The Spectator

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed?

In his quest to understand the origins of the universe, Jim Holt stands up for the big 0.

Black Hole Grabs Starry Snack.
When most quantum cosmologists say the universe sprang from “nothing,” they don’t really mean nothing.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Also in Slate: Read an excerpt from Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I care about nothing. Meaning I care about the ongoing argument about the meaning of nothing, not that I don’t care about anything. One has to be careful in discussing nothing.

Anyway, I care particularly about the eternally vexing question: “Why is there something rather than nothing.” In other words, why does the universe exist at all?

There is a long and strong philosophical tradition examining these questions. Some trace the argument back to pre-Socratic philosophers. Then there is the great Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who made a point in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) that “nothing can come from nothing.” St. Augustine argued that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing, but neglected to explain how God emerged from nothing, arguing instead that He was always there.

And in the modern era, savants from Leibniz to Heidegger have tied themselves in knots over the issue. When the Big Bang theory emerged in the late 1920s, some people figured, “Problem solved.” But for purists among the interested physicists, philosophers, and bystanders such as myself, the Big Bang theory has not answered all questions. (For instance, “Where did the Big Bang come from? And how could it have come from pure nothing?”). And now the question of what exactly “pure nothing” is has become the subject of contention.

In the past couple of decades, quantum cosmologists claim to have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and explained “how something came from nothing” with quantum theories of the origins of the universe. But is the nothing these theorists claim to be describing true nothing, capital-N Nothing, the Really Big O, the Ultimate Zero?

Or are the quantum cosmologists peddling a nothing that comes encumbered with more than few somethings: space, time, even the entire conceptual edifice of quantum theory invisibly calling the shots?

Why should you care about nothing? Well, I know what I care most about is the purity of the nothing invoked in this maddening question. Pure nothingness: It’s the last unspoiled, uncluttered concept in the cosmos. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind. It makes life more interesting if existence can’t yet be reduced to a series of equations.

Which is why I’ve been waiting anxiously for Jim Holt to weigh in on the question of nothing. Now, finally, with the publication of his book, Why Does the World Exist?, which was 18 years in the making, he has. Holt’s book should put nothing on your mind.

You may know of Holt from his work in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker (where his devastating account of the confusions of string theorists caused a stir in 2006), or as a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review on complex matters of science and philosophy. What you may not know is that his current book is the culmination of years pursuing this ultimate question with the best minds in the realms of quantum cosmology, philosophy, and theology all over the world.

It began, more or less, in 1994, when he published a story in Harper’s with the title “Nothing Ventured.” I’ve been following Holt’s work on the subject ever since, always impressed by the grace, humor, humility, and offhand precision with which he makes difficult mathematical and philosophical questions and concepts accessible in a literate way. In his new book, through provocative interviews with the greatest minds on the planet, he captures the human factor behind the equations, what draws such an impressive array of figures to this line of inquiry, and the abstruse logical theorems the quest entails.

There’s a drama to this pursuit that even some elite physicists acknowledge is not a matter of mere mathematics: Holt quotes the physicist Steven Weinberg saying, “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

Yes! That Weinberg can see even his own efforts as being potentially “tragic”—a rare instance of physicist humility—is much to his credit. He understands that the quest to comprehend the universe may never be fulfilled.

Holt is just the man for the something/nothing detective story because he is one of those rare individuals who can speak three distinctive languages fluently: the advanced mathematical language of the quantum cosmologist, the sometimes-indecipherable language of post-modal philosophy and theology, and, oh, right, the third language: English. In fact he can write it with extraordinary subtlety. His prose is both suspenseful—his subtitle is “An Existential Detective Story”—and stringent in an exemplary way.

The new argument that has broken out over the meaning of nothing is one of the most profound and fascinating controversies in modern thought. 

The conflict is certainly more important than the Higgs boson business, because the discovery of the Higgs, the (supposed) Final Particle, the one that gives all other particles mass, just points up how little we know about nothing. It points up once again the true missing piece in our understanding of the cosmos: If the Higgs boson makes matter possible, what makes the Higgs boson possible? How did it come into being from nothing? And if they tell you the laws of physics created it, made it necessary, as some do, then what created those particular laws? And where are they in the midst of nothing? Hovering above, or somehow woven into nothing? But that would imply nothing has a capacity to contain laws, in which case it would no longer be nothing; it would be a vehicle for abstract equations.

And how do abstract laws have what Jim Holt calls “ontological clout”—the ability, just by existing conceptually somewhere (actually nowhere, since nothing has no “where”), to bring something into being from nothing?

