Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Debbie Duncan.  You surely remember her.  She was the beautiful blonde voted Best All-Round Girl in 1967 at Big Spring High School in Big Spring, Texas.  I was secretly in love with her.  But it was hard to compete with Kenny Hamby the handsome quarterback for the football team.  I sat next to her in Dan Shockey's speech class.  I tried to get her attention by bringing into class the philosophy books I was reading.  One day, I showed her that I was reading Martin Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics, and I pointed out to her the deep questions that Heidegger raises at the beginning of the book:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why are things as they are and not different?  She was not impressed.

In his new book Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt says that he also read Heidegger's book in high school, and that started a life-long quest to answer Heidegger's question--Why is there something rather than nothing?  (Holt doesn't tell us whether this made him more successful with the girls.)

As Heidegger indicates, his questions were first clearly stated by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz in 1714 in his Principles of Nature and Grace, and his answer to those questions was clear: For everything there must be a sufficient reason or explanation.  To explain why there is something rather than nothing, and why things are as they are and not different, the only sufficient reason is God.

If one thinks that human beings have always had to ponder such fundamental questions about the universe, it's surprising that no one stated the questions clearly until Leibnitz did it in 1714.  But even if the questions were not so clearly stated, they were clearly implied in the religious idea of creation ex nihilo, which raises for the first time in history the possibility of nihilism or absolute nothingness, and thus the problem of explaining why there is anything at all.

This thought of creation out of nothing was first formulated by the early Christian theologians (such as Augustine).  Although they presented this as a Biblical doctrine, the Bible never clearly teaches this.  Even in the Genesis account of Creation, God seems to work with formless matter, and thus He begins with something rather than nothing.   Similarly, in the ancient Greek mythic and philosophic accounts of the origins of the cosmos, the eternal existence of some kind of primordial matter was taken for granted, and the idea of absolute nothingness as a possibility was inconceivable.

I now think the ancient Greeks were right.  Why is there something rather than nothing? is not a reasonable question.  The question arises from the theological imagination of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition without any grounding in the empirical evidence of ordinary human experience.

Holt is an atheist who looks for an atheistic answer to this question.  But he was reared as Catholic who was told that God had created everything out of nothing.  Although he has given up that religious answer, he is still so captivated by the religious question that he refuses to give up.  This is evident in his book.

Holt was trained as a philosopher who now writes for The New Yorker and other major magazines and newspapers on the philosophic issues raised by mathematics and natural science.  His book is written in an engaging journalistic style.  It's organized around a series of interviews with some philosophers (such as Adolf Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie, and Derek Parfit), some scientists (such as David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg, and Roger Penrose), and the novelist John Updike.  He tells us the stories of his travels--from New York City to Paris to London to Oxford to Pittsburgh to Austin--with anecdotes about the often eccentric thinkers he's interviewing.  He thus combines abstract philosophizing with evocative story-telling.  It's something like an extended Platonic dialogue with a large cast of characters arguing about one question and with Holt acting as Socrates. 

Like Socrates, Holt never gives us a clear answer to the question.  Or I should say that he gives an answer that I find hard to follow.  Thinking through a line of reasoning suggested by Derek Parfit, he concludes that while moving from nothing to something is impossible, it is possible to start with something--the world as we know it--and reason backwards to its explanatory origin.  So instead of moving from the question of why the world is to the question of how it is, we should move in reverse and infer from how it is to why it is.  If we do that, and if we assume certain explanatory principles such as simplicity, we can explain our world as showing a "generic reality" that is "thoroughly mediocre."  He concludes that this would explain "why the actual cosmos seems to be so disappointingly average: an indifferent mixture of good and evil, of beauty and ugliness, of causal order and random chaos; inconceivably vast, yet falling well short of the full cornucopia of possible being.  Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything.  It's a cosmic junk shot" (236).  He points to this conclusion in a brief YouTube video.

Holt never doubts that Leibnitz's question is a good question, and so he is not persuaded by Grunbaum's argument that the question should be rejected.  And he never doubts that there must be in principle an answer to the question that provides a final explanation for the existence and order of the universe, and so he is not persuaded by Swinburne's argument that it is not logically possible to explain everything.  On these points, I agree with Grunbaum and Swinburne.

Why is there something rather than nothing? is a meaningless question, because it rests on two false assumptions.  First, it falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothingness.

Holt's response to this objection is to assert that the scientific theory of the Big Bang shows that we have scientific evidence of absolute nothingness, because the theory tells us that before the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, the universe did not exist.

