Why is there something rather than nothing? Why would there be nothing?

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

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33 Responses to Why is there something rather than nothing? Why would there be nothing?

  1. Hariod Brawn says:

    ‘Of course, our inability to imagine it doesn’t mean that it (nothingness) can’t exist.’

    Apologies SAP, perhaps I’m being too oblique, though I don’t see any obviousness in the above statement i.e. how can nothingness ever ‘exist’; is not existence the antithesis of nothingness?

    Hariod Brawn.

    Like

  2. If you scroll down a bit on the article you’ll see that someone made an interesting comment about Kantian space/time: “But how can spacetime evolve in time when it is time?” – My belief, a la Kant, is that time is simply a form of the mind, a way for consciousness to make sense of the totality of the Existence in which it is constantly enveloped. If this is true then time need not exist outside of the “distinct” observer (who is not actually distinct from existence).

    I believe the same is true of space, and consequently of motion. To paraphrase Parmenides, how can you move from one “distinct” place to another when the only thing that exists (ie, Existence) is everywhere whole and uniform? Motion is an illusion, another tool of consciousness to make sense of the overwhelming stimulus that is existence.”

    If motion is an illusion, a la Parmenides, then the problem itself is an illusion. Rather we should say: Everything is. Or maybe adding “is” to “everything” is too much linguistic movement to express the truth? Maybe we SHOULD do a Wittgenstein!

    Actually, I’m not sure I could ever do a Wittgenstein. Not sure how I weigh in on this question, but it’s certainly interesting fodder for speculation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A thought provoking comment! It seems very difficult to know what aspects of reality are just something our minds construct, given that we only have our minds to evaluate them. Follow this line of reasoning too far, and you can end up either in solipsism or its opposite in the everything-is frame of mind.

      The way I resolve this difficulty is to to look at what it is productive to regard as real. Maybe some aspects of reality are an illusion. In evaluating them, the question is whether or not there are consequences to not taking them seriously. If there are, then they may still be illusions, but if so they appear to be illusions with teeth. I’m inclined to regard illusions with teeth as real in a pragmatic sense, albeit with the knowledge that we may not fully understand them.

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      • I consider myself a pragmatist as well. I’m sure that means different things to different people. In any case, the time/space issue is one I’ve been Kantian about ever since I read the Critique. I hear about time and space being “out there”, and it takes me a while to adjust to a new frame of thinking.

        But watch out for those illusions with teeth. I hear they bite.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There is nothing more confounding than trying to talk about “nothing” in a graduate continental philosophy department. Every time I think I have a solid understanding of what it is, I find myself in a conversation that scrambles my brain.

    I generally subscribe to the principle that it is better to exist than not, but that’s about as far as I get without breaking into academic posturing. “The Platonic model of privative ontology…”.

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  4. Roger says:

    SelfAware Patterns: Hi. I read Ms. Gefter’s article, too, and thought it was very well written. I think she has a gift for writing and making thing clear than most scientists do, maybe because she has a better intuitive understanding of them?

    Anyways, my thoughts on the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” are below:

    o One of the commenters above, along with Ms. Gefter, mentioned that even using an existent word like “nothing” to describe the “absolute lack-of-all” turns that “lack-of-all” into something. But I disagree for the following reasons:

    – Humans and our minds exist, so we have to use an existent word like “nothing” to discuss the situation, but this doesn’t affect whether or not the actual “nothing” exists or doesn’t exist.

    – Building on the above, I think it’s real important to distinguish between the mind’s conception of “nothing” and “nothing” itself in which there are no minds. Our existent minds have to define “nothing” as the absence of “something”, but “nothing” itself, whether it exists or not, is independent of “something” and of being defined in terms of “something”.

    o I agree with you and Ms. Gefter that the problem is in the question. But, my proposed solution to it is a little different. I think the problem comes in a mistaken distinction between “something and “nothing”. To me, I think that when we get rid of all space, volume, time, matter, energy, laws of physics/math, abstract concepts and minds to think about this lack-of-all, we have always called this “nothing” or “non-existence”, but I think this is wrong. For me, this situation actually fits my definition of an existent entity, which is that a thing exists if it is a grouping or relationship defining what is contained within (e.g. the list of elements in a set allows the set to exist, the surface of a book groups all the atoms that make up the book together into a thing called a book and therefore allows the book to exist, etc.). The “absolute lack-of-all” would be the entirety of all that is present. It would be the all. There’s nothing existent beyond that “lack-of-all”. Entirety and all are groupings or relationships defining what is contained within. So, if we could be there, we would see that this supposed “absolute lack-of-all” is actually an existent entity. As Ms. Gefter writes:

    “Could it be that something is just what nothing looks like from the inside?”

