Home > Uncategorized > Why is there something rather than nothing?

Why is there something rather than nothing?

A debate recently erupted on the web in physics and philosophy of science circles about some comments made by Lawrence Krauss, author of a new book A Universe from Nothing. I learned about it from a rather good blog article by Sean Carroll.

The net is this: Krauss states that physics can now explain why the universe exists at all, without help from religion or philosophy. He also suggested that philosophers had been less than useful in making this clear. The philosophers were peeved.

As a digital physics person, I feel compelled to chime in. This is because Krauss’s way of explaining the spontaneous appearance of the universe is to define ‘nothing’ as a fluctuating quantum state, and then to show how such a state can give rise to a spontaneous universe.

But there’s a problem here, and I think it’s what some of the philosophers take issue with. A fluctuating quantum state that has conveniently been around for eternity and which is defined by an infinite-dimensional Hilbert space of possibilities is a really specific, and somewhat unusual, way of defining ‘nothing’. It’s the sort of hilarious goal-post moving that physicists do without even noticing that they’re doing it.

I think the philosophers are tempted to ask: ‘But where does the quantum potential come from?’. Me too. I think Krauss’s answer is approximately: ‘That’s the wrong question. It’s just there. You’re behind the times.’

In my opinion, Krauss’s assertions are lame. Invoking a quantum potential is just another way of saying that the universe was always there, just in another form. To say that this answer suffices is to embed your assumptions directly into your explanation. However, some philosophers’ assertion that the question of why the universe exists can never be answered is also lame. I believe that the logic of digital physics gives you an instant way out of all this waffling.

Think of it this way. Let’s say I have the rules for a universe and start following them on a napkin. I use a really big napkin so that simulated people in that universe can ask about their origins. Is the universe I simulate in the napkin real or not?

If we say it’s real, then we’re saying that something simulated is as real as our universe.

If we say that the napkin universe isn’t real, then we have to ask whether we’re in someone else’s napkin simulation. How would we ever know? Does that make us possibly not real either?

There’s no way to tell if you’re in a simulation or not, because everything in the universe can be described in terms of information. If we believe in the existence of logical physical laws, then we also believe in the potential for a simulated universe.

One might say, in response to this, that regardless of how simulated the universe might be, it’s still happening, and therefore there’s some level at which the universe is real. There has to be something at the bottom of things that’s concrete because we’re here.

But that’s wrong.

What is this magic commodity of reality that let’s us know that we’re actually happening? It’s not something that manifests as information because it can’t be simulated.  This means we can’t measure it or even talk about its properties. In fact, presupposing that it exists is a form of mysticism because it can never be proven. If it wasn’t there, and the universe wasn’t ‘happening’, how would you know?

The simple answer often given is: ‘Because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.’

But this is circular and not useful. It’s a form of faith. It’s a bit like saying that Jesus loves you because you’re loved by Jesus. It doesn’t cut it.

But here’s a question that gives us another way to look at the problem:

Does the number three only exist when someone is counting? Regardless of what units it occurs in, there’s an attribute of more-or-lessness that has a consistent effect on the universe. That attribute is so absolute that it’s conserved rigorously in physical law, defines how organisms develop, and determines which stars turn into black holes. It’s abstract enough that human beings all over the world support cultures containing the same exact notion. Quantifiability clearly exists without any of us paying attention to it. And so, therefore, does three.

Many people will tell you that three is a human creation, and something that doesn’t exist without the act of counting. But this is also wrong. Couples of any sexually reproductive species will tell you that having someone else try to muscle in on the act of intercourse is interference. Three is a crowd in any language.

But if three exists, yet isn’t physical, we have another form of existence on our hands. This existence is purely informational, and thus a lot more concrete than our nebulous sense that ‘something is real down there because it is’.

Stating this same idea more broadly, if you have a sequence of expressions that follows a simple rule, it will look the same now matter how the rule is followed. Three is still three, whether it’s measuring cows or planets. Thus we can say that logical sequences have the same kind of existence as three. Indeed, three is an example of a term in such a sequence–the set of integers. And if logical sequences can exist in this informational way, then so can universes.

