Amanda Gefter has an interesting article at Nautilus looking at a somewhat perennial question: How can something come from nothing? The Bridge From Nowhere – Issue 16: Nothingness – Nautilus.
In science, explanations are built of cause and effect. But if nothing is truly nothing, it lacks the power to cause. It’s not simply that we can’t find the right explanation—it’s that explanation itself fails in the face of nothing.
This failure hits us where it hurts. We are a narrative species. Our most basic understanding comes through stories, and how something came from nothing is the ultimate story, the primordial narrative, more fundamental than the hero’s journey or boy meets girl. Yet it is a story that undermines the notion of story. It is a narrative woven of self-destruction and paradox.
How could it not be? It stars Nothing—a word that is a paradox by its mere existence as a word. It’s a noun, a thing, and yet it is no thing. The minute we imagine it or speak its name, we spoil its emptiness with the stain of meaning. One has to wonder, then, is the problem with nothingness or is the problem with us? Is it cosmic or linguistic? Existential or psychological? Is this a paradox of physics or a paradox of thought?
Gefter takes a serious look at this question, ranging through Greek philosophy with its discussions of whether or not the void existed, 19th century science with the old theory of the ether, and quantum mechanics including the Higgs field. It’s a fascinating article and I recommend reading the full thing.
But the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and its variations have always struck me as something of a flippant one. When I used to debate theists about the plausibility of religious beliefs, this question often came up, not as a real question, but as a rhetorical strategy to end debate.
It’s an unanswerable question, by design, and my response was often to answer with another flippant question, “Why would there be nothing?” Victor Stenger has pointed out that the question inherently assumes that “nothing” is more natural than “something”. Maybe nothing is inherently unstable.
But I suspect even Stenger’s response gives too much credence to the idea of nothing. The next paragraph in Gefter’s article after the quote above, I think, gets at the crux of the difficulty.
Either way, here’s the thing to remember: The solution to a paradox lies in the question, never in the answer. Somewhere there must be a glitch, a flawed assumption, a mistaken identity.
Remember, that the “nothing” the question is asking about is an absence of all things, including matter, energy, forces, space, and time. It’s not clear to me that this version of nothing is really coherent. Certainly I don’t know anyone who can honestly claim they can imagine it.
Of course, our inability to imagine it doesn’t mean that it can’t exist. But even if we grant that “nothing” is a valid concept, its use as a rhetorical weapon has always struck me as largely impotent. Just because science or philosophy can’t answer this question, doesn’t mean that any religious tradition can either, at least not with any finality.
If your answer to the nothing question is God or the gods, then you’re no longer dealing with the absolute nothingness of the question’s premise, since a god is most definitely something. We’re still left with the question of how the gods arose from nothing. Any answer to this question, such as asserting that they’ve always been there, could also be used as a potential answer for the universe and the rest of non-nothingness.
Ultimately I see the question as a reminder that just because we can manipulate words to ask a question (“Why do triangles only have three corners?”), doesn’t mean that we’ve asked a meaningful one.
h/t s7hummel for calling my attention to the article