Why Does the World Exist?

In Jim Holt’s enjoyable book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, he recounts conversations with a wide variety of thinkers, from physicists and biologists to writers and philosophers, who have struggled with the Primordial Existential Question. You probably know my take on the issue, but Jim and I sat down at the LA Library a few weeks ago to chat about this and related issues. I think it’s safe to say we at least had a few laughs. Here’s the complete video; audio is also available as a podcast.

Jim Holt and Sean Carroll from ALOUDla on Vimeo.

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53 Responses to Why Does the World Exist?

  1. Bob Zannelli says:

    Interesting discussion. I wish Carroll and Holt could have gotten into the interesting questions brought up at the end. I thought Holt’s comments about Krauss were unfair, it seems reasonable to me to apply our best, but obviously incomplete understanding, to the question of where the universe came from. After all that’s what Carroll and Chen do in their very interesting model. Krauss does not define nothing as the quantum vacuum as Holt seems to think (he must not have read Krauss’s book) Instead the “nothing” that Krauss talks about is the “void” of third quantization, which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space and time. Finally I think Andreas Albrecht and Lorenzo Sorbo have demonstrated that the prediction of the high probability of Boltzmann brains as compared to inflating universes is due to an incorrect way of framing the probabilities and once the calculation is done properly , the probability of inflating universes far exceed the probability of Boltzmann brains. [ hep-th/0405270v2]

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  2. Dan says:

    Very interesting discussion, though I’m not a huge fan of Jim Holt. A more modest moderator might have allowed more time for answers rather than questions. But I digress. I hope there’s a way to disseminate the paper you’re writing with Alan Guth about the eternal nature of the universe. That sounds fascinating.

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  3. Darren says:

    The question, “why is there something rather than nothing” is an example of how good philosophy is at asking questions, but dreadful at answering them. In this case I don’t even think it’s a good question. Why should we not ask it this way: Is nothing possible?

    Why is nothing supposed to be a default position? Of all we experience every day, all of the “something” we see around us, it seems that the default is stuff, rather than no stuff.

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  4. AI says:

    To exist is defined as being a part of the World so the World exists by definition.

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  5. James Cross says:

    Bob,

    Krauss’ book is called A Universe From Nothing. Should he have titled it A Universe From the Quantum Void?

    It amazes that physicists, many of whom are atheists, can seriously discuss Boltzmann brains.

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  6. Michael says:

    Sean,

    Here’s another question: why no dark matter effect on the solar system?

    http://arxiv.org/abs/1306.5534

    ;)

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  7. Sean Carroll says:

    Why no dark matter effect on NBA three-pointers?

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  8. Lord says:

    So 2013! Have to wonder though whether we have memories of the past or of all possible pasts that could have reasonably lead us to where we are today.

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  9. Michael says:

    “Why no dark matter effect on NBA three-pointers?”

    Point taken, but don’t the current models predict some impact at solar system scales (and Lebron James scales) ;)

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  10. Michael says:

    Meant “and not” Lebron James scales :(

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  11. Michael says:

    Sean, I saw the cited paper through a link from you lovely wife’s G+ page regarding this article:

    http://www.technologyreview.com/view/516681/the-incredible-dark-matter-mystery-why-astronomers-say-it-is-missing-in-action/

    It seemed like a legitimate issue, but maybe not . . . anyway, just curious.

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  12. amer says:

    Holt really needs to learn to keep his mouth shut and let his guest speak!!! Also, in the discussion there was no exploration or recognition explicitly that if all there is is a probabilistic distribution then this conversation itsef is no more than a simple distribution of matter akin to the output of Shakespeare’s monkeys. In other words there is no causality and there is no conscious meaning or comprehension. They are sitting inside one of the meaningless patterns of the quantum wave functions.

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  13. Sean Carroll says:

    The predicted effects of dark matter on solar system dynamics are below what can be observed, and then when we go look for them — we don’t see them. Which adds or subtracts pretty much nothing to the status of dark matter as a theory.

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  14. Peter says:

    Sean,

    At the beginning you’ve mentioned that perhaps space might not be fundamental. Could you elaborate on this?

