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7/23/13

Turtles All the Way Down: "Nothing" Is the Most Important Question in the World

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Why does this blog article exist? Because its author poured himself a cup of coffee the other morning and sat down in front of the computer to read a book review. Where did the book review come from? From the reviewer who wrote it, silly. Where did the book come from? Its author wrote it. This is becoming tedious.

Okay, how about this?
Where did the universe come from? One interpretation of the Big Bang theory is that it emerged from nothing--in the final analysis, then, it, time, space, cups of coffee, blogs, book reviews, books, you and me, the kitchen sink, everything came from nothing.

In short, this leads to the most fundamental question of all: How does something come from nothing? In the 5th Century BC, Parmenides explored this question and since then a long line of philosophers have tackled it.

A related question: How about these words you are reading? How did they get from something called my brain to this page? From this page to your brain? Yeah, I know all that stuff about brain lobes and light spectrums, but how did they really get there? After all, your brain is enclosed in darkness. How does it get lit up? Consciousness is supposed to occur inside your skull and yet you experience it as empty space.

So how do you get around this something-nothing issue?  Somebody's grandmother had one idea.  Turtles. Turtles? Yes, turtles.  In A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking tells a joke about that.

"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: 'What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.'

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?'

'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down!' "


Then there is William James who said this about something coming from nothing: “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge.”

Of course, there is a way around the problem. Just order a taller stack of turtles. If you say because E because F because G (H, I, J, K … ), and on and on, your explanation can become an infinite regress.

Enough of all this, said Bertrand Russell, who wouldn't even give the problem a go: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.”

Still, the fact remains that we are baffled by two phenomena. One is the hard problem of consciousness. How can science explain what it is like to be you? To be me? The other is the origin of the universe.

With regard to the Big Bang, it really does look like something--spacetime--came from nothing, and how can that be? If this were a contest, religions would score one point for themselves, with zero for science.

In Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt asks questions about cosmology of eminent thinkers. A reviewer says "More philosophical than scientific in bent, Holt wants not only an explanation of how you get something from nothing but also how such an explanation might be possible at all." A review of the book can be found here.

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