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disillusioned

Something rather than nothing

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What follows is just a trace of the essence of a thought I've been having lately,  so forgive me if it's not terribly coherent. Feel free to critique,  disagree with,  or otherwise challenge what follows. I'm just trying to approach making sense. I want my thinking to be stretched on this, so please challenge me.

 

I have often heard it asserted that something cannot come from nothing. I've also heard it asked (usually in a tone of voice which suggests a certain profundity) that something cannot come from nothing.  Now,  there are various possible responses to this,  and I've engaged in a number of arguments here and elsewhere regarding this assertion. In general,  I think a great deal turns on what one means by "nothing". But this is by the by, at least for now.

 

Recently, on these boards, I have asserted that I've heard it said that something can emerge spontaneously from the quantum vacuum. But also, that I've heard it said that the quantum vacuum is not nothing. And further, that arguments have been made to the effect that no other kind of "nothing" is possible. Well, this is all very nice, but it does still leave the layperson pondering the original question: why is there something rather than nothing? And how does something come about from nothing?

 

These are questions that deserves to be taken seriously. But they are also questions which demand that we take them seriously. That is to say, the subject and the content of the questions matter a great deal,  but so do the presuppositions of the questions. So if we are to move forward here, it seems to me that we must proceed with caution.

 

To put it very bluntly, the question "why is there something rather than nothing" seems to me to presuppose that there ought to be nothing, but nevertheless, there is something. I think that if we think about this for more than a minute,  we will all realize that this is nonsensical.

 

When have we ever experienced nothing?

 

Could we ever experience nothing?

 

It seems to me that the very nature of experience is that it is of something. But this is to say, we have no reason, and can have no reason to think that nothing is even a possibility. 

 

To put this another way, try considering the original question in reverse. Why is there something rather than nothing, and how did it come about? No. Why might there be nothing rather than something, and does that even make sense?

 

I think you'll find that it doesn't make sense. Or so it seems to me right now.

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On reading this for the second time I realise that we have both independently come to the same conclusion on this topic. (I don't think we've ever discussed it).

 

I am of the thought that the very concept of an absolute "no thing" could well be nonsensical. We have zero evidence this is even possible. Even Lawrence Krauss in the Universe from Nothing is not suggesting the universe could come from absolute nothing, but as you said, a quantum vacuum where particles can pop uncaused into existence. However a quantum vacuum is not nothing. The mere fact you are describing it indicates that it's not nothing.

 

During my deep thinking during deconversion I applied this problem back even further to the concept of a God existing from nothing in nothing. I found the entire concept absurd. In order to solve the problem of a universe existing from nothing the theist proposes a being existing outside of 'anything'. This in itself is a contradictory idea.

 

Try and conceive of nothing. I warrant you cannot, because whatever you conceive of consists of something. Maybe you just think of a great darkness. Well you've just described something!

 

I completely agree with the statement that we have no reason to think nothing is even possible.

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This is good LF, amd thanks for responding. 

 

I think,  in addition to what you wrote, that it is also the case that the question "why is there something rather than nothing?" presupposes implicitly that nothing is the default state. That somehow nothing should exist,  and nevertheless there is something, and that this somehow demands explanation.  Leaving aside, for the moment,  the question of whether or not "nothing" is a coherent idea,  I'm not sure that this presupposition should be granted. Suppose "nothing" is a coherent notion. What reason do we have to think that there should be nothing rather than something?

 

It seems to me that the answer to this question is clearly "none". The reason for this is that all experience is necessarily of something. And, therefore, any reason we might give why there should be nothing rather than something would be shaped by our experiences of things which are not nothing. So the argument would be trying to establish the necessity of nothing from the position of something, and on the basis of something. This seems tenuous to me, to say the least.

 

So even if the idea of nothing is coherent, I can't see that we have any reason, or even could have any reason to think that there actually might be nothing. The fact that we would be thinking it seems to me to imply quite the opposite.