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  15. Meh says:

    You know my beef with the nothingness conversation/argument that seems to be common now? A state of nothing is something. “Nothing” in our universe is complete static equilibrium of the quantum field. Something comes from nothing by the addition of Time causing a change in that static state. So saying “why is there something rather than nothing” is not a question we can answer because we are restricted to the nature of our universe. Our physics are designed to describe a universe with Time because that’s the universe that we are a result of. We can tell you what “nothing” is; but that’s not the actual question philosophers want to know the answer to. The question they want to know the answer to is: “what is nothing, and where does it come from? (further) If you’re describing it as ‘something’, then doesn’t that mean that it’s no longer ‘nothing’?” And that’s why we all learned Limits in calculus, because that’s the way the multiverse works. Happy 4th of July and remember: Don’t Drink and Derive.

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  16. Meh says:

    In other words, if our existence is restricted to the laws of physics, then we cannot and will never be able to answer that question because it is outside of the limits of our existence,

    Someone told me there was a brown out. A brown out being a power spike causing a temporary outage on certain electronics; like a black out. My crude joke was “A brown out? You mean when you think you have to fart, so you let it rip, but it turns out you had diarrhea?” The idea of a limit to Physics is a brown out in the physics community.

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  17. Peter says:

    Thanks! Very helpful!
    (I know it’s considered a lost of bandwidth on the the internet to thank people, but it’s in my human nature to do it.)

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  18. Antonio Sanchez says:

    Hi Sean,
    thanks for posting the video.

    Once again it came out the question about why the entropy was so low at the beginning.

    It seems obvious to me that if there was no space around (educated guess) prior to the big bang there was no possible grade of disorder involved (a characteristic related to a dimensional world).

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  19. Bob Zannelli says:

    Antontio , Carroll rejects the idea, as far as I can tell, that Bekenstein’s entropy bound applies to the early universe which logically would have low volume phase space. He argues that there must be the same number of micro states when the universe was 1 cm is size as it now with our O region at a radius of 46 BLY because of information conservation (Unitarity) mandated by quantum theory. I love his book, Fron Eternity to Here” it’s a must read book, but on this point I don’t understand why Carroll asserts this. Isn’t the history of the Universe classical , a decoherent history? Perhaps he will respond to your question and clarify this.

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  20. I’ve never seen an interview where the interviewer talks twice as much as the interviewee.

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  21. SebastianS says:

    Hi Sean,
    What were you about to say at 53,31 into the video regarding Vilenkins view?

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  22. Mike D says:

    Sean,

    I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind (maybe in a future blog post) elaborating on your disagreement with the BGV Theorem. I read Vilenkin’s book recently and I’m not quite sure to what you were referring when you mentioned that they were starting with a set of assumptions. I know we both know of a certain theologian who likes to combine that (the BGV Theorem) with an “impossibility of an actual past infinite” argument to “prove” the universe was poofed into existence by a deity.

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  23. Bob Zannelli says:

    I don’t think the reasoning involved in the BGV theorem is in much doubt, it even applies to cyclic models like the Ekpyrotic proposal. But this doesn’t really mean that the Universe ( or Multiverse if you prefer) isn’t past eternal, rather it proves that inflation can’t be past eternal. In fact several origin models produce past eternal universes without running afoul of the BGV theorem. These are the Carroll-Chen proposal, the no boundary model ( Actually discovered by Page) Linde’s tunneling model, the Aguirre-Gratton steady state inflation model and the Veneziano Gasperini pre big bang model. These are speculative of course, but any model that proposes an origin scenario absent a working quantum theory of gravity must of necessity be speculative. All of these models evade BGV by postulating time reversed histories. Based on this the BGV theorem isn’t so much an assertion that the universe can’t be past eternal , but rather that there must exist a boundary of some form for which the possibility of time reversed histories are not ruled out.

