“Ex nihilo nihil fit”
(Out of nothing comes nothing)
Parmenides, 2,500 years ago
Notwithstanding a few creationists out there, I think we can all agree that the universe existed long before we humans arrived on the scene and that it will continue to exist long after we’re gone. This being true, then we can easily conclude that the universe does not need any physical laws to control its behavior. It’s we humans who need such laws – to understand and try to explain what we observe in all of nature. And, laws evolve contemporaneous with human knowledge.
As the theories of really smart guys like Newton and Einstein are tested and confirmed, new laws replace or modify old ones and new ones are thought up to fill in the gaps. And on it goes until theory becomes, beyond any reasonable doubt, a demonstrable and unfalsifiable fact. And then somebody discovers something that falsifies the “fact” and the search for truth goes on.
Another important concept here is that we humans can only perceive the universe within the confines in which we exist and through our senses; trapped in three dimensional space and riding along the arrow of time at the human scale. This is sometimes called the Anthropic Principle. In fact, all the metrics we use as standards and measures are anthropocentric. A light-year, for example, is the distance light travels in one earth-year, which is also one human-year.
Of course, humans can also build physical theories out of imagination and extrapolations, most of which depend on mathematics as a proxy for the senses. Einstein, for example, imagined riding on a beam of light and imagining what he would see. That, in turn, led to his conclusion that the speed of light is constant, which then became integral to his “Special Theory of Relativity.”
The anthropic principle is also the way we can project ourselves onto the universe. But its influence was originally limited to theistic cultures. At first, we thought our little rock was the entire universe and saw the sky above as the “ firmament.” Then we found out that there was a cosmos out there, but were sure we were at the center of it. We were positive that the sun rose and set, even though the sun was still and we were rotating from west to east. We thought the world was flat. We thought the universe was static and unchanging. But as we know, all of these observations were wrong. They had to be informed by an objective science that had, literally, universal application – testable, falsifiable. Science therefore has developed and is continuing to develop the tools and intellectual concepts that we humans can use to better understand the universe in all of its aspects. Meanwhile, the universe just rocks along. It has no secrets, no mysteries. Those are our problems to try and solve, and do so the only way we can – anthropically.
I mentioned the arrow of time. The arrow of time means, at the human scale, we’re always moving away from the past and towards the future. Notwithstanding some highfalutin mathematical and cosmological theories to the contrary, it can be said that, as a practical matter, the arrow of time does not move backward. If a glass drops off the table and breaks on the floor, there are no physical laws in this particular universe that allow for the that glass to reassemble itself and jump back up on the table (with or without the Scotch that was in it.) Such an event would be, in effect, a reversal of time, which is a no-no where we live – not to mention a violation of Newton’s second law of thermodynamics.
Further, and more importantly, it can be said that the movement of the arrow of time throughout space is the result of a series of causes and effects, most of which are nonlinear, multifarious, complex, highly chaotic, and virtually incalculable.
These are qualities that are often imbedded in chaos theory, which produces something like the Butterfly Effect, and which is defined as “a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.” The common illustration, and the way the Butterfly Effect got its name, is to say, hypothetically, that the wind produced by the wings of a butterfly in Japan could, when combined with other events over a period of time, produce a tornado in Kansas. And that, of course, is how Dorothy ended up in the land of Oz.
But where did the butterfly come from? And what happened after the tornado touched down? And what were the consequences of all the other concomitant events that took place between the production of the little wind and the impact of the big wind?
In terms of the world of nature, then, cause and effect are like a chain reaction with many past events producing more events, that produce even more events; all moving along the arrow of time, which, in combination, are the continuing, collective and increasing sum of all histories.
In spite of this, there are those who claim that something can come from nothing; an ex nihilo event, an uncaused cause if you will,. But that leads to circular logic. If the Big Bang created the universe, then what caused the Big Bang? And then what caused the cause of the Big Bang, and on and on ad infinitum. The difficulty in accepting the idea of an uncaused cause is to admit an infinite regression of causes. But this is no different, it seems to me, than considering the future as unending, eternal, forever, an infinite progression of causes and effects.
Just when I’m comfortable in my logic and with my meager knowledge of science as to the notion of causation, along comes physicist Lawrence M. Krauss with his 2012 book. “A Universe From Nothing – Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing” and tries to blow it all away. Krauss drills down into the depths of quantum mechanics and talks about things like virtual particles and vacuum states, and quantum entanglement, and other obscure theories that give us lay folks a bad case of cognitive dissonance.
However, some critics say Krauss failed to make his case that something can come from nothing; that there exists an uncaused cause. One such critic is David Albert a professor of philosophy at Columbia University who also has a Ph.D. in physics. In his New York Times article, “The Origin of Everything,” (March 25, 2012) Albert challenges Krauss’s use of vacuum states and writes:
“The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves [vacuum fluctuations], is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.”
I would offer another argument for Dr. Krauss to consider. That which exists must have one or more properties. Nothingness, in its most fundamental meaning – a void, a null set, a complete emptiness — has no properties; no energy, no mass. A donut hole is merely a description of a space. You eat the whole donut, but you don’t eat the donut hole.
The point being that nothingness cannot exist and the question is meaningless. Furthermore, if there can be no uncaused cause, which means causation is infinite, and “some thing” is the result of causation, then there has always been something. So the question of why there is something rather than nothing is therefore incoherent . And a seemingly ex nihilo, uncaused event has no basis in nature and is thereby anthropic.
