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Scientific American

Imagine No Universe

published February 2017 | comments (24)
Science contemplates the incomprehensible
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Imagine nothing. Go ahead. What do you see? I picture dark empty space devoid of galaxies, stars and planets. But not only would there be no matter, there would be no space or time either. Not even darkness. And no sentient life to observe the nothingness. Just … nothing. Picture that. You can’t.

Here we face the ultimate question: Why is there something rather than nothing? I have compiled several responses from a number of sources, including a 2013 book by John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn entitled The Mystery of Existence (Wiley-Blackwell) and Lawrence M. Krauss’s 2017 book The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far (Atria Books).

Nothing is nonsensical. It is impossible to conceptualize nothing— not only no space, time, matter, energy, light, darkness or conscious beings to perceive the nothingness but not even nothingness. In this sense, the question is literally inconceivable.

Nothing is something. It is a logical fallacy to talk about “nothing” as if it were a “something” that ceases to exist. Here we bump up against the problem of defining what we mean by “nothing” and the restrictions that language imposes on the problem. The very act of talking about “nothing” makes it a “something.” Otherwise, what are we talking about?

Nothing would include God’s nonexistence. In Leslie and Kuhn’s taxonomy of “nothings,” they list what categories of things might be included in “something” that would be negated by “nothing”: physical, mental, platonic, spiritual and God. If by “nothing” is meant no physical objects or matter of any kind, for example, there can still be energy from which matter may arise by natural forces guided by the laws of nature. Physicists, for example, talk about empty space as seething with virtual particles, from which particle-antiparticle pairs come into existence as a consequence of the uncertainty principle of quantum physics. From this “nothingness,” universes may “pop” into existence.

Nothing excludes creation ex nihilo. If by “nothing” is meant that there is no physical, mental, platonic or nonphysical entity of any kind, then there can be no God or gods, which means that there cannot be anything outside of nothing from which to create something. This negates the Christian theologian argument that God created the universe ex nihilo, or “out of nothing,” based on the English translation of Genesis 1:1 that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is misleading. Recent scholarship has suggested that the Hebrew word for “creation” in Genesis 1:1 is bara ( ברא )—a verb that more accurately translated means to “separate” or “divide.” Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning God separated the heavens and the earth.” Separated from what is not indicated.

Nothing is unstable; something is stable. Asking why there is something rather than nothing presumes “nothing” is the natural state of things out of which “something” needs an explanation. Maybe “something” is the natural state of things, and “nothing” would be the mystery to be solved. In his sweeping narrative, The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far, a sequel to his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing, Krauss notes that “Einstein was one of the first physicists to demonstrate that the classical notion of causation begins to break down at the quantum realm.” Although many physicists objected to the idea of something coming from nothing, he observes that “this is precisely what happens with the light you are using to read this page. Electrons in hot atoms emit photons—photons that didn’t exist before they were emitted—which are emitted spontaneously and without specific cause. Why is it that we have grown at least somewhat comfortable with the idea that photons can be created from nothing without cause, but not whole universes?”

One answer has to do with our discomfort with the Copernican principle, which holds that we are not special. We prefer religious and anthropic explanations that the universe was created and fine-tuned for us because they put humans right back in the center of the cosmos anthropocentrically—it is all about us. But 500 years of scientific discoveries have revealed that it isn’t about us. From this fact, we may gain purchase on a perspective that engages both the religious and scientific impulse toward a sense of awe one gains from contemplating nothing.

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24 Comments to “Imagine No Universe”

  1. Roger Says:

    This is a good compilation. But, I think there’s a way out. My solution would be:

    1. You have the response:

    “Nothing excludes creation ex nihilo. If by “nothing” is meant that there is no physical, mental, platonic or nonphysical entity of any kind, then there can be no God or gods, which means that there cannot be anything outside of nothing from which to create something.”

    I agree. And, yet there is “something” now. The only logical way to start with “nothing” and get “something” is that that “nothing” is not truly the lack of all existent entities. It must be a “something”. How? In the situation we often think of as “absolute nothing” (the lack of all matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws of math and physics, Gods, and minds to consider this supposed “lack of all”), the only thing left that could be a “something” is that “nothing” itself. Somehow, it must be a “something”. I don’t mean that our mind’s conception of “nothing” is a “something”, I mean that “nothing” itself is a “something”. There’s no other choice, I think, if we start off with “nothing”. If we don’t start with “nothing”, there’s no point in continuing to ask the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question.

