The Feud Over Nothing

We've been following this feud for some time here, so you may be interested in the latest salvo.

The most interesting part of the article to me is the question of an adequate definition of "nothing."  I don't think the one they propose is actually adequate.  If you shrank the universe to radius zero, there would still be fourth-dimensional extension -- that is, the universe would have been.  If you compress the time as well as the space, so that the universe in this sense never was as well as isn't anywhere, you've still got the potential for it to have been:  after all, it was, before you started shrinking.

True nothing needs to be an absence of potential, not just an absence of actuality.  It may be that there never was (in the more usual sense of the phrase) an absence of potential; if so, there was never nothing.  Existence is then necessary:  even if you reduce the universe to "nothing" in the sense the author means it, something still exists.  That field of potential still exists.

But why is there something and not nothing?  That was the original question, and all we've accomplished is getting back around to agreeing that there is something.


MikeD said...

So after muddling my way through that (what a whole lot of fuss over Nothing), I've come to the conclusion that the only reational explanation is that we, the Universe around us, and the laws of physics are nothing more than a simulation in some greater, external system. Whether that be some vast computer simulation in another Universe, or in the mind of God, it ultimately does not matter.

Something cannot spring from nothing, and laws of physics do not simply apperate and force matter into existence. So there had to be something external to all this which set everything in motion. Which THEN begs the question, "well, where did THAT come from?" To which I say, "oh DO give it a rest, we can't figure out things that are literally impossible to perceive."

Eric Blair said...

When I was first learning about this sort of stuff 30 or 40 years ago, the people involved dismissed the idea of 'what came before' because it was not something that was, as MikeD points out, impossible to observe.

But it seems of late that scientists want to talk about this again, which makes me suspect that they don't have anything else to talk about. (at least the theoretical phyisists anyway).

bthun said...

It's human nature... Wanting to get something from nothing.

MikeD said...


Anonymous said...

Q: What caused the Big Bang?

A, from a wise children's minister: Perhaps G-d sneezed.


Nicholas Darkwater said...

It’s interesting that the author Rosenbaum gives himself away in the seventh paragraph: “I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind.” He puts two mutually exclusive thoughts within one sentence. Like so many adherents of the current pop philosophy, it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God, it’s just that he doesn’t want to believe in God.

Another consideration, loosely connected, that I have been struggling with is the question of whether there is a future. We know that there is a present – that’s perhaps the foundation of the word “obvious” - & we know there is a past because we & others experienced it. But the concept of ‘future’ is perhaps only one that we have created – time doesn’t exist, as it were, until the present creates it. This has a direct impact on our attempt to understand God’s place in the universe, as well as being part & parcel of the question of why there is a universe.

Grim said...

That is an involved question. Let's start with St. Augustine. When you say that the past exists, do you mean that it exists in the same sense as the present does -- i.e., could you in principle go there, if you had the right kind of machine? Or does it not exist any more, so that only the present actually exists in the sense that the present exists?

Nicholas Darkwater said...

Now that opens up another view. Just as we have different existential (small ‘e’) philosophies about what the present is, we could apply that same parsing to the past. This becomes germane when speaking of the current quantum school that considers alternate universes. While the past (which one?) may not be recoverable, it has a quality of being, in the same manner of potential. Whatever substance potential may have when speaking of present or future (if there is one), that same absolute quality could be applied to what is perhaps the opposite of potential.

And in the manner of most philosophers, I hope I have explained the concept in a way that makes it look like I know what I’m talking about.

Grim said...

Well, if you're talking about quantum mechanics, the potential in the past is gone -- the waveforms have collapsed, and so what you have in the present is an observed actual past, rather than a potential past.

Or possibly not; the so-called Many Worlds theory could mean that all those potentials continue to exist, even though they are no longer part of our world line (to borrow a concept from relativity theory and impose it on a quantum discussion). In that case, what we have to explain is why the present "seems" real in a way that the past does not.

