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Isn't it obvious that from nothing (in the philosophical sense, i.e. absolute nonexistence) comes nothing? Isn't it also clear that physics has absolutely no saying on this dictum, as physics only deals with our spacetime, the latter simply being one possible instantiation of something ?

If there is no explicit proof, through formal logic or otherwise, that ex nihilo nihil fit, can't we accept this principle as a basic law of thought or axiom about reality?

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  • 4
    If we take it as true because "it is obvious", without a rigorous demonstration then it's just an axiom. And axioms can be chosen or dismissed at will as long as they don't lead to contradictions. But it is not even that obvious, because we have never had "nothing" available for study (unlike, say, the axioms of Euclidean geometry that we can represent with a pen and paper). We can imagine what "nothing" would be, but then again our imagination is often mistaken. It might even be nonsense, as if the universe is eternal "nothing" never even existed in the first place.
    – armand
    Nov 5, 2021 at 3:40
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    What does "comes from" mean in this context? Are you assuming a presentist view of time where things go in and out of existence as time passes, and saying one thing can only begin to exist due to a prior cause? Or would you say that even if we adopt an eternalist framework where future, past and present things are equally existent, just at different locations in spacetime, there is still some non-ontological sense in which one thing B can be said to "come from" some other thing A, like B being a fact that's logically deduced from fact A?
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 5, 2021 at 4:03
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    "Isn't it obvious", "isn't it clear", and "can't we accept this principle as a basic law" can be attached to any statement, and do not make it any more convincing. They were once attached to "the Earth is flat" and the parallel postulate, and those at least involved concepts more precise than "something" and "nothing". We have learned. Is an event "something" coming from "nothing" when it is not determined by prior events? Physics tells us that this is exactly what happens in quantum double split experiment, among others. Even if not true it is not because of "basic laws of thought".
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2021 at 7:24
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    And this is one of the reasons why "something can't come from nothing" as is cannot be a principle at all, you already had to make the terms more specific. At best, one can use it as a vague heuristic.
    – Conifold
    Nov 5, 2021 at 17:56
  • 2
    As one who has studied foundations of mathematics: from nothing (the empty set) comes everything. Nov 5, 2021 at 19:45

8 Answers 8

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Short Answer

It seems to me that the question 'why is there no agreement' has degenerated into an argument about some absolutist notion of particular meaning. This is self-evidentially the answer to the question of why there is no agreement. If a dictum expressed cannot be agreed upon, then there can be no consensus by definition, clearly. The lack of agreement stems from the skirmishing over definitions. This is because of linguistic ambiguity inherent in defining 'something' and 'nothing'. So ultimately, the argument is not one about the nature of the dictum, but rather why and how it is possible to argue about the dictum.

Long Answer

Do colorless green ideas sleep furiously? Noam Chomsky drew our attention to the fact that not all sentences which are grammatical are sensical. The dictum in question is grammatical. Is it sensical? Gibt es Sinn oder Bedeutung hier? There seems to be a preponderance of discussion concluding yes, but since the subject and object of the dictum are abstractions, agreement seems hard to come by. A quick look at the entry for 'nothing' shows that since the Ancient Greeks, one long philosophical kerfuffle has ensued over the meaning. Even in Niels Nielsen's post, we can see how easy it is for people to get their philospher up. OF course, the question isn't is the dictum true, but in what contexts is the dictum true.

Mathematical Nothing To Something

In math, we begin with givens and reason deductively to conclusions. Let us assume nothing exists, and let us name the quantity of nothing be 0.

There exists 0.

Let us abridge the construction of arithmetic, and accept the axiom that a natural number and its additive inverse summed are equal to 0.

a + -a = 0

Well from this, we can show that from nothing a positive something and negative something arise. (A useful fact in completing the square, in fact.) Does this show that the dictum is false? Well, it depends on your metaphysical presuppositions, and any argument over the argument degenerates into first principles.

Logical Nothing to Something

In logic, existence is predicated in the received view on existential quantification. Clearly, in a formal system, the rules are clear: one can create something from nothing.

∃x

Where did the x come from in the axiomatic system? If the domain of discourse is the axiomatic system, then the answer is irrefutably nowhere, ex nihilio. But if a philosopher is hell bent on demonstrating that belief precedes words, than she need only argue the domain of discourse.

