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July 24th, 2012

“Why Is There Something Rather Then Nothing?”

Sullivan posts thusly…

Ask Jim Holt Anything: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

…he has a new book out, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. How Jim described the question in an interview with John Williams:

Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing? Why is there something rather than nothing? William James called this “the darkest question in all philosophy.” For Wittgenstein, the world’s existence was cause for wonder. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical,” he declared, “but that it exists.”

… I was brought up in a religious family, so the stock answer was that God made the world, and God himself existed eternally by his own nature. As a teenager I started to doubt this theological story. I became interested in existentialism and got my hands on a book by Heidegger called “An Introduction to Metaphysics.” The very first sentence was, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can still remember how the sheer poetry of it bowled me over.

Well…this is a question I think we all ponder early on in our lives.   And for most of us, raised in religious households of one sect or another, the answer is given simply: God created everything.   And for those of us smart asses who asked the obvious follow up, what created God then? The answer was God always existed.   He got lonely so he created us!

Which…eventually stopped being a satisfying answer to the question.   Eventually I came to understand that unless you postulate eternity everyone believes something was created from nothing.   We just disagree on the number and order of the steps.

Fine.   We are not Gods ourselves that we can really expect to grok the answer to that question completely.   The details may simply be beyond the grasp of the human brain.   One of my favorite passages from the Bible is still where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? We were not there to witness it.   All we have is the result of whatever processes took place.   If space is the final frontier then the birth of the cosmos is the first mystery from which all other mysteries, all other questions arise.   But we can try to figure it out and we are a curious kind.   We want to know the story of our birth, why we came to be, what does our future hold.   And I still believe that if we are brave and honest we can get close to those answers.

Perhaps the problem is that creatures with finite lifespans such as ours just can’t get the concept of eternity.   Why not simply state that the cosmos always existed?   It seems after all the simplest answer.   To me it’s simpler to assume a small set of eternal forces of nature then such a highly complex thing as an eternal supreme intelligence always existed…and I accept that your mileage may vary.   Fine.   But maybe we’re all missing something.   Or rather, assuming it.

There is a warning given to young programmers: while designing a system, beware the hidden assumptions.     I think it’s a good rule in general, to ask from time to time, what do we know, and how do we know it? We tend to assume that nothing is a the most stable of states which if left alone, if untouched by some outside force,   will simply always exist.   How could it not be so? Then some months back I was watching Dr. Michio Kaku discussing physics and the origins of the universe and he suggested something very provocative, at least to me: Perhaps nothing is the unstable state.

And if you were to dismiss that speculation as simply nuts I’d have to shrug and reply that thinking the entire universe could have sprung from a singularity probably looked like pretty nutty thinking back in the day.   But then people began hypothesizing what you might find if it were so, and evidence was gathered.   The first step in gathering evidence can sometimes seem nutty.   It’s because the mindset is failing you, your tests based on it keep failing, and you’re just going in circles.   The first person to challenge a very entrenched mindset is going to sound nutty.   That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right…usually they aren’t…but if you keep running into brick walls it might mean your frame of reference just isn’t working and you need to consider others that might look and sound nutty.   Just keep in mind that what matters ultimately is the evidence.   Lots of paths science takes turn out to be dead ends.   The point is to keep looking and respect the evidence.   Let nature speak for itself.

But to find the evidence, you need to figure out where to go looking for it.   If the question, “why is there something rather then nothing”, is a challenge to prove that something can be created from nothing, then perhaps the universe has already proven it.   We are here after all, and if you believe in God, fine, then God is here too.   But if nothing existed before either God or the cosmos then the cosmos has already pretty decisively proven that something can in fact, be created from nothing.   Quite a lot of something actually.

So then the question becomes not so much a why, as a how.   Maybe rethinking the assumed absolute stability of nothing might be a start at it.   Maybe the answer turns out to be something like that it is impossible for a state of absolute nothing to even exist because that state is simply too unstable.

What do we know, and how do we know it?


[Edited a tad upon further pondering…]

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