    How can what we used to think of as “nothing” actually be a “something”? I think it’s first important to try and figure out why any “normal” thing (like a book, or a set) can exist and be a “something”. I propose that an existent entity is a grouping or relationship defining what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to a thing. In the case of a book, try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch, see or visualize something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist. The grouping together of individual atoms of paper and book binding into a new and unique existent entity called the “book” is represented visually as the surface of the book. This grouping/surface is what makes the book a different existent entity than the individual atoms inside considered on their own. As a different example, consider the concept of an automobile. This is a mental construct in the head that groups together individual concepts/constructs labeled “tire”, “engine”, “car body”, etc. into a new and unique entity labeled as the concept “automobile”. Here, the grouping is represented not as a physical surface but as the label “automobile” for the mental construct. But, this construct still exists because it’s a grouping defining what is contained within. One last example is that of a set. Does a set exist before the rule defining what elements are contained within is present? I don’t think it does. In conclusion, a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within is an existent entity.

    Next, apply this definition of why a thing exist to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?” To start, “absolute nothing”, or “non-existence”, is first defined to mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this “absolute lack-of-all”. Now, try to visualize this. When we get rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “absolute nothing”. This situation, this “absolute lack-of-all”, would be it; it would be the everything. It would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. That’s it; that’s everything; there’s nothing else. Is there anything else besides that “absolute nothing”? No. It is “nothing”, and it is the all. An entirety/whole amount/everything is a grouping defining what is contained within and is therefore a surface, an edge, and an existent entity. That is, this supposed lack of all existent entities is itself an existent entity. Because the “absolute lack-of-all” is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as both what is contained within and the grouping defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/surface/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the “entirety”, “the all” relationship inherent in this “absolute lack-of-all”.

    What this means is that “something” is necessary, or non-contingent, because even what we previously, and incorrectly, visualized as the lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”, is a “something. So, this is a mechanism by which we can show that what we previously, and incorrectly, pictured as “nothing” is actually a “something”.

  2. Roger Says:

    By the way, if anyone’s interested, I’ve got more on the above at my websites at:

    https://sites.google.com/site/whydoesanythingexist
    (shorter summary)

    https://sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite/filecabinet/why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing

    (longer)

  3. Ronald Green Says:

    I deal with “nothing” in my book “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (Iff-books, John Hunt Publishing). I distinguish between the absence of something (nothingness) and the absence of everything (Nothing), which solves the so-called paradoxes and impossibilities inherent in a general “nothing”.

    We cannot imagine Nothing, since it is the absence of everything, including ourselves. We cannot imagine not imagining

    A universe cannot come from Nothing (the absence of everything). Lawrence Krauss (“A Universe from Nothing” plays fast and loose with definitions when he says that nothing is not really nothing in order to explain how the universe springs into existence.

    Nothingness (the absence of something) is a different kettle of fish. An absence is something, and it can be felt (the absence sound, the absence of someone you were expecting, etc.) It why we can talk about the absence of something.

    The question “Why does the Universe exist?” is a non-question, despite Bede Rundle calling it “philosophy’s central and most perplexing, question, and that Martin Heidegger famously characterized as the most fundamental issue of philosophy.”

    This is a theological question, not a philosophical one. The only answer can be given by believers. If one believers that God exists, then there is no problem. For others, it is (or should be) a non-problem.

    There is nothing astonishing for there to be a world. When Jim Holt asks: “Why does the world exist?” in the book of the same name, the answer surely is that it couldn’t be any other way. If it didn’t exist, there would be no one to answer the question, or even ask it. “If” questions are for grammar teachers. Alternative physics are akin to alternative history and should be left for people who deal with that sort of thing.

    The question “Why does the Universe exist?” is a non-question, despite Bede Rundle calling it “philosophy’s central, and most perplexing question”.
    It is nonsensical to state that “It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time.” How could that have been “true”. True in which sense? How could it be tested? What is “truth” when there is nothing around?

