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Nothing Ventured

Nothing Ventured
A bold leap into the ontological void Jim Holt Harper's Magazine, November 1994

Most people spend a good deal of time thinking about nothing. Few, though, take the next obvious step and wonder: why is there something rather than nothing? Perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Since the question was first posed by the philosopher G. W. Leibniz some three centuries ago, it has occasioned a good deal of existential anxiety. William James called it ''the darkest question in all philosophy." The British astrophysicist A.C.B. Lovell observed that it raised problems that could ''tear the individual's mind asunder." And, indeed, vexing over it is often a prelude to dementia. Or, in the case of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to Nazism In 1935, around the time he began proc1aiming that Hitler would rescue the German people from their forgetfulness of Being, Heidegger dec1ared 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" to be the deepest and most far-reaching of all questions. Each of us, he c1aimed, is "grazed ...by its hidden power" at least once in our lives, whether we realize it or not: The question looms in moments of great despair, when things tend to lose all their weight and all meaning becomes obscured ... .It is present in moments ofrejoicing, when all things around us are transfigured and seem to be there for the first time, as if it might be easier to think they are not than to understand that they are and are as are. The question is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems so hopelessly connnonp1ace that we no longer care whether anything is or is not. .. It can even be argued that we are impotent to answer any question of why there is something rather than nothing. F or, as the Harvard philosopher Robert N ozick has written, ''how can we know why something is (or should be) a certain way if we don't know why there is anything at all?" But why should one bother with a question of such generality that it appears impossible to answer? Although it is certainly reasonable to inquire why each particu1ar thing in the world exists--our so1ar system, life on earth, the clock in the Grand Central station--it makes no sense to demand the same of the tout ensemble. Any factor introduced to exp1ain why there is something rather than nothing--a cosmic egg, a :fluctuation in a vacuwn, a transcendent purpose, an omnipotent deity will itselfbe part of the something to be exp1ained. Besides, if the world is by definition all that exists, it would seem foolish to inquire why the world itself exists. That is like asking why a triangle has three sides. Existing is just what the
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had finally seen a scientific discovery that was cause for cheer rather than gloom Pope Pius XII. too.The Big Crunch. he derisively referred to the hypothesized origin as the ''Big Bang. Just as space. there burst furth from nothing a sea of light and radiation . it continues to exercise the imagination of philosophers and theologians. 'I wonder at the existence of the world. it need not have existed. astonishment. Hence. Churchmen. It cannot contain the reason fur its own existence. rather like a party girljumping out of a cake. these physicists are seeking to resolve the ''how'' question that corresponds to 'Why is there something rather than nothing?": to wit. declared that the Big Bang theory bore witness ''to that primordialfiat lux uttered at the moment when. that is the cause and ground of its own being. bewilderment befure the cosmos. This truth. it does demonstrate that the universe is. Einstein. "So truly.htm 2/7 . 0 Lord. Ansehn's "ontological proof.. therefore. Anything that exists by its own nature. creation took place in time." With some metaphysical chutzpah. The great cosmologist Fred Hoyle thought that an exp1osion was an undignified way fur the world to commence. has not been unanimously welcomed by physicists. began with the premise that God is the greatest and most perfect thing that can be conceived. Ansehn reasoned. during a BBC broadcast. My God. To ask. broached early in the century and recently put beyond doubt by the data from the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite.. contingent--that is. what could? Only God. that thou canst not be conceived not to exist. therefore there is a creator. 'Whence. (Indeed. the cosmos is not eternal Rather. and matter winked into existence with the Big Bang. once. by contrast. say the theologians. opening a scientific conference at the Vatican in 1951. the ground of its own being. And it is becoming the special province of a small group of physicists known as the ''nothing theorists. the Israelite name for God. then. as philosophers say. expanding to form the present universe.com/holt." Whether the existence of the world is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans or a mere tautology. how could something have spontaneously arisen from nothing? For we now know that. time. Wittgenstein himself suggested as much when he remarked: "lfI say. 