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ex nihilo (via negativa) something/multiverse/life/consciousness
July 28, 2012 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Jim Holt asks John Leslie why is there something rather than nothing?

also see:
Interviews: Giovanni Organtini Answers About the Higgs and LHC - "If you want me to speculate, I can imagine that gravity comes into play because the Universe tends to remain stable. The Higgs mechanism predicts that an empty Universe is unstable, while a Universe with some amount of the Higgs field is stable, because its energy is lower than an empty Universe. We call this condition the vacuum condition (i.e. vacuum does not correspond to 'empty', but to 'minimum energy'). What I imagine is that there should be some mechanism according to which fluctuations of the vacuum produces Higgs bosons that must interact in such a way that the energy of the Universe is conserved. And this may generate gravity. Though, again, I have not a coherent formulation of such a principle."

A survey of the Universe - "Because everything is attracted to everything else by gravity, that gravity is acting, in effect, as negative energy. Add together the negative gravitational energy in the universe and the positive energy (including all the mass around), and the result is zero. Or so Dr Linde and Dr Vilenkin assert. And observations of the amount and distribution of stuff in the universe do not contradict them. Given that the universe actually consists of nothing at all, explaining its existence becomes rather easier. The separation of the nothing into energy and gravity is a result of the uncertainty principle." [1,2,3]
and btw...
-Too Many Universes [1,2,3]
-Cosmology and Philosophy at La Pietra [1,2,3]
-Alan Watts Animated by South Park Creators [1,2,3]
posted by kliuless (84 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
God is that which is self-creating.
posted by sexyrobot at 9:45 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Did I basically predict the Higg field with this comment? probably
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:48 AM on July 28, 2012


Because if there were nothing then you wouldn't be asking that question.
posted by moonbiter at 9:48 AM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why not?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:53 AM on July 28, 2012


J.P.Sartre: why is there something rather than nothing? Because I had to write a book (something) about Nothingness (my outlook)
posted by Postroad at 9:55 AM on July 28, 2012


Does that mean we can discuss this on AskMe now?
posted by weston at 10:17 AM on July 28, 2012




"Why" implies meaning, the question is nonsensical.
posted by Aquaman at 10:35 AM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because where else would you keep all your stuff?
posted by radwolf76 at 10:43 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Why" implies meaning, the question is nonsensical.

Unless you understand it in the sense of how is it that. Otherwise, why does imply agency with motives. Which makes sense if you presuppose God, but becomes semantically different if you keep the question open.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, I should say, semantically open if you consider both options.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2012


"Why" implies meaning, the question is nonsensical.

I disagree with both your overt and implied assertions. "Why" doesn't necessary imply meaning. It can just be asking what caused this phenomenon--in this case, the existence of matter. If a kid child asks, "Hey, Dad, why is the sky blue?" there is a clear scientific answer for that, and it would be pretty tedious to live with a parent who could only respond. "Sorry, kid, I don't do teleology."

But even if this question did imply meaning (which it doesn't) that by no stretch makes it nonsensical. Philosophical or theological, perhaps, but not nonsensical.
posted by Alexander Hatchell at 10:51 AM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


It is what it is.
posted by Decani at 10:52 AM on July 28, 2012


How does the answer change if you ask, why is there something in addition to nothing?
posted by wobh at 10:53 AM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


It might help if he actually went on to describe "nothing."

(oh yeah?....try it. Not so easy, eh?)
posted by mule98J at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2012


Here's a concise description of "nothing":
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:58 AM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


(works better with the professional white background)
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 10:58 AM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wait, why does an empty universe contain more energy than a one with some amount of the Higgs field?
posted by tommasz at 11:00 AM on July 28, 2012


 
posted by benito.strauss at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


There it is, the only thing keeping you from the answers are your questions.

If why is nonsense then significance is illusion. I think some people confuse why and how, one word leads to understanding the other to an explanation. Would you rather be told or understand? Decani sums it up for me, I would state further that the nature of reality demands it must be what it is there is only that which is possible.
posted by pdxpogo at 11:06 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because Mitt Romney.
posted by merocet at 11:11 AM on July 28, 2012


It might help if he actually went on to describe "nothing."

(oh yeah?....try it. Not so easy, eh?)


Check out the review of his book on Slate -- there's a fair amount about the definition of 'nothing' and how some scientists have claimed to have solved the problem based on perhaps shoddy definitions.

Here's the quote from the review, describing the best definition Holt found:


It takes Holt 150 pages or so of travelling the world interrogating the nothing theorists to find one who gives what he believes to be an adequate definition of nothing—the nothing we seek to find, the one that qualifies for the “how do we get something from nothing” question.