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You are quite right. The late great Richard Feynman considered why questions as not approaching the question properly. I think part of the reason for this view is because the question "why" presupposes that there is some correct answer.

 

I think "how" is often a better question. How is there something rather than nothing? This changes the basis of the question and leaves out any presuppositions.

 

But even then you can face problems. Lets slightly rephrase: How can something come from nothing? Here again we are presupposing that something did indeed come from nothing when we have no reason to think that is the case or even possible.

 

Ok I'm out of time. Back to work. :) 

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I don’t think this is a question we as a species have the capacity to answer.

 

We are temporal beings, but time is about frame of reference, and that implies the contrasted something.  If there’s nothing, then there’s no time, and there’s no us.  Just being there to observe it violates the definition.

 

We can imagine a higher dimension than our own, but we can’t access or even perceive it.  So we can fantasize about outside mechanisms and causality, but it’s unlikely to ever be a matter of provable science.  I can’t say what we can’t know, and wouldn’t discourage the pursuit; but it’s not something I lose much sleep over.

 

I don’t think the human unknowability is a satisfying argument for a creator.  Such a creature might be outside of our frame of reference, but if so, then who is god’s god?  Or, more directly, why wouldn’t they have a context of their own?  It’s lazy to use the argument to go out a level, but then deny that there could be further ones.  And any such mechanical concept of god argues against the personal relationship that Christianity preaches.  Such a being is beyond our comprehension and rational concern.

 

(And if god had a god, what would it mean for us if he rejected that being’s version of redemption?)

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6 hours ago, LogicalFallacy said:

You are quite right. The late great Richard Feynman considered why questions as not approaching the question properly. I think part of the reason for this view is because the question "why" presupposes that there is some correct answer.

 

I think "how" is often a better question. How is there something rather than nothing? This changes the basis of the question and leaves out any presuppositions.

 

But even then you can face problems. Lets slightly rephrase: How can something come from nothing? Here again we are presupposing that something did indeed come from nothing when we have no reason to think that is the case or even possible.

 

Ok I'm out of time. Back to work. :) 

 

I agree in general with the how/why distinction. The way I've put it in the past is to say that all scientific questions are really "how" questions.  "Why" questions may or may not be good questions, but they aren't answerable by science.

 

The thing is,  the question "how is there something rather than nothing" is kind of a silly question. The obvious answer is just to say "like this..." and point to whatever you like. And as you point out,  "how can something come from nothing still presupposes that it is possible.

 

I think the questions that really should be asked are "is there something?" and "can something come from nothing?" The answer to the first would be "yes" and to the second "it depends what "nothing" means".

 

My inclination is to say that if nothing is the quantum vacuum, the answer to this second question is "yes". Otherwise it is probably "no", but in this case it is also worth pointing out that nothing can't come from something (that would be a violation of mass-energy conservation), and we clearly have something. This seems to me to possibly imply that something must always have existed. I'm not very sure this is right though.

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1 hour ago, Improbability said:

I don’t think this is a question we as a species have the capacity to answer.

 

We are temporal beings, but time is about frame of reference, and that implies the contrasted something.  If there’s nothing, then there’s no time, and there’s no us.  Just being there to observe it violates the definition.

 

We can imagine a higher dimension than our own, but we can’t access or even perceive it.  So we can fantasize about outside mechanisms and causality, but it’s unlikely to ever be a matter of provable science.  I can’t say what we can’t know, and wouldn’t discourage the pursuit; but it’s not something I lose much sleep over.

 

I don’t think the human unknowability is a satisfying argument for a creator.  Such a creature might be outside of our frame of reference, but if so, then who is god’s god?  Or, more directly, why wouldn’t they have a context of their own?  It’s lazy to use the argument to go out a level, but then deny that there could be further ones.  And any such mechanical concept of god argues against the personal relationship that Christianity preaches.  Such a being is beyond our comprehension and rational concern.