  4. Ronald Green Says:

    Sorry. The last 2 paragraphs should have been deleted.

  5. alexander pope Says:

    king james had made serious errors while translating new testament is a fact that gave erratic misintrepretations which refuted and distorted the original text.

    what necessitated quantom jump in human invention is something humans have to deal with social and historical science rather than science pundits and philosophers alone!

    for example, someone from hiroshima or nagasaki could tell a great deal about philosophy than an average philosopher with a peabrain, who always thinks about, the big bang, or, when did it all started, or those ones who thought bacteria makes diseases and later shifted their thesis on virus.

    the fallacy of scientists is that they go on finding things with great researches, with great thought process and with a high congnitive capacity, and with great funding from their great doners, the finance capital.

    and, further more, they continue to babble at a climate where amazon is erazed, or more plastic is being produced leaving dioxine or more toxic substances are pumped into oceans decimating life forms, with the aid of the same science that enable them to think and see more molecular substances and the tiniest particles.

    hail finance capital
    full of destruction
    thy kingdom come
    as it is in hell.

  6. awc Says:

    Is the existence of math covered in relation to nothing ?

  7. brymor Says:

    @awc: Mathematics is a set of concepts invented by human minds. If there is nothing, then no humans, no minds, no mathematics.

  8. Kevin Says:

    Somehow, in the midst of this deeply contemplative discussion (and with all deference to those with the mental bandwidth to wade through such extrapolations), I find myself thinking of the nemesis entity from The Neverending Story…

  9. Richard Says:

    Nathaniel Branden, when discussing the subject, aptly said: “The person who asks: Where did existence come from? Or, What caused it? Is the man who has never grasped that existence exists. This is the mentality of a savage or a mystic who regards existence as some sort of incomprehensible miracle and seeks to explain it by reference to non-existence.

    “Existence is all that exists. Non-existence does not exist. There is nothing for existence to have come out of. And nothing means nothing.”

  10. George P. Burdell Says:

    Nothing never existed!

  11. Stephen Nowlin Says:

    If there were nothing, no thing, there would also be “no how.” But where we live in the something world, there is “somehow” which is what science studies. No-how is claimed by religion to be the way God works, in a universe of something and somehow. Crazy . . .

  12. Herb Says:

    I wrote an essay a few years ago called, “You Can Only Get Something From Nothing If Nothing Is Something” and posted it on my blog. See https://theabsurdityindex.com/2016/03/05/you-can-only-get-something-from-nothing-if-nothing-is-something-2/

    My position was twofold. First, I posit that for something to exist it must be caused. If true, it follows that there is no such thing as an uncaused cause; no ex nihilo event where something can come from nothing. That just leads to circular logic — if A caused B, then what caused A? If that is a valid proposition, then causes must go infinitely backward but not infinitely forward. It’s this path into the future that gets in trouble because of determinism.

    My second point here is that it’s this concept of determinism that drives science. Experiments are conducted and falsified until specific causes are revealed and then used to produce the same result every time. Sometimes, though, causes are not understood well enough to deign an experiment or prove a hypophysis. For example, String Theory has possible solutions that number 500 orders of magnitude

    Determinism is mostly but not always based on linear solutions. Causation, however, is non-linear. Causation is the equivalent of the butterfly effect in chaos theory – “a small change at one place in a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state.” And that condition plays havoc with determinism and, in turn, the scientific method.

    And the idea of free will is also connected to causation and determinism.

    A couple of years ago, I posted this about “nothing” on another blog:

    “It is my unerudite opinion that nothing is, in point of fact, something. Indeed, nothing is a wannabe something, a something lying in wait, if you will. Of course, nothing is also something that ceases to be.

    “Trillions of years from now when all the suns in the universe will have burned up all their fuel and the forces of nature will have stopped being, well, you know, forces of nature, then nothing will not only be something, but nothing will be everything!”

