Note: This article published today, August 28, at Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies : IEET.org
Ex nihilo nihil fit – from nothing, nothing comes, – so the saying goes. It is, however, conventional wisdom that hinges on the very definition of “nothing”, and a “self-evident” truth which, upon closer examination, turns out to be not only deeply controversial, but perhaps even beyond human comprehension..
Come on, you may object, “nothing” is.. well.. NOTHING, – this is ridiculous !
I’ve heard the witty suggestion, that nothing is “what poor people have, – and the rich need”, but more seriously, “nothing” is an indefinite pronoun, referring to ??
Lately, a lot has been said and written about “nothing”. As it turns out, it is a concept of paramount importance, for theists and atheists alike.
Also, it is futile to ask the “Leibniz-question”, considered by many to be the deepest philosophical question of all: Why is there something rather than nothing ? – if we are not even sure what we mean by “nothing”.
This is deeply serious and mind-boggling stuff, but this joke logical fallacy illustrates how “nothing” is a
devilish tricky notion:
- The Devil is greater than nothing.
- Nothing is greater than God.
- Therefore, the Devil is greater than God.
A straight-forward, common sense definition would seem to be a blank, oblivion, non-existence, and philosophically speaking, this is indeed conventional wisdom, but then “existence” is itself a tricky notion. Strip some“thing” of it’s properties / qualities, e.g. shape, texture, colour, etc. – as perceived through our senses, and we are left with “nothing”.
Not to my knowledge has anyone provided proof of the (existence of) the elusive Kantian “Ding-an-Sich”, – the “Thing”-in-itself”, – and the same goes for our very own “Selves”: For all we know, there is no “ghost-in-the-machine”, and neither is there a ghost-beyond-the machine.
DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick famously said that we are nothing but a pack of neurons. – Neurons, of course, are molecules, which are atoms, which are quarks, which (maybe) are superstrings, a soup of energy, a “probability”, – “wawes of (potential) existence”, a “fuzziness” a singularity, - or, perhaps, “nothing”.
Nothing but.. nothing..
If “nothing” really is /”was” NOTHING, – common sense /conventional wisdom NOTHING, – and the Universe was “created” out of this “NOTHING”, we are in the realm of miracles and the super-natural, and only God works miracles, – right ?
No wonder then, that theists object to scientists’ redefinition of the philosophical, idealized NOTHING, i.e. that which has no being. A “vacuum”, or empty space-time, in scientific terms is (a )no-thing, but not NOTHING, and that is crucial, because it allows the Universe to create itself . In other words: No need for God !
Here we have entered the realm of quantum fluctuations, – (or even the absence thereof), – vacuum states, a / the singularity, a pre-Big-Bang space-time transcending you name it, – just don’t call it NOTHING.
A fierce debate has taken place for quite some time, – opponents accusing each other of simply “moving the goalposts” to suit their own ends. However, there seems to be a certain discord even amongst atheists / scientist, but what do I know, – perhaps some of them are closet-theists..
Lawrence Krauss, author of bestselling “A Universe from nothing” – hailed by Richard Dawkins as Cosmology’s equivalent to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, – complains that:
“..some philosophers and many theologians define and redefine ‘nothing’ as not being any of the versions of nothing that scientists currently describe,” - and that “now, I am told by religious critics that I cannot refer to empty space as ‘nothing’, but rather as a ‘quantum vacuum,’ to distinguish it from the philosopher’s or theologian’s idealized ‘nothing”.
- to which philosopher David Alpert replies:
“..all there is to say about this, is that Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right”, – and “..if what we formerly took for nothing turns out, on closer examination, to have the makings of protons and neutrons and tables and chairs and planets and solar systems and galaxies and universes in it, then it wasn’t nothing”.
Another critic, Jerry A. Coyne, author of “Why Evolution is true”, joins in:
“Krauss defines “nothing” as a “quantum vacuum” without giving us reasons why that would obviously have been the initial default state of the universe. Is that a sensible definition of “nothing”? If not, whence the quantum vacuum? And so on to more turtles. . .”
My personal opinion ? – Well, I’m not really smart enough to have one, but intuitively I feel the idealized NOTHING of philosophers and theists alike is the correct definition, which is NOT to say I consider it as being the initial default state of the Universe. In fact I think of NOTHING(ness) as an impossibility, the ultimate absurdity if you like.
The answer to the Leibniz question then – Why is there something rather than nothing? – would have to be: Because NOTHING(ness) is, well, nothing but a crazy idea in the minds of philosophers and theists alike. SOMETHING has to be the default state, – at “times” space-time dependant, – at “times” beyond, perhaps..
What implications this has for humankind, – well, I dunno, but somehow it is kind of reassuring..
- Something and Nothing Again: Krauss Takes Another Stab at Defending His ‘Bait and Switch’ (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- Q. & A.: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Why Something Rather Than Nothing? The Debate Goes On (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- I Conjecture: In an infinite multiverse we must exist