And so on in an infinite regress into the abyss of the ancient but still hardy Aristotelian First Cause problem: Any proposed First Cause such as “the laws of quantum mechanics” will presuppose a cause previous to it that caused the purported First Cause. You can never get to nothing by going backward. And you can never get to something by going forward from nothing because you’re back to the big question: How do you (initially) get something, anything, from nothing? This isn’t, by the way, as some who have tried to discredit it have suggested, a “religious” question. It’s a philosophical question. And at its heart, it’s a common-sense question. Don’t let them fool you into thinking you can’t understand it.

So Higgs or no Higgs, we’re back where we started.

I’ve written about this problem before—the “why is there something rather than nothing” problem—which I regard as the second most important unsolved mystery of the cosmos. The first, of course, being love, a similarly unfathomable mystery, one aspect of which I wrote about recently in exploring the implications of a single line by the great poet Philip Larkin (“What will survive of us is love”—survive us where, for instance?). The third greatest mystery, in case you care, is the mystery of consciousness, its origin and locus, mind versus meat (brain).

There’s a similarity in these unsolvable mysteries: Poets are the physicists of love, but, as I suggested, in Larkin’s case at least, their work is marked by humility, a tender tentativeness. Whereas physicists tend to be know-it-alls. Ever since the success of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, it seems like all a physicist needs to do to get a book contract is claim to explain how the universe emerged. There’s Alan Guth’s The Inflationary Universe, Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality, and, more recently, Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing.

This is why I want to spotlight a new development, an admission that was overlooked in the Higgs hype, a disguised concession of defeat by one of the “nothing theorists.” The best way to begin to understand the substance and importance of this new development—I’d call it a shocking confession—and the small but cosmically important war that has broken out over nothing in the past few months among physicists and philosophers is to follow Jim Holt’s thrilling and comprehensive study of nothingness, his “Existential Detective Story,” hinting at a quest that offers all the drama of the best noirs.

And the most important aspect of Holt’s quest, to my mind is his stringency about the nature and definition of nothing.

About that stringency: One of the virtues of Holt’s inquiry is that he sets the bar high for nothingness. He won’t let just anything qualify as nothing. Nothing is not mere emptiness, nothing is not just a vacuum, which can be riddled with waves and particles and possesses extension, dimension, temporality, or at least laws.

Holt refreshingly dismisses those who propose inadequate explanations of what nothing is and then crow about having solved the problem.

He has no patience with the shortcut that so many pop cosmologists use—the “inflationary universe” theory—which doesn’t really explain how something came from nothing, but how something really, really big came from something really, really small.

Early on he quotes Russian-born Stanford physicist Andrei Linde, one of the early proponents of the “inflationary universe” theory: “When I invented the theory of chaotic inflation,” Linde tells Holt, “I found that the only thing needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred thousandth of a gram of matter. … That’s enough to create a small chunk of vacuum that blows up into billions and billions of galaxies we see around us. It looks like cheating but that’s how the inflation theory works ….” It doesn’t look like cheating, to him, but to others ….

He starts with a chunk of matter without providing any explanation of where said chunk, however small, might have come from. And then he claims the chunk of matter creates a “chunk” of “false vacuum,” (you might call that the “creation of nothing from something”) and having assumed that, he huffs and puffs and “inflates” the chunk to the size of the universe using laws that came from where exactly?

It takes Holt 150 pages or so of travelling the world interrogating the nothing theorists to find one who gives what he believes to be an adequate definition of nothing—the nothing we seek to find, the one that qualifies for the “how do we get something from nothing” question.

This comes in his conversation with the physicist and cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, and it’s worth listening to what a stringent definition of nothing really is:

“Imagine,” Holt asks us, paraphrasing Vilenkin, “spacetime [the matrix we live in] has the surface of a sphere. … Now suppose that this sphere is shrinking like a balloon that is losing its air. The radius grows smaller and smaller. Eventually—try to imagine this—the radius goes all the way to zero.”

Pause for a moment to think of a sphere whose radius has gone “all the way to zero.” No time. No space. It’s hard—but not impossible—to get your head around it. Now back to Holt:

“The surface of the sphere disappears completely and with it spacetime itself. We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration.” Nothing is nowhere.

It’s not anything like a chunk of vacuum because a chunky vacuum has extension. It’s not anything like anything. It’s nothing.

Now let’s look at the important controversy that broke out when a distinguished physicist and historian of science tried to apply Holt and Vilenkin’s stringency to one of the nothing theorist’s books. What resulted was some of the most distinguished minds in the world hurling around epithets like “moronic,” “dead wrong,” and “absurd.”

