essay’s title — why is there something rather than nothing? — by gingerly weighing in with what I subscribe to as a conceivable answer. That is, I believe that there has only ever been ‘something’ — where notions of beginning (with an implied ‘before’) and end (with an implied ‘after’) are arguably rendered meaningless. And accordingly, with ‘something’ as the purported default, ‘nothingness’ never has been or could have been. In this simple model, the explanation for ‘something’ always to have existed and always will exist is fundamentally, non-contingently rooted within itself: that is, the secular, non-conditional primacy of our cosmic ‘something’ is what I’d dub ‘self-essence’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The problem with God conceived of as any kind of cause is, the more that causes are multiplied in our thinking, the more God retreats. That is, every cause we identify which is other than God, serves to further marginalise God, until we are left only with a First Cause, if that. And as Dawkins observed, God is not left with much to do then. But this all rests heavily on the notion that we inhabit a world in which we are able legitimately to identify causes. I suspect that our cause-and-effect thinking is all a fabrication, and without it, the question of why there is something rather than nothing, or an observer rather than none, flees away. It seems significant to me that Leibniz first thought of the question of 'being'. It was the rise of the Age of Reason, and of cause as a concept.

Roger said...

If what was previously called "nothing" is an existent entity, then it would be an atom, as Martin says, in that it's the smallest possible entity and has no component parts (what's smaller than "nothing"?). Also as Martin said, it wouldn't be in something because "nothing" means there's nothing to be in. But, it itself would be a quantum unit of "something", existence and location. And, I think there must be a way for it to produce more of these units because we have more than one location in the universe.

Even if the "nothing" as an existent entity idea is totally wrong, I think there must be a smallest, most fundamental entity (e.g., an atom") at the base of existence just in order to avoid the infinite regress of saying "Yeah, but what's inside that?".

In regard to Keith's point, one nice feature of the "nothing" as an existent entity idea is that, if it's correct, one could say that it's been correct forever. That is, there never would have been a time when there wasn't "something" because even "nothing" is a "something". And, the reason "nothing" is a "something" is inherent in its property that it would be everything, it would be the all. Everything and all are groupings, and groupings, at least by my argument, are unit wholes, or existent entities. So, "nothing"/"something" is non-contingent.

On cause and effect, I admit we're rooted in that way of thinking, and it's possible that could cause unsound reasoning. But, with the "nothing" as an existent entity idea, it's not correct to say that first there was "nothing" and then there was "something". These are just two different words, or perspectives, for describing the same thing, where that thing is the situation we previously thought of as "nothing". After the fact, as a mind switches between these two perspectives (looking at it as "nothing" and looking at it as "something"), it mistakes this perspective-switching as a temporal change (e.g., as a cause and then an effect).

Keith said...

‘If . . . “nothing” is an existent entity, then it would be an atom . . . in that it’s the smallest possible entity and has no component parts. . . . [I[t would be a quantum unit of “something”, existence and location’. But, if I haven’t misunderstood, Roger, isn’t that a description of ‘something’, not of ‘nothing’? That is, no matter how imaginably tiny, or undifferentiated, this putative ‘atom’ may be, isn’t it still ‘something’ — especially if, as said, it has ‘existence’ and ‘location’? The closest imagined (but terribly imperfect) analog to ‘nothingness’ is space; however, as we know, space has quantum energy, so space is not at all ‘nothingness’. Indeed, in the case of ‘nothingness’, there wouldn’t even be space — arguably ‘space’ would have no meaning in this scenario — regardless of how the space analog might prove handy for everyday purposes. Perhaps our imaginations don’t — can’t — really go there. So, doesn’t the ‘hard problem’ of ‘something rather than nothing’ again circle back to our ability — or inability — to image what ‘nothingness’ might even be: absent all matter, all energy, all time, all dimensions, all potential?

Roger said...

Keith: Hi. That's exactly what I was trying to get at: that what we've always visualized as "nothing" (the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws of physics/math, logic and all minds to consider this lack of all) is not in fact "nothing. It's a "something" (based on the definition of "something" as a grouping or unit whole). That is, "something" and what we used to call "nothing" are just two different words for describing the same situation: what we've previously called "nothing". Said another way: Usually, when we visualize:

the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws of physics/math, logic and all minds to consider this lack of all)

we just see "nothing". This comes from the perspective of our existent mind, which just sees the lack of all. But, trying to visualize the same thing:

the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws of physics/math, logic and all minds to consider this lack of all)

from the perspective where our existent mind is also gone, we can see that it is the entirety of all there is, it's the whole amount, it's absolutely nothing but it's the all. Entireties, wholes and the all are groupings, and at least from my thinking, a grouping or unit whole is an existent entity, or a "something".

Said one final way: We're wondering how you can go from "nothing" to "something". This is like saying that you start with 0 but get a 1. As we know, this can't be, so the only choice is that the 0 may look like a zero but is actually a 1 in disguise. That is, when looked at from a different perspective, that 0 now looks like a 1.

So, my view is that our usual distinction of "nothing" and "something" is a false distinction. This is why I was agreeing with you that "something" is necessary because even "nothing" itself is a "something".

Keith said...

Thank you, Roger, for furthering ideas around this topic. You've indeed offered some insightful, thought-provoking viewpoints, which I'm glad you took a moment to share!

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

"so the only choice is that the 0 may look like a zero but is actually a 1 in disguise". This short sentence offers brilliant clarity on the issue. I am still thinking ...

docmartincohen said...

Can I just add to Roger that we'd be delighted to have suggestions for a post from him too, if he ever wants to share some of his insights that way too.

(Contact me on twitter @docmartincohen or leave a note here.)

docmartincohen said...

What's all this about, too, Thomas?

"Leibniz first thought of the question of 'being... '"

Roger said...

Martin: Hi. I'm not on Twitter, so will write you here. I'd be happy and honored to post something to this site, and thank you for asking, but while I've got a few other philosophical ideas about infinite sets, Russel's Paradox and time (all at the ralphthewebsite site), most of my stuff and my effort is related to the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" ideas. I put my main points in the comments above; although, I could add some more detail and references.

Just to be up front about it, as you know, I'm an amateur, and people like me are known as crackpots by many academics, so I wouldn't want to hurt the reputation of your site. Also, I've submitted the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" stuff to academic journals a couple of times and was rejected. Finally, I can't really do much traditional philosophical discussion in a post about the "Why is there something rather than nothing?" idea because of a lack of deep knowledge about philosophy and philosophers. I've read just enough about this topic to know it's still an open question and that other solutions I've seen haven't been satisfying, at least to me.

Given these caveats, I'd be happy to give it a try. Thanks!

Roger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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