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" is. to this way of thinking. it sprang into being some 15 billion years ago with the explosion of an infinitesimal speck of infinitely concentrated energy.. contrary to what Aristotle believed. But. eventually winking out of existence altogether in a great cosmic implosion-. Saint Ansehn of Canterbury elaborated this idea into an ingenious argument fur the existence of God. is a form of the Hebrew verb ''to be. fur a real being is greater than a merely fictitious one." which the monk cast in the furm of prayer. It is clearly greater and more perfect to exist than not to exist. for one. ahhough the evidence finally compelled him to accept it shortly before his death. so too will they likely begin contracting one day when gravity arrests the expansion. He doesn't have the occasion to ask Himself. God exists as a matter oflogical d banach .' I am misusing language. must be eternal and imperishable. dost thou exist. Remember the words that the Supreme Being called out to Moses from the burning bush? ''I am what I am" What He was trying to put across was that His existence was contained in His very essence. not to mention stoned undergraduates and insomniac yuppies having a Dark Night of the Soul. The universe is neither of these things. therefore God exists! Whether or not the Big Bang truly implies that the universe was created out ofnothing by an ormipotent deity in a wholly gratuitous act oflove." concluded Inseam's invocation Lejbniz. not to pose a real question It is to rhapsodize--to express awe.2/26/12 Nothing Ventured world does. am I?" In the eleventh century. The cosmos is thus a mere interlude between two nothings. then.") Being the cause ofhis own existence ." and the term stuck. along with matter. Yahweh. found the idea that the universe had a beginning in time nutty and downright repugnant. counted Necessary Being among the Godhead's perfections.

God minus the world equal God. The point was nicely put by the British physicist Russell Stannard a few years ago in an article he wrote for the London Times: "Just as an author does not write the first chapter. you will recall. Nothing find. that Immanuel Kant nosed out the fallacy.the Unmoved Mover. the God of Abraham. a unicorn were to be defined as the most perfect horse there could be. this participation in the causal order would rob Him of His transcendence. the event of the Big Bang. there are some philosophers around today who defend the ontological argument on various eccentric grounds. " Let us. through His own free choice. like size or color.com/holt. for instance. as it were. after hundreds of years of muddled controversy. And that is all to the better. the ultimate answer to the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" There is a world because God created it out of nothing. for a little manipulation of these equations yields "God minus God equals God"--which is. that unicorns exist? No logical bridge can be built between a mere abstraction and concrete existence. so did Spinoza. all kinds of entities could be defined into existence. Suppose. it is because He harbors the reason for His existence in His nature. (A physicist I know claims that things make much more sense if you assume the world was created not by an all-good and all-powerful being but by one that is 100 percent malevolent but only 90 percent effective. d banach .) Was this putatively self-existent deity the cause of the Big Bang? Theologians and believing physicists alike tend to find this conception of God as a sort ofpyrotechnical engineer a vulgar one. or even especially invested in. as the German diplomat and philosopher Max Scheler wrote. unaided by faith in revelation. though. is left staring at nothing. so God's creativity is not to seem as uniquely confined to. If it did. Most. that a self-existent divinity was conjured into being in the first place. in the main. God is not to be thought of as an entity who gets the cosmic ball rolling-. Leibniz phunped for it. that He. Rather. and Jacob? The argument fared better with philosophers. Leibniz contended.htm 3/7 . would agree with Schopenhauer's assessment of it as a "charming joke. True. in this view. For. fully confident that we will not come up empty-handed. about the dependence of a contingent world upon a necessary being. Theologians were chary of Ansehn's reasoning from the moment it was articulated." So reason.2/26/12 Nothing Ventured necessity. dip briefly into the abyss to see what nothing looks like. Rather. the world He brought into being must be the best of all possible worlds--and. then. the Christina doctrine of Creation is. Simply put. everything in it is a necessary evil. but also accounts for the selection of this particular world: since God's creative act was motivated by His infinite goodness. looked into