But there are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Big Bang theory.  First, there is disagreement among cosmologists as to whether the Big Bang was a "singularity"--a sudden appearance of space/time and physical laws from nothingness.  Some believe the Big Bang was a lawful emergence of the present universe from a previous one.  Second, as Grunbaum argues, if we see the Big Bang as a singularity, then there was no time prior to the Big Bang, and therefore there were no earlier moments of time in which nothing existed.  Third, if we use the principles of quantum mechanics to infer that the universe arose from nothing as a quantum fluctuation, then we assume the existence of quantum mechanics, which is not absolute nothingness.  Finally, any interpretation of the Big Bang as something coming from nothing can only be a work of wildly speculative imagination without any basis for empirical testing.

The second false assumption in the question of why the universe exists is that the principle of sufficient reason can apply to the whole universe.  Our experience of finding reasons or causes to explain things applies to events in the universe as governed by natural laws.  But this makes no sense as applied to the universe as whole. 

This is what I have called the problem of ultimate explanation.  All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of the world as the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained.  To the question of why nature exists or why it has the order that it does, the only reasonable answer is that we must accept this as a brute fact of our experience.  That's just the way it is

Now, of course, we might argue, as Swinburne does, that we can reason to the existence of God as the simplest way of explaining the existence and the order of the natural world that is presupposed in all scientific explanations.  But those like Grunbaum and David Hume can insist that there is nothing in our ordinary experience of the world that would make it likely, or even comprehensible, that something would have the power to create everything in the world out of nothing.  Moreover, Swinburne admits that he cannot explain why God is the way He is.  Thus, in looking for ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused Nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

So if I knew where Debbie Duncan was today--she's probably a grandmother by now--I would have to tell her that she was right not to be impressed by Heidegger's questions.  My pretentious display of deep philosophizing was really only a nerdy high school boy's awkward expression of romantic longing.  That's not much.  But it's not nothing.


Troy Camplin said...

When I was an undergrad, I heard a talk by a quantum physicists who explained that nonthing is the same thing as saying "perfect symmetry." Since perfect symmetry is unstable, meaning the symmetry will break, the universe came into existence. We know from quantum physics that quantum particle-antiparticle pairs are always popping into and out of existence in the symmetric cosmic vacuum, and it's not difficult, then, to imagine that a universe could equally pop into existence.

So what happened in the big bang? The creation of information -- that which is without form which gives form. When symmetry breaks, you get information. Thus, when the perfect symmetry broke, information was created; and that information created everything else in the universe.

Larry Arnhart said...

"When the perfect symmetry broke, information was created."

Doesn't that assume the existence of the principles of quantum physics, which is something not nothing?

(I don't pretend to understand quantum physics. But ignorance has never kept me from having opinions.)

Anonymous said...

All these musings and speculations are ways of avoiding the notion of a miracle -- e.g., something just happened to happen, an effect without a cause is more miracluous than saying God was the cause. A mysterious miracle of a mysterious God is the answer they are running away from, driven by a kind of theophobia.

As for the concept of nothing being meaningless or unreasonable -- it is a limiting concept that we never reach. At the other end is infinity - which we never reach but still use as a concept. In fact, we can write "0" but not infinity as a mathematical sign (the looping loop is an analogy).

All radical concepts point to the limits of reason and insoluable mysteries - the mysterious creator behind the creation. Humility is the beginning of wisdom.

Larry Arnhart said...

As I have indicated in this post and in others, I am not denying that God as the unexplained ground of all explanation remains open for choice. But my claim is that in the choice between Nature or God as the unexplained ground of all explanation, there is no way to prove one side or the other. So I am acknowledging "the limits of reason."

Anonymous said...

Dr. Arnhart, would you recommend reading Holt's book?

Larry Arnhart said...


Xenophon said...

I doubt that Heidegger was ever trying to pose a cosmological or causal question about the origin of things as Leibniz was. He was trying to draw attention to the experience of the presence and absence of things, the awareness that things exist and the experience of imagining a complete void or absence of things. The physical or cosmological question is different from the phenomenological one. In English there is no clear distinction between the is of predication and the "is" indicating the presence of something, i.e French "il y a", German "es gibt". Heidegger was trying to draw awareness to this experience of presence and absence which appears at occasional moments. The theme goes back to Husserl's 6th Logical Investigation and has been taken up by other continental philosophers like Sartre and Levinas and many texts of the late Heidgger. But it really has nothing to do with the questions raised by scientific cosmology.