Something Rather than Nothing?

As I am rebuilding my sources against the cosmological argument, I thought I might as well address the simpler version of it: Why is there something rather than nothing? I’m not going to discuss the “I don’t know, therefore God” line of reasoning (as everyone I bother to engage with knows that’s bad reasoning) I want to suggest that the question is actually ignorant* of current science.

Fetch me nothing! Nice try, but that glass is not empty; it is full of air. What do you have there? A vacuum pump. Very clever; that is an excellent try. But I’m afraid that glass is still filled with quantum particles popping in and out of existence from within the quantum field, also in the glass. Unfortunately, there is no way of getting rid of them. Even if you found a way to get rid of all of them by scooping them all out, different ones appear. That is one of our most elementary understandings of the universe.

What’s that? You’ve found a way to violate that fundamental feature of reality and can shut off the quantum field and stop the virtual particles from popping in and out of existence. That’s amazing. Now that really is a glass of nothing… except, of course, for the presence of electromagnetic radiation. But this black paper should help keep that out. There you go, you now have a glass of Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s nothing.

Why did I qualify that with “Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s”? Because they would have accepted that glass as being of “nothing”, but I stand on the shoulders of much taller giants. In the 1930s Einstein settled the debate as to whether time and space are real things. And they are. You do not have a glass of absolute nothing, because it occupies space.

Unfortunately, even if the glass didn’t occupy space, stopping the random appearance of quantum particles doesn’t make sense. It’s like asking for mass without rest energy, or gas without pressure, or colour without light, or 12 year-old girls without a love for One Direction. It simply doesn’t make sense. “Absolute nothing” may be a philosophical concept, but the idea that it is a real state—that no things could exist—is contradictory to everything that we understand. So the idea that the universe came from nothing is not a coherent one.

Why isn’t there nothing? Well, nothing we understand can explain how there could be.

But here is a paradox: is there something? The phenomenon in quantum mechanics called “virtual pairs” is about when two particles both appear from nothing. Each particle is the antithesis of its friend. Or perhaps the term “arch-nemesis” is more appropriate; although they borrow from each other to exist they also annihilate each other to nothing.

The way this works is that each particle has its own properties and exists locally. But the sum of the particle and its nemesis is zero; the entire system has no property because any property of one particle is cancelled out by the properties of the other. If one of them has the property “1” then the other has the property “-1”. The system has a sum of zero. Is there anything there?

It seems that the universe is like this. Lawrence Krauss describes, in his book A Universe from Nothing (or lecture, available here), that as we measure the universe each bit of it seems to have an antithesis (nemesis). Its sum mass and energy is zero. We are made of bits that, locally, have property, but there are bits out there that are the opposites of what compose us… and if we consider ourselves as part of a system with it then the system has no sum property.

So, and really thing about this, could there be ‘nothing’ and is there really ‘something’?

zero sum


* my use of the word “ignorant” isn’t referring to you. Look again: it is referring to a question. If you are the kind of person that will see a word like “ignorant” in a discussion and use it as a tool to paint the person as rude, “militant” or even use it to excuse yourself from addressing the argument at all (by accusing the author of resorting to ad hominem instead of paying attention to the context) then the next sentence is for you: You are ignorant and I have no time for you.


6 thoughts on “Something Rather than Nothing?”

  1. Love the ‘You are here’ part. Very well demonstrated. Nothing exists nowhere, except, as far as we can tell, on the whole (the system is nothing). It’s amazing that we can even know this, beautiful even. Much grander and more beautiful than any philosophy, religion, or fantasy.

    1. This only works, of course, if the geometry of the universe is flat. But it seems that it is. Not only are we finding that the universe is mostly likely to be flat (as opposed to open or closed) for evidential reasons, it also -had- to be true in order for the universe to not be a violation of thermodynamics. That is elegant and beautiful and much more profound that a divine policeman. Agreed.

      I’m glad you like it, but I think you’ve written much more extensively on it (in some book somewhere…)

      1. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the flatness of space. We’ve confirmed it to 1-2% certainty, but still, just trying to imagine 3 dimensional flat-space. Impossible, for me at least. Did you ever watch that BBC doco, “What Happened Before The Big Bang?” If not, you’ll like it.

        1. I didn’t. I’ll look for it on iPlayer 😛

          Flat 3D space is quite easy to visualise, I think. Picture the normal image on space time in a cubic grid… that is flat space time. It’s the closed and open 3D geometry I could never image; if you imagine a sphere you have only actually imagined a closed 2D shape (because only the surface counts). The same is true for open: you can picture a shape like a Pringle (otherwise called a hyperbolic parabola) but that is only a 2D representation of the full 3D space time.

          (This lesson has been brought to you by Teacher Rhys; I might ask Physics and Whiskey to mark it for me… he[?] seems one level ahead of me on this stuff)

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