Building Consensus

So the real question implicit here is about the psychology of philosophy and not about some deeper metaphysical principle of existence. Why is it that two sophisticated thinkers would choose to use language in two different ways? Why does a theologist choose a domain of discourse that includes 'supernatural' and an athiest reject it? Why, like a Rorschach ink blot, does a claim find itself interpreted in two starkly different fashions? That answer comes from metaphilosophy:

Metaphilosophy, sometimes called the philosophy of philosophy, is "the investigation of the nature of philosophy".1 Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods.2 Thus, while philosophy characteristically inquires into the nature of being, the reality of objects, the possibility of knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, metaphilosophy is the self-reflective inquiry into the nature, aims, and methods of the activity that makes these kinds of inquiries, by asking what is philosophy itself, what sorts of questions it should ask, how it might pose and answer them, and what it can achieve in doing so. It is considered by some to be a subject prior and preparatory to philosophy,4 while others see it as inherently a part of philosophy,5 or automatically a part of philosophy6 while others adopt some combination of these views.2

Philosophy, after all, is a human activity.

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I disagree with your assertion that physics has nothing to say about this.

There was a time when "nothing" was thought of as a box with no contents. Then it was discovered that it contained air, and air had certain properties- so the box full of nothing actually contained "something".

"Nothing" was redefined to be a box containing no material objects and no gases. Then it was discovered that it contained radiation, which behaved somewhat like a dilute gas, and the properties of that radiation could be measured.

Then "nothing" was redefined to mean a box containing a vacuum and no radiation- but on very small distance scales and very short time scales, it was found to contain particles and antiparticles in a continuous process of creation and annihilation- and if those processes were not taken into account, the predictions of mathematical physics would yield wrong answers.

Physics was extended to yield the right answers by incorporating the effects of those virtual particles, and the responsible people got Nobel prizes for their efforts. Now we are faced with the reality that in addition to virtual particles, empty space contains matter that does not interact with light and hence cannot be seen with telescopes, but is manifest in other more subtle (but still measurable) ways.

And that is not the end of the story. The measurable behavior of our universe also indicates the presence of energy in "empty" space which affects its cosmological evolution- in measurable ways.

What this means is that over the last 120 years, the very definition of empty space or "nothing" has been revised several times to properly account for things in it we can't see with our eyes but which are there nonetheless.

Philosophers are free of course to define nothingness in any way they see fit, since those definitions are unconstrained by the way the physical world actually works and untestable by observation or measurement. But the assertion that physics has nothing to say about nothing is wrong.

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Because "something can't come from nothing" leads to infinite regress/explanatory failure when you ask the question, "Where did things come from?"

  1. We will assume that "something" exists now and define "nothing" to be the negation of "something".
  2. If something exists, it either came from something or came from nothing (law of the excluded middle).
  3. If it came from something, then that something either came from something or came from nothing.
  4. ...now it's turtles all the way down and you haven't explained how anything came to be.

From Wikipedia:

On one interpretation, the goal of positing the existence of a world turtle is to explain why the earth seems to be at rest instead of falling down: because it rests on the back of a giant turtle. In order to explain why the turtle itself is not in free fall, another even bigger turtle is posited and so on, resulting in a world that is turtles all the way down. Despite its shortcomings in clashing with modern physics and due to its ontological extravagance, this theory seems to be metaphysically possible assuming that space is infinite, thereby avoiding an outright contradiction. But it fails because it has to assume rather than explain at each step that there is another thing that is not falling. It does not explain why nothing at all is falling.

People sometimes try to stop at step 4 by positing a "hand of god" argument, but then we have the question, "Where did god come from, anyway?" It's just more turtles.

Please note that this doesn't prove that something can come from nothing. Just that we don't have the tools to answer the question.

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Simply put, because in philosophy anything can be called into question no matter how much it may seem like you're denying the obvious, and nothing deters entire intellectual frameworks from being built upon assertions that most people would recognize as absurd. Humans aren't perfectly rational all the time, so there's literally nothing ensuring us to follow even the most basic truths and nothing even deterring errors from becoming normalized.

I say this as someone who upholds that "nothing comes from nothing" is indeed a metaphysical truth, but notice that someone who argues for the contrary could very well use what I said to justify his position despite being so contrary to common sense.

Moreover, it is a metaphysical claim. It can't be empirically verified, only rationally, and it's way easier to deny that which can only be seen with the eyes of reason than that which can be seen with physical eyes. That makes empirical investigation way more straightforward than rational investigation. For starters, the most effective tools to best observe phenomena are already settled before you can begin your research. The metaphysician has no such luxury - he must first determine which metaphysical framework out of virtually infinite ones best describes reality before he can even begin reasonably applying it to specific matters.