 

(And if god had a god, what would it mean for us if he rejected that being’s version of redemption?)

 

This is very good Improbability. I tend to agree that the original question is one we probably don't have the capacity to answer. I think there are actually probably many such questions, and I don't think this is particularly surprising on atheism/agnosticism. Why should we be able to understand everything? No reason that I can see. 

 

Also, I completely agree that this is not, in any sense, an argument for a creator. Yes,  it means it's possible that there is a creator,  but it certainly doesn't get you one. And the point you make about this kind of argument ultimatelt defeating Christianity is very similar to one that I've made a number of times before to Christians trying to argue for Gid in this way. If Gos is beyomd our comprehension, we can't know his will. But Christianity is specifically a claim to know God's will. This tends to confound them,  which is amusing. I think your point about the personal relationship strengthens this line of reasoning.

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I agree that "quantum foam" is not really nothing in the philosophical sense usually meant in the context of asking about being and nothingness, or whether something can come from nothing.

 

I tend to think the underlying question about "why is there something rather than nothing" (which I think is closely related) is unanswerable. There's a line of argument related to the Principle of Sufficient Reason here, and I tend to think that principle is not absolutely true, or at least probably not knowable. Instead, it seems to me that it's probably necessary to take as a principle of pragmatic reason the axiom that there are some brute facts which just have to be taken as a given. That there is "something" and not "nothing" is the prime example, in my view. I wouldn't expect cosmology to be able to give some ultimately satisfying explanation anymore than I'd expect religion to be able to do so.

 

As far as justifying the existence of brute facts, the argument that I've heard that I find most compelling goes something like this: "Why?" explanations (in comparison to how? or what? and so on) are mostly about placing some phenomenon into a larger context. If I ask you why you went to the store, your answer will necessarily invoke some larger universe of meaning outside the narrow mechanics of how you traveled there, what you purchased, and so on. You went to the store to buy milk. "Why did you want milk?" "So I could put it in my coffee in the morning." And you can just keep asking why questions that get at broader and broader contexts. You can start by asking why someone went to the store and eventually find yourself discussing some really high level conception of human nature, for example.

 

But at some point it seems that there can be no broader context in which to place an explanation for a given phenomenon. This is as true for the religious as for atheists, of course. The Euthyphro dillema is like that (why is "the good" good? essentially). Or "why is there a God?" And of course "why is there something rather than nothing?" The universe in the sense of "all that exists" is the largest possible context for meaning that we could conceivably deal with. We can't give a "why" answer to reality itself because there is no "beyond reality" in which to situate an answer.

 

As an aside, there's a Sanskrit phrase used to mean "reality" in some of the Upanishads that I really think captures something about this question: idam sarvam. "All this". As in "reality is idam sarvam, all this (or this 'all', even)." The fact that this is a demonstrative is relevant to the above argument. It's not a purely abstract thing viewed from nowhere. Our definitions of reality are grounded in what we can experience. Reality is a "this", it's something we can point towards. A "why" explanation requires a larger "this" to point at, but there is no larger "this" for reality itself.

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This reminds me of the “if a tree falls in the forest” question, though I’m not sure offhand if there’s a useful way to phrase it in those terms.

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I always thought that statement was contradictory from Christians. "You believe something came from nothing. That's ridiculous!" 

"Oh? What do you believe?" 

"There was nothing and it turned into something cos god did it!" 

Or the same idea for first life: "You believe life came from non-life, that's ridiculous!" and yet they believe Adam came from dirt... 

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1 hour ago, Wertbag said:

I always thought that statement was contradictory from Christians. "You believe something came from nothing. That's ridiculous!" 

"Oh? What do you believe?" 

"There was nothing and it turned into something cos god did it!" 

Or the same idea for first life: "You believe life came from non-life, that's ridiculous!" and yet they believe Adam came from dirt... 

 

But the biggest contradiction is where did God come from? In Christian theology he is just a pre existing something somehow being in the void of nothingness until he created the universe!

