On Philosophy

May 20, 2007

Why There Is Something Instead Of Nothing

Filed under: Metaphysics — Peter @ 12:00 am

People love to wonder why the universe exists. But usually when such questions are asked they are asked in such a way that they incoherent, confused, or inherently unanswerable. So before we can address why something exists instead of nothing we must first clear away the confusions that may prevent the issue from being clearly addressed.

The first confusion is expecting a causal answer to the question, as reveal by such phasing as “why did the universe begin?” or “what is the cause of the universe?”. This is a confusion because the notion of causation is necessarily connected to that of time, as causation is a way of talking about how a event follows from previous ones, in time. And time is part of the universe. So clearly nothing can be the cause of the universe under a reasonable understanding of causation, because that would imply that the cause of the universe is itself in time. But if it is in time it is in the universe. So either the universe is self-causing or it is uncaused. Such an answer may be informative if you are interested in the nature of causation and whether an event being uncaused is possible. But it doesn’t address why the universe exists as a whole.

Another confusion is to think that somehow nothing is a default state that must be transformed into a universe that exists. There are actually two problems with thinking along these lines, the first of which is obviously with the idea that there can be an order of events, or change, outside of the universe. Obviously both of those require time, and time only exists within universes and only relates parts of that universe to each other. The other problem is with the assumption that nothingness is somehow the natural order of affairs, and that we must explain why it is that things deviate from it, such that the universe exists. Of course we may still want an explanation, I am just trying to point out that our explanation doesn’t have to struggle uphill. It is like explaining why the square root of a number has a particular value, your explanation doesn’t have to counter the possibility that it has some other value.

A third confusion is to think of nothingness as itself something. This generally comes in two varieties. The first is a linguistic confusion, where nothingness is mistakenly thought of as an object rather than as a syntactic device meaning “no particular thing”. For example, it would be a mistake to conclude from the true claim that nothing is the cause of everything that nothingness itself causes everything. Surprisingly this is a mistake that is made more often than you would expect. The second is thinking of nothingness as like a vacuum. Consider two universes (as the existence of a single universe doesn’t prevent existence of other universe, so long as they don’t interact). Often when people think of such a situation they imagine two universe “bubbles” floating next to each other, separated by nothingness. But this isn’t the case. Two universes cannot be spatially related to each other, as that would make them different parts of a single universe. Nor are they separated by nothingness, as that would make nothingness some kind of thing or expanse, as if you could get to nothing by simply going “outside” the universe.

In fact thinking of the universe in physical terms is often misleading. The universe is most naturally visualized as a bubble of space-time. This is sometimes useful, but leaves us with the false impression that space and time extend beyond the universe. To avoid this it is better to think of the universe as a set of facts. Think of the fundamental physical constituents as logical objects which various properties and relations can be predicated of. The physical laws are then like axioms, saying that if certain facts hold, if there is a certain arrangement of particles at a certain time, then certain other facts about those particles at later times must also hold. The set of facts that represents the universe is of course closed under these axioms (they can’t generate facts not already part of our set of facts) because our set of facts is meant to capture all the facts at all times, not just at a particular moment. And also note that in this set of facts every object is related to every other object by a number of relations (for example, the pair of relations “have the same charge” and “have different charges” relate every object between them). Now another universe would simply be another set of objects properties and relations with its own axioms. Obviously the objects of this universe aren’t related in any way to the objects of the first (because different properties and relations are involved). And thus to represent the state of affairs of both these universes existing we can simply consider the union of these two sets.

With this kind of thinking we can now address the original question. We can represent the non-existence of a single universe by considering it to be the empty set instead of the set containing all its facts, in terms of considering how it contributes to the state of everything. And the state of everything then is simply the union of all possible universes. Now there are an infinite number of internally consistent, and thus possible, universes that we can describe in this fashion. So the state of everything can only be the empty set, i.e. nothing exists, only if each of the infinite number of possible universes fails to exist. But, as established before, we shouldn’t consider the default state of a universe to be non-existence. While we don’t know how to estimate the probability that a given universe exists we have no justification for saying that probability is zero. Given that we estimate the probability of any given universe existing as greater than zero, and that there are an infinite number of such universes, we can conclude that the state of everything is necessarily not the empty set. And thus we can conclude that, given our current state of ignorance regarding why a universe exists or doesn’t (or whether there are any universes besides the one we find ourselves in), that it is impossible for nothing to exist, and thus that something must exist.

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18 Comments

  1. “This is a confusion because the notion of causation is necessarily connected to that of time, as causation is a way of talking about how a[n] event follows from previous ones, in time.”

