Science contemplates the incomprehensible
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.