This comes in his conversation with the physicist and cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, and it’s worth listening to what a stringent definition of nothing really is:

“Imagine,” Holt asks us, paraphrasing Vilenkin, “spacetime [the matrix we live in] has the surface of a sphere. ... Now suppose that this sphere is shrinking like a balloon that is losing its air. The radius grows smaller and smaller. Eventually—try to imagine this—the radius goes all the way to zero.”

Pause for a moment to think of a sphere whose radius has gone “all the way to zero.” No time. No space. It’s hard—but not impossible—to get your head around it. Now back to Holt:

“The surface of the sphere disappears completely and with it spacetime itself. We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration.” Nothing is nowhere.

posted by rifflesby at 11:19 AM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination. --- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
posted by SPrintF at 11:39 AM on July 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Unless you understand it in the sense of "how is it that".

Absolutely true, in a grammatical sense. However, Jim Holt was pretty clearly not asking "how is it that there is something rather than nothing?", he was asking the question in the context of his usual philsophical approach, i.e. specifically implying some kind of "deeper meaning".

I stand by my original answer that, in that context, the question is utterly nonsensical.

If I am misunderstanding where Mr. Holt is coming from, please do set me straight.
posted by Aquaman at 11:43 AM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the sense of the "Hitchhiker" quote I noted, above, is, "how is the universe we observe statistically distinct from nothing?" I recall one observer describing our Solar System as "the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and debris." Stripped of humor, it's something worth considering.
posted by SPrintF at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2012


The universe burst into existence out of an abstract need for eBay.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:23 PM on July 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


If there are an infinite number of planets, and there are fewer inhabited than uninhabited planets, there are still an infinite number of inhabited planets! Infinite does not mean "all" or "more", it simply means endless.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:25 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


So there is never nothing?
posted by Splunge at 12:39 PM on July 28, 2012


42?
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:39 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Before we tackle the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" we need to deal with the popular assertion that there are no stupid questions.

The discussion stinks of theology, and it's useful to note that even the atheistic Slate reviewer ranks the question as second to Love, which is "most important unsolved mystery of the cosmos."

Maybe anthropcentroids aren't quite on the same level as racists, but they share similar limitations in thinking.
posted by fredludd at 12:54 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


we need to deal with the popular assertion that there are no stupid questions

Well, there are no stupid questions. But there are a lot of inquisitive idiots.
posted by SPrintF at 1:00 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, leaving aside the issues of superuniversal structures like branes and bulks, the study of which could give us a better definition for universal rather than absolute nothing, it's gonna come down to epistemology in the end, and it will be informed by math: I strongly suspect there is a self-generating aspect to probability, a way for it to define itself from true void. Once that is discovered, we will have a true origin to work back towards, the something from which all nothings emerged.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:17 PM on July 28, 2012


I like the idea that all things exist - not just all possible structures within our laws of physics, but all possible structures based on all imaginable laws of physics. It is more harmonious that either all or no things should exist, compared to "a bunch of things".
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


rifflesby:Pause for a moment to think of a sphere whose radius has gone “all the way to zero.” No time. No space. It’s hard—but not impossible—to get your head around it.

I imagine the shrinking sphere, all of reality as I know it (not to mention the realities of which I am personally unaware--X-Rays, dark matter, the actual reach of a parsec, and such) shrinks, then vanishes. I watch it shrink: outside the sphere, then, is where nothing resides. The circle turns to a dot, then, um, goes elsewhere, or maybe I just can't percieve it from the bag of nothing. This may be topographically impossible to diagram, so I won't continue to whip that horse, except to ask, should I consult Klein or Moebius for a model? I'm thinking that the search to define nothing may be plowing new ground here.

Do I go with the notion that nothing is just another version of something, or is nothing something else? Crap circles is what I get for this exercise.

Let me try this: Nothing is a bag that holds something, then. (For that tentative image, let's please forget the part where we perhaps bubble up into, or pop in and out of, existence, or vibrate on the end of some cosmic string.) When I tried to follow the older versions of the Big Bang, I understood the idea to be that, once the inevitable Big Crunch happened, everything was reset to Zero. All energy got put back into the box, with nothing left over. Well, that all went south. What with the discovery of dark energy and dark matter, the math has found a new conceptual darling.

Really (to jump down a post or two), how can anybody at this level of discourse be anything but an inquisitive idiot? I might envy the math mavens among you guys out there, except for the part where you only get to be right until the particle accelerator takes another spin.

Never mind the cost. There's no charge for the bosun.
posted by mule98J at 1:28 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, why does an empty universe contain more energy than a one with some amount of the Higgs field?
Supposedly the Higgs field has a negative energy, or rather perturbations(?) in the higgs field have negative energy, so I think a higgs field with higgs bosons in it will have less energy then an 'empty' one.

If you think of the electromagnetic field, if you have zero particles, you have zero energy (I guess?) but if you have a photon flying around in it, there's positive energy: the energy of the photon.

