Ex nihilo nihil fit

Ex nihilo nihil fit: Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Presentation to the Unitarian Philosophy Forum, Sunday May 6, 2012

1.0 Historical Approaches to Nothing

1.1 The proposition that "Nothing comes from Nothing" (Ex nihilo, nihil fit") has been a philosophical argument since the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides who denied the ontological possibility of nothingness. Plato also found the idea of a vacuum inconceivable, as all things were shadows of abstract forms, and an "ideal" vacuum could not be conceived. This proposition was famously taken up by Aristotle as "horror vacui", "nature abhors a vacuum". Lucretius also followed this perspective ("nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus umquam" - Nothing from nothing ever yet was born). On an entirely different tack, King Lear points out to Cordelia in Shakespeare's play that if she does not flatter him, she will receive nothing from him ("Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.").

1.2 Some of the atomists (e.g., Leucippus and Democraticus), developing Parmenides, argued that in order for motion to occur the void is required. A plenum cannot move because it is full. Existence consists of invisibly small atoms, whose macroscopic objects can come-into-being and move through space and pass into not-being by means of the coming together and moving apart of their constituent atoms; the void must exist to allow this to happen.

1.3 Followig the atomists John the Scot (c. 815-877 CE), the Christian pantheist philosopher and theologian classified evil, amongst many other things, into not-being. Evil is the opposite of good, a quality of God, but God can have no opposite, since God is everything (pantheist metaphysic). The idea that God created the world out of "nothing" is to be interpreted as the "nothing" here is synonymous with God. Is there a distinction between "nothing" and "not-being"?

1.4 Galileo Galilei was surprised that discover that nature, apparently, only abhored a vacuum to thirty-two feet - which helped his Evangelista Torricelli engage in the invention of the barometer. Blaise Pascal further demonstrated the proof of variation due to atmospheric pressure, rather than vacuum (vide dans le vide, emptiness in emptiness). Scientists often point to these examples as proof that the Hellenic philosophers were incorrect, using a more contemporary definition of vacuum meaning "empty of matter".

1.5 But what if the Hellenes were referring to "nothingness" (Latin adjective vacuus for "empty"), rather than just the absence of physical matter? In the Vedic religions this has a rich history (??nyat?), used by the Indian scholar Pingala (circa 5th). The first use of the number zero (rather than a separator or a placeholder) was employed in the Lokavibhaga, a Jainist cosmological text written by the monk, Sarvanandi (c458 CE).

2.0 Modern Ontology and Logic

2.1 "Nothing" has an existence in the ontology developed by Alonzo Church, derived from the ideas of the logician Gottlob Frege. Everything is considered as being in three categories, object (referent, denotation), name, or concept (sense). Nothing is something which is part of everything! In most mathematical systems and set theory, zero is considered to an integer (whole number) and (usually) considered a natural number. Negative numbers are non-natural integers - indicating a difference between "nothingness" and "absence".

2.2 However, the epistemic claim that nothingness has a status in ontology and that zero has a status in number and set theory leads to contradictions. Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Henri Poincaré pointed out that attempts to define natural number led to circularity. Kurt Gödel's theorem shows that a formal axiomatic definition is impossible; for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers, there are true propositions about the naturals that cannot be proved from the axioms. Alfred Tarski's undefinability theorem states that arithmetical truth cannot be defined in arithmetic.

3.0 Modern Cosmology

"It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.44)

3.1 Much modern cosmology is based around the notion of the origins of the universe. There are many misconceptions on this subject which need to be immediately cleared. There is no known "before" the beginning of time, because that's when time began. There is no known "outside" of the universe, because that is the extent of space. Best current knowledge is that the universe began c13.75 billion years ago a singularity, with a diameter of 93 billion light years (variation due to space-time curvature)..

"...the representation of coexistence is impossible in Time alone; it depends, for its completion, upon the representation of Space; because, in mere Time, all things follow one another, and in mere Space all things are side by side; it is accordingly only by the combination of Time and Space that the representation of coexistence arises." Arthur Schopenhauer (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, 1813)

3.2 The Steady State model argued that new matter was created as the universe expanded (failed due to variable density of extra-galactic radio waves and 'hot' background spectrum of microwaves). Belinski-Lifshitz-Khalatnikov therom that proposed a cycle of expansion and contraction. Hawkins has recently proposed a theory which combines general relativity with quantum mechanics; this could include superstring theory (which unifies elementary particles) or Sum Over Histories (the idea is that a particle has every possible path, or history, in space time). A further (non-observable) theory of the origin of the universe comes from the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin who argues that "collapsing baby universes" create new, 'baby' universes on 'the other side'.

3.3 There are two possibilities on the nature of time. One is that is that the quantum state of the universe really does evolve in time, and that time is fundamental. As the quantum state of the universe evolves, it can pass through phases where it looks like "nothing" (i.e. completely empty space). The other possibility is that the universe doesn't evolve, that there is some space of possible states, but we just sit there, without an actual fundamental "passage of time". Our perception of time is emergent rather than fundamental.

4.0 Possible Answers

4.1 There is a philosophical problem of the definition of nothingness and the issue of whether "nothingness" really exists at all. As enticing as this might be, there would need to be a reconstruction of mathematic logic that would explain the singularity point of zero.

4.2 With the hypothetical removal of the physical properties of the universe, the universe becomes less stable. 'Nothing' would be the most simple system, and therefore would have the shortest possibility of existence (nothing has no spacetime!)

Thanks to Col Kline for his contributions and pointers to this discussion.

Some Recommended Reading

Review of ‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss

Stephen Hawking speech on The Origin of the Universe

Victor Senger, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?