This is sub-chapter #5, of Chapter 2, Philosophy, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1, #2, #3, and #4 can be found here, here, here, and here.
The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together in the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth the subjects of their liking. The narrative attempts to abolish isolatory thinking, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation.
Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.
What is nothing, and where did the something that we are and see all around us, come from? These are questions asked since our humble beginnings. Through the magic of modern-science, answers are finally being wrested out of the ether of space and time, and into something approximating language. Let us begin firstly, with a scientific controversy in 2012 relating to this very notion: the reception to the book, A Universe from Nothing, by the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss.
There was a firestorm in some parts of the philosophic—and most certainly all parts of the theological—community due to Krauss’s book. The crux of the storm rested upon the assertion that Krauss made in regard to the nothing that a Universe can be born from—though as I discussed earlier, the Universe is still regarded as a different kind of nothing—the Quantum Field, derived from Quantum Field Theory. As close to nothing as we have we ever arrived—and maybe ever will. Quantum Field Theory describes how a Universe can arise from absolutely nothing: that is, no matter, no energy, no space or time, or anything of the sort. Just the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which precludes true nothing from ever taking place, mechanistically popping particles into existence, some of which go on to create conditions that birth Universes. Soon after its publication, the philosopher of science and theoretical physicist David Albert wrote a scathing review of the book in the New York Times alleging that Lawrence was misleading everyone because his book never addressed the basic question of how a Universe was born of nothing, because the Quantum Field is something, even if it isn’t comprised of matter, energy, time, space, or massless particles, and that the book does not mention where the Quantum Field comes from.
But what if the nothing that we demand explanation of, to explain our origins, never actually existed? That is, a region devoid of fields, physical laws, matter, anti-matter, the Higgs boson, and everything else (presumably including God since by this definition He is most certainly something). What if semantics is the only thing being argued?
Maybe ‘nothing’ doesn’t, and never did, exist, and there has always been something, one-way or the other.
The history of modern-science has had come with it, at every step, the uncomfortable notion that we have been wrong about almost everything we’ve had guessed at or intuited, particularly magnitudes bigger or smaller than our middle world (as Richard Dawkins calls it), but also many times, that on our scale. What makes the notion of ‘nothing’ any different? Here are some ancient and modern common-sense world views that have met the cruel fate of greater understanding:
- We are intelligently designed
- The world is flat
- Stars are holes in heaven’s floor
- Earth is the center of the Universe and Solar System
- The aether permeates space allowing light to travel through it
- Time is an absolute function of the universe (relativity did away with this)
- The very small, atoms, obey the same laws as the very large, galaxies. Atoms obeys Quantum Mechanics, our Middle World obeys Newtonian Mechanics, and the very massive and fast obey relativity
- Matter is solid (there is one thousand times more nothing than something inside an atom)
- Space is a vacuum (empty space actually has a mass. That is, it weighs something and virtual particles constantly appear and disappear)
Our notion of nothing, to me at least, seems no different. It has been recently shown in this strange Universe we live in, by such physicists’ as Lawrence et al, in doing a rather ambitious experiment found that the total amount of energy in the Universe is zero. That is, the amount of positive energy (e.g. matter, radiation) is exactly cancelled out by the amount of negative energy (e.g. gravity), and cumulatively add up to zero, which sounds an awful lot like nothing (leading on from the premise in the chapter How, Not Why). This question, seemingly, is no longer philosophical at its core, and as Lawrence himself says, “Nothing is inherently unstable.” Though he refers, to the no-positive, no-negative nothing—or what we might refer to as the absence of all things. Though the mechanism by which that nothing transitions into an equally positive and negative Universe which still amounts to nothing is now beginning to be theorized and understand. Overall, the Universe does add up to nothing, but we are clearly in a localized region of something, exactly cancelled out by some other localized region of anti-something, all without violating the laws of conservation of energy. I find that nothing short of remarkable!
One of the first Greek philosophers, Parmenides wrote in regard to the cosmos or existence, “It is.” And to pre-existence, or nothing as, “It is not.” However, the latter statement is self-contradictory. To say “It is not,” is to say “It is,” for you’ve contradicted that it is not, because you can think it in your mind—and you can’t actually think of nothing—and if nothing exists, it’s not nothing, but something. Put more simply, “Nothing comes from nothing.” From this, he takes the conclusion, one that I ascribe to, that there has always been something in one form or the other: whether that is universes bouncing in and out of time, randomly bursting into existence, or born out of the primordial soup of vacuum energy or black-holes is yet to be finalized. Today our best—though incomplete—theories suggest the Quantum Field is at the bottom of it all. Maybe that’s right, and I’m inclined to agree—not that my preference counts— or maybe it will be something else deeper down or further sideways. But it seems absurd to suggest, or demand, that for a theory to be ontologically relevant, it must explain why there is not nothing. We have only one Universe, which came from a singularity (neither of which is nothing in the philosophical sense), which gives us a sample of one something, and zero nothings. We have no proof of nothing, just a whole lot of something. (And anti-somethings.)
No matter which way, or how deep or far any theory goes, it will always be possible to probe one level deeper and say why this and not that? But just asking that question does not give it validity. This is not to say that it should not be disputed, or challenged, for this is where science thrives, but we must understand that our language muddles the issue here: the very word ‘nothing’ has no intrinsic meaning. There is nowhere in the Universe where there is truly nothing. Maybe by that admission alone, we’ll never know, but there’s even less fun in that. I recall recently on my blog, a theist lambasting Einstein for not accepting the conclusion from the premises of his Theory of General Relativity: that of an expanding or contracting Universe, which was contrary to the accepted Steady State Theory (SST) of the time. So Einstein added in a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, to bring his theory in line with the then-accepted SST. Of course, the intent was to show how Einstein (and by extension science) did not listen, or accept the conclusion of his theory, and therefore, is rooted in irrationalism and faith—little realizing that that proves how effective science is, even Einstein was overridden. Yet today, with our latest theories making predictions of the multiverse and Universe’s from nothing, physicists are vilified and accused of scientism for merely asserting the possibility that those predictions can be true. It seems, either way, the physicist is always wrong.
“Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken, our preferences don’t count, we do not live in a privileged reference frame.” ~ Carl Sagan (Astrophysicist)
This will be the last post until after Christmas. Happy Holidays to all my readers and visitors, and a happy new year as well. Thank you for reading. Ciao!