    Anyways, no one can ever prove their thoughts about the cause of existence because we can’t step outside existence, but we can use our guesses to build models and eventually try to make testable predictions about the universe we do see (“something”). That’s what I try to do in my own thinking as an amateur.

    If you’re interested, I put a summary of this at my website at

    sites.google.com/site/whydoesanythingexist (about 2.5 pages).
    and
    sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite (click on 3rd link down. This site has more detail.)

    On a totally unrelated note, I read your about page and am glad to see there are still some Democrats in the South! From what I read, it sounds like so many people are Tea Partiers. But, we’ve got plenty of them here in Ohio, too.

    Sorry for such a long comment. Thanks for listening!

    Roger

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    • Hi Roger,
      Very much agreed on Gefter.

      I’m afraid I’m not following your logic about “nothing”. How can nothing be independent of something if nothing is the negation of all things? It seems like to call it independent, it would need to exist if even one or more things also existed, which seems contradictory. Calling the absence of all things a thing in and of itself seems to me to be a category mistake, projecting a limitation of language into an ontological assertion. But perhaps I’m missing something?

      Unfortunately, Democrats are definitely a minority in the south. Conservative Republicanism is the default position; as a white male, people are often shocked when they find out that I’m not one. At least Ohio remains a battleground state. Here, the only way for a liberal Democrat to make a difference is to donate to campaigns in more competitive areas.

      Like

      • Roger says:

        Hi. I’m hoping Ohio swings Democratic this fall! Columbus is trying to get the 2016 Democratic convention, so that’d be neat, too. I know some Tea Party guys and they’re very nice, but they just aren’t reasonable in terms of politics. I guess it’s more a personality thing than an intelligence thing.

        On the “nothing” stuff, I think that our visualization of “nothing” in our mind’s eye and “nothing” itself are two different things. I agree that our visualization of “nothing” is as the negation of all things. Because we and our minds exist, that’s how we have to define “nothing”. But, in the case of “nothing” itself, there are no minds and no other “things” there as we usually think about them and there never were any “things”, so “nothing” itself has nothing to do with “things”. That is, that “nothing”, whatever it is or isn’t, would be independent of “things”. The reason I put all these in quotes is that I think “nothing” itself would be an existent entity, or thing. Just not one of the things we usually consider to be an existent thing.

        It seems hard to visualize “nothing” itself because we visualize things in our minds, and neither our minds nor anything else would be there in the case of “nothing”. I sometimes shut my eyes and imagine all volume and everything else in the universe compressed down to just the space of my body and then my mind’s eye. Then, I try to push the blackness of the mind’s eye off to the side into a little point and then get rid of that point. I never get all the way there (I’m a little scared of not getting it back!) and I don’t think it’s even possible, but I try to picture what it would be like after I get rid of that point. I think only when we get rid of all that stuff and that little point of our mind can we see that “nothing” is the entirety, or the all, and thus, a grouping or relationship defining what is contained within and thus an existent entity.

        Thanks for listening!

        Roger

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    Excellent article, very important topic.

    SelfAwarePatterns: {But the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” … this question often came up, not as a real question, but as a rhetorical strategy to end debate.}

    As it might be a rhetorical strategy for others, it is the ‘central’ issue in physics.

    SelfAwarePatterns: {It’s an unanswerable question, by design, and my response was often to answer with another flippant question, “Why would there be nothing?” Certainly I don’t know anyone who can honestly claim they can imagine it.}

    It is very unfortunate that you don’t know that anyone is able to imagine it (the nothingness), but it is not an unanswerable question by design. If we want to understand the UR (ultimate-reality) in physics, we ‘must’ describe it in detail.