    Begging the question. That assumes everything you seek to prove, but you can’t do more to support the definition than assert it. Fine then, I’ll concede it, but ask instead what caused′ the universe, where cause′ includes extra-temporal logical dependencies.

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 12:43 am

  2. How do you define what a cause is then? And why should existence logically depend on anything? Why should an explanation of why the universe exists need to appeal to any kind dependancy, when I have just shown how we have good reason to expect something to exist, rather than nothing, given our ignorance on certain issues?

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 12:48 am

  3. X is a priori necessary for Y. Note that “a priori” is not actually a temporal term, but rather concerns priority in a derivation.

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 12:53 am

  4. Then gravity isn’t the cause of things falling, because it is not a priori necessary for things to fall.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 12:54 am

  5. And here are some more problems with that kind of defintion of causation: if a -> b then ~b -> ~a. Thus if a causes b then the absence of b causes the absence of a. Clearly that is ridiculous, for example gravity causes things to fall, but things not falling (perhaps because they are suspended) doesn’t cause the absence of gravity. Since the laws of physics are time reversible causation also becomes symetric in time (people voting caused a to be elected, therefore a being elected casused people to vote). Need I go on? Such a view of causation was popular back when Spinoza and Leibniz were arround, but such problems, especially the problem with it being time symmetric have caused it to be mostly abandoned by modern philosophers.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 1:12 am

  6. Gravity isn’t a priori for every universe, no, but it is true a priori in our universe that gravity causes falling things to fall. If you compare our universe to a universe like ours but without gravity, then the apple won’t fall on Newton’s head. If you have the case not apple-falling, that does in fact imply not-(gravity and all of the other causes that are necessary to allow things to fall), so I don’t see how that is in any way absurd. I guess it would be absurd if you thought that gravity was a sufficient cause for things to fall, not just a necessary one, but who claims that?

    The time issue is also a red herring. You’ve already done a series about how the bidirectional temporality of physics doesn’t matter as long as you have a lot of order in one part of time (the Big Bang) and a lot of entropy at the other (heat death of the universe). If anything, your own arguments show that causality should not be thought of in terms of temporal priority because the arrow of time is just an arbitrary imposition of the human prejudice that “more entropy == forward in time” but that is only true because more entropy in humans means events in that direction of time can become part of memories whereas events in the other direction of time cannot form a part of memories unless something spectacularly unlikely in thermodynamic terms occurs.

    Thus if causality in physics is only defined as taking place “forward” rather than “backwards” out of convenience, we can still make ourselves perfectly clear when talking about “causality without regard to its orientation in time,” that is “causality′.”

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 1:54 am

  7. If something is a priori only for our universe then it isn’t a priori. A priori means logically necessary, which means true in all possible universes. And even in our universe it is gravity + the lack of forces acting in the opposite direction that make it necessary that somethign will fall. So you have, at best, recovered the ability to say that the combination of gravity and the absence of other things cause things to fall. This falls short of being able to say that gravity causes things to fall, which is what we want. And how can the absence of something be a cause?

    As for the case of not-(apple falling), it applies even in our universe where the apple is attached to the tree. From that, by your defintion of causation, if we could conclude that gravity is the cause of things falling then we would be able to claim that the apple not falling is the cause of not gravity. This is absurd because a) it endorses a reverse causal order, from specific facts to general law instead of the other way arround, and b) it is not the case that not-gravity, gravity is present but countered.

    As for time being directional: that helps me out, because I can define causation in terms of time; I am not comitted to saying that causaion is part of nature, but rather a way of talking about regularities from our point of view. It doesn’t help logical dependance, because it doesn’t make any mention of time, and hence can’t benefit from its directionality. If you do make mention of time, then causation can only happen in time, which you are trying to deny.

    Tyr again :-)

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 2:07 am

  8. Here are three more reasons to reject logical depedance as causation: a->a (every fact can be said to depend on itself). Thus everything would be the cause of itself. Clearly this is silly, because it would make causal explanations useless (every inquiry as to a cause could be answered by appeal to the thing itself). Additionally everything follows necessarily from something that is necessarily false. (a & ~a -> b) Thus the fact that there are unicorns and that there are not unicorns could be said to cause every particular fact. And finally everything necessarily implies a necessary truth. (b -> a | ~a) Thus the fact that unicorn exist or don’t exist is caused by the moon being spherical. And of course for these last two situations facts which are false can be said to be the cause of or caused by various other facts, which is perhaps a fourth reason to balk at the theory.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 2:45 am

  9. Regarding a priori: It’s true in all possible universes that if you think rationally about a universe with the laws of nature that apply in our universe, then gravity in that universe will cause things to fall. A priori doesn’t you can’t assume things that you surmised through a posteriori means.