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  24. Bob Zannelli says:

    Clarification ;I wrote with regard to the No Boundary Model ( Actually discovered by Page) The NBM was of course proposed by Hawking and Hartle, not Page. Hawking thought his model predicted a closed universe which reversed its arrow of time during collapse. Page pointed out to Hawking that what the NBM really predicted were time reversed histories. Hawking called this his greatest blunder, though for what’s it worth I would argue his conceding on the black hole information paradox bet , given the discovery of the Firewall problem actually falls into this category, but I digress.

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  25. Jimmy Vick says:

    Black Hole Merger Paradox… solve this one…

    Black holes are in a quasi-state of equilibrium that is constantly changing due to new material always being added over time. Black holes would then seem to have an identity based on their ever changing physical information and mass no matter what form either takes. How then can two binary black holes conduct a merger if they must preserve their own unique information that defines them from one another?

    I have a solution…

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  26. Bob Zannelli says:

    but that’s not the actual question philosophers want to know the answer to. The question they want to know the answer to is: “what is nothing, and where does it come from? (further) If you’re describing it as ‘something’, then doesn’t that mean that it’s no longer ‘nothing’?”

    Hawking would argue that the No Boundary Model answers this question because when you sum over all histories you get a static state that is eternal.

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  27. Meh says:

    Hartle and Hawking are smart kids. I think they’ll do well in life.

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  28. Bob Zannelli says:

    Vick Writes
    “How then can two binary black holes conduct a merger if they must preserve their own unique information that defines them from one another? ”

    Why must merged black holes preserve their own unique information that defines them from one another?

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  29. Bob Zannelli says:

    In another thread which is now closed I read a series of attacks against Lawrence Krauss. They were full of venom but much lacking in substance. This thread is on the same topic so I can’t resist making a brief comment. All or at least most of these attacks seem to hang their hat on the question- Where do the laws of physics come from? I don’t really think this question makes any sense. The so called laws of physics are based on human created models which attempt to describe reality in a way that is predictive. The behavior of reality is immanent in the nature of that reality, , it’s not the result of some higher level of reality as a law giver. Describing physical models in terms of “laws of nature” is a religious holdover from when most scientists still believed in the supernatural with a supernatural law giver. These attacks against Krauss, in my opinion are the result of this kind of thinking, another unfortunate influence of religion.

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  30. James Cross says:

    The problem some of us have with Krauss is in the title of his book. If you title it A Universe From Nothing, the average reader is going to understand that “nothing” means “nothing”, not a code word for a scientific concept, hypothesis, or whatever you want to call the quantum void. Add to that the chapter where Dawkins crows that physics has arrived at the final explanation for the existence of universe and you can perhaps understand why Krauss brings out such venom.

    I think it is legitimate position to say we don’t care or need to explain why the laws of nature are the what they are; but, Krausss premise of a “universe from nothing” hinges on his non-explanation explanation that the laws are arbitrary and random.

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  31. Bob Zannelli says:

    Every complaint of what Krauss and Dawkins writes in “A Universe From Nothing” seem to be talking about something other than what I read in this book. Nothing Krauss writes is at odds with our current best understanding of physical reality, that I can find. Someone bring something specific from the book that they think is at odds with this and we can discuss that. I couldn’t find anything that falls into this category. I still think the problem people have with this book relate to an outmoded form of thinking, a holdover from a time when it was universally accepted that the world was governed by a supernatural law giver. We can’t give up on this idea of a reality that transcends the merely physical. But we should. Physicists used the terms Laws when it was almost universally accepted that nature was governed by divinely ordained laws from a divine law giver. Nature was in obedience to this divine will. But we now know, or at least should, that we don’t discover laws, we create models, generally mathematical, which if they are successful have some imperfect correlation with physical reality. Reality behaves the way it does, not because of some powerful overseeing reality above nature, but rather because of the immanent nature of really itself.
    Once you understand this , the so called laws of nature, absent physical reality makes as much sense as a mind, absent some form of physical brain. So called laws and physical reality are just different attributes of the same and quite unitary reality.

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  32. John Kniess says:

    At about 29:00, you speak of the probability of there being “something” rather than nothing. Is it fair to dumb that down to “It may be that there is ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ simply because the ways in which there could be ‘something’ are so much more numerous than the ways there can be ‘nothing'”?

