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.

22 thoughts on “Why We Think Nothing Is More Natural Than Something

    • Agnostic is a broader term. Atheist is really quite specific. I find it odd that most atheists don’t understand that one can be religious and an atheist. Not all religions have gods. Although I think “atheist” is a proper description of me, I probably continue to use this very limited word to annoy other atheists. And that seems right and proper given that they have been torturing me for years with things like, “I only believe in things I have evidence for!” Total rationalists these atheists!

      Ah, Denys Turner! I spent about an hour trying to construct an email message to him that would get a response (you know: short, clear). But by the end of it, I felt that I had answered my own question. Whereas people might want to have a beer with George W Bush, I would like to have a beer (or wine or tea) with Turner. In particular, I would like to discuss his ideas on God’s love. This is something that I don’t much understand. It’s all theory to me, of course, because I don’t believe in God, much less the attributes of it. But I am interested in how serious thinkers manage to believe in it given the universe we live in. But when I’ve read his work, I found it impenetrable. I’ve said it before: theology makes my brain hurt.

      • Well, I’m not familiar with his writing. But in that clip, he mentioned creation as kind of an artistic work. And if one sees creation as that, a loving creator makes some sense. Any artistic work worth doing is done from love, and all are flawed. Our existence is flawed. Some babies are born in incredible pain and die quickly; how is existence a boon to them? Most organisms live in constant terror; is it a gift for them to be alive? Yet a watchmaker God could look at the physics of our universe and say, “it was good.” Not perfect — no artwork is — but pretty good.

        • Yes. But consider Mozart writing The Marriage of Figaro. (This example comes via Terry Eagleton.) Forget the economics of it (he did hope to make a lot of money) and think of it as a purely artistic work. He wrote it as an act of creation — for the joy of it — as an act of self-actualization. That does make it an act of love — but really an act of self-love, not an act of universal love — and certainly not an act of love for humans.

          I am open to the idea that existence itself is a gift — that even if the experience is awful, it is a gift to have gotten to have it. I don’t believe that, but I’m open to it.

          Like most academics, Turner has two faces: one for people like us and another for people like him. And it is in looking at his academic work that my brain starts to bleed. But I’m more interested in it on a personal level. You do get the feeling listening to him that he feels God’s love. I’ve never felt anything but that there was a God so indifferent to me that it didn’t even exist. So I’m fascinated by such people. And I don’t think either of us choose these feelings. It’s just who we are. And that’s great! Can you imagine what a dreary world it would be if it was made up only of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism?! Now that would be proof that God was 100 percent malevolent and 100 percent effective!

          • I was being a little facile, I apologize. Why would some entity which could create the laws of matter give a shit about self-actualization through art? That’s a human concept; a transcendent being would be more like Arthur Clarke’s aliens in 2001, incomprehensible to us.

            Unless — and this seems silly, but it’s no sillier than a benevolent God — the diety in charge of our corner of reality is a petty-minded little shit on the god spectrum.

            • No, I think it is perfectly fine. You pray to the god you can comprehend, not the god that exists. But seriously, the idea of God the Artist is not to suggest it in a literal sense, but to get across the idea that God would not have had a purpose in creating existence — at least not a purpose in a sense that we could understand. This is probably my biggest problem with Christianity: it’s a religion that was developed for the needs of people in the 2nd century. People in the 21st century need a religion that speaks to their needs.

              Now at this point, an atheist usually pops up to claim that religion doesn’t provide for any needs because God doesn’t exist, blah, blah, blah. If you’re out there: save it! Go watch a Friendly Atheist video instead.

  1. Hi. My proposed answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is kind of a combination of Krauss’ “nothing” that has a property and existence is a brute fact. When I use the word “nothing”, I’m thinking of the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all.

    Two choices for answering the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” are:

    A. “Something” has always been here.

    B. “Something” has not always been here.

    Choice A is possible but doesn’t explain anything. If we go with choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. If this supposed “nothing” were truly the lack of all existent entities, there would be no mechanism present to change this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. But, because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that the supposed “nothing” we were thinking of was not the true lack of all existent entities, or absolute “nothing”. There must have been some existent entity present. Because we got rid of all the existent entities we could think of, the only thing left that could be an existent entity would be the supposed “nothing” itself. That is, it must in fact be a “something”. This is logically required if we go with choice B, and I don’t think there’s a way around that. What this means is that it’s not possible to have the true lack of all existent entities because even what we think of as “absolute nothing” is a “something”. So, “something” is necessary, or non-contingent. It also means that the original question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, is based on a false distinction between “something” and “nothing” that’s based on our incorrect visualization of “nothing” as the absolute lack of all existent entities.

    If absolute “nothing” is itself a “something”, I think this “something” has some properties. This is the only way I agree with Krauss. In most other ways, he seems to not get it, as you point out.

    To avoid too long a post, I won’t put any more, but if anyone’s interested, a rationale for how the supposed lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”, can be a “something” is at my website at:

    https://sites.google.com/site/whydoesanythingexist/

    Thanks.

    • I think we are largely in agreement. However, there is a concept of nothing that doesn’t allow anything to exist. Thus: the paradox of existence. What you seem to be saying is that this concept of nothingness is absurd. That is pretty much where I come down.

      But this puts you very clearly in Camp A. You aren’t actually saying that a special kind of nothingness has always existed; you are saying that something has always existed.