Again, I don't actually know this but from reading about it it sounds something like, if you have 'stuff' in the higgs field, then that 'stuff' has a negative energy. So a universe with stuff in it's higgs field would have lower energy then one with nothing? I guess you need normal matter to balance that out.

---

Anyway, I'm kind of annoyed by people, like Lawrence Krauss who say that we now have an answer to that question. Its like, okay you take this scientific definition of "nothing" and apply some formulas to it, you get the universe. But you have to have something that applies the formulas, right?

Presumably there is some underlying mechanism that causes these virtual particles to pop in and out of existence as well. We have a mathematical model that says "Okay, if you apply these formulas to nothing, a universe pops into existence", but we don't know what the underlying system is that 'computes' those formulas in the real world.

The other problem is that this idea of a spacetime with zero expanse doesn't really seem like 'nothing' either. I mean, if you shrink a balloon down to a zero size, you still have a thing, it's just a thing with zero size. Why is that considered "nothing" and not just a "singularity" or a point particle?
posted by delmoi at 1:32 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


So there is never nothing?
That's the way that I feel, yes. "Nothing" is an impossibility; the assertion that there is nothing is senseless.

Consider a lack of galaxies, a lack of stars, a lack of planets, of people, of rocks, of molecules, of atoms. A lack of protons. A lack of photons. A lack of bosons. A lack of whatever it is that you mean by "universe", in even the most general sense.

Consider the idea that "14 + 74 = 88".

Is that idea true? Even though there is "nothing"?

I think it is. It sure seems to me that the truth of "14 + 74 = 88" is not dependent upon the existence of anything at all. It doesn't matter that there aren't 14 anythings, there aren't 74 anythings, and there aren't 88 anythings. "14 + 74 = 88" is true. Even if there is, in some sense, "nothing". It is meta-true, if you like.

So there is no possibility of "there is nothing". There is something. There always is something. For example, there is the fact that 14 + 74 = 88.

When I think about the "something versus nothing" idea, in my mind I always come back to this. The reason there is something rather than nothing is because it is utterly impossible for there to be nothing; the fact that 14 + 74 = 88 somehow "does not exist" is totally nonsensical to me. And obviously it's not merely "14 + 74 = 88" that exists no matter what; mathematics in general exists no matter what.

And after that I tend to get handwavey and crackpotish: Obviously there are true mathematical things that we don't know (in fact, we even know that there are true mathematical things that cannot possibly be shown to be true). Lots and lots of things are implied by math, and all of these implied things are true, and exist, in this same "meta-true" sense, even though we don't and in some cases cannot possibly know it.

Maybe photons are one of those things that are, somehow in some strange way that we do not currently understand, implied by math. And thus cannot possibly not exist.

THE UNIVERSE IS MATHEMATICS

/gets thrown out of the math club

/gets thrown out of the physics club

/gets published in a crackpot philosophy of science journal
posted by Flunkie at 1:35 PM on July 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's a concise description of "nothing":
posted by fantabulous timewaster


That's nothing if not eponysterical.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:38 PM on July 28, 2012


Can an idea exist if there's nobody around to have it? Do numbers exist, if nothing exists for them to enumerate? I'm not as sure of that as you seem to be, Flunkie. At the very least, I'd say the concept of mathematics is not a 'thing' in the context in which we talk about 'nothing'.
posted by rifflesby at 1:47 PM on July 28, 2012


The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact they depend on one another like hot and cold.
It's not one or the other, but a continuum with nothing at the skinny end and everything at the fat end.
You might think that the fat end would take up all the space and leave no space for nothing, but nothing doesn't require any space, amirite?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2012


I think it is. It sure seems to me that the truth of "14 + 74 = 88" is not dependent upon the existence of anything at all. It doesn't matter that there aren't 14 anythings, there aren't 74 anythings, and there aren't 88 anythings.

The problem with that is now you've exposed arithmetic for what it is - a cognitive trick to keep track of relationships between things. Numbers are cognitive placeholders - they don't exist apart from the relationships they're mapping out.

The only way that math exists is if we find relationships that are self-defining whether or not we're using a cognitive trick to perceive them, and we have to definitively prove there is no circumstance in which it can be altered - that addition exists in all possible universes, not just ours.

So, yeah, saying "It's all math!" might be true, but there's a very long row to hoe in proving it. If you ever want to disappear down a rabbit hole on a rainy saturday afternoon, check out wikipedia's page on the philosophy of math sometime.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:01 PM on July 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Shit. There goes my Saturday...
posted by sfts2 at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2012


Because if there were nothing then you wouldn't be asking that question.

Well, that isn't exactly the question. It would be more accurate to say "How did we arise out of nothing?"

The answer appears to be, net-net, that there still IS nothing, that the total energy of the Universe is zero. We happen to be in a state of the Universe that can support intelligent life with a total energy of zero. If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't be here to ask and answer the question to begin with.

