Monthly Archives: December 2015

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” Martin Heidegger famously asks in his Introduction to Metaphysics, and then goes on to tackle the question assiduously, stretching language to the point where phrases become fingernails on blackboard, as in:

  1. Does the Nothing exist only because the Not, i.e. the Negation, exists? Or is it the other way around? Does Negation and the Not exist only because the Nothing exists?
  2. What about this Nothing?—The Nothing itself nothings.
  3. Anxiety reveals the Nothing…. That for which and because of which we were anxious, was ‘really’—nothing.

Heidegger2Rudolf Carnap makes good fun of the complicated language postures Heidegger adopts to address this question but, like ballet, touchdowns, and coitus, sometimes what is worth doing requires pressing mundane components into bizarre configurations.

More recently, The BBC takes up the question and frolics through recent work in physics to find the answer, after acknowledging it has been philosophy’s question historically, not physic’s. But, no problem; philosophy has lots of questions. Unfortunately, the answers all seem to be extrapolations from the BIG BANG, a theory named, and roundly criticized, by Sir Fred Hoyle.  The BIG BANG, as you know, is that explanation of the beginning of the universe in which, at a time before there was time, in a place where there are no places, a singularity so tiny we needn’t worry about the fact that the whole idea of size doesn’t work in this timeless/spaceless situation, and so dense as to contain all that is or ever will be, explodes. The premise of the BBC article is that now that we know how the universe came to be we can use that information to determine why.

I should stipulate at the onset I admire the BBC for taking up questions like this so courageously, and, I admire the energy, persistence, intelligence, and creativity that has gone into honing the Big Bang Theory. I regret these efforts focus on the material, presuming, I presume, the spiritual can be derived from there. This hyper-focus is perhaps understandable in this era of attention deficit disorder, but I prefer Edgar Alan Poe’s work on this topic, Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe, which, though it science has never taken it seriously, has the spunk to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of reality needs explanation as much as the physical, and moreover, arms itself with a larger conceptual toolbox to deal with it:

To the few who love me and whom I love – to those who feel rather than to those who think – to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities – I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem. – Preface to Eureka, by Edgar Allan Poe

 Two points I would make with regard to the quest to understand the origin of everything. The first, is, Parmenides was right, being doesn’t come from not being. There is no origin; the universe in some form or other is eternal. This is a matter of logic. Nothing doesn’t become something. It may well be that particles emerge from empty space, as the author of the BBC article, Robert Adler, reports:

Their admittedly controversial answer is that the entire universe, from the fireball of the Big Bang to the star-studded cosmos we now inhabit, popped into existence from nothing at all. It had to happen, they say, because “nothing” is inherently unstable.

He cites, as confirmation, the view of quantum mechanics the particles emerge from empty space all the time:

Quantum mechanics tells us that there is no such thing as empty space. Even the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by a roiling cloud of particles and antiparticles, which flare into existence and almost instantaneously fade back into nothingness.

Which helps explain where all the stuff that fills space came from if only we can explain where the empty space came from.

One thing they have found is that, when quantum theory is applied to space at the smallest possible scale, space itself becomes unstable. Rather than remaining perfectly smooth and continuous, space and time destabilize, churning and frothing into a foam of space-time bubbles.

All this, while interesting, only extrapolates what might happen to nothing from what happens on the tiniest scale in (or to) space and time. Yet, as the previous quote acknowledges, space-time isn’t nothing, it’s something, and a busy something. Nothing is something else altogether. Nothing isn’t vast (else it would have dimension, which isn’t nothing), nor is it eternal (else it would be temporal, which isn’t nothing), nor, of course, is it busy. It seems apparent to me, in this realm where appearances are deceiving, that the universe must be eternal in some form or other, which is to say, it has time in it, and isn’t in time.

My second point is similarly grounded in what seems apparent to me. Why does the universe exist? is not a question answered by explanations of how it came to be the way it is, clever and interesting as they may be. The ‘why’ question can only be answered with explanations involving purpose, which is to say, the spiritual dimension of reality. Without purpose there is no why. It is possible, of course, the universe is without purpose insofar as its existence is concerned, but that only leads to the same questions about its character.

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