Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

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“How comes the world to be here at all instead of the non-entity which might be imagined in its place? From nothing to being there’s no logical bridge. This question is the darkest in all philosophy. All of us are beggars here.” [William James]

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[by Jim Holt]

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“The question, ‘Why does the world exist?’ has a special relationship with the question, ‘Why do I exist?’”

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In philosophy, “world” doesn’t mean “Earth”, but something closer to “reality” or “universe”.

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“Nothingness is the simplest of all possible realities. It’s also the least arbitrary, the most symmetrical, and has the nicest entropy profile.”

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Nothingness, in the sense described here, isn’t equivalent to a vacuum or empty space or the quantum vacuum. Nothingness is devoid of matter and energy, it’s devoid of volume and duration and location, and it’s devoid of space and time.”

Consequently, one important proposal for a definition of nothingness is “a closed spacetime manifold of zero radius.” [1]

Although most of us imagine something like a black void when we think of nothingness, we’re unable to accurately imagine nothingness similar to how we’re unable to accurately imagine higher-dimensional shapes.

“Many thinkers believe that nothingness in this sense is just an idea ― a fiction ― and has no reality beyond that.”

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“Unlike the transition from something to nothing, the transition from nothing to something seems mysterious, because you never know what you’re going to get. And physics tells us there is in principle no way of predicting what might pop out of a naked singularity.”

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“Consider the equation, 0 = 1 – 1. Where you once had nothing, now you have two somethings. Opposites of some kind: positive and negative energy, matter and antimatter, yin and yang. Even more suggestively, –1 might be thought of as the same entity as 1, only moving backward in time.”

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“The total amount of energy in the universe is exactly zero: its positive mass-energy is exactly balanced by its negative gravitational potential energy.” [2]

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“I thought I figured out how ‘the universe is discovering itself’ and that it’s nothing more than an evolved state of energy opposites, whose patterns are now sophisticated enough to recognize its existence.” [3]

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“Arithmetic isn’t the only way that mathematics can build a bridge between nothingness and something. The empty set has no members at all. Yet, if we take for granted that the empty set ∅ exists, as mathematicians do, then so does the set that contains it: {∅}. And so does a set that contains both ∅ and {∅}: {∅, {∅}}. And so does a set that contains that new set, plus ∅ and {∅}: {∅, {∅}, {∅, {∅}}}. And so on. Out of nothingness, a remarkable profusion of entities has come into being. They can mimic the structure of the numbers; we constructed 1, 2, and 3 out of the empty set.”

“The empty set is not the same thing as nothing; rather, it’s a set with nothing inside it, and a set is always something. This issue can be overcome by viewing a set as a bag ― an empty bag undoubtedly still exists. The empty set isn’t nothing, but rather the set of all triangles with four sides, the set of all numbers that are bigger than nine but smaller than eight, and the set of all opening moves in chess that involve a king.” [4]

In addition to 0 and ∅, perhaps the point in geometry is also a bridge between nothingness and something.

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What came before the Big Bang?

The following are a few of the standard although somewhat disappointing responses to that question.

“Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless, because there’s no notion of time available to refer to. It would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole.” [Stephen Hawking]

“That’s equivalent to asking what event is prior to all events. Clearly no event can be prior to all events, because it’s a member of the class of all events, and therefore can’t be prior to it.”

“It’s not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the ‘beginning’ or ‘creation’ of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we’re talking about the origin of spacetime itself.” [5]

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“At t = 0, the moment of the Big Bang, the temperature and density of the universe both go to infinity.

It’s tempting to imagine the Big Bang to be like the beginning of a concert. You’re seated for a while, fiddling with your program, and then suddenly, at t = 0, the music starts. But this analogy is mistaken, because unlike the beginning of a concert, the singularity at the beginning of the universe isn’t an event in time ― rather, it’s a temporal boundary or edge.

Even though the universe is finite in age, it’s always existed, if by ‘always’ you mean ‘at all instants of time’.”

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“One theory is that, instead of our universe being all of physical reality, it’s just an infinitesimal part of a multiverse containing an ever-increasing number of bubble universes. And although each of the universes within this multiverse had a definite beginning in time, the entire, ever-growing ensemble may be infinitely old.”