But for now let's not get too technical. What's your gut feeling about it? Augustine's was that the past ceased to exist, and the present was yet to be. Only the present moment was real in the fullest sense of the term. Do you agree, or not?

Nicholas Darkwater said...

And I’m glad to see that you have referenced Augustine’s delightful Confessions, & how he was one who foretold the current discussion of whether Time exists outside of the substance of the universe, or God. A tough nut to crack, & as I remember (it’s been some time since I’ve read it), Augustine pretty much throws in the towel beyond recognizing that while Man thinks he understands what Time is, in reality he doesn’t have a clue. Even Einstein punted on that one – Time being merely one event after another.

Grim said...

That's true. Yet there is a substantial literature of people trying to sort out exactly what time is. It's one of the things that convinced me that neoplatonism was on the right track more than other philosophies; Augustine's approach to eternity v. time is indebted to Plotinus et al.

Nicholas Darkwater said...

Considering how we are talking over each other in this simplex connection, I thought I would pause before pulling the trigger on my reply. First, my reaction to your penultimate message:

Ah, our messages crossed in the ether. Well, my application of the word ‘potential’ was in an absolute sense, in that in terms of a quality of existence, it is its opposite when applied to the past. So you are right to pick up on the relativity/quantum conundrum (to the extent that any of us know what we are talking about, cf. Augustine’s concluding comments of Book XI).

I believe that Augustine cut it too fine, with reference to how ephemeral the present is. As for my original reply concerning the future, it has an impact on the later Aquinas & his metaphor of God in a high tower, looking down on the parade of time and seeing it whole. If there is no future, just the present making it up as it goes along, it effects our concept of omnipotence of God (certainly the Calvinists) – does God then know the future, or does He guide mankind (I still use the non-PC term) in the direction He would like it to go, subject to the whims & foibles of our imperfect & depraved nature? (No, I’m not a fan of Rousseau.)

Does the past have an existence? I would be inclined to say ‘no’, though it retains a quality.

And to your last one:

Exactly so, I agree. I am in accordance with your view of Neoplatonism on Augustine after his experience in the garden in Rome. It helps with our understanding of the nature of the Trinity, but to this discussion, it advances the idea that God (Time) exists outside the universe.

Grim said...

Well, God does, but not time. Augustine thinks that time came into being with creation -- which, actually, is what modern cosmologists think (at least according to our occasional correspondent J. W., who is an advocate for that position). The neoplatonic view is the same: time comes to be with the Soul, but not the pre-existent Intellect, which is all together at once in the way Augustine imagines eternity to be.

But there's something like an analog for time -- eternity -- which exists outside of the universe. And I think you're stuck with that, even with the modern cosmological position: that there is a kind of proto-time, an unmoving time-outside-time, that stands as the potential of which time is the actuality.

Aquinas' tower suggestion has a whole set of problems with it even as an analogy, as Duns Scotus points out. The chiefest problem for Aquinas is that his vision of eternity ends up with God seeing all the things, but not seeing the temporal connections. For that reason it's a limitation on God's knowledge, but also a serious problem for Aquinas' own vision of virtue. Aquinas follows Aristotle here, so that virtue arises from training and habit. But that's just the sort of thing that only becomes clear over time: habit is doing things the same way over a while.

That's a pretty disjointed answer, for which I apologize. The point is, time as we know it seems to belong to the created universe -- the neoplatonists, Aristotle, Aquinas, Augustine and the modern physicists agree on this, though they differ about the nature of time. What the field outside of time looks like is something that only the neoplatonists and Augustine have really approached, although Aquinas attempted it.

Grim said...

Aquinas' problem, by the way, was that he was trying to combine the neoplatonic view that influenced the early church fathers, with the Aristotelian view that had come to be important since the recapture of Aristotle's corpus from the Spanish Muslims. Aristotle's view is quite different: he holds that time is nothing other than the counting of motion. You can read about this in the Physics IV.