I think it was Hawking who said, in his most recent book, that Universes are just something that happen from time to time. If this theory is true, we know how it's being 'paid for', because it's not really being paid for at all. It's just a different expression of zero. It's +somehugenumber -somehugenumber = 0.
posted by Malor at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2012


If there are an infinite number of planets, and there are fewer inhabited than uninhabited planets, there are still an infinite number of inhabited planets!

Not true. If there is one inhabited planet, then there are fewer inhabited planets than uninhabited planets and there is not an infinite number of them. A number being less than infinity does not imply that number is infinite. (If there is any positive fraction, like a percentage, of inhabited planets among an infinite number of planets, then the number of inhabited planets is infinite.)
posted by JHarris at 2:34 PM on July 28, 2012


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: "I like the idea that all things exist - not just all possible structures within our laws of physics, but all possible structures based on all imaginable laws of physics. It is more harmonious that either all or no things should exist, compared to "a bunch of things"."

So there is either the set of all possible sets or a null set. But no other sets?
posted by Splunge at 2:36 PM on July 28, 2012


Did that even make sense?
posted by Splunge at 2:37 PM on July 28, 2012


Wasn't this whole bit on nothing covered in Seinfeld?
posted by snap_dragon at 3:40 PM on July 28, 2012


Hmm, Seinfeld is not the only great Hebrew scholar to consider the matter, either . (This stuff makes me think of Kabbalah anyway, but I didn't feel obliged to point it out 'til I saw the above.)
Granted, my understanding of this stuff (ein, ein sof, etc) is hopelessly tainted by arrogant/drug-crazed Victorian occultists, but if you ever want to spend some time trying to grok nothingness, it seems to me as good an avenue as any.
posted by hap_hazard at 4:52 PM on July 28, 2012


Should have googled more, This is too good not to link. Bonus: Mudvayne reference! Man, if that doesn't get us near the essence of nothingness, I don't know what would. Putting Mudvayne in the LHC? Worth a try, doncha think?
posted by hap_hazard at 4:57 PM on July 28, 2012


People who say the question is nonsensical are trying awfully hard to rationalize away the fact that they are ignorant. We all are. We want to deny that ignorance because it's uncomfortable. Or because they don't like to think that some divinity might exist. So much easier to imagine that we know it all.

But all the denying and word games in the world doesn't make the ignorance go away. We don't know why things exist at all. We don't know. Physics can't answer the question. Whatever the answer is, it's beyond physics: it's the source of the laws of physics in the first place.

And whatever it is, therefore, it's likely not a thing at all or it too would have to be explained; the answer to the question cannot be a normal answer. It has to be something beyond.
posted by shivohum at 5:42 PM on July 28, 2012


HOLY GOD YOU CAN PLAY THIS VIDEO AT 1.4X SPEED YES YES YES
posted by nosila at 5:52 PM on July 28, 2012


Because if there were nothing then you wouldn't be asking that question.

Which is an example of the "weak anthropic principle".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:18 PM on July 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, why does an empty universe contain more energy than a one with some amount of the Higgs field?
That's a central assumption in the theory that predicts the Higgs field. This bit of the theory is called "spontaneous symmetry breaking," and the explanation usually involves a "Mexican hat potential."

Here's a non-particle physics example of spontaneous symmetry breaking. Think of the atoms in a vat of molten iron. Each little atom has its own extra spin, and the energy in the magnetic fields produced by these extra spins is reduced if the spins align. In molten iron, there's enough thermal energy kicking around that, even if some spins align with their neighbors, they get kicked into misalignment again. So molten iron (more precisely, iron above its Curie temperature, which is hot but different from its melting point) is not ferromagnetic.

Now take the iron out of your vat, pour it into a mold, and let it solidify. As the extra thermal energy leaves the iron, the spins on the iron atoms start to be able to feel each other, and they want to align with each other. In the liquid there was no preferred direction for the spins to point, but after the iron solidifies it will consist of "magnetic domains" where all the atomic spins point the same way. Which way, in each domain, is a bit of information which was absent from the liquid but appeared on its own in the solid: a spontaneously broken symmetry.

Now imagine me: you've forgotten to disinvite me to your party, and I've shown up wearing a big sombrero. You're trying to get me to leave by throwing ping-pong balls at me. A ball lands exactly on the top of my head, and stays there! The top of a sombrero-shaped potential is an unstable equilibrium --- the ball would have lower energy if it fell down into the brim somewhere. But which direction it falls depends on the microscopic details of the perturbation that causes the ball to leave the unstable equilibrium. It might fall towards my face, or to my left, or at any other angle. The angle that the ball chooses is another spontaneously broken symmetry.