  13. alexander pope, india Says:

    those who have felt hunger and seeing no food around for several days feel they exist. and those who feel to shit in the morning and see no toilet in the busy street feel they exist even if they are deaf; and those who are blind still feel hunger and thirst and the necessity to shit feel the existence.

    and, those pundits, the irresponsible philosophers, some astrophycist, and the adwaitha preachers and all those charltans who think they are the answers to all, and those pure physicst who go on inventing more and more and see more and more with the grand funding of donors can tell others in an erudite way about non existence.

    michael sherman and others who keep the polemic on non existence and time and universe and multiverse have to realize that they will stop the dialogue and discussion about non existence when they feel hungry; the sure sign of existence.

  14. Tony Barron Says:

    My answer to deists is that the universe came from the same place they think their god came from.

  15. Bill Isaacs Says:

    “Existence” is a contingent something. By using mathematics as the base for science, we find that quantum theory associated with the use of the Uncertainty Principle yields answers to what “nothing” is made of. Matter and Anti-matter collide and are “annihilated”. What remains? Energy? If that is so, then nothing can NEVER exist. Only “something”, from the language of science – mathematics. Mathematics was invented as a language by human beings. Science is meaningless to a large degree without the invention of mathematics. By the way, the gods of the ancients and the God of more modern humans is also a human concept and has varied with every human being who has ever existed.

  16. awc Says:

    @brymor. I would argue that mathematical concepts exist regardless if a mind thinks about them. In a universe without minds that can imagine math. 2 + 3 = 5

  17. Lorna Salzman Says:

    None of these discussions or concepts would “exist” were it not for our brain power. Other animals don’t have the brain power. They don’t (as far as we know) sit around and think about existence and non existence, something and nothing. Take away the human brain and you have the answer: there IS something, and there always WAS something.

  18. Traruh Synred Says:

    The question is is based on a category mistake.

    Ask silly questions and you’ll get silly answers.

    Nothing does not exist.

  19. Dale Says:

    @awc: It would be more correct to say that the laws of physics exist, regardless of the mathematics used to represent them. Even your example, 2 + 3 = 5, seems obvious to us because we have been taught the base 10 system from when we were very young. But this is a human construct based on the fact that we have 10 fingers. It is true that if two apples lie on the ground in one place, and three in another, there are a total of five apples, even if no one is there to count them. But the mathematical equation is a human invention.

  20. Albert Natian Says:

    Here’s a somewhat mathematical approach to the idea or ‘possible reality’ of nothing or nothingness:

    The approach is that of taking successive steps in a process that has a limit just like a mathematical function that has a limit ….

    Consider a portion of space before you that is filled with objects of various kinds. For example, consider a cubical space of dimension 1’x1’x1′ one inch above your desk. Go ahead and remove everything that overlaps (or intrudes) into that space. Say, you remove the books, pens, air, everything that might be there. That is the first step. In the second step you make sure no light travels through that space. In step three, you make sure no other particle (e.g., gamma rays or radio waves or neutrinos or anything else) pass through that space. In step four you make sure that that space is not under the influence of a magnetic or gravitational field (How? I don’t know). So, if after all this there still seems to be something else lurking within that space, you remove that, too. Clearly, this is a process with a certain limit, even though that limit my never be reached practically, but we can get as close to the limit of nothing or nothingness as ‘ever’! At least, as an idea, this is a decent definition of nothing or nothingness.

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  22. John Lee Says:

    Regarding the concept of Nothing, this is included in the second page of my Hypothesis first published in 2912, which is a Simple unifying hypothesis of the Hierarchy of Universes, as per the link below. I invite all to read:
    http://www.energy-enigma-of-li.com/

    Thanks!

  23. John Lee Says:

    Oops! 2012

  24. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    I like this provocative essay by Michael Shermer.

    “Nothing” is the opposite of “something.” It is just a concept.

    It is difficult to believe that anything could come from nothing. This idea seems to go against observation and reason.

    Quote: “Although many physicists objected to the idea of something coming from nothing, he [Krauss in his newest book] observes that ‘this is precisely what happens with the light you are using to read this page. Electrons in hot atoms emit photons—photons that didn’t exist before they were emitted—which are emitted spontaneously and without specific cause. Why is it that we have grown at least somewhat comfortable with the idea that photons can be created from nothing without cause, but not whole universes?’”

    I think Krauss’ example does not illustrate something from nothing. The electrons which emit “photons-photons” aren’t nothing. There is no good evidence to support the hypothesis that a whole universe came from nothing.

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