That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what we want to know. To put it in its simplest terms, how can all of existence arise from nothingness?
Even while we understand our concepts are limited and we can never have complete knowledge, we sense that is the deep and burning question that humans have never answered to our complete satisfaction. And until we can come to terms with it, we will pursue it with a powerful and single-minded intensity.
Our conceptions require limits, edges, boundaries to exist and yet, we know full well we are attempting to use them to describe processes which are limitless, boundless, and infinite. We are even prepared to accept that the problem is with our ways of thinking about things. And many of us are even willing to question and, if necessary in the most rigorous and scientific pursuit of the truth, change our most deeply rooted paradigms…the ones that seem to be absolutely necessary to make sense of our world, the finite, mortal, material world.
We are willing to stretch our minds to include the physics of the impossible quantum realms, to embrace the unfathomable relativistic relationships between energy, mass, gravity, time, and space.
We know that we can execute, with astonishing precision, experiments that prove beyond a doubt that particles can be in two places at once. We continue to document experimentally verifiable proofs which mathematically demonstrate that particles must be in all possible places at once. We can posit, if we must, dimensions beyond our own, in which space and time are curled in upon themselves in infinitesimally tiny vibrating strings – these are things which the most stupendously imaginative of us struggle to barely comprehend.
Yet, the simple idea that, when all our most elegant conceptions are reduced down to their essentials, there remains the simple “something-from-nothing” question. And that one basic philosophical conundrum – perhaps because it is so simple and universally understood – we expect must have a simple solution.
Let’s examine our notions of “nothing” and “something”. Perhaps we’re overlooking crucial aspects of the solution to our conundrum, which may be built right into the way we are asking the question.
Conceiving an idea of “nothingness” is, in itself, an awesome feat of abstraction – considering there is never a moment in which we actually experience nothing. It seems to be a generalization of the various experiences of absence that occur when particular things or experiences are not present.
No matter, the fact that we require a demonstration of why “nothingness” is not the universal state indicates this idea of non-existence is so deeply disturbing that we must create an endless series of explanations – religious, philosophical and scientific – which attempt to come to terms with it. Our own deep-seated fear of not existing – our fear of death – is wrapped up in all this, to be sure.
As for our notions of “something”, in the past century, the common sense meaning of what exactly constitutes “something,” be it matter or energy or space or time, has been overturned by very exact science. At the quantum scale, the factual existence of matter and energy, for example, turns out to be entirely dependent on probability. And at the intergalactic scale – the large-scale structure of the universe – environments such as space and time, are relativistic and entirely dependent upon frames of reference.
Our common sense experience of both paradigms is that neither satisfies the requirement of solidity, permanence, or “realness” that we tacitly assume to be the basis for what we like to think of as “something”. Yet both the very small and the very large scale include something highly prized in our common-sense view of the world. That is, both are based on actual experience. At the quantum level, observation is the crucial ingredient necessary to bring matter and energy into existence. And at the macro scale, frames of reference are descriptions of particular vantage points of particular observers. It would seem that in order for something to exist, we (or at least observational/experiential intelligence) must be present in the universe. Otherwise, it is meaningless to speak of existence, at all. It is very significant that this is the exact sort of universe in which we find ourselves….
And wasn’t this the point or our question in the first place? I mean when we say how did something come from nothing, we really are asking where do we come from, and, ultimately, where are we going?
Next: More on where we are and where we might be going.
Image: “Something from Nothing 102210a” by Tullio DeSantis, ink on paper, 2010.