Why We Think Nothing Is More Natural Than Something

Nothing: Jackson Pollock, White Light, 1954I am going to follow up on my last post about ontology, Atheists Need to Understand Theology. In that article, I argued that most atheists didn’t understand the concept of God well enough to claim to be against it. They are more areligious, because their real interest is in looking at silly religious beliefs and mocking them. Along with this is a total disregard for ontology: the nature of existence and why this is something rather than nothing. Well, maybe it is time that I discuss what I think about such matters.

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of why anything exists at all. This question has a long and distinguished pedigree. But it annoys me that people think it is a question that can be answered by science. This is because it is the ultimate question. It’s very nature is an infinite regression. The most simple form of it can be found in this short dialog:

Child: why does the universe exist?
Adult: because God created it.
Child: what created God?
Adult: uh…

On a more substantial level, we have Lawrence Krauss playing “Adult” in that dialog in his book, A Universe From Nothing. In that book, he claims the reason that there is something rather than nothing is because, “Nothing is unstable.” What makes that a particularly silly explanation for existence is that he really seems to think he’s got it all figured out. When theologians point out that it’s a mighty special kind of nothing that has all these properties, he really doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about. (This is not my opinion; he says this explicitly in the book.)

People normally make the mistake of thinking that science is designed to answer questions. It is not. It is designed to create questions.

Just in case there is anyone as brilliant as Krauss reading, let me explain. If something has a property, it isn’t nothing. It doesn’t have to be matter. An idea is something. A physical law is something. So if “nothing” has the property of being unstable and occasionally spitting out universes, then it is “something.” This may seem like a semantic game, but it isn’t. I don’t think it’s hard to imagine a “nothing” that does not spit out universes. Thus, why do we happen to have this particular kind of “nothing” that does.

Does “Nothing” Even Make Sense?

More and more, I find myself with Henri-Louis Bergson and other philosophers who find the question of existence absurd. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do you think that nothing is more natural than something? And I believe the reason that it feels like there should be nothing is because of the nature of our existence. At one time, we didn’t exist; now we do. So it seems as though the natural state of things is to not exist because that was our own natural state.

But how could there be nothing? It seems to me that ideas exist without having to be thought. That is to say that we discover ideas rather than invent them. But I’m hardly certain of that. However, it is clear that the problem is internal and not external. That is: it isn’t the fault of “something” that it isn’t nothing. I’m the one at fault because I can’t get past thinking about my existence and existence itself as the same thing.

Brute Facts and Better Questions

This all makes me land in the company of Bertrand Russell, “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But I don’t like being in this company because it feels too dismissive. To claim that existence is a brute fact is unsatisfying. And the truth is that I don’t share this way of looking at ontology. Because existence is still mystical.

People normally make the mistake of thinking that science is designed to answer questions. It is not. It is designed to create questions. The scientific revolution has greatly expanded the number of questions we have not answered. This is because every answer creates a multitude of new questions. But that doesn’t mean that science is bad. Hardly! Science allows us to ask better and better questions.

The Journey Continues

Existence is not a puzzle where we are moving to the point where the last piece is fitted and all is known. It is more like a Jackson Pollock painting that just gets more complex and lovely with each splash of paint. But unlike a painting, this goes on and on. Knowledge is a work in progress and it will be for humans right up to the point that we go extinct.

And so I will continue to think about the nature of existence until I go extinct. Of course, I’m not entirely sure I will go extinct, because I have some curious thoughts about time too. But we will have to leave that for another day.

Odd Words: Amphibology

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law - AmphibologyPage nine of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition starts with the am— words. And that means I know a lot of them, because I like words that have to do with getting along. But today’s word is a really specialized grammar word that is super useful: amphibology.

There weren’t any really interesting words today, other than “amour-propre” — a very pretentious way of saying “self-esteem.” So let’s get right to today’s word. You can jump down and look at the definition. Right now, I want to talk about why it is so useful.

Amphibology and Scott Turow

The biggest hurdle that writers face is seeing what they write from the standpoint of the reader. The classic example is, “The dog caught the ball as it flew through the air.” This is one grammar pedants love, “Oh, the poor dog! I wonder who threw it?” The truth is this response is incorrect, because one couldn’t say grammatically whether the dog or the ball flew through the air. So picking the dog is not correct. The original sentence is an example of amphibology.

I wrote about an instance of amphibology, How Good is Scott Turow? The sentence was from his novel, Innocent. The main character’s son is asked about his relative computer skills and he responds, “Compared to my father? Yes. I know a lot more than him.” Well, it isn’t exactly amphibology, because what the son says literally means, “I know a lot more about computers than I know about him.” Which happens to be true, and I wondered if Turow was such a great writer that he knew what he was doing.

Anyway, here’s the definition:

Am·phi·bol·o·gy  noun  \am-fə-‘bäl-ə-jē\

1. the use of ambiguous or quibbling phrases or statements.

Date: mid-14th century.

Origin: Latin: amphibolia, which means “ambiguity” or “double-meaning.”

Example: If the other side avoids its amphibology in the [nuclear] talks, it’ll be an experience showing it’s possible to negotiate with them on other issues —Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (quoted in In Defense of Marism)