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Nothingness and the rise of something

  1. May 2, 2009 #1
    I have recently read a few articles by physicist Victor Stenger and about his book The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? and it seems he has a fascinating answer to the ancient question of "Why is there something rather than nothing?". Since I am not a scientist I'd like to know what you think about it.

    Stenger equates nothingness with a state of perfect symmetry. If I understand correctly, the property of perfect symmetry is equivalent to the absence of all things. Whatever thing you could conceive of doesn't exist in this state because the thing would be differentiated from the rest of reality and thus would break the perfect symmetry. This state of nothingness has no measurable matter/energy, space or time.

    Interestingly though, it seems that from the property of perfect symmetry result all laws of physics - conservation laws, general relativity, quantum mechanics. The mathematics behind this monumental claim is beyond me. But it was already shown a century ago by Emmy Noether that conservation laws such as conservation of energy, momentum and angular momentum are the result of invariance of physical laws with respect to translation in time, translation in space and direction in space, respectively. That is, no point in time or space or direction in space is special. Now Stenger shows that other, more abstract symmetries are the source of other laws of physics. Including the source of quantum mechanical laws, which enable the state of nothingness (perfect symmetry) to transform randomly into the state of thingness (broken symmetry) with measurable space, time and matter/energy. In one article Stenger calculates that the probability of moving from nothingness to thingness is 68.7%! So nothingness is unstable and can turn into something. Symmetry can be broken but reality in an asymmetric state is still governed by laws based on symmetry.

    So, do I understand correctly, that the state of perfect symmetry inherently and necessarily contains the possibility of breaking that symmetry and thus something can rise from nothing?

    Here are some links I got these ideas from:

    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/v...r/nothing.html [Broken]
    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/v...ess/Origin.pdf [Broken]
    http://www.csicop.org/sb/2006-06/reality-check.html [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 2, 2009 #2


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    The book is here:

    and they let you browse thru and sample it. You can do a keyword search on, say, "cosmology" and see what he says about that.

    I think it is an excellent book (though somewhat dated) from what I've seen.

    Also want to compliment you on your post as a good thread starter---you provide links!
    Some people come in and assume we all know what they are talking about and start asking questions which I, for one, might not understand without a link to source to see where they are coming from. This post is ideal.

    I personally may not be able to help you but you have given me every chance and that's great!

    BTW let's see if this link works better---to get Marcus Chown's review of the book:
    I had some trouble with some of your links.
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  4. May 2, 2009 #3


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    What I think about it is that we certainly do want to understand conditions around the time of the big bang. Develop a model that eliminates the singularity, provides a physical explanation and gets rid of anything mysterious.

    But a lot of people are working on that now---"non-singular cosmology" will be one of the sessions at this summer's big conference in Paris. A general term for this area of research is "quantum cosmology".

    Stenger has a particular recipe---that is too narrow. It is not the only approach and it is too early to commit to one approach and focus on it.
    It's a really good book but he has kind of fixed on his own recipe. It is partly speculative. It isn't clear that anything came into existence at big bang time. We have no evidence that there was a prior "nothing".

    Some of today's models just go on right back before the big bang without invoking any exotic stuff---like "tunneling into existence". Or Nothing spontaneously breaking symmetry. Thats conjecture. Have to go. Interesting thread. Back later
  5. May 2, 2009 #4


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    I'm back.
    I have a suggestion for you. Look at the current literature in quantum cosmology since 2006.
    Here is a keyword search for quantum cosmology research papers, date > 2006, ranked by citation count. The number of citations a paper gets, references in subsequent research, is a rough indicator of how important it seems and how useful it is to the other researchers in that field.

    So here is a link to the Stanford database

    Also there is a book supposed to come out this year with on the order of 10 authors (a range of experts in this field) covering the different ideas people are currently exploring about what led up to the big bang. The book will be expensive (for university libraries to buy, not you and me) and I don't recommend anybody buy it. But you can read the table of contents at the publisher website and read the blurb and get some idea about the breadth of research. It is a broad front. It was dominated by Hawking and Hartle and Vilenkin and Veneziano back in the 1980s and early 1990s, but you rarely hear about their pet ideas any more. So it's good to check out the TOC of this book. Here is the blurb:

    Beyond the Big Bang
    Prospects for an Eternal Universe
    Vaas, Rudy (Ed.)
    2009, Approx. 600 p. 40 illus., Hardcover
    ISBN: 978-3-540-71422-4
    Available: November 3, 2009

