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Thread: Is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" a legitimate question?

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    tWebber Kelp(p)'s Avatar
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    Is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" a legitimate question?

    According to my crap knowledge of physics, there is no such thing as "nothing" scientifically speaking. What we call empty space is still full of fields and infinitesimal quantum particles popping in and out of existence (or is that arising from and going back into the background field? Depends on one's view of quantum mechanics?) Philosophically, I've been told that "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is a nonsense question because we cannot conceive of true nothingness and thus have no reference point from which to talk about it.

    As I understand him, this is basically what Stephen Hawking means when he says that the universe creates itself without a God. He considers nothingness to be impossible and since there there is no such thing as a "beginning of time" therefore the universe must have an eternal past. I think Hawking killed my belief in a traditional Creator with this. All I'm left with as an alternative is the possibility of a God "eternal creating" the universe and providing a reason for it to exist rather than nothing at all. So, pretty much, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is my last recourse at having anything like a reason to believe in God. I know the idea of a "First Cause" just pushes the question of "why?" back one layer, but I'm trying to tackle one issue at a time here.

    I'm not sure true nothingness really is an oxymoron, though. I feel like I can, in fact, imagine nothingness. If I think of a finite particle or field, then I also have to think of the places beyond it's reach, the places where it does not exist. What's to stop me from adding "this field is not here" to every field I can think of until I've imagined a "place" in which there none of the fields in the universe are, in fact, located.

    I liken it to the way in which we speak about fictional characters. To say that Batman does not exist doesn't mean that I am speaking gibberish when I talk about Batman. The word, "Batman" has a referent. There are certain qualities and attributes and ideas that we have agreed to associate with the word, "Batman." There is no Batman in the real world and yet the idea of Batman still exists.

    One could reply that the referent for the word, "Batman" can never be as coherent as the referent, "Kevin Conroy" is because Conroy is a real person and Batman is a fictitious construct of literary devises and tropes designed to partially simulate a real person but that have no actual subject outside the mind of the speaker. However, there is enough of an agreed standardization of the character that we can refer, broadly, to the Batman and not just an arbitrary thing that each individual decides to subjectively call, "Batman" for themselves, right? It will never be as precise as the layers we refer to when we name a real person, but we can still at least know what we are talking about.

    In the same way, I think I can conceive of nothingness even if I've never experienced it and even if I can only think of a limited number of fields to negate and "add up to" nothingness. And if I can conceive of nothing, then I'm also allowed to ask why there is something rather than nothing.

    Am I making any sense?

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    tWebber Boxing Pythagoras's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 2nd Kelp View Post
    I'm not sure true nothingness really is an oxymoron, though. I feel like I can, in fact, imagine nothingness. If I think of a finite particle or field, then I also have to think of the places beyond it's reach, the places where it does not exist. What's to stop me from adding "this field is not here" to every field I can think of until I've imagined a "place" in which there none of the fields in the universe are, in fact, located.
    That place would not be "nothing."

    The problem with "nothing" is that it's not simply the place where other things are not. That would be a thing, and therefore not "nothing." You seem to be conflating empty space with "nothing." If you are utilizing the word "nothing" as a referent, as in your Batman example, then it cannot actually be nothing. A referent, by definition, refers to something; and something, by definition, is not nothing.
    "[Mathematics] is the revealer of every hidden truth, for it knows every hidden secret, and bears the key to every subtlety of letters; whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom."
    --Thomas Bradwardine, De Continuo (c. 1325)

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    tWebber Kelp(p)'s Avatar
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    But space is a property of matter, right? So where there is no matter or the influence of matter (gravitational fields, etc), then there isn't anything. One cannot even properly talk about it as a "here." It's like that line from the Neverending Story about the Nothing erasing a lake from existence and one character interpreting it as meaning the Nothing simply drained the lake leaving a hole. The Rock-Biter replies, "No. A hole would be something. This was nothing."

