Nothing to see here, folks

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Andrew Skegg at Godless.biz has written a couple of replies to my Ultimate Questions post, which you may find interesting reading: here and here.

Meanwhile, we had a brief exchange on Twitter this morning, over a link which I’d sent him last week:

I asked which mark that was, and he replied with three points, the first of which was:

 1) The universe may not actually permit absolutely nothing to exist

We had a little to-and-fro about necessity and contingency, with me saying that there’s no reason to think that the universe (or the quantum foam it arose from) was necessary (that is, that it couldn’t fail to exist). Andrew came up with this zinger:

 


I said that this was logically incoherent, at which point he called me a troll and left the conversation -hence why I’ve decided to blog this: it’s a statement that merits some unpacking!

 Why is it incoherent?

To begin with, it makes the fatal mistake of treating nothing as something. To even talk about observing nothing is as meaningless as talking about a square circle. So long as we have an observer (something) we cannot logically have nothing. You can’t observe nothing because, well… there’s not anything to be observed.

Perhaps even more interesting, however, is the way this statement goes well beyond the reaches of the kind of (positivist?) empiricism which Andrew espouses. It seems rather extreme to argue that we can’t even say that a state of affairs is possible unless we’ve actually observed it. That seems to conflate potential with actual in a very unhelpful way. What this statement appears to be saying, in fact, is because we observe things to exist, then things necessarily exist.

One of the reasons Andrew got annoyed seems to be because I maintained that his first point required a necessary universe to make any sense. He tried to say that we cannot posit, either way, whether the universe is necessary or contingent (though I would say that without reason to think it necessary, we’ve reason to think it to be contingent; cosmologists and physicist often talk about the ways in which the universe might have been different*, or failed to have existed).

Why does point 1 require a necessary universe?

We can’t have “nothing” and a universe, for they are mutually exclusive. If we have nothing, or rather, if we don’t have anything, then there is no universe to “permit” anything. If the universe is contingent (that is, it might have been otherwise, or failed to have existed) then there is no reason why, prior to the universe’s existence, no thing existed (leaving well alone the question of how something might come from no thing). The only way in which the universe could “not permit” a state of no thing existing is if the universe were an eternal and necessary entity.

Therefore, if the statement is to be supported, it requires a necessary universe, and it simply won’t do to then shy away and say “we don’t know”. Either support the statement, or drop it.

[update]

* Despite my reservations about the multi-verse hypothesis, and whether it achieves what it sets out to do, at the very least, that cosmologists and physicists can legitimately propose such a hypothesis, I think, shows that we’ve good reason to think it possible that the universe could have been otherwise. I don’t think Andrew is a fan of the theory, however, and by the logic of his argument here, without having observed any other universes, perhaps he’d argue we can’t even suggest they’re possible.

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7 Responses to Nothing to see here, folks

  1. askegg says:

    Let me reiterate for the slow “the universe MAY not actually permit absolutely nothing to exist”. Either absolutely nothing IS possible or it is not – I am allowing for both contingencies.

    As for the first, if absolutely nothing is possible then we have not observed it yet (and I do not include the observer in that equation). I made the statement "The universe may not actually permit absolutely nothing to exist” because theoretical physics says virtual particles pop into existence (and back out again) all the time. If this is the universe’s version of “absolutely nothing” then there seems to be an awful lot going on.

    Secondly. if absolutely nothing IS possible then what can we say about it, and how would we know? Strange as it may seem, absolutely nothing may have weird properties that bend our mammalian brains – it may spawn universe for example. We don’t know.

    More interestingly, when theists claim “nothing can can from nothing” they are making claims about “nothing” they cannot possibly know AND in their view there was a deity (a thing) which created the universe from presumedly nothing. I ask you, dear reader, which is more incoherent?

    • AndrewFinden says:

      Let me reiterate for the slow “the universe MAY not actually permit absolutely nothing to exist”. Either absolutely nothing IS possible or it is not – I am allowing for both [possibilities].

      Note my edit there – I think this is what you mean, yes? I suggest we keep the term 'contingency' in this discussion to refer to the opposite of necessary – that is, an entity which could have been otherwise, or failed to have existed. One of the two possibilities you are talking of entails contingency, they other does not.

      And for the equally slow (;P) my post did recognise that you were talking about "may not" scenarios, but I went on to point out that the only reason why it would be that possibilitiy would be if the universe were necessary, which is a position you don't want to defend.

      If this is the universe’s version of “absolutely nothing” then there seems to be an awful lot going on.

      And clearly then, we're no longer talking about "nothing". Tthe normal meaning of nothing is "not anything". Nothing cannot, by definition have anything "going on", which brings me to your second response:

      if absolutely nothing IS possible then what can we say about it, and how would we know? Strange as it may seem, absolutely nothing may have weird properties that bend our mammalian brains – it may spawn universe for example. We don’t know.

      Again, you're not actually talking about "nothing" but something which you've simply labelled "nothing". I made this point in the post – that you're treating nothing as it were something which could be observed, and now, which has certain properties. But nothing isn't anything, it cannot, by definition, have any properties. Nothing isn't something that "exists", because it isn't anything – it is the lack of something. Therefore, to say it is possible that the universe doesn't permit nothing to exist is equivalent to saying that it's possible that the universe exists necessarily, which, while technically true, is not something we've good reason to think is the case, and good reason to think isn't the case.
      In this case, where's the force of your objection?

      I know it's your favourite, but I'll leave the tu quoque alone for the moment ;)

  2. askegg says:

    I suppose I should also comment on the multiverse footnote:

    The multiverse hypothesis (it’s not a theory) seems to be a solution in search of a problem. It is trying to explain why the laws of the universe have the specific values we find, however the laws describe what IS – they are descriptive not prescriptive. We do not know if the fundamental value of the universe can be altered in any way, and (as Finden points out) we have no other universes to observe to determine possible values universes may hold. The hypothesis is not testable or verifiable in any way. Until such time as a method to determine its accuracy and veracity can be determined I find the multiverse hypothesis more like a religion that physics.

    • AndrewFinden says:

      I'm not a fan of the multi-verse either – I understand the problem it's trying to avoid (the improbability of the nature of our universe) but I think it merely kicks the can down the street. That's all beside the point though, in that the underlying issue – why is the universe the way it is – doesn't seem to lead cosmologists to say answer that it is so necessarily.

      I find the multiverse hypothesis more like a religion that physics.

      You should talk to this guy – he reckons there are emprical tests for the multiverse.

      • Guest says:

        1. You both really need to define what you mean by multi-verse. The universe is all there is. We have only observed our local cosmos – thus far.
        2. Turok and Steinhardt et al have proposed an empirical test for their ekpyrotic model, which because it postulates our local cosmos arose arose out of the collision of 2 branes, fitted where the discussion was going in terms of 'multi-verse' at the time.

        Just to recap, and I can dig out citations if required there are a couple of papers at work here. When taken together, these provide not only a mechanism for the formation of the universe using a pre-Big-Bang physics that is consistent with the known physics of our universe, but also a means of testing ethis empirically. The plan is to analyse the spectrum of gravitational waves passing through the universe. If that spectrum of waves is observed to be shifted toward shorter wavelengths, then this provides confirmation that the authors have alighted upon a mechanism that is consistent with observational reality. I think LISA will have something to say on this.

        But mock me if you like.

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