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When Something Becomes Nothing


NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his own blog, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.


A friend recently asked me to comment on this little video from New Scientist, which summarizes some of the claims made in an article from the July 23 issue on the theme “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The magazine has been sitting on my gargantuan “to read” stack for a few months, and I finally got to it. But when I did, I found it extremely troubling. Many pop science writers, including scientists when they are writing pop science, try to translate traditional philosophical issues into terms they are familiar with. At best the result is, usually, to change the subject while pretending not to. At worst it is nonsensical. And sometimes it is both. Consider the article in question, which informs us that:

"Entropy measures the number of ways you can rearrange a system’s components without changing its overall appearance… [N]othingness is the highest entropy state around -- you can shuffle it around all you want and it still looks like nothing. Given this law, it is hard to see how nothing could ever be turned into something, let alone something as big as the universe."

What kind of “system” is nothing? If nothingness is a “state,” what exactly is it that is in that state? What are the “components” of nothing? What does “shuffling around” those components involve? How exactly does all of this differ from not shuffling around anything at all, or there being nothing in a state at all, or there being nothing with any components at all? What exactly does it mean to turn nothing into something, even something small? Isn’t the very suggestion pretty mystifying even apart from the law of entropy? What exactly is it that the law of entropy is governing when there is nothing around for it to govern?

The confusion continues throughout the article:

"But entropy is only part of the story. The other consideration is symmetry... Nothingness is very symmetrical indeed. “There’s no telling one part from another, so it has total symmetry,” says physicist Frank Wilczek of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

So, “nothingness” or “nothing” has “parts.” And how exactly does the claim that nothing has parts differ from the claim that there is nothing with parts? Surely what the article does not mean to say “It is not the case that there is an x such that x has parts,” since that is both false and irrelevant to the subject of the article. So is it saying instead, “There is an x such that x is nothing and x has parts”? But what does that mean? How can there exist something that is “nothing”? Does “being nothing” involve being a kind of eccentric something? Similar questions could be asked, of course, about what it means for this something that is nothing to be “symmetrical.”

The article continues:

"Wilczek’s own specialty is quantum chromodynamics, the theory that describes how quarks behave deep within atomic nuclei. It tells us that nothingness is a precarious state of affairs. “You can form a state that has no quarks and antiquarks in it, and it’s totally unstable,” says Wilczek. “It spontaneously starts producing quark-antiquark pairs.” The perfect symmetry of nothingness is broken."

So we’ve got nothingness, except that it isn’t nothingness, because what we’re really talking about is a “state” that is unstable, and this state starts producing quarks and antiquarks. Indeed:

"“According to quantum theory, there is no state of ‘emptiness’,” agrees Frank Close of the University of Oxford… Instead, a vacuum is actually filled with a roiling broth of particles that pop in and out of existence."

Again, a “roiling broth” governed by the laws of quantum theory is not “nothing.” In which case all the preceding stuff about how “nothingness” has “parts” and can be in “states” and is “symmetrical” wasn’t really ever about “nothingness” in the first place. And a good thing too, because none of those things could intelligibly be said about “nothingness,” since nothingness is, of course, not a kind of thing at all.

Nor are the reasons for this as profound as the article insinuates:

"[T]here is an even more mind-blowing consequence of the idea that something can come from nothing: perhaps nothingness itself cannot exist. Here’s why. Quantum uncertainly allows a trade-off [etc.]"

I struggle to see how it is “mind-blowing” that “nothingness cannot exist,” since this truth seems completely obvious and well-known even to young children just as well as to experts in quantum uncertainty. This is because “nothingness” just is the non-existence of anything.

But perhaps the article is here just badly expressing another thought, to the effect that it is necessary that something must always have existed, that it could not in principle have been the case that there is or ever was absolutely nothing at all. And I would say that the article is right about that. But neither “quantum uncertainty” nor any other theory of physics is or could be the reason, for quantum mechanics and all the other laws of physics presuppose the existence of a concrete physical reality that behaves according to those laws. Therefore such laws cannot coherently be appealed to as an explanation of that reality.

So what’s the point of all this ado about nothing? It seems to me the author and those are involved are trying to show that physics alone can explain the existence of the universe. Hence the key line of the piece: “Perhaps the big bang was just nothingness doing what comes naturally.” But read in a straightforward way, this is just nonsense, for reasons of the sort already given. If this so-called “nothingness” has a “nature” and “does” things, then it isn’t really “nothingness” at all that we’re talking about. And of course, the article and the physicists it quotes don’t really mean “nothingness” in a straightforward way in the first place. They mean a “roiling broth” governed by the laws of quantum theory, entropy, etc. That not only isn’t nothing, but just is part of the universe and therefore just is part of the explanandum and therefore does nothing whatsoever to explain that explanandum.

You might as well say: “Let me explain how this whole house is held up by nothing. Consider the floor, which is what I really mean by ‘nothing.’ Now, the rest of the house is held up by the floor. Thus, I’ve explained how the whole house is held up by nothing!” Well, no you haven’t. You’ve “explained” at most how part of the house is held up by another part, but you’ve left unexplained how the floor itself is held up, and thus (since the floor is itself part of the house) you haven’t really explained at all how the house as a whole is held up, either by “nothing” or by anything else. Furthermore, you’ve made what is really just nonsense sound profound by using “nothing” in an eccentric way.

The scientific "explanations" of the origin of the universe from “nothing” one keeps hearing in recent years are really no less misguided than this “explanation” of the house. They aren’t serious physics, they aren’t serious philosophy, but they are textbook instances of the fallacy of equivocation.
Originally posted at Edward Feser's blog. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Catholic World Report)

Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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