    First book covering all the new scenarios in quantum cosmology to explain the Big Bang and the prospects for an eternal universe as well as a discussion of the new multiverse scenarios.
    Fills a gap in the market both in content and in style (mid-level)
    Provides an up-to-date overview
    Written by the leading protagonists

    The Big Bang model is now both theoretically and empirically well established. However, the very beginning of our universe still remains mysterious. General Relativity breaks down at very small spatio-temporal scales and at high energy densities. That is why Quantum Cosmology is needed. Recent developments open up the exciting new prospect of going "beyond" the Big Bang and even finding a physical explanation for it. Surprisingly, the ancient idea of a past-eternal universe is being revived, and fascinating new approaches are also being developed. This book provides an up-to-date overview of the competing scenarios in cosmology and discusses their foundations, implications, and philosophical aspects. It gathers original contributions from the world's leading researchers in Quantum Cosmology, who describe their own work and results in a manner understandable even to non-specialists.

    Written for:
    scientists: cosmologists, theoretical physicists; students of physics, astronomy/cosmology, philosophy of science; philosophers, some theologians; at least some laymen, for these issues are of broad interest and the presentations are at least partly understandable for everyone
    Here is the table of contents link:

    Here is the amazon.co.uk page:
    They have a page on it already even though the book is only scheduled to come out much later this year.

    I would try to get an impression of the range of different pre-big-bang models people are working on at present (not 1990s :biggrin:) and get an idea which currently seem most promising.

    As I understand it, Stenger is emeritus and his scenario (nothing spontaneously breaking symmetry to become something) has not got other researchers interest to the point where it is translated into a mathematical model that other people work on. I could be wrong. I hope we have some people here who are familiar with Stenger's technical papers who can comment. I looked for publications by V.J. Stenger and couldn't find anything in the research literature that is relevant to this. He has published in experimental particle physics, neutrino detectors, muons... Quite respectable, but I can't find anything in cosmology specifically by him. Just one person's reaction. Hopefully you will get other responses.
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  6. May 3, 2009 #5
    I talked to Vic Stenger about his ideas a while back in an attempt to suggest that he is just reinventing Hegel's Absolute Idea, the spiritual unity that would be prior to the world of forms. George Spencer Brown's Laws of Form gives mathematical model of this idea, a calculus that captures the metaphysical scheme of Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, etc. Russell praised this calculus highly but failed to see its true meaning. Stenger wouldn't even take an interest, mysticism being axiomatically a load of nonsense.

    Personally, I would say that a rational thinker must find ex nihilo creation a load of nonsense, and that Stenger, Guth and others who favour it are poor metaphysicians. They don't seem to realise that the idea of the origin of the universe as ''nothing spontaneously breaking symmetry to become something' is just mysticism. Except, of course, that it would only appear to by Nothing becoming Something. If this process were any more than an appearance then the ancient paradox that causes normally sensible physicists to consider ex nihilo creation would arise.

    I wish people like Stenger would do some research into these things, then he would not be so casually dismissing the only idea that works.

    Pardon me, almost started ranting.
  7. May 3, 2009 #6
    Marcus, thanks a lot for giving me an overview of the current research into this problem. The idea of an eternal history seems less satisfying to me because it still bothers me with the question "Why is it (the history) there?" So I end up drawn to the idea of nothingness...

    What I find fascinating is that from the assumption of a perfectly symmetrical/homogenous reality we can somehow derive a non-zero probability that this reality becomes asymmetrical/heterogenous. I don't know how to imagine this derivation though. Is it possible to explain or at least give an idea how this can be done without using complicated mathematics?

    I don't know why the first two links in the OP don't work. I just copied and pasted them exactly as they are into the message box. But they can be accessed from Victor Stenger's homepage:
    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/ [Broken]
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  8. May 3, 2009 #7


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    litewave, I saw why your first two links in the original post don't work. You did a copy and paste on the links as they appeared (in abbreviated form with ellipsis...) on some page!
    What you need to do is do a copy and paste from your browser window.
    Go to the thing, then copy what is in the browser window.

    If that is not possible for some reason, you can use "view source". But that can be a bother.
    See if the first method works.

    When long URL addresses are printed on a page, they are often abbreviated with "..." so they don't take up a lot of space. So you can't just run the mouse over and copy what you see.
  9. May 3, 2009 #8
    Ok, here is the two links that didn't work in the OP:

    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/nothing.html [Broken]
    http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Godless/Origin.pdf [Broken]

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  10. May 3, 2009 #9


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    Stenger's calculation of an exact probability of 68.7% is very amusing. The trick as far as I can make out is that if you straight-jacket "nothing" to a plankscale instant, then that is the likelihood it will be something. Which is a retrocausal argument I would have thought.