This makes things tidy and simple. We don’t have to propose two kinds of existence, only one. And all sequences that have a complexity less than our own universe can be said to exist because we know that we do. No god. No magic. No quantum potentials. No mysticism. Just an assertion that certain kinds of mathematical series can be known to be ‘real’ because we occupy an instance of one, and that’s it. In a way, it’s rather like the mystical notion of ‘something is real down there’ that we discussed before, except that this time, the base reality we invoke is informational, and therefore amenable to examination.

The only question we can’t answer in this paradigm is why logical order exists in the first place. But in order to ask this question, you need logical order to frame it. (‘Splange’, for instance, isn’t a very satisfying answer, but it’s fine if you’re not insisting on logic.) So at this point, we’ve pushed as far to the edge of our fishbowl as we can get, which is as far as it makes any sense (literally) to push.

However, while we can’t follow the chain of ‘why’ backwards any further than this, we can push it forwards, and use the same kind of logic to refine our understanding of nature more deeply. We can use the same logic to demonstrate that the laws of the universe will be minimally implemented for the complexity that we see, and explain why physical laws seem regular in the first place. We can also demonstrate very simply why the idea of a god is both irrelevant and ridiculous. The same logic inexorably marches us to the conclusion that the implementation of the universe is discrete. But I’ve probably covered enough ground for now. We can unpick the rest of reality later.

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  1. May 11, 2012 at 9:05 am

    A nice discussion of the interesting storm created by Krauss. On the “existence” of 3, I like the whole-hog approach of Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_Ensemble
    Regarding your previous blog entries, I think your creation of interference patterns in a random network is very very neat indeed.

    • May 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Thank you!
      I’m glad you like the interference work. I’ve spent a long time sitting on it with the notion of releasing it first as a formal paper. That takes a lot of time and work, though, and I don’t have the luxury of academic funding at this point. At the end of the day I decided it was better to just share it. There’s more in the pipe though. I have a nice demonstration of Bell Inequality violation in a similar system. It needs some work before it’s ready to share, but the core principles are the same as the ones I’ve already shown.

      I’m definitely a fan of the finite universe hypothesis. Where I suspect I diverge with it, (or at least with Tegmark’s original description if I remember it correctly,) is the idea that all mathematical structures are real. I don’t think we can safely assert the existence of systems more complex than the universe we inhabit as we have no evidence for them. I also think we can demonstrate that the universe should be minimally implemented with probability tending to one. Thus, we can safely say that the integers exist, but we can’t claim the same about the reals. I guess I’m with Kronecker on this one. 🙂

  2. Lee
    May 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    I’m curious. This all seems to hinge on the definition of nothing. And if you define nothing, then surely you have defined it as something. So nothing is then actually always something (because nothing at least exists as an idea) which means that paradoxically nothing doesn’t exist because it is in fact something – we just don’t necessarily know or recognise what that something is compared to anything already around. To make things worse (or better, depending on your point of view), I am reminded that a lack of evidence is proof of nothing at all – so where does that leave us because if something (aka nothing) genuinely doesn’t exist, how could we ever find proof for its lack of existence, there wouldn’t be any proof for us to not find which nicely brings us back to the fact that a lack of proof is proof of nothing at all. Long may the circle of life continue 🙂

    • May 12, 2012 at 3:20 am

      Hi. Thank you for your comment!
      I think you’re dead right that the definition of ‘nothing’ is relevant here. However, I’m not sure I can quite buy the idea that defining ‘nothing’ makes it ‘not nothing’. That’s like saying that defining the empty set puts elements in it. You’re also right, though, that a lack of evidence neither proves nor disproves anything. I’m reminded of Karl Popper in this regard and the whole ‘science advances by refutation’ argument.
      What’s curious about this topic, situated as it is at the edge of our capacity for reason, is that it requires that any refutation we engage in be logical refutation, rather than experimental. This is because as, at some level, we’re already operating outside the physical universe when we frame the question of why anything exists.
      As a response to your rather splendidly zen way of framing the dilemma, I would propose that we can define nothing quite precisely with questions like the following: “What is the positive integer that comes before one?” It’s rather like the mathematical equivalent of a single hand clapping.

