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Minnie asked:

Why is there something instead of nothing? Is this a profound question or
is it as Richard Dawkins maintains a “senseless question”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Hello, Minnie. Did you come across my recent blog post ‘The One’ discussing this question by any chance?

The short answer to your question is that ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ is both senseless and profound. It is profound because we don’t know exactly what sense to make of it. It’s senselessness is not patently obvious, not even if you have an IQ as high as that of Richard Dawkins.

When we think of the way things ‘might have been’ there is always an unspoken assumption about the vantage point from which one is asking the question. ‘Might I have been an astronaut?’ is a question that only makes sense on the assumption that I was in fact born and didn’t die in infancy. ‘Might the human race never have evolved?’ is a question which assumes the prior existence of life on Earth, which might have taken a different evolutionary turn from the one it actually took.

If you ask the question, ‘Might there have been nothing?’ what exactly does that assume? The best one can say here is that it assumes a ‘picture’ whose meaning is not altogether clear, a picture of a range of possibilities (or ‘possible worlds’) one of which is completely blank or empty. By definition, there is only one such possible world (if it is possible). In the same way, there is only one ‘null set’ in set theory.

But this is where things begin to get confusing. The null set (symbolized as { }) is definitely something and not nothing. It is a so-called ‘pure abstract object’, which exists in all possible worlds. You can construct a model for the natural numbers using the null set as a starting point. Just say that zero equals the null set, and any number n is the set of all numbers from 0 to n-1. So 1 is the set containing the null set, 2 is the set containing the null set, together with the set containing the null set, and so on.

So we need to sharpen the idea of the one possible world where ‘there is nothing’ to exclude abstract objects such as sets and numbers which exist in all possible worlds, including the one world where abstract objects are the only entities that exist. Let’s call this the world where there is ‘physically nothing’ (or maybe ‘physically and/ or mentally nothing’, if you’re tempted by idealism).

A world where there is physically nothing cannot be conceived as ’empty space’, even though it is tempting to do so. Isaac Newton thought of space as an infinite container, the ‘sensorium of God’. However, since Relativity that concept of space is no longer accepted. Space requires matter, there cannot be pure empty space.

Then again, if we are considering all possible worlds, then surely we should be considering worlds where the laws of nature are different from the way they are in the actual world? In that case, there’s a whole bunch of ‘possible Newtonian worlds’, in addition to a whole bunch of ‘possible Einsteinian worlds’.

So there is after all a possible Newtonian world where God’s sensorium is empty. But I almost forgot, you still have God. Or maybe this is the possible world in which He died?

All we are doing here is playing with pictures. The mental picture of an ’empty container’, for example. You might say that something undoubtedly does exist. Descartes would reply that lacking proof of God’s existence, we are not entitled to say for sure that that ‘something’ is physical. Maybe all there is, is me and the evil demon. But even in the evil demon scenario, there is something: my mental life, my experience of ‘seeming to exist in a world’. Suppose, in this scenario, I die. Then the evil demon dies. Then what?

In my blog post referred to above, I speculated about the meaning of Heidegger’s notorious statement, ‘Nothing noths.’ There seems to be something wrong with stating that a world where there is physically and mentally nothing ‘is’ a possible world. How can we even speak or write the words, ‘Nothing is…’? The only thing one can speak or write is whatever remains after you have taken away every possible descriptive term that can be appended to the term, ‘Nothing.’ There is nothing that nothing can be or do… except noth. (Apologies to any logical positivist reading this.)

Is that it? Is that all one can say?

Taking our cue from arithmetic and set theory, if we are prepared to accept that pure abstract objects exist in all possible worlds — I mean, if we are happy with talk of abstract objects, happy using the notion of possible worlds as a term of art — why not just say that the idea that there ‘might have been nothing’ is absurd for the simple reason that the set of all possible worlds is most definitely something and not nothing.

There’s a big gap between all possible worlds, and the actual world containing you and me, and that gap has to be explained somehow. (E.g. If everything began with a Big Bang, how did ‘it’ choose how to bang?) But that question is a different question from the one that you asked.


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