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Ultimate question: Why anything at all?

  1. Aug 30, 2011 #1
    “Why is there Something rather than Nothing” is “just the kind of question that we will be stuck with when we have a final theory [of physics]. … We will be left facing the irreducible mystery because whatever our theory is, no matter how mathematically consistent and logically consistent the theory is, there will always be the alternative that, well, perhaps there could have been nothing at all.” In modern physics, Weinberg explains, “the idea of empty space without anything at all, without fields, is inconsistent with the principles of quantum mechanics—[because] the [Heisenberg] uncertainty principle doesn’t allow a condition of empty space where fields are zero and unchanging.” But why, then, do we have quantum mechanics in the first place, with its fields and probabilities and ways of making things happen? “Exactly!” Weinberg says. “[Quantum mechanics] doesn’t answer the question, ‘Why do we live in a world governed by these laws?’… And we will never have an answer to that.” “Does that bother you?” I ask. “Yes,” Weinberg says wistfully. “I would like to have an answer to everything, but I’ve gotten used to the fact that I won’t.” Here’s how I see it: The primary questions people pose—Why the universe? Does God exist?—are important, sure, but they are not bedrock fundamental. “Why anything at all?” is the ultimate question.

    Why there is something rather than nothing?

    Think of all the possible ways that the world might be, down to every detail. There are infinitely many such possible ways. All these ways seem to be equally probable—which means that the probability of any one of these infinite possibilities actually occurring seems to be zero, and yet one of them happened. “Now, there’s only one way for there to be Nothing, right?” There are no variants in Nothing; there being Nothing at all is a single state of affairs. And it’s a total state of affairs; that is, it settles everything—every possible proposition has its truth value settled, true or false, usually false, by there being Nothing. So if Nothing is one way for reality to be, and if the total number of ways for reality to be are infinite, and if all such infinite ways are equally probable so that the probability of any one of them is [essentially] zero, then the probability of ‘there being Nothing’ is also [essentially] zero.” Because there are an infinite number of potential worlds, each specific world would have a zero probability of existing, and because Nothing is only one of these potential worlds—there can be only one kind of Nothing—the probabilily of Nothing existing is zero.


    So he is arguing that if you have a lottery with an infinite number of combinations , there is only 1 number that corresponds to nothingness (the empty set). The chances of picking that number among all the others is essentially 0, so that isn't going to happen. I guess he's trying to say that the universe exists because existence is far more probable than non-existence.

    "We can use the axiom of extensionality to show that there is only one empty set. Since it is unique we can name it. It is called the empty set (denoted by { } or ∅)."


    Does the argument sound persuasive?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2011 #2
    No. By similar reasoning, the number 3 cannot exist since on a scale of real numbers, it has probability 0 of existing.
  4. Aug 30, 2011 #3


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    My favourite question!

    Inwagen's argument is also made in more formal detail in a good review paper by Leo Apostel, Why Not Nothing?.

    He more correctly argues that the probability of nothing is 1/n, or infinitesimal rather than zero.

    And he even deals cleverly with the argument where it is granted that the probability of nothing must be much larger - naively, a 50/50 choice.

    Apostel's paper looks at a wide range of other answers too, but sadly seems only available online in pages-missing form via google books. And of course the relevant page (p28) is one of those missing.

    I myself take a Peircean tack on the question, as outlined in an older thread.

  5. Aug 30, 2011 #4
    Thirty spokes meet at a nave;
    Because of the hole we may use the wheel.
    Clay is moulded into a vessel;
    Because of the hollow we may use the cup.
    Walls are built around a hearth;
    Because of the doors we may use the house.
    Thus tools come from what exists,
    But use from what does not.

    This is a popular poem that predates the Tao Te Ching and illustrates the viewpoint that the whole concept of "something" and "nothing" are relative and have no meaning outside a specific context. The same can be said for other concepts such as God, infinity, etc. Without clear definitions of the terms and clear contexts you might as well be dividing by zero.
  6. Aug 30, 2011 #5


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    This is the kind of question that makes me bang my head on my desk. Why do people spend time on such useless questions? Oh, I know, philosophy asks the questions that don't need to be asked. <bangs head on desk>

    Carry on.
  7. Aug 30, 2011 #6


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    This is where the Greek and Chinese traditions really differ. The Greek's realised that this very fact could be used to create metaphysical clarity.