the abyss of the absolute Nothing will completely overlook the eminently positive content of the realization that there is something rather than nothing.") The problem with this theistic resolution of the mystery of existence is that it hangs rather precariously close to the ontological argument. It was by that bit of scholastic jugglery. (But the archbishop's arithmetic was more treacherous than he knew. irrelevant. can finnish the last link in the great explanatory chain. Isaac. He is to be seen as the only sustainer unsustained. It was not until the eighteenth century. of course. I have even met one rabbi who swore that he based his belief in God on a version of Ansehn' s reasoning. For as the old saying goes: Nothing seek. would it not follow then. and then leaves the others to write themselves. the world minus God equals nothing. by the very reasoning Ansehn employed. and He alone. equivalent to "God equals nothing. his creativity has to be seen as permeating equally in all space and all time: his role as Creator and Sustainer merge. without whose timeless purposing the world would altogether cease to be. so did Descartes." This was presumably what the Church of England prelate William Temple was trying to capture in the famous pair of equations he propounded earlier in the century. adds the cynic. Could a being whose existence is grounded in pure logic really be the God offaith. it is this: Existence is not a property of things. It adds nothing to a concept. Whether the universe happened to have a beginning in time is. ''he who has not. This not only explains why a world exists.

Not even the cafes of Saint Germain offered certain relieffromnu1Iity.including. It leaves Saint Anselm simply nowhere. they unanimously declared: 'Nothing comes from nothing.generating. if there were nothing. It was left to Hegel. inasmuch as they are also contraries." (Hard experience teaches the same lesson: Nothing is simple. (Or as my dictionary puts it..com/holt. it also impiously denies God the power to prevail against nothingness." he wrote in the treatise aptly entitled Being and Nothingness. absurd being" that environ him as he sits under a chestnut tree in Bouville. But that would simply mean that everything is obvious-. nothing.-who are fund of declaring that. Nothing is impossible fur God yet a breeze fur the rankest incompetent. this is breathtaking. " Not only does this maxim attribute to nothing the divine quality of being self. The best any deity could do. it is utterly empty. popularly held to be better than a dry martini but worse than sand in the bedsheets. Ex nihilo nihil. Something new must be fuund that reconciles and supersedes them And that turns out to be: Becoming! Becoming is what happens when Being is on the verge of passing into Nothing--or vice versa. nothing seems capable of embodying them From this it might be concluded that nothing is mysterious. '~ Although the ancient Eleatic sage Parmenides declared that it is impossible to speak of what is not--violating his own rule in the process. Sartre. You can't have one without the other. the feeling elicited by ''what is" was not so much nausea as boredom Ontologically speaking. is why the world abounds with people who know. understand. they can't coexist very happily.htm 4/7 . a frisson of anguish. the existentialists were fussy customers: neither something nor nothing afforded them much jollity. was to organize a cosmos out of a primordial mess they called Chaos. to take nothing up and really make something ofit--or perhaps the other way around. after all. was possessed with a sort of horror vacui. self-begetting. somewhat less felicitously. too. But Pre Being is totally indefinite. The philosophers of antiquity were inclined to agree. Nothing is. Et voila: a little pool ofnothingness.. But beware of speaking blasphemously of nothing. eventually yielding up human history and culture in all their variegated splendor. there would be nothing to be explained. they held. Pierre is not there. As a feat of ontological boot-strapping. presumably. a "fullness ofbeing"-. For him the encounter with nothingness was suffused with the dread of one's own impending nonbeing-. At the beginning of Hegel's famous dialectic is the assumption that the Absolute is Pure Being. they are dialectical twins. The universe. Roquentin. 'Nothingness haunts being.2/26/12 Nothing Ventured What is nothing? Macbeth answered this question with admirable concinnity: Nothing is but what is not. but this is an exercise in cosmetics rather than fu1Iblooded creation Centuries later Leibniz paid nothing a similar compliment. To be fair.to meet Pierre. in all its gooey contingency. For the more phlegrmtic Heidegger. simple. d banach . Thus does the Hegelian dialectic get merrily underway. indeed. nothing could be further from the truth. though. one wonders. the autobiographical hero ofSartre's novel Nausea. perhaps. That. He goes to Deux Magots-on a good day. fur there are also many bumptious types about-call them nullophiles. for example.the dread of death. but it is not clear how much finther. and believe in nothing.) This conviction.