The question of why the universe exists is a difficult one for both religious people and pure materialists. While a believer may say that God created the universe, this only begs the question of where God came from.
In my podcasts, I present the idea that matter is not what the universe is fundamentally made of; rather, our own “consciousness” (a sadly woolly term, but it’ll have to do) may be the basis of the universe. Physical matter may be just one thing that our minds construct or perceive. At one time this would have sounded ridiculous and woolly to me, but as I explain in my podcasts, I now believe it to be entirely rational, provided we go into some depth in defining our terms.
Some physicists argue that since “empty” space spontaneously produces pairs of particles and anti-particles, something clearly can come from nothing. This doesn’t really solve the mystery of the universe’s origins, however, because we’re still left wondering where space came from or why pairs of particles pop out of it.
Something I’ve been wondering about is whether “consciousness” or “mind” can exist in some simple, undifferentiated form somehow, which can then start to indulge in a process of differentiation, producing the plethora of things that we see in this experience. This doesn’t solve the basic question, but it at least takes us a step closer — in much the same way that physicists are drawn to idea of the laws of physics (and even time) somehow developing as the Big Bang progressed.
While the idea that I’m keen to discuss could also be interpreted in terms of God, personally I don’t see any evidence for the existence of a consciousness separate to living beings. This isn’t really important one way or the other for the topics discussed here, though. Those who want to believe in God will not find any contradiction of the idea in these theories, except for this site focussing on evidence and logic rather than on any kind of faith.
What really interests me is the possibility of a “bootstrapping” process, whereby a “primitive” mind (whatever that might look like) starts to create such things as the laws of physics and mathematics. Could such a process have taken place? Is that why we appear to exist in the way that we do?
The concept of “nothing versus something” is surprisingly complex. Once you have something rather than nothing, you are committed to a whole range of attendant concepts. For instance: how can you tell the difference between nothing and something? To observe any kind of difference between two things, the two things have to exists in different times, or different places, or at least be capable of being somehow or other viewed at the same time, so that we can see the difference between the two. And of course we’re already thinking of “nothing” as a thing in itself ….
It seems that we can’t form even a concept of nothing without also forming a concept of something. Nothing is … literally nothing. The number of different concepts that are required to form even the most minimal concept of “nothing” seems to be extensive. Many of them are outlined by the axioms of the various set theories in mathematics, but these theories leave out certain common grounds to all theories — such as the existence of space or time (necessary for the above reasons), or at least the ability to differentiate between two separate things.
I suspect that, quite possibly, the minimal set of concepts that we’d need in order to be able to form a conception of “nothing” are so numerous that they may even form the entire set of fundamental concepts that we, in practice, entertain as intelligent beings. Is it possible to enumerate them, or would such a task be pure foolishness? I think anyone who attempts to at least answer whether such concepts can be enumerated, would spend their time well. Set theory itself came about through a historically long process of reflection on such questions, culminating in Georg Cantor’s controversial paper of 1874 and moving forwards from there.
Wouldn’t it be fascinating if it turned out that you need exactly three spatial dimensions to fully form a concept of “nothing”? Is it possible that the 3D nature of space is there, lurking somewhere in the unspoken assumptions of set theory? We think of mathematical concepts as being purely abstract, written down only for convenience. But in thinking about mathematics, we are inevitably forced to visualise spaces, in the most general mathematical sense of the word “space”.
I remember laughing when my college mathematics tutor stated that some people think the mathematical cross product is the reason why 3D space exists and is three dimensional. I’m not laughing anymore … Although the suggestion conjures up visions of academics so divorced from mundane reality as to have gone off on a complete tangent altogether, if this idea turns out to have legs, it may one day revolutionise our understanding of physics and even our own existence.