    I have showed the exact definition for ‘nothingness’ with two attributes (timelessness and immutability) at http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/p-zombies-are-inconceivable-with-notes-on-the-idea-of-metaphysical-possibility/comment-page-1/#comment-5683 .

    I have also showed the exact ‘consequences’ that ‘nothingness’ must produce at http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/scientism-yippee-or-boo-sucks-part-ii/comment-page-1/#comment-6250 .

    Amanda Gefter: “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. … Like Gefter mentions in her article, any attempt to discuss nothingness contaminates it.”

    Sorry, this is simply wrong.

    Like

    • Tienzen, I think it depends on what your definition of nothing is. Gefter is talking about the absolute lack of things. As I discuss in my post, I’m not sure that definition is coherent. As soon as you introduce things, like quantum foam, you’re no longer working with the absolute nothingness typically assumed in the question, although it may be the closest we can ever get to nothingness in reality.

      Like

      • Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

        SelfAwarePatterns: “Gefter is talking about the absolute lack of things. As I discuss in my post, I’m not sure that definition is coherent.”

        You are exactly correct. Gefter’s definition is nonsense; see the reason below.

        SelfAwarePatterns: “As soon as you introduce things, like quantum foam, you’re no longer working with the absolute nothingness typically assumed in the question, although it may be the closest we can ever get to nothingness in reality.”

        No, this is not correct. As I said in my articles, ‘nothingness’ has two attributes {timelessness (eternal) and immutable}. Being immutable, no amount of things added can change that immutability, and this is exactly how the ‘creation’ process works; zillion things can be added without changing the initial base. Remember that this is a ‘process’, not merely a concept. Every ‘process’ can be showed with ‘step’ procedures. That is, gazillions items can be added to this immutable ‘thing’ while this thing is not changed one bit. Obviously, the ‘infinity’ is such a thing by definition. Yet, I have also showed that ‘nothingness’ is also such a ‘thing’ in the book “Super Unified Theory” (thus, I will not repeat it here for now). I might discuss a bit about ‘this’ in due time. But now, I would like to discuss two ‘nothingness’ which is the derivative of this ‘absolute nothingness’.

        One, 兀 (nothingness) is 一 (Heaven) over 儿 (baby).
        Two, 無 (nothingness) is 气 (chi, energy, smoke, air, etc.) over 册 (book) over 火 (fire, the four dots at the bottom of the 無).

        Can you tell the two different types of ‘nothingness”?

        兀 (nothingness): the baby is under Heaven (not born). Something yet to come but is ‘nothingness’ now.

        無 (nothingness): a book (something) is burnt into smoke. Something is now forever gone.

        These two types of nothingness are the two sides of the ‘absolute-nothingness’.

        Like

        • I can see where you’re getting timelessness from, since this nothing is supposed to be an absence of all, including time. But immutable? Well, yes, but only until something happens, until there is change. Once there is any thing, anywhere, anyhow, this version of nothing no long exists.

          It’s like a vacuum. You can say the vacuum still exists once there’s gas in the same physical location, but then you’re no longer using the word “vacuum” as it’s defined: a space devoid of matter. Subtract energy, space, time, physical laws, etc, and you have the same situation with “nothing”.

          The two types of nothingness is an interesting distinction. Of course, we have different names for them. We rarely refer to children not yet conceived as currently being dead. Unless you’re religious, it’s hard to see how the two states of nonexistence are different for the subject concerned.

          Like

  6. s7hummel says:

    is know that good music is the best friend of ours… so once i wrote … i often listen Vivaldi, Brams, Gorecki, Kilar, Chopin… L. Cohen … but above all Roger Waters +pf! Larry (whereofonecanspeak.com) replied to this … I don’t listen to as much classical music as I used to, but I lean toward Beethoven, Bartok, Stravinksy… and what about this problem have written Michael … as well as and other great personalities which appear here!