-the plain man knows better. was it regarded with such apprehension by the existentialists? Heidegger was filled with angst at the very thought of nothing (though this did not keep him from writing copiously about it). to them. no matter what pair of contradictory properties you choose. So nothing is nice. declaring that it was "simpler and easier than something. Why. is de trop. Nothing is easy. it must be said that neither Sartre nor Heidegger was very favorably disposed toward the category of existence either. On occasion. to bring about a world ex nihilo. It is the same as Pure Nothing. it has no qualities.''nothing: something that does not exist. nothing is sacred. In fact. is what prompted the great Rationalist to ask why there is something rather than nothing in the first place.if more paradoxically. And yet. and not really all that different than something. finds himself "choked with rage" at the ''monstrous lumps" of "gross.

then it is overwhehningly probable that there will be something rather than nothing. (Come to think of it. the cosmic background hiss left over from the Big Bang does rather resemble a giant sucking sound. pointing to the majestic complexity of living things. natural state that requires no exp1anation. Heidegger.2/26/12 Nothing Ventured Across the Channel.there is only one way for there to be nothing. every possibility. perhaps. he invites us to imagine nothing as "a vacuum force. For ifall of these possibilities -. Nonsense on stihs.J. Or that. The 1ate A.the myriad workis where there is something and the single one where there is nothing . to their credit. Ayer submitted that Sartre. after all. do not try to make evil disappear.worlds in which Henry Kissinger is a steeplejack. and that something is a mysterious deviation from it. chuckled the positivists." Nothingness is more than a mere entity.) One ofN ozick's more acute observations on the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" is that it is biased. "Suppose there is no nihilistic force fighting the existence of things.com/holt. In his book Philosophical Investigations. and that uniqueness would seem to elevate nullity from the crowd.htm 5/7 . everything. and their epigones had been fooled by the grammar of . producing something Of. but the present participle of the transitive verb ''to noth"! Nonsense with knobs on.are assigned equal chances of occurring (and why shouldn't they be?). But what if nothing really is a kind of force? What if it does ''noth''? Perhaps it might just noth itself The idea that nothing could usher the world into being by committing suicide. may seem a pretty banny way to answer the question ''why is there something rather than nothing?" But it has been semi-seriously raised by no less a thinker than Robert Nozick. Heidegger seemed to be implying. it is the great annihilating force. If this force acts on itself. is to believe that the triumph of Full Being over the Absence of All Things was just a matter of reasonless luck.'nothing". The alternative. 'Then absolutely any valid ground or reason fur things will tend to bring about their materialization And ethical realities supply such grounds or reasons. ''the universe is d banach . at least marginally better than nothing. it uhirnately turns on itself and sucks itself into nonexistence. worlds in which everything is made of cream cheese -. So its existence is ethically required. the world reappears. no one would be around to ask 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" It is also true that while there are many possible workis fur there to be something -. sucking things into non-existence or keeping them there. The leading exponent of this Axiarchic School is the Canadian philosopher John Leslie." says Leslie. After hoovering away the surrounding background. along with the Beatles. Christian apologists invoke the inscrutability of God's designs. as the Hunter College physicist Ed Tyron is fund of putting it. The Axiarchists. Given a sufficiently developed sense of irony. Nobody should have arrived first. British philosophers dismissed these vaporings as much ado about nothing. Now. Hegel c1aimed that the conflict and wickedness were mere appearances. since it behaves like a noun. with a pop. it presupposes that nothing is a privileged. they submit that the world is on ba1ance good enough -. it is true that if nothing did exist. Leslie argues that the cosmos exploded into being in answer to a need fur goodness." What about the problem of evil? Plotinus said that the murdered were themselves murderers in a previous life. Termessee Williams once said that "a vacuum is a hell ofa lot better than some of the stuff nature rep1aces it with. Rather. as it were. ''Nothing'' turns out to be a noun after all. But this is a two-edged sword.that is. With considerable sophistication.. it sucks nothingness into nothingness. (The White King in Through the Looking Glass made a similar blunder when he reasoned that ifN obody had passed the messenger on the road." N ozick recalls the vacuum-cleaner-like beast in The Yellow Submarine that goes around sucking up everything that it encounters.) Ayer's brethren among the logical positivists singled out for derision Heidegger's famous pronouncement ''Das Nichts nichtet": "Nothing noths." That sentiment has not stopped certain contemporary philosophers of a P1atonic kidney from asserting that the world exists because it is so much better than nothing. one can ahnost accept this. they assumed that it must re1ate to an entity--a something.

