Monday, June 28, 2010

No, Nothing

Figure-and-ground, then, constitute a relationship -- an inseparable relationship of unity-in-diversity. But when human beings become preoccupied with concentrated attentiveness, with a type of thought which is analytic, divisive and selective, the cease to notice the mutuality of contrasting "things" and the "identity" of differences. Similarly, when we ask what we really mean by a fact or a thing, we realize that because facts are divisions or selections of experience, there can never be less than two! One solitary fact or thing cannot exist by itself, since it would be infinite -- without delineating limits, without anything other. Now this essential duality and multiplicity of facts should be the clearest evidence of their interdependence and inseparability.

The naive idea that there is first of all empty space and then things filling it underlies the classic problem of how the world came out of something. Now the problem has to be rephrased, "How did something-and-nothing come out of...what?"

I thought Ron Rosenbaum was somewhat of an idiot last year. It is with a heavy heart that I say unto you that eight months later, he's still an idiot. PZ already said most of what needs to be said, but I thought this part could been seen as the fatuous essence of Rosenbaum's tirade:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I can't wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

I can't speak for anyone else, believer or not, but leaving aside the fact that I have no problem admitting that I don't know the answer, I don't particularly care. Life as we know it exists, and that's good enough for me. Postulating a single cause of it all only makes us ask how that itself could have been uncaused. Even asking the question "why" poses the risk of taking for granted the existence of purpose as we understand it where there is none to begin with. The absence of an absolutely certain answer does not therefore mean that any alternative that someone can dream up is equally valid; some possibilities are clearly more likely than others. And even if we do assume that science and logic can't answer the question, how does that change the fact that absolutely nothing we do know about the universe suggests the existence of any God worth the name? Science doesn't have the answer, I don't think it ever will, therefore possibly God, therefore agnosticism, Q to tha E to tha muthafuckin' D?

Listening to Rosenbaum deride the limitations of logic in an essay filled with this sort of fallacious reasoning makes me think of the kind of person who calls tech support, screaming about their shitty computer that won't work, when they're too stupid to check and see if it's plugged in first.


  1. Fatuous is right, but I can answer his question: Nothingness is unstable.

  2. Yeah, PZ quoted Victor Stenger saying that too.

  3. I've had students who have been coached to challenge their science teachers with this kind of stuff, so I'm prepared with answers: The conservation laws only apply after the universe exists. Saying "God did it" supplies no additional information.
    Interestingly, there's a sculpture outside Fermilab called "Broken Symmetry", the idea being that the perfect symmetry of empty space erupts into particles. There's the science of creation for you!

  4. Brian M12:43 PM

    is the question even logical? Why does there have to be a why? Why is a human presumes a purpose to reality that may not exist. Reality simply IS...does there have to be a purpose?

  5. Brian -- eggzackly.

    Noel -- wait, so you're a gay, atheist, vegetarian science teacher? Is that even legal in Texas? If only you had a Hispanic last name, the RNC would be using you in their direct mail flyers to terrify their supporters into sending money!

  6. Houston is very cosmopolitan. I would have been run out of town years ago in most other Texas communities. But here, even my right wing Christian colleague who claims Jesus is her "personal friend" and loves G. W. Bush (!) likes me. A lot of Republicans are "tolerant" when they're not voting.
    Brian, that's a legitimate point, but there's never anything wrong with asking "Why?" out of curiosity. If the answer is "No reason!" then so be it. But I like thinking about the question. Here's another answer: Absolute nothingness does not exist in time, so if we can have either nothing or something, we will only see the something - the nothingness exists for no amount of time. Of course, now the question becomes, "Why is there even the possibility of the existence of something?". No reason, just is!

  7. Here's another answer: Absolute nothingness does not exist in time, so if we can have either nothing or something, we will only see the something - the nothingness exists for no amount of time.

    I actually hadn't even thought of it like that; that's really cool.

    I agree that asking "Why?" is simply a fun thing to do (ask any three year-old, they'll tell you!) I think Brian's just picking up the same irony that amused me initially -- Rosenbaum smugly thinks he's come up with such a stumper, when the entire premise may be flawed to begin with, and he's too dense to even notice it.

  8. The recent Scientific American's feature story is on time. Er, I mean it's about time. I mean the the subject of it is "time"! Seems it doesn't really exist; it's only a construct we perceive because of the relationships between objects. QED, no objects, no time.
    Actually, a phil prof gave me this idea 25 years ago; I have no ideas of my own.