      I don’t see the need to posit this kind of nothingness, although it does go along with the ancient Greeks who thought the universe was built from some kind of primordial matter. We are so parochial — so limited inside space and time — that we can’t possibly get a handle on existence itself. If “nothing” pops universes out, and universes create their own space, then there must be other universes contained in their own space that we have no access to. It’s kind of like the idea that there must be life elsewhere in the cosmos: how could ours be the first? But it’s worse in this case because given that “nothing” always existed, there could be no first universe. And if that’s the case, there must not just be other universes but an infinite number of them and this must always have been the case. But we have to be careful about talking about time when we are outside a universe, because time doesn’t exist in that way.

      This is all speculation, of course. And my thinking is greatly informed by mathematics. Kruass’ ideas are very much rooted in science. So just like the Big Bang doesn’t answer our questions, neither does “nothingness is unstable.”

      I’m glad to see other people grappling with these questions. I often feel like a freak about even caring. (Also: I thought you did a rather good job of boiling down your longer article for us here. Thanks!)

      • Hi. Thanks for the response! You’re right that I’m saying that “something” has always existed, and that it’s not possible for there to be no existent entities at all. But, I think we have to try and figure out how that could be so I try to provide a mechanism which is that what we usually think of as “nothing” is itself a “something” if thought of in another way. That mechanism of how to think about “nothing” in another way was the part I left out to make a shorter comment and that’s at the website. Real briefly, I think that an existent entity is a grouping or relationship that defines what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing. Some examples are:

        1. A book. Try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? The surface is what groups the individual atoms inside together into a new and unique existent entity called the “book”, which is a different existent entity than the individual atoms inside.

        2. The set of all the positive integers. Or, any set. If it were unknown what elements were contained in the set or even what the rule for defining those elements was, would that set exist? My vote is no.

        To apply this definition of why a thing exists to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?, try to visualize getting rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all. We think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing”. This situation, this “absolute lack-of-all”, would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. That’s it; there’s nothing anywhere else. It is “nothing”, and it is the all. An entirety/whole amount/all is a grouping defining what is contained within and is therefore a surface, an edge, and an existent entity. That is, this supposed lack of all existent entities is itself an existent entity. Because the “absolute lack-of-all” is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as both what is contained within and the grouping defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/surface/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the “entirety”, “the all” relationship inherent in this “absolute lack-of-all”.

        I’m not even sure if Krauss’ ideas are rooted in science, because “nothingness is unstable” where that “nothingness” is not really the “nothing” everyone else is talking about just seems to be evading the basic question. I don’t think that’s what they do in mathematics or science.

        I agree with you that all of this is speculation because we can’t step outside existence (our space and time, like you say) to see what caused it. But, what I think we can do is to take our ideas about “something” and “nothing” and build a working model out of them to eventually try and make testable predictions about the universe. That could at least provide some evidence for an argument. After all, the universe is made of “something”, so an answer to “Why is there something rather than nothing?” should give insights into the physical universe. I’m currently trying to learn 3D modeling software to try and model my ideas, but it’s real hard for me. But, it’s a hobby and keeps me off the streets!

        You’re sure not a freak for thinking about these questions. We’re all weird or freaky in our own ways, but I don’t think that’s one of them. But, I admit that most people don’t seem to care much. That’s okay, though, because they have their own interests that we don’t have. It’d probably be pretty boring to talk about this stuff all day, every day.

        Your website is pretty good, so I just bookmarked it and look forward to checking it more in the future. Thanks!

        • I greatly appreciate your passion for the subject. And I do think it is a good idea to think about these things in a way that are testable. We’ll never get the final answer, because it’s turtles all the way down. But, as the protagonist’s mother says in Educating Rita, “There must be better songs to sing.” The search for the answer is it’s own reward.

          It’s nice that you don’t think I’m a freak, but coming from a fellow freak, well… :-) But it does surprise me that other people don’t find the question endlessly fascinating. I’m perhaps even more fascinated by my own existence. But at least that one has a scientific answer that I’m pretty sure we will get within a century or so (assuming society continues on as it has).

          Thanks for bookmarking the site. But I must warn you: I annoy people a lot — including a lot of the regulars. Just ask Elizabeth (who thinks these articles are pointless — or something similar).

          • Well, sometimes the freaks have to stand together! :-)
            I’m kind of surprised that more people don’t think about this question either, but then my friends are probably surprised that I don’t think as much about art or literature or something. I do a little but maybe just not as much.
            If you annoy me too much, I can always unbookmark you! Have a good weekend!

            • But few people say “I don’t like any art form.” That seems to be what people are saying when they dismiss ontology as uninteresting. But I guess you feel it or you don’t. There are lots of things I appreciate without having a profound connection to.

  2. “I argued that most atheists didn’t understand the concept of God well enough to claim to be against it”.

    Where? You asserted it; what is your argument?

            • And love, alas, often brings forth the smiting.

              I’d stay with “like.” Less drama. And you really don’t want heartfelt communications from the gods. That never ends well. Sure, a little “you’re gonna make it” is fine. When gods bare their souls to humans, bad things happen. Don’t even get me started on gods knocking humans up. They’re never there to raise the kid. And if you’re really unlucky, people see your face in cheese mold for 2000 years.

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