Now I'm at your party wearing a sombrero with a ball trapped in the rim. Here's something interesting. There are two ways that the ball can move in the rim: radially, towards and away from my head, and circumferentially, orbiting my head. These are different! If I set the ball moving circumferentially, it'll just go around and around and around at constant radius. If I set the ball moving radially, though, it'll turn on its own: towards the outside of the brim, up the "lip" of the brim until it turns around, back towards my head, up that ledge until it turns around again. These are very different modes of motion for the ball.

In the physical model, the thing that's shaped like a sombrero is the distribution of energies of the vacuum as a function of the Higgs field. No Higgs field is the top of the hat, the unstable equilibrium. Your vacuum has less energy if the Higgs field evolves away from the zero, towards some finite value. But the Higgs field is represented by complex numbers, and so the phase of this field is a spontaneously broken symmetry: it might evolve to +1 or -1 or i or (1+i)/√2. Oscillations in the phase of the Higgs field --- that is, the ping-pong ball moving circumferentially around my head --- correspond to massless particles, like the photon. Oscillations in the magnitude of the Higgs field --- where the ping-pong ball is trapped in the lip of my sombrero --- correspond to massive particles, like the weak bosons.

And that's why an empty universe would contain more energy that one with some amount of Higgs field: that's the property of the Higgs field which gives mass to the weak bosons, which in turn was the reason the model was proposed.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:27 PM on July 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle mentions the weak anthropic principle, which people tend to be loathe to invoke, but it absolutely fits in this case. There might be universes and universes out there in which there exists no one to observe, where "observe" means "might possibly be influenced by." Things that can't possibly influence anyone in any way effectively don't exist.
posted by JHarris at 6:44 PM on July 28, 2012


Things that can't possibly influence anyone in any way effectively don't exist.

Incorrect, from an epistemological standpoint. It's the tired old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Epistemology indicates that, yes, if a phenomenon exists, it exists. If someone came across a fallen log ten years hence, they can infer it came from a falling tree, and know that a sound was made, even if they didn't hear it. If an event can happen in a hypothesized universe, the event can happen and must be dealt with. If it cannot, an explanation of why it cannot must be provided - remember, this is math, not science. Empiricism will do you no good.*

If it can be hypothesized, asserting it can't be proven is not enough. You must prove that it can't be proven... and indeed, this is a big part of mathematics.

*Oh, god, this is a huge can of worms. Let's just say it's so for the example without anyone pulling a knife, OK?
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:26 PM on July 28, 2012




Incorrect, from an epistemological standpoint. It's the tired old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Not true, because at some point someone walked along and saw the fallen tree, and could infer that it once stood. If there were any way that some consequence, whatsoever, of the tree's falling could reach an observer, then the falling event exists. What I'm talking about above is cases where observers are entirely disconnected from a universe's causal chain. There is no way for us to know if such universes exist or not, so Occam's Razor suggests that they do not.

Of course Occam's Razor doesn't prove this. But regardless, making statements about those unpopulated worlds makes about as much sense to us, from a practical standpoint, as writing fanfiction*; they have an equal chance of being true.

*(Revelations about the origins of Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding.)
posted by JHarris at 12:09 AM on July 29, 2012


Epistemology indicates that, yes, if a phenomenon exists, it exists.

But relativity says that anything outside our light cone does not exist, as far as we are concerned. Whether or not it actually exists, it can only interact with us if it comes within our light cone. That cone is constantly expanding, but objects that are sufficiently far away simply ... aren't.

Other Universes may very well exist, but they're so unimaginably far away that they will never come into our light cone before entropy in our Universe has increased to maximum, meaning that there can be no intelligence left to observe them. So whether they exist or not is absolutely irrelevant, as we will never, ever be able to know about them.
posted by Malor at 1:18 AM on July 29, 2012


Become a modal realist and this whole problem goes away.
posted by Anything at 3:54 AM on July 29, 2012


If there's nothing, there's no reason for there not to be something.
posted by Drexen at 7:30 AM on July 29, 2012


Become a modal realist and this whole problem goes away.
posted by Anything


eponysterical
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:14 AM on July 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


But relativity says that anything outside our light cone does not exist, as far as we are concerned.
If anything, it says the opposite: relativity seems to suggest that all events, past, future, and elsewhere, exist already on a kind of four-dimensional checkerboard. The light cone associated with a particular event is only special because it identifies that event's past and future.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:37 PM on July 29, 2012


The problem with that is now you've exposed arithmetic for what it is - a cognitive trick to keep track of relationships between things. Numbers are cognitive placeholders - they don't exist apart from the relationships they're mapping out.
Nah. I think you're confusing the fact that mathematics is useful for things with mathematics.

Right now there are mathematical truths that we don't know. That no one has ever known. That no one will ever know. That no one is even theoretically capable of knowing. They're nonetheless facts. And even those that we do know won't stop being facts just because all life capable of understanding them goes away. The truth of "14 + 74 = 88" is independent of there being things that understand what it means.
posted by Flunkie at 6:21 PM on July 29, 2012


If anything, it says the opposite: relativity seems to suggest that all events, past, future, and elsewhere, exist already on a kind of four-dimensional checkerboard.

