Friday, 24 February 2012

Much Ado About Nothing

The trouble with nothing is that you can't say what it is because it's er... nothing, so there is nothing to describe or define, well nothing you can put your finger on exactly.

You see, the problem with explaining how something came from nothing is that it couldn't have done. Not because it's impossible but because it's impossible for there to be nothing.

It's a bit like trying to explain what is outside the universe. It can't be nothing because there is no time or space outside the universe for nothing to be in. In fact, there can't be an outside to the universe because there is no where for an outside to be in.

In some ways, it's a bit like asking what is north of the North Pole. The question SEEMS like a logical one because we think of north as being a direction and of course, you can always move a little bit further in the same direction even when you've arrived at the first destination. The problem is that NORTH itself stops at the north pole, just as space-time stops at the 'edge' of the universe, or at least our concept of it, because with no outside there IS no 'edge'.

And so does existence because existence itself needs space and time to exist in. In fact, it could be said that existence IS space-time.

The problem isn't with science; the problem is with human psychology and how it's evolved to help us survive on Earth where answers to questions like "What is nothing?" and, "What is outside the universe?", or even, "What is north of the North Pole?", don't really help us catch lunch, find a mate or rear children, or avoid being something else's lunch or food for their children, or food for a prospective mate.

So, to ask how everything came from nothing might SEEM like a sensible question but it's no more sensible than asking what's north of the North Pole. In fact, the notion that the default state of existence is non-existence is just that - a notion. It's merely a product of human psychology. There is of course no reason; no fundamental law; no rule which says 'nothing' should be assumed and not 'something'.

You only need consider what the question implies. "What caused something to come from nothing?", or, "How did something arise?", all imply not nothing but something to cause whatever it was. This is true whether you do what theists and religious apologists do and assume there was something and define this as a god or some force, or even a set of rules of some kind which 'caused' something to exist, or if you do what theoretical physics does and try to explain how matter arose in a quantum vacuum, which is about as close to defining 'nothing' as science can get.

Clearly, none of those things are 'nothing', not even a quantum vacuum, so they aren't 'explaining' how something came from nothing but how something came from something else; and they are no closer to explaining where this something else came from than they were to explaining where something came from in the first place.

To avoid the absurd logical regress of invoking an assumed something to explain another something, the logical thing to do is to turn the question on its head and ask why we are assuming a 'nothing' in the first place. Where did 'nothing' come from and in what sense can 'nothing' exist?

The hypocrisy of religious apologetics in demanding science explain how something came from nothing, when they are hopelessly devoid of an answer to the same question and have to define their something as nothing to try to get round it, and then being unable to explain how magic created everything from nothing, is too obvious to avoid mentioning here. There is absolutely no reason to assume the default state of existence is non-existence other than our limited human psychology which has evolved fit for purpose, but not the purpose which we are now expecting of it.

The basic problem is with trying to use human intuition to arrive at answers to these questions which are outside our experience and not what our intuition evolved for. Human intuition is a very poor measuring device for the very small, the very large, and the very strange - and quantum events are nothing if not very strange. It takes humility to accept that the answer might not be what seems intuitively obvious and this is where science as a methodology scores against religion. Science demands that you explain things in terms of what can be shown to be so, and not in terms of what seems right to you. Personal incredulity is not a scientific argument.

Remember Xeno's paradox where it seemed obvious that Achilles couldn't overtake a tortoise when looked at one way, and yet obvious that he could when looked at another? A 'paradox' which taxed the best philosophers for centuries until science gave them the right mathematical tools to show why what seemed like the right mathematical model wasn't. It was intuition which had failed, not science.

One of the ways in which apologetics gets away with it of course is that they aim their 'arguments' at those who neither have nor want the humility to think their intuition isn't the best available measure of reality. This is basically the same reason why these same people lack the humility to believe science no matter how compelling the evidence and have no hesitation in condemning it based on nothing more substantial than personal incredulity.

Slicing gods, and magic, and absurdly infinite regresses away with Occam's trusty razor leaves us with the most parsimonious answer - nothing came from nothing because there never was nothing in the first place. There is absolutely no reason to assume there ever was, intuitive though that may seem. Your personal incredulity really is not the ultimate measure of reality.

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  1. My way of seeing it is, because our current understanding of physics points towards a 'quantum vacuum' in which space and time did not exist, asking the question what caused, or where that vaccuum came from is absurd. Nothing could have been a cause for anything else outside of time, and nothing could have came out of anywhere outside of space. So not only the quantuum vacuum must have existed, the big bang must inevitably have happened, without a cause, because time and space started with it.

    1. So a quantum vacuum must have 'existed' first.

    2. Yes, you cannot have a vacuum fluctuation without a quantum field. A quantum field is not nothing and so the question arises "Where did the quantum field come from? Who created that?"

      Contrary to your article, there is no reason why there should be something rather than nothing. Of course, if there was nothing then we wouldn't be here.

      Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that the quantum field existed eternally. Scientists used to believe the universe was eternal (although that doesn't meet with the evidence because why are the stars still shining? If the universe had always existed, it would have burned all the fuel by now) so we can posit an eternally existing quantum field prior to the Big Bang. No evidence for it, of course, so not really science, so this is just for the sake of argument.

      What are the chances a vacuum fluctuation could create a universe? What are the chances it could create a universe like ours? Nature does not do low entropy. Roger Penrose did the calculations. He found the chances of a naturalistic big bang resulting in a low entropy universe like ours was one in 10 to the power 10 to the power 123. See

    3. Did Penrose manage to calculate the probability of a magic man popping up from nothing and making the Universe out of nothing, please?

  2. Yes. Theists' arguments amount to nothing:)

  3. It's still a fundamental problem - why there is something rather than nothing - and your attempt to explain why it should not be so is unsatisfying.

    1. I take it you can explain why this should be so, other than in terms of you own satisfaction? If not, perhaps you can explain how your need to be satisfied can dictate rules to the universe and beyond.

    2. "Anonymous" is pwned! Awesome.

    3. I'm always impressed when someone who clearly knows nothing about abiogenesis/universe occurring/whatever posts the odds against it.
      It's known as the 'Argumentum ad Biggus Numberus, or 'The Dickhead's Delight.' In short, it is pure undiluted stupidity.
      In order to calculate the odds of abio, you would first need to know exactly what the first cell contained. NOT what a cell contains today, after 4 billion years of evo, but what THE FIRST CELL contained. Then you would need to work out every step that lead from non life to the first cell.
      In short, this piece of stupidity is exactly the same as you estimating the distance from A>B when you haven't got a clue where either point is.
      TBH, if I had that info I would be off to get my Nobel Prize.

  4. Excellent post. I've been looking for an analogy along the lines of the "north of north" one for a while. Thanks!

  5. No-thing = pure energy, historically, inflation which could expand faster than the speed of light because there were no fields to slow it down yet. In short, it began to interact with itself, getting tangled into knots. it is this macramé we see today.


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