    “From that, by your defintion of causation, if we could conclude that gravity is the cause of things falling then we would be able to claim that the apple not falling is the cause of not gravity.”

    No. I already explained why that’s not right. Do I need to use formal logic to make this clear?

    Gravity and other causes cause things to fall.
    1. (G & O) → F Assume
    The apple didn’t fall.
    2. ~F Assume
    Gravity still holds though.
    3. G Assume
    So, it can’t be that both gravity and the other causes all hold.
    4. ~(G & O) Modus Tollens on 1, 2
    So, at least one must be wrong.
    5. ~G ^ ~O DeMorgans on 4
    We assumed gravity, so one of the other causes must not hold.
    6. ~O Disjunctive Syllogism on 3, 5

    And indeed, the other cause of things falling, no interference from other physical forces, doesn’t hold in the case of apples on trees.

    Regarding the temporality of causation: I already conceded your definition of causation (ie. causation is one thing proceeding another in a regular way), in order to ask you about causation′ (ie. logical causation, of which temporal causation is just a particular manifestation) instead, but apparently, you’re not interested in entertaining the idea of it at all.

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 3:09 am

  10. 1. Yes, (∀x) x = x is one of the many logical causes of things in our universe, but “a = a” is not, since “a = a” is not a fundamental assumption, it’s a derivative claim falling out of (∀x) x = x. Furthermore, you seem to be continually neglecting the difference between sufficient and necessary causes. “Unicorns are unicorns” does not imply (∃x) (Ux & Rx) for the predicates Ux: x is a unicorn and Rx: x exists in the real world.

    2. You can only get a logical explosion if you assume “a & ~a,” and you insist on using non-paraconsistent logic. Your point seems to be that you can do a proof like this:

    1. a & ~a Assume
    2. ~X Assume (for some arbitrary X)
    3. a & ~a Reiterate
    4. X Negation elimination 2 – 3

    However, all this shows is that (a & ~a) → X. Now, if you foolishly confused → with a subjunctive conditional, that might be troubling, but when you remember that “False Statement → Whatever” is always true, that’s no big deal. The causation I’m looking for needs its assumptions to be true, so I don’t care what happens when you assume false things. If I assert “God is a logical cause of the universe,” I’m claiming “G & (G → U)” not “G → U.”

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 3:28 am

  11. Sorry, that should be “U & (U → G)”. It’s late here.

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 3:31 am

  12. You haven’t adressed a number of problems still
    1: the ability to say that gravity, not gravity plus other things casues things to fall
    2: explaining how the absence of things (in fact an infinite number of ansences) can be causes
    3: if you want to deviate from the standard understanding of causation why giving an explanation in term of causation’ makes a good explanation
    4: why everything should have a causation’ explanation.
    5: you are confusing equality with implication, they are not the same. a -> a has nothing to do with a = a. For example Hx -> Hx, the fact that x is human is caused by the fact that x is human, according to you
    6: generally paraconsistent logic is accepted only when it comes to the logic of language, not the logic of reality. If you want to lean on paraconsistent logic you have to justify it.
    7: even if you lean on paraconsistent logic it is still true that a -> (b | ~b), that the fact that x is a unicorn causes the fact that I am human or that I am not human
    8: false facts are still allowed to be causal
    9: there is no way to recapture the idea of necessary causation, only sufficient causation

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  13. Oh and I guess I should mention that given how you have described causaion’ that I have already given you a causation’ explanation: it follows from the fact that an infinite number of universes are possible and that we estimate the probability of their existing to be > 0.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 1:03 pm

  14. “1: the ability to say that gravity, not gravity plus other things casues things to fall”

    Gravity alone doesn’t cause things to fall. A convergence of conditions, the most obvious condition being gravity, causes things to fall.

    “2: explaining how the absence of things (in fact an infinite number of ansences) can be causes”

    We join spokes together in a wheel,
    but it is the center hole
    that makes the wagon move.

    We shape clay into a pot,
    but it is the emptiness inside
    that holds whatever we want.

    We hammer wood for a house,
    but it is the inner space
    that makes it livable.

    We work with being,
    but non-being is what we use.

    Tao Te Ching, 11

    “3: if you want to deviate from the standard understanding of causation why giving an explanation in term of causation’ makes a good explanation”

    I’m just abstracting from the principle behind temporal causation. Normal causation: “If Condition A at Time T, then there must be Condition B at Time T+1.” Causation prime: “If Condition A, then there must be Condition B.”

    “4: why everything should have a causation’ explanation.”