    I agree that the referent would not be exact, just like one can never exactly and exhaustively pin down the "essence" of a fictional character due to differing portrayals, interpretations (both of creators and of readers), etc. It seems like we should be able to refer to nothingness in an oblique, fuzzy way. At the very least, we can make ourselves broadly understood.
    Last edited by Kelp(p); 11-10-2014 at 07:51 PM.

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    tWebber Boxing Pythagoras's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 2nd Kelp View Post
    But space is a property of matter, right?
    Nope. Quite the opposite, in fact. Matter is a property of space-time.
    "[Mathematics] is the revealer of every hidden truth, for it knows every hidden secret, and bears the key to every subtlety of letters; whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom."
    --Thomas Bradwardine, De Continuo (c. 1325)

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    tWebber Kelp(p)'s Avatar
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    Oh. My mistake.

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    tWebber Kelp(p)'s Avatar
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    Still, it seems like the ability to conceive of the absence of a thing implies that we can then go on to conceive of nothingness as the absence of any thing even if we can't describe it beyond that.

    To go back to my example, Batman might not have ever been created. And if there was no Batman, there would not be a Batman-less space where Batman would have been. There would simply be the absence of Batman. Obviously, we would not be able to talk about a Batman that never was. Where would we begin? And yet that doesn't mean it is impossible for Batman not to exist.
    Last edited by Kelp(p); 11-10-2014 at 08:42 PM. Reason: clarifiction

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    tWebber
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    What is beyond the universe (what we can investigate scientifically)? I say there must be something there, though we may never be able to examine it. I don't think it makes sense to say that nothing surrounds our universe, somewhat like we can say hard vacuum surrounds our solar system beyond the Oort Cloud.
    The greater number of laws . . . , the more thieves . . . there will be. ---- Lao-Tzu

    [T]he truth I’m after and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance -— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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    tWebber Kelp(p)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Truthseeker View Post
    What is beyond the universe (what we can investigate scientifically)? I say there must be something there, though we may never be able to examine it. I don't think it makes sense to say that nothing surrounds our universe, somewhat like we can say hard vacuum surrounds our solar system beyond the Oort Cloud.
    Not if we think of the expansion of the universe as being an increase in the absolute amount of space-time that there is.

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    tWebber Boxing Pythagoras's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by 2nd Kelp View Post
    Still, it seems like the ability to conceive of the absence of a thing implies that we can then go on to conceive of nothingness as the absence of any thing even if we can't describe it beyond that.
    "The absence of any thing" is either still something, or else it is incoherent. For the former, an absence is certainly not enough to qualify as philosophical nothingness, as it is by definition a thing devoid of some other thing(s). For the latter, it is reminiscent of Russell's Paradox: the set of all sets that do not contain themselves. If "nothing" is the "absence of any thing," then it must be the absence of itself, in which case it is an ontological contradiction and cannot exist.

    To go back to my example, Batman might not have ever been created. And if there was no Batman, there would not be a Batman-less space where Batman would have been. There would simply be the absence of Batman. Obviously, we would not be able to talk about a Batman that never was. Where would we begin? And yet that doesn't mean it is impossible for Batman not to exist.
    If there had never been such a thing as Batman, there similarly could not be such a thing as the Absence of Batman.

    Quote Originally Posted by Truthseeker View Post
    What is beyond the universe (what we can investigate scientifically)? I say there must be something there, though we may never be able to examine it. I don't think it makes sense to say that nothing surrounds our universe, somewhat like we can say hard vacuum surrounds our solar system beyond the Oort Cloud.
    I don't think that it has been demonstrated that "beyond the universe" is even a cogent concept. The word "beyond" is inherently spatial. Asking "what is beyond space?" is precisely akin to asking "what is North of the North Pole?" The question is simply nonsensical.
    "[Mathematics] is the revealer of every hidden truth, for it knows every hidden secret, and bears the key to every subtlety of letters; whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom."
    --Thomas Bradwardine, De Continuo (c. 1325)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Boxing Pythagoras View Post
    If "nothing" is the "absence of any thing," then it must be the absence of itself, in which case it is an ontological contradiction and cannot exist.
    Not so, because nothing is not a thing.

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