"Science" ends up seeming so much better grounded than "philosophy" that it's understandable why the temptation always exists to try solving metaphysical problems by appealing to the considerations of natural science or even to naively propose that all philosophical problems are reducible to scientific problems. A question which can be solved by mere observation is much easier to settle than one which can only be determined rationally, so wouldn't that be convenient? Of course, that doesn't make the "scientificist" approach any more true, but the appeal is precisely why physicists like Krauss use it (even if only to fail). And in light of all that I have said it should come as no wonder that those who find him convincing are bound to take a while to catch up to his philosophical errors.

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  • Good point on relation between physics and metaphysics
    – Nikos M.
    Nov 5, 2021 at 20:27
  • Note that, by Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, there are in fact statements in any modestly-powerful mathematical theory that are true, but impossible to prove by any finite sequence of steps. Leaving the physical world aside for the moment, it’s not clear to me why there can’t, in principle, be turtles somewhere all the way down. Most mathematicians have no problem with the concept of infinite sequences in mathematics.
    – Davislor
    Nov 5, 2021 at 23:46
  • Although it is true that mathematicians generally prefer to work with sets and theories that are in some sense “well-founded.” It is not clear to me why, for example, sets that are not well-founded cannot exist.
    – Davislor
    Nov 6, 2021 at 0:01
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tl;dr "Nothing" is literally just no thing, i.e. there not being a thing to refer to. However, it's been used colloquially, e.g. "Double nothing is still nothing.", creating common misunderstandings in which it's conflated with default-values, e.g. zero and empty-sets, leading to fallacious equivocation. Historically, such confusion arose when the distinction wasn't properly recognized before being corrected. Such fallacious equivocations can make it difficult for folks to reason about the concept of "nothing".


"Nothing" denotes an absence of anything to refer to.

Definitions:

  • something (some thing): A thing that could be referred to.

  • nothing (no thing): There not being a thing to refer to.

Tautologically, something can't come from nothing because nothing isn't a thing; by definition, nothing doesn't refer to a thing at all, even to a thing that doesn't exist.

However, something can come from nothing in the sense that there may not be a thing one would describe as being the thing that caused the something.


Analogy: Language confusion about ?: as "the ternary operator".

To draw an analogy, in programming, there's often a conditional-operator, ?:. It takes three arguments:

  1. a conditional argument (true or false);

  2. the result if the condition's true;

  3. the result if the condition's false.

For example,

return (value1 > value2) ? value1 : value2;

basically just tests which of two values is larger, then return's that larger value.

Because ?: has three arguments (arg1 ? arg2 : arg3), some folks call it "the ternary operator". However, more generally, a ternary operator is an operator with three arguments; ?: is the ternary operator only in limited contexts in which there aren't other ternary operators.

This sometimes causes confusion on sites like StackExchange as some folks may think that ?: is the ternary operator in a general context, whereas others would see it as only an example of one.


Language confusion about "nothing".

In colloquial exchanges, folks may say stuff like:

Person A Person B
What's up? Nothing.
What's in the box? Nothing.
What'd they say? Nothing.
What's the cost? Nothing.

And like "the ternary operator", perhaps some folks may learn the word through inference from common usage rather than its fuller meaning, picking up some undue context-specific connotations.

If you ask "Can something come from nothing?", then someone might imagine various notions of "nothing" hoisted from colloquial contexts in more general models, leading to confusion.

For example, someone might think of:

  1. a deposition process in which a solid object appears from "nothing";

  2. an abiogenesis process in which life appears from "nothing";

  3. virtual particles in which particles appear from "nothing";

  4. empty strings, e.g. "", requiring computer-memory usage and being distinct from null despite being "nothing".


Ambiguity in "Nothing can come from nothing.".

Say that, one day, someone notices bricks of gold just appearing at a location without apparent cause. Scientists are called in to examine the phenomena; they try to alter local conditions to see what affects the process, but nothing does – the bricks of gold appear in a predictable pattern regardless of environmental modifications.

Folks might say that the bricks are "coming from nothing".

  • Incorrect interpretation: There's a metaphysical absence of a cause; the bricks are appearing in spite of causality.

  • Correct interpretation: There's no thing to reference as the cause of the bricks appearing.