'' which permits the breaching of otherwise impassable barriers. provided the scale is tiny enough and the duration is sufficiently brief. but no cigar. ''Not just no matter." The nothing theorists have fleshed out a variety of rococo scenarios for creatio ex nihilo in recent years. You have a Higgs field tunneling into a quantum fluctuation through the energy barrier in a false-vacuum state.in complete accordance with the laws of physics. Of course.htm 6/7 . Add to this the "inflationary theory" developed by Harvard physicist Alan Guth in the early 1980's. is a mad ferment ofparticles and fields. and in a couple of microseconds you can have something go from next to nothing to the size and mass of the observable present universe. all relying on the idea that nothing is in some sense unstable. not a temporal. is a free hmch. these transitions cannot be thought of as taking place in time. ''Nothing is nothing. Others invoke a preexisting dust of timeless structureless points and inchoate geometries: a quantum tohu-bohu not unlike the Chaos of the ancients. and you get this bubble of broken syrrnnetry that by negative pressure expands exponentially. What the callow Tryon was suggesting was that the entire cosmos might have bounded into existence out of nowhere -. no the real item You could hold them in the palm of your hand. which says that.miraculously boosting their own energy in the process -." he told me over the phone.an infinitesimal patch of empty spacetime that. It was in 1969 that Tryon. The giveaway here is ''next to nothing.com/holt. Ed Tryon's universe pops out of a "false vacuum" . suddenly blurted out. inside the Planck length and the Planck duration you have this space-time foam where the quantum fluctuations from matter to non." That may not sound like much." (Vilenkin suggested that I think of nascent universes as little bubbles forming in a glass of champagne. thanks to the Uncertainty Principle. Listen to Kriegman explaining the spontaneous emergence of the universe to a nonplused young man at a cocktail party: As you know. d banach ." Guth observes. The key to it all is the notorious Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. When these fellows are speaking English rather than equations. but it is still something. and thence into reality. space-time emerged from nothing into a manifold of potential universes. some little bit of mathematics-saturated :fuzz.) Bya quantum process called ''ttmneling. How about a drink? You look pretty dry . The nothing theorists always seem to need some sort of orphic seed. no time. however. to get their cosmologies going. a Ukranian emigre cosmologist now at Tufts University. Stephen Hawkins calculates the probability that the cosmos might have arisen from a three dimensional geometry of zero-volume: close to naught. "The universe. doing a bit of woolgathering during a talk by a visiting celebrity physicist at Cohnnbia University. anything can happen Little space-time bubbles can froth up from nowhere. "Suppose the universe is just a quantum fluctuation?" This was greeted with a good deal ofhamnnphing by the several N obellaureates present." Tryon holds the distinction of being the first of the ''nothing theorists. elementary particles can appear and disappear. They scarcely inspire much angst..matter really have very little meaning. the one who appears to have got closest to real creatio ex nihilo is Alex Vilenkin. A random blip in the void can easily cascade into a Big Bang.2/26/12 Nothing Ventured simply one of those things that happens from time to time. he means it. . But these are all pale and paltry nothings. No space. since time itself is created in the process. .and the cosmogenic possibilities are endless. they tend to sound like the blowhard physicist Myron Kriegman (''Name's Myron Not Ron. mathematically speaking. When Vilenkin says the universe arose from nothing. Of all the nothing theorists. They are a logical." a cabal of theoretical cosmologists (clustered mostly upon the banks of the Cam and the Charles Rivers and on Manhattan's Upper West Side) who are trying to fathom what happened before the Big Bang. ''It is often said that there is no such thing as a free hmch. which allows minuscule things to blow up to colossal proportions in the blink of an eye -. mind you") in John Updike's novel Rogers Version.