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  33. Cosmonut says:

    Bob Zanelli:
    “Once you understand this , the so called laws of nature, absent physical reality makes as much sense as a mind, absent some form of physical brain.”

    Precisely. And that’s what makes Krauss’ claim contradict itself out of existence.
    Because nothing would be an absence of physical reality which would imply an absence of laws of nature. So saying that “the laws of nature allow something to come from nothing” makes no sense at all.

    Unless nothing is redefined to mean “some kind of stuff very different from what we see” which is what Krauss does and that’s disingenuous. (This is pretty much David Albert’s critique, which is spot on)

    In fact, there can be NO scientific explanation of how something comes from nothing, because the scientific explanation would start by assuming the existence of some kind of substance/reality/quantum field/whatever behaving according to some model, and that wouldn’t be nothing.

    There can’t be any religious explanation either, because those start with God, who is, also a something. ;)

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  34. Bob Zannelli says:

    Cosmonut writes

    Precisely. And that’s what makes Krauss’ claim contradict itself out of existence.
    Because nothing would be an absence of physical reality which would imply an absence of laws of nature. So saying that “the laws of nature allow something to come from nothing” makes no sense at all.

    Unless nothing is redefined to mean “some kind of stuff very different from what we see” which is what Krauss does and that’s disingenuous. (This is pretty much David Albert’s critique, which is spot on)

    In fact, there can be NO scientific explanation of how something comes from nothing, because the scientific explanation would start by assuming the existence of some kind of substance/reality/quantum field/whatever behaving according to some model, and that wouldn’t be nothing.

    End Quote

    Fair enough. But I think a reasonable argument can be made that “nothing” and everything are not really such different things. If you sum over everything in the universe, all energy, momentum and so, it seems to be the case that it all adds up to zero. The old adage that nothing comes from nothing might well be true, that the universe is rearranged nothing. Of course this still leaves the question of arraigning which is not nothing. But here again it might be that the distinction between static and dynamic is only a matter of perspective, that summing over everything produces a static state, with the dynamic aspect of reality being due to having only partial knowledge, in a way analogous to how the superposition and left and right circular polarization of photons produces a linear polarization with no rotation of the electric and magnetic vectors.

    If you look at the quantum vacuum in Quantum Field theory , that is a state devoid of any real particles, you have , ignoring space and time, a state of nothing. But nothing is unstable, quantum uncertainty doesn’t permit it. So in the Quantum Field theory vacuum, in terms of a particle description, the constant creation-annihilation of particle pairs ( dynamic) or equivalently, particles traveling in closed time loops.( static)

    What Krauss is saying is that if you expand quantum theory to encompass space and time,third quantization, you still get a condition where nothing is unstable , but now what is created are universes, Models proposed by Linde, Hawking-Hartle, Vilenkin, Atkatz-Pagels and others are examples of this.

    Anyway you slice it, assuming expanding quantum theory this way makes sense, two things are true. Nothing is inherently unstable, it must produce something, even if that something is rearranged nothing, and everything we see around us emerged from nothing.

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  35. Vic Stenger says:

    There is a simple answer to the question of how the universe can have come from nothing: it is part of the multiverse and since the multiverse always existed, it did not have to come from anything.

    Oh, and if you ask why there is something rather than nothing, you have the burden of proving why nothing is more natural than something. In fact, you have the burden of defining nothing. I defy you do do it. To define anything you need to give it some property. But then it is something. “Nothing” is an incoherent concept.

    But, I agree with the criticisms of Krauss.

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  36. Bob Zannelli says:

    Vic I mostly agree with you, but I would argue we DO have a physics definition of “Nothing” if not a philosophy definition. See;

    http://cn.arxiv.org/pdf/1005.2147v1

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  37. Bob Zannelli says:

    I should add, Vic and I obviously disagree about the criticisms of Krauss which should be apparent from previous comments

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  38. Meh says:

    I think this is why it’s important to distinguish boundaries on what constitutes a universe and is the reason why a multiverse is necessary to fully describe nature. If a field is in a completely static state absent of Time, then there is still something there. But as far as the laws of our universe are concerned, nothing exists until that static state is disturbed and the field becomes dynamic again. Consider it “layers of existence” and then do an interview about it.

