Saturday
Jan242009

Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

When all questions are eventually asked, and all answers eventually postulated, the great remaining mystery for mankind is likely to be the existence of existence. Why does existence exist? Why is there something rather than just nothing? Martin Heidegger characterized this as the most fundamental issue of philosophy. Are eternity and existence synonymous, or was there a time without existence? Was there a first cause, or is existence continuous, without beginning or end, constituting all past, present, and future states? When physicists describe the universe as expanding, what is it expanding into? When philosophers speak of the beginning and end of time, what broader time scale are they using for reference?

We have some knowledge about existence and how it evolved. Our current wisdom allows us to peel back the sequence of cause and effect, starting from our present condition and working back toward the beginning of time as we know it. We are able to do this in the context of several scientific disciplines. For example, the theory of evolution describes life’s ascent, in reverse order, to human from primate, to primate from small mammal, to small mammal from fish, to fish from marine invertebrate, to marine invertebrate from multi-celled organism, to multi-cell organism from single cell, and to single cell from the basic building blocks of proteins and replication code. We can also examine reverse chronology through the lens of geology and astronomy. Mountains and valleys emerged from plate tectonics, plates coalesced from an earth formed from solar system debris, the solar system was forged from the remnants of earlier stars, earlier stars gravitated from clouds of hydrogen gas, clouds of gas erupted from plasma during the inflationary expansion of the big bang, and the big bang exploded from the original singularity of the current universe.

Unfortunately, no matter which discipline is used to unravel the evolution of our existence, they all dead end with the most basic question – why is there anything at all? Why are there molecules and atoms and quarks? Why are there stars and galaxies and planets? These questions are not about why did hydrogen atoms become stars, or why did stars fabricate more complex atoms, but why is there any damn thing at all? Why isn’t there just nothing? Why isn’t there just a formless, timeless, empty set of obsidian oblivion, with nary a sound, nary a ray of light, or nary a quantum of matter?

Theists address this question with the postulation that God is the reason why there is anything at all. This is a tidy hypothesis, at least superficially, but despite being commonly accepted, it leads to an infinite regression that in the end is not helpful for the truly inquisitive. The proposition that God created existence merely leads to a similar question about the source of God. I suppose one can conjure a creator for the Creator, but what is the point? Conjuring an infinite regression of creators does not really answer the original question, which still lingers like flatulence in polite company. Why is there anything at all, including creators?

For atheists, the notion of conjuring creators is repugnant, partly because it leaves the essential question unanswered, and partly because it is wholly unjustified, for lack of evidence, logic, and necessity. This leaves one alternative for the existence of existence, which is that existence has always existed. But, even for atheists, this seems uncomfortably close to a leap of faith. There is no direct evidence that existence has always existed. We have various theories that posit universes giving birth to other universes via black holes, or endless cycles of contraction and expansion of our one universe, but these theories are speculative and unproven. The haunting question of existence still taunts even the most devout skeptics.

The leap of faith that existence has always existed leaves an unsatisfying intellectual aftertaste for atheists, and directly conflicts with the fundamental premise of theists. To imagine that there never was nothingness in the grand panorama of eternity seems somehow alien to almost everyone. Perhaps it seems alien because we are accustomed to a world where everything has a beginning, where all effects can be traced to causes, so therefore we expect that the perceived effect of existence must also require a beginning or a cause. Or perhaps it seems alien because there is just no reason for there to be something, rather than nothing. In other words, nothingness is the natural state, and existence is somehow a more complicated and refined addition to it. Or perhaps it is just the conceit of anthropocentric perspective compelling us to feel that existence must be a special case, because we are special, and we are not possible without a specific existence fine-tuned to accommodate us. Or perhaps we have just wallowed so long in creation myths and imaginary supreme causative beings that our intellectual toolboxes are artificially limited to the idea that the creation of existence out of nothingness must have happened somehow and some time, at the behest of God. It’s all we know. It is how we have been conditioned to think.

The question of existence is so mind bending that it is tempting to dismiss it as an idle musing that will yield nothing but a migraine. However, the answer to the question, no matter how challenging, is the only thing that will settle the question of God. If existence has always existed, there is no place for God in it. What role does a supreme being have if the being is not supreme, i.e., not the cause of existence and therefore not superior to existence? The notion of God becomes wholly unnecessary and redundant. It is exactly this corner that the theists will eventually paint themselves into. As science advances, theists retreat, redefining and reducing their god from epoch to epoch to those fewer and fewer mysteries which remain after the advance of time and knowledge. In some future epoch, the only remaining mystery, and thus the only remaining refuge for the notion of God, will be the source of existence. And even this refuge will evaporate if we eventually come to know with certainty that existence has always existed.

