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Physical Nothing v. Metaphysical Nothing - Comments

ridelo's Avatar Comment 1 by ridelo

If I understand this well it's still the choice to be made between God and Nothing. God will always be the more complex supposition and thus shaven away by Occam's Razor because we can understand how complexity can emerge from simpler beginnings and now even from 'nothing'. And the metaphysical nothingness is as much a phantom as the invisible pink Unicorn. Right?

Mon, 27 Feb 2012 22:53:37 UTC | #922589

Mignostic's Avatar Comment 2 by Mignostic

We can create a lot of funny monsters with language, e.g. squared circles, an omnipotent being creating a rock it can't lift, the meaning of life, or nothingness. As far as I can see, these things don't exist in any way beyond the mere words for purely logical reasons. Specifically, nothingness doesn't exist because it doesn't refer to anything. The same holds true for "nothing" when used as a noun.

Mon, 27 Feb 2012 22:59:37 UTC | #922591

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 3 by Carl Sai Baba

The 18th-century American missionary Jonathan Edwards said that nothingness is what rocks dream about, marking the first and last time a preacher said something interesting.

Mon, 27 Feb 2012 23:45:03 UTC | #922598

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 4 by Anaximander

Mathematics is the scientific tool used to formalize that model and easily supplies us with the concept of "zero" but we must remember that the map is not the territory, and just because we can visualize zero in the model (metaphysical nothing), does not mean that must have a corresponding situation in the physical world.

An empty set does not have even a zero in it. But does it have emptiness?

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 00:01:05 UTC | #922602

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 5 by Peter Grant

Great piece Quine!

Metaphysical nothing exists only in our minds, I like that. Metaphysics is mainly about nothing, so it's no great loss as far as I can see.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 00:46:51 UTC | #922612

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 6 by Schrodinger's Cat

I have a problem with the whole concept of 'taking things away' to leave nothing. In something like string theory, one could argue that the fundamental thing that exists is the string field, and that what we ourselves perceive as 'things' are merely the string vibrations in that field. The field itself is not 'nothing'.

It's just like.....if you take away waves from the sea, you don't have 'nothing', you have a flat sea.

I agree that it may be possible that 'nothing' simply cannot exist.....that there may be no such thing as nothing. That is the sense in which physical nothing would be different from metaphysical nothing. But then I'd argue that Krauss should not be using the word 'nothing' to describe it.

Incidentally....can you tell me whether scientists have finally decided whether the base level of the universe is a real vacuum or a false vacuum ?

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 02:05:35 UTC | #922626

Quine's Avatar Comment 7 by Quine

Comment 6 by Schrodinger's Cat:
That is the sense in which physical nothing would be different from metaphysical nothing. But then I'd argue that Krauss should not be using the word 'nothing' to describe it.

Yes, that is my point. He says "nothing," which in common language means the same as metaphysical nothing in the minds of the listeners (even if they don't know that term), but he is actually talking about physical nothing.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 02:23:45 UTC | #922630

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 8 by susanlatimer

I'm glad to see this as a discussion topic. It's elegantly written and addresses the trouble with "nothing".

I'm also glad for the link to Nothingness. I began to read it but had promised myself I'd read the entire Consciousness thread with the little time I have in the next few days. This is a terrible place. I have no time for it but I find time for it, anyway. There seems to be no end to the questions I have and the ignorance I possess. The very next time I steal will be your "Nothingness" link.

I must say that I'm grateful for the distinction you made on a Kalam Cosmoligical Argument discussion a long time ago. It's stayed with me ever since and has helped me to distinguish various notions of nothingness. "Nothingness" is just another word that will shape-shift if we don't pin it down and explain exactly what sort of nothingness we mean. Words and their meanings often confound me. That's got a lot to do with me and a little to do with language. I feel like I've spent half my history here asking, "What does that MEAN?" That might be an exaggeration but it's generally true.

Excellent piece. I look forward to the discussion that should ensue.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 06:33:56 UTC | #922679

Quine's Avatar Comment 9 by Quine

Comment 8 by susanlatimer:
I feel like I've spent half my history here asking, "What does that MEAN?"

Thanks, Susan, and keep asking that most central of all questions.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 06:39:18 UTC | #922680

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 10 by susanlatimer

Thanks, Susan, and keep asking that most central of all questions.

I can't help it. That's why I'm on the OCT right now to see what I've missed and what I can learn.

It's slow going but I can't help it. I'm a moth to a wavering flame. :-)

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 06:51:39 UTC | #922681

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 11 by Steve Zara

This post does elegantly and concisely sum up a problem that turns up in so many discussions.

Theologians who insist that there has to be a god to keep even the physical nothingness we know about from turning into something even less, a metaphysical nothingness, are unwittingly giving metaphysical nothingness a property, so that it becomes like a black hole state sucking in other nothings if those other nothings are unmaintained.