In light of the foregoing, this conclusion may leave the cosmologists and quantum physicists in a pickle. The Big Bang singularity, if the Big Bang happened at all, may have been merely an effect – caused by something we don’t yet know about or understand. The relatively new “discoveries” of Dark Energy and Dark Matter have thrown yet another monkey wrench into search for the so-called “Standard Model” of the universe, which tries to combine the four forces of nature into a single, simple, and “beautiful” equation that explains everything. And the ideas of an infinitely oscillating universe, or bubble universes, or a holographic universe suddenly loom large as part of an infinite array of causes and effects. But the claim that something came from nothing is not among the options to be considered.
Of course, the idea that we humans are part and parcel of an infinite series of causes and effects, a minor actor in the sum of all histories, that history itself is infinite, is also problematic for some philosophers and virtually all theologists. If we can understand the causes of causes, then surely we can predict the effects. That leads to the concept of determinism. But determinism only works in a linear setting – a closed system. We know the speed of light and we can compute distances, so we can determine how long it takes light to reach the moon and bounce back. We know the force of gravity, so we can predict how fast you will be going when you hit the ground after falling off a 30 story building.
But in an non-linear, open system, determinism is a bit more problematic. Take, for example, the flipping an honest coin and the ability to “determine” with certainty — not probability — whether it will land heads or tails.
To do this, you have be able to measure a number of things in real time: The force of the flip, the dimensions (size, weight) of the coin, its trajectory and speed, the distance above sea level, properties of the landing surface, and the direction and speed of any wind, among other things. All of those factors will combine as a series of causes and effects that will ultimately determine whether the coin will land heads or tails.
If this theory of cause and effect is valid, then the question arises as to whether all the events in the universe are determinable. And if, by universe, we include all life forms, including human beings, where does that leave the notion of free will?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says free will, “is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” As a term of art, then, free will is merely an intellectual construct or device as distinct from an empirical phenomenon.
We cannot choose the hour, day, month, or year we are born. We cannot choose our parents. We cannot choose the physical attributes or mental capabilities or gender that we are born with. We cannot choose the place we were born or the culture or the political system we were born into.
We therefore come into this world with a lot of history already made an inherent part of our selves; a history over which we had no choice. As we mature from infants to children to adults to old age, our exposure to, and our perception and processing of the external environment, adds to that history, along with any infirmities we may have along the way. We are each unique. Of the estimated 100 billion human beings who ever lived on this planet, none were like you or me or any other person, including identical twins.
We deal with right brain/left brain processing even as we vacillate between conscious and subconscious states, all the while contending with the 10 million bits of information neuroscientists say we receive every second, while only being able to process 50 or 60. Our thinking processes are therefore the result of what we acquired from our ancestors, the environment we grew up in, the social and cultural climate we are exposed to, and our ability to apply and use abstract thought. And it all plays out through a series of causes and effects recorded in our neurons and propelled by neurotransmitters that traverse the synaptic highways of our brains.
Philosopher and now neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote a book on Free Will in 2012. In describing the nature of this book, Amazon.com writes:
“A belief in Free Will touches nearly everything that human beings value. It is difficult to think about law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, morality—as well as feelings of remorse or personal achievement—without first imagining that every person is the true source of his or her thoughts and actions. And yet the facts tell us that free will is an illusion.”
And Harris writes in his book, “You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
With respect to free will then, we are each the sum of our own personal histories as well as the sum of all of our ancestors histories going back some four billion years or so. (And even beyond that if you consider quantum entanglement.) To the extent that our reality contains the arrow of time, and that the arrow is always going from past to future, and that our histories are always expanding as the future becomes the past, then, by definition, we cannot alter the past.
Therefore, free will cannot exist in a universe where events are the result of cause and effect. But determinism too is limited. Some might use the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that the position and the velocity of a particle cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. Some have used that concept to say we can’t be certain of anything. But we are not dealing with atomic particles here.
In pool, if we are concerned that when we hit the 8 ball, hoping it will go into the corner pocket, the cue ball may end up in the side pocket. But that concern is determinable if we had knowledge of all the relevant factors in real time much like the coin flip discussed above. The uncertainty exists only because we lack the means to measure the series of causes and effects in real time. Besides, the pool sharks who do tricks all the time have figured out from repeated practice what they need to do to make the trick work; i.e., they have found the causes and effects.
Then there is a thought experiment where, if you left five minutes earlier than the time you actually left, you would have been involved in an accident. Causes and effects are not only co-dependent, they are also time dependent.
Of course, the universe doesn’t give a flip (pun intended) about determinism, much less chance, randomness, luck, or design, neither grand nor intelligent. In fact, the universe performs just as it’s supposed to, as it has since we started measuring time (in earth time, of course) and as it will continue to do. And it will do so whether we humans can figure it all out or not. Of course, the complexities and dimensions of causation are anathema to reductionists and a nightmare for theologians and even some philosophers.
But nothing may win out in the end after all. A couple of years ago, I posted this about “nothing” on another blog:
“It is my un-erudite opinion that nothing is, in point of fact, something. Indeed, nothing is a wannabe something, a something lying in wait, if you will. Of course, nothing is also something that ceases to be.
“Trillions of years from now when all the suns in the universe will have burned up all their fuel and the forces of nature will have stopped being, well, you know, forces of nature, then nothing will not only be something, but nothing will be everything!”
*This is a revised and expanded version of the original post made on October 2, 2013