    Like

    • I’m interested in a lot of things, but there are a few subjects that I’m pretty unlikely to write about. Unfortunately, music is one of them. (Others include sports, reality TV, and poetry.) There are tunes I like, but music rarely has enough of a hold on me to make me isolate them down to musicians or bands. I fully recognize that this makes me strange 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. SamL says:

    I think a classical theist would disagree that it’s a question designed to have no answer. They actually think they do have an answer for it: there is something rather than nothing because there is at least one thing which couldn’t have not existed, namely God. So the question, asked by a theist, is more like a objection to anyone who claims there is no such thing as a necessary being.

    The whole thing meshes with some riff on the argument from contingency:

    1. Everything that exists has a sufficient reason for its existence.
    2. A reason for a contingent thing’s existence must appeal to something external to it.
    3. The natural world is a contingent thing.
    4. There must be a sufficient reason for the existence of the natural world which appeals to something external to it.

    Pushing it further we’re supposed to get an infinite regress of reasons for contingent things, which apparently is Not Allowed, so we posit a being with its reason internal to it (i.e. a necessary being) to ground the stack. And that’s why there is something rather than nothing.

    I guess the reason no-one takes this seriously any more is just that no-one treats the first premise seriously any more. Perhaps the principle of sufficient reason is a good approximation for getting about in the macro-level world, but all this indeterministic weirdness and causal underdetermination we find in fundamental physics just shows us that this is really not truly general principle that can be applied to anything, and particularly not to origins. So the prevalent mood (among naturalists) is to treat is as a dumb question.

    Sam

    Like

    • Hi Sam,
      An excellent summation of the Cosmological Argument. I agree with your points about the limitation of premise 1, but even if we take as true, I don’t think premise 3 is a given. Even if everything inside the universe requires a cause (which you correctly point out isn’t necessarily the case), that doesn’t mean the universe itself required a cause. To assume so is to take how things work within the universe and assume they apply to the universe as a whole.

      I’m reluctant to apply the word “dumb” to the question, but I do think its real purpose is to provide comfort for a desired answer.

      Like

      • SamL says:

        I agree that the universe might not require a cause, though I think I would see this as just another blow for the principle of sufficient reason, and the rejection of premise 1. Premise 3 I think I’d want to agree with, or at least to not pin anything on denying it, which would be to claim that the universe as a whole (so maybe the multiverse) exists necessarily. To deny three would be to give rather more credence to the concept of ‘necessary existence’ than I think I’d want to grant.

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  8. I don’t think the question is meaningless. It is simply that it seems that the universe demands an explanation for its existence, and appealing to laws which are part of that universe (or even a larger inflating multiverse which seems just as arbitrary) is profoundly unsatisfying.

    You know my answer to the question already, of course.

    I do not think it is hard to imagine nothingness. It’s a pretty simple concept, equivalent to the empty set. It is a state where no objects exist, where there are no spatial dimensions and no time. If the universe were ever in this state, it would be stuck there, because change needs time and time does not exist in a state of nothingness. Therefore this universe can never have been in a state of absolute nothingness.

    Like

    • Hmmm, well you’re better than me if you can actually imagine nothingness. When I try, I catch myself imagining dark empty space. When I try to eliminate space, I find myself imagining some solid black substance occupying all of reality . When I try to eliminate the substance, I’m back to empty space. And as for eliminating time, forget about it.

      Of course, I fully realize that trying to relate this to sensory perceptions is a category mistake but, like David Hume, I find that all my thoughts are actually sensory simulations, even ones about abstract subjects. (For example, if I think of a formula, a representation of that formula as it would appear on a page or screen typically appears in my head.)

      I do agree that if absolute nothingness existed, there doesn’t seem any way it could evolve into something else.

      Like

  9. s7hummel says:

    once i wrote on (Stories… by Michelle). sounded: women can dominate in all but solving the mystery of the creation of the universe’s leave the male mind!!! whether this statement was my big mistake – it isn’t excluded! a deeper analysis of the text i still do not have enough knowledge! i (only) just want to draw attention to one of the most important pieces of which has been carelessly omitted. “In science, explanations are built of cause and effect… This failure hits us where it hurts. We are a narrative species. Our most basic understanding comes…” – (!) it is not yet fully real (the whole truth) and fully captured the weaknesses and limitations of the human mind, especially in the aspects that have strong relevance to the imperfections which does not allow us to capture the real essence of this Universe. – (but in general) we may have concerns that the strength of the male mind like fades?! – (?) it is yet another piece but this is too much for my lame mind… “…lies in the question, never in the answer…”!