We don't know what physical nothing is. We are trying to find out what it is through science.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 06:58:34 UTC | #922682

susanlatimer's Avatar Comment 12 by susanlatimer

Comment 11 by Steve Zara

Theologians who insist that there has to be a god to keep even the physical nothingness we know about from turning into something even less, a metaphysical nothingness, are unwittingly giving metaphysical nothingness a property, so that it becomes like a black hole state sucking in other nothings if those other nothings are unmaintained.

That paragraph will keep me occupied for a very long time. It gives me at least a few thoughts and dozens of questions.

I'd better not ask them right now or I'll get sidetracked. Damn this thread and its timing!!

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 07:12:31 UTC | #922683

Quine's Avatar Comment 13 by Quine

Thank you, Steve. One day when going over the ontological argument I thought how silly it was to think something must exist in the physical world just because you can picture it in your mind, and then I realized the same applied to "nothing."

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 07:16:53 UTC | #922684

Tony d's Avatar Comment 14 by Tony d

I have heard that a very famous philosophical question, maybe the first question is.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

I had not thought of this before but asking that question is an assertion that nothing does not exist.

Because i am a plumber i don't have to worry about stuff like this much.But when i have thought about it i have thought that true nothing which i would define as the absence of everything is the unimaginable non stuff that the universe is expanding into.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 09:14:20 UTC | #922705

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 15 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 14 by Tony d

I have heard that a very famous philosophical question, maybe the first question is.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

I really don't think this reasoning with physical and metaphysical nothing actually answers that question. If physical nothing cannot exist, then it's not been shown why that is the case.

If the universe is what's known as a 'false vacuum', then one has a situation where the lowest energy state possible is non-zero. The observation that this is so is not the same as an explanation of why it is so, or why the laws of quantum mechanics, rather than some other laws, preside over it.

The true value of the observation lies not in answering your question, but as Steve says it's in doing away with the theological 'need' for a god. If there is a physical reason why nothing cannot exist, then regardless of whether we know why that's the case we can assert that this having always been the case removes the need for God to interject at some point and make it so.

'God the creator' needs a metaphysical nothing in order to gain his title. If there never was a metaphysical nothing, then there never was a moment of creation.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 10:56:30 UTC | #922731

Ulven's Avatar Comment 16 by Ulven

I've had to listen to Krauss' talk several times in order to follow his line of thought. As far as I can tell it can be summarised as follows:

  1. The universe is essentially flat (on a universal scale).
  2. Since it is flat, the total sum of all energy (and material) in it is zero.
  3. Therefore it could be made of nothing.

Although I am not a physicist, I believe he could just as well have concluded that whatever we conceive as something is, in reality, nothing. Whatever the conclusion, though, the flatness of the universe and the consequence thereof is mind-boggling in its apparent simplicity.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 11:21:31 UTC | #922741

Quine's Avatar Comment 17 by Quine

Re Comment 5 by Peter Grant, thank you, Peter.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 11:50:25 UTC | #922748

Tony d's Avatar Comment 18 by Tony d

@Comment 15 by Schrodinger's Cat

Would you agree that the act of observing or detecting a physical nothing is impossible because to observe or detect it would force it to become something?

But the concept of a metaphysical nothing. I am not sure that we could find a metaphysical nothing even before the Big Bang because the Big Bang was pending.And there might not be a before anyway.

What i am sure of is that these concepts are way above my pay grade, so i am going to eagerly follow this thread and hope that i learn something.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 12:03:47 UTC | #922751

Jumped Up Chimpanzee's Avatar Comment 19 by Jumped Up Chimpanzee

Interesting piece.

Regarding the final point, the "fine tuning of the universe", I always find this issue ridiculous. Surely any universe will be precisely fine tuned to be exactly what it is!

Our universe is no exception. It is fine tuned to be what it is. It isn't, and never could be, fine tuned to be something different to what it is.

I'm sure there's a million other things we'd like it to be fine tuned for, but it's just tough that it isn't!

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 12:35:27 UTC | #922760

Mr DArcy's Avatar Comment 20 by Mr DArcy

ISTM that even the theologian's "nothing" is already filled up with an eternal God. And that's even before He watches who you have sex with!

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 12:42:47 UTC | #922766

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 21 by Peter Grant

Comment 17 by Quine

Re Comment 5 by Peter Grant, thank you, Peter.

You're welcome! This discussion is great, we are boiling down metaphysics to its essential Nothingness :D

Another point which might be worth raising is that it is not possible in principal to differentiate between physical nothing and metaphysical Nothing by any experimental means. So, we don't even need to deny the potential existence of Nothing, just point out that we'd have no way in principal of knowing if we had any.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 16:42:18 UTC | #922833

Proton's Avatar Comment 22 by Proton

Metaphysical nothingness means no god or reason for one so I don't see how a theist would find the insistence that such a thing could be comforting.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 16:49:42 UTC | #922838

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 23 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 18 by Tony d

Would you agree that the act of observing or detecting a physical nothing is impossible because to observe or detect it would force it to become something?