Sure we have problems explaining how a universe might pop into existence from nothing, but at least we know there is a universe and can study it! With God you can't access it, can't study it, but apparently is just pre-existing, and according to a presuppositionalist this is a self evident truth we can presuppose without evidence!

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6 hours ago, LogicalFallacy said:

 

But the biggest contradiction is where did God come from? In Christian theology he is just a pre existing something somehow being in the void of nothingness until he created the universe!

Sure we have problems explaining how a universe might pop into existence from nothing, but at least we know there is a universe and can study it! With God you can't access it, can't study it, but apparently is just pre-existing, and according to a presuppositionalist this is a self evident truth we can presuppose without evidence!

So convenient!

 

In the analogy I stubbed out earlier (was traveling), the fallen tree is the something we can perceive.  The forest is nothing, or more specifically what is outside our possible frame of reference.  We can’t rationalize the achievement of existence in our own terms; it’s an unreachable temporal paradox, but we can put in a placeholder for that thing we can’t express and treat it abstractly.  The question is not whether the falling tree made a sound (could be observed without an observer); it’s how it came into that state to begin with.  If there is a god, then it is an observer or perhaps an agent of that change, but they’re more part of the forest than the tree.  We weren’t there, and all we know is that there is something, a fallen tree, probably.  Our mind dismisses the tree/sound question format as pointless.  Maybe something weird happened, but it probably didn’t, and I think the same goes for god.

 

The notion of contextual layers we can’t access also reminds me of monads in Category Theory.  They’re like a semantic container that doesn’t expose the concept directly, but can process it indirectly.  I don’t think there’s an algebraic solution for “god”, but maybe mathematical abstraction can be a logical tool sometimes.  ...huh, guess the math follows from the philosophy in this case.

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On vacation with spotty mobile service. I will respond when I can. In the meantime, please carry on... 

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On 8/12/2019 at 12:27 PM, wellnamed said:

 

But at some point it seems that there can be no broader context in which to place an explanation for a given phenomenon. This is as true for the religious as for atheists, of course. The Euthyphro dillema is like that (why is "the good" good? essentially). Or "why is there a God?" And of course "why is there something rather than nothing?" The universe in the sense of "all that exists" is the largest possible context for meaning that we could conceivably deal with. We can't give a "why" answer to reality itself because there is no "beyond reality" in which to situate an answer.

 

 

This is very well said. I agree that it doesn't make a lot of sense to discuss a broader context for the universe or reality. This just seems to be what we have.

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On 8/12/2019 at 4:53 PM, LogicalFallacy said:

 

But the biggest contradiction is where did God come from? In Christian theology he is just a pre existing something somehow being in the void of nothingness until he created the universe!

Sure we have problems explaining how a universe might pop into existence from nothing, but at least we know there is a universe and can study it! With God you can't access it, can't study it, but apparently is just pre-existing, and according to a presuppositionalist this is a self evident truth we can presuppose without evidence!

 

Yup. It's hard to conceive of something coming from nothing,  so God is introduced.  I think it's fairly clear that this raises more questions than it answers,  but it does have a certain naive appeal, because it does answer the original question, albeit not very well.

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On 8/12/2019 at 11:22 PM, Improbability said:

  We weren’t there, and all we know is that there is something, a fallen tree, probably.  Our mind dismisses the tree/sound question format as pointless.  Maybe something weird happened, but it probably didn’t, and I think the same goes for god.

 

 

At the risk of pushing this analogy too far, I think the bolded "probably" is very important here. It seems to me that strictly speaking, we don't know that the tree fell. We just know there is a tree on the ground. Similarly, we don't know something came from nothing; we just know there is something.

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For something to come from nothing, would such an event require time to exist for it to occur?  

 

If so, there could never be nothing.  

 

If not, how do we account for the change?