    Like

    • Hey s7hummel,
      I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here, but I’ve read some speculation that science’s domination by males could affect its biases, that having more women involved might provide some new insights. I’m totally open to that notion, but I’m not sure there’s much evidence for it yet, at least not in the natural sciences. The story may be different for the social sciences where it definitely seems plausible that deciding what to study could be affected negatively by male biases.

      My apologies if I completely misunderstood where you were going.

      Like

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  11. s7hummel says:

    i think You captured it perfectly, because how could it be otherwise! (only not a lot of women but rather a very few with flashes of genius!) – so returning to the essence of things… i just wanted to capture a certain truth that although Gefter not grasped the whole truth about certain processes that dominate the work of the human mind, particular limitations of the human mind that so much we try not to notice! … however, on some level she caught it perfectly. even i go a bit further… in a small article she concluded more wisdom than many writes about the whole book!
    (Michael) and maybe something more about the other aspects of my post… of course if you are not bored with my clumsy thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. s7hummel says:

    Michael. may, however, be able to squeeze something more out of this article (the first three paragraphs). hope i don’t make this request too much trouble! know i’m unbearably stubborn but that’s the nature of stupid Pole! because who, if not YOU, could do that…

    Like

    • Stan, I’m extremely grateful for your writing prompts, especially since I’ve lacked much time or energy lately to monitor the feeds and find them on my own. But I’m afraid I perceive myself to be tapped on this one. If there is a particular aspect or question you want me to discuss?

      Liked by 1 person

      • s7hummel says:

        Michael. very beautifully that you encourage me to discuss but what i can with his lame mind. of course i’ll try to think of something but it would also be valuable as YOU would have caught something interesting (in spite of all). of course not insist too much because (so far) you are to me a very valuable source of great thoughts. so i can’t overwork you!

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  13. s7hummel says:

    so maybe the other side… “In science, explanations are built of cause and effect.” Gefter drew attention to a problem that cannot be fully captured, but i think this is due to the constraints imposed by the article. But if she noted the problem is probably also has deeper thoughts.
    Here’s mine (with the hope that i reason correctly), of course, preliminary and as usual clumsy language. (cause and effect) So if we have additionally exactly all the data then what more is needed to achieve a full understanding of the phenomena that determined the emergence and existence of the universe.
    This is in all its glory the power of the human mind. Just do not forget the usual small nuances of the problem. This is the power of the human mind which was established for the purpose, and at the same time is the result of biological development.
    Well, you can say … after all, it works very well in practice and theory. In theory can anyway. Unfortunately, in practice, though all is well and wonderful, as soon as we get to the truth… and disintegrates wall which restrict our knowledge, emerges next, even more powerful.
    Thus, cause and effect are the properties of human reasoning. This is the whole truth for the human mind. Unfortunately, this is also at the same time only a fragment of reality… and it doesn’t apply to this problem that can be divine forces we don’t understand or the development of intelligence will give the basis for a fuller and more accurate understanding of the nature of the universe. How can we understand that even when we don’t understand the limitations of our mind… When we don’t even understand what mechanisms underlie our reasoning!

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    • How indeed! Our minds work in certain ways, and this no doubt influences how we interpret the universe that we can perceive. It may be that, due to limitations of the human mind, we are seeing patterns (cause and effect) that don’t actually exist, or possibly missing others.

      Unfortunately, the human mind is all we have to work with. We can enhance our senses with instruments like telescopes and microscopes, but ultimately our minds are the ones that have to interpret what we see and measure. This may not always be true. Someday AIs might be able to surpass our abilities. Maybe. It’s also possible that we’ll pass many of our biases on to any AIs we create. It may take contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence before we can learn what those biases really are.

      But until then, we’re stuck with our evolved hominid minds (probably more tuned to survival on the African savanna than pondering the universe) and simply have to do the best that we can do. Given the progress of the last 10,000 years, I don’t think we’re doing too badly. But we can never rule out that our monkey brains may be overlooking something vast and profound that’s right in front of us.

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