Let’s Talk About Nothing

By Cyberquill 11/20/20149 Comments

Test card

In the beginning there was nothing, which exploded—a storied event a.k.a. the Big Bang.

But how do you define “nothing”?

In the olden days, before it became de rigueur for television networks to air programming 24/7, flipping on the tube in the dead of night you might have seen a test pattern, or test card, which indicated to you that there was nothing on that channel at that hour.

On second thought, yawny as watching these test patterns may have been, they hardly were “nothing.” They were, well, test patterns.

And when a channel’s test card was down, you saw a random dot pattern of static noise (“snowy screen”)—not exactly “nothing” either.

In short, you can bet your bottom dollar that whatever your notion of “nothing” in a given context, it invariably refers to something, material or otherwise.

To something like empty space, for example. (Think about it: If empty space were “nothing,” how come rents go up the more of this “nothing” you’re renting?)

Or to time. If time were “nothing,” then what exactly does your clock measure?

Scientists tell us that everything—including, and most perplexingly, time and space—was born out of the Big Bang, rendering meaningless such questions as what was there “before” the Big Bang, and where exactly in the cosmos—had it started out as an infinite expanse of vacuous and frigid tenebrosity with one lonesome point-sized singularity patiently suspended in mid-space just waiting to blow up—the primordial explosion went off (so that we could one day, technology permitting, erect a lavish Big Bang memorial and museum at that very location, or at least plant a little interstellar flag there to mark the hallowed spot).

Scientists also tell us that the known laws of physics permit the emergence of something (like a universe of the kind that we inhabit) out of nothing. All it supposedly takes is some sort of quantum fluctuation and—abracadabra!—there’s your Big Bang plus the whole supervenient shebang (like spacetime, stars, planets, and us).

You can easily spot the conundrum:

If a quantum (whatever exactly that may be) must fluctuate in order to produce something out of nothing, that fluctuating quantum isn’t “nothing.” So how did the mother of all quanta get there in the first place, and what made it fluctuate?

And if the laws of physics allow such Big-Bang-inducing quantum fluctuations to spontaneously form without apparent cause or enabling conditions, whence these (presumably pre-existing, even though there allegedly was no “pre” relative to the Big Bang) laws as opposed to some other set of physical laws that would preclude such fluctuations?

Laws, whatever they may permit or prevent, aren’t “nothing.” They’re laws. Ergo, if something happens, or doesn’t happen, pursuant to certain laws, it isn’t “nothing” pursuant to which that something happens or doesn’t.

Even if we assume that the Big-Bang-inducing-quantum-fluctuations-permitting laws of physics suddenly popped into existence out of “nothing,” perchance concurrently with the Big Bang, that “nothing” must have been of a kind that constituted fertile ground for such an abrupt popping-into-existence to transpire, versus some alternative kind of nothing that would have preserved its own state of perpetually timeless and spaceless nothingness by preventing any physical laws from arising that would have jeopardized the status quo.

But how could there conceivably be two different kinds of nothing? The concept of “absence of anything” doesn’t appear to brook variations on the theme, such as a potentially childing and a hopelessly barren one, as if one kind of nothing contained even less (viz., potentiality) than the other. But can a non-zero potential to give birth (as to a cosmos) rightfully be classified as “nothing”?

If it cannot, then the state that obtained “prior” (for lack of a better word) to 13.8 billion years ago (= the presumptive date of the Big Bang), no matter how devoid of even time and space, must have been quite something; whereas that other state, which did not obtain—i.e., the one with zero potential to whelp a cosmos (or anything else for that matter)—would have been the only genuine no-holds-barred nothing. The even nothinger nothing, as it were. The truly nothinging nothing, as Heidegger (“the nothing itself nothings”) would put it.

To postulate a deity, of course, solves nothing on this score (not in the sense of solving the problem of nothing but in the sense of leaving the mystery of nothing unresolved), as doing so raises the exact same puzzle it was intended to sort out. Kicking the can down the arrow of creation until we’ve run out of ideas and then simply assigning the status of ultimate first cause to an unfalsifiable entity leaves no less unsatisfactory an aftertaste of arbitrariness than does any other first-cause hypothesis that has ever been floated. (After all, there might always have been an even firster cause, like an über-god that created the god that created the laws of physics that allowed for some quantum fluctuation to kickstart our universe. Perhaps an über-über-god before that. And then it’s turtles all the way down.)

Our trusty common sense, alas, may not apply in matters like these. Human logic and intuition evolved to handle some types of problems better than others. If comprehending a particular subject matter didn’t aid our survival in the African savannah, the hominine brain never learned to wrap itself around it effectively.

Steven Pinker once spoke of “the great academic tradition of knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing.” So given enough time, we may eventually come to understand nothing.

If nothing interests you, here’s more from the experts:


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  • Richard

    Zero ranks with number and dimension as a product of the human imagination. They must do since they are not directly accessible to the senses. As such, they are vulnerable to articulate second-tier imaginitive analysis, such as your own, which reveal the inherent meaninglessness of the concepts.

    Your own cautious and objective approach contrasts sharply with the competitive presentation of the the video.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      I have no trouble wrapping my mind around the concept of there being five, one, or zero bottles of beer in my fridge (zero being exactly one less than one). Positive numbers and zero strike me as perfectly accessible to my senses.

      What I do have trouble with is visualizing the concept of there being “nothing” in my fridge, not even empty space; or, for that matter, that there might be minus three bottles of beer in my fridge such that I’d have to add three bottles in order to have zero.

      BTW, there are always exactly zero bottles of beer in my fridge.

      • Richard

        Numbers make for a good party, for sure, are intoxicating and cheap and do not require refrigeration.

  • Riichard

    If something is that which is within my personal awareness, what, then, is death?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Death might just be the end of personal awareness — the actual experience of nothingness, albeit without a sensory apparatus to do that which we, the living, mean by “experience.” Probably better that way, as being dead sounds rather boring in the long run, especially on a time scale of trillions trillions trillions of years going on eternal.

      Of course, we all hope death is not that but merely a transformation to some higher state of consciousness or awareness. There seems to be no credible evidence for that, but who knows.

      • Richard

        Nor for the converse, but who knows.

        • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

          Sucks that we’ll have to cark it in order to find out.

          • Richard

            How do you know? I might be dead now. =!=

            • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

              That would mean there’s broadband in hell. A little silver lining at least.

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