    That everything has a cause is widely held hypothesis, but I’m not prepared to give an argument for it here. It may just a quirk of our brain that makes us thing that everything does, but if we accept that some things don’t have causes, we do run into a problem in explaining why some things do (apple falling) and some things don’t (Big Bang).

    “5: you are confusing equality with implication, they are not the same. a -> a has nothing to do with a = a. For example Hx -> Hx, the fact that x is human is caused by the fact that x is human, according to you”

    I have no problem with things being themselves being one of their infinite number of contributing causes.

    “6: generally paraconsistent logic is accepted only when it comes to the logic of language, not the logic of reality. If you want to lean on paraconsistent logic you have to justify it.
    7: even if you lean on paraconsistent logic it is still true that a -> (b | ~b), that the fact that x is a unicorn causes the fact that I am human or that I am not human”

    I’m not the one trying to assume A & ~A. If we say, for example, that gravity causes apples to fall, then we mean “if gravity is there and the other causes are held constant, the apple will fall, but if gravity were not there and the other contributing causes were still somehow the same, it wouldn’t fall.” If you assume A & ~A and its negation, then all you end up deriving is that if the apple falls, then the law of non-contradiction must still be holding as long it keeps being true that what happened really happened.

    “8: false facts are still allowed to be causal”

    What do you mean by a false fact? If you mean “It’s true that ~A” then that’s fine. “Our universe doesn’t have a force of anti-gravity” can be a logical cause for “so apples fall.” I see no point in being stingy about the number of causes.

    “9: there is no way to recapture the idea of necessary causation, only sufficient causation”

    Would you dispute “if X is a bachelor, X is necessarily unmarried”?

    “Oh and I guess I should mention that given how you have described causaion’ that I have already given you a causation’ explanation: it follows from the fact that an infinite number of universes are possible and that we estimate the probability of their existing to be > 0.”

    Fine, except we’ve never seen other universe and have no evidence to believe there’s anything to them whatsoever and never can (since whatever universe we come into contact with becomes a part of “our universe” presuming we take the term “universe” in its broadest sense). So, you’re just asserting dogmatically what these logical worlds are like, and what probability they have for existing, when by definition all we can do is reason about them, never actually interact with them and measure their probability.

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  15. 1 – so you are basically rejecting the common sense notion of causation? So why call it causation at all?

    2- that’s not an answer

    3- I don’t think that is the principle behind temporal causation

    5- I things are the cause’ of themselves then I have already explained the universe’s existence: the universe’s existence is the cause of the universe’s existence. There, all done.

    6- You defined casuation as what logically follows from a premise, you didn’t stipulate that the premise had to be true.

    7- and you still haven’t explained to me how every particular fact can be reasonably said to be the cause of a tautology.

    8- again, sure, if you are willing to abandon the ordinary meaning of causation.

    9- necessary causation is different from something necessarily being true. To say that something is a necessary cause is to say that the result couldn’t have been caused without it being at least part of the cause. But since p -> p and thus p causes p it is never the case that some m must be the cause of p, since we have just established that p is the cause of p without needing to invoke the presence of m. Thus m is not a necessary cause. Thus there are no necessary causes.

    I agree we know nothing abot the existence or non-existence of other universes. That is why it is irrational to judge the probability of their existing to be 0 as that would imply that you know that they don’t exist, which is not a claim that you can make (just as to judge to probability as 1 would to be to claim you know that they must exist). Thus the argument is sound.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 7:34 pm

  16. Re: 5. How many more times do I have to point out that there is a difference between necessary and sufficient causes?

    Re: The last point, you seem to be conceding that the issue of other universe is, in Kantian terms, noumenal, but this entire entry is a violation of the Wittgensteinian dictum, “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” To follow the dictum, you would have said, “We can’t talk intelligibly about what it would be like for there to be nothing, so that’s the end of this entry.”

    Comment by Carl — May 20, 2007 @ 7:42 pm

  17. I understand the difference, but your defintion makes no provision for it. Given your defintion of causation why is that a bad explanation?

    If I thought that Tractatus was good philosophy I might be swayed by your argument, but even Wittgenstein himself rejected it in his Philosophical Investigations. As you know from inductive logic it is perfectly reasonable to estimate about what we are in ignorance about using probability. In fact we do it all the time in science, when we take into account measurement error.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 7:48 pm

  18. I should also mention that it is necessarily true that p implies p. So as you define it the fact that the universe exists is both a necessary and sufficient cause of the fact that the universe exists. And is thus a satisfactory causation’ explanation.

    Comment by Peter — May 20, 2007 @ 7:56 pm


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