Ultimate question: Why anything at all?

  1. bohm2

    bohm2 812
    Gold Member

    “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.

    http://www.scienceandreligiontoday.com/2009/06/05/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/

    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 ∅)."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axiom_of_the_empty_set

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

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

    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.

    https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=301514
     
  5. Tools
    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. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    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. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

    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. disregardthat

    disregardthat 1,841
    Science Advisor

    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. 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. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

    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. If there is no methodological problem standing in our way, then there is no dichotomy.
     
  12. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

    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. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    Please post where you are getting this definition.
     
  14. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

  15. 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. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    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: Aug 31, 2011
  17. 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. bohm2

    bohm2 812
    Gold Member

    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.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/

    I'm not sure how convincing this is?
     
  19. apeiron

    apeiron 2,432
    Gold Member

    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:
    http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?tid=10684&ttype=2

    It is so basic to human thought that perhaps, like water for fish, it goes unremarked yet is everywhere in philosophy:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesis,_antithesis,_synthesis
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_excluded_middle
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism
     
  20. 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. Evo

    Staff: Mentor

    No, I'm trying to get you to use standard, well known definitions as required by our guidelines.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thead via email, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?