Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Reality: Why is there something rather than nothing?
Lead: Jen Reynolds, Jason Walls


Summary by Christin Chenard:


Reality: Why is there Something rather than Nothing?

The discussion started with the semantic problems involved in using the word ‘nothing’. ‘Nothing’ can mean the absence of a specified thing (‘no-thing’) and or it could be the absence of everything. The following definition was proposed: if it has a quality then it can’t be ‘nothing’. For example, empty space is not ‘nothing’ because it’s size can be measured.

Another definition of nothing was suggested; if it can’t be measured, then it is nothing. Someone then pointed out that emotions are real even though we do not think of them as measurable, and qualitative things as well as quantitative things can be real.

The following points from the reading (A Hole in the Universe, Chapter 4, Nothing Takes Center Stage by K. C. Cole) were brought up:
Solid matter is a manifestation of fields.
   • Matter is just where fields are concentrated, fields are the ‘stuff of stuff’.
   • Energy is what differentiates nothing from something.
   • Quantum fluctuations in a vacuum can generate particles of matter.

Quantum mechanics then became the subject of discussion for quite a while. If you get close enough to something to measure it, you alter the thing you’re trying to measure. For example, if you want to know the position of an electron, you must shoot a photon at it. This photon will relay to you the position of the photon, but it also changed the velocity of the electron. The more precisely you know one of these values, the less precisely you know the other. If observation changes reality how is science divided into subject and observer? They cannot be separated except in the macroscopic world. Only if a photon hits something can it be observed. It was pointed out that if observation changes reality then science can’t be divided to a subject and an observer as it is often thought to be.

We then discussed ‘nothing’ in relation to ‘infinity’. It was suggested that nothing is that which does not exist, while infinity is the collection of all things that do exist. This definition of infinity was disputed with the argument that the collection of things that exist is a finite quantity. Eventually we settled on the idea that zero and infinity have no reality themselves but are useful concepts in mathematics which helps us describe things in reality.

For some reason that I don’t entirely understand, we discussed the quantization of space and of matter. The question ‘are things infinitely divisible’ was raised. I think we agreed that this was not so. For example, matter can be divided from macroscopic things to compounds to elements to subatomic particles to energy. Once you have energy all you have are photons which are packets of energy and cannot be divided anymore. Then does energy increase until a point at which it can be observed? But what was it before you detected it?

This lead to the question ‘is there a continuum from something to nothing or is it dichotomous?’ While we did not arrive at a definite answer we discussed many things that at first seem dichotomous but that are really continuous. For example, dark and light and temperature are continuums.

We then turned to the question of whether something and nothing must exist together. The class was divided on this point. Some felt that just because we’ve made a concept called ‘nothing’ that it does not necessarily exist. They pointed out that many early people had no concept of zero or nothing. Others in the class felt that the two were intertwined and must exist together. They felt that if the universe is finite, that if the collection of all things that exist is a finite set, then there has to be nothing ‘somewhere’.