Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Nonexistent Mystery?

The question "why is there something rather than nothing?" has vexed philosophers, theologians and the laity for as long as the history of discourse dates.

Physicist Victor Stenger notes that there is no reason to suppose "nothing" any more likely than "something". To illustrate the point he presses: "Current cosmology suggests that no laws of physics were violated in bringing the universe into existence". [1]

Heat tends to break down the more complex structures of matter into something simpler. Throughout most of the universe, energy is rather more sparse than it is here on earth. Stenger notes that under such conditions, complex structures would tend to last for a much longer period of time, until energy eventually took its toll on matter. Simpler structures tend to be of higher energy and therefore less stable, until they transform into more complex, lower-energy structures. We should be reminded of the second law of thermodynamics: The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum. Stenger suggests that, since "nothing" is the simplest of structures, and has the lowest entropy, it is unsurprising that it could not last forever. Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek concluded, then, that the answer to our question is that "'nothing' is unstable". [1] [2]

We might argue, however, that all of these arguments beg the question. Aren't the laws of physics inferred from the behaviour of the universe itself? And it's debatable whether we can rightly describe "nothing" as having any properties, let alone those of entropy, structure or simplicity. Maybe we are not strictly speaking of "nothing" but only of "nothing physical" or "nothing spatio-temporal" or something similar, which would seem to put us on safer footing. While we're dealing in abstractions, then, let us turn to another proposed answer to our question*.

Phrased succinctly within predicate logic, our next answer goes:

1. | ¬∃x(x=x)
2. | ∀x¬(x=x)
3. ¬¬∃x(x=x)
4. ∃x(x=x)

In English:

1. Suppose that there doesn't exist some thing which is equal to itself.
2. Then, for all things, it is not the case that those things are identical to themselves.
3. Abandon our original hypothesis, then, because it leads to a contradiction.
4. Therefore, there exists some thing which is equal to itself.

The force of this argument is that it claims "Something exists" to be a logical truth; many would claim that, therefore, it is necessarily true by virtue of its meaning**.

It might still be protested that this argument begs the question. It assumes three inferential rules, and it assumes (in dismissing the hypothesis) that self-identity must exist in all things.

The boundless opportunity for making this same style of counter-argument ought to expose the folly of the whole question "why is there something rather than nothing?". If any kind of answer we can give must either be false or circular, then surely we have grounds to dismiss the whole enquiry as a pseudo-question.


* I am told that this formulation owes to W.V.O.Quine, but I heard of it through a friend Martin Castro-Manzano, who I should duly credit here.
** This I believe to be a mistake; but that is an issue for another post.


[1] Victor Stenger (2007) - "God: The Failed Hypothesis"
[2] Frank Wilczek (1980) - "The Cosmic Asymmetry Between Matter and Antimatter", Scientific American 243, no. 6, p82-90

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