    If you have one thing, you always have also its other - everything that it is not. And so nature always separates into dichotomous alternatives. Philosophy then becomes about approaching this systematically. If you have the one, you have the many. If stasis, then flux. If chance, then necessity. If substance, then form. Etc.

    So if we have something, we have to clarify our notions about it by seeking the foundational dichotomy. The simple opposite to nothing in fact seems to be everything (rather than merely something). So zero or infinity. And you can continue from there.

    Each part of a dichotomy is defined by its other as the crisp context . So there is actually no methodological problem standing in our way here.
  8. Aug 30, 2011 #7


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    Where are we drawing these probabilities from? 0 chance of Nothing existing? That doesn't make any sense at all. I see this as a faulty attempt at "resolving" a genuinely unanswerable question. "Why does anything exist?" It sets your mind in a whirl, no answer can be given.
  9. Aug 30, 2011 #8
    I have a better question. It's the ultimate of any kind.

    If everything is possible. Is it possible for something to be impossible?
  10. Aug 30, 2011 #9


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    If everything is possible, it seems certain that at least some of those things (and more likely many of those things) are contradictory and would cancel each other out. Therefore it would be impossible for every possibility to become an actuality.

    This would be a sum-over-histories view of the possible. A quantum system takes every avenue as a probability, but most of those trajectories cancel away to nothing.

    Of course, you have other arguments like Tegmark's assertion that infinity is large enough so that every possibility is also an actuality.

    Which is why you have to go back a step to answer the more fundamental question about the nature of existence.

    Does reality just exist in infinite variety as Tegmark would require (in which case the fundamental question becomes "why is there an everything rather than a nothing, or even just a something")?

    Or if you think that existence must have a cause, then you need to be able to talk about the process by which it might have developed. So again, why anything? How did it occur?

    And a self-cancelling sum of histories over infinite possibility seems the best bootstrap story anyone has come up with so far.
  11. Aug 30, 2011 #10
    If there is no methodological problem standing in our way, then there is no dichotomy.
  12. Aug 30, 2011 #11


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    That makes no sense. A dichotomy does not mean an impossibility to decide, it means a crisp metaphysical choice. Binary options that are mutually exclusive as demanded by the law of the excluded middle.
  13. Aug 30, 2011 #12


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    Please post where you are getting this definition.
  14. Aug 31, 2011 #13


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    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dichotomy:uhh::uhh: [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  15. Aug 31, 2011 #14
    That is more of a paradox than anything else. Almost the same thing as the god paradox. "If god is omnipotent, can he create a rock that he himself can not lift?"

    And the OP makes sense to me. Existence in one form or the other is more likely than nothing at all. The existence we are experiencing right now however, (this earth, this life, this universe) is almost as likely as nothing.

    Chance of no existence what so ever: 1 in an infinite amount of numbers
    Chance of existence some in one form or the other: infinite chances - 1
    Chance of the existence we enjoy: 1 in an infinite amount of numbers
  16. Aug 31, 2011 #15


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    Nothing there. As a matter of fact I did a search on your definition, and the only place it appears is in this thread. Please post a link to it, so we can see if you put your own interpretation on a definition. Or if you found some obscure sentence that's not being found. I'm refering to where you said "crisp metaphysical choice".
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  17. Aug 31, 2011 #16
    Any ontological answer to the question "why is there something instead of nothing" almost certainly has to include that idea that existence is the why of existence.

    One could say that in the vast sea of possible imagined ideas, our existence represents a small portion. I feel that is a reasonable statement to make. Following that, our existence represents a manifestation of a subset of ideas, that is part of the superset of all things that can be imagined.

    Manifestation of an idea refers, in the context I am using it, of the ability of idea to persist without conscious imagining, as things within our Universe appear to do.

    In that sense, what you are describing is a justification or reasoning for nihilism, as the discussion about "something vs. nothing" eventually leads towards existential nihilism in the form of a logical conclusion of the argument being presented: if everything is nothing, no thing can have inherent meaning.

    It is ultimately, from my perspective, a discussion about what the difference is between ideas and reality.
  18. Aug 31, 2011 #17
    Some have criticized this argument because it's not a "causal" explannation. Elliot Sober, however, argues that scientists do accept other "equilibrium explanations":

    These explain the actual situation as the outcome of most or all of the possible initial states. There is no attempt to trace the path by which the actual initial state developed into the present situation. It suffices that the result is invariant. Why do I have enough oxygen to breathe even though all the oxygen molecules could have congregated in one corner my room? The physicist explains that while this specific arrangement is just as likely as any other, the overwhelming majority of arrangements do not segregate oxygen.