  • Better interpretation: There's no thing that's satisfying to reference as the cause of the bricks appearing.

So can something come from nothing?

  • Yes, in the sense that a speaker may not have a thing to reference as the causal source of something else.

  • No, in the sense of there being a thing that is, itself, an objective absence that causes other things.

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First, if we take the principle, “something can’t come from nothing,” as applying only to all concrete objects that have ever existed within the universe, I think you have a pretty widely-accepted belief. Determinists, for example, believe that the current state of the universe is entirely the result of the laws of physics acting on a previous state of the universe (and maybe even of a small part of it, such as the past light-cone of something). We only get into trouble when we try to apply the principle to things beyond that, such as “The number zero,” or “That anything exists at all.” But a statement that’s “only” true of every concrete thing in the universe is still very useful!

In addition to the answers trying to refine what we mean by “nothing,” I would ask what we mean by, “come from.”

Many people who say “comes from” seem to mean something like, “is the result of what existed before it, namely, ...” which fits our intuition of how the physical world works. But if there is anything that does not exist in time, that definition would clearly not apply to it. For example, where does the principle, “Something cannot come from nothing,” come from? If we mean, that exact utterance, we can say it came from the brain of the first person who thought of it, which was a concrete thing that existed at an earlier time. But if we take this principle as some kind of abstract, eternal truth: was there ever any time where it was untrue? If so, something did once come from nothing; if not, there is no thing that existed before the principle, for it to have “come from,” at least not by the definition of “come from” I gave in this paragraph. So it is a counterexample to itself.

That definition particularly would not apply to the most common context where this question seems to come up: the existence of space-time itself. The existence of time could not have been preceded by anything in time, and indeed, modern physics seems to tell us that the concept of some putative “time before the Big Bang” is meaningless. The idea that something could have existed “before” there was such a thing as time to cause time is an obvious contradiction, so time would be a counterexample that “comes from no thing”—again, by a definition of “comes from” that requires there to have been a point in time where the thing that could not have come from nothing did not exist.

So maybe “comes from” means “was logically entailed by”? We can make physical causation a special case of logical entailment, if we posit that everything that has ever happened was a necessary consequence of what happened before.

But all logic as we understand it does derive from axioms that come from nothing. And in fact, Kurt Gödel proved that no modestly-powerful form of logic can ever possibly prove its own consistency. There are, as a provable mathematical fact, statements in any form of mathematics we can do arithmetic in that are true, but impossible to derive or establish in any finite sequence of steps. If you took a theorem-proving algorithm and tried to find where it came from by searching for a proof, it would just regress infinitely. The theorem is true in that theory, but it doesn’t have any justification that mathematicians would accept as “coming from” somewhere.

Maybe you had something other than “caused by something earlier in time,” or “logically implied by.” If so, I’d need to know what. You don’t necessarily need to, but I do.

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My thoughts on nothingness:

  1. As Max Tegmark noted, mathematical object always exist, it is impossible to "remove" them from reality. If you imagine completely "empty" reality, integer numbers still exist, and 1+1 in such empty reality is still 2.

  2. Any projection of integer numbers (mathematical function projecting integers into some mathematical object) is equally existent, as any other projection of integer numbers. There is no default "view" on integers, all mathematical objects resulting from projections of integer numbers are equally existent as integer numbers itself.

  3. One such projection of integer numbers, one such mathematical object, is our universe (and other projections represent infinite number of other mathematical objects, which all exist in same sense, as our universe exists). All these mathematical objects are various views on integer numbers.

  4. I don't think anyone (so far) had any idea why integer numbers (and derived Boolean logic) exist in the first place, why it is so deeply rooted into reality, and why is possibility of non-existence of integer numbers (complete emptiness) inconsistent with reality.

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Why isn't the dictum "something can't come from nothing" a matter of consensus?

Nothing can possibly come from nothing... But not for any metaphysical reason. It is only a matter of logic and of the semantics of the words involved in the expression.

So, it is trivially true that a thing cannot come from nothing. This apparently is not enough to stop people using the sentence "something cannot come from nothing" as if it had some metaphysical import. It doesn't. Something cannot come from nothing and yet, it is at least logically possibly that something does not come from anything. Indeed, reality itself could not possibly come from something else, since there is by definition nothing else outside reality, and therefore nothing reality could come from.

So, reality does not come from nothing and it does not come from anything.

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