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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Riddle of Existence

The dream I had the other day was the only dream I can ever recall having had about a philosophical topic. The philosophical topic it touched on was the most profound philosophical question of all: the question of why is there something rather than nothing.

In my dream I was simply at some cocktail party where I spotted a cosmologist. Then I thought to myself: I'll ask him why does there exist something rather than nothing. Then the dream ended.

It's somewhat amazing to have had a dream about a philosophical topic, considering that I can't ever recall hearing about other people having such dreams. It's not as if you hear someone saying at the water cooler, “I had a dream last night about the mind-body problem.” But it's not too surprising that I should have a dream about this particular philosophical topic, because I spent many hours pondering it as a teenager (oddly enough).

The riddle of existence can be stated as the simple question of why is there something rather than nothing. In this context something means anything whatsoever (such as the universe, God, or anything at all), while nothing means absolutely nothing – no matter, no universe, no God, no energy, just an absolute absence of anything.

The riddle of existence perplexes us when we consider how absolutely plausible is the concept of complete eternal nonexistence. By complete eternal nonexistence I mean a state of affairs in which nothing whatsoever existed, now, in the past, or in the future. Such a concept is counter-factual, something that we know to be incorrect. But nonetheless it seems to have a great plausibility, because of its perfect simplicity. A state of affairs in which absolutely nothing exists in the past, present, or future is one that seems to be very plausible because there are zero explanatory difficulties associated with it. One can only have an explanatory difficulty if there is something to explain, but there is nothing to explain if nothing existed in the past, present, or future.

If it seems hard to get your arms around the concept of something being counter-factual but plausible, consider the case of a basketball player who stands at one end of the basketball court, and is given only one chance to throw the ball across the entire court, into the opposite net. Suppose he takes that one chance, and sinks the ball successfully in the basket at the other end of the court. Such a player may consider the case of him missing the shot on his only try, and not sinking the ball in the basket. Such a case is counter-factual, because he knows he actually sunk the shot. But nonetheless such a case is very, very plausible.

Similarly, although we know we exist, it seems all too plausible that we might not exist, and also all too plausible that absolutely nothing should exist. The most plausible “alternate universe” narrative is a blank page.

Some cosmologists claim to have some possible answers to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The reasoning goes something like this: a vacuum is unstable because of quantum mechanics – so a vacuum may have actually fluctuated or decayed into a state where matter existed.

To understand what is wrong with this reasoning, we need to understand the difference between a vacuum and nothingness. Matter and energy can be thought of as just two forms of the same thing, which is mass-energy. A vacuum is defined as some space in which no matter exists. But in modern physics, a vacuum is not at all a state of nothingness. Modern physics holds that a vacuum actually has quite a bit of energy in it, because what are called virtual particles are always popping into existence and out of existence because of quantum fluctuations. In fact, a physicist may consider certain types of vacuums that have very large amounts of energy. Under some possibilities considered by the modern physicist (particularly when considering the cosmological constant or possible conditions of the early universe), a vacuum may have more mass-energy in it (per cubic meter) than a block of steel.

So basically any “vacuum decay” or “vacuum transformation” reasoning is a sham and a “word trick” deceit if it s used to address the question of why there is something rather than nothing. A vacuum teeming with energy isn't nothing – it is something. Without understanding the details of any equations of a theoretical model, it is easy to determine whether a claim of a “universe from nothing” through some physical process is misleading us when it refers to nothing. If the model actual depicts something coming out of the “nothing,” then the “nothing” being talked about wasn't actually a nothing but a something. A real nothing could never give rise to anything. Please don't try to rebut this reasoning by referring to quantum mechanical laws, as such laws themselves are a something that would not exist if there was actually nothing.

Trying to solve the problem of existence by defining a high-energy vacuum as “nothing” is an empty word trick, rather like trying to solve the problem of poverty by defining a poor person as someone who starves to death because of no money, and that therefore there are no poor people in the USA.

Another attempt to solve the problem could involve the idea of a “universe spinner.” We imagine a spinner like one of the spinners used in a board game. There are different possibilities involving different universes, and one of the possibilities (the black pie slice) is no universe at all (the possibility of eternal nothingness). The visual below illustrates the idea, although the idea might actually involve an infinite number of pie slices on the spinner, all but one representing a different universe.

Now given such a spinner, one could argue that there is something rather than nothing simply because there are an unlimited number of slots on the spinner for actual universes, but only one slot for the nonexistence of a universe (eternal nothingness). So, the reasoning goes, some form of existence is therefore more likely than eternal nonexistence.

But this reasoning doesn't work, because if there existed such a spinner (or any situation corresponding to such a spinner), that would itself involve something rather than nothing. So by imagining such a spinner, we are really imagining something rather than nothing. One doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing by imagining some type of “spinner” situation which is itself something. You don't explain anything when you start out by assuming the thing you are trying to explain.

So we are left with the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. I once pondered this riddle at length, thinking about it for many hours. I was convinced that if you could only figure this out, the doors of wisdom would be opened, and you would have the answer to a dozen deep mysteries. I still tend to think that is true, but I doubt that any human is able to exactly understand why there is something rather than nothing. To truly understand the answer to this question probably requires understanding beyond the capabilities of the human mind, and insight beyond that which can be expressed using our current vocabulary. We can perhaps get a faint intimation of the solution by thinking about concepts such as necessity and a transcendent ground of being, but the full understanding of the solution seems to require something beyond the power of our little minds.
We can only hope that in some afterlife we may climb some lofty mountain of knowledge, some Everest of understanding, and at its summit we might gain some deep illumination into the eternal nature of things, some luminous insight that causes us to think: now that is the reason why there is something rather than nothing.