In a New York Times book review of Lawrence Krauss’ recent best-seller, A Universe From Nothing, David Albert, a quantum physicist and professor of the philosophy of science at Columbia and the author of Quantum Mechanics and Experience, was, let’s say, unsparing about Krauss’ claim that he had proven how the universe came into being from nothing—well, from Krauss’ definition of nothing, which as we shall see redefines nothing so that it is not nothing at all.

Albert asks:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that everything he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted.

And as the quantum vacuum—and its fields—that Krauss claims is the nothing from which something emerged, Albert points out that the laws Krauss relies on have “nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

Elsewhere Albert summarizes his objections by calling Krauss “dead wrong” about this fundamental assumption of his that the laws of quantum physics have anything to say about their own origin—how they materialized from nothing, thus how something came from nothing.

Wow. Not surprisingly this brutal putdown caused a big bang in the world of cosmologists. Staying classy in an interview in the Atlantic, Krauss called Albert “a moronic philosopher” (despite Albert’s doctorate in—and book about—quantum mechanics).

In another attack, he denied the very idea that philosophers had any right to critique him, arguing that “philosophy hasn’t progressed in 2000 years” and that historians of science have nothing to say. (There’s a nothing for you.)

He later backtracked a bit from his dismissal of all philosophy and philosophers of science, but not from his claim to have explained something-from-nothing. In fact, as we’ll see, he dug himself a deeper hole.

But before getting into that, I think it’s important to note one of the byproducts of Krauss’ attack on the uses of philosophy, and their philosophers to dispute him, was a beautiful essay by Gary Gutting, a Notre Dame professor of philosophy, in the Times “Opinionator” online section:

While Krauss could appeal to philosophy to strengthen his case against ‘something cannot come from nothing,’ he opens himself to philosophical criticism by simply assuming that scientific experiment is, as he puts it, the ‘ultimate arbiter of truth’ about the world. The success of science gives us every reason to continue to pursue its experimental method in search of further truths. But science itself is incapable of establishing that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Precisely because science deals with only what can be known, direct or indirectly, by sense experience, it cannot answer the question of whether there is anything—for example, consciousness, morality, beauty or God — that is not entirely knowable by sense experience. To show that there is nothing beyond sense experience, we would need philosophical arguments, not scientific experiments.

Krauss may well be right that philosophers should leave questions about the nature of the world to scientists. But, without philosophy, his claim can only be a matter of faith, not knowledge.

But perhaps the most decisive, indeed sensational, take-away from it all came from Krauss himself.

Something he said in that excellent, probing interview with the Atlantic’s Ross Andersen, who was trying to be sympathetic but nonetheless evoked a major unwitting concession if not a confession from Krauss: “What drove me to write this book,” Krauss said of A Universe From Nothing, “was this discovery that the nature of ‘nothing’ had changed, that we’ve discovered that ‘nothing’ is almost everything and that it has properties.”

Where to start? There’s been a “discovery” that the nature of nothing had changed. Who’s discovered that? Krauss and his colleagues may have discovered that there’s a lot of potential stuff in a quantum vacuum, but he doesn’t seem to realize—or want to admit—that a vacuum is not nothing. Of any kind. Sure, he throws in some caveats—about how his book and his theories can’t answer the ultimate questions—but he also takes swipes at philosophers and theologians, and stakes out that big, provocative claim with his bold title, A Universe From Nothing. And the truth is, he and his colleagues haven’t “discovered” anything at all about the nature of—or definition of—nothing changing.

Of course, once you change the strict meaning of nothing (cf. Holt and Vilenkin’s definition), it’s a lot easier to claim you’ve proved how the universe came from nothing. Once he had a compliant definition of nothing that included a lot of something, the proof was a snap.

(Imagine I had written a book about how to make the best blueberry pie in the world, and when it turns out I have no blueberries and all the recipes in the book include raspberries, I just say, “Silly, the meaning of blueberries has changed!”)

Thanks to his new definition of nothing, Krauss can no longer accurately call his book A Universe From Nothing. He’s proving nothing of the sort. He’s “proving” that something came from something(s).

I can’t overemphasize how important this is. The entire edifice of pop cosmology, which depends on getting us to accept the “inflationary universe” theory without looking too closely at the nothing that supposedly inflates into a galactic something, and which has inflated, post-Hawking, into a major publishing and pop culture phenomenon, has just had the rug pulled out from under it by one of its leading practitioners. Who reveals that he and his colleagues know nothing about nothing. Give this man a Nobel for his inadvertent truth telling.

When I emailed Krauss’ remarkable give-away quote about the way the meaning of nothing had changed to Holt, he replied: “What Krauss says is absurd.”

The search goes on. Holt has taken it further—and with greater stringency—than anyone before. He leaves us with the question Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn’t answer, “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

We still don’t know. Let’s not pretend we do.