SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
AND THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM OF METAPHYSICS
ANIL MITRA © OCTOBER 2003—June 2015
SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM OFMETAPHYSICS
Since the details of this piece may seem diversionary, here is a quick preview of a proof that there must be occasions of something.
Proof. If the ‘universe’ was in a state of absolute nothingness—nothing would exist. It is clear this means that there would be no concrete objects. But it also implies that there would be no space, no time, and no laws of nature. If no object were to ever emerge from the void that would be a law of nature (a law is something that says certain but not all things or patterns are allowed). That is, an absolute void is a self-contradictory concept.
Some consequences. The proof shows more than that there must be occasions of something; it implies that everything must occur (the meaning of ‘everything’ will be explained below). Particularly it shows that there will be further occasions of nothingness. To see that the proof implies that nothingness would not even have abstract objects and that all consistently formulated abstract objects must exist (in the universe and its history) visit: the way of being. The essay linked contains further conclusions. It implies that the universe has identity and manifestation that cycle through acute, diffuse, and absent phases—but the cycling is not periodic: in fact the universe has no limits to its extension (quantity, size, duration) or variety (quality); and that the individual is ultimately identical to the universe.
Some issues. The foregoing conclusions are at least seemingly contradictory of our experience and paradigms of understanding—even perhaps the most liberal of such paradigms. These are discussed in the way of being. Here are some issues (1) If the manifest forms of the universe emerge from the void, that would appear to be a violation of just about any causality principle. It is in fact a violation. Thus we conclude that there is no universal causation unless the simple non mechanistic emergence from the void (or from any state) is regarded as causal. (2) Thus the void, though it is absence, also is or has all potential. However, surely potential must be something? To address the issue we should ask about the source of the intuition that potential must be something. The source is causation. If causation is not universal, potential need not be substantial. That potential need not be substantial is seen to be subsumed under the non universality of any kind of causation (except the kind of causation noted in item 1—and this kind is not what we understand as causation). (3) This appears to violate all experience. Surely we have to work for achievement, surely the laws and regularities of our world obtain. In fact they do but what is now being said is that our world is a limited world, an infinitesimal part of a far greater and more varied universe. This may still leave us with the uncomfortable feeling of how it is that our lows obtain in our world—surely the fact of our laws and the claim that all possible states occur (the universe has no limits) are contradictory. They are not contradictory for the claim that all possibilities occur includes that our world precisely as it appears does and must occur. Readers may still be left with a feeling of discomfort even though the just stated resolution is valid. That discomfort is natural because the idea of the limitless universe as described above violates almost all of our paradigms of the way the world is (but of course does not violate our definite experience). (4) That the individual is ultimately the same as the universe will also appear to contradict experience. That it does not violate experience and that our lives are exactly as they are is already explained in item 3. There is a further potential paradox. How can two or more different individuals simultaneously be or realize the universe? The answer is that the individuals coalesce as one in realization.
Why is there a world? There could be nothing at all. Science and experience explain how the world behaves but not why there is a world. There are tentative explanations from science, philosophy, and common sense. However, there is no well known proof beyond all doubt that there must be a world.
The being of the world is a puzzle. If you think about it more than in passing you might find it a problem that is both deep and mysterious. In 6.44 of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, Ludwig Wittgenstein said ‘Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.’ Heidegger regarded it as the ‘fundamental question of metaphysics’ (it is the topic of the first chapter of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000; German: Einführung in die Metaphysik, 1953). Today, in the first quarter of the twenty first century there is fairly widespread interest in the problem.
When we wonder about the nature of being, i.e. what there is in the world and the nature of particular kinds of being, e.g. human being we are thinking about the core of our existence. One approach to understanding is via origins: we seek to understand the interrelations of the aspects or parts of something via the way and the how of its coming into existence. Particularly this shows us unities (from common and simpler origins) among the disunities or complexities. The further back we go the greater the unity among the disunity. This is one source of the long standing philosophical interest in ‘substance’. However, the void goes even further back in the direction of simplicity than substance. In terms of simplicity it is not possible to go further back than the void: to go further back there would have to be less than the void, i.e. further back than true nothingness, i.e. greater absence than absolute absence.
The problem of why there is a world answers to the sense of the mystical, the existential, and the philosophical but it there any practical interest?