But, until that day of discovery arrives, there remains a doubt that troubles even those who customarily wallow in skepticism. We stand in awe at the magnitude of the universe and in ignorance at the grand scope of infinity. Where did it all come from? Even if existence was limited to a solitary atom, a single quark, or one small vibrating string, we would still demand explanation, purpose, and meaning. Where did that tiny speck of existence come from? What was its source? What caused it to pop into being?

Let’s consider more deeply the various alternatives for explaining existence.

One alternative is that existence did not always exist, and came forth from nothingness at the behest of an omnipresent and omnipotent being called God. While this cannot be excluded as a possibility, it suffers from an excruciating lack of reasonableness and supporting evidence. Not only isn’t there any evidence that God created the universe, there isn’t any evidence of God. Aside from this paucity of evidence, the postulation only superficially addresses the question of existence. It explains (without evidence or logic) the creation of our observed universe, but it begs the question of God’s own existence. Where did the creator come from? It is illogical to declare that the universe had to have a beginning, only to grant an exception to that rule for the creator that is imagined to have created the universe. Why not just grant the exception to the universe itself, and argue that it, rather than God, always existed? What is gained by adding the complexity of an invisible, unknowable, and immeasurable phantom as a causative explanation? This additional complexity seems to move us farther from, rather than closer to, solving the riddle. Lacking evidence or logic, the notion of god is thus an intellectual barrier, stopping our investigation at an imaginary gate blocking the path to basic truths.

So, despite this, what compels us to lean on the flimsy premise of God as the source of existence? Perhaps we are too easily intimidated by stupendous, mind-numbing concepts such as eternity and infinity, huge numbers like trillions and quintillions, and scalar extremes that range from the galactic at the large end and the quantum at the small end. These extremes are frighteningly alien to our familiar scales of time, space, and human perspective, so we retreat to the comfort of an invented creator who is magically the source and protector of our existence. In our fragile personal worlds, we fear death, we fear isolation, we fear threats to our self-preservation, and we fear a mystifying cosmos. In the context of these fears, God is not only a tidy answer to a baffling question about existence, god is our security blanket. Many choose this delusion, but nothing is truly answered by the God postulation. It is merely window dressing for the less comforting reality that we humans are small, ignorant, and temporal. The God postulation leaves us no better off than with Hindu paradox that "it’s turtles all the way down".

Another difficulty of the creation out of nothingness hypothesis is that no experiment could ever verify that there was ever nothing, if only because such an experiment implies at least an observer. But even this difficulty pales in comparison to the contradictory issue of the creator, who is also not nothing. To solve this difficulty, the creator could be removed from the hypothesis, but this leaves simply…nothing. Lacking a creator or a causative agent, nothingness would logically remain nothingness. There would be nothing to cause nothingness to become something. This could be considered a law of existential momentum, wherein states of nothingness remain nothingness, unless acted up by an external agent (which, of course, implies that there wasn’t really nothingness to begin with). It is a brutal metaphysical Catch-22. Nothingness is not nothingness if there is a creator, and nothingness can never be anything but nothingness without an external force like a creator.

Perhaps the universe popped out of nothingness into existence of its own accord. While this cannot be excluded as a possibility, it seems terribly unlikely. It is tantalizing to imagine the singularity that exploded as the Big Bang was so close to being nothingness that perhaps it actually was, in the moment before it became a singularity. But such thinking truly is just imagination. Currently, our ability to observe the universe and the after-effects of the Big Bang does not afford us a window into what existence was like at the time of the singularity, and certainly not before. Not only does our ability to observe fail to reach back to the singularity, our main theories, such as quantum mechanics and relativity, also collapse when extrapolated back to the point of singularity. Lacking any way to observe what happened prior to the singularity, and lacking any theory that can postulate what came before it, we have no conceivable explanation as to how nothing could have become something, or how an infinite void could have spontaneously yielded the singularity that became our universe. We don’t even have any evidence that there was nothingness before our universe. We don’t even have any evidence that before has any meaning.

Another difficulty with the spontaneous birth of the universe out of nothing is that the explanation for something emerging out of nothingness cannot begin without invoking some other pre-existent something. In other words, if you assume a beginning state of nothing, what is it that could possibly cause something to emerge from it? For example, you can invoke God to help with this, but God is something, not nothing. Or, you can invoke a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum, but even a quantum fluctuation is still something. Or, you can invoke other universes that gave birth to ours, but those other universes are still something. Or, you can invoke some mysterious energy as a causative agent, but that energy is still something. It is not possible to construct an argument for nothing becoming something without making reference to something as a causative agent. Given this argument, and given that existence currently exists, and given that we have zero evidence of primordial nothingness, the assumption of primordial nothingness is very difficult to support.