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52 minutes ago, disillusioned said:

 

At the risk of pushing this analogy too far, I think the bolded "probably" is very important here. It seems to me that strictly speaking, we don't know that the tree fell. We just know there is a tree on the ground. Similarly, we don't know something came from nothing; we just know there is something.

 

That was tongue in cheek, but it’s true that we can’t even conclude that there was a prior state, let alone what it might have looked like, or whether it’s even something that could be considered past tense according to our mortally bound conception of time.  But we can’t extrapolate what we know about where we are without paradox either, so I don’t know what to suggest other than some kind of exotic state change or that there’s something fundamental that we still don’t understand about the nature of space and time.  I’m a lot happier with the theories of modern physics than the millennia old musings of early thinkers who didn’t have the evidence we now do.

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48 minutes ago, sdelsolray said:

For something to come from nothing, would such an event require time to exist for it to occur?  

 

If so, there could never be nothing.  

 

If not, how do we account for the change?

 

Perhaps for some definitions of time and nothing.  The interior of a black hole is effectively lost to our frame of reference, its contents trending asymptotically towards nothingness, but that’s a different kind of nothing than nothing at all.

 

Verses like Rev. 10:6 are evocative (though it requires some cherry picking from the surrounding lunacy).  If time can end by divine fiat just like it supposedly began, then so called eternal life is nothing like our mortal conception.  But there’s no evidence that the universe works that way.

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21 hours ago, sdelsolray said:

For something to come from nothing, would such an event require time to exist for it to occur?  

 

If so, there could never be nothing.  

 

If not, how do we account for the change?

 

This is important. I tend to agree that if we have time,  then we have something. But the very idea of time beginning doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. If time began, was there a prior time when there was no time? I think this is fairly incoherent.

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Doesn't make much sense to me, either. Apparently, spacetime began at the exact moment of the big bang. There was nothing before...no time or space. Without time, there could be no cause...so how did the big bang happen? 

Dammit...now my brain hurts 😛

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1 hour ago, Derek said:

...

Apparently, spacetime began at the exact moment of the big bang. There was nothing before...no time or space.

..

 

 

According to the theory, something did exist "before" - a singularity, and time and space emerged.

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I'm by no means an expert but I believe I've read cosmologists who argue that big bang cosmology doesn't actually say anything about a "before", or really anything about the singularity. The theory and all of the data are extrapolations back towards a kind of asymptote, but not an attempt to say anything about what could exist (or not exist) "before the big bang", as it were. The real work is trying to explain conditions at time T0 + δ for increasingly small (but not 0) deltas.

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2 hours ago, wellnamed said:

I'm by no means an expert but I believe I've read cosmologists who argue that big bang cosmology doesn't actually say anything about a "before", or really anything about the singularity. The theory and all of the data are extrapolations back towards a kind of asymptote, but not an attempt to say anything about what could exist (or not exist) "before the big bang", as it were. The real work is trying to explain conditions at time T0 + δ for increasingly small (but not 0) deltas.

 

This is pretty much exactly what I think.  We can approach the beginning of the universe asymptotically, but not absolutely. As I've said before,  we can wind the clock back as far as we like, but we can't quite get to zero,  because when we do,  the clock disappears. 

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On 8/14/2019 at 12:06 PM, Improbability said:

 

That was tongue in cheek, but it’s true that we can’t even conclude that there was a prior state, let alone what it might have looked like, or whether it’s even something that could be considered past tense according to our mortally bound conception of time.  But we can’t extrapolate what we know about where we are without paradox either, so I don’t know what to suggest other than some kind of exotic state change or that there’s something fundamental that we still don’t understand about the nature of space and time.  I’m a lot happier with the theories of modern physics than the millennia old musings of early thinkers who didn’t have the evidence we now do.

 

I agree in general that we should trust modern physics as far as it goes,  but I do think there are some things to be learned from ancient philosophy. Let's leave that aside for now,  though. 

 

The bit about extrapolation seems to me to border on approaching the problem of induction,  which is something I'd be very happy to explore if people were interested.

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