The Existence of Nothing


2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence of Nothing

The concept of nothing is as old as zero itself. How do we grapple with the concept of nothing? From the best laboratory vacuums on Earth to the vacuum of space to what lies beyond, the idea of nothing continues to intrigue professionals and the public alike.

Join moderator and Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson as he leads a spirited discussion with a group of physicists, philosophers and journalists about the existence of nothing. The event, which was streamed live to the web, took place at the American Museum of Natural History on March 20, 2013.


J. Richard Gott, professor of astrophysical sciences, Princeton University, and author of Sizing Up the Universe: The Cosmos in Perspective

Jim Holt, science journalist and author of Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics, Arizona State University and author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

Charles Seife, professor of journalism, New York University, and author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

Eve Silverstein, professor of physics, Stanford University, and co-editor of Strings, Branes and Gravity

Again, for both the benefit of anyone reading this and also my own understanding, I turned to Sean Carroll for a good article on the implications of some of the deeper sciencey stuff going on. Always a lark.

Here’s his article on the concept:

…and on Lawrence’s book:

Did you know the total energy content of the universe is ZERO?

I love the implications. Energetic fluctuations below the limit set by the uncertainty principle are effectively too small and too quick to violate the law. A kind of positive nothing. Extrapolate from there and you can build an entire universe.

This links up with condensed physics and the like, but given the nature of the beast, I thought I’d focus on nothing for just now. :wink:




“Do not be deceived,” replied the machine. “I’ve begun, it’s true, with everything in n, but only out of familiarity. To create however is one thing, to destroy, another thing entirely. I can blot out the world for the simple reason that I’m able to do anything and everything - and everything means everything - in n, and consequently Nothingness is child’s play for me. In less than a minute now you will cease to have existence, along with everything else, so tell me now, Klapaucius, and quickly, that I am really and truly everything I was programmed to be, before it is too late.”

“But -” Klapaucius was about to protest, but noticed, just then, that a number of things were indeed disappearing, and not merely those that started with n. The constructors were no longer surrounded by the gruncheons, the targalisks, the shupops, the calinatifacts, the thists, worches and pritons.

“Stop! I take it all back! Desist! Whoa! Don’t do Nothing!!” screamed Klapaucius. But before the machine could come to a full stop, all the brashations, plusters, laries and zits had vanished away. Now the machine stood motionless. The world was a dreadful sight. The sky had particularly suffered: there were only a few, isolated points of light in the heavens - no trace of the glorious worches and zits that had, till now, graced the horizon!

“Great Gauss!” cried Klapaucius. “And where are the gruncheons? Where my dear, favorite pritons? Where now the gentle zits?!”

“They no longer are, nor ever will exist again,” the machine said calmly. “I executed, or rather only began to execute, your order…”

“I tell you to do Nothing, and you… you…”

“Klapaucius, don’t pretend to be a greater idiot than you are,” said the machine. “Had I made Nothing outright, in one fell swoop, everything would have ceased to exist, and that includes Trurl, the sky, the Universe, and you - and even myself. In which case who could say and to whom could it be said that the order was carried out and I am an efficient and capable machine? And if no one could say it to no one, in what way then could I, who also would not be, be vindicated?”

“Yes, fine, let’s drop the subject,” said Klapaucius. “I have nothing more to ask of you, only please, dear machine, please return the zits, for without them life loses all its charm…”

“But I can’t, they’re in z,” said the machine. “Of course, I can restore nonsense, narrowmindedness, nausea, neerophilia, neuralgia, nefariousness and noxiousness. As for the other letters, however, I can’t help you.”

“I want my zits!” bellowed Klapaucius.

“Sorry, no zits,” laid the machine. “Take a good look at this world, how riddled it is with huge, gaping holes, how full of Nothingness, the Nothingness that fills the bottomless void between the stars, how everything about us has become lined with it, how it darkly lurks behind each shred of matter. This is your work, envious one! And I hardly think the future generations will bless you for it . . .”

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What people refer to as “things” are simply a static shorthand for naming processes. And how many processes there are is arbitrary, depending upon where we choose to draw the boundaries between them.