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  39. Bob Zannelli says:

    Sorry for the multiple posts, I should have collected my thoughts before I made the first response to Vic, I need to make an important additional point.

    A Multiverse that always existed and a universe created from nothing are not, in my opinion, descriptions that are in conflict anymore than the creation-annihilation of particle pairs or particles in closed time loops are in conflict as particle descriptions of quantum field zero point fluctuations. Reading my first response on this should make that clear. Also, again I strongly disagree with the criticisms of Krauss’s book. Earlier posts made allegation of what Dawkins wrote in the after word which had no correlation with anything Dawkins actually wrote. Also in this after word Dawkins points to the writings of Vic to clear up any confusion on the fine tuning question, a sentiment I concur with.

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  40. First of all we need to know How the world does exist.

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  41. John Barrett says:

    Nothing + Blank = Universe; Using the Universe as a Brute Fact
    Nothing + God = Universe; You can substitute Blank for God
    Nothing + Free Energy = Universe; or you can substitute Blank for Free Energy

    But then God and Free Energy are not scientific so lets take nothing out of the equation.

    Universe = Universe ; Ah, but then the universe seems to have a God-like property of always existing without ever being created, that would make us seem to be made out of some type of God dust…

    Conclusion, don’t use the universe as a brute fact if you want to be seen as a reputable scientist or then you might start thinking that free energy is the most scientific explanation for the universe being here. It’s only contender would be God. Trust me, it is a dark road to start going down and you don’t want to go down it.

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  42. Meh says:

    pseudo.

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  43. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    I find it natural that the vacuum was redefined as the physical vacuum, and the void redefined as the physical void. It is also natural that Krauss tries to equate it with the simplest system yet, because we know the philosophical-theological idea is incoherent and doesn’t exist. Maybe he is wrong, but that would be interesting too.

    He could have named his book “The Vacuum from The Void”, but it goes to the heart of the matter as ” A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing”. We will never stop asking why (e.g. why _this_ something?). But the title is precise so I don’t see the problem that gets other people (unduly, in my opinion) vehement.

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  44. Torbjörn Larsson, OM says:

    Ah, I also reread Sean’s “A universe from nothing” post:

    “We’re talking here about the low-energy manifestation of the underlying laws, but those underlying laws are exactly the same everywhere throughout the multiverse. We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.”

    Environmental (“anthropic”) selection would go towards _all_ laws, the reason we find ourselves here is that quantum mechanics works as well as some set of low-energy manifestations. Possibly there could be other sets of “deep-down” laws that are unstable, and so other multiverses – even habitable such. A variant of Tegmark’s “all possibilities”. (The difference is no dynamics et cetera, unless they somehow spawn each other. Well, the usual problems. =D But it is a possibility.)

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  45. Bob Zannelli says:

    Larssom writes

    I find it natural that the vacuum was redefined as the physical vacuum, and the void redefined as the physical void. It is also natural that Krauss tries to equate it with the simplest system yet, because we know the philosophical-theological idea is incoherent and doesn’t exist. Maybe he is wrong, but that would be interesting too.

    He could have named his book “The Vacuum from The Void”, but it goes to the heart of the matter as ” A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing”. We will never stop asking why (e.g. why _this_ something?). But the title is precise so I don’t see the problem that gets other people (unduly, in my opinion) vehement.

    I agree. Frankly it’s difficult to believe that the critics of Krauss actually read the last two chapters of his book, where Krauss takes head on all the issues that his critics seem to think he evaded.

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  46. Bob Zannelli says:

    Larsson writes

    We are still left with the question of there are those deep-down laws that create a multiverse in the first place.

    Indeed, We may need a “meta”-Theory of the multiverse more than a theory of everything.

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  47. souciance says:

    Hi..