    Anyway, there are other ways of talking about perfect symmetry apart from calling it a "nothingness". It could instead be called a state of everythingness. Or better yet, a vagueness.

    Stenger does really mean vagueness I would argue as he invokes a prior realm of imaginary spacetime. He also suggests an alternative mirror universe story with its time running the opposite way, but that is ontologically clumsy - at odds with the second law.

    This is a thread I started on vagueness as a model of perfect symmetry...

    And if Whoeveryouare is into the Laws of Form, he should also be a Peircean enthusiast and already into vagueness.
  11. May 4, 2009 #10
    Well, I'm a Peircean enthusiast insofar as I know what he says about almost anything, but I don't know what he says about vagueness. Generally I'm against vagueness in any context. I do happen to have some quotes from him stashed away. On the topic of the original phenomenon he wrote this:

    "The idea of the absolutely first must be entirely separated from all conception of or reference to anything else; for what involves a second is itself a second to that second. The first must therefore be present and immediate, so as not to be second to a representation. It must be fresh and new, for if old it is second to its former state. It must be initiative, original, spontaneous, and free; otherwise it is second to a determining cause. It is also something vivid and conscious; so only it avoids being the object of some sensation. It precedes all synthesis and all differentiation; it has no unity and no parts. It cannot be articulately thought: assert it, and it has already lost its characteristic innocence; for assertion always implies a denial of something else. Stop to think of it, and it has flown ! What the world was to Adam on the day he opened his eyes to it, before he had drawn any distinctions, or had become conscious of his own existence -- that is first, present, immediate, fresh, new, initiative, original, spontaneous, free, vivid, conscious, and evanescent. Only, remember that every description of it must be false to it."

    Charles Sanders Peirce
    A Guess at the Riddle

    I would say that if 'nothingness' is also 'everthingness' there need be no vagueness, but would prefer the terms 'emptiness' and 'fullness', where emptiness is fullness and where 'Nothing' would not be a possible state of the universe. This terminology seems less confusing. Erwin Schroedinger, like Peirce a fan of Plotinus, speaks of the contents of consciousness and 'the canvas on which they are painted.'

    Sorry for straying beyond physics, but I find the connections interesting.
  12. May 4, 2009 #11
    How could everythingness be perfectly symmetrical? Each thing would exist simultaneously with a thing that would be its negation? They would cancel each other out so we would have nothing again but we could imagine that all these things simultaneously exist.
  13. May 4, 2009 #12


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    That is why vagueness is a better term and everythingness is a stepping stone towards understanding what it might mean.

    Symmetry is where change makes no change. So imagine a realm so general that every move makes no difference. A realm of infinite, or even continuous, dimensionality, where every direction exists and so no direction is definite.

    Or take a block of marble. It contains every sculpture that could ever be carved - as an unbroken state of potential.

    And you are right about the cancelling of nothing and everything. Vagueness is halfway between these two crisp extremes.

    On Peirce: He wrote so many unpublished volumes that the sentiments above were expressed many times in slightly different ways.

    But why, Whereveryouare, would you be against vagueness in any context? It is surely good as a creative starting point, only "bad" in the developed outcome.

    It is like saying you are against potential.

    Anyway, cosmologically speaking, it is important that there are two alternative worldviews that we could have. One where beginnings "must be" crisp, the other where we instead start with the vague.

    Both views fit with the physics' favourite principle, beginnings must in either case be more symmetric than their outcomes.

    I was pointing out that the two ontological choices are rather confused in much of current cosmological discourse. So we have Hartle/Hawking talking about imaginary time, and Stenger also. A view that would seem to map to a vagueness ontology. And then we have Stenger (and LQC too) invoking the crisp beginnings ontology, saying well what comes after must also have an equally definite mirror image realm stretching the other way.

    One is a second law approach with a single "arrow of time".

    Max symmetry (ie: vagueness) => max asymmetry (crisply broken symmetry)

    The other has to allow time to run in two directions.

    Asymmetry <= symmetry (QM singularity!) => Asymmetry

    Because singularities are bad, a way has to be found to fuzz them up - make 'em foamy. But losing the direction of the second law is a "singularity" to, a place where known physics is breaking down IMHO.