The answer is not clear at the moment we first contemplate the question. However, if there is an answer surely it would have something to do with some fundamental aspect of the universe (which, as long as the problem remains unresolved, is unknown); and it seems reasonable that knowledge of this fundamental aspect would have practical consequences. Imagine for example the scenario in which there is no manifest universe. Why should manifestation then occur? If the question has an answer it would have something to do with the state of ‘nothingness’ or ‘pure emptiness’, i.e. with the void. That is, the void itself might be found to have properties over and above the laws of our universe. It seems clear that a solution to the problem has the potential to be immensely significant.
Clearly, also, the distinction between the existential, the philosophical, and the instrumental is not sharp.
Is proof to be desired? In the book mentioned above Heidegger does not give a proof. Rather he talks about the significance of the question—that to question being is to question being at all and therefore, in particular, to question the nature of our being and the nature of philosophy. He uses the question to question the nature of nothingness. He uses it to illuminate the question as part of a search for understanding and so to ask the question of the nature of being as prior to the ‘fundamental problem’. And then, in particular, Heidegger asks another of his famous questions ‘What is the nature of the being that can question being?’ For Heidegger, then, the fundamental question is an occasion for meditation on being.
But for all that, an answer to the fundamental question is likely to have profound consequences. In fact we will find that it has profound consequences in two directions (1) in the direction of understanding the nature of human being and the world and (2) in the direction of foundation of the nature of being. The first direction is in the direction of the complex and the second in the direction of the simple. We find that the two directions, not that it should be unexpected, are deeply related. But before that let us take look at some proofs from history.
It is easy to prove that there is something (e.g. Descartes’ cogito argument). This is sometimes mistaken to imply that there must be something (the implication is that given thought, there must be something; but the desired implication is that there must be something should follow without assumption of the existence of anything at all; and, of course, this is a strong reason to anticipate that the desired proof should be at least difficult or so transparent that we have missed it out of some blindness regarding which we are so blind that we have not yet even recognized the blindness). But surely, there is something to the fact that ‘I’ exist (assume the case) for surely, as it sometimes seems, my feeling of having meaning is not a random accident. Surely, if the world exists there is a finite probability of existence and, so, in an infinity of time the world must be or have been realized! The problem here is that we do not know that there is an infinity of time. But, then, what if there is nothingness—eternal nothingness. We know (1) there is a finite probability of coming into being (for we know there is being) and (2) in eternity the finite probability becomes certainty. In fact, however, both points are mistaken. (1) Imagine a sequence of numbers 0, 1, 4 … generated ‘randomly’. Imagine that it takes half a second to generate the first, quarter of a second for the second, an eighth of a second for the third and so on. The sequence is generated in one second. What is generated is some real number. But, though it is possible, the probability of that real number having been generated is zero. (2) Nothingness is nothingness and there is (or at least may) not be time at all, let alone an infinity of it.
The scholastic schools of philosophy and theology through the ages have sought proofs of God’s existence. Surely any proof of God’s / world’s existence is also a proof that there must be something. There are two kinds of proof of God’s existence—one, e.g. the proof from design, that assumes the world; this kind is not a proof that there must be something for it assumes something (the world). Another kind of proof of God’s existence does not assume any actual thing but asks you to imagine a property whose non realization entails a contradiction. Can I reject such proofs without considering the structure of the property in question? Yes for they assume the existence of the property.
Philosophers from Plato to the present day have considered some form of what is called the principle of plenitude. One version of this principle is that given an infinite amount of time, everything that is possible will occur; this seems at least intuitively obvious. Clearly that there is something is possible and so from the principle of plenitude there must be something (at least at some ‘times’). However, objections have already been considered above (in the discussion of the occasional confusion of the fact that there is something for the necessity that there be something).
A recent example of an attempted proof from quantum mechanics is that the quantum vacuum must give rise to a manifest universe (one source is A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing – Paperback – January 1, 2013 by Lawrence M. Krauss). However, that assumes that the laws of quantum theory hold and law is more than nothingness. In fact proofs along such lines and ‘mathematical proofs’ are rampant on the Internet.
There is a recent book, Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story, written by Jim Holt and published in 2012. Holt interviews a number of well known intellectuals, among them David Deutsch, Adolf Grünbaum, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne, Steven Weinberg, and novelist John Updike. The upshot of the book is a number of interesting ideas, some positive on reasons for ‘something’ and others skeptical about the need for / possibility of reasons, but as proof the ideas remain speculative.
