Greg Kasarik

"Act with Empathy"
 
   Home      The Nature of God      Something vs Nothing


The question of existence is a vexing one and lies at the heart of a myriad of other conundrums, such as meaning, destiny and purpose. This question is simply put:

Why does something exist, rather than nothing?

Despite its seeming simplicity, this conundrum and variations on it, has confounded philosophers, theologians and the ordinary person since our species first became able to contemplate its own existence. Sadly, the answers to this question will lie forever beyond our reach and the only solutions are speculation. While others may claim to know the “Truth”, the Uncertainty Principle teaches us that we can never have the answers, because we can never be certain of anything beyond our own existence.

The question of existence takes on additional importance, as its answer relates directly to our own existence, meaning and purpose. With the capacity to fear death, and the terror that the thought of our own oblivion produces, we desperately ask ourselves if “this is it”? Is there more beyond this often vicious existence, is there a god and ultimately and perhaps most importantly, do I live on after death?

The world speaks to us of randomness and pain, and as we seek meaning, having been granted this amazing and wonderful gift of sentience, we inevitably wonder if it is all nothing but chance? Will everything that I have ever stood for – my hopes, dreams, fears, goals and desires – amount to naught? Could it be that there is more to existence than meets the eye?

Traditionally, religions have sought to answer this problem through the evocation of a variety of creation myths. The most famous of these, of course is that found in Genesis, a book held sacred by over two thirds of the world’s population. Despite this, few have ever noticed the bait and switch contained within its opening sentence, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Of course, the astute reader will note that this isn’t telling us about the “Beginning”, because if it were it would be telling us about how God came into being.

In all fairness, this bait and switch isn’t the fault of the original writers, but that of those who followed centuries later and who failed to understand the important context of those immortal opening words. The truth is that the writer of Genesis wasn’t attempting to explain the basic question of existence and it may very well not have even occurred to him to ask it in the same terms which I have used. Instead, like all of his contemporaries in the ancient Middle East, he believed that the world had been formed out of a void or chaos and that his god had been the one to bring order and to tame the universe.

The origin of his god isn’t addressed within the myth and it isn’t hard to understand why. This story most likely originated out of the verbal mythologies told by nomadic herdsmen as they followed their flocks. They were illiterate, and lay at the dawn of the golden ages of thought that have given us greats such as Descartes, Socrates and others. Even the final version of their myth, captured so beautifully in the King James Bible lay more than 2,500 years distant.  The writers sought to explain the world around them and their place within it and given the difficulty of conceptualising a time when there was “nothing” it made sense to conceptualise a “void” from which the world as they knew it emerged.

 

Intriguingly, despite being isolated in their own bubble, through the absence of any knowledge of history more than a few centuries old, few early cultures seem to have taken the apparently reasonable position that everything was as it always had been and that there was no need for anything to have been created in the first place. For some reason, the universe having a start made more sense than it not.

And now modern science backs up that view, with the theory of the Big Bang seeming to point to a definite moment in time when everything began. But the problem faced by modern scientists is that the Big Bang is no more of an explanation for why this universe exists, rather than nothing. The ultimate question still remains: What caused the Big Bang? Even if this were explained, we would still be left asking ourselves what caused the thing that caused the Big Bang, followed by what caused the thing that caused the thing that caused the thing, ad nauseam, all the way to eternity.

A significant part of the problem is that we are locked within a mind that cannot divorce itself from notions of time and causality.  Even if the origins of our universe weren’t locked up in an inaccessible metaphysical realm, our notions of the world demand that there be a cause for existence.

But existence is the most binary of concepts. Something either exists or it doesn’t. But what do I mean when I talk about non-existence? A state of non-existence is a state of pure nothingness, a state which is completely devoid of any information content. Nothing whatsoever exists, including time and space. Not only does nothing exist, but non-existence precludes the existence of existence; they are mutually exclusive states.

Given a state of non-existence, nothing could ever exist. As Parmenides pointed out so astutely in the fifth century BCE, “nothing comes from nothing”. In other words, it is impossible for something to arise out of the state of nothingness. If it were, this would imply that it the state of non-existence actually contained within it the possibility of something existing. But possibility is in fact itself “something”, if only an information state that recognises potential. Possibility itself describes potential within time, and time does not exist within the non-existent state.

Just as something cannot be birthed by nothingness, so to can something not give way to nothingness. For this to occur would require that the something never existed in the first place and while it is certainly possible that our universe might seek to exist, this cessation of existence is merely how we would perceive an encounter with one of its boundaries in time.

In order to understand this, we would need to picture our universe as a single unit of spacetime. Because of the nature of our consciousness, we perceive only the present, but once the present becomes past it doesn’t cease to ever have existed. Rather it exists in a place that we cannot access. Similarly, the future can be said to exist, even if the only way that we can access it is to wait for it to manifest as the present.