    If you are willing to tolerate a little bit of fuzz to avoid the big bang singularity, then why not a whole lot of fuzziness to get away from all the problems that flow from demanding that crisp outcomes have crisp beginning states.

    Vagueness preserves what we require - that realities start in the highest possible states of symmetry. And removes the issue of whether this symmetry state is crisply nothing or crisply everything (as in a QM fluctuation out of "nothing" vs an eternal cycling universe/spawning multiverse).
  14. May 5, 2009 #13
    Actually, what I meant to say was that everythingness is nothingness. These two seem indistinguishable. In everythingness things cancel each other because for each thing there is also a thing that is its logical contradiction.
  15. May 5, 2009 #14
    Perhaps I don't understand exactly what is meant by vagueness here. What I meant was I'm against ambiguity in the final outcome, or the idea that we must settle for it. I see a distinction between ambiguity and vagueness, but perhaps that's just an idiosyncracy.

    Do you think Stenger's mirror universe could be replaced by a phenomenon which is changeless? It seems to me the opposite of change is not change in the opposite direction, but no change at all.

    I'm not so sure about the idea that for each thing there is also a thing that is its logical contradiction. Would not the contradiction for 'a thing' be 'not-a-thing'?
  16. May 5, 2009 #15


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    Vagueness has become an accepted technical term. There is a tradition of debate around it. So that would be the reason for preferring it.

    Note that there is a crucial distinction between merely semantic vagueness and ontic vagueness. It's summed up in my thread if you are interested.

    Vagueness is something that would swallow up anything that made sense to us as a division of nature, a symmetry breaking. That is why it is so useful as a model of beginnings!

    This is exactly the way its logic works. If our observable universe appears to have two asymmetric or dichotomous properties - such as stasis and change (or space and time co-ordinates in Newtonian physics) - then both these things must be the symmetry that got broke, and thus both must have been "in" the prior vaguer state as potentials.

    So the opposite of change is stasis. And therefore as both exist crisply divided in our world, both must have been once indistinguishable as potentials in any "moment" prior to their coming into existence.

    You see the shift that happens. You start by thinking what two things are so different that they can't get more different. This is what the ancient greeks did. They came up with the classic dichotomies of change and stasis, chance and necessity, substance and form. Then you start stepping back to seek the symmetry that could unite two such opposites.

    This was how cosmological modelling started (check out Anaximander). I'm just continually surprised how little awareness there is for this approach in current cosmological modelling (even if, as I say, talk about imaginary time gets so close to it).

    The irony is how Stenger covers both bases, but is not really aware that he is doing so.
  17. May 5, 2009 #16


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    Well that is the point. Everythingness would be self-cancelling. Which is why it would be a perfect symmetry. All moves would be made and end up not making a difference. It would be a place where nothing happened, nothing existed.

    Remember the way we talk about the zero point energy of the vaccuum - a seething see of virtual particles that also self-cancel. So the void is actually modelled now in terms of a nothing that is also an everything (on the planck scale at least, energy density goes to the planck limit)

    Of course, talking about vagueness, it is hard to imagine what such a realm would be really like. However as with the vacuum, the practical issue is just to have a mathematical model that you could then do something with.
  18. May 5, 2009 #17
    I'm with you all the way on this. I'd cite Kant and Hegel rather than go back to the Greeks, and what you call 'stepping back to see the symmetry' I'd call sublation, but it's all the same idea. Still don't see the relevance of vagueness though. You seem to say that when a contradiction is reduced to a symmetry vagueness is entailed, perhaps because this has something to do with fuzzy logic. Is that it?

    Would you agree that a perfect symmetry is not an instance of a category, as Kant, Hegel, Brown etc. suggest?

    I also find the attitude in physics to these issues a bit odd sometimes. We know that all selective conclusion about the universe as a whole are logically indefensible, and so will be any theory which asserts one, yet physics seems to favour such theories. I don't understand this.
  19. May 5, 2009 #18
    A short quote from the Heart Sutra might be in order...

    Form is no other than emptiness,
    Emptiness no other than form,
    Form is only emptiness,
    Emptiness only form.
    Feeling, thought, and choice,
    Consciousness itself,
    Are the same as this.
    All things are the primal void,
    Which is not born or destroyed;
    Nor is it stained or pure,
    Nor does it wax or wane.
  20. May 5, 2009 #19
    I hope it's in order. Something bothers me though. Is it definitely 'no' rather than 'not' in the first two lines?
  21. May 5, 2009 #20
    Yup, I copied it off the net.
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