Yes, and if you invert the reasoning that is precisely why Krauss's 'nothing' isn't nothing. The very fact that we can detect it, or infer its existence, means by definition that it cannot be a metaphysical nothing.

Equally, I'm really not sure what anyone means by 'physical nothing'. Its true that an energy field devoid of 'things' contains 'no thing'......in the same sense that a completely flat sea contains no waves......but that does rather ignore the obvious fact that the field is a 'thing' in itself.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 16:55:57 UTC | #922840

Peter Grant's Avatar Comment 24 by Peter Grant

Comment 23 by Schrodinger's Cat

Yes, and if you invert the reasoning that is precisely why Krauss's 'nothing' isn't nothing. The very fact that we can detect it, or infer its existence, means by definition that it cannot be a metaphysical nothing.

Equally, I'm really not sure what anyone means by 'physical nothing'. Its true that an energy field devoid of 'things' contains 'no thing'......in the same sense that a completely flat sea contains no waves......but that does rather ignore the obvious fact that the field is a 'thing' in itself.

So Cat, would it be safe to say that you don't believe in metaphysical Nothing? Are you an agnostic atheist regarding Nothing? I find this position works for most metaphysical constructs.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 17:14:58 UTC | #922845

AnderTao's Avatar Comment 25 by AnderTao

“and space-time is also not a "thing"”

Yet general relativity tells us it bends and stretches and this has been confirmed by experiment.

“So far, we don't have justification to assert that the metaphysical nothing in our models can be, or ever was, the condition in the physical world.”

Yet those, including Krauss, who propound the multiverse hypothesis appear to rely upon it in the majority of the many versions of the hypothesis, to allow expansion into or movement about in. (Not confirmed by experiment.)

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 18:56:24 UTC | #922864

Anaximander's Avatar Comment 26 by Anaximander

Our universe is no exception. It is fine tuned to be what it is. It isn't, and never could be, fine tuned to be something different to what it is.

Fine tuning here probably means that out of many different possible universes only a very small subset allows life to exist.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 19:01:50 UTC | #922866

Ode2Hitch's Avatar Comment 27 by Ode2Hitch

Until you can show me the "knobs" for fine-tuning.By QUINE

Anyone know how I can upload a photo of Piers Morgan here?

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 19:05:32 UTC | #922867

Quine's Avatar Comment 28 by Quine

Comment 23 by Schrodinger's Cat:
Yes, and if you invert the reasoning that is precisely why Krauss's 'nothing' isn't nothing. The very fact that we can detect it, or infer its existence, means by definition that it cannot be a metaphysical nothing.

Yes, I took him to mean that what we approach in the experimental examination of the physical world does not match our simple mental (metaphysical) model of 'nothing.' We have built a doll of a person we have seen from a distance and then from playing with the doll we draw conclusions about the person we have never met. That is the way physics is done, but we must always remember that you can't be sure you got it right without experimental verification, and most importantly, you can't assume that just because you can take an arm off the doll and sew it on to the side of the head, that therefore, there could be a person out there like that (fine-tuning fallacy).

Equally, I'm really not sure what anyone means by 'physical nothing'.

Yes. We need look and find out, as best we can.

... Its true that an energy field devoid of 'things' contains 'no thing'......in the same sense that a completely flat sea contains no waves......but that does rather ignore the obvious fact that the field is a 'thing' in itself.

Not all waves have things like water or air molecules for carriers; that was exactly the point of the Michelson-Morley experiment which tried to find the aether as a 'thing.' Fields are not things, they are in our models as tools to let us predict how things interact with each other (or even themselves).

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 19:29:16 UTC | #922874

Quine's Avatar Comment 29 by Quine

Comment 22 by Proton:
Metaphysical nothingness means no god or reason for one so I don't see how a theist would find the insistence that such a thing could be comforting.

Yes, I have always found that amusing and smiled, quietly, to myself.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 19:34:59 UTC | #922876

Quine's Avatar Comment 30 by Quine

Comment 25 by AnderTao:

“and space-time is also not a "thing"”

Yet general relativity tells us it bends and stretches and this has been confirmed by experiment.

That's right, that is what the model (GR) does, but the map is not the territory. However, space-time is not a "thing" you could remove from a collection of things.

“So far, we don't have justification to assert that the metaphysical nothing in our models can be, or ever was, the condition in the physical world.”

Yet those, including Krauss, who propound the multiverse hypothesis appear to rely upon it in the majority of the many versions of the hypothesis, to allow expansion into or movement about in. (Not confirmed by experiment.)

That is their job. Physicists come up with hypotheses in attempts to get something into the map that matches and predicts the physical world better than what is currently in the map. It makes their job easier if they don't have to keep remembering that "what it is" in the map is not necessarily what it actually is in physical reality, and that is not a problem as long a the model keeps matching the behavior of reality, however when someone gets it backwards, trouble can happen.

Tue, 28 Feb 2012 19:50:06 UTC | #922878