Well, whether that's true or not, it doesn't matter. All that matters is what you can actually see and interact with. Only things that are in your light cone are real; everything outside the light cone is imaginary, hypothetical. And that's true for every observer at once -- there are no privileged frames, and there's no such thing as simultaneity.

Without a privileged, master frame of reference, with no universal perspective from which to look down, we cannot differentiate anything in a hypothetical Universe 23, far outside our light cone, from fiction. We can't even meaningfully say that there are aliens in Universe 23 'right now', because there is no 'right now' for something that's outside our cone. It doesn't exist. It is not real until we can interact with it.

Without a central, ticking master clock, you can't talk about 'now', or an object's existence, from any perspective but your own. There's only one now, and it's right where you are. Fortunately, we all live in such close proximity that our relative 'nows' all intermingle, and we share a consensus reality, but get any kind of serious distance involved, and the frame of reference becomes the dominant force.
posted by Malor at 8:26 PM on July 29, 2012


I'm too tired at the moment to properly rearticulate what I said in an earlier related thread so I'll just mostly copy it:

I've become a fan of modal realism for the sheer brazenness.

There's no way to make an objective distinction between the set of facts that make up our 'existing' universe and those of any other possible hypothetical system. So why not treat possibility and existence as the same thing?

In the context of our set of facts, we exist. Just like every other possible thing.
posted by Anything at 5:32 AM on July 30, 2012


So there is never nothing?

See, this sums up my own philosophical position on nothing writ large pretty well. The concept of nothing as an absolute abstraction (The Big Nothing, let's call it) seems to me like just a bi-product of the human tendency to over-generalize solutions to specific problems.

We find that 'nothing' sometimes obtains for particular values of things (like, say, when we have an empty container and speak of it conventionally as containing nothing, when in fact, there's all sorts of other stuff in that container and nothing is just a relative way of saying we don't have any of a particular thing). And we erroneously jump to the inference from there that if there can be particular cases of nothing, it must also be sensible to speak of The Big Nothing--a kind of universal nothing that we imagine might obtain in some ideal case, based on our pathological over-eagerness to generalize from particulars. But in fact, I propose that we have not in all human experience ultimately been able to turn up any evidence that such a thing does or ever could obtain and there are good reasons for that: The idea of The Big Nothing is self-refuting since nothing cannot exist if it exists. By definition, if a thing exists, it is something.

Non-existent things do not the stuff of science make, unfortunately, so its doubtful from my POV that science or any species of rational human thought could ever meaningfully describe or otherwise make sense of nothing.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:25 AM on July 30, 2012


Malor, I mostly agree with you, but there's a funny discontinuity in the way that you're thinking. First if you're going to talk about light cones you have to distinguish between "things" inside and outside of an observer's past, and the "events" in which those things participate. It's certainly true, in my past light cone, that you read my post and replied to it; those are events, which from my perspective came into existence as they entered my past. But those events had a common participant, you, who I assume continued to exist in the interval between those events and continues to exist all the way into my future light cone, where you'll read this post and reply to it. I could be wrong about that, and you could get hit by a bus and cease to exist while I'm typing this message. That event would come into existence, as far as I'm concerned, when it enters my past; the things which participate in that event, however, have more permanence to them.

Now, unless your life is much more interesting than you've let on and you live beyond low-Earth orbit, you and I are separated in space by less than a few tens of light-milliseconds. This is the maximum time difference which any observer could assign to a pair of events which you and I label as "simultaneous." That time error is very small compared to the ordinary scale of our interactions, which is why we can agree we share an "intermingled now." (A great phrase, by the way.)

There do exist objects in the universe with which we do not share an intermingled now. One example: from here to the Andromeda galaxy is 2M light-years. There are very massive stars whose entire lifetime, from formation to supernova, lasts only hundreds of thousands of years; it could well be that, during the four million years that Andromeda spends evolving from my past light cone to my future light cone, one of these short-lived supergiants will coalesce, burn, and die. That hypothetical short-lived star and I have very separate versions of "now," since each of us will die before receiving any signals from the other, and certainly it and I don't matter to each other. Different moving observers, learning about me and about this star after we're both ended, might disagree about whether the star appeared first or whether I did, or whether we overlapped --- that's the meaning of spacelike-separated events, in the region outside the light-cone usually called "elsewhere." But I think I can't say, sitting here on Earth, that this hypothetical star doesn't exist, or doesn't exist yet, or won't exist until I observe it. That would suggest that appearing in my past is what makes objects exist, which is down the slippery road to solipsism.

