Mary-Jane Rubenstein writes in Cosmic Singularities

At first blush, Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s “nothing” seems even more of a nothing than the church fathers’ nothing. For whereas Irenaeus’ and Tertullian’s world emerges from nothing and God, Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s world emerges from nothing at all.

Is it correct to say that Hawkings & Mlodinows world emerge from nothing? They must presumably posit some physical law that enabled this something to come out of nothing, and this law cannot be in time as space-time also came out of nothing. Of course physical law is not matter or energy; but surely one must insist on the point that this law is there? Or is there some argument out of this impasse?

She points out further:

The real difference between Vilenkin and Augustine, I would suggest, is that the quantum “nothing” is not really nothing. Vilenkin admits this in a brief aside, saying that: the state of “nothing” cannot be identified with absolute nothingness. The tunneling is described by the laws of quantum mechanics, and thus “nothing” should be subjected to these laws. The laws of physics must have existed, even though there was no universe.

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    Another question is: what does it mean for space-time to "emerge" from a timeless nothing? Is there dynamics or isn't there? The shell of an egg does not emerge from air or a kitchen counter, it is situated in air and on a kitchen counter. – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 21 '14 at 9:34
  • @deBeaudrap: Sure. So long as we have space-time we have the dynamics of space-time itself. And of course if you model the egg as a sphere as an abstract manifold then its not situated in anything except itself. But of course we don't need sophisticated mathematics for this - we just need to subtract the air, the table and the contents of the air to get the same picture. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 21 '14 at 10:33
  • If time is a feature of the universe in itself, does it make sense to talk about it having dynamics when speaking of the context of the universe? In such cases one usually speaks of the universe having time, in the way wooden poles have length, and features which run the length of the pole. If the universe well and properly "emerged", this presumes that time preceded it, but merely nothing to speak of was happening for some time before (except perhaps whatever dynamical principle one might care to postulate which gives rise to universes). – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 21 '14 at 10:39
  • Sure. I assumed when you mentioned 'dynamics' it is in the sense that physicists talk about it. Hawkings smoothing to remove the initial singularity is consonant with his materialist philosophy and also consonant with the general rule that physicists take infinity as a sign where work needs to be done to eliminate it. One of course doesn't have to accept this material philosophy. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 21 '14 at 10:46
  • If you take the Aristotelian position that actual infinities can't exist - which is exactly what physicists do without invoking his name - then one can also posit a beginning to time as Kant did, only to remove it via the argument you use. Still I personally find that argument useful to say that time as we know it, even if without a beginning, is finite in the past. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 21 '14 at 10:57

Imagine an exotic "universe", which does not have deterministic laws, but does have a notion of discrete time. At each step in time, the state of the universe — its "material" content — is given by a set of objects. It has no conservation laws as such.

What happens is at each step, the set of material elements is replaced by either the power-set of its previous contents, or by any one of the elements of the power-set. In particular, at any point in time, all objects in the universe might disappear leaving nothing behind, and the universe may stay that way for any length of time, only to eventually produce non-empty sets of potentially exponentially growing size. We may suppose that these are all of the dynamics (can we?): while one can derive empirical probabilities of various transitions from any given history of such a universe, we may suppose that the histories are of a sort that cannot be described well even by randomised theories of finite size, simply by supposing that the dynamics are adversarial to any given ensemble of theories that you might propose.

In this universe, it will happen that something may emerge from nothing, and there are no symmetries which I am aware of to give a name of "potential" to any entity in the description, except the transition rule itself.

Are mechanics a "something"? If so, then there by definition can never be even a seeming 'nothing' according to a mechanistic premise, in which there is at least some intelligibility to the world. Otherwise, something can emerge from nothing, simply because the mechanism may provide a way for this to happen.

Furthermore, reflecting on what I could really mean by a "mechanism" or by "intelligibility", it seems really that we're talking about whether there must be a subject of discourse. Can something emerge from — well, from a state to which I cannot refer, because it cannot be a subject? Or is it the case that by abstraction and indirection that I can always refer to a state of affairs, so that there is always implicitly a 'something'? Or is this just our conceit of the same class as the Ontological Argument: that because we can vaguely imagine something, that it must be a some-thing?

The matter is that we mistake the map for the territory. "Mechanism" is our explanatory tool for what things happen and why, and as with the exotic universe I describe above, we are only ever right to the precision we can see because nature is too lazy to be constantly adversarial. That is our good luck, but also it is an intuition which may turn false at any moment. But even 'subjectifying' it by calling it 'nature' presumes too much. Things merely happen, and we seek the pattern.

Mechanism is not a thing in itself — unless we suppose it to be, but this tells us more about what we mean by 'thing' and our prejudices than it does about the world. Anyone who takes this for granted should be warned about what happened to the notion of 'position', or indeed arguably of 'thing', with the advent of the discovery of quantum mechanical phenomena, ie. complicated happenings the likes of which we previously would not even have expressed with naive conceptions of these words.

  • Does this presuppose that an ontology that gives mathematics an ontology? In physics proper, we have a function that maps the physical theory to the physical world. If one eliminates the physical world then the function is no longer a function - it maps to nowhere. Are you admitting to the possible worlds of Tegmark - ie the multiverse? – Mozibur Ullah Feb 23 '14 at 6:48
  • @MoziburUllah: no, not really. I'm sketching a conceivable model for a universe, and inviting the reader to take it seriously as a way which the universe could have been. I gloss over some distinctions at the beginning for the sake of brevity: the universe can no more "consist of the set {∅,{∅},{∅,{∅}}}" than our universe can "be locally Euclidean". Both are meant to be descriptions for what's going on; only what's going on in my world is entirely fictional, and statements of fact in my case are presumably akin to asking whether Sherlock Holmes really did play the violin. – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 23 '14 at 11:33

The OP asks:

"Is it correct to say that Hawkings & Mlodinows world emerge from nothing? They must presumably posit some physical law that enabled this something to come out of nothing, and this law cannot be in time as space-time also came out of nothing."

Why should time not begin? We would normally say that time requires something to be in motion to give a measure of time, so when the first moving phenomenon appears, time begins.

More interesting is the question of nothing. Is empty space-time just space or absolute nothing, or are they the same? I would side with Sir Roger Penrose [1] who holds that prior to the Big Bang the universe was in a different state. Nothing in motion, so no time, but not absolute nothing. (BTW I particularly like the Gas in a Box part of his lecture.)

Turning back to the subject of absolute nothing. This is considered by some to be a simply a concept, since nothing cannot exist However, under the doctrine of essentia and existentia, whereas regular essences need their actuality to be caused in order exist, nothing can be considered as a special case that does not need its actuality to be caused in order to exist. That was the case in medieval mysticism [2].

  1. Sir Roger Penrose, Aeons before the Big Bang (Copernicus Center Lecture 2010)

  2. M. Heidegger, The distinction between essentia and existentia in Scholasticism

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    I'd go along with Penrose as well. – Mozibur Ullah Feb 21 '14 at 13:04

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