Another alternative is that existence has always existed. One powerful argument in its favor is that existence currently exists. It is a hard, unmistakable fact. Perhaps this fact is so obvious that it is easy to overlook it. All of the stars, galaxies, planets, mountains, seas, flora, fauna, molecules, atoms, and quarks are really here. They are not imagined or conjured or the result of wishful thinking. That existence exists today is an unchallengeable truth that surrounds us, comprises us, and defines us. It is as clear and immutable as any evidence could possibly be. From a direct observational perspective, we have a sample size of one (the current universe) regarding possible states of existence. From this sample size of one, the only unarguable conclusions are that existence exists, that a state of nothingness does not exist, and that there are no other samples to observe.

Another hint that existence has always existed can be extrapolated from the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. A strong argument can be made that a certain corollary of this law must also be true. Let’s call it the law of conservation of nothingness. Since energy can neither be created nor destroyed in our state of existence, it must also be true that in a state of nothingness, energy cannot be created or destroyed. If the energy in our current existence can be neither created nor destroyed, and if energy can’t be created or destroyed in a state of nothingness, then there is an insurmountable barrier between the two states. One can never become the other. An energetic state can never become nothing, and a state of nothingness can never become energetic. Given this, and given that we have unmistakable evidence that existence exists today, it is a very reasonable inference that it must have always existed. Stated differently, our empirical laws tell us that energy cannot be destroyed in the present or in the future, so this is a powerful argument for the eternality of existence in all directions of time, including the past.

So, what justification is there for arguing that there ever was anything but existence? How can we observe the breadth and depth of existence in its seemingly infinite manifestations, only to dismiss it as something temporal and fleeting? There is no reason to do this! There is something rather than nothing, simply because there is something. The notion of prerequisite nothingness is an unnatural thing. There is no need for first causes, creators, and prime movers, all of which introduce illogical, unresolved regressions. It’s all unnecessary. The most natural thing in the world is to accept existence as eternal.

Perhaps the struggle with the notion that existence has eternally existed isn’t so much about its consistency of logic or the compilation of evidence supporting the notion. Perhaps the real struggle is simply about the concept of eternity. It isn’t so much that we can find any real reason why existence isn’t eternal, we just can’t get our heads around eternity per se. Abstractions like eternity and infinity are so far outside our range of comprehension, so far outside our conceited self-referential measuring sticks, that we feel compelled to quantize them, to picture-frame them with limits and prerequisites, to book-end them with beginnings and endings. Unfortunately, the common method for doing this, which is to profess that God is the creator of existence and the grand causative and quantizing agent our minds yearn for, simply substitutes one incomprehensible notion of eternity for another. Nothing is gained with this substitution, other than our invented anthropomorphic supreme being is subconsciously easier to relate to. Even though God embodies the same mysterious characteristics of eternity and infinity, He is something of our invention, something of our own image and likeness, so therefore He is closer to our scale and comfort zone. He makes us feel safe, purposeful, and perhaps even loved, whereas the disembodied impartiality of eternal existence does not.

Pascal wrote, "Since man is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginnings are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret". Putting this in modern relativistic terms, the infinite past and the infinite future lie outside of our light cones. We can never interact with them. Likewise, the outer edges of the universe, if there are such things, lie beyond our ability to see. Clearly, we have reason to be overwhelmed by these incomprehensible extremes of the infinity that we are part of and yet swallowed up in. This drives our need for something finite to relate to. This causes some people to clutch onto the concept of God to humanize infinity for them. Others accept infinity as it is, nervously and uncertainly, with some degree of ignorance, and a large degree of humility.

But, none of these psychological weaknesses, no matter how passionately rooted in our immature brains, can change reality. A is A, as Aristotle counseled us. Existence exists. Existence has always existed. Where does this leave God? To paraphrase Laplace, we have no need of that hypothesis to explain existence. Applying Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that existence is eternal. Any other hypothesis requires the addition of unnecessary complexity and layers.

Perhaps this closing speculation will offer some solace to those who dread an eternal universe without God and some variant of life after death.  There is great power in the concepts of infinity and eternity.  A corollary of these concepts is that any event with non-zero probability has already happened, perhaps many times, and will happen again, perhaps many times.  The fact that you are reading this means that you exist, which means your existence has non-zero probability.  This, by definition, means that you existed one or more times in the past (perhaps an infinite number of times).  It also means that you will exist again in the future.  Setting aside the inconvenient truth that the past "yous" and the future "yous" are discontinuous from the present you, this intriguing quirk of infinity can be considered a kind of immortality or reincarnation that could comfort a theist and satisfy an atheist.  So, if you can embrace this perspective, hug a loved one and tell them you will surely meet again, some other time and some other place.