What value existence?
I have existed
from the morning of the world
and I shall exist
until the last star falls from my sight.
Although I have taken from this gauis regula,
I am all men
as I am no man
and therefore
I am
a God.


For a long time my thought is that “nothing” (which isn’t a thing-that-is-nothing but that actually isn’t at all) has no qualities, including no stability or order. From nothing there will always be something because a rule that “something can’t come from nothing” would be something, and therefore it is not present in nothing. What’s more, there is no space or time or anything that can be aggregated over in nothing, so we can’t talk about the probability of something coming from nothing because we’d have to discuss that in terms of things that aren’t there. What’s the chance that something comes from nothing in 1 second? In nothing there are no seconds, so the answer to the question is meaningless. Nothing would inevitably be something,

The question of why there is something instead of nothing seems weird. There can’t be nothing. If there is there is something.


The very implications of nothing include the possibility of something, but only as an internally self-consistent fluctuation that cancels itself, equalling nothing.




I don’t see how nothing can be internally consistent.

I mean, think of the particles that randomly come into existence in empty space before nearly immediately cancelling one another out. Given a state of no time, it seems like it could likely be inevitable that some of these particles would appear close enough together to interact before disappearing. You could end up with the particles affecting one another with electromagnetism or gravity before they could collapse together again. They could end up in a stable orbit.

Now maybe that specific course of events is physically impossible according to our current models. But it just seems like if there is actually nothing then there can’t be anything preventing there from being something.

I think people draw a big distinction between something and nothing. But the difference between the entire universe and the universe minus an electron is the same as the difference between nothing and nothing plus an electron. It’s an incredibly small difference - almost no difference at all. I think larger elements coming from hydrogen, or life coming to be out of non-life seems way more complex and impressive than something coming from nothing.



The physical part is why I said self-consistent. Like a hologram, only the holographic things inside it can interact. That’s just an example of non-physical, internal self-consistence. Based on the idea that energetic fluctuations can appear in space randomly and then annihilate themselves (sending an antiparticle back in time to ititate their own appearance) before the universe ‘notices’ their existence, all reality can be built around this principle. Ultimately it averages out to zero, but is built of trivially non-zero fluctuations.

Your example of the electron is moot because the field for all electrons always exists, so long as the sum total of energetic reactions in it, when concatenated with all the other energetic interactions in the multi-dimensional universe, cancel each other out.

/bad physics



I don’t want to get confused between “physical” as a notion in physics and an idea of considering properties of what the stuff-that-actually-is that our theories of physics are made out of is. I use “electronic” as a shorthand for “very small thing” but it my point that the difference between 0 and 1 is the same as the difference between 1,000,000 and 1,000,001 is the same. Maybe things can be created and destroyed and maybe they can’t be, I really don’t know. But if they can be then it’s no surprise that something came from nothing, and if they can’t be then the entire question is meaningless - nothing was never an option.

If we have conservation of energy and at any point there is zero energy then there must be zero energy at all points. That’s pretty obvious. But we’ve made that model to help us make better predictions about the universe as we observe it, we haven’t accessed “reality”. So while our intuition tells us that a universe with zero energy would have no energy in it, we can’t apply that intuition because we’re inside a formal model where words don’t mean what we feel like they mean. If it is true that the universe has zero energy, then it’s true that a universe with zero energy can be full of things “using” energy. Just like the article I recently read on the idea of a holographic universe where reality only has two dimensions, the person espousing the theory said it was obvious that we live in three dimensions. Those sound contradictory but they aren’t at all.


That’s an assumption everyone makes but is also technically a naive pov based on our personal experience of existing.

You’d get a lot better insights on this from the video and articles I linked above. Krause is particularly good at talking about it.

Some good insights on condensed physics, informationality and computability:

This is why I like the Lacanian Real. It is that which is most effectually real to ourselves, rather than trying to ascribe reality to an unreachable ‘thing’ out there, which can never be truly known. All we have is the shape and colour of our minds. And even that is mostly illusory.

The only reality is the injury to our own, inaccessible reality. Which, ironically, is what gave me the idea for this thread.


What’s past is prologue, o southern gentleman.