Besides, the statements in relativity about the interchangeability of inertial frames are only strictly correct in a vacuum. Here in this room, experiment are only independent of velocity if I can complete them before the apparatus runs into the wall. On cosmic scales, the obvious preferred reference frames are the rest frames of the local galaxy, or its group, or the cosmic microwave background, all of which are generally at relatively low velocity compared to each other. This last, the local rest frame of the CMB, is usually called the "local co-moving coordinate system" and is physically distinguishable for microscope as well as for macroscopic observers: cosmic rays with very high energy see the CMB as an intense, onrushing beam of high-energy gamma rays, which catalyze pair creation and cause the cosmic rays to slow down. This is a perfectly sensible reference frame for your "master clock," which everyone can agree defines "now," even if it takes us a long time to collect all of the news from elsewhere.

I have a lot of complaints about a hypothetical Universe 23. But "event elsewhere don't exist" isn't one of them.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 4:06 PM on July 30, 2012


Why?
Well, because some things are and some things are not.

Why?
Well, because things that are not can't be.

Why?
Because then nothing wouldn't be! You can't have fucking nothing isn't -- everything is!

Why?
'Cause if nothing wasn't, there'd be fucking all kinds of shit we don't like, giant ants with top hats dancin' around... there's no room for all that shit!

Why?
Aw, fuck you, eat your french fries, you little shit! Goddammit.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:22 PM on August 2, 2012


Why?

New episode tonight...
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:17 PM on August 2, 2012


I think it's more like, everything that's possible happens. Most possibilities (almost all) are cancelled out by the possibilities that cancel them. We are the residue that didn't cancel out completely or canceled, but with side effects on other cancelling possibilities.
posted by wobh at 4:08 PM on August 2, 2012


Stephen Colbert asked Neil deGrasse Tyson this same question.
posted by King Bee at 4:28 AM on August 3, 2012


sorry, skip to 1 hour, 22 min, 3 sec on that video
posted by King Bee at 4:28 AM on August 3, 2012


The idea that nothing can't exist is an abuse of language. Of course nothing can't exist, because existence is what we say of somethings. Let's create a new word to get that confusion out of the way: "nexist." That's what nothing does.

What if nothing nexisted instead of something existing? That's the question.
posted by shivohum at 10:28 AM on August 3, 2012


Even if nothing nexisted (inside our newly minted special category for non-existent nothings), there'd be things we could say about it; our absolute ideal of Nothing in the Abstract would have to have some properties merely by virtue of our being able to refer to it. Things have properties; nothings do not. There's nothing we could ever say about Nothing that wouldn't instantly be a lie if we posit any ontological status whatsoever to it.

It's not a quirk of language that accounts for this self-refuting propensity of Nothing in the Abstract; rather, it's a quirk of language that such an unnatural, hyper-abstract conception like the idea of Nothing in the Abstract could ever seem superficially plausible in the first place. The idea of Nothing in the Abstract is essentially of a boundless conceptual domain that can hold nothing and that can never be placed anywhere in concrete reality. Why do we even need an idea like that in the absence of any specific evidence for the possibility?

It's the idea that nothing could ever obtain in the first place we need to dispense with to solve the problem of how existence happens ex nihilo, IMO. We simply never stop to consider why we intuitively feel that nothing is a likelier or more natural state of affairs for the world when we've never seen any concrete evidence for that conjecture.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:36 AM on August 13, 2012


Even if nothing nexisted (inside our newly minted special category for non-existent nothings), there'd be things we could say about it;

No, because nothing is not an "it"... but precisely the negation of all "its" about which things can be said. We can only refer to our inability to talk about it, which is not talking about it, but only talking about how it isn't an it, in the same way that a square circle isn't a concept, and infinity isn't a very large number. Simply referring to the fact that a square circle isn't anything doesn't make it something.

rather, it's a quirk of language that such an unnatural, hyper-abstract conception like the idea of Nothing in the Abstract could ever seem superficially plausible in the first place.

Nothing is hardly abstract. All the ideas that no one has ever thought of and which they will never think of: we experience their nexistence right now.
posted by shivohum at 9:27 PM on August 13, 2012


All the ideas that no one has ever thought of and which they will never think of: we experience their nexistence right now.

We may experience their nonexistence, but in the standard model of physics, they never non-exist: they remain fixed eternally at a particular intersection of space-time coordinates.

There is no physical evidence of anything ever passing into nothing. The law of conservation of energy, for example, implies it to be an impossibility.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:47 AM on August 14, 2012


Actually, the standard model of physics says nothin about the location of ideas generally; that is an open question, to say the least, and infinitely more so for ideas that will never correlate with any brain or be cognized by any awareness. There is no reason to believe such ideas sit anywhere in spacetime since they never were nor will be; space time is why encompasses all that has been or will be. The ideas I mentioned do not qualify.
posted by shivohum at 2:21 PM on August 14, 2012


It seems to me we mean different things at various times when we speak of 'Ideas'. The term can either describe abstract patterns in functional space or specific concrete instances of such patterns as embodied in some particular physical system. Ideas in the abstract neither exist nor non-exist. Abstract Ideas are reproducible functional patterns, not things. In practice, ideas are always manifest in some physical representation or another--patterns of neural activity, machine parts, logical circuits, lines of code, etc. The physical operations in which ideas are embodied are subject to the same physical laws as anything else physical. And there's no evidence of ideas arising and disappearing ex nihilo either.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:07 AM on August 15, 2012


The physical operations in which ideas are embodied are subject to the same physical laws as anything else physical.