      • Lee
        May 14, 2012 at 5:40 pm

        Brilliant. I love it Alex – a single hand clapping, oh what a beautiful sound. Somewhere in the *every action has an equal and opposite reaction* universe, there is another hand clapping in unison 🙂

        You make a very good argument though I have to say and I suppose I must be careful myself in how I describe things because whilst I don’t quite believe (or should that be think?) by defining nothing as *nothing* means that it suddenly becomes the reverse. Is something the reverse of nothing? It sounds like it but that’s not perhaps the best way of describing what I meant.

        I suppose I was thinking something along the lines that the minute we identify or create the concept of nothing (is that the same as zero?), we have identified it as being a concept that occupies a space within our conscious mind. So nothing is just a label for something that we know is out there but we just don’t know what it really means or how it works or affects other things because (and here’s where my logic kicks in) by definition you can’t study something that doesn’t produce evidence to be refuted etc. etc. Maybe I’m stretching beyond pure mathematics here. Either that, or I simply don’t understand the prevailing concept of nothing because to me, true nothingness would be more like an unknown unknowable.

        What do you think?

      • May 14, 2012 at 11:27 pm

        To my mind, ‘nothing’ is a kind of a term that we bandy about, rather like ‘infinity’. There are certain questions we can ask, such as ‘what is the positive integer smaller than one?’ for which there isn’t a valid answer. ‘Nothing’ is the label we put on such replies, but it’s a label rather than an answer.

        Given that we’re talking about a mathematical universe here, I guess what I’m proposing is that questions like ‘what came before the first moment in time?’ fall in the same bucket. It’s not so much that we’re saying that ‘something’ emerged from some prior, indescribable state that we’re labeling ‘nothing’, so much as we’re saying that it doesn’t make sense to ask the question of what came before the initial conditions. And having initial conditions doesn’t invalidate the descriptive structure that we’re using any more than having a smallest number invalidates the integers.

        To my mind, this means that ‘nothing’, instead of being a quantum state or whatever else, becomes a way of saying that a question doesn’t make any sense. I remember reading Godel Escher Bach many years ago, and the idea of ‘mu’, the third logical state, that Hofstadter imported from Zen Buddhism. To some questions, the only valid response is ‘un-ask it’.

      • May 15, 2012 at 1:13 am

        Lee and Alex
        I think it’s even more zen like than you may fear. A popular axiomatic definition of the natural numbers is:
        define the first natural number as the empty set and call it “0” ie
        0={}
        then every successive number is defined as n U {n} so
        1 = 0 U {0} = {} U {0} ={0} ={{}} and so on eg
        2 = { {}, {{}} }
        so the natural numbers are the sounds of an audience full of no hands clapping
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_number#Constructions_based_on_set_theory

      • May 15, 2012 at 4:58 pm

        Awesome. Peanotastic, in fact.

  3. bob green
    May 12, 2012 at 12:58 am

    You may find the book “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed” to be interesting. It has math in the Appendix to back up the claims. It is hard to argue with the math!

    • May 12, 2012 at 2:51 am

      Thank you for the tip! I’ll take a look.

  4. May 12, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    There’s a mistake in there.

    “And all sequences that have a complexity equal to or less then” should obviously be “less than”.
    Just a heads up. Nice article, even if I do believe in a God.

    • May 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Thank you. Positive feedback from someone with differing opinions is the best kind! And I think you’re right, it should be “less than”.

  5. September 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I just read “Building Universes using Extreme Relativity” by James Dunn

    He cites the foundations of his theories began with a question asked of him “What is Nothing?”.

    The result is Relativistic Space, and the foundation is Non-Relativistic Quantum Causality.

    Cited are several base types of causality that form Relativity.

    • November 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Thank you for the link, and apologies for the late reply. I’ll take a look.

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