An entity residing outside of our timeline and able to view the universe as a whole, would see its entire history simultaneously from beginning to end, just as I can currently see my whole garden from beginning to end. If we imagine my puppy walking from one side of the garden to the other, we can imagine how a particular sentience experiences time within a particular universe. Time can be perceived as beginning, just as my puppy starts to walk. Similarly, time can be perceived as ending, just as she gets to the other side. However, the garden is still there and hasn’t ceased to exist simply because we have arrived at a boundary. Thus, it can be seen that while our perception of universe might cease to exist, the actual universe itself would still exist in a very real sense.

Because of the mutual exclusivity between existence and non-existence and the very obvious fact that something exists, it is clear that something has “always” existed and done so without cause. More importantly, because something can not arise from nothing it must be the case that “something” has always existed. While this is certainly counter intuitive, this is only because we inhabit minds that are unable to divorce themselves from the concept of time, and the “common sense” impositions that it places upon us. But the very fact of existence precludes that of non-existence and within this context it no more needs a cause than non-existence would. Existence simply is.

Not only this, but existence exists in its entirety. As time is a state of existence, it cannot be thought of as being a relevant determinant of what exists and what doesn’t. Just as the garden exists even when the puppy isn’t there, so too does the past and future also exist, even when we are not “there”. Time is the mechanism by which sentience uses to navigate its way around the universe, but it would be incorrect for us to imagine that the universe was somehow being created or lost as we move through time.

This is not to say that we live in a completely deterministic universe, where we are fated, or doomed to a particular future. While it is the case that the future exists, there is nothing to suppose that only one future exists. Indeed, I see no reason why an infinite array of possible futures could not exist, with our sentience navigating its way through simply one of the possible timelines. For example, if one imagines my puppy walking across the garden, she could take any one of a potentially infinite number of routes. Some of these might involve going around the pond, others might involve going through the pond. But whether or not she even interacts with the pond, it still exists as a feature of the garden and as a very real alternative path.

The possibility that we inhabit an Infiniverse containing a potentially Infinite range of possibilities, raises the question as to whether there might exist a fundamental “unit” of existence, or if any of the various gods that humanity worships might have had anything to do with it.

With respect to fundamental “units” of existence, I would suggest that we would be looking for something that can exist without seeming to require a universe, or metaphysical underpinning to exist. While many would disagree, it seems to me that the only thing that can fit that particular bill is mathematics. While the debate as to whether mathematics is discovered, or invented is far from being decided, it seems to me that mathematical (and by extension, logical) truths are true irrespective of whether there is a universe to contain them or not. For example, whole numbers represent certain concepts, independently of language, culture, or anything else. Remove the universe, and the number one will still be the number one and it is an intriguing possibility that it is this numerical independence is the fundamental aspect that both precludes non-existence and forms the foundation from which the rest of our existence “emerged”.

How one gets from mathematics to a universe as complex, wonderful and amazing as ours is of course pure speculation. How mathematics can produce sentient creatures with apparent free will is even more out of our reach (although it would be delightful if advanced mathematics eventually stumbled upon the mathematical equivalent of free will). While it could be argued that the all pervading mathematical elegance that we have discovered within our own universe adds weight to such a theory, this should not be considered the case. Even if it were that mathematics is somehow the basis upon which our universe is built, it does not follow that that mathematics should be so easily accessible to our senses and that the underlying algorithm should be so simple that a slightly more intelligent monkey should be able to grasp it.

Within this framework, all creation arises out of sophisticated algorism made real. Somehow, we are product of mathematical manipulations beyond our ken. This way of stating the problem inspires the question as to who or what is doing the manipulation. But I would suggest that rather than being a result of mathematical manipulation, we are instead an emergent property of the very existence of mathematics itself. Obviously, this hardly answers the question and for many it will seem like a dodge designed to avoid getting to the crux of the issue. But to do so would be little more than speculation on speculation. More importantly, it would be speculation that I am not currently equipped to tackle, or discuss in a meaningful sense. As such, the prudent course would be silence.

The interesting thing with respect to the possibility of mathematics forming the framework of the infiniverse, is that it contains within it an infinite potential and that it is highly likely that existence is in fact “complete”, in that everything that is mathematically and logically possible to exist does in fact exist.

The question about the role of God, or gods in the existence of something, rather than nothing is an important one and takes us back to the first lines of the Genesis myth. As discussed this myth starts with a Divine being that already has existence. As such, it ignores the really interesting question of why is there something, rather than nothing in favour of a more mundane one: How did this particular universe come into being. The reason that this is a more mundane question is that it can be answered in an infinite number of ways, ranging from God, to Hamsters and even pure chance. This is because the answer to the question of how our particular universe came into existence is dependent on the metaphysics from which our universe emerged.

But if nothing can come from nothing, then it follows that if God exists, such a being cannot be the source of all existence, because God is Himself something that exists. As such, God can only be a part of creation, rather than its source. At best, he is the sentience which entails all other sentiences, or perhaps even the sentience of the infiniverse itself, but he can only be considered an emergent property of creation, rather than its point of origin, or source.

 


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