    I'm not sure how convincing this is?
  19. Aug 31, 2011 #18


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    You are kidding right? Crisp means definite. Metaphysical means fundamental. Choice means options. Where is your difficulty?

    Are you saying that you believe the philosophical definition of a dichotomy is the inability to decide?

    I said this:

    So you are trying to say that this is not:

    Jeez, books are written about this stuff:

    It is so basic to human thought that perhaps, like water for fish, it goes unremarked yet is everywhere in philosophy:
  20. Aug 31, 2011 #19
    The problem of the initial argument is that it relies on probabilism. Whereas we have no idea why several universes would exist, or why there would be any manner of assigning probabilistic quantities to different versions, or why there could, or should, be any mathematical underpinning for the existence of this, or multiple, universes.

    The argument therefore fails immediately, for me, since there is no rational underpinning for the probabilistic, or mathematical, postulate. And even if I follow the postulates of the argument for a large part, I would rather assign to the idea that the relation between universes, if any, should be nondeterministic. Our one experienced universe simply exists for the reason that it can exist.

    I fail to see why this discussion would lead to existential nihilism, or even the conclusion: everything is nothing, ... .
  21. Aug 31, 2011 #20


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    No, I'm trying to get you to use standard, well known definitions as required by our guidelines.
  22. Aug 31, 2011 #21
    This is actually the point I was making. I was rephrasing the original argument presented in a way that I knew how to address it.

    My rejection of the original idea comes from my belief that the universe exists so that it can exist, as you also stated. Nihilism is the idea that fundamentally conflicts with this concept, and it is the nihilistic underpinnings of the original post that lead to my rejection of it as an explanation for the "ultimate question", as the OP posed it.
  23. Aug 31, 2011 #22


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    Well what was non-standard there? I mean really? And what was not supported by the context of what I had just written?

    Here is what you singled out:

    So I said a dichotomy is not correctly defined in metaphysics as an inability to chose (Wuliheron may have mistakenly been thinking of a false dichotomy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dichotomy).

    It is correctly defined as a pair of choices which have the basic logical properties of being jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive.

    So now do you want to keep quarrelling about that definition or do you accept it?

    If you want to keep on, then please supply your understanding of the standard definition so I can see what the heck is bothering you here.
  24. Aug 31, 2011 #23
    But, Evo is right. A dichotomy does not mean an impossibility to decide. Or I haven't encountered that definition.
  25. Aug 31, 2011 #24
    But, with topics like these semantics will always get in the way. Its all mathematics.
  26. Aug 31, 2011 #25


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    If you dig into this, there is a decision to be made about whether things are interacting or non-interacting.

    An infinity of possibilities that don't interact will have a different equilibrium behaviour than an infinity that does.

    There would be two clear extremal cases, and hence probability spaces.

    With non-interaction, you would have a Tegmarkian ensemble in which every possibility could also be an actuality (there would be nothing to stop it, and so it would logically happen).

    With total interaction, you would instead expect just one actuality to emerge from any host of possibilities. One outcome would out-compete all the rest as the persisting equilibrium state.

    You could of course have every result inbetween, if interaction was in some degree strong or weak.

    But I think there are good arguments for total interaction and therefore the emergence of some total balance of constraints, which in turn says even from an infinity of possibilities, only the one thing will become actual.

    This of course seems to rule out nothingness as one of those possibilities though. But we are now taking a developmental perspective on existence. It has to come into being via a process (a competition amongst possibilities that finds its probablistic equilbrium). And it is pretty logical that nothing can come from nothiing, and because there is now patently at least one something, then nothing was never actually a possibility. :smile:

    But that may not completely vanquish the notion of nothingness. A developmental process happens "in time". In some sense (not the usual sense as we are beyond particular spacetime in this discussion) there is a beginning state and an end state.

    So it could be said that in the beginning was everything (an infinity of possibility, an unlimited potential) and that in evolving into a concrete one-ness, it will end up creating as near to nothing as possible.

    Sound like the Big Bang where all possible dimensionality and materiality gets cooled and expanded to an empty heat-death void? The end state of the universe would still be a something, but it would also be nothing much.

    But anyway, you can build a stochastic treatment on either an interacting or non-interacting basis. And one would appear to predict an infinite ensemble of actualised worlds a la Tegmark. The other would appear to predict the opposite - all possibility boiling away to leave only the one actuality. And we can say a lot about that because we live in it.
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