Why there’s something rather than nothing

The sombrero galaxy
The sombrero galaxy

In the late 1990s I made a list of the 5 biggest unanswered questions in science. All obvious stuff, like how did life originate and how does consciousness emerge from the brain. But number one, the foremost mind-boggler, the ultimate question, was: Why is there something rather than nothing?

I’d actually tried to do that as a “Why Things Are” item a few years earlier, in about 1995, but my editor thought it too incomprehensible and abstract for a syndicated column. Somewhere in my files is that unpublished WTA item and I wish I could find it, because I want to know the answer to the question. Or at least know why there was something rather than nothing in 1995.

Right now I’m halfway through Jim Holt’s terrific book “Why Does the World Exist?,” which is entirely about the something-nothing question. It’s a wild ride, and romping great fun. You get the impression that Holt thought about this issue until his skull began to crack. There is an element here of a travelogue, and even a dining guide – the people who wonder about existence tend to drink a lot – but most of all it’s a tireless rumination on a single, unanswerable (sorry) question. Holt describes how philosophers, theologians and cosmologists have tried to shinny up this greased pole for thousands of years.

Any attempt to answer the question has to be clear about the definition of “nothing.” It is not enough to describe a mechanism in which a baby universe might spark into being through a quantum fluctuation and then undergo expansion and inflation and increasing complexity until finally we wind up with galaxies and planets and dolphins shooting up out of a pool to grab a fish from the trainer. To my mind, that just takes the question back to an early condition that yet requires an explanation. In that scenario your “nothing” still has qualities that give rise to something. It’s not a true nothing. My version of zero has no superscripts. And if you can tell me there’s a Multiverse from which our universe bubbled forth, you’ve merely moved the fundamental problem of existence back onto a broader platform.

This also covers the God explanation. If God is the ultimate cause of the universe I’ll want to know why God exists. The obvious answer is: He just does. He is. He’s what Holt calls the Supreme Brute Fact. He explains himself. And so on.

A secular version of that, one that doesn’t require a supreme Creator, is how I approach the something-nothing question. Seems to me that “nothing,” for all its simplicity and symmetry and lack of arbitrariness, is nonetheless an entirely imaginary state, or condition, and we can say with confidence that it has never existed.

“Nothing” is dreamed up in the world of something, in the brains of philosophers etc. on a little blue planet orbiting an ordinary yellow star in a certain spiral galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nothing could not in theory “exist,” but seems to me that it hasn’t. We’ve never been that dialed down, folks. Just didn’t happen. We live in the something universe, either in our tidy little Big Bang universe or in a Big Bang bubble within the Multiverse, and no amount of deletion of the elements and forces of this universe would ever get us to a condition of absolutely nothing.

So, then, why is there something rather than nothing? There just is. The is-ness of the universe is one of its interesting features. Sorry if that isn’t satisfactory. It is because it is. Let’s move on.

Obviously there remain huge cosmological questions, like the fate of the universe. And we’d all like to know what happened before the Big Bang, but I’m fairly persuaded by the Hawking notion that time itself begins at the Big Bang and there’s no “before.” There’s no boundary. The universe is finite but unbounded, like the 2-D surface of a sphere.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the very distant events of the past (embers of which we can  detect in the form of the cosmic microwave background radiation) while giving relatively short shrift to the distant future, on account of our inability to know much about it. Brian Greene will tell you that the future is as real as the past and that the present moment is not preferential in any way. I find it hard to get my head around that, though must confess that any observer at any time will always feel as if he or she is in a special moment called “the present.” Try finding “the present” in a cosmological equation. It’s not there. Why do we insist that we live in this unique moment called the present? That’s a Why question for another day.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · May 10, 2013