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. Commented Feb 21, 2014 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. Commented Feb 21, 2014 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). Commented Feb 21, 2014 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. Commented Feb 21, 2014 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. Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 10:57

3 Answers 3


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? Commented Feb 23, 2014 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. Commented Feb 23, 2014 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. Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:04

Most of the problems are caused by a lack of clarity about the difference between 'something' and 'nothing'. Many commentators on this problem are naive realists trying to protect their position.

The 'Nothing' of the mystics is the only one that makes any sense to me. At any rate, the idea that physics can solve metaphysical problems is absurd. What Hawking and his peers have to say is less important than what Rumi has to say. For an excellent discussion you could try The Mind of God by Paul Davies, a rare physicist who grasps that this is a metaphysical problem on which physics has nothing to say. He devotes a lot of time to the 'Something-Nothing' problem and concludes that the only possible solution is that offered by the mystics with their idea of 'Unity'.

Here is the Buddha, from the Surangama Sutra. For a proper reading we must assume psychology and ontology are the same study.

“Further, in his cultivation of samadhi which, as a result of his pointed concentration of mind, can no more be troubled by demons, if the practiser looks exhaustively into the origins of living beings and begins to differentiate between views when contemplating the continuous subtle disturbance in this clear state, he will fall into error because of the following four confused views about the undying heaven. i. As he investigates the origin of transformation, he may call changing that which varies, unchanging that which continues, born that which is visible, annihilated that which is no more seen, increasing that which preserves its nature in the process of transformation, decreasing that whose nature is interrupted in the changing process, existing that which is created, and non-existent that which disappears; this is the result of his differentiation of the eight states seen as he contemplates the manifestations of the fourth aggregate. If seekers of the truth call on him for instruction, he will declare,: ‘I now both live and die, both exist and do not, both increase and decrease,’ thus talking wildly to mislead them.

ii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he finds that each thought ceases to exist in a flash and concludes that they are non-existent. If people ask for instruction, his answer consists of the one word “Nothing,” beyond which he says nothing else.

iii. As the practiser looks exhaustively into his mind, he sees the rise of his thoughts and concludes that they exist. If people ask for instruction, his answer will consist of the one word “Something,” beyond which he says nothing else.

iv. The practiser sees both existence and non-existence and finds that such states are so complicated that they confuse him. If people ask for instruction, he will say: “The existing comprises the non-existent but the non-existent does not comprise the existing,” is such a perfunctory manner as to prevent exhaustive enquiries.

By so discriminating he causes confusion and so falls into heresy which screens his Boddhi nature. The above pertains to the fifth state of heterodox discrimination (samskara) which postulates confused views about the undying.”

Sakyamuni Buddha - The Surangama Sutra

For an idea of the subtlety of these issues here is the old joker Chuang Tsu.

“Now I am going to tell you something. I don’t know what heading it comes under, and whether or not it is relevant here, but it must be relevant at some point. It is not anything new, but I would like to say it. There is a beginning. There is no beginning of the beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something. There is nothing. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing, I still don’t really know which is something and which nothing. Now, I’ve just said something, but I don’t really know whether I’ve said anything or not.”

Chuang-Tsu - Inner Chapters

The trick would be to study carefully what you mean by 'something' and 'nothing' and to see that in a metaphysical context these are concepts. The topic is well beyond Hawkings, Stenger and other physicists who come at it as a problem in physics. But Paul Davies is well worth reading for an introduction to metaphysics and a good discussion of this issue.

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