Well, I completely disagree, but even accepting that for argument's sake, the point is that I gave an example of Nothing in ideas that are NOT manifest, in your language, in any physical representation, never have been, never will be.

I mean, there are ideas that will never occur to anyone. We can't say what they are, because then they would have occurred to us. Realize that there are ideas that no one will ever think of, and that will never be embodied anywhere. Of course -- you cannot think of them directly; you can only think of the idea OF them in the abstract. Whatever they are is a practical instance of Nothing.
posted by shivohum at 7:13 PM on August 15, 2012


Realize that there are ideas that no one will ever think of, and that will never be embodied anywhere. Of course -- you cannot think of them directly; you can only think of the idea OF them in the abstract. Whatever they are is a practical instance of Nothing.

Even if I grant that Ideas that will never be thought somehow still exist as ideals (which I might--I'm something of a neo-Platonist), or any of the rest of your argument, that doesn't prove the case for evidence of Nothing. Far from it. It proves the pre-existence of abstract ideals. It implies that even when they aren't actively expressed in some physical embodiment, Ideas exist in an ideal form. An idea I no longer have doesn't cease to exist because I'm not having it anymore, so the idea hasn't passed into Nothing. What I might personally experience as an idea passing into Nothing is in fact merely my attention moving on from an idea that still persists on its own terms. It's like leaving a particular room in a large house, looking around for a hassock you saw in that original room, and upon not finding it, declaring "The hassock has passed into nothingness." It's nonsense.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:08 AM on August 16, 2012


Ok, I'm not communicating this clearly, obviously. I am not trying to talk about ideas that exist in ideal platonic form, but the opposite: ideas that do NOT exist in platonic form or manifest in any other way.

Let me go back to the idea of a square circle. It does not exist, cannot exist, and simply naming it does not make it something that exists.

You are currently aware of the nexistence of square circles. Well, there are infinity of other things that nexist in exactly the same way. They will never be thought of. They do not exist as ideals. They do not exist at all in any sense of that word.

Well, the entire universe could also nexist in just the same way. Why doesn't it? That's the question everyone's been asking.
posted by shivohum at 8:26 AM on August 16, 2012


Well, the entire universe could also nexist in just the same way. Why doesn't it?

If the entire universe non-exists, then non-existence is what we mean by existence. If there's no truth, there's no lie.

Let me go back to the idea of a square circle. It does not exist, cannot exist, and simply naming it does not make it something that exists.

This doesn't demonstrate Nothing, in any meaningful sense I can discern. Counting the occurrences of a particular arbitrary something that you just made up for the sake of argument doesn't demonstrate anything about nonexistence. The term Nothing is being used here conventionally as a short hand for the absence of a particular thing of interest. That's not a particularly robust conception of Nothing--not the kind of infinite abyss that stares back into us, to paraphrase Nietzsche. It's just a placeholder to represent the absence of a particular thing, real or imaginary, you might otherwise want to count. The idea of a square circle neither exists nor doesn't exist. Ideas are not things; they are merely organizational patterns that can be manifest in things, or abstracted representations of things.

But "Existence" isn't a materialistic, scientific concept anyway. It's a notoriously squishy philosophical one. Ontology is a dizzying field. My point is about the scientific case for nothing. As far as I can tell, there isn't one.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:24 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's not a particularly robust conception of Nothing--not the kind of infinite abyss that stares back into us, to paraphrase Nietzsche. It's just a placeholder to represent the absence of a particular thing, real or imaginary, you might otherwise want to count.

I never said anything about a Nietzschean abyss. I think Nothing is precisely the absence of everything, real or imaginary.

My point is about the scientific case for nothing. As far as I can tell, there isn't one.

Why is there something rather than nothing is not a scientific question (at least in a contemporary definition of science); it's an ontological one, a teleological one, a quintessentially philosophical one.
posted by shivohum at 11:02 AM on August 16, 2012


The universe exists so that bullshit can exist, especially in the form of any answer to this question. If there were no universe, there would be no place for humans to go around spouting absolute bullshit, and that just wouldn't be acceptable.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:02 AM on August 16, 2012


shivohum: Sure. But an opinion informed by scientific reasoning alone wouldn't and couldn't posit evidence of Nothing.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:49 PM on August 16, 2012


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