There’s something about that last sentence I really like, although it seems to contradict the idea that it’s meaningless to talk about time outside of a universe.

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“Wittgenstein too felt there was something odd about the idea of an infinite past. Suppose, he said, you were to come across a man reciting to himself, ‘…9…5…1…4…1…3…finished! I’ve been reciting all the digits of π backward from eternity, and I finally got to the end.’”

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Entropy is essentially the measure of a system’s disorder. The concept is among the most fundamental in science. It explains why some changes are irreversible and why time has a direction, an ‘arrow’ pointing from past to future.

The notion of entropy arose in the 19th century from the study of steam engines, and originally concerned the flow of heat. Soon, however, entropy was rethought along more abstract lines, as a measure of the disorder or randomness of a system. In the 20th century, entropy became still more abstract, merging with the idea of pure information.”

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“Entropy is the only quantity in the physical sciences (apart from certain rare interactions in particle physics) that requires a particular direction for time, sometimes called an ‘arrow of time’. As one goes ‘forward’ in time, the second law of thermodynamics says, the entropy of an isolated system can increase but not decrease. Hence, from one perspective, entropy measurement is a way of distinguishing the past from the future.

However, in thermodynamic systems that aren’t closed, entropy can decrease with time: many systems, including living systems, reduce local entropy at the expense of an environmental increase, still resulting in a net increase in entropy.”i[6]

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“The philosopher Robert Nozick put forward a different conception of nothing. If nothing is an annihilating force, he conjectured, it might just ‘noth’ itself. He recalls the vacuum cleaner-like beast in the movie Yellow Submarine that goes around sucking up everything it encounters. After hoovering away everything else on the movie screen, it ultimately turns on itself and sucks itself into nonexistence. With a pop, the world reappears, along with the Beatles.”

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“Some philosophers have argued that nothingness is impossible ― there’s just no alternative to being.”

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“Perhaps there’s a category beyond existence and nonexistence.”

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“It’s been conjectured that the human mind plays a critical role ― although we seem to be a negligible part of the cosmos, it’s our consciousness that gives reality to it as a whole. Within this picture, sometimes called the ‘participatory universe’, reality is a self-sustaining causal loop: the world creates us, and in turn we create the world. It’s a bit like Proust’s great work of fiction, which records the progress and the sufferings of its hero through thousands of pages until, at the end, he resolves to write the very novel we’ve been reading.”

[Pannenkoek] “Isn’t every autobiography also kind of like that?”

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[by Brian Holtz]

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“The most interesting phenomena in nature are life, mind, and the universe itself.”

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“The universe consists ultimately of nothing but elementary particles interacting in spacetime via fundamental forces.”

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“In a video clip showing two billiard balls bouncing off each other, if one ignores friction and inelasticity, forward and backward in time are indistinguishable. In a longer video of a billiards break, the future is the end in which the balls are no longer in a nicely ordered triangle. If causes can be attributed to effects as easily as effects can be attributed to causes, then causal laws don’t distinguish past and future, and the future for an event is the direction of increasing disorder in the system. Due to statistical considerations, some systems can cycle between order and disorder. Consequently, the direction locally considered to be future can vary over the timeline of the system.”

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“It’s been speculated that the Big Bang itself came from a profoundly improbable entropy dip.”i[7]

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“In a universe condemned to inexorably increasing entropy, we value extropy. Extropy is the measure of a system’s intelligence, information, vitality, and capacity for improvement ― in a figurative sense, the opposite of entropy.”

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“We don’t know why there’s something rather than nothing, or if the question is even meaningful. If this question has a parsimonious answer, it must consist of a self-explaining fact or cycle of facts. We don’t know any such facts, or even if they could possibly exist.”**

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The following final two passages return to the idea of the mathematical universe hypothesis or ultimate ensemble.

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“There remains a nagging question: why is there something rather than nothing? And more specifically, why is there this universe rather than some other? If the entirety of our universe is specifiable by a few simple equations describing a simple distinguished state and simple state-change laws, why this set of equations rather than some other?