    As a layman interested in science and philosophical questions about the nature of existence this whole discussion about nothingness is a bit strange to comprehend.

    Surely, if there ever was a state of complete nothingness then existence whatever that maybe could never have come by. For me nothingness means the absence of absolutely everything, space, time, virtual particles, waves, anything and absolutely everything. Even empty space with virtual particles is something. But complete nothingness could never have been a state, for how can something come from such a nothingness? Surely then, something must have always been in some form or another?

    Thanks for the clarification.
    Souciance

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  48. Bob Zannelli says:

    Surely, if there ever was a state of complete nothingness then existence whatever that maybe could never have come by. For me nothingness means the absence of absolutely everything, space, time, virtual particles, waves, anything and absolutely everything. Even empty space with virtual particles is something. But complete nothingness could never have been a state, for how can something come from such a nothingness? Surely then, something must have always been in some form or another?

    In Quantum Field theory something comes from nothing all the time, the vacuum is full of virtual particles emerging from nothing. The something you refer to is the result of something coming from nothing, because in Quantum theory nothing is unstable and always results in something. In Canonical quantization of the general relativity equations instead of particles emerging from nothing, we get a predictions of universes emerging from nothing. Again nothing is unstable. There really are no “laws” of nature in the sense of some higher level of existence governing physical reality, this kind of thinking is a holdover from Christian theology , where a supernatural being ruled the cosmos. Instead it’s more accurate to say that what we call the laws of nature are human created models which if successful predict the behavior of what we can observe. So where were the “laws” of physics “before” the universe “existed?” Their ontological status is the same as the universe itself. Also it should be noted that words like existed or before become problematic when you have a process that “creates” universes. But the word create is also problematic if time doesn’t exist. The point is that ordinary language fails when we try to describe the emergence of everything from nothing. Hawking makes the case in “A Brief History of Time” that nothing and everything are not different things, and that a static timeless universe can look like a universe created from nothing from a coarse grained perspective. Maybe that’s right, maybe it isn’t.

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  49. Michael Mansberg says:

    Souciance said:

    “Surely, if there ever was a state of complete nothingness then existence whatever that maybe could never have come by. For me nothingness means the absence of absolutely everything, space, time, virtual particles, waves, anything and absolutely everything. Even empty space with virtual particles is something. But complete nothingness could never have been a state, for how can something come from such a nothingness? Surely then, something must have always been in some form or another?”

    I think that’s why the question is (or should be) worded as follows:
    “Why *IS* there something rather than nothing?”
    As opposed to:
    “How did something come to be out of nothingness?”

    The latter formulation implies that absolute nothingness (as you describe it) turned into something, which I agree doesn’t make sense. The former formulation captures the (for me) awe-inspiring mystery of existence. The very fact of existence seems to imply eternal existence (albeit possible evolution from and into very different forms). The mystery is the *fact* of existence, not the evolution/creation of it.

    IMHO

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  50. Michael Mansberg says:

    I have heard the viewpoint that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is incoherent/meaningless. It doesn’t seem to me to be, but I would be interested in reading a coherent/meaningful :-) explication of that viewpoint.

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  51. Michael Mansberg says:

    Submitted just to get myself notified of followup comments (forgot to check the checkboxes on previous submissions). Sorry for the clutter.

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  52. Bob Zannelli says:

    Sorry more corrections

    The discovery of Firewalls, a gross violation of the equivalency principle, should have been fatal to any notion that somehow information is encoded in the black body spectrum of Hawking radiation, though I would argue the existence of Unruh radiation should have been enough to do this. It’s amusing to see the scramble this discovery has caused, even to the point of looking for Firewalls in De Sitter and Rindler horizons. The most logical conclusion is that there are no Firewalls for the simple reason that Hawking radiation is devoid of information except for the mass, spin and charge of the Black Hole, parameters which directly affect the black body spectrum of the Hawking Radiation. Black Hole evolution is non unitary. And directly related to this is the expansion of the universe, where information is likewise not conserved. There is likely a boundary where unitarity can be found for both these processes , but not in the local frame of any particular IGUS’s Decoherent history.

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