The standard scientific explanation of the variety of species and organisms is the process of evolution. The argument here has the interpretation that the void is equivalent to the state of life on earth (and of course much more).
This apparent paradox is at the root of disagreement between evolutionists and theologians who argue that god is the ultimate simple in form while also being the ultimate in power. The argument given here regarding something from nothing and its consequences show that there is no contradiction. The perspective from process is contained in the perspective from being.
Having used the term ‘god’ a number of cautions are necessary. First, we cannot conclude from this notion that the gods of other descriptions obtain or that they have the potency of this concept. Second, from the received connotations of the term ‘god’ it is probably best to not use the word ‘god’ at all. Finally, the term ‘god’ is superfluous in the present context. However, if we were to be interested in the possible meanings of the term it would probably be good to regard god as that process of which the entire universe, including living organisms, is a part in the occasional search for and process toward higher or highest being.
Is there any hope of a real proof? One that makes no assumptions? The best prospect of a proof would seem to lie in an earlier remark that perhaps the reason that there must be something rather than nothing is so transparent that we have missed it out of some blindness regarding which we are so blind that we have not yet even recognized the blindness. That is, perhaps, we should be looking for a proof whose difficulty is one of seeing what is obvious rather than seeing what is remote or esoteric or complex (while the theme is not uncommon what we expect is that the seeing in question should become obvious only after it has been pointed out).
In essays linked from my website http://www.horizons-2000.org (Journey in Being) I have given a proof that the universe is the realization of all possibility. It then follows that there must be phases of manifest being. However, there is doubt about the proof regarding realization of all possibility.
Here is a proof that does not take the realization of all possibility as a premise.
The proof begins by considering the assertion:
The universe never has manifest form. (A)
If A is true then the universe is the Void—i.e., the absence of being. However, Laws (e.g. of physics) have being. For the universe to remain Void ‘forever’ would be a Law and thus A entails a self contradiction.
Therefore there is at least one occasion of manifest being.
Once the proof has been pointed out it has a certain obviousness. Why, then, should it not have been obvious? A primary reason may be that we do not typically think of the laws of nature as having being—there are a number of attitudes to the laws, e.g. (1) that they are mere descriptions (less than being) (2) that they are universal and so transcend being. As we see below neither of these cases holds. The modern physical scientist may have especial difficulty with the proof if he or she equates ‘void’ to ‘quantum vacuum’. However, the quantum vacuum is not the void. Everyday experience in the form of ‘conservation laws’ or ‘no free lunch’ may inhibit careful thought about the void and the laws. As noted above once seen the proof is transparent but its transparency is like that of the stationary air: though we now recognize it as obvious there seems to have been a time when it was recognized only when it manifested as the wind.
Now suppose that after that one occasion, the universe were to never have manifest form evermore. That too is a contradiction. Therefore there must be another occasion of manifest form. Is it possible that, once manifest the universe would remain manifest? Perhaps. But now it is clear that the possibilities are eternal manifestation, or eternal phasing in and out of manifestation.
If the universe is the realization of all possibility then all possible states—i.e. all non contradictions of fact and logic—must arise. However, as noted earlier, there is doubt regarding the realization of all possibility.
Suppose that the universe has been in a Void state. It follows that our present state must have emerged from the Void. But since the Void is absence of all being there is no reason to suppose that our state should have been preferred. It follows that all possible states are equally preferred and must ‘have’ arisen (the quotes are used because the Void is tenseless; in the final conclusion below I omit quotes that might have been used to the same end).
That is—if the universe is ever the Void, then all possibility is realized.
The Void may be seen as the complement of any state relative to itself—e.g. the complement of the universe relative to itself. If we regard this as proof of the existence of the Void, it then follows that all possibility is realized. It also follows that the Void and so the universe must be the greatest power and that the universe cannot be eternal something-ness.
The range of consequences of the realization of all possibility is immense. Given this premise, it is trivial that (a) all non-contradictory systems of physical law are realized (b) the number of cosmological realizations of each system of law is without limit (c) these systems occur against a Void—Transient background (d) the universe has manifestation and identity in acute, diffuse, and manifest phases (e) the variety of these phases and of the being in them is without limit to variety, extension, and duration, and (f) the individual realizes these phases of identity and manifestation and so death while real is not absolute but while in limited form realization is endless process in endless variety.