If everything were permitted. When I told him the question.. It goes like this..2/26/12 Nothing Ventured sequence . "Okay.htm 7/7 . But where do the laws come from? And why these laws? We appear to have traded one orig9n mystery for another. you can say they're in the mind of God. yet admittedly there is something sterile about it." Vilenkin assured me. nothing is good enough for me. in particular. That is my own argument. about the deepest intellect I know. Then.. I complied. They have no ontic clout. If they exist prior to the universe. As Stephen Hawking asked inA Brief History of Time. 'What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? . "Are you kidding?" he said "God is so perfect He doesn't have to exist. I said I was at the end of an essay about a metaphysical question and the waters were fast rising up around me. " So I called a professor of philosophical theology at the University of Virginia. I nmg up a philosopher at Cohnnbia. in retrospect. I think I see his point. I asked him if the fact that there was something rather than nothing could be explained by invoking a deity whose essence entailed his existence.anti-matter parity . if nothing existed. nothing. He must have thought it was a Zen koan Finally. And as I've always said. despite what the nothing theorists seem to think. He tried to bop me on the head. "They exist prior to the universe. there would be no laws." it began. They need a demiurge to get behind them and shove. I ran into a Zen Buddhist scholar who had been introduced to me once at a cocktail party as an authority on mystical matters. It was from the physicist. hovering transcendently like Plato's eternal Forms. First I phoned a theoretical physicist I know at Cal Tech. ''Leave your question on my voice mail and I'll leave the answer on your machine. no one I have run it by so far has detected a flaw. for the sake of argument. After a little chitchat. the little light was blinking on my answering machine. This was alluring. at least.not to mention their extraordinary power to exact obedience from the void. I thought of it the other day while shaving. a bit precipitately -. then everything would be permitted. When I returned to my apartment late that evening. a mathematical pattern.why there is something rather than nothing. after all..one dictated by the laws of physics. That is the dilemma of the nothing theorists. ''what you are reallytaIking about is a violation of matter. (Laws are something. I played the message back with some trepidation. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" If the laws of physics come into being along with the universe." Then on the street in Greenwich Village. then there is nothing to account for their existence -.perhaps." went his instructions." he added in a bit of theistic hand-waving that is fashionable among physicist these days. But suppose the laws of quantum physics did somehow precede the cosmos. then nothing would be forbidden Therefore. He called back and left a message on my answering machine. That does not change the fact that they are only a set of equations. that nothing existed. I asked him -.) If there were no laws. ''If you like. if it existed. then they can't explain it. So I decided to enlist one more round of experts to pass judgment on my musings. I got his voice mail and said that I had a question for him. his response was vehement and ahnost churlish: 'Who says there is not nothing?" On reflection. The logic seems to be sound. And there is no need to get impaled on its horns when a much more economical way of showing why there is something rather than nothing is available. Suppose.. would forbid itself Therefore there must be something. nothing would be forbidden Therefore. d banach .com/holt.