At this point, it behooves us to step back from the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ and to rearrange the punctuation ever so slightly to, ‘Why, is there something rather than nothing? Is there really?’

It seems that whatever equations describe our universe are somehow endowed with a ‘spark of existence’ that gives substance to the otherwise vacuous equations. However, imagine an alternative set of equations that define an alternative, imaginary universe in which there evolve intelligent, inquisitive beings like us. If we could compute what unfolds from those equations and watch what the eventually evolved beings say when they contemplate their world, presumably we wouldn’t then find them lamenting that their universe, for all its grandeur, unfortunately lacks that all-important spark of existence! On the contrary, of course, their universe looks and feels to them as obtrusively, overwhelmingly real as ours does to us ― and we’d see them think so and say so.

Most importantly, they’d think and say so for the same sort of reason as we do, a reason that must be rooted in the equations themselves (because the equations themselves ultimately specify every detail of those thoughts and words), without recourse to any spark of existence. And even if we didn’t carry out the computation of what the alternative equations specify ― even if those equations were left out in the cold, unnoticed and unexamined ― those equations would still be specifying a universe in which intelligent beings perceived and spoke of what they perceive as a spark of existence, just as we do, and for the same reasons. Those perceptions are inherent in the equations themselves.” [8]

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“Suppose everything we see ― and everything in this world that’s too distant for us to ever see, and all of the many worlds of quantum mechanics that we don’t see ― is the product of a precise simulation being performed by some amazing supercomputer. Let’s call it the Grand Order Deducer, or G.O.D. for short.

Actually, let’s say that G.O.D. isn’t an amazing supercomputer but rather a laptop from the 90’s with an insanely large hard drive. Obviously, we wouldn’t notice the slowness from the inside, any more than the characters in a movie would notice that your DVD player is being choppy.

Similarly, if G.O.D. were turned off for a billion years, and then reactivated at the point where it left off, we wouldn’t notice anything either. How about if the state of the simulation were copied to a very different kind of computer and continued? If our universe’s physics turns out to be fundamentally time-symmetrical, then if G.O.D. started from the end of the universe and simulated backwards, would we experience our lives backwards? If it saved a copy of the universe at the beginning of your life and repeatedly ran the simulation from there until your death, would it mean anything to say that you’re experiencing your life multiple times? If the state of the simulation were copied onto a million identical computers, and then continued from there on all of them, would you feel a million times as real, or would there be a million ‘more’ of you in any meaningful sense?

But what then makes us feel real? What if, after G.O.D. has been turned off for a billion years… it stays off? If we can feel real while being simulated by a hundred computers, and no less real while being simulated by one computer, how about if we’re being simulated by zero computers?

Whether somebody is computing it or not, 2.+.2 will always be 4. Similarly, even if this universe is nothing but a hypothetical, not being computed by anyone, not existing in anything larger, there are certain things that are necessarily true about the hypothetical, including facts about the subjective mental states of us self-aware substructures. Nothing magical happens when a simulation runs.

If a mind can be a self-contained and timeless structure and the full structure can be calculated (within given finite limits) from some initial state by a computer, then its consciousness is a property of the structure itself, not of the computer or the program ― the program isn’t causing it, it’s just letting someone observe it. Although we still sometimes have a tendency to think as though turning on a sufficiently advanced calculator causes something to mysteriously blink into existence or awareness, all that it can do is report facts about some very large numbers that would be true one way or the other.

Existence is what mathematical possibility feels like from the inside. Turn off G.O.D., and we’ll go on with our lives, not noticing that anything has changed. Because the only thing that has changed is that the people who were running the simulation won’t get to find out what happens next. The idea of ‘living in a computer simulation’ is meaningless. Simulating a universe should properly be viewed as comparable more to looking in a window than building the house.” [9]

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Citations

  1. Alex Vilenkin, collected by Jim Holt
  2. Wikipedia’s Zero-Energy Universe article
  3. ~Wembly
  4. Wikipedia’s Empty Set article
  5. Sam Harris
  6. Wikipedia’s Entropy (Arrow of Time) article
  7. Matt O’Dowd
  8. Gary Drescher
  9. ~ata
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