The possibility of eternal manifestation entertained in the previous section is ruled out.
I have named the assertion that all possibility is realized the fundamental principle of metaphysics.
For more on this and related issues visit http://www.horizons-2000.org. Here the metaphysics resulting from the fundamental principle is named the universal metaphysics. Some of its immense consequences are stated above; many more are stated in essays at the website above, particularly The way of being-essential.html (the table of contents of this essay shows a range of consequences).
I was inspired to the above proof, extremely simple in retrospect, in three stages. I had been looking for an understanding of the universe. In the first stage I looked at materialist, process, and idealist understanding but became dissatisfied with these as incomplete in their foundation: (a) something was assumed and so the foundation was insecure and (b) something was assumed and so the foundation was narrower than it could be (perhaps the foundation should be narrow but that would have to be proved). The second stage was intuitive. I realized that if I could prove the universe equivalent to the void I would have the foundation I sought: from the void there would be no need for further foundation and there would be no need for broader foundation. However, as long as I was looking at the universe, focusing for example on the laws of physics, I found a complete proof not forthcoming. The third stage was the realization that I should be looking at the properties of the void; this was the final and essential stage.
The properties of the void were (are): the void is the absence of being, contains no laws, and exists.
But how did I know that these properties obtained? That the void is the absence of being is of course the conception of the void or nothingness. There is no mystery to it; so much writing finds ‘nothingness’ is mysterious—perhaps in the shadow region of true being. But to be mysterious, to have shadow properties, to have potential or non-potential is to have being—to not be the void. But to see that the void exists and contains no laws—and even to see that the definition makes sense I had to go back to being. Being is that which exists (clarification regarding ‘existence’ may be found at The way of being-essential.html). Thus the only reasonable sense of ‘void’ must be ‘absence’. Since I chose being as basic over matter, process, or mind I now saw that the void is pure absence, I since laws have being (they exist) the void must contain no laws (if the void exists). Does the void exist? I now had to conceive ‘universe’ carefully. It took some time to realize that the universe must be conceived as all being over all entirety and not just all matter or the empirical universe or one or more of the multiple histories of quantum theory. But now, since the complements of domains exist the void as complement to the universe itself exists. This careful analysis, details of which are in the above linked document, founds the proof.
The foregoing analysis shows how (a) a good proof takes us to the root of simplicity, (b) how, from an interesting corollary, it takes us forward in the direction of fuller understanding, and (c) how the two directions are logically related.
If the fundamental problem of why there is being is resolved, is there a new candidate for the fundamental problem of metaphysics? The reflections so far suggest a fundamental problem. Careful analysis of metaphysics suggests a fundamental problem. If I say ‘I’ exist what I mean is that to my concept of my ‘I’ there is a real I. But until I get my conception and the real nicely aligned there is a mismatch between the concept and the object so, while I am good with thinking about myself in practical terms, I am likely to run into error in existential and eternal terms. What is true for the ‘I’ is true for any notion that is a little bit more than the absolutely simple and transparent. Further the reflections of an interesting corollary show the variety of being to be without limit. But in actually talking of any one being of the limitless variety the question of the true nature of the being comes up as for the true nature of the ‘I’. Therefore a new fundamental problem arises as follows:
A new fundamental problem of metaphysics: What has being?
Though its statement is simple, it contains depths. In fact the old fundamental problem is a special case of it.
The depth includes not only variety. Consider that our knowledge is far from complete. Suppose I imagine being ‘x’ (object, process, relationship, concrete or abstract, universal, property…). It seems important so I wonder whether it exists. What am I asking? I am in fact asking a question of meaning: is there something in the universe that corresponds to my concept? From the fundamental principle the answer must be—if it is possible (e.g. if it does not violate logic and does not violate science and experience in what we now know to be our extremely limited cosmos) then it must exist. That, however, attests to the existence of things deep and shallow, significant and insignificant. If the ‘x’ in question is deep, what we are especially looking for is not just existence but significance. I can come up with a utopia in another galaxy in another cosmos with another set of laws of physics. But would it be a worthwhile utopia? That is a difficult question; and a significant one if at all ‘utopia’ is a significant idea. Similarly with ‘x’ as living being, another kind of mind, civilization at large in the universe, the object of all human factual knowledge, all art and fiction